A Tale of Two Scholars

I tend to focus here mostly upon mathematics and the sciences, but that is hardly all of scholarship, and certainly not the only fields in which academics (and non-academics) produce sensationalist drivel while some few manage to write popular works that are somehow both interesting yet accurate. Here I wish to contrast two excellent scholars: Ronald Hutton and Bart Ehrman. However, I’m not going to contrast their scholarship so much as I am their approach to popularizing their respective fields and areas of expertise.

One Truth for Colleagues, Another for the Public: Our Antagonist (mostly)

Bart Ehrman is a New Testament scholar whom I had the good fortunate to have corresponded with a few times long ago and whom I recently regained a good deal of respect for. To explain why, though, requires telling why I lost the respect for him I initially had. The first book I read of his was on the historical Jesus, but I didn’t know enough about the subject then to evaluate it. Now that I do I can say that while it was basically a condensed rehash of Schweitzer, it was decent enough for what it was supposed to be. I remember quite clearly the next work of his I read because I hadn’t yet started college but was growing more and more desperate for scholarship, so among other expenditures I paid $100 for a one year online subscription (through JHU’s Project Muse) to the journal Early Christian Studies. I also recall starting college and realizing that I not only had access to every journal on Project Muse, but to hundreds of databases (JSTOR, ScienceDirect, WileyOnline, Academic Search Premier, Nature, SpringerLink, and many, many more). Studying quickly went from hobby to addiction.

But I digress. The next work I read by Ehrman (published in Early Christian Studies) was mostly a response to two other papers arguing that there’s no reason to doubt the authenticity of Morton Smith’s controversial discovery of a manuscript containing an excerpt from the Secret Gospel of Mark. It was well-written and clever, from a literary standpoint (many academics, especially in the sciences, aren’t very good authors), and I found it well-argued. I don’t know whether or not this was before or after I read the edition of The Text of the New Testament by Metzger that he co-authored/edited, but I know that the last popular book of his I read for a long time was Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman’s specialty (or at least one of them) is textual criticism. I’ve never stopped reading his scholarship on this or any other subject, but Misquoting Jesus wasn’t just bad- it was deliberately misleading.

The focus of the book is on how little we can actually know about the text of the NT and why: Ehrman spends a lot of time talking about copying errors, poor scribal practices, variations among our extant manuscripts (i.e., “textual variants”), how our lack of autographs (i.e., the “original” texts) poses significant problems, etc. But he deliberately doesn’t provide the requisite context. For example, on p. 90 he states: “There are more variants among are manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.” We find a nearly identical statement in a nearly identical paragraph in Ehrman’s Studies in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament. Here, however, Ehrman writes for other specialists. So he puts it in the required context (p. 309): “There are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the NT. As one might expect, however, these raw numbers are somewhat deceptive. For the vast majority of these textual differences are easily recognized as simple scribal mistakes, errors caused by carelessness, ineptitude, or fatigue. The single largest category of mistake is orthographic; an examination of almost any of our oldest Greek manuscripts will show that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today.”

There is no good scholarly reason not to have included the lines in Ehrman’s academic work in his popular one too. The only reason for the omission is sensationalism. And it gets worse, because there’s another good reason we should expect to find a very large numbers of textual variants in our extant manuscripts, as Ehrman notes himself, including in the aforementioned edition of The Text of the New Testament:

“the textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of material. Furthermore, the work of many ancient authors has been preserved only in manuscripts that date from the Middle Ages (sometimes the late Middle Ages), far removed from the time at which they lived and wrote. On the contrary, the time between the composition of the books of the New Testament and the earliest extant copies is relatively brief. Instead of the lapse of a millennium or more, as is the case of not a few classical authors, several papyrus manuscripts of portions of the New Testament are extant that were copied within a century or so after the composition of the original documents.”

For most authors we know of from antiquity, we’re lucky if we actually have a single extant copy, and we rarely have more than a few (all of which are copies of copies of copies of copies…ad infinitum, written centuries or millennia later). Also, as Ehrman himself argued in his paper on why we should still question the authenticity of Morton Smith’s “discovery”, there are always variants between any two copies of some work from antiquity. So when we have six or seven THOUSAND extant Greek manuscripts of the NT (in addition to huge numbers of translations into other languages and enough quotations by the so-called “church fathers” we could reconstruct the NT from them alone), we should expect A LOT of variants, and not only be “embarrassed by the wealth of material” but even more so that the “vast majority” of variants are exactly of the type Ehrman describe…at least when not misleading the public.

Dr. Ehrman is my example of a good scholar who has traded academic integrity and accuracy for better sales. However, I mentioned that I have regained my respect for him. He recently published a popular book Did Jesus Exist? In it, he takes on what is almost exclusively a non-specialist position (called mythicism) that Jesus wasn’t a historical person. There are much better popular books that do this, I’ve never encountered (and would be surprised to find) anybody who was swayed by Ehrman’s arguments, and the combination of his simplistic counters to mythicists’ arguments along with his insertion of a minimalist account of his own take on the historical Jesus ensured that most readers would be disappointed (believers because of his track record and the minimal inclusion of his own approach to our evidence and his conclusion, and his former fans because…well…most were mythicists or something close). But Ehrman knew this book would alienate most of his readers and didn’t for a moment suppose he would somehow become a hero to Christians everywhere. He wrote it not only because he became increasingly aware of just how many people bought “historical” accounts by mythicists so worthless even Dr. Richard Carrier has repeatedly called them garbage, but also because he kept finding his popular works seen by their intended audience as supporting mythicism (he not only writes this in the book, but said it long before in e.g., a radio interview in which he both categorically denies there is any validity to any argument that Jesus wasn’t historical and that he finds it odd he is used to support such a view when he’s written a book on who the historical Jesus was). Basically, even though I would never recommend the book, it showed he does have academic integrity.

