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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Writing a Dissertation in Biblical Studies

Writing a dissertation is a new kind of learning exercise: it is more than an essay, for it must be innovative, exhaustive, and explicit in both its methodology and its contribution to the discipline, and it is conducted at a higher level of independence. Advisors certainly advise, but the onus of the work is on the author, for the dissertation prepares future scholars for independent research and writing.

What does completion of a dissertation in biblical studies entail? Of course, each person's experience is unique and depends on the advisor and the requirements of the institution, but there are three basic stages in the process: choosing a topic, writing and research, and seeking publication. I speak here of my own experience in the doctoral program in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. My dissertation, "Ingesting Jesus: Eating and Drinking in the Gospel of John," was published by the Society of Biblical Literature and Brill in 2003.

Choosing a topic

Choosing a topic for a dissertation was a real challenge and, for me, began with the selection of an appropriate graduate school and advisor. On the advice of one of my undergraduate professors, I identified the biblical scholars teaching in a number of schools, checked the Periodical Index to see what they had recently published, browsed through their books, and read their biographies. I also checked the titles of recent dissertations coming from each program. (This research is made easier by the internet today.) I chose a school that had several possible advisors. I then made a point of taking courses with and working with each of the Biblical scholars in the department; I watched to see what excited them, how they conducted their own research, and how they handled my frustrating questions. I chose my advisor only after I felt confident that we could have a positive working relationship. Choosing a general area of study for my dissertation topic then became a matter of shared interest, ethos, and methodology. In my case, I happily settled down to work with Professor Adele Reinhartz on the Gospel of John.

In order to select a more specific topic for my dissertation, I was advised to read through the gospel over and over again, taking notes, and jotting down ideas. When I had three possible topics together, I presented them to Professor Reinhartz, and we discussed possible directions and current scholarship, deciding to pursue the question: "What is the meaning of the ingesting motif in the Gospel of John?" We also hashed out a clear methodology (narrative criticism) and a general structure of the project (a chapter dedicated to each meal narrative). With a plan in hand, I then proceeded to survey scholarship that had been done on this question—framed generously—both in John and elsewhere, making sure to write a summary of each argument for inclusion in the "state of the question" section of my dissertation. From this survey, I learned that no publication specifically addressed this question from a narrative critical perspective; my thesis would fill the gap.

Research and Writing

Dissertations are different than anything I had written before, so I wanted to identify the formal characteristics. The style manuals were some assistance in this respect, but I was unable to find anything specifically directed to the "writing of a dissertation in biblical studies" at the time (this was pre-www). I looked at the dissertations stored in the library; the ones written by my doctoral advisors were particularly helpful, and I often referred to them for decisions of organization and form. More helpful still were dissertations published by the Society of Biblical Literature and other academic presses. From these examples, I identified formal characteristics such as appropriate introductory materials, balance of chapters, use and citation of primary and secondary evidence, and the scope and direction of the conclusion. As I also wanted to publish my dissertation from the start, I noted that the published versions were more balanced and reader-friendly, offering both translations of foreign languages and indices, and making steady, explicit progress toward the thesis. Unfortunately for me, the SBL Handbook of Style was published after I had begun this project, so I had to re-format all my bibliography and footnotes to conform to that style. I would highly recommend a thorough study of this little gem before starting a dissertation. In addition, each institution has its own style-manual for dissertations, including such parameters as length, margins, spacing, pagination, front matter, etc. Word processors make the whole writing process easier, of course. It was helpful to have the framework and the format of the project clearly identified before I even began the research.

Organizing research materials right from the start was another time saver. For bibliography, I used index cards because they were easy to carry around in the library, or to shuffle from topic to topic as needed. On each card, I briefly summarized the argument and noted the article's location in my filing cabinets. I also entered the bibliography into a Microsoft Word file that I could easily search by subject or author; it formed the basis of my works-cited pages. If I were starting again, I would still use these cards. They are lighter than a laptop.

