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Provenance of Aquila OT Genizah Manuscripts

In a recent article Edmon Gallagher has queried the widely-shared assumption that the manuscripts of Aquila’s translation of the OT attested among the Cairo Genizah fragments come from Jewish copyists.  Instead (or at least as plausibly), he contends, they may well be Christian copies acquired by Jewish readers, much later over-written with Hebrew texts, and so eventually in the Cairo Genizah:

Edmon L. Gallaher, “The Religious Provenance of the Aquila Manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah,” Journal of Jewish Studies 64 (2013): 283-305.

Where these manuscripts of Aquila’s translation came from is in itself an intriguing question, of course.  For me, however, there is an additional reason to be interested, and that has to do with the continuing questions about the origins and significance of the ancient copyist practice known as the “nomina sacra.”  These are shortened forms of certain key words, typically with a horizontal stroke placed over them, the earliest and most consistently treated words = θεος (“God”), κυριος (“Lord”), Ιησους (“Jesus”), and Χριστος (“Christ”).  (For a fuller discussion, see my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, pp. 95-134.)

The Aquila fragments (portions of 1 Kings and 2 Kings) usually render the Hebrew divine name (“Tetragrammaton,” YHWH) in an attempt at palaeo-Hebrew characters (bearing in mind that the rest of the text is Greek), nine times by my count.  This is a practice attested much earlier as well (e.g., the remnants of a Greek scroll of the Minor Prophets, 8HevXIIgr, and the remnants of a Greek copy of Job, P.Oxy. 3522).  In contrast, the ancient Christian practice was to render YHWH with the nomina sacra form of Kyrios (e.g., ΚΣ, ΚΥ, etc.).

So, because of this, plus the discovery of these fragments in a synagogue genizah, most scholars have presumed that the manuscripts of Aquila from which the extant fragments come were likely produced by Jewish copyists.  But there have always been some curiosities that have made people scratch their heads a bit.

First, the manuscripts were obviously codices, the bookform early preferred by Christians in particular.  Now, to be sure, by the likely time that the Aquila manuscripts were copied (ca. 5th-6th century CE), the codex was becoming more and more preferred generally.  On the other hand, identifiably Jewish copies of biblical writings in codex form are hard to find much earlier than the 8th century CE.

Second, there are a couple of other copyist devices that seem curious.  The more well-known one is the single instance where YHWH is written as ΚΥ (and with the horizontal stroke above it typical of nomina sacra, fol. 2v, col. 1, line 15).  In addition (and less frequently mentioned), the word “Israel” is written in a nomina sacra form in all three occurrences.  These nomina sacra forms are much more typical of Christian copyist practice (indeed, scholars would typically take instances as themselves evidence that a given fragment likely comes from a Christian copyist).  So, are these nomina sacra forms evidence that the practice was at some point also taken up by some Jewish copyists?

Possibly.  But one additional thing to note:  The palaeo-Hebrew representations of YHWH aren’t done very skilfully.  E.g., whoever wrote them seems unable to distinguish between the Hebrew letters yod and vav.  Now, it’s possible that by the 5th/6th century a Jewish copyist had such a difficulty.  But it’s also possible that a non-Jewish copyist making a copy of a Jewish manuscript of Aquila’s translation tried to copy YHWH in palaeo-Hebrew characters, “drawing” them, so to speak, and not quite getting it right.

This would fit with the other data mentioned: The one lonely instance of the nomina sacra form, ΚΥ, a case where the copyist reached the end of a line and, without sufficient space on that line to write the palaeo-Hebrew YHWH, reverted to his usual practice of rendering it in the nomina sacra form for Κυριος?  Also the instance of “Israel” written in nomina sacra form could, then, further indicate a Christian copyist.

We know for sure that there are Christian manuscripts attested among the Cairo Genizah fragments:  palimpsests in which the under-writing is portions of the Gospels of Matthew and John, Acts and 1 Peter in Greek, and fragments of NT writings in a few other languages as well (bibliographical references here).  So, it wouldn’t be strange at all that copies of Aquila derived from Christian copyists were acquired as well.  In addition, the Genizah fragments include remnants of manuscripts of various NT writings in various translations, as noted by Friedrich Niessen, “New Testament Translations from the Cairo Genizah,” Collectanea Christiana Orientalia 6 (2009): 201-22.