The Accidental Hero: Our Protaganist

Dr. Ronald Hutton is one of a select few in academia who has written academic monographs intended for specialists which nonetheless became popular. In particular, he wrote The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles and The Triumph of the Moon. The title of the former book says it all, but the latter requires some explanation. It is on the history and development of Wicca, and remains one of the only scholarly treatments of this topic and the most comprehensive. It is also far more popular than the other book, which is only slightly more daunting for the average reader but contains far less that is relevant to neopagans. I read both books before college for the same reason I contacted Hutton and Ehrman and read Ehrman’s work: a private “research” project that turned into forever pursuing the horizon of knowledge. At that point, however, my project was still mostly concerned with the history of Wicca as well as history and religion more generally, and I was still a member of many a Wiccan/Neopagan discussion board, interviewing and talking to various neopagans & “new agers”, and had comparatively narrow “research” goals. So I encountered many non-specialists who knew of Hutton’s work and had read it or had tried to not because they were history buffs but because of their religion. Most people who’d read it recommended it, but always with a caveat about its inaccessibility, or a remark about how “dense” it was, or a warning regarding its dry, technical nature.

It turns out the author had the same experience. Having written these technical, scholarly works for scholars, he found himself contacted by people who complained about his overly dry, dense, technical style. People bought one or more of his books because they were popular works, evaluated them as such, and rightly concluded (given incorrect assumptions) that they were unnecessarily inaccessible.

Finding himself in the unexpected position of disappointing fans he never thought he’d have, Hutton did what few academics would: he published his next book (on the history of modern druidism) in two forms, one for the public and one for academics. Being an idiot, I assumed that the academic book would be published first and bought it without checking. I was wrong, and had to then buy the academic “version” of the same book when it came out. This stupidity, however, was rewarded in that it has provided me with a perfect example of how scholars should approach writing popular works AND what such popular works should be like (basically, simplified rather than sensationalized). Unlike Ehrman and many other academics (William Lane Craig immediately springs to mind as one of the worst offenders), Hutton didn’t say one thing to a trusting public lacking the requisite background expertise to evaluate sensationalist, misleading claims, and quite another to fellow scholars. He didn’t even simply write a popular work that was accurate and accessible. He quite literally spent a long time one book in two forms so different in style (not in accuracy!) that they are really two different books (he didn’t simply extract portions of the non-academic book on druids from the academic one; for one thing, the non-academic one came out two years before its scholarly “twin”).

Granted, not all subjects can be simplified as easily as others. Quantum field theory, for example, is frequently a subject that graduate physicists find inaccessible, and even those whose mathematical literacy is sufficient to understand topics like the arithmetic and geometry of elliptic curves are generally disinclined bother with them (number theory has a reputation for being rather boring even among lovers of mathematics; an apologist for number theory tried to show it is under-appreciated because, among other things, he’d encountered many doctoral students in mathematics who’d never taken a course in the subject). While scholarship in NT studies or history more generally may be written in another language and quote from primary sources in several dead languages without translating the quoted passages, such problems can be overcome by translation. This is not true of quantum mechanics or particle physics (even the best written popular books have to rely on drastically over-simplified analogies, metaphors, and other devices to get around what would be treated using quantum algebras, tensors, manifolds, etc.). However, no matter the subject one can always choose the dark side that our villain has (Ehrman, who’s really a nice guy and an excellent scholar), or choose the more difficult and less rewarding path of our hero.

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2 Responses to A Tale of Two Scholars

  1. vinnyjh57 says:

    I think Ehrman makes it quite clear in MIsquoting Jesus that the majority of textual variants are trivial. On page 204 he writes: “To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial and of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us.”

    • It’s true that Dr. Ehrman does offer such caveats here and there. Ironically, I think this (unintentionally) makes things worse. When one comes across e.g., proponents of Peshitta primacy (the idea that the Syriac manuscript “family” known as the Peshitta was the original form of the gospels), anti-evolutionists who fall back on made-up distinctions between “micro-evolution” and “macro-evolution” so that the former can be disregarded as trivial while the latter requires god, and those who promote similar ideas/ideologies, the more astray from mainstream they are the less likely they are to be taken serious. Ehrman’s insertion of a certain measure of balance lends additional credence to claims he makes in his popular works that he does not make in his academic works. It’s also true that it is likely he doesn’t choose the titles for his books (which set the foundation for any reader’s interpretation and evaluation). But there are not many people who
      1) Are neurotically obsessed with studies so much so that they have to regard many topics they research as “hobbies” to justify the time and money spent
      2) are familiar with his scholarship, as well as the scholarship related to his work, and came to study NT textual criticism from a background in classics where the entire textual critical apparatus could be found at the bottom of all the relevant pages rather than in a separate volume that deals with the most important texts because it is impossible to fit variations among tens of thousands of manuscripts into a textual critical apparatus even if published as a separate supplementary book.
      In short, I guess I am saying that if I seem to be evaluating Ehrman’s popular work unfairly, it’s because I probably am in a certain sense. I only read popular works to review them for others, so most of what I read is what the majority of individuals would call technical or specialized. Moreover, in this case I have Ehrman’s scholarship (which is usually excellent and admirable) on the one hand, and his popular works on the other. Thus I am dealing with the conflicts, incompatibilities, and generally pretty fundamentally distinct perspectives proffered by the same individual depending upon the target audience. It’s not that he simplifies things, but that comparisons between his scholarship and his popular works reveal distortions and other misleading aspects.

      However, if one isn’t familiar with the quality and nature of Ehrman’s scholarship but is familiar with his popular works, I can certainly imagine how they might seem quite balanced.

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