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Getting a PhD in New Testament Studies

I was breezing through ancient blog posts this morning and came across this one from exactly eight years ago. It involves a question I get a lot (got it last week!), from people interested in doing graduate work in the field of New Testament or early Christianity. What is it like and what does it take? Here is what I said back then, which is pretty much what I would still say today!

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I sometimes get asked what it takes to become a professional scholar in the field of New Testament/early Christian studies. The answer, in short, is the same as for any academic discipline. It takes years of intense training.

My own training in the field of New Testament studies was nothing at all unusual, but rather was fairly typical for someone in the field. What is unusual is that I knew that I wanted to pursue this kind of study already when I was in college. I started taking courses in New Testament as a 17-year old. For my foreign language requirement in college I took Greek, since I knew that I wanted to read the New Testament writings in their original language. I was pretty good at Greek and so, while still in college, decided that I wanted to be trained in the study of the Greek manuscript tradition of the New Testament. My beloved Greek professor at Wheaton College, Gerald Hawthorne, informed me that the leading scholar in that field was Bruce Metzger, who taught at Princeton Theological Seminar. And so I applied to Princeton Seminary, got admitted there, and worked three years to gain a Masters of Divinity degree.

In my Masters degree I took as many courses in biblical studies and the history of early Christianity as I could – exegesis class after exegesis class, in particular. En route I learned Hebrew, so I could read the Old Testament in its original language, and took graduate level German for reading across the street at Princeton University, so that I could read German scholarship on the Bible. I wrote a Masters Thesis at Princeton Seminar under Professor Metzger’s direction, on the question of the “Majority Text” – that is, the theory (abandoned by most scholars, for good reason) that the vast bulk of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament present the NT in a better form than the much earlier, but far fewer manuscripts discovered in more recent times.

I then applied to the PhD program at Princeton Seminary, again to work with Professor Metzger. I was his final PhD student before he retired.

I sped through my PhD program – it took me only four years (it normally takes five years after a masters; I was a bit faster because I knew exactly what I wanted and needed to do – many students flounder around for a while – and because I already knew the ropes at Princeton Seminary, having done my first post-graduate degree there). Two of those years involved taking PhD seminars on early Christian history and the interpretation of books of the New Testament in the original Greek (so, for example, I would take a semester-long class on the Gospel of Mark, or the Gospel of John, or Paul’s letter to the Romans, or 1 Peter, etc. etc. – all based on the Greek text). During those years I also learned French (a requirement for most PhDs in the field: one has to be able to read French scholarship, as well as German), Latin (in which a number of early Christian texts appear), and Coptic (an ancient Egyptian language). After the seminars came the PhD Comprehensive Exams (the most challenging, intense, and intimidating part of anyone’s PhD program); and then the dissertation, which itself took two years to write.

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  1. Avatar
    exPCman  May 13, 2020

    Ah, memories! And thanks for sharing, as it did bring up memories for me, upon which I can add my “Amen!” The only thing I would add is that some of us even found all the “hard work” just plain fun! Although that might be just me!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2020

      Oh, I did too. I was completely passionate about it. Still am!

  2. sschullery
    sschullery  May 13, 2020

    I used to advise my students: Getting an undergrad degree is learning what is known about a subject; getting a PhD is learning how to add to the pile of what is known. It’s best to look on grad school as being an apprentice in a skilled trade, rather than n more years of school. The pay sucks, but at least it’s flowing in the right direction. (THis was in the days when Teaching Assistantships were routine.)

  3. fefferdan
    fefferdan  May 13, 2020

    I’m not interested in earning a doctorate at this stage of my life, but I do love biblical studies. An obstacle for me is my extremely limited knowledge of biblical languages. Are you aware of a good way to learn them online or audio? The audio materials that help you learn modern Greek and Hebrew aren’t much help, unfortunately.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2020

      There are a lot of resources out there, but I don’t know which to recommend. Whatever you find that is useful, you will almost certainly need to have an expert you can consult with to answer questions and provide *some* guidance. But there must be online helpgroups that are very active. Maybe others on the blog know?

