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Tools of the Trade

September 4, 2011

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!

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  1. Graham Veale permalink

    I teach Religious Studies to students aged 11-16. I might, someday, take a PhD as a “strenuous hobby”; but I’ve a young family, and my job demands a breadth of knowledge rather than academic specialisation and research skills.
    So I’ve no axe to grind here; I just wonder if we couldn’t expand this list indefinitely. For example, shouldn’t a PhD student have some grasp of elementary logic? In The Pursuit of History John Tosh points to skills essential to good historical research; and these would seem to demand a familiarity with several time periods. So shouldn’t a NT PhD student be familiar with Ancient History and some aspects of modern history? Shouldn’t she have a good grasp of hermeneutics? And what about the other social sciences? To be honest I have been stunned when acquaintances and friends gain PhDs, produce a steady stream of published articles, and still prove to be stubbornly obtuse on topics outside their area of specialisation. They have gained no wisdom or broader understanding from their intensive study. Now that’s anecdotal evidence; but I’ll stake a considerable amount that you recognise the type of researcher.
    I also wonder if NT studies could be confined to a particular social class; after all, holidays in France and Germany are expensive. Latin is now confined to a certain “class” of school. The physical sciences seem to offer a fairer opportunity to 16-18 year olds who are academically able, and who would like a career in academia. To be honest, I would have to steer my academic students away from NT studies as they simply could not afford the skill set.

    That said, I found these posts very interesting. A perfect system is not possible; and perhaps quality of research should be the primary concern at any University.

    Graham Veale

    • Graham, no objections at all to your advocacy that scholars should aspire to be as widely-read and competent as they can. My original posting, to which your comment is directed here, concerned the basic/essential linguistic/textual preparedness of those who aspire to be specialists in a given body of texts, in this case the NT at PhD level.
      I trusted that it is clear that to say that a PhD student in NT should be able to handle the Greek NT (and other relevant Greek texts, esp. the LXX), and should be able to engage basic text-critical evidence, and be able to engage scholarly literature, esp. in languages in which the major body of scholarly work is produced in the field . . . that this is not to say anything other than what has been accepted as norms in the field for . . . well, since there was a field. More importantly, these are the attributes that simply remain essential if we are to have a field with coherence and academic credibility.
      It is precisely the quality of research that is most crucial in assessing a thesis. And a PhD thesis in NT that doesn’t engage the primary data (e.g., the texts in their original languages) or that is inadequate in its engagement with scholarly work directly relevant to the questions investigated is poor quality work. That’s my point.
      For yet another time, I reiterate that a patient (i.e., non-allergic) reading of my posting will give no basis for worries about negating broader learning, appreciation of insights from other disciplines, or respect for scholars working in languages other than those I mentioned. These aren’t at all called into question in urging that we maintain appropriate criteria for PhDs in NT.

  2. John Stackhouse permalink

    Larry, I’m with you on all this. Perhaps you could make your point more strongly, and help us to do the same, by giving reasons and perhaps examples for why it matters that students, equipped with all the wonderful computer-based resources and English translations available today that weren’t when we were students, still need fluency in koine and in the Nestle-Aland apparatus. (Given how much is still not translated, or translated slowly, from other languages to English, I trust that no one needs to be told why it matters to be able to read French and German, etc.)

  3. Alan permalink

    What about those students doing PhD topics on the reception, use and influence of the NT/NT texts in contemporary cultures?

  4. David A Booth permalink


    I’m grateful that you and your colleagues are not only bemoaning this problem but are trying to do something about it.

    Best wishes,


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