As Gallagher grants, we can’t really settle this matter sufficiently to exclude totally either possibility.  But I agree with him that there are good reasons for treating seriously the option that the Aquila manuscript later used as a palimpsest in the Cairo synagogue may well have been a copy made by a Christian copyist.  In any case, the uncertainty about the matter should caution scholars about citing these fragments as any strong evidence for Jewish copyist practices.  In particular, it seems to me perilous to use the Aquila fragments as evidence that the nomina sacra originated as a Jewish scribal practice.

Oh, one more observation.  It appears that the Aquila Greek manuscript dates from the 5th-6th century CE, and then was over-written with a Hebrew text that is dated several centuries later.  This is another indication that ancient manuscripts could have a rather long life-usage, a point made by George Houston and on which I posted some time back here.

NT Texts in the Cairo Genizah: Bibliographical References

I’ve now got some further bibliographical references relating to my posting yesterday about NT manuscripts among the material from the Cairo Genizah.

(With thanks to Bill Yarchin for these initial ones):

Michael Sokoloff & Joseph Yahalom, “Christian Palimpsests from the Cairo Genizah,” Revue de l’histoire des textes 8 (1978): 109-32.

Natalie Tchernetska, “Greek-Oriental Palimpsests in Cambridge:  Problems and Prospects,” in Literacy, Education and Manuscript Transmission in Byzanitum and Beyond, eds. C. Holmes & J. Waring (Leiden:  Brill, 2002), 243-56.

Nicholas de Lange, “Jewish Transmission of Greek Bible Versions,” in XIII Congress of the Interenational Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Ljubljana, 2007, ed. Melvin K. H. Peters (Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Liteature, 2007), 109-17.


In addition, I offer the following online resources on various matters:

Friedrich Niessen, “New Testament Translations from the Cairo Genizah,” surveying the various translations evidenced in the Genizah fragments:  here.

A bibliography of publications on the Cairo Genizah listed by the Cambridge University Library:  here.

Stefan Reif reporting on the discovery of some 350 manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah in Geneva in 2006:  here.

New Testament Texts in the Cairo Genizah

In the course of checking up on some details pertaining to another matter, I’ve come across a fascinating item:  Copies of NT texts among the many fragments of material from the ancient Cairo “Genizah”.  I confess that, although these items were published over a century ago, I didn’t know about them.

The publication I’ve only recently come to know is this one:  Hebrew-Greek Cairo Genizah Palimpsests from the Taylor-Schechter Collection, Including a Fragment of the Twenty-Second Psalm according to Origen’s Hexapla, ed. Charles Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1900).

The term “Genizah” (alternate spelling, Geniza) refers to a kind of storeroom in ancient synagogues where worn out manuscripts were placed.  So, e.g., the Cairo Genizah contained masses of largely now-fragmentary manuscripts, which are now in Cambridge (where there has been a major project to identify, study and publish them).

“Palimpsests” are manuscripts in which one text was written over a previous text.  The NT texts in question are the “under-writing” and the later “over-writing” is one or another Hebrew texts (e.g., portions of the rabbinic text, Bereshith Rabbah) The under-writing in these fragments includes portions of Matthew 10, John 20, Acts 24, and just a few bits of 1 Peter.

Intriguing questions immediately form, such as these:  What is the provenance of the NT manuscripts that were acquired and then re-used at some later point?  Why were they acquired, likely by members of the ancient Cairo Genizah?

The Greek of the NT texts was written in remarkably fine “majuscule” (capital) letters, and was dated palaeographically to the late 5th or early 6th century CE.  Taylor proposed that the original codex from which the Gospel fragments come “must have been an Evangelisterium [liturgical Gospel book] or other Lectionary” (p. 89).   The copy of Acts and 1 Peter may have been part of another codex (Acts was typically copied with the “Catholic” epistles in ancient manuscripts).

Did the synagogue acquire copies of NT writings to get acquainted with them for purposes of dialogue and/or debate?