      • Julian
        Julian  May 17, 2020

        A local university (in Western Australia) was offering weekend courses on different things and one was on ‘Classical Greek’ fourteen years ago. 6 two hour sessions and then the teacher, an academic but not a PhD student then, said that he’d love to take any private students on a regular fortnightly basis. I joined a small group of mature students and, enjoying each other’s company and friendship we continued meeting fortnightly. We still meet and have translated many texts in class.
        fefferdan, maybe inquire at your local institutions and see if there is anyone interested in hosting a class. Getting interested participants may be difficult but perhaps a simple advertisement or some local church people may boost the numbers. Learning with a group of interested people is a lot of fun, and there doesn’t need to be tests, assignments or competitiveness. We started with ‘Athenaze’ which includes some biblical passages to translate, but I can’t imagine succeeding with most texts without a teacher. ‘Teach Yourself New Testament Greek’ may be a useful and relevant text for you, but you need a teacher even for that!

        • Bart
          Bart  May 18, 2020

          Sounds great! And yes, a normal human being can’t really get the language completely on his/her own. And probably abnormal human beings can’t either.

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  May 15, 2020

      The “great courses” offers one on biblical Hebrew. I haven’t yet checked it out (although loaded on my ‘puter), so can neither recommend or..not. I assume video is necessary.

  4. Lev
    Lev  May 13, 2020

    It’s striking how different the UK system is to the US. We’re not obliged to learn any other language than English (although it’s recommended we do learn at least Greek or Hebrew). Master degrees typically take just one year, rather than three, and PhDs three years, rather than five or more. Some of my peers are on a path from 1st-year undergraduate to gaining a PhD in seven years in total – becoming Doctors at the age of 25.

    I understand the Canadian model is very similar to the US, rather than the UK system. As such, I wonder if there is a sense that North American PhD candidates are more rounded and learned than their UK counterparts?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2020

      Yes, the system is very different indeed; PhD’s involve simpply writing a dissertation. BUT, if you are doing it in New Testament, you certainly would have to know Greek, either Hebrew or Latin, and French and German. Anyone who doesn’t simply isn’t qualified in the field. (Can’t be a game software engineer if you can’t do math!)

  5. Avatar
    fishician  May 13, 2020

    I am probably one of your very few fans who HAS read your PhD dissertation, Didymus the Blind and the Text of of the Gospels; I found a used copy on Amazon a while back. It gave me new appreciation for what you had to go through in your pursuit of a PhD. It was very complex and thorough, and much of it was literally Greek to me! I’m glad there are scholars who have the patience and knowledge to do such studies, and especially glad that there are a few like you who can effectively share scholarship with the public at large.

  6. Avatar
    forthfading  May 13, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman

    I know your PhD. was from a seminary, but it’s Princeton! Even as a seminary they have an academic level to uphold. Do you think smaller seminaries or those not affiliated with a top tier university offer these same rigor or preparation standards? I guess, would places like Asbury Theological Seminary, Dallas Theological Seminary, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, etc. require the same in-depth training that you received?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2020

      For the PhD? Most have similar *requirements* but not the same *standards*, if you see what I mean. The degree is hard to do, wherever you do it, assuming you do it at an accredited institution and not, say, online.

  7. Avatar
    veritas  May 13, 2020

    Wow, it sounds like a very serious commitment. I guess that is what Dan Dennett meant when he said, ” Happiness is finding something greater than yourself and dedicating your life to it “. Bart, for you this is definitely your bliss, no doubt. I am wondering though. In your field of study in particular, how much more can be discovered/deduced from an already existing ocean of information we have, that oftentimes is induced by personal beliefs and faith in a subject that seems to be unknowable and incomprehensible ? Is the main reason to enter Religious studies is to become a Pastor/Minister or to develop a new theory/interpretation that becomes controversial/debated ?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2020

      At the advanced level most people come into religious studies for the same reason people go into chemistry, medicine, or law — to make a career of it; and most careers in religion are … religious. EXCEPT for the teaching of Religious Studies in secular colleges/universites/research institutions. There people are interested in pursing knowledge about religion just as others are interested in pursuing knowledge about philosopy, literature, music, biology, physics, whatever. Yes, there is still a massive ton to be done. One problem is that so many people in New Testament studies are intersted ONLY in interpretation of the text, and that is a very well-worked field. Always more to do, but there are so many other areas of vast interest that are scarcely touched.

