More Research Advice from a Tenured Scholar

Today I had the privilege of having breakfast in Durham (England) with Ben Witherington III.  Ben and I have quite a bit in common.  We both went to secular universities for our undergraduate degree (he went to UNC; I went to Miami University of Ohio).  We both went to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (at very different times!).  We both went on to University of Durham for our PhD’s in New Testament working with the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity (he with Kingsley; one of my two supervisors is John Barclay).  We are both Methodist (he is ordained UMC; my wife and I will soon be pursuing ordination).  Ben taught for about a decade in Ashland, Ohio – my hometown.  I went to high school with his daughter and we were in Latin together.  We had much to talk about!

Well, Ben is a warm, intelligent, pastoral scholar and a humble man.  As I try to do, I asked some general questions that relate to life as a NT researcher.  Perhaps you will find his advice as helpful as I did.

1. What separates a good researcher from a great one? 

Ben basically said that good researches do their homework and know the primary and secondary literature.  A great researcher has enough critical acuity to identify the most helpful and most interesting pieces of scholarship that will take the discussion forward.  Often too much space in a dissertation is spent on superfluous information.  A great research knows how to be discriminating and selective in terms of what to discuss and what not to discuss.  Wise words.

2. What are some pet peeves of yours when it comes to reading theses and dissertations?

Ben said, regarding form, that stylistic and typographic errors can be deadly because they communicate that the writer did not really take the work seriously.  Ben recommended that the researcher not shy away from having numerous proofreaders -it will save you in the end!

As for content, Ben recommended this: make the piece easy to read for your examiners.  Avoid jargon and overly technical language.  Be clear and make your thesis statement simple.  Make the outline of your study intuitive.  Use restatement and repetition of main points the way a preacher might – what may seem over-simplistic may be ‘just right’ to your reader engaging this work for the first time.  So, keep it simple and clear.

3. What have been methodological trends in scholarship that have been most profitable?

Ben mentioned here narrative dynamics of NT theology (see his book on this).  Rhetorical-criticism, of course.  And, Ben referred to an increasing scholarly interest in the relationship between ‘theology’ and ‘ethics’ – something Witherington is working on right now!

4. Ben, what are 5 books that every Pauline-scholar-in-training should have read?

He listed these:

-Sanders, E.P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism

-Hays, R.B. The Faith of Jesus Christ

-Wright, N.T. The Resurrection and the Son of God

-Furnish, V.P. Theology and Ethics in Paul

-Murphy-O’Connor, J. Paul the Letter-Writer

These are all great suggestions!  Thanks, Ben!  I have only interacted with these in portions; I have read none of them in full!  I guess I have some catching up to do!


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.

Nijay’s List of Top NT programs (at the request of a commenter)

Someone asked me how I would ‘rank’ NT programs in my ‘first tier’ category (see essay above: ‘Interested in a NT PhD?’)

This is challenging for many reasons: first, should it be internationally or by country?  Also, what kind of NT program – exegetically focused?  Jewish backgrounds?  Greco-Roman Backgrounds?  ‘New’ Methodologies (post-structuralism, Bhaktian influenced heremeneutics; post-colonialism?)?  Language centered (linguistics; philology)?  These are important factors.  Also, the list would change if professors (or readers/lecturers) moved to another institution.  That having been said.  I will attempt a rough ranking -but, please don’t criticise my list too harshly, it is very subjective.

LIST #1: USA Only (#1 is the highest in rank on my list)

1.  (3-way tie – is that cheating?): Duke Graduate School, Yale Graduate School, Princetion Theological Seminary [notes: I would pick Duke or Princeton for Jewish backgrounds; Yale for Greco-Roman]

2. (2-way tie – not a very helpful list anymore, is it?): Emory Graduate School, University of Notre Dame

3.  Catholic University of America (you don’t have to be catholic to study there)

4. Southern Methodist University

5. University of Chicago

6. Marquette Graduate School

List #2: UK ONLY (I have prioritised those places with Pauline scholars; as for Gospels or ‘other’ it is outside my academic expertise [as far as you can call it that!]).

1. University of Cambridge [Note: though they have lost Bockmuehl and Stanton is retiring, they are gaining Gathercole and Lieu; also, the staff of Tyndale House make Cambridge that much more attractive; IMHO, only Cambridge grads are able to compete with students coming out of Yale, Duke and Princeton]

2. (2-way tie) Oxford University; Durham University 🙂

3. (2-way tie) University of St. Andrews; U. of Sheffield

4. University of Aberdeen (bumped down to fourth since the staff exodus)

5. (2-way tie) University of Edinburgh; King’s College London

6. University of Notthingham

7. University of Gloucestershire

8. University of Exeter

9. University of Manchester

Where would I put Canada’s Univ. of Toronto and McMaster?  I haven’t decided yet.  I don’t know enough about them, I guess.

