I continue here my series from long ago about what it’s like to be a research scholar at a research university. In this post I described what it takes to get the qualifications in the first place. (The only thing I would probably change today, ten years after writing this post, is that university positions in the humanities are so difficult to find these days that you REALLY REALLY need to love doing the graduate work, because in many cases it will not lead to a career option. Still… it *does* happen!), Here’s how MY PhD in New Testament Studies happened.
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 Seminary 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 in New Testament Studies 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, six, or more years; in part I was 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.
My dissertation was on the Gospel quotations in the writings of Didymus the Blind. It’s a bit difficult to explain what it was all about. My interest was in knowing how scribes had modified their copies of the New Testament over the centuries, and in particular in seeing where and how and when they changed the text. It is hard to gather that kind of information simply by consulting manuscripts (i.e., the ancient hand-written copies), since these almost never tell you exactly when or where they were copied. But the church fathers who quote the NT can be precisely located, in most instances, in time and place. By examining a church father’s quotations of the text, you can, in theory, reconstruct the manuscripts that he had at his disposal, and so can establish how the text appeared then and there.
Didymus lived in Alexandria, Egypt near the end of the fourth century. His writings had long been lost, but a group of biblical commentaries that he wrote (well: dictated, since he was blind!) turned up at the end of WWII in Egypt. These had recently been published. I combed through all these commentaries and isolated every quotation Didymus made of the Gospels. I then compared carefully his quotations with a couple of dozen Greek and Latin manuscripts of the New Testament, in order to see which ones he most closely resembled. Using a statistical model of analysis, I tried to demonstrate what the text of the NT looked like in his time and place, in relation to other witnesses to the text.
This was important to do because scholars have long held that the text of the NT was copied with particular care and precision precisely in Alexandria (for complicated reasons), and our two best witnesses to the text (codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) are commonly referred to as “Alexandrian.”
I don’t need to go into the details of my findings here; they were eventually published as my first book Didymus the Blind and the Text of of the Gospels. (When people tell me that they have read “all” my books, I’m often tempted to ask how they enjoyed that first one…..).
It was while I was finishing my dissertation that I began teaching full time at Rutgers, where I taught for four years before moving to UNC Chapel Hill in 1988.
Again, in many ways my training is typical of someone in the field of biblical studies or the history of early Christianity. In sum: after my bachelor’s degree I had seven years of full-time and intense study. Many of my colleagues took several years longer to finish their degrees. All of us have learned French and German, and often one or more other modern language of scholarship. In my field scholars typically have three ancient languages, or more (sometimes many more) to get a PhD in New Testament Studies
My own students at UNC typically learn Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and either Syriac or Coptic (or both). Some of them learn yet other languages, like Ethiopic (for the study of Christianity in other ancient cultures). As I did, they typically take several years of seminars, followed by PhD exams (these are bears: they require lengthy bibliographies of scholarship on set topics, and students often study for them for six months to a year), and then a dissertation. If students are extremely diligent, they can complete their programs maybe six or seven years after finishing their undergraduate degrees, working at it full time.
It seems strange to a lot of people who are not in this academic field that it should take so much work – and so many years – to get the necessary qualifications to be considered a professional scholar. But so it goes. An expert in New Testament, or Hebrew Bible, or early Christianity, or religion in late antiquity, and so on is not simply someone who has a keen interest in the field. It is someone who has done the hard work, learned the languages, read the scholarship, come to know the history of the discipline, and produced cutting edge scholarship that advances our knowledge. In this the field of early Christian studies is like virtually all of the other academic disciplines. It requires serious academic discipline, and it is not for the faint of heart!
Undergraduate students often ask me advice about doing a PhD. My advice is almost always the same. You’d be crazy to do it unless you absolutely love doing the academic work and can’t imagine doing something else. Otherwise, it’s simply too painful. But for people who do embrace the intellectual life, who feel completely driven to follow their academic passions, the gain involved in getting a PhD (and then in publishing as a young scholar to get tenure, and so on) is absolutely worth the pain. And being able to teach at a research university is one of the greatest careers one can imagine – but only if one is completely caught up in the life of the mind and willing to do all the endless hours of hard work needed in order to sustain life of research and teaching.
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