As well as these NT texts, Taylor’s slim volume also includes transcriptions and analyses of fragments of another palimpsest in which the under-writing is Psalm 22, perhaps remnants of what was originally a full Greek Psalter, and still another palimpsest whose under-writing was some of the Psalms according to the Greek Version by Aquila (made in the 2nd century CE).   A few years earlier, F. C. Burkitt had published another slim volume giving transcriptions of fragments of 1-2 Kings in the Aquila Version:  Fragments of the Books of Kings according to the Translation of Aquila, from a MS. formerly in the Geniza at Cairo Now in the Possession of C. Taylor D.D. Master of St. John’s College and S. Schechter D.Litt. University Reader in Talmudic Literature (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1898).

To return to the fragments with portions of NT texts, it’s clear that they are Christian copies of these texts, readily reflected in the “nomina sacra” forms at points (e.g., ΤΟΝ ΚΝ ["the Lord"] at John 20:11, and ΧΝ ΙΝ ["Christ Jesus"] at Acts 24:24).

By contrast, the Greek of the Psalms has the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) rendered as  “ΠΙΠΙ” (“pipi”) in the fragments of Origen’s Hexapla, and in the fragments of Acquila’s Version of the Psalms YHWH is consistently written in archaic Hebrew characters.  Further, in the one preserved instance of θεος (“theos“) in Psa 91:2 (LXX 90:2), it is written in full (i.e., not as a nomen sacrum).  These data suggest a derivation from Jewish copyists, who didn’t typically use the apparently Christian innovation of the nomina sacra.    (I’ve given a list of nomina sacra in an item by this name under the “Selected Published Essays” tab on this blog site.  For a fuller discussion, see my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, pp. 95-134.)

I’d be grateful if readers know of scholarly publications on the items published in the two volumes I’ve mentioned.  The two books themselves are now available in cheap reprint editions.


Scholarship for a Wider Public

At a special day-symposium, “How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?” for the general public a week or so ago, one attendee rightly complained to me that so little of biblical scholarship gets disseminated to a wider public.  Well, one effort that I’ve made is an eight-part video series, “Devotion to Jesus: The Divinity of Christ in Earliest Christianity,” produced and distributed by the Wesley Ministry Network.

This DVD format series is intended for a general public and comes with accompanying study booklet, discussion topics/questions, and guidance for using the material as part of a short-term study series.

More information on the Wesley Ministry Network and the various courses available is available here.

You can watch the first lesson in my own course on Youtube here.

PhD Studies: A Recent Guide for Applicants

Further to my earlier posting about PhD programmes in the USA and the UK here, I notice a recent book written for potential applicants (and aspiring scholars) with special reference to New Testament:  Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond, by Nijay K. Gupta (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011).

Gupta is himself a recent PhD and recently successful both in publishing a book from his PhD thesis and in obtaining an academic post.  So, in general, he is well informed and able to advise prospective applicants.  But also see the review (which raises a couple of critical points) here.

Also, a few years back doctoral students in American and UK PhD programmes wrote essays about their experiences that were published on the Society of Biblical Literature web site here.


Jesus in Earliest Christian Prayer

I’ve received news that the multi-author volume has been published in which my essay, “The Place of Jesus in Earliest Christian Prayer and its Import for Early Christian Identity,” appears:  Early Christian Prayer and Identity Formation, eds. Reidar Hvalvik & Karl Olav Sandnes (Tuebingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 2014).  I’ve placed the pre-publication version on this blog site under the “Selected Essays” tab.

I’m pleased to have been invited to take part in the project from which this volume emerged, and honoured to be include with the other fine scholars in the volume.  Here are the contributions:

REIDAR HVALVIK and KARL OLAV SANDNES, “Early Christian Prayer and Identity Formation: Introducing the Project2

MIKAEL TELLBE, “Identity and Prayer”

LARRY HURTADO “The Place of Jesus in Earliest Christian Prayer and its Import for Early Christian Identity”

REIDAR HVALVIK, “Praying with Outstretched Hands: Nonverbal Aspects of Early Christian Prayer and the Question of Identity”

GEIR OTTO HOLMÅS, “Prayer, ‘Othering’ and the Construction of Early Christian Identity in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke”

MIKAEL TELLBE, “Prayer and Social Identity Formation in the Letter to the Ephesians”

