Tools of the Trade
At the annual British New Testament Conference (held this year in Nottingham), along with some interesting papers and a plenary-session dialogue on “The Veneration of Jesus in Early Christianity and the First Commandment” involving Prof. J.D.G. Dunn and me, some worrying reports by respected colleagues who have recently been external examiners on PhD theses (at places that shall remain unnamed).
In one case, the examiner suspected that the student didn’t know koine Greek very well. So he put a Greek NT on the table and asked the student to read out and translate a passage (one directly involved in the thesis). The student couldn’t even pronounce the Greek and couldn’t translate it.
In another case, obviously relevant literature in French wasn’t cited. So the examiner asked why, and the student responded that he couldn’t read French, so couldn’t engage the literature in question.
In the conference itself in one session where an obviously bright PhD student presented a stimulating paper, I asked about textual variants in the passage that were directly relevant. The student seemed not to have noted that there were any variants. I suspect that, as is the case perhaps increasingly, and even among some established scholars in the field of NT, the student may not have known how to read the Nestle-Aland apparatus. (Indeed, I note with some puzzlement that many PhD students and scholars don’t even use the Nestle-Aland, and rely instead on the GNT edition, because it has a simpler apparatus!)
Well, one of the decisions of the British NT Society Committee this year was to devote a plenary session in the 2012 meeting to the standards that ought to be expected in the PhD in NT studies. We’ve all assumed a common set of expectations. But it appears that various pressures (including, perhaps, from university administration to increase fee-paying postgrads), have conspired to put some pretty basic standards under threat.
Put another way, there are some basic “tools” that every NT PhD graduate should be able to use, preferably well. I’ll mention a few that I think are important.
I emphasize languages. It is indispensable to be able to read Koine Greek well. That means a good knowledge of grammar, a decent working vocabulary, and as much experience reading different texts as one can develop. Also Hebrew. Latin is highly desirable too, but not as essential for biblical studies.
The computer products on the market today are wonderful, but there is perhaps a growing danger of students relying on them and not learning the languages. With some products, you can simply boot up and it will do everything: parse words, translate, etc. But the PhD student shouldn’t use these as substitutes for developing the language abilities.
Likewise, every PhD student should be able to consult and engage relevant scholarly publications in English, German and French (which are the main languages of NT scholarship).
I also insist that every PhD student should be familiar with the Nestle-Aland Greek NT, including its apparatus, and show awareness of any significant textual variants in passages studied. It takes about 30 minutes to read the introduction to the Nestle-Aland edition, which will introduce the apparatus and show how to use it. Thereafter, it’s a matter of making the sigla familiar friends. Far too many NT scholars treat the text of the printed editions as if that’s all they need to cite and consider.
There are other things that ought to characterize the PhD in the field, but these are essential tools. I presume that all fellow scholars will agree.
But I now think that we probably need to ensure things. And perhaps the simplest way to do this is that examiners should regularly bring to the thesis-examination a relevant publication in German and French and ask the student to read a paragraph or so. Likewise, I suggest that in every NT thesis examination we should ask the student to read a bit of some relevant passage from the Greek NT, and ask also for intelligent comments about any variants in the Nestle-Aland apparatus. It seems to have come to this!