Common Mistakes in Theological Research – #1 [Scope]

Common Mistakes in Theological Research – #1 [Scope] December 3, 2008

I have decided to launch a series of posts on the act of doing research specifically focused (in this particular series) on common mistakes in theological research.  This does not mean that I have all the answers, but that I am reflecting on this as a cautionary note for myself, but with also a wider aim of helping others.  Some of these I have discovered while reviewing or interacting with the work of others.  Some of these I have been accused of by my own supervisors!

#1: Scope: The Hungry Eye and the Weak Stomach

Sometimes, in a major research project (like a doctoral thesis), the author tries to do too much in the book.  This is simply a matter of not narrowing down the scope enough.  For instance, in the past it has been relatively common to compare something in Paul to all of early Judaism – tsk, tsk, tsk….The hungry eye has struck again.  In more recent years (maybe only the last few years), scholars are beginning to realize that we need more narrowly focused and more accurate comparisons.  Thus, we are seeing more precise comparisons between Paul and, e.g., Wisdom of Solomon or Josephus (or Epictetus or whatever).

How can we avoid this tendency?  Well, it is always a good practice to ask the question: Can I summarize my thesis in one sentence?  If not, you may have bit off too much.  Now, some theses can cover a broad set of texts with a modest thesis that can be manageably dealt with in a monograph.  But, even doing something that spans the whole Pauline corpus seems to be too much these days with so much secondary literature to work through.  Admittedly, scholars tend to do the opposite – zeroing in too much on just one verse or even just a few words! – but this mistake will have to wait for next time!

(NB: I had originally contemplated giving real examples of these mistakes, but to protect the innocent [me], I have decided to just deal with hypotheticals; if you really want some samples, look up some of my book reviews on ATLA and you will eventually see me comment on one or another)

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