Common Mistakes in Theological Research #4: If I Only Had a Brain…

Our fourth ‘common mistake’ in theological research has to do with how we place an author (Paul, Luke, Matthew, John) in their own setting.  In an attempt to understand a particular NT author, many scholars scour contemporary writings (whether Jewish or Greco-Roman) to discern the influences on that NT writer.

We must be cautious, though, of too eagerly searching for answers outside of the text.  What often ends up happening is this:  We think Paul (or Luke or whoever) connects concept A to concept B.  Why does he do that?  Let’s look at the contemporary literature.  Ok, we see that Philo links concept A to concept C.  And we see Jubilees link concept C to concept B.  Thus, Paul was influenced by Philo and Jubilees and THAT explains the mysterious relationship of A to B….right?

This ‘mistake’ is so very personal to me because I was accused of doing it!  And since then, I have seen many others scholars doing it.  But, my supervisor asked me, why couldn’t this connection be original to Paul…?


So, there is no easy way to avoid this except to take a step back from your research and ask – is the connection to such and such a background or text really probable or just an interesting coincidence?

The take-home value of this issue is an encouragement to let Luke be Luke and let John be John and let Paul be Paul.  They were not robots who slavishly spouted out cultural norms and mantras of their various ‘backgrounds’.  They at least had the real potential to be independent thinkers.  They had brains!  They could be creative.  And maybe, just maybe, some of the things they said just don’t make sense to us now – though it is fun to still try to figure it out.


2 thoughts on “Common Mistakes in Theological Research #4: If I Only Had a Brain…

  1. Nijay,

    First of all, I greatly appreciate not only this series of posts but also all of the ones pertaining to PhD studies. You have been most helpful.

    I am currently a PhD student under the joint supervision of Andrew Lincoln and Lloyd Pietersen at the University of Gloucestershire. My current (tentative) topic is focusing on Paul’s understanding of the Spirit’s role in shaping community identity and ethics.

    I was wondering if it would be possible for me to contact you personally (via e-mail). If this is a possibility, here is my e-mail: This is not necessarily a pressing matter, so there is no need to rush. Plus, I want to be sensitive to your current responsibilities.

    I hope you have a wonderful rest of the day and I look forward to hearing from you. Take care.

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