Learning New Things

Learning New Things September 12, 2019

Editor’s Note: This best selling New Testament scholar and professor and original Clergy Project member impresses me again.  This time, it’s with his desire to know more – not just about his own field, but all sorts of other things. Just reading about it makes me want to expand my horizons – or take a long nap.  Not sure which.  Maybe both. /Linda LaScola, Editor


By Bart Ehrman

I am constantly awed by some fellow scholars, who have not just enormous range of knowledge about so many things but also an inordinate, almost insatiable curiosity.   There aren’t many people like that, but I know some.   At the same time I am regularly puzzled by people who simply have no curiosity about much of anything, who have strong opinions about lots and actual knowledge about little, who just don’t have any real curiosity or drive to find answers to anything.

I’m not talking about the BIG questions of life (Why are we here? What is the purpose of it all?  What should I be doing with my life? Etc. etc.) – although I do find it odd that so many people just don’t think about them.  But here I’m talking about knowledge in general.  People simply prefer to sludge through life without looking into anything beyond the headlines, without reading books, without finding anything worth looking into.

I suppose I too was raised that way and was that way for the early part of my life.  But I was bitten by the curiosity bug probably as a late teenager, and I’ve gotten increasingly infected over time.  I’d say I’m a somewhat unusual case, though – even though I’m interested in masses of things, more and more, (I find myself looking things up on the internet more and more, especially about politics, current events, and so on), most of my curiosity is unusually narrow and directed.  But at least it’s there, and I find it hugely energizing and exciting.

There’s no way I could do the average American thing of watching five hours of TV a day.

Who has the time?  Well, I guess most of us do!  But I haven’t watched an actual TV show, say, a sitcom, many years.  I do watch high quality series, from Downton Abby to Breaking Bad to A French Village (the last of which, by the way, even though most of you will never have heard of, is absolutely FANTASTIC).  Even with these shows, I never take time out of the day or evening to watch them doing nothing else; I play an episode or two while working out on my cross-trainer, killing two birds with one stone since I need the exercise anyway….

Anyway, my actual range of serious curiosity is, as I said, narrow, but rather deep.   And expanding.  But not expanding in ways that virtually anyone else in the known universe is going – and for me that’s just as well.   I’m nerdy at heart, and am obviously a scholar both of religion and antiquity, and rather than expanding my interests into things I’m just, at the end of the day, not hugely interested in (although I certainly *could* be), by reading books after book on, say, the Italian Renaissance, or the rise of Hitler, or the great recession (I have read books on these kinds things, but for me, usually one book is enough; I’m not going to devour book after book on them), I’m developing my passions for antiquity.

Here again I’m unusually limited in my interests.  I certainly could become interested in ancient China or the ancient Near East (and I have read a good bit on the latter, but only because it is peripherally related to what I am intrigued by).   And – this may seem surprising – I’m not passionately interested in reading more and more books about the New Testament.

How many books on the same topics does one need to read to say – I think I’ll move on now?  I’ve studied NT literally full time for over 40 years.  I’ll obviously keep studying it, but it’s not my driving passion.

In part that’s because I have always felt completely deficient in my knowledge about just about everything *outside* of New Testament studies.   But of all the fields of antiquity that I’ve really wished I knew more about, it has always been the Greek and Latin classics that I’ve most regretted not knowing.  (You can see already that this is not the normal direction normal human beings take when deciding how to spend their time….)    My brother is a professional classicist (mainly a Latinist); I’ve known lots of other classicists; and I’ve always been deeply envious of the huge repertoire of ancient writings they have at their disposal.

So about six months or so ago I decided to bite the bullet.  When I was in college I studied classical Greek as my foreign language, before shifting to concentrate on the later form of Greek known as KOINE (the “common” Greek used from about 200 BCE-200 CE), which is where I’ve always done most of my work.  But I’ve never spent a lot of time reading the great classical works in Greek (apart from a bit of Plato); no Homer, or Euripides, Sophocles, etc. (in Greek; I’ve read them, of course, in English).  And I learned Latin many years ago, and have kept it up a bit – but mainly to read early Christian texts in Latin, including ancient Latin translations of the New Testament.   I’ve never worked on great Latin literature (Ovid, Livy, Virgil, etc.)

And so within the last half year I’ve decided to do so.  The work originated with my interest in the afterlife traditions in Greek authors such as Homer, Plato, Lucian of Samosata (the latter of whom I have read a bit in Greek).

Why not read them in the original?  If you’re doing serious academic work on them, you need to!   And then there are the Latin authors, such as Virgil, who was almost completely inaccessible to me.  Why not learn the earlier forms of Greek – Homeric, which is very different from the Greek of the New Testament, and literary Latin of, say the time of the early empire?

So that’s what I’ve been doing.  Every day, for some months now, I start my day by getting up early, and after doing the blog, studying Greek and Latin for two or three hours.   And I have to say, it’s FANTASTIC.  I haven’t done something like this in a very long time, really learned something new.   OK, it may not seem to an outsider that this is “completely* different from what I’ve done before.  But learning the Greek of Homer, even though there are obviously lots and lots and lots of similarities to what I already know, is very different from what I’ve done before, and it is amazingly interesting and freeing.  And the Latin of Virgil: being able to read about the sack of Troy in Latin — really intriguing.

