The most obvious activity that professional scholars engage in is research, and the most obvious way research becomes known to a wider public is through publication. In some fields of inquiry (most of the sciences), the academic journal is the principal area of significant publication. In other fields (most of the humanities), academic books matter even more. But even in the humanities scholar typically publish in both venues. Books take a lot longer to write, but articles play an extremely important role both in disseminating knowledge – the results of research – and in providing grounds for a scholar’s academic tenure and promotion.
The articles that scholars write – when they are writing as research scholars – are not the sort of thing that you would find in Time Magazine or Newsweek. Every field has its own set of academic, peer-reviewed journals (there are a large number in biblical studies in the U.S. and Europe); and every scholar who is active in his or her field or research publishes in them. These are not journals that lay people would want to read or, in most cases, be able to understand. (Just as I myself would not understand the articles that appear in academic journals in unrelated fields – biology, anthropology, or philosophy, e.g.) They are, as a rule, highly technical venues of publication in which authors presuppose a great deal of background knowledge. This is not only true of the hard sciences, but of all fields. It is true in the fields of Biblical Studies and of Early Christian History. Among other things, these journals presuppose that their readers can handle the ancient languages about which scholarship is concerned (Greek, Hebrew, There are a number of peer-reviewed journals in both fields.
“Peer-reviewed” is an important term. It means that any article that is submitted to the journal for publication is read, evaluated, and judged by (anonymous) experts – established scholars, usually senior — in the field, to determine whether it is worthy of publication. That determination is based on a large number of factors: the quality of the research (is this top-rate or second-rate scholarship?), the persuasiveness of the argument (is there sufficient evidence and logic behind the conclusions?), the novelty of the thesis (is this something everyone already knows already, or does it advance our knowledge?), the level of the discourse (is this written for top-rate scholars or would it appeal instead to beginners?), and so on.
Getting an article published in a major peer-reviewed journal is a major desideratum for any young scholar trying to break into the world of publication. In many instances, a beginning assistant professor – say, someone who has just graduated from a PhD program and has now started to teach at the college or university level – will be told by his or her department chair or tenure committee that in order to be rewarded tenure, over the next six years s/he is expected to publish not only a book (often the dissertation, revised), but also five or six peer-reviewed articles in the top journals in her field. This is a gargantuan task (on top of teaching, administrative service, and so on). It is amazing any of us gets through it.
Articles in New Testament and early Christianity can be of varying length, but typically I suppose a good solid article would be between 7000 and 10,000 words in length. Writing one of these a year is tough. It assumes not only the ability to write, but the ability to do original research. It is a foregone conclusion that any article will be written by someone already expert in the ancient languages, and that the author has read all of the relevant scholarship on the topic not just in English but in other European languages as well.
I have written a large number of articles over the years for academic journals – as well as for non-academic journals (but these latter don’t count at a research university when a faculty member comes up for tenure and promotion). My earliest ones encapsulated research I had done when still a graduate student. One of these (co-authored with another graduate student friend) tried to mount a full and new argument that the passage on Luke 22:43-44 where Jesus is in deep agony before his arrest and “sweat great drops as if of blood” was not originally found in the Gospel of Luke, but was added by scribes in the second century. I still think so. Another one argued that scholars had long been wrong in thinking that the twenty-seven book canon of the New Testament was more or less “fixed” by the end of the fourth century in Alexandrian, Egypt (with the work of the famous bishop Athanasius); I showed that a prominent figure in the church there at that time, Didymus the Blind, in fact had a slightly different set of books that he considered canonical.
My articles over the years have advanced a wide variety of arguments: one argued that the Story of the Woman Taken in Adultery was originally two different stories that came to be conflated by the fourth century, before being inserted by scribes in the Gospel of John; one argued that Cephas and Peter were in fact two different people; others argued for or against the way different texts of the New Testament were originally worded; still others dealt with ancient and modern Christian forgeries.
These days I rarely write articles, as I am in the unusual situation of focusing almost all my work on the writing of books (well, and blogging!). But articles are supremely important for most scholars, as they were for me earlier in my career. They are one of the principal avenues for the dissemination and advancement of knowledge and writing them consumes a good deal of most scholars’ research time.