Seven Hopes in Setting out on a PhD in New Testament Studies

This week I have started a new chapter: a PhD in New Testament and Christian Origins. I feel that it is a significant and bold vocational step, but I am trusting that it is the right one. I am very aware of how fortunate I am to be able to pursue further study at this point in my life; I know many people would love to do similarly but cannot for a variety of factors. I also realise that for some people PhDs have been unhappy experiences and that not everyone who starts a PhD completes it.

That said, many kind people have asked me what a PhD in New Testament Studies involves. The answer is not straightforward[1] and is shaped by the direction the research project takes, but here as I set out on the journey, I would like to share a few of my hopes for these PhD years that will, in turn, hopefully offer some insights into why I am doing this – and demystify this wonderful discipline.

So, as I set out on a PhD in New Testament Studies, I hope to…

1)      Go deeper

The main goal of the PhD is to produce a piece of work of around 100,000 words (!) on an aspect of the New Testament. This will inevitably involve some deep study and reflection to present something that is, in some sense, novel. Much of the first year will be spent finalising the topic and deciding on methodological approach. Even though the project is substantial, the subject matter is generally something small in comparison. For example, my current idea is to look at how the apostle Paul uses the language of consolation/comfort/encouragement/exhortation (Greek: parakaleo/paraklesis), especially in his second letter to the Corinthians, where this language is especially prevalent.

Some people have reasonably questioned whether this will take three years. The answer is almost certainly ‘yes’! Analysing the main passages in 2 Corinthians, other passages inside and outside of the Bible, and plumbing the depths of the secondary literature, by way of commentaries and articles, will take a considerable length of time. After all, the goal is to go as deep into the subject matter as anyone ever has before.

My hope is that as I go deeper into study, looking at some very technical aspects often involving Greek – and likely also some Hebrew and Latin – when I occasionally come back to the surface, things will appear somewhat clearer.

2)      Go broader

As well as depth, a PhD is an opportunity to develop breadth. This is true within the main project itself: perhaps considering an approach that is different from traditional ones within the field. The PhD is not totally about the thesis though. I shall be trying to ensure that I develop some expertise in other areas of the New Testament outside the Pauline letters, in early Christian literature more generally, and also in the Old Testament – I shall continue to learn Biblical Hebrew and other ancient and modern languages (German is very useful for reading New Testament scholarship). Beyond that, occasionally tuning into other areas of theology and the humanities more generally, can prove to be very fruitful.

3)      Challenge “consensuses”

In New Testament scholarship, there is a common saying: “there is nothing new in the New Testament”. The Bible, and particularly the New Testament, is undoubtedly the most studied item of literature in history. And yet, New Testament Studies remains a lively academic field. Why should this be? I think it often comes down to the changes in consensus that often take place. Things that might be agreed by one generation of scholars might be rejected by the next generation of scholars, and so on. The area of Pauline study is a case in point. I am keen to find out even more about the various positions but, broadly, there are old perspectives on Paul, new ones, and even newer ones. Paul is in fact one of the most divisive and, I believe, misunderstood figures in history.

Some shifts of consensus are undoubtedly more helpful than others; and it is not possible to agree with everything and everyone – there can be some reasonably sharp divisions, particularly on a collection of writings as vital as the Bible, which many believe to be divinely inspired on (at least) some level. So, I hope to challenge some approaches to New Testament scholarship during my PhD years and expect my ideas to be challenged in turn!

4)      Contribute something (small) to the sum of human knowledge

Even if it is something tiny and amounts at most to a few footnotes in a future scholar’s work, I hope to add something to the sum of human knowledge. I am not conceited enough to believe that my thoughts will be totally paradigm-shifting, but I hope they will help the conversation develop, and add another important voice.

5)      Have flexibility

This is something which might be more controversial and which I should explain carefully so that I don’t come across as irresponsible. Here, I recognise again that full-time doctoral study is a real privilege. I hope to ensure, however, that it does not become all-consuming and that I spend too much time in the ivory towers. I hope that these PhD years will allow me some flexibility and that I shall use the relative independence that comes with doctoral study wisely and generously – not recklessly.

