Academia

Determining Depth and Breadth in Biblical Scholarship: the Perspective of a Graduate Student.

Determining Depth and Breadth in Biblical Scholarship: the Perspective of a Graduate Student.

My colleagues and I, typically spend 8-14 hours per day in the divinity library studying, reading, working with the Greek and Hebrew texts, and writing research papers. This is typical for any serious graduate student, post-graduate student, or jr. scholar. Therefore, you will have to excuse us, if we find it a bit disconcerting when some shaky (and usually fringe) individual seemly produces credentials out of thin air in order to give the appearance of being an expertnot that we consider ourselves experts (we are only students and jr. scholars), but we do recognize when someone has not done the requisite work typical of biblical scholarship.

It is a growing problem within both biblical studies and Theology, one that is becoming all to common. Before I came to academia, I worked in a number of ministerial positions. It was often the case to meet shady characters who claimed a MDiv, DDiv, ThD, or PhD in order to acquire more validity among the laity or solidarity among biblical scholars who seemingly supported their claims. Unfortunately, as was often the case, upon closer investigation, their credentials never checked out, i.e., it was discovered that they never actually put in the time or did the requisite work typical of biblical scholarship. Instead, their degrees were acquired from what were essentially diploma mills. It continues to be the case as these individuals tend to produce websites and ministries in which they claim expertise in a particular area in order to pontificate on some seemingly new idea which they think has never been considered before within the world of biblical scholarship.

What does the requisite work typical for Biblical Scholarship look like? 

First, it is important to note that the typical track (in the USA) from start to finish (Bachelors to PhD) is 10-14 years. It can be more or less depending on the particulars of a program and whether you complete a PhD in the US or UK. For example: BA/BS=4 years, MA=2 Years, UK Research PhD =3 years. Thus, in that scenario, at the very least 9 years. Another example, BA/BS=4 years, MDiv=3 years, and US PhD=5 years.  Thus, in that scenario, at the very least 12 years. There are many possible scenarios. [An interesting side note: Recently at a conference, a young man approached me and told me he had just earned his PhD from a major Ivy League university. Suspiciously, I asked him his age, to which he replied, I am 24 years old. Um… Good grief Charlie Brown! He would have had to begin his studies at age 14 or 15].

The point of this section is not to argue for an approved specificity, but to show the rigorous nature of obtaining these degrees. Too often these degrees are downplayed within the Christian community. Many simply do not understand the work required to earn them; therefore, lack of respect for those who hold them has become the norm.

When I was beginning my academic studies, I emailed several professors seeking advice for the path I wanted to follow. All returned emails were unanimous in their explanations. One well-known Biblical Scholar gave a sobering response,

“In order to be considered for admission into our program you would need the following languages: Greek, Hebrew, and German. Aramaic, French, and Latin would also be helpful. In order to be admitted to our program, you will need to satisfy these language requirements by passing our departmental reading examinations with the grade of B+ or higher. Additionally, the path that you have described will take at a minimum ten years from undergraduate to Ph.D. You will need to be well learned in Philosophy, Theology, Christian Origins, and Historical Criticism. You will also need very high GRE Scores. Ours is a very competitive program and hard to get into. Good luck!” (I will not reveal the scholars name, because I do not have his permission, but he is a widely published, very popular scholar who teaches at a major university).

It is important to note that degree requirements differ from school to school. Therefore, the following summary should not be considered definitive, but only a general guideline of typical requirements for an advanced degree.

Typically, a Masters Degree requires 51 to 84 credit hours (though some, e.g., the MA Degree in the Department of Religion at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte only requires 30 hours). A Doctorate usually requires a minimum of 72 credit hours. A Masters Degree requires two to three years and a Doctorate requires three to seven years to complete depending on the university or program. You must have already earned a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree for admission to a Masters degree program and a Masters Degree for admission to a Ph.D program; both usually from a regionally accredited institution. All U.S. accredited universities require that a certain number of hours be in residence at that university.

In the course of the students studies, he/she must select a thesis/dissertation topic. This is usually done in close consultation with his/her thesis/dissertation advisor. The thesis/dissertation is a major scholarly work and is intended to make an original contribution to the students chosen field of study. A thesis/dissertation must then be submitted to a committee of professors. The members of the committee read the work and perform an extensive, exhaustive examination. The student must then defend the thesis/dissertation before this committee. This is known as the thesis/dissertation defense. During this defense, committee members may ask any challenging questions they please. Upon successful completion of the thesis or dissertation defense, copies of that document are prepared and signed by committee members. Copies are deposited in the university library and in the appropriate department. At this point, the requirements for the degree are met and the degree is awarded.