  8. Avatar
    WSChatham  May 13, 2020

    Wow. How did you finance your education? I am a registered dietitian. To avoid student debt, I paid up front. It took me seven years.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2020

      I got good fellowships from the school and I worked most of the time (part time and in the summers). It was very hard, but in the end I managed to come out without too much debt. Although I didn’t finish paying them off until a year before my daughter went to college. (!)

  9. Avatar
    AndrewB  May 13, 2020

    With all that language background I have to wonder: do you ever read in other languages just for pleasure? Not academics?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2020

      Sometimes in French. And actually, lately I’ve been reading ancient Greek and Latin classics just for the fun of it and to get better, without any necessary payoff for my work. My wife and I are also reading the Vulgate and some Christian apocryphal texts in Latin ever day, and that’s related to my work, but it’s really just for fun. OK, a strange idea of fun….

      • Avatar
        Ruven  May 15, 2020

        Were those apocryphal texts in Latin originally? If not, are you familiar with the Greek/ Coptic original?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 17, 2020

          We’re reading the Gospel of Nicodemus; it was originally written in Greek, but the Latin text (one form of it) that survives better represents it than the surviving Greek, oddly enough. Plus, well, my wife doesn’t read Greek….

          • Avatar
            KingJohn  May 20, 2020

            Dr. Ehrman, have you ever studied Aramaic?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 20, 2020

            I studied Syriac, which is a dialectical variant. But it was only after grad school. In grad school I did Greek, Latin, and Coptic. These days just about the only ancient languages I deal with are Greek and Latin.

  10. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  May 13, 2020

    As Clint Eastwood said in Magnum Force, ‘A man needs to know his limitations’ and reading this post has made me abundantly aware of mine. I’m currently on a break from a part time Masters degree in Classics, but can’t see myself taking my studies any further than that, however much I’d love to. A very interesting and instructive post none the less.

  11. Avatar
    Poohbear  May 14, 2020

    Hugo Mendez stated that “abide in”, walk in the light,” “children of the light,” “overcome the world,” be “born from above,” and “do the truth” are “entirely absent from other gospels.”
    If I challenged my Professor for such a claim – would I have got my Masters?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2020

      You may well have just flunked your master’s exam! 🙂 If you want to say that the basic *ideas* behind these expressions can be found here and there depending on how you interpret certain passages, then you wouldn’t be responding to his claim.

      • Avatar
        Poohbear  May 15, 2020

        This is wonderfully ambiguous!
        :).

        • Bart
          Bart  May 17, 2020

          I’m saying that your counterclaim isn’t addressing his claim.

  12. Avatar
    gusloureiro  May 14, 2020

    Dear Bart,
    It seems to me that to pursue such carreer, someone must do it starting at young age. Do you think it is possible to start at, say, 40 years old?
    Thanks a lot!
    Gustavo

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2020

      Yes, it’s possible, but additionally difficult, both because our brains are less elastic by then and because of so many more enormous social pressures (familial, economic, etc.). I know a couple of people who have pulled it off, but far more who have tried and not managed, and yet more who simply and happily decided to make it an avocation rather than a career choice.

  13. Avatar
    mbrammer  May 14, 2020

    I had a friend who got a PhD in Theology but failed to get tenure. The person is now a gypsy moving from one temporary academic position to the next.The upside is that this person has traveled the world and has had experiences that I could only imagine. It is a life that would be very difficult for someone who also had a family to support.

    I see the situation regarding tenure getting worse after the coronavirus as a number of smaller colleges will probably not survive. I also have a relative who received a PhD in Biochemistry that was unable to find a tenure position. In that person’s case, private industry employs a significant number of those degree holders. What do individuals who get PhDs in Humanities do if they are unable to find a position?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2020

      They normally try to find something that they can retrain in with their remarkable skill sets in, for example, analysis, communication, adn so on, combined with what is by then a well-built-in drive, diligence, and ability to focus their energies.

  14. Avatar
    DoubtingTom  May 14, 2020

    Just the drudgery of learning all those languages makes it a hard pass for me.

    I’m content with reading your works ( sans Didymus!), Hugo’s posts here, and guys like Thomas Paine.

  15. Avatar
    Stephen  May 14, 2020

    And after all that there is still the problem of actually finding a job, right?