German (and French?) Online Helps

A few of us at Durham were chatting about the challenges of reading German (and French) literature and shared some websites with each other that have been helpful as resources and references.  Now, please let me make this caveat: I do not advocate using online computer translators to replace learning German for your thesis work; rather, our discussion was about getting help for ‘tricky’ portions of a translation or for re-rechecking your translation for accuracy.

I will list some resources we discussed, and I hope you will comment with ones that have aided you.  Now, there are dozens (perhaps hundreds) of German-learning resources – please comment with only the ones you have found that have been very helpful (and free!).


There is somewhat of an online student consensus (of learners from many fields) that LEO is the very best for a number of reasons.  It offers audio-links to pronunciation of any given word; it also links to a full conjugation of any given verb.

I have used BEOLINGUS as well, but I am not extremely satisfied with it; if you have a verbal form that is quite different from the lexical one, it is not of much help.


Once again, the most well known is  BABEL FISH by Altavista.  You simply type in the section of a translation (preferably enough that the program gets an idea of syntax and word order), and it generates a rough translation.  But, beware, it is not well-schooled in theology!

A different site that does much of the same is  I think that it runs a bit more smoothly.

Keyboard Layout

Sooner or later you will need to learn to German Keyboard (if only to quickly produce letters with the umlaut).  I found a graphic of the layout HERE.   It has been a great help to me.


When it comes to French, online sites are just as plentiful, but I will only mention one –  You can go to Babel Fish for a translator, but ‘wordreference’ is a dictionary.  The advantage is that it has ‘forums’ where you can find a discussion of idioms or common phrases that you may trip up on.  It has benefited me greatly.


For Latin, especially Ecclesiastical Latin, see Notre Dame’s basic online lexicon.
Once again, if others out there are excited about a certain German (or French) site, please share.

Common Latin Words and Abbreviations

Inevitably we stumble upon Latin words and abbreviations in writings (especially of an older generation).  Often I simply ignore them, but they are becoming more important when I really need to understand what the author is communicating in a footnote.  So, I have compiled a list of Latinisms that you may find in monographs and especially in older reference works that rely on keeping words short (like Liddell-Scott or BDAG).  If you come across others that are frequently occuring and would be of aid to the biblical-academic community, please feel free to let me know so I can add it/them.  BEWARE: Many of these are from Wikipedia!  I have tried to double check many of them.

a fortiori.   with yet stronger reason.

a posse ad esse.   from possibility to actuality.

a posteriori.   derived by reasoning from observed facts or experience.

a priori.   from what was before.  Inferences based on propositions or assumed axioms rather than experience (opposite of a posteriori).

ad absurdum.   to the point of absurdity.

ad hoc.   for this special purpose.

ad hominem.   appealing to feelings rather than reason.  Often used for an argument that is driven by a focus on the person one is arguing against rather than the arguments and evidences themselves.

ad idem.   of the same mind.

ad infinitum.   without limit.

ad nauseam.   to a disgusting extent.

alea iacta est.   the die is cast (Caesar).

amicus omnibus, amicus nemini.   a friend to all is a friend to none.

ars gratia artis.   art for art’s sake.

ceteris paribus.   other things being equal or unchanged.

curriculum vitae.   a summary of a person’s career.

de facto.   in fact (especially in contradistinction to “de jure”). In reality (as opposed to ‘on paper’).

de jure.   by right (especially in contradistinction to “de facto”).

de novo.   anew.

deus ex machina.   a contrived event that resolves a problem at the last moment (literally, “a god from a machine”).

eiusdem generis.   of the same kind.

ergo.   therefore.

et alia.   and other things.

et alii (abbreviated et al.).   and others.

et cetera (abbreviated etc.).   and so on.

ex cathedra.   (of a pronouncement) formally, with official authority.

ex nihilo.   out of nothing.

ex officio.   by virtue of his office.

exempli gratia (abbreviated e.g.).   for example.

honoris causa.   as a mark of esteem.

ibidem (abbreviated ibid. in citations of books, etc.).   in the same place.

id est (abbreviated i.e.).   that is.

idem.   the same.

in toto.   entirely.

infra.   below or on a later page.

inter alia.   among other things.

inter se.   among themselves.

ipso facto.   by that very fact.

loco citato (abbreviated loc. cit.).   in the passage just quoted.

me judice.   I being the judge; in my opinion

mea culpa.   by my fault (used as an acknowledgement of one’s error).

