How to do NT research – some thoughts

I have thought a lot lately about how I do research. It seems so often I end up accidentally stumbling onto the most formative essays and articles for my research. This is fortuitous, but how can I research in a more systematic and effective way? Well, I don’t know, but I feel it is worthwhile to tell you how I go about it and see if you (all) have something to add. So, when I begin research on a chapter/section of my thesis (in Pauline theology), this is how it generally goes:

1. Consider the most important terms and concepts related to my chapter (so, currently, PAUL, APOSTLESHIP, IDENTITY).

2. The first thing I do is try to collect a bibliography to read through. This is sometimes the most difficult part if the area of research is not well-covered and/or if there is no standard way of referring to the subject matter. Ben Byerly (see comments) reminded me that monograph bibliographies are great places to find basic reading lists; also the reviews of literature in theses.

A. Search Tyndale House catalog on key terms (PAUL, APOSTLE, IDENTITY). Why Tyndale House? It is restricted to Biblical Studies and they are pretty comprehensive. Also, they have listed a large number of theses from places like Oxbridge, some of which have not been subsequently published. Anyway, it is a good place to begin (see http://www.tyncat.com). After Tyndale I also check out Harvard’s HOLLIS catalog.

B. Check bibliography of Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (IVP). There is almost certainly going to be an article on any Pauline topic and the bibios will have all the seminal works in English and some in German.

C. Check ATLA (at first all the full-text stuff to get immediately accessible literature; then another search for all the stuff). Write down all interesting entries related to key terms.

D. Do the same on JSTOR.

E. Do the same on Googlescholar and Googlebooks. Googlebooks, in particular, has yielded for me dozens and dozens of books that I would have never thought to look up. It has been absolutely invaluable. If you are not searching googlebooks for relevant literature, you are really missing out.

F. Search other Dictionaries (on LOGOS I have TDNT, Anchor Bible Dictionary, Dictionary of NT Backgrounds, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery); see also the new NEW INTERPRETER’S DICTIONARY OF THE BIBLE. Also, the DICTIONARY FOR THE THEOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE (Baker), but it usually has very short entries with bibliographies that are not anymore helpful than DPL.

G. Sometimes I will try amazon.com and search on key terms and look for full-search books. Not often that helpful.

H. Sometimes I get on SAGE journals and do a search – usually it yeilds too many non-theological items to be helpful.

What else is helpful for others in compiling reading lists for your research? I should also mention the utilility of asking the blogging community – I have received some very helpful tips – thanks!

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5 thoughts on “How to do NT research – some thoughts

  1. When using the ATLA Religion Database (or other databases like New Testament Abstracts) it’s important to move from the known to the unknown in your search terminology. Often when folks come to me in the library they have etched in their brain a single phrase representing the concept they want to study – the problem is that rarely does everyone in the field think about a subject using the particular phrase that the student has latched on. So, I tell the student to do the search using their own terminology, but to also think of alternative terms (you’ve already mentioned this). The “trick” then is to look at the results and find articles that “fit” your topic. Then look at the article’s record in the database and examine all of the “metadata” (subject headings, abstract, etc.). Often the subject headings or combinations of subject headings lead students to many articles that they’d have missed if they just searched on their “pet term”. These subject headings are of course not infallible. They’re put together by librarians who’ve reviewed the journal or festschrift and assigned subject headings based on their analysis. Also some databases have “gaps” in their indexing. For instance, there are gaps in the Scripture indexing in ATLA’s Religion Database where there were years where no one assigned Scripture references to individual titles.

    Ultimately, nothing – absolutely nothing – beats following the footnotes and bibliographies in works that you have found (as Ben mentioned).

    I too have benefited greatly from Google Books and Amazon. They are fantastic resources. Theology and biblical studies students got a particular boost in Google Books because Harvard Divinity School’s library was the first library in the Harvard system to get their public domain works scanned. There’s some fantastic stuff in there!

  2. Hi Nijay,

    It seems a pretty thorough list to me, but with an emphasis on the electronic and the monograph. Sometimes paper resources (e.g. NT abstracts and the journal shelf for those which are unavailable in electronic form at your institution’s library) do work, but the main thing I’d stress over your list is people. Bloggers are one thing, but when you are meeting people presenting or presenting yourself they often have some gem you have missed.

    One final comment. Don’t underestimate what appears to be luck here. Admittedly this may be more important when starting out on a project, but everything starts somewhere and often – very often in my case – I read , watch or hear something that starts the brain whirring. Then the thoroughness you mention becomes important. BUT crucially thoroughness is no replacement for insight. And insight is a gift that should be carefully nurtured rather than crushed under any amount of research technique.

  3. Nijay,

    Great post, especially regarding Google. I am not currently affiliated with a university, so access to a solid library requires a two hour commute. This means that the journal articles I find in the Google searches are out of reach. I started doing web searches on the article titles or authors, following the links that lead to the author’s personal page. Many times a proof-version of the article is posted, allowing access to the information. If I need to cite it, I grab a copy on the next library run. Their home page also provides other helps.

    John Lyons noted the importance of people, which I affirm. I have found that someone that has written a helpful paper has often other papers or projects that may not be published. The scholar’s home page typically includes a CV, sometimes with links to these other papers. These unpublished papers are sometimes more recent than the published ones. They also provide another source of bibliographical information to track down.

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