In addition to serving on an editorial board and participating, chiefly, in reading and evaluating journal submissions for publication, there is the task – a far more onerous, time consuming, and significant task – of editing a journal. I have never had the desire to be the chief editor of a major journal; like a lot of my colleagues, I see my contributions to the field coming in from other directions. But I have been an associate editor and have seen what editing a journal involves first hand. It involves a lot.
The editor has numerous jobs and responsibilities. All submissions comes to the editor, who decides on which established scholar(s) should evaluate them for possible publication (the peer-review process). The editor normally has the final say, based on a careful reading of the article and of the readers’ reports. The editor is responsible for putting together each issue of the journal, deciding what can fit in and when each article should appear. (Normally, from the time an article is accepted for publication until it appears, it takes an entire year!)
I have been an associate editor for both the Journal of Biblical Literature (which is the main publication of the Society of Biblical Literature, the major professional organization of those who teach Biblical studies at the college/university/seminary level) and the Journal of Early Christian Studies. In the case of the former, I was the Book Review Editor, for five years in the 1990s. That was an editorial job that took a lot of work. Every book published in the field of biblical studies would be sent to me (as you can imagine, there are hundreds a year.) I would decide whether the book was a significant contribution to the field, and if so I would find an expert in the area (whatever the area was: the interpretation of Matthew, the formation of the canon, the biography of Paul, the manuscript tradition of Revelation – whatever the field, and there are obviously dozens of fields!) and ask him/her to review the book.
Book reviews appeared in every issue of the journal, maybe ten or twelve each time. The reviews were published evaluations of the book, written so readers could get a sense of the thesis and argument of the book and of its overall quality. Some reviews are gushing, some are harsh, most are somewhere in between. Once I received a review, I would have to edit it – both in terms of style and substance (as necessary), before allowing it to get the queue for publication. While serving as book review editor, I put in many, many hours every week on the job. On the upside, during those years I was reading about every significant book published in the field of biblical studies!
Another kind of editorial work commonly undertaken by scholars in the field involves editing articles submitted for encyclopedias. There are lots of notable encyclopedias available having to do with religion generally and biblical studies more specifically. Several years ago I was asked to be an “area editor” for a major undertaking called the Encyclopedia of Ancient History, to appear in print and also on line. The project was breath-taking in scope. There were “area editors” for all aspects of the ancient Western (mainly) worlds: politics, history, economy, military, social life, and on and on.
I was asked to be the area editor for early Christianity (which included the New Testament and Christian history for the first three hundred years or so). In that capacity, I came up with about 200 articles that needed to be written on various Christian books, figures, and events of the time, and then to find scholars to write each of the articles, which were to range from 400 to 2000 words, depending on the relative importance of the topic. Once the articles were written, I had to edit each one for both style and substance, and then submit them to the editor-in-chief for inclusion in the Encyclopedia, which hopefully will appear later this year. This was another job that kept me hopping, involving probably five or six hours, on average, a week for probably a couple of years.
I have had other editorial jobs over the past three decades, but this is enough to convey the point. This is simply something scholars do. It rarely involves any glory or conveys any status. But scholars who are committed to their field of study realize that editorial work is absolutely essential, as we try to generate and promote knowledge in our fields. It is often a thankless, but almost always a much needed, service to the discipline.