ANNA REBECCA SOLEVÅG, “Prayer in Acts and the Pastoral Epistles: Intersections of Gender and Class”

OLE JACOB FILTVEDT, “With Our Eyes Fixed on Jesus: The Prayers of Jesus and His Followers in Hebrews”

CRAIG R. KOESTER, “Heavenly Prayer and Christian Identity in the Book of Revelation”

KARL OLAV SANDNES, “The First Prayer”: Pater Noster in the Early Church”

HANS KVALBEIN, “The Lord’s Prayer and the Eucharist Prayers in the Didache”

REIDAR AASGAARD, “What point is there for me in other people hearing my confessions?” Prayer and Christian Identity in Augustine’s Confessions

ANASTASIA MARAVELA, “Christians Praying in a Graeco-Egyptian Context: Intimations of Christian Identity in Greek Papyrus Prayers”

NICLAS FÖRSTER, “Prayer in the Valentinian Apolytrosis: A Case Study on Gnostic Identity”

GLENN WEHUS, “Bring Now, O Zeus, What Difficulty Thou Wilt.” Prayer and Identity Formation in the Stoic Philosopher Epictetus

REIDAR HVALVIK and KARL OLAV SANDNES, “Prayer and Identity Formation: Attempts at a Synthesis”

 The publisher’s online catalogue entry on the book is here.

More on Acts of the Apostles

Further to my posting yesterday on Acts of the Apostles, a few more notes about recent scholarly work, and also about the earliest manuscript evidence.

The uniqueness of Acts raises the question why/how someone conceived it and wrote it.  It’s a major literary product, and so would have required some considerable thought and effort.  The Gospels show that in the early period various people thought it worthwhile to write narratives of Jesus’ ministry, but apparently only the author of Acts thought it important to write that sort of consecutive account of Christian origins.

What role did Acts play, and how was it used in the earliest period after its release?  For a recent study of the early “reception” of Acts:  Andrew Gregory, The Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period Before Irenaeus (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003).  Note also his article:  Andrew Gregory, “The Reception of Luke and Acts and the Unity of Luke-Acts.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29 (2007): 459-72.

I’m not entirely confident in some of his judgements expressed in his book, however.  In particular, I think he buys too readily (pp. 27-28) William Petersen’s claim (similar to one made by Helmut Koester) that the early manuscripts extant are all the product of a late 2nd century “recension” and so give us scant insight into the state of the text of NT writings before that.  Gregory gives (therefore?) only the briefest treatment of the manuscript evidence (pp. 307-8), citing P45 (P.Chester Beatty I) as “the earliest extant manuscript of Acts which allows for firm textual evaluation” (308 n. 50), expressing uncertainty about P29, P38 (“P38 appears to be Western in character . . . as also does P48″).

But I rather suspect that the late 2nd-century CE recension posited by Petersen & Koester is a phantom.  What ecclesiastical structure in the 2nd century CE was there to carry out such a project and, more importantly, to secure its widescale success in supposedly suppressing the allegedly “wild” state of the NT text of the 2nd century?  Certainly, we should be consider all possibilities, but sound historical method surely requires us to chasten our hypotheses with the extant evidence.

And when we look at that evidence (i.e., particularly the earliest manuscript data) we don’t actually get the impression of either a “wild” state of textual transmission or a fixed recension.  Instead, in the case of practically any of the NT writings for which we have early manuscript evidence (i.e., from the 2nd/3rd centuries CE), what we seem to see is a certain spectrum of transmission practices (which argues against a recension), but a spectrum that doesn’t exhibit the alleged “wildness” either.

I described this in an essay published several years ago: Larry W. Hurtado, “The New Testament in the Second Century: Text, Collections and Canon,” in Transmission and Reception: New Testament Text-Critical and Exegetical Studies, eds. J. W. Childers & D. C. Parker (Piscataway, N.J.:  Gorgias Press, 2006), 3-27.  The pre-publication version of that essay is on this blog-site here.