modus operandi.   the manner of working.

nisi.   unless.

nolens volens.   whether one likes it or not; willing or unwilling.

non sequitur.   it does not follow (used as an English noun meaning “a conclusion which does not accord with the premises”).

nota bene (abbreviated NB).   note well.

opere citato (abbreviated op. cit.).   in the work just quoted.

pace. ‘with polite respect to’ – used for someone who disagrees with the speaker or writer.  A more irenic form of contra.

passim.   in various places (in a quoted work).

per annum.   per year.

per capita.   by the head.

per mensem.   per month.

per se.   taken alone.

persona non grata.   a non-acceptable person.

post hoc ergo propter hoc.   after this, therefore because of this (a logical fallacy).

prima facie.   on a first view.

pro bono.   done without charge in the public interest.

pro forma.   for the sake of form.

pro tempore (abbreviated pro tem).   for the time being.

qua.   in the capacity of.

quid pro quo.   something for something.

quod erat demonstrandum (abbreviated QED).   which was to be proved.

quod erat faciendum (abbreviated QEF).   which was to be done.

quod vide (abbreviated q.v.).   which see.

re.   in the matter of.

reductio ad absurdum.   reduction to the absurd (proving the truth of a proposition by proving the falsity of all its alternatives).

seqq.   and those that follow.

seriatim.   one after another in order.

si vis pacem, para bellum.   if you want peace, prepare for war.

sic.   thus.

sine qua non.   an indispensable condition.

status quo.   the existing condition.

sui generis.   of its own kind.

supra.   above or on an earlier page.

timeo danaos et dona ferentes.   I fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts (Virgil).

ultimo (abbreviated ult.).   of the previous month.

vale (plural valete).   farewell.

vice.   in place of.

vice versa.   the order being reversed.

Shipping your personal books to England

I have had a few chats now with folks here as to whether it is wise to send your own books to England for use during your doctoral studies.  I offer my own thoughts here.

When I was still at Gordon-Conwell, I asked a Gordon College prof who studied at Aberdeen if  I should ship my books.  He said that he went with only a handful of books (4-5?  mostly monographs) and did not feel like he ever regretted that.  I was told similar things by other profs who studied in England.  Shipping is expensive, and in England PhD students can check books out for about 6 months at a time, and you can (at Durham) have 30 books at once.  Nevertheless, because  we shipped a large freight unit of goods (partly because of our baby stuff), it was reasonable to add book boxes at a much better rate than air shipping.  So, I sent about 200 books, about 1/2 my library.  I sent a few monographs, a few introductory books, and loads of commentaries and reference books (like bible dictionaries).  I don’t regret it at all, because I have used my books quite a bit.  Since I like to offer bullet points and lists, here are some organized thoughts.  Consider these factors:

1. Library – does the institution you are studying at have a decent collection in your subject area.  Find the library catalog online and do some searching.  See if they have the books you might want to ship.  If they don’t, all the more reason.

2. Kinds of Books: Chances are, in a doctoral thesis, introductory books and short commentaries are not going to be referenced frequently.  If you are studying Romans, take Romans commentaries, but leave the James commentaries at home (sorry James).

3. Electronic/Online – many resources are on Logos (which I recommend) and also you can utilize and Google – especially for commentaries.  I may never buy a commentary again (don’t tell Amazon!).  Ok, lets not be hasty.  But, don’t overlook these options.  Also, searchable resources are extremely handy.

4. Space– Will you have room in your flat for books? Warning -Bookcases are very expensive.

5. Best Books: The best books to send are ones you know you will use frequently (duh!).  I recommend IVP’s black dictionaries, SBL Handbook, Language textbooks (Greek, Hebrew, German, Latin, French), a good German dictionary, etc…

6. Planning for US Visits – we plan on going to the US about 1-2 times per year.  I pick up some books from home when I go to the US.  Also, I take some books I have in the UK back to the US that I don’t think I’ll need anymore.

7. Notes: If you like to write in your books, as I do, you may need to bring those books that will be most tempting.  Never, under any circumstances, write in a library book.  Shame on you people who do that!  Writing in libraries for scholars is like someone spitting in your food at a restaurant!

8. Influences – in a way, the books on hand in your study will probably be used often by you and in some way will shape your thesis.  Keep that in mind.  I have chosen books that represent those people who have most influenced me – Jimmy Dunn, John Barclay, IH Marshall, Ben Witherington, Tom Wright, Richard Hays, etc…

9. Distance – How far do you/will you live from the library.  I am about a 30 minute walk.  That means I only venture to the library about once a week.  So, I am more motivated to have good books on hand.

