PhD Update: Digging Deeper

With the leaves here finally beginning to turn, and a chilly autumn breeze blowing cold air over me as I cycle to and from the summer house which is now my office I feel it is time for another PhD update.

This time I will begin with by attempting a couple of reasonably quick answers to the question of why I am doing a PhD at all, before giving an update of what I am working on at the moment.

One key reason for doing the PhD in general in terms of future plans is that I want to teach Old Testament/Biblical Studies in some kind of bible college/seminary type environment somewhere in the world.  A PhD is good preparation for such teaching, and usually an essential qualification required to get the job.

I want to do this because I think that understanding the Old Testament is vitally important for Christians in today’s world, and especially important for anyone who will be entering any sort of position of leadership inside the church or outside it.

It is important not just because we need to be able to deal with the difficult questions people raise about it – although we certainly do need to be able to face those questions honestly and well.  It is really, really important that people wanting to know more about God don’t see us hiding those questions, or smothering them with a quick response along the lines of: “Yes the Old Testament is really hard, but it doesn’t really matter because Jesus has sorted it.”  If they see us ignoring the book that Jesus read, that Jesus understood his mission and his identity by, then they have every right to say – “is it really Jesus you’re showing me?”

More positively it is important in order that we will understand what it means to live before God, to understand what God is like and the ways he works in the world.  It is the book that shaped Jesus’ life and ministry, and it is the book by which the first Christians tested the message proclaimed to them by the apostles – see for example Acts 17:11  “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”  The Scriptures here is what we would call the Old Testament – notice the implicit assumption that what Paul said was in continuity with the Old Testament message.

It is as we read the Bible that we see the reality of what God is like, and can be transformed by that reality.  I want to be a part of that transforming process in the lives of others, and especially in the lives of those who have chosen to take some time out to study God’s Word.  I want these people to know that the way we come to know God is neither by our (or others) clever reasoning nor by following  what our feelings would like to be true.  I want to help people see that the way we know God is to come to the Bible, and as we do so we are to abandon  our clever guesses, and we are to allow our fragile feelings to be reshaped, so that we might truly meet God in his Word.

When I say “we” I mean “we” – it isn’t about us as isolated individuals alone with our bibles – it is us as part of our church communities, and as part of the worldwide church through the ages.  We need each other to help us not just read what we want to hear, we need people from other places and times to help us see from outside our culture and age.

Part of doing a PhD is about listening to a lot of different voices from a lot of different people who have thought  very hard about different issues impacting on understanding the Bible.  Sometimes doing that is refreshing and invigorating, and sometimes it is very hard, sometimes it involves listening to voices that are very critical and seeking hard to discern what is true and therefore helpful in what they say.

In the last PhD update, back in June I summarised my plan for the PhD project. In case you have  forgotten, I am analysing the conversation between God and Moses in Exodus/Numbers  in order to see what this tells us about the meaning of God’s name and therefore about the character of God.  Over the summer I have been digging deeper to lay solid foundations for the actual work in the biblical text (alternatively, to switch the metaphor slightly I have been creating an “hermeneutical doorway” – thanks to Tudor for that phrase!).

This deeper digging has been in two key areas: how God’s portrayal in Biblical narrative has been understood by various scholars and how God’s character is understood in the field of Old Testament Theology.  Both of those areas probably require some explanation (and if you think I’m oversimplifying matters see footnote at the bottom).

The first part of the dig has been amongst writers who apply theory (often) developed from the study of (relatively) modern literature about how narratives work to the Bible.  I have been looking at how these different writers view the role that God plays in Biblical narrative, and how they understand the presence of God as a character in the narrative making a difference to how the narrative works. (Quick definition: “Narrative” = “story”, but “story” in everyday English often implies “made up”, “narrative” can relate to actual or imaginary depending on context)

The second part of the dig has been in the world of Old Testament Theology, and the way in which Old Testament theologians have understood God’s character, and especially how they think we understand what the Old Testament’s view of God’s character is.

I am currently working on writing up how the two different areas of digging I have been doing do relate to each other, and perhaps how they could be better related. Intriguingly, despite the fact that a large chunk of the Old Testament is narrative involving God, these two areas do not intersect as much as might be thought.  Scholars arriving at their understandings of God in the Old Testament have often not paid as much attention to how God is portrayed in the narrative as the amount of narrative might suggest they should.  This has begun to change in recent years, but I think there is definitely room for improvement in this area.

Once I have written up this stage of my investigations the next step is to use the results as I get on with the process of studying all the conversation between Moses and God in Exodus-Numbers.  That process will occupy me for about the next year, ready to be the basis of the final write up stage of the project, which will probably take a large chunk of the final year.  The thesis will then be examined by 2 scholars who will then quiz me on it and see if it comes up to scratch, or if it needs to be taken away and reworked.

In the midst of that I need to be looking out for job opportunities to teach Old Testament / Biblical Studies / Biblical Languages – so much wisdom is needed both in my studies and in my thoughts, planning and action for post PhD.  That’s about all for now.  This PhD update has been a long time in the writing, and gone through several different iterations. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask – I’d love to discuss anything!


By way of  P.S.  If you’re ever wondering about gifts to help an aspiring PhD student (!) I do have a PhD wishlist, with useful books for my studies on it (and also vouchers that would go towards electronic bible study original language tools here:

As I write I’m aware that I’m simplifying, perhaps oversimplifying some complex academic issues for the sake of making this blog post at least vaguely comprehensible.  If you know some of the jargon, and if you know some of the thinkers and scholars involved you might recognise (or think you do 🙂 ) some of the positions I state, and you’ll probably recognise where I’ve simplified for the sake of better understanding.



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