Let me also add, formal study forces a student to interact with people and ideas with which they might disagree. Thus, their papers like professional scholars are often subjected to peer-review-whether by scholars or fellow students. This is also what biblical scholarship looks like! I do not understand, how an individual could claim to have an advanced degree or claim to be a scholar without first being subjected to this process.

Accreditation

This is a very touchy issue! I might be chastised for what I write here! My advice here is to simply judge the quality and reputation of the program.

Though I have “rarely” seen a non-accredited school in the U.S. whose program equaled the same quality of an accredited university or seminary within the US, it does not mean they don’t exist [I mention U.S. only, because overseas (e.g. UK) accreditation is handled somewhat differently]. Obviously, I am not acquainted with “every” US based non-accredited program. However, I have witnessed many of these type of schools awarding degrees after an individual only wrote a small book or was awarded the degree based on “life credit.” For example, the individual in question from the email wrote a book “without the oversight of an advisor or committee” in less than a year and was awarded a PhD. The point is, it took him less than a year to obtain a PhD which he completed without being subjected to the rigors typical of biblical scholarship. 

For example, the case in this email revealed that there was no set course syllabi; in fact, the students wrote their own syllabi. Furthermore, the school had no campus, no library, no student services, and no bookstore. More importantly, the school had no curriculum committees, no course review procedures, and no thesis/dissertation committees. It is important to contrast all of this with those of us who legitimately work to acquire this degree and spend 3-7 years subjecting ourselves to intense hard-hitting academic rigorJust ask my colleagues, whom I often observe crying from the stress of it all, in the divinity hallway during mid-term or final exam week!

However, despite all of this, the issue is NOT necessarily one of accreditation. The question is: Did the program subject the student to the typical academic rigor of biblical scholarship?

Thus, my advice here is to simply judge the quality and reputation of the program. Also, be aware that if you plan to enter academia as a professor, the reputation, quality, and accreditation of the program where you obtained your degree, might be a deciding factor as to whether you actually get that job.

Important note: I think one has to be very careful when questioning the scholarship of another. Thus, it is more important to judge the quality of their work and what they are saying. For example: Are they making claims, which fall outside the norm of biblical scholarship? Do their claims show a naivety, which falls outside the norm of a formally trained biblical scholar?

The Internet and Concluding Remarks

As this one did, much of these issues arise from internet websites or claims. For instance, the individual in question claims to be an authority because he supposedly has a PhD and he is making fringe claims with the emphasis that biblical scholarship has supposedly missed something all these years.

Therefore, it is important to realize that though the internet can be a powerful medium for communicating findings to colleagues, students, and laity; unfortunately, it is also the powerful, yet seductive place of much generalized knowledge and too little expertise-a place where the only credential required is breathing. Moreover, it is often a world of half-baked ideas which stem from arm-chair internet theologians or wannabe biblical scholars who are not real experts in the field.

What are we to do about this? How about the individual in question from the email above?

My advice is to be very careful. First, [as the emailer did] check for credentials, not only to see if he/she has them, but where he/she might have earned them, i.e., the quality of the program. Additionally, also check the individual in question’s claims against the back drop of real peer-reviewed biblical scholarship (another issue according to Jim West). Finally and most importantly, learn to look for real depth and breadth in an individual who claims to be an authority on the bible. I happen to believe that if (in the US) we were to require this kind of depth and breadth in our church pulpits, it would do much to solve some of Christianity’s woes.

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To those who accuse me of having an elitist mentality. I simply point out: When one has a heart attack they desire an educated medical professional to help save their life and perform surgery. However, when it comes to religion, people often ask the most uneducated and unqualified person they know! Why the difference?!?!

The point of this post has not been to marginalize friends, but to only touch on an important issue in light of the email I received. I have intentionally withheld the name of the individual in question, because it is not my intent to harm his/her reputation. However, it is my intent to promote real depth and breadth in biblical scholarship in an age where it seems as if the serious scholar is going the way of the dinosaurs.

One last point: When I speak of judging the quality and reputation of the program, I mean just that – “program.” I do not mean that one should marginalize another who has received their degree from a less-prestigious school. I am primarily speaking of schools and programs that seem be nothing more than Diploma Mills.