Editor’s note: I read this with amazement and great interest, and I think you will too. With amazement, because I kind of always thought that such a fine scholar as Bart Ehrman wouldn’t have luck, let alone tragedy, as major factors in his academic success. With great interest, because he is such an expressive writer and because it made me think about how life is an accident – even life itself. In career terms, it’s probably safe to say that every member of the Clergy Project experienced a tragedy — or at least a difficult time — in leaving religious life. /Linda LaScola, Writer
By Bart Ehrman
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the first teaching job I got was a matter of pure luck and tragedy. I had been in the workforce for a few years, couldn’t get a job, and out of the blue, one opened up: a New Testament professor at Rutgers, just half an hour from Princeton. where I was still finishing my doctorate, had to take emergency leave because her husband was dying of cancer. I was nearby, looking for a position and they gave me an emergency appointment – I started teaching *his* classes, using his syllabi and textbooks, etc., mid-semester , just after midterm. It wasn’t easy, but damn it, I was glad I got something. She eventually retired, and I had year-long appointments at Rutgers for the next four years as I continued unsuccessfully to find a permanent position anywhere in the world. country.
In 1988 I finally got a job that was far beyond anything I could have imagined, this job I now hold in Chapel Hill. It was also about serendipity and tragedy, arguably a far greater tragedy. It’s pretty heartbreaking and I never completely got over it or at peace with it, even though it had nothing to do with me. Yet my incredible luck was due to someone else’s terrible calamity.
UNC Chapel Hill had a reputation for having one of the strongest religious studies departments in the country. It was one of the first state universities to have an undergraduate department in this field (we claim to be the first; the same goes for a few other places), beginning in 1946. Mid-1980s , in addition to having a very strong undergraduate program, they had a master’s program for about ten years. A few years before the NT position that I have now opened, they had obtained permission to start a PhD program and for two years they had PhD students in the program.
Let me say that every potential professor in the country who has the slightest motivation and ambition wants to teach in a PhD program. There aren’t many in religious studies, and the universities that have them are considered elite. Teaching doctoral students is considered the best of all possible worlds. (Whether or not depends on where you teach!). I had had so little luck finding a position of any kind – I was literally exploring career options outside of academia, even though I had no training or even much education in anything. whatever else – that the idea of landing a job at a PhD-granting institution was literally beyond what I imagined.
The reason why this particular position was available is heartbreaking. One of the stars of the department was a New Testament scholar named John Schütz. He was at the forefront of biblical research and was one of the pioneers in the movement to divert New Testament studies from a theological examination of the text (for ministers and believers) in an attempt to understand history society of primitive Christianity, to interest all sorts of specialists in the human sciences: classics, history, literature, etc. It was not a denominational enterprise but a study in the social sciences and humanities.
John was an extraordinarily intelligent man and pretty much the nicest human being on the planet. As a graduate student, I had heard him read a paper at a lecture a few years earlier and had seen how incredibly gracious and kind he was even in that context (professional lectures almost don’t involve never the terms gracious and kind; rather arrogant and ruthless – even in Bible studies); moreover, his paper was WELL over my head. I had no idea what he was talking about in a field in which I thought I would become an expert. I was both overwhelmed and impressed.
John was at the height of his career: in his fifties and well known in the field. He had been the head of the department at Chapel Hill which had been responsible for the development of the doctoral program. To get one at a state university involves paperwork that defies belief; the proposal is worked on for years and then has to go through your college, the university, the board of trustees, the board of governors, the state legislature and, as far as I know, the United Nations and the choir celestial saints. But John helped conceptualize it (showing why it would be both different from others offered in the South and much needed in NC), developed it, offered it, explained it, defended it, and passed.
The first semester of the doctoral program—I assume it was the fall of 1985—John was teaching a doctoral seminar. It was obviously his first. He lived near campus. In the middle of term, after class one day, he rode his bicycle home. He apparently hit a patch of wet leaves. The bike came out from under him. He hit his head. He was wearing a helmet. But he still suffered a very serious injury.
The following days were touch and go. He had considerable brain swelling, and they had to intervene to reduce it. Result of the operation: he lost his short-term memory. (Not just the short term of what I did five seconds ago, but the short term of what I was doing an hour ago and I don’t know how to get home from here.)
The ministry waited a year to see if there was any hope for a cure. It turned out that there was none. John could remember things from the distant past – his time in his doctoral program at Yale, for example, much of the research he had done on the social history of the Pauline community, etc. But he couldn’t teach because he couldn’t. I don’t remember what he did the night before or… most of the stuff relevant to teaching a class.
He had to take a disability pension. The relatively good news: he ended up living another twenty years. His memory was ruined, but he was so incredibly articulate that he could hide the fact that he really didn’t know what the conversation was about, so most people never noticed. And he was the most gracious, complimentary person I’ve ever known.
They made an announcement for someone to take his job in 1987; they called it a position in the “ancient Mediterranean religions” (I almost didn’t apply because I didn’t know what that meant!). They wanted someone who could teach Greco-Roman religions, Christianity of the first four centuries, and the New Testament. This is how John had envisioned the program: it was not to focus on New Testament interpretation per se (i.e. exegesis), but it was a program that, when teaching early Christianity, did not separate the canonical writings into a separate special category. of all the other writings of the first Christians. More than that, he understood Christianity as *one* of the religions of the Roman world, which was to be studied in relation to the other Roman religions, including, but not limited to, Judaism.
I didn’t think I was up to the job, but I applied and got the job anyway. I met John when I arrived. He was a wonderful human being. And I felt deeply ambivalent about getting the job. I only got it because of someone else’s incredible misfortune. I still have this feeling of uncertainty. It doesn’t seem right. In fact, that’s not fair. Yes, that’s how the world works, but I still have a sense of guilt (even though I don’t have any guilt) and I wish the terrible events that led to my nomination had never happened. products. But I also have incredible gratitude for being offered such a fantastic position. It’s a very strange set of emotions that never went away and I guess they will never go away.
**Editor‘sQuestion** What accidents, unforeseen events or tragedies have had a profound impact on your career?
Ehrman is the James A. Gray Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC, he served as Director of Graduate Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.
A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart earned 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 widely in the fields of the New Testament and early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. For more details, read here. Bart is also an original member of The Clergy Project. He has given permission for The Rational Doubt Blog to republish public blogs, like this, from The Bart Ehrman Blog
>>>Photo credits: By Dan Sears – Dan Sears UNC-Chapel Hill, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41276400; By Djkeddie – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39983257 l By Zeete – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons. wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72656583; By Yeungb – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27568000