Reflections on some of the book reviews I have done (for what its worth)

I consider myself fortunate to have received some opportunities lately to review some published dissertations for some periodicals. It has been a very good learning experience to be forced to deeply engage in someone else’s research and see any gaps in their thinking and logical inconsistencies. I am happy to say that some I have read have been quite outstanding and set the bar high for me. Others, unfortunately, have managed to defend and publish theses that seem to lack the sort of precision, quality, and creativity that should be the standard for some of the biblical monograph collections out there. I offer, here, some lessons I have learned for my own warning. I hope others who are working through thier PhD as I am will benefit.

1. LESS IS MORE: A few of the theses I reviewed had a strange habit of spending nearly 1/4 of thier whole book on literature review (history of scholarship). I am all for proving your own competence in the field and bringing the reader ‘up-to-date’, but I feel like there should be more judicious selection of relevant literature. Now, I want to note that certain kinds of theses will require more of this than others. But, the ones I read did not need to be so prolix. Also, I encountered a published thesis that quite regularly cited block quotes that took up most of a page and sometimes more. In fact, by my rough calculation, his block quotes comprised nearly 20% of the entire book. One quote when on for 4 pages. Now, it seems this gentlemen was proving some of his arguments from a greco-roman background and wanted to cite some of the classic philosophers. But, a major block quote can be reduced by the use of ellipses. After reading a 4-page quote, I was left wondering: ‘what were we talking about before this?’. So, less is more.

2. KEEP IT SIMPLE – Maybe it is just my dimwittedness, but so many theses seem to go off-track and get into little side debates and rabbit trails. Also, some try to squeeze too many ‘main points’ into their work. Keep it simple. Can you summarize your thesis in one short sentence? If not, then you don’t have a thesis yet. I struggle with this myself because I am excited about what I have found, but one must resist such a temptation. The best theses argue something clear and cogently. Often what happens when someone tries to argue too many point is that they do not have the time to argue any of them thoroughly.

3. THREADING THE NEEDLE – Some consider it their duty to obliterate the opposing view and demonstrate their own argument as triumphant. Others try to not offend anyone and remain safely within a dialogue where every point is a ‘maybe’, ‘I feel that’, ‘Perhaps’, ‘this evidence might suggest’, ‘one cannot know for sure’, ‘this argument does not deny but complements others’…and on and on…The challenge is to be confident about the evidence you have found and assertive in your argumentation without making it seem like no has understood the topic until you came along.

4. KNOW WHAT YOU CITE: I actually gained this advice from someone who reviewed an article I submitted and rejected it -his evaluative comments were useful. He said that I cited a lot of ancient texts throughout the article, but it would have been more effective to cite fewer examples (that I had just listed in reference) and actually discuss the ones I cite in depth to show that I understand the related primary literature (lets say in Josepus or Plutarch). Since then, I have noticed that many people string references endlessly in footnotes, but don’t demonstrate their having really struggled with the thought of any one of the ancient authors in particular. In view of this, I decided to really concentrate my efforts on not just relating Paul’s thoughts to the gamit of contemporary Jewish writers using various proof-texts (which I would have probably done without thinking twice), but to really get to know Philo (a fellow diaspora Jew) and dig deep into his treatises. This can do a lot more good, in many cases, than just doing a survey of what Second Temple Jewish literature has to say.

So, I offer some reflections that are for my own caution as well, but perhaps will help someone else out there.