  16. Avatar
    RogerWright  May 14, 2020

    Thanks for this. Too often in internet debates people seem to think that a few hours spent online with the help of Google gives them the ability to go toe to toe with someone who actually knows what he’s talking about. I see this in my field, where someone is sure that the knowledge he gained about trying lawsuits from watching My Cousin Vinny and To Kill a Mockingbird trumps what I think I know from getting a law degree and spending 35 years trying cases. I envy your patience in dealing with people who are positive that the time they spent in Sunday School memorizing verses from the KJV makes them an expert on all things scriptural. In a time when expertise increasingly is undervalued, it’s good to be reminded of what’s involved in becoming a true expert in a field.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2020

      Thanks! Recently I’ve had the reverse problem, a trial lawyer who wanted to take me on over the Greek meaning of a passage. He didn’t know Greek but told me that since he made a life arguing against experts that he was qualified. I’m actually thinking about posting the exchange (since he did it publicly, on my facebook page)

      • Avatar
        RogerWright  May 15, 2020

        Ouch. I fear that attitude is more common in my profession than I’d like to admit. I’ve probably been guilty of it myself at times, but my son, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology, is defending his dissertation next week, and having watched what he went through to reach this point has helped remind me of the difference between having enough surface knowledge to argue and having enough in-depth knowledge to understand.

      • Avatar
        Chad Stuart  May 17, 2020

        Have you read Tom Nichols’ book “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters”?

  17. Avatar
    Chad Stuart  May 14, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    This is a question I’ve always had since I first read about long process you went through in becoming an agnostic:

    Do you know of any other Biblical scholars who have started out as believing Christians and become a non-believer? I know of one (Francesca Stavrakopoulou) who was an atheist before going into academia, but none who followed your particular path.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2020

      Oh yes, definitely. But I don’t think I should name them in this context!

  18. Avatar
    Lopaka  May 15, 2020

    How long do you think the sheltering in place will last? Does your university give any indication of what teaching will be like in the fall?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2020

      Sheltering in place is definitely going to happen longer for me than for most of the rest of the human race! As to teaching: we don’t know yet, except that classes over 50 will definitely not be allowed to meet for lectures; those will need to be online.

  19. Avatar
    jackejohn  May 16, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Thank you for sharing this again.
    I will be heading to PTS for my MDiv this fall, with hopes of eventually becoming a NT scholar. I just recently discovered your blog and became a member. I just graduated from undergrad, where I studied religion with a focus on biblical studies and biblical languages. While I have talked with many profs about Ph.D. work, it is always great to hear scholars’ inside scoop on the trade.

    I found your Ph.D. dissertation topic most interesting. I was astonished and excited when I read that you studied Didymus the Blind and his commentaries. In my first upper-level religion course, history of Christianity, I decided to write my final paper on Didymus the Blind. Didymus was randomly told to me by one of my professors as a church father that he didn’t know what much about but seemed interesting. I loved learning about him and still love it when I hear scholars talk (or even know) about him. While others might never read your first book, for me, it will likely be the first one I order.

    Thanks,
    Jackson

    • Bart
      Bart  May 17, 2020

      Good luck at PTS! Take lots of Greek and Hebrew, and try to get Latin or Coptic or Syriac! My book will not be of much interest to you if what you are mainly interested in is Didymus’s theology, writings, life, etc. It’s a pretty narrow focuse! Good luck with your studies.

      • Avatar
        marmstrong45243@yahoo.com  May 28, 2020

        +
        I spend many years in pursuit of a PHD in the sixties.I got up to the dissertation stage,but could not break into academia.The use of so many adjuncts Is terrible.Why should very educated people Have to live so marginally.I turned to business where my education helped me to have a lifestyle that reflected years of study.
        Idid what you advised someone by making History my Avocation!Doing what we love especially today seldom now works out in non vocational studies.Ed

        • Bart
          Bart  May 29, 2020

          Yeah, I know. And the use of adjuncts is seriously on the rise. It’s a very, very difficult job market. And the current crisis will be creating huge havoc with it….

          • Avatar
            marmstrong45243@yahoo.com  May 29, 2020

            Agree.Unfortunate.Drives many from Academia!!

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