My favorite professor in graduate school once told me he thought that PhDs in New Testament were over-trained for what they had to do. I had finished my degree at the time and was heading off to an on-campus interview at Notre Dame, which was looking for a faculty member who was an expert in Pauline studies. They had a number of other biblical scholars there, but wanted to fill a gap in their curriculum and wanted someone with a specialization in Paul. I didn’t consider myself a Pauline scholar in particular – at the time my research was in analyzing and classifying the Greek manuscript tradition of the New Testament, and even though I had fairly extensive training in Pauline studies, it wasn’t at all my expertise. My professor was telling me to relax: I was more than enough qualified.
Looking back, I think he had a point – not about me as a Pauline scholar (in the end they offered me the position, but I turned it down for the offer from UNC) – but about New Testament scholars in particular. It’s a *lot* of training, and probably more than the job in the end demands in some ways. But certainly not in others.
I got through my PhD program in four years (which was fast. I was in a hurry, as usual). But that was after I had done a master’s program focusing on biblical studies for three years (which itself came after five years of college, more than half of which focused on biblical studies). And my program wasn’t unusual. At UNC, most students take five or six years for their PhDs, and almost always they come in only after having done a two-year masters somewhere else, sometimes with two separate masters in two different places.
Part of the reason it takes so long is
If you’d like to read more, join the blog. You get five posts a week with archives going back ten years! Click here for membership options the languages. I have friends from high school who did PhD’s in other fields and finished two years ahead of me; but they didn’t have to learn even modern languages, let alone a few ancient ones. It takes time.
But even so, most PhDs in biblical studies spend their careers teaching undergraduates, and the very deep research skills they develop over all the years of graduate study are probably more than they need. In part that’s because the training in this field, like so many, is deep rather than broad.
I don’t think it’s *possible* to be over-trained in some fields, especially in many of the sciences. I’ve been reading popular books (that mere mortals can comprehend) about astrophysics. Oh BOY am I glad that there are some mind-blowing experts out there who can communicate with us Neanderthals. I’m right now reading Katie Mack, The End of Everything; absolutely fantastic. But when she says that to provide the actual evidence of what astrophysicists know about, say, the effect of virtual particles on the entropy of a black hole would take about two semesters of lectures just to get this single point – I take almost no convincing.
With all fields, from astrophysics to New Testament, there needs to be a balance between learning enough to do what one needs to do professionally (whether teach or research) and not being overtrained to do what one needs to do.
My view is that traditional programs in biblical studies make a very big mistake in providing training that is far too deep in one way and way too thin in another.
In terms of depth, I give one example: in the second year of my PhD program I took a semester-long PhD seminar with an extremely learned New Testament scholar whom we all adored and revered, Paul Meyer, on the Greek exegesis of 1 Peter. (“Greek exegesis” means interpretive analysis based on the Greek text.) 1 Peter is only five chapters long. You can read it in a 5-10 minutes and if you’re alert and sober will probably come away with a pretty good idea what it’s about – especially if you read it four or five times carefully. But an entire semester course on it?
Yup. And the semester was PACKED with information and work. How packed? We worked so intensely on every verse, sentence, phrase, and word that by the end of the semester, we had gotten through THREE chapters. Never got to chs. 4-5. Seriously.
Now that kind of training is not actually JUST about learning about 1 Peter. It is even more about developing research skills that can be applied across the board to all the books of the New Testament. So it was deep. But it was not broad.
As to breadth: for many traditional New Testament programs, students are pretty much left on our own if they want to acquire extensive knowledge about, say, the other important Christian writings at the time, the Apostolic Fathers, the Apocryphal writings, Gnosticism and other forms of early Christianity, the church fathers of the first four centuries, the (extensive) Jewish writings of the second temple period, Greek and Roman classics and writers at the time of early Christianity, Roman and Hellenistic philosophy, and … well, it’s a long list.
When I came to UNC, the PhD program was set up on a different model from the one I was trained in (and which continues to be the model for most programs). We do not have a New Testament program per se. Students interested in the New Testament study are in the field of Ancient Mediterranean Religions (which includes Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Judaism, Archaeology, and Christianity roughly up to the fourth century). When they study the NT it is in relation to other early Christian literature – not as a set of 27 books that are specially set apart from everything else.
That is, the New Testament is *some* of the early Christian literature and is studied that way. And the early Christian literature is explored as one part of the early Christian movement, which has to be studied historically, not just on the basis of its literary texts. And to study the early Christian movement means understanding it relationship to the religions, cultures, and history of its environment – not just Jewish literature and history but the literature and history of the Greeks and Romans. And these things have to be studied not as *background* to the New Testament but in their own right; only when they are understood on their own can they be put into relationship with something else (the NT).
It is, of course, IMPOSSIBLE to become expert in all this. But my view is that — especially in the Humanities — knowing a lot about a lot of things is better than knowing a CRAZY amount about far fewer things. It’s a big world out there, and none of it is in isolation from everything else. In our program, students get a lot of breadth (compared to other programs), and develop a specific area of depth (especially in their dissertation); we think this makes them better scholars and more prepared teachers.
At the end of the day, I think I’m glad I got the deep training I did. But I also regret not being trained more broadly. I do have to admit, though, that at the time, I had zero interest in being trained more broadly. I was a New Testament guy. Luckily I’ve been in a position that has allowed me to expand over the years, and like the known universe, the possibilities of expansion appear to be inexhaustible and I’m happy to go there. And I think it’s too bad none of us has another 4-5 billion years to do so (that is, before the sun wipes us all out). [/mepr-show