One of the things I pointed out in that essay is the fallacy in arguments about the supposed state of the text of NT writings based on “citations” in early Christian writers.  There was a clear/demonstrable difference between the conventions followed in the Roman era for citing/using a text and the conventions followed in copying a text.  The fallacy is in ignoring this and assuming that the freedom exercised often in ancient citations of texts is direct evidence of a supposedly equal freedom exercised in copying that text.

To return to Acts, however, I list the manuscripts dated palaeographically to the period roughly pre-300 CE in the appendix to my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (esp. p. 220).  These include (to cite them using the Gregory-Aland system) 0189 (from a parchment codex), P91, P53, P38, and P48 and P29 (these last two dated 3rd/4th century CE, i.e., 300 CE +/- ca. 25 yrs).  But, so far as Acts is concerned (at least thus far), the “jewel in the crown” among early manuscripts is surely the Chester Beatty codex, P45 (mid-3rd century CE).

P45 is perhaps more often cited as the earliest clear instance of a 4-Gospel codex.  But it is also noteworthy for the inclusion of Acts with the four Gospels in one book.  For, in other (albeit later) manuscripts Acts was more typically connected with NT epistles, apparently read as a kind of narrative framework for them.  But in P45, apparently, Acts serves as the continuation-narrative of the Gospels, in a sense carrying the ministry of Jesus forward in the establishment of the early church.  This means that P45 is not only an important witness to the text of Acts, but is also a noteworthy witness to one early reading/usage of Acts.  (For a set of studies on P45 and some issues to which it relates, see:  The Earliest Gospels:  The Origins and Transmission of the Earliest Christian Gospels–The Contribution of the Chester Beatty Gospel Codex P45, ed. Charles Horton (London:  T&T Clark, 2004).


Acts of the Apostles: A Continuing/Renewed Focus

The arrival today of the third massive volume in Craig Keener’s commentary on Acts (details below) is only the latest of a number of indications of intense scholarly interest in this remarkable early Christian text.  Acts of the Apostles is unique among known Christian texts of the three centuries in purporting to give a continuous narrative of early developments and figures in the first decades of the young Christian movement.  Scholarly questions about, and interest in, this major text continue, and have even received renewed attention in recent years.

This latest volume in Keener’s major commentary project on Acts weighs in at 1,155 pages, bringing the total page-count thus far to 3,348, taking his coverage through Acts 23:35.  Craig S. Keener, Acts:  An Exegetical Commentary.  Volume 3:  15:1–23:35 (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2014).  There is a fourth huge volume to come that will complete the set.

Over the years, Acts has been the focus of previous multi-volume projects.  Perhaps the most well-known is the still-important 5-volume work:  The Beginnings of Christianity: Part 1, The Acts of the Apostles, eds. F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake (London/New York:  Macmillan, 1920-1933).  This project included a volume on the “Jewish and Gentile Backgrounds,” another on key critical issues (e.g., authorship, date, etc.), a full volume on the text-critical issue (by J. H. Ropes), a volume of passage-by-passage commentary (by Lake and Cadbury), and a volume of “Additional Notes” that include some valuable studies of particular topics in Acts.

In the 1990s there appeared another multi-volume series with much to offer, The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting (published by Eerdmans):  Vol. 1, The Book of Acts in its Ancient Literary Setting, eds. Bruce Winter and Andrew Clarke (1993); Vol. 2, The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting, eds. David W.J. Gill & Conrad Gempf (1994); Vol. 3, The Book of Acts and Paul in Roman Custody, a monograph by Brian Rapske (1994); Vo. 4, The Book of Acts in Its Palestinian Setting, ed. Richard Bauckham (1995); and Vol. 5, The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting, another monograph, by Irina Levinskaya (1996).  A projected 6th volume appeared as a separate book:  Witness to the Gospel:  The Theology of Acts, ed. I. Howard Marshall (1998).

There is yet another large commentary project by Justin Taylor, Les acts des deux apôtres (vols 4-6 covering the full text of Acts, published by J. Gabalda, Paris).

