As I started thinking about how to write up this second post on my dissertation (the first post was posted some days ago), I remembered one of my clearest pieces of advice that I ever gave to myself, many years ago now, based, already then, on substantial experience.  Never , ever, NEVER ask a graduate student what s/he is writing the dissertation on.   They invariably will tell you, and it will take a half hour, and your eyes will glaze over in 30 seconds.   So just don’t do it.   With that principle in mind, I think I had better not go into all the ins and outs of the dissertation.

I’ll just go into some of them….

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The reason it is so painful listening to someone’s story about their dissertation is that by their very nature dissertations tend to be highly technical and detailed.  They are, in almost every case, an author’s first book.  But they are not the kind of book that will sell in Barnes and Noble.  They are the kind of book that advance scholarship at a very high level; in many instances they are the kind of book that six people in the world may, really and truly, be interested in.  But they have to be written, both because it is important to advance scholarship in detailed and technical ways, and because the entire point is to make a person qualified to be a certifiable expert in a field.  When a university or other institute for advance learning awards a PhD it actually means something.  A dissertation almost always takes two years of fulltime work to write.  I know a number of people who have taken five, six, seven, twelve or more years to write one.  It ain’t easy.

That is one reason that people who have PhD’s get frustrated with people who want to claim to be “experts” in a field (say, the New Testament; or evolutionary science; or whatever)  without having one.

Anyway, as I mentioned in the previous post, Metzger suggested that I analyze the NT quotations in the newly published writings of Didymust the Blind.  It was a tough assignment.  I decided to stick with the Gospels.  In brief what I had to do was this:  find and extract every quotation of the Gospels from the multiple volumes of Didymus’s writings; decide where these quotations were exact citations and where they were adaptations of the text or allusions to it; compare in every detail the exact wording of his citation with the texts of about two dozen Greek and Latin manuscripts to see which ones he was most like, in quotation after quotation after quotation; catalogue every single difference; apply a statistical model to all the similarities and differences so as to classify him in relationship to known the best surviving textual witnesses; and try to draw historical conclusions about what we could say about the history of the transmission of the text in Alexandria Egypt down to his own day.

It was  a lot.  In the course of it I developed a new method for classifying Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, based in part on some surmises that Metzger had had nearly forty years earlier but had never pursued, which showed why earlier approaches were inadequate.  That’s a long and detailed story, and trust me, you probably don’t want to hear it.  Trust me on that one….


Bruce Metzger is the author of several books including The Early Versions of the New Testament and The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, And Restoration.