Personally, I have a passion for running and when fit and uninjured – as I currently am (hooray!) – run at a decent level.[2] I hope to have time to train well alongside my studies: not obsessively; just well. I strongly believe that the change of scene and activity will have physical, social and mental benefits, which will even improve the quality of my theological reflections. In Romans 12:2, Paul urges believers to be “transfigured by the renewing of the mind” and running is a massive help to me in this – as part of my devotional life. While academics are ultimately judged on the quality of their research, character and personality are also important; having interests outside of academia can be helpful in this regard. I am pleased to report that many of the theological faculty I have met protect and invest in their lives outside of academia… and lap up my interest in running!

I know so many people in the world work so hard[3] that they have little time or flexibility outside of it; but I really hope that this won’t be the case in these PhD years.

6)      Bless the Church

As a Christian undertaking biblical research, I am pleased when helpful and accessible theological ideas filter down into the Church. A few people have asked to see my dissertation on Paul’s rhetoric in Romans 1-3;[4] fewer still have really been able to follow much of it! Such are the demands of rigorous biblical research on a very specific text. Yet, I hope that all the reading and thinking around key Pauline texts has given me a greater understanding of early Christianity that I can share with others. I am delighted to see that there is a renewed interest in theological study within some evangelical traditions in the Church,[5] and those of us who have the privilege of undertaking full-time theological study and are Christians should want to be a part of that, as well as building up the Church more generally: young and old members, both in terms of age and spiritual maturity.

In Acts 26, while on trial, the apostle Paul is recorded to have been ridiculed by Festus. Festus said to Paul: “your great learning is driving you mad” (v.24). More literally, we could translate “great learning” as “many letters” – sometimes much study and many qualifications can lead to ways of thinking that people find confusing. Yet, despite being educated himself, this accusation could not be levelled against Paul here; he was talking in relatively simple – although controversial – terms about the resurrected Jesus. So, he retorts: “What I am saying is true and reasonable” (v.25).

I hope to bless the Church by imparting what is true and reasonable, rather than what might be classified as insane learning.

7)      Become more like Christ

As a Christian undertaking this biblical research, I (shall) constantly need to remind myself of the path that any disciple of Christ should try to follow: the journey of becoming more like Him. If we want to see Christ, the pages of the New Testament are the place where we see him most fully. My unashamed conviction is that the New Testament really matters because it shows us what God is like through the person of Jesus Christ, and fulfils the Jewish Scriptures.

I know many people with inspirational Christian faiths who gaze on and/or listen to the Scriptures daily and who would harbour no ambitions of undertaking formal theological study. As I often say, we are not all called to be scholars of the Bible, but if we follow Christ, we are called to be students of it: those who desire to learn more about Jesus, the living Word, through the written Word, the Bible.

I shall have the privilege of spending many hours a day gazing at the written Word. My hope is that as I do that, I shall become more like Christ. Paul writes the following of believers in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “as we all, with unveiled faces, contemplate the glory of the Lord, we are transfigured[6] into the same image: from glory to glory”. The more we lovingly gaze on Christ, chiefly through the Scriptures, the more we resemble Him.

I write these hopes with some fear and trembling; I know that they are big hopes. I know that I can’t do it on my own and will need community around me, as much as I often prefer to plough on solo. I also know that I might fail in practically all the above at some point. Yet, I also have a secure hope in a God who will put me back on my feet, when that happens, and is always working for good.

[1] Mainly because I have only just started the journey! For anyone reading this who is considering doctoral work in Biblical Studies, I would highly recommend Nijay Gupta’s book, Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond (2011).

[2] Recently, I recorded my first sub-16 minute 5k in 5 years, and am due to run the Scottish Half Marathon, having been given a complimentary top club entry.

[3] I am often saddened by the poor work-life balance that many people experience, particularly in the West; where people are often forced to work so hard and the distribution of work is so imbalanced. I wonder if this an issue which we address sufficiently in our churches and if we could take more of a lead on encouraging Sabbath rest in our afflicted society today…

[4] Also available on my rather barren academia page: http://edinburgh.academia.edu/AlexMuir.

[5] See, for example, this excellent article from Lucy Peppiatt, Principal of Westminster Theological Centre: http://theologicalmisc.net/2018/09/why-study-theology-reflections-for-the-evangelical-charismatic-church/

[6] NB. Same verb as in Romans 12:2!

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