I mentioned Acts as unique.  There were, certainly, other Christian writings that now bear the label “apocryphal acts,” but they tend to focus on one or another figure, are commonly thought to have emerged later than Acts of the Apostles, and at least some of them seem to be compilations of stories and smaller units of material, not having the character of Acts as a more unified narrative.  For a good entrée into these texts, see Hans-Josef Klauck, The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles:  An Introduction (Baylor University Press, 2008).  It is only with Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History (several editions ca. 290-325 CE) that we have another “joined-up” account of early Christianity.  Note the title of Daniel Marguerat’s monograph: Daniel G. The First Christian Historian: Writing the “Acts of the Apostles” (SNTSMS, 121; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Acts is still usually regarded as a second volume by the author of the Gospel of Luke, and these two work comprise a major literary project in themselves, amounting to about 25% of the entire NT.  The prefaces to Luke (1:1-4) and to Acts (1:1-5) reflect an author acquainted with and invoking literary conventions of his time.  (For a good introduction to the literary setting of the NT, David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, 1987.)

One of the major problems in the study of Acts is that there is significant variation in the form of its text.  In particular, Codex Bezae (a Greek-Latin manuscript of the 5th century CE) has a Greek text of Acts that is quite distinguishable from the more familiar text-form.  Often referred to as “the Western text” of Acts, as given in Codex Bezae it is about 12-14% larger, mainly due to longer variants at a number of points in the text.  Some have championed the kind of text we have in Bezae as closer to the “original” text, but most scholars continue to judge the more familiar “Alexandrian” kind of text as superior.  For some recent discussions of the matter, the following:  Peter Head, “Acts and the Problem of Its Texts,” in The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting, Volume 1: Ancient Literary Setting, eds. Bruce W. Winter and Andrew D. Clarke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 415-44; Christopher Tuckett, “The Early Text of Acts,” in The Early Text of the New Testament, eds. Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 157-74.  There is also a concise discussion of the matter in A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition, by Bruce M. Metzger (Stuttgart:  United Bible Societies, 1994), 222-36.

Other questions abound as well, such as what literary “genre” by which to characterize Acts, when to date it, even whether it was written by the author of Luke, the theological focus and purpose of Acts, its stance toward Jews, and still other matters.  Evidence of this continuing scholarly focus is the recent multi-author volume:  The Book of Acts As Church History. Apostelgeschichte als Kirchengeschichte: Text, Texttraditionen und antike Auslegungen, eds. Tobias Nicklas & M. Tilly (BZNW, 120; Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 2003), which has a number of excellent analyses of major issues.



“Texts and Traditions”: New Volume on NT

In an earlier posting (here), I mentioned the publication of an essay of mine in a new multi-author volume:  Texts and Traditions:  Essays in Honour of J. Keith Elliott (Leiden:  Brill, 2014), and in today’s mail I received my complimentary copy.  (The publisher’s online catalogue entry on the volume is here.

This allows me now to see the full line-up of contributors, and I’m honoured to be among such an impressive group.  These include Michael Holmes, David Parker, Jenny Read-Heimerdinger, James Kelhoffer, James Voeltz, Tijtze Baarda, Peter Doble, Jeffrey Kloha, Hugh Houghton, Holger Strutwolf, J. Lionel North, and Peter Head, all of whom have written on various matters related to Elliott’s interest in NT textual criticism.

There are also contributions by David Cartlidge (on the impact of the extra-canonical text, Protevangelium Jacobi, in Christian art), my Edinburgh colleague Paul Foster (on “The Education of Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas”), Denise Rouger & Christian-B. Ampoux (on the “literary project” of Ignatius of Antioch reflected in his epistle to the Ephesians), and William Elliott (on cases where lectionary titles have been inserted into NT Greek manuscripts).

For a full list of contributors and the titles of their contributions, see the publisher’s online catalogue entry cited above.

Hearty congratulations to Keith Elliott for a long and distinguished career of contributions to NT textual criticism and also to the study of early Christian apocrypha.  And he ain’t done yet!


