In preparation for my beginning graduate studies in biblical studies this fall, I’ve been read two useful books on becoming a biblical scholar: Nijay Gupta’s Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond, and Ben Witherington III’s Is there a Doctor in the House?: An Insider’s Story and Advice on becoming a Bible Scholar. I was worried the books would be redundant, but in fact they complemented one another.
I won’t give a full review of these books here. Other blogs do that well: see a review of Gupta here, and reviews of Witherington here, here, and here. Both are useful for a budding biblical scholar. Gupta provides more direct advice on what to do pre-, during, and post-doctoral studies, while Witherington tells personal anecdotes to give a better idea of what it’s like to be a biblical scholar. For example, Witherington tells the story of how he gave up a promising musical career (he played violin) for biblical studies: “in 1970 I put down my violin and have almost never picked it up since” (141).
These stories made Witherington’s book fun to read, and I got a lot of great advice from it: focus on languages. Develop breadth, because you never know what you will teach. Remember your responsibility to society, the Church, and God. Find your voice, and don’t parrot your dissertation advisor. (Witherington doesn’t say this, but I find blogging a good way to find my scholarly voice.) Remember there will be painful sacrifices along the way. But Witherington doesn’t give as much direct advice, except in an appendix in the back.
But at this point, I am looking for what Gupta’s book provides: very direct advice geared to the student pre-doctoral program, in the doctoral program, in the ABD phase, and pre-tenure. I mostly read the pre-doctoral advice, because that is where I am at. While some of his advice might applies to any kind of doctoral program, the most valuable parts of this book do not. For example, he describes the differences between getting a doctorate at a seminary, an American research university, and a British research university, and what the benefits and perils are for those holding each type of degree.
Most helpfully for me, Gupta breaks down graduate admissions into eight areas:
- Strength of institutions of BA/MA degrees
- Preparatory coursework
- Test scores
- Research and publishing record
- Teaching experience
This list is really helpful to me because it provides a clear checklist of things to work on. For me, 3 is the most useful category. Under “preparatory coursework,” Gupta specifies six areas of study:
- Biblical content
- Hermeneutics and methods
- Biblical backgrounds
- History of interpretation
- Critical thinking skills
For me this was a real eye-opener. What areas am I lacking in? What do I need to bone up on so I have decent breadth as a scholar? And for that mysterious “diversification” category, Gupta asks: what special skill or body of knowledge makes you stand out from the crowd? Based on his list, I made my own list of goals to accomplish in my MA program to fill these gaps in my education.
- Take biblical content and exegesis courses. My undergraduate school did not offer any of these; the limits of the religious studies department meant that most of the classes were topical or methodological. I got my fill of content and exegesis classes by taking Homer and Plato, but none of these are the Bible.
- Do a course in traditional literary-historical methods.
- Do a course in social-scientific methods. I really wish I had done more cultural anthropology courses as an undergrad.
- Take a course in Second Temple Judaism background.
- Take a course in Near Eastern background. My classics degree has given me a lot of background in the history and culture of the New Testament, but almost no background in the ancient Near East.
- Take either Akkadian or Ugaritic. Gupta lists both of these as good languages for Hebrew Bible doctoral programs. Since I’m leaning in that direction, taking these will give me a leg up on the competition.
- Learn Aramaic. This is a given. I might have to do this one self-study.
- Learn French and German. I’ve already started German. French can be next summer’s task.
- Get work tutoring others in Greek and Hebrew.
Thanks to Gupta, I now have a clear set of goals for my M.A. But on that last category, “diversification,” I am less clear. Gupta wants the applicant to consider what makes them stand out: a solid knowledge in Coptic? A particularly unexplored paradigm? This relates to Witherington’s exhoration to budding scholars to find their voice. What might my voice be? What might it say?
At this point, I think my defining trait as a budding biblical scholar is my strong background in comparative religion and interreligious dialogue. As an undergrad, I took several courses in Buddhism and Islam. (There is a part of me that still wants to learn Classical Arabic and do Bible-Qur’an intertextuality research.) I also am passionate about interreligious dialogue, and really want to do something like Scriptural Reasoning. So while my undergraduate studies in religion and classics did not give me much foundation in the Bible itself, when I combine my broad background in religion with the study of the Bible, I hope to find new insights that can lead to interreligious understanding.
What those insights will look like, though, is not clear. Guess you’ll have to keep reading my blog to find out…
Onward and upward!