A Popular Failsafe

I took a couple of minutes to return to my review of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God this morning after a hiatus. One of my chief complaints is that Ehrman doesn’t interact with scholarship in the field when we would expect him to. He acknowledges that there are debates being had; but he doesn’t cite the major players or what they’re saying. That’s a problem. But Ehrman has a built in failsafe; this is a “popular” book. He can simply say that it’s not intended for a academic readership and as such he didn’t want to burden his readers with excessive footnotes (or endnotes in this case) referring to the discussions taking place in the fields of early Christology and Christian origins.

At the end of the day I don’t think this works though. Even popular level works are informed by scholarship. The point of a popular work (at least in the fields of biblical studies or theology) is to disseminate scholarship in an accessible way to a broad audience (and if that’s not the point then I don’t know what is!). James Dunn’s recent Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? is a prime example of this. Dunn’s volume is accessible to non-specialists and yet it interacts in detail with what the major figures in the field have said and are saying. Ed Komoszewski & Rob Bowman’s Putting Jesus in His Place does the same thing. So it’s not a question of doability;  it’s definitely doable.

The question to ask is why Ehrman didn’t do it. The answer, I think, is that he really has little interest into entering into dialogue. He knows his primary readership is generally uninformed on the subject and will likely accept his monologue as gospel. But if Ehrman wants to trade on his credentials as a scholar; as a trustworthy historian; as someone who’s supposed to be presenting a cogent explanation of the data; then he’ll have to engage the topic in a scholarly fashion, which involves interacting with a variety of views. This is all doable without excessive technical jargon so I don’t think Ehrman gets a pass on this point because he’s written a “popular” book.


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