PhD Studies in the UK (and Edinburgh in particular)

It’s again the time of year when those considering possible PhD work start thinking about applying.  The structure of the PhD programmes in the UK and in North America (to pick the two areas with which I’m most familiar) are different, and so I offer some explanation of things in this post.  I’ve posted before on related matters here.  But I’ll underscore some things in this posting to help potential applicants understand things better.,

The first thing to note is that the North American PhD combines both a course/taught component and a thesis/dissertation component, whereas the British PhD is more purely a “research” degree, which is awarded solely on the basis of a thesis exhibiting high standards of scholarship and judged either publishable or at least incorporating publishable material.  In North American PhD programmes, thus, students can be admitted on the basis of a strong undergraduate degree, and/or, in the case of Religion/Theology often on the basis of a MDiv degree (from a theological seminary).  In these programmes, the coursework done as part of the PhD is intended to provide the student with further and necessary resources for working up a good general knowledge of the field (e.g., NT).  This field-knowledge is then assessed by examinations (variously referred to as “comprehensive exams” or “comps”, or “qualifying exams”) taken after a year or more of coursework.

Then one is permitted to propose a thesis project and carry it out.  The thesis is typically examined by the members of the department of the university in which one is studying, typically with an examiner also from another department of that university.

The overall purpose is to prepare a student for teaching/lecturing in a field (at least at undergraduate level) and for conducting “original” research.  The PhD is sometimes informally referred to as the “union card” for posts in higher education institutions.

In the Humanities, when I last checked a few decades ago (and I doubt that it’s changed much), the average time to completion of the American PhD was ca. 7 years.  (In the Sciences it was closer to 3-4 years.)  This is often because of the need to acquire languages in the Humanities, and also because the nature of the research in Humanities often requires much more time (whereas in the Sciences one often is simply taking on some facet of a larger research project of one’s supervisor).

In the UK, however, one is typically now expected to commence formulating a thesis project from the outset, and optimally complete and submit the thesis within 36 to 48 months.  The British PhD is referred to as a “research” degree, i.e., designed primarily to develop in the student the capacity to conduct high-quality research.

In the School of Divinity in Edinburgh, therefore, we typically require applicants to have both a good first/undergraduate degree and a proper masters degree in the proposed field of PhD studies.  That is, we expect applicants to have developed already a general knowledge of the subject-area/field prior to commencing PhD work.  (We don’t, therefore, usually find the MDiv adequate preparation, and strongly urge prospective applicants to do a proper masters degree instead or in addition.)  I can’t vouch for what other British universities do, but I can say this is our policy.  (In my previous posting I referred to the pressures on British universities that might pose temptations to admit students who don’t have all the necessary prerequisites.  We’ve chosen, however, to resist that temptation.)

In the British model, the examination of the PhD thesis requires a senior-level scholar from another university.  The PhD supervisor is not an examiner.  This means that the thesis should be of sufficient quality to obtain approval by those who have not been involved in guiding the student/thesis.  It’s an important way to assure a high level of quality.

I’ve mentioned languages and some further comments are in order.  In the North American structure, you have the time to work up languages while doing the PhD.  In NT you’ll likely be expected to have some Greek at the outset, but you won’t be expected to read German or French (necessary for consulting scholarly publications), and can acquire a basic reading ability while doing the coursework.  In our view (Edinburgh), the languages necessary for research in the field should really be tackled prior to starting PhD work.  So, e.g., in NT, we expect applicants to have good Greek, some Hebrew, and some basic reading ability in German and also French, as well as a good grounding in the field.

Which structure is better?  Well, in my view it depends on the applicant.  If you want to commence PhD work right after basic degree(s), and acquire languages en passant, then the North American structure is for you.  If, however, you’ve done further studies already (e.g., a masters degree in the subject), if you’ve worked up the necessary languages, and have a reasonably clear idea of the topic that you’d like to research, then the British PhD is a good option.

Some (typically, I find, some Americans with little experience of living or studying outside the USA) may look down on the British PhD in comparison to the North American PhD.  I think that’s simplistic (and I say that as a North American myself who took his PhD in the USA).  I’ll simply note the following facts.

Just consider the publications in the field, the journal articles and scholarly monographs, and the ideas and contributions that shape and comprise the field.  You’ll find strong representation among those with British PhDs as well as those with PhDs from North America (and elsewhere).  Universities in Britain, North America and elsewhere appoint people to academic posts with PhDs from Britain or elsewhere.  There are, to be sure, weaker as well as stronger examples of PhD graduates and PhD programmes, both in the UK and in North America.  But it would be ignorant to classify the British or the North American PhD model as inherently inferior.


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