10. Study Environment – Some people like to study in libraries – really.  As for me, I like to study at home.  So, that makes some difference.

The decision to ship books in different for everyone.  Many people simply do not have books advanced enough for serious use in doctoral studies.  I was lucky to have worked for Hendrickson and CBD where I could get my hands on monographs and more expensive resources for cheap.  That is partly why I sent so many books.  If you have mostly commentaries, unless they are hot off the press, the library will probably have it.  I have found that the four or five published dissertation monographs I have in my library have been of great use for the purposes of a model to follow.  Also, the dictionaries and reference books have helped.  My introductory books on the Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha are often turned to.  My copy of the Dead Sea Scrolls is handy as are my Charlesworth OTP volumes (Hopefully NA27 and BHS go without saying).

Hope this helps.

As a final note – be careful not to assume what books you will need and which you will not.  When I arrived, after about 5-6 weeks my topic started to change and the books I thought were going to crucial are now just peripheral.  I don’t regret shipping them, but it is something to keep in mind.

What I Learned for Reading My First Paper at a Conference

This past weekend I read a paper at the OT in NT Seminar (conveniently) located in Durham.  As it was my first, I was very nervous, but the group is warm and encouraging and the criticisms were irenic and constructive.  That having been said, I can share some observations about what I saw regarding other papers and about my own experience.

1. Write a short enough paper that you feel the freedom to talk slowly.  Talk so slowly that it barely feels awkward- it won’t seem that way to the audience and they will appreciate it more.

2. Even if you wrote the paper with publication (as an article) in mind, try to excise lists of verses, facts and figures.  This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised.  If you need such information because it is essential to your argument, be sure and provide a handout.

3. Give the attendees a handout with an outline of your talk and the English (and Greek/Hebrew) of the main verses you are dealing with.  The outline will prevent anyone from feeling too lost in the paper, and also will let them see your rhetorical progression (which can only help you).

4. When you state a key sentence, feel free to stop and repeat it.  I didn’t do that, but a friend did and it was useful.

5. Always thank the chair and attendees for allowing your paper to be read and for coming to the session.  You never want to take for granted the privilege of reading your thoughts to others and receiving engagement.  A small percentage of the world is able to do this.

6. Have a pen with you when you read the paper – you will (not might) spot grammatical/spelling errors in your manuscript.

7. Have a notepad to jot down feedback from questions.  Also, make a note of who asked what questions.  If you don’t know them, try to meet them afterwards.  If they are well known, this could be notable when you publish the paper: ‘This essay originated as a paper read at [xyz conference] and I am particularly grateful for the feedback provided by [mrs. abc]”.  Is this self-serving…yes.  But, if its true that the feedback helped, then whats the big deal?

8. Refrain from getting defensive and hostile when you are asked questions.  Remember – you were approved to read this paper, so someone (or a group) agreed that what you had to say was worth hearing, right?  Is it OK to answer, ‘I don’t know’?  Well, as a PhD I would say it is not career breaking.  If you were a tenured professor, it is a bit more shameful.  Take a minute to think about what the person said.  Try to answer as best you can, but it is OK to say, ‘Thanks for the question.  I will have to think about that more.’  Also, in a short 30 minute paper, you cannot include every bit of evidence that supports your argument (usually).  Most people understand that.

9. At the bottom of a handout I provided, I put my blog address and made a link on the blog to the paper so the attendees could download it and read it over and email me more feedback.  This is becoming more popular and I welcome it.  The more feedback the better.

10. Perhaps it is a small thing, but have a bottle or glass of water on hand when you talk.  30-45 minutes of talking non-stop is taxing on the throat. Plus, the added pause is helpful for listeners.

11.  Have two copies of your talk – an extra just in case you spill water/food on your original.  Don’t risk it!

12. What if no one asks a question?  This is very unlikely, but you can have some questions ready for them.  Ask, did anyone feel that such and such a section was unnecessary?  Or, did anyone think that such and such a part was confusing?  Perhaps this will spur on their thoughts.

13. Some people feel free to deviate from their paper manuscript to explain something extra and give clarification. I would recommend avoiding this.  Digressions almost always eat more time than you think.  Next thing you know you went 10 minutes over into the next person’s paper.  tsk tsk tsk!

Also, remember two things – First, Doug Stuart used to say that only 10% of your job in preparing a lecture is actually preping the lecture material.  90% is being prepared for questions.  This is a good attitude to have for reading a paper.  Have your paper footnotes as additional evidence.  Second, and this will hopefully put your mind at ease, the Q & A time will not last much longer than 15 minutes.  After that, you are all done.  Treat yourself to Dinky Donuts – I did!