I saw my master’s thesis as the perfect assignment to get me grounded in the entire, complicated field of New Testament textual criticism. Ever since then I’ve been in favor of students writing master’s theses, even if it is not required for a master’s program. For one thing, doing so gets you into the frame of mind that you need to be in when you get to the point of writing a dissertation at the PhD level – which for most students is the first time they write a book. The masters thesis is usually much shorter – say 100-120 pages. But the layout tends to be similar. Most theses I’ve been involved with, including my own, have entailed an introduction, three chapters, and a conclusion. So the student learns to think in terms of writing chapters, each of which has its own thesis and point; but all of them work together in order systematically to set forth the overarching thesis of the work. This is a hard transition for some students, who for their entire lives have only written term papers, of say 15-20 pages in length, course after course, and have never had to write a piece of sustained research with chapters. It’s very difficult to conceptualize a larger project first time around for a lot of people. For some it continues to be hard.
The other reason doing the thesis was so great for me was that the topic itself forced me to read, think about, and evaluate the great classics in the field of New Testament textual criticism, almost all of them Germans and Brits: John Mill, J. A. Bengel, Bentley, Wettstein, Griesbach, Lachmann, Tregelles, Tischendorf, Westcott, Hort, Streeter, Lake, Kenyon, Colwell, Fee and so on. I read their works (regrettably, some were not in English) and came away with a detailed knowledge of the development of the field of textual criticism from the early 18th century to the present. This was just what I wanted, knowing that I wanted to do my PhD dissertation in the field, in some highly specialized area of it. To do something specialized, you need to know the whole discipline, or else you’re so narrow as to be of no use to anyone.
My thesis — “New Testament Textual Criticism: Quest for Methodology” — won the Senior Prize in New Testament at Princeton Seminary. It was a prize that my teacher, Bruce Metzger, had won some 40 years earlier. I might point out (somewhat to my chagrin at the time) that the monetary award for winning the prize — $1000 – while nice money for me at that stage of my impoverished existence – was exactly the amount Metzger had won four decades earlier. For him it would have been a *huge* amount….
Once I finished my MDiv, I….
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