People often ask me how do I find a thesis topic for a PhD?
In my case, I read N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 308-10 and I was intrigued by how Jesus’s mission to Israel related to the emergence of the Gentile mission in the early church. How do you get from, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5-6) to “And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14 )? Not much had been written on this, mainly Joachim Jeremias’ book Jesus’ Promise to the Nations, and I wanted to plot the link between Jewish restoration eschatology, the historical Jesus, and the early Christian mission. Voila, I had a thesis topic.
To find a thesis topic, it’s like being a hunter in a forest, looking for that flicker of movement that catches your eye, and you then follow where it goes, sometimes you lose the trail, sometimes you find a big ugly goat.
Or else, a thesis means finding something where you can say, “What if I told you that …
resurrection is more prominent in Hebrews than commonly assumed.
kingdom of heaven is not a simple synonym for kingdom of God.
purity codes are not legalism with lots of blood rituals.
Paul would have circumcised his son if he had one.
Philemon and Onesimus were in fact brothers.”
Find something simply assumed and ask, “But how do you know?”
Let me give you another example I’ve seen.
Charles Gieschen wrote a footnote in his Angelomorphic Christology, p. 253 n. 30:
“Although the Lamb is the dominant Christological depiction in this document, the relationship between the angelomorphic and Lamb elements of this apocalypse has not been widely studied. For a preliminary attempt, see Stuckenbruck, Angel Veneration and Christology, 261-265.”
I don’t know if Matthias Hoffmann read that precise footnote, but he actually did write a PhD thesis – under Loren Stuckenbruck’s direction – as to how the angelomorphic and divine christologies of the Book of Revelation relate to each other. Hoffmann’s thesis was published as The Destroyer and the Lamb: The Relationship between Angelomorphic and Lamb Christology in the Book of Relevation, and he concluded:
[W]e have been able to deduce that the application of Lamb Christology on the one band, and an angelomorphic Christology on the other, represents most likely a portrait of Christ according to two major functions. These functions reflect on the implied perception of Christ. To those who see him without totally understanding his salvific meaning he appears as an angelomorphic juridical figure. In contrast, to those who have (or gain) insight into Christ’s significant nature, which is – also according to MELANCHTHON – his benevolence and his salvific role in history, Christ appears as the Lamb. In this facet of depicting christological concerns, Christ is portrayed as the one who is with his people (i.e. the Christian community), shepherding and taking care of them. (pp. 249-50).
So when it comes to finding a PhD thesis topic: Read widely, find problems begging for a solution, find old questions that need a need solution, and ask, “Is it really true?”