This decision and process has shown me several things:

(1) How much I completely relish learning new things, instead of retreading all the old things I already know;

(2) How each of us really needs to decide how we want to spend our time, and then commit to doing it;

(3) Why the Classics are Classics.  This is literature that has been “Great” for centuries, and for good reasons.

Among other things, great ancient literature can help us reflect on issues that continue to be relevant to life:

  • How do we deal with the major obstacles we face in life?
  • Can anything good come out of the pain and struggles we constantly face?
  • What does it mean to be faithful to family and friends?
  • What is it we most value?

And on and on.

When I was in graduate school, I had a teacher who said that she had a goal of learning something completely new every semester.  I thought she was nuts.  Who has the time?  I’m now finding, as a sexagenarian, that one needs to make the time.  At least I need to.   And I’m finding it one of the most exciting things I’ve done in memory.   Of course, most people would rather be flayed alive than have to learn the paradigms for Latin verbs.  But then these people can find their own passions.  And wouldn’t the world be a more interesting place if people discovered what they really were interested in and started pursuing it with passion?

**Editor’s Question** What would you like to pursue with a passion?


Bio: Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. For more detail, read here.  Bart is also an original member of The Clergy Project.  He has given The Rational Doubt Blog permission to repost public blogs, including this one from The Bart Ehrman Blog

>>>>Photo Credits:  “Donald Trump September 3 2015” by Michael Vadon – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_September_3_2015.jpg#/media/File:Donald_Trump_September_3_2015.jpg ; By Michael Vadon – https://www.flickr.com/photos/80038275@N00/20724666936/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42609338 ; By Anonymous – http://www.buzzle.com/articles/virgil-publius-vergilius-maro-roman-poet.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17237420 ; By Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here.. Original uploader was JW1805 at en.wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2171360

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  • Jim Jones

    **Editor’s Question** What would you like to pursue with a passion?

    I wish I was fluent in Ancient Greek and Ancient Hebrew. I’m convinced that all English translations of the bible are highly misleading and would like to know what these damned books really say. Even the NT/Greek would help. But the effort is no longer worth the results to me – at this point I’d rather write an open source version of Windows XP so we could dump Gates’ buggy mess of an OS.

  • ThaneOfDrones

    I took a course on Shakespeare once. Loved it. There is an activation barrier in handling the Elizabethan English; once you get past that you can get into the stories (which are constantly being remade in vernacular languages), the comedy, the structure of the plays, etc.

  • ElizabetB.

    Scrolling down the post, I loved the droll humor & surprise of the first 2 pictures — (still smiling)…. Taking a tip from See Noevo, I hope the Editor will answer the Editor’s Question too : )

    Obviously I’ve been pursuing my question with passion all my life — what’s up with religion/spirituality? I love having so much fodder available now, from YouTube lectures on philosophy, neurology etc; Amazon used books on everything; to online discussions….. Some of the books & clues most helpful to me so far were here on R.D., so thanks! A great question… surprising & fun to hear what people say!

  • Chris Morris

    There is only one thing worth pursuing with a passion – life. You only get one so don’t treat it like an apprenticeship. As someone who was born a couple of hundred yards away from Shakespeare’s birthplace, I was fortunate to grow up with Shakespeare as ‘everyday culture’ so the idea presented here of a radical division between ‘low-brow’ and ‘high-brow’ cultures, a division which seems to have been entirely unknown to Shakespeare, has always puzzled and interested me.
    Collecting knowledge of ancient or exotic cultures is fine in itself but what makes Homer or Aristotle or Shakespeare (or, indeed, Genesis) ‘high-brow’ culture for us is that they were engaging with the everyday problems of their world in a way that connects that ‘everyday’ with the universal problem of how to be an individual human being that we all struggle with.

  • mason

    Bart, enjoyed the article, nice to see you off the “New Testament” onto the Classics passion for a while. 🙂 I didn’t care that much for Breaking Bad and I tried five episodes, probably because an ex-wife got involved in that world and I didn’t care to be reminded of that sub-culture … I will check out A French Village … have you seen any of Hell On Wheels, or Ozark?

    *Editor’s Question** What would you like to pursue with a passion? I’d “like” to go back to some more surfing, but those days are all in the past, so my passions now are guitar, TCP, keeping my darling wife happy & affectionate, mentoring my children, grandchildren, & great grandchildren, cooking (especially seafood).

  • mason
  • carolyntclark

    I’m at the age where the passions are now keen interests. I enjoy writing my personal memoir for my own edification.
    I’m an avid reader, good novels, especially historical fiction. I try to take two courses a semester at Senior College…variety of topics sciences/ biology/ cosmos, art, history European,/Ancient. In that regard I’m on the quest to replace a time-line wall chart I once had, horizontal 15 ‘ X 20 “.

    It seems that many Former Clergy, now atheist/agnostic, continue to ruminate about religion, encumbered, still obsessing, reading mostly on the topic.
    There’s such freedom and contentment in enjoying the healthy secular life. If not scholarly classic reading, enjoy some good novels, spy stories, biographies,
    Lighten up, life is too short .

  • There are MANY things that I wish to study, but it’s difficult to select just one topic when I realize how deficient I am on many subjects. I drove into evolutionary science recently, and I have taken deep dives into many facets of history. Maybe cosmology…..

  • ElizabetB.

    Would be neat if some of the writing were someday to be shared or printed…. I’m sure it’s good