Would the Bart Ehrman Experiment Happen the Other Way Around?

When Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion was published in 2006, it basically spawned an entire series of books refuting the claims he was making. It happened with Sam HarrisThe End of Faith, too.

So when Bart Ehrman‘s latest book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee was being written, his publishers were thinking ahead about what the critics would say.

Ehrman’s book argues that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t “become” God in the eyes of his followers until well after his crucifixion — and even that meant something very different from what Christians believe today. It’s a controversial idea (which is no surprise to anyone who has read Ehrman’s previous books) and his publishers knew that Christian authors would be itching to counter his claims. So they took the unusual step of publishing a rebuttal book at the same time.

Ehrman’s book is published by HarperOne while How God Became Jesus, the rebuttal book, is published by Zondervan. Both are subsidiaries of HarperCollins. John Murawski of Religion News Service explains how the logistics of this even worked:

The two books are an unusual publishing experiment, in which HarperCollins subsidiaries arranged to have a team of evangelical scholars write a counterargument to the hot-selling superstar writer. Ehrman and the evangelical team exchanged manuscripts and signed nondisclosure agreements so as not to pre-empt each other, but otherwise worked independently for their own HarperCollins imprints, HarperOne and Zondervan.

It’s either a brilliant move by the publishers to capitalize on a controversy of their own creation… or an unfair hedging of bets since they don’t seem to have the confidence to get behind their own bestselling author.

I think it’s a smart move. Publishing is a moneymaking game and they want to work both the skeptic and Christian book buyers. It’s like RCA being the record label for both ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys: Let everyone else fight about which group’s better — we win either way.

But it also leads to a couple of questions:

Should we expect this with other controversial books?

What’s to stop future books about atheism from coming out alongside books about Christianity? What’s to stop a book about evolution from coming out alongside a book about Creationism? You could argue evolution is settled science while God’s existence is “still up for debate” in the general public, but plenty of people don’t accept evolution, so the audience is there… Would we let all this slide as simply a novel approach to publishing if the same company pitted books supporting and rejecting climate change against each other?

Will we ever see Christian publishers do this?

HarperCollins’ experiment was all about Ehrman’s book and the rebuttal to it. But I just can’t imagine a publisher saying, “One of our imprints just put out Pastor Rick Warren‘s latest book! And here’s the atheist response!” That sounds like a Christian-led boycott waiting to happen.

But if that’s the case, why is it that books critical of religion get to be rebutted (by the same company) while books promoting religion get to stand alone?

At the very least, I would be shocked to see this Ehrman experiment replicated with a Christian book as the focal point.

***Update***: Mike Bird, the editor of the “rebuttal” book, points out in the comments:

The initiative for the response to Ehrman did not come from HarperOne or from Zondervan, but from myself. I wanted to provide a real time engagement with Ehrman, so I recruited friends who are experts in their field to co-author a response about the origins of belief in Jesus as a divine figure. HarperOne let us see the pre-pub version of the manuscript and Zondervan agreed to publish it. While it is not regular to do this, everyone was supportive, it was good business for everyone, but no conspiracy theory.


About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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