Bart Ehrman, The Bible: A Historical And Literary Introduction

Bart Ehrman, The Bible: A Historical And Literary Introduction December 12, 2013

I’ve been eagerly looking forward to the appearance of Bart Ehrman’s one-volume textbook on the entire Bible. For those of us who teach a single-semester course covering the Bible, using separate textbooks on the Hebrew Bible and New Testament may be too much. And so I was understandably delighted to receive a copy of Ehrman’s book, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, from Oxford University Press.

The volume looks fantastic. It tackles what the Bible is, assuming no prior knowledge, and explains that it is offering a historical understanding which is neither an attack on nor a support for various faith positions, and which cannot adjudicate between the latter. If one makes a claim about a historical event, then the historical evidence can adjudicate (and Ehrman treats examples of this, e.g. the Exodus on pp.62-63, and a whole chapter on the historical Jesus). But historical study cannot tell you that one person’s view of God is right and another’s is wrong (p.28). Each chapter ends with what I consider to be really good discussion questions. An appendix deals with the canon and text – questions of how we got the Bible – which I, if I were using the textbook and teaching the class as I normally do, might have students read after the introduction, and discuss at the beginning of the semester rather than the end. But it might be interesting to bracket out the question of how these books came together and treat them as separate literary works first, only addressing the process of their becoming part of a collection at the end.

The book came with this sticker on the cover:

I am eager to use excellent textbooks for my students, but am also eager to prevent them having to pay an unnecessarily high price for their textbooks. Oxford’s label seems to be trying to say that just under $70 is a bargain for 410 page textbook. I wonder how many readers would agree. Perhaps I am looking at this much as I am looking at current airfares. I remember them being much lower, but that doesn’t mean that they can realistically be that low in the present day. And so I am curious whether this price seems reasonable, ridiculous, or somewhere in between to blog readers. I think the textbook is perfect for the class I teach. I also find the price profoundly troubling, when I consider that N. T. Wright’s two volume 1660-page work Paul and the Faithfulness of God costs less than the Ehrman textbook. Of course, a textbook includes images and other features which are not without expense to obtain permission for and incorporate. What do others think?

I also noticed that Ehrman’s forthcoming book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee is available for pre-order.

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  • TrevorN

    The $70 includes 6 months complimentary subscription to I haven’t registered yet (I’ll wait until after the holiday period) so I don’t know if that is a significant bonus, but it could ameliorate the blow to the bank account 🙂

    • That’s a good point. I had noticed there were lots of nice add-ons for professors, but those being passed on to the students would still trouble me, but resource access that isn’t something standard in most universities’ libraries’ databases does make a difference. I also like the fact that it is available as an ebook.

  • Gary

    A bargain (of course, depending on content, which I am in no position to judge). Check out the cost of physics or engineering books.

  • Steven Pounders

    Compared to the new textbooks I’ve seen for similar survey courses in other disciplines, $70 seems usual, even a little on the low side for textbooks. That’s not to say that the textbook industry in general isn’t wildly overpriced, especially with the sort of technology that allows publishers to print as needed.

    Many of Ehrman’s other books, intended for general audiences, are much lower in price (Jesus Interrupted, Forged, etc.). Textbook pricing seems to follow separate rules.

  • Ian

    As a textbook author, I’d have to say it seems perfectly reasonable 🙂

    I worked for a year, full time on the first edition of my textbook, and i got $30,000 advance for it. A pretty terrible salary for a year’s work. Now it sold its advance and started generating royalties, its been through two editions and each one has sold through two printings, but even adding everything I’ve earned from it, it rates as one of the worst paid years of my career. I pitched a new textbook on a similar area two years ago and was offered $5,000 advance, because they wanted to sell it paperback for $30. I didn’t write it. So low-price isn’t good for anyone: a writer who can afford to write for $5,000 advance on $1.50 a book, isn’t necessarily the person you want writing your textbooks.

    We’re in an age of free information. But free information isn’t always curated, crafted, and peer-reviewed. Is $70 too expensive for the information in Bart’s text? I suspect not.

    • Casting absolutely no aspersions on OP [every situation is different, and I’m sure his book is excellent], my preference is for the people who write my textbooks to be those who are also teaching courses like mine. This means that they are generally university professors, and thus not dependent on $125 textbooks to pay their salary. What we need is for an army of professors to write Creative Commons, collaborative textbooks, available for free online and in print at a minimum cost.

      • Ian

        My textbook was on a professional topic. There are almost no professors who teach the course who really know the topic, unfortunately. The landscape is very different in Biblical Studies.

        But ultimately someone has to pay. you can pay through higher tuition to allow staff to teach/research less and write more. Or you can pay for the book. Either way it isn’t free. Though it is always possible to design a system where someone else has to pay. Which is always more attractive!

        • I appreciate both of your perspectives. I suspect that, apart from a few lucky souls, few scholars in my field get to write textbooks that earn such a large advance or on which they can devote a year full time without other professional duties.

          As someone who is very much in favor of open access and who doesn’t expect to write a whole textbook himself anytime soon, the idea of a crowdsourced open access textbook – perhaps one which, because of its format, has the potential to be further customized by individual professors – appeals to me, not necessarily as a replacement for other sorts of textbooks but at least as a model worth trying out.

          Thank you for giving me useful things to think about as I contemplate my textbook choice for next semester. I suppose I should also note that for another class I teach, which has several classic texts as assigned reading, the price for the same number of pages is probably in the same range, now that I think about it.

    • exPatProf

      I wrote a textbook — and an excellent one, I may say — for less than a $5,000.00 advance! As to your comment, “A writer who can afford to write for $5,000…isn’t necessarily the person you want writing your textbooks,” I have to disagree. I’m a professor at an Ivy League institution, with a Ph.D. from an Ivy League institution, and fifteen years experience teaching my subject. But the textbook contract wasn’t my sole source of income — just a labor of love on the side, so to speak. Perhaps I was exploited (it’s possible) but I did it because I love to write, and I love to teach.
      I agree with your last statement, however. I don’t find $70.00 too expensive for the labor put into it and the information it contains.