When it comes to the actual research, there is no substitute for thorough primary text study. For example, for each meal narrative or reference to ingesting in the Gospel of John, I set the parameters of the passage, identified structural markers, translated it from the Greek noting textual, vocabulary, and grammatical concerns, conducted word studies, and identified its role in the overall narrative. I then wrote an exegesis paper focusing on the contribution of this passage to the gospel's overall ingesting motif. In order to keep an open mind as I proceeded—to let the text speak for itself—I worked through a number of possible arguments, keeping my options open. This exercise helped me to identify my own voice.

After I had completed my own analysis of the passage and had drawn a number of conclusions, I turned to secondary literature to verify my conclusions, to fill in the gaps, and to note connections that others had made before me. These notes I added to the exegesis—either within the text or in a footnote—making sure that I acknowledged their contribution and whether or not they agreed or disagreed with me and/or each other. Intentionally, I gave my voice authority, authority that was quickly curbed by my advisor's careful reading!

From time to time, I needed to step out of the specific passage and its exegesis to address a number of related themes, such as the theology or soteriology of the gospel in general. I also wrote these discussions down using appropriate form with secondary support, assuming they would come in handy at some point, which they did.

Throughout this initial writing and research phase, it helped to break the project into small sections, to finish each one before proceeding to the next, and to deliver them to my advisor at regular intervals. This way, I was able to stay on track.

After I completed this preliminary work, I began to construct concept maps and charts to help clarify the connection between the discreet arguments. How did all this ingesting language fit together? Did it? Was there one structure that lay behind it all, giving it shape? A number of patterns began to emerge, and I began to write out a number of arguments that brought all the pieces together. When I had a few possibilities worked through, I presented them to Professor Reinhartz; together we refined a single working thesis statement and revisited the general structure of the project to make sure that the order and balance were appropriate. Then I situated each discreet exegesis within the framework of the thesis, edited the introduction, topic sentences, and conclusion to heighten connections, and dropped less relevant arguments to the footnotes. At one point, the overall argument felt too forced, so after consulting my advisor, I re-ordered the chapters, re-wrote the thesis, and corrected the framework throughout. The research began to make some sense.

While the general topic was accepted by my doctoral committee and the gap in the research was clearly defined, I had to formally defend my proposal before the faculty of the Religious Studies Department. In retrospect, I appreciate that my committee insisted that I have a workable thesis in place; it helped me to stay focused in the months that followed. However, it also meant that I had to have most of the research completed before my proposal was passed.

With each chapter now shaped by the thesis, the bulk of the project was completed, but I still had the introduction and conclusion to tackle. The introduction needed to raise a relevant question worth answering. For me, this was one of the hardest steps: why does this study need to be conducted? I played around with this idea for weeks, then abandoned it to work on the methodology section. I was grateful for the required graduate seminars on critical methods, for I was well prepared to define and apply a specific approach to the text. While I had some ideas about narrative criticism, I refined the approach during the actual writing of the exegetical sections. It was a fairly simple task at that point to include in the introduction a description of what I had already completed, a comparison to similar studies, and an extension of the method. Furthermore, as I read about narrative criticism and its use in English Studies, I began to understand why my own study was useful: it posited a fresh perspective on well-known metaphors. This was the larger question that needed to frame my work. The introduction thus raised the question of relevance, a specific question within the discipline of biblical studies, the state of this question in scholarly research, a summary of how I would answer the question (the method) and what that answer would be (the thesis), and an outline of how the answer would be presented (chapter outline).

The partner of the introduction, the conclusion works backward from the thesis to the question of relevance. I did indeed re-think tired old metaphors and their role in the gospel, and I came to some fresh conclusions. But I needed to extend this critical thinking to the next phase and ask "So what?" If indeed the ingesting language in the Gospel of John is so prevalent, what might that say about the community that produced the text? My conclusions were suggestive rather than decisive, and led to other questions best pursued in other studies.

After 15 months or so, the dissertation was now of one piece and was beginning to feel close to completion. Revision was the order of the day. I had a number of writing consultants read through it for clarity, structure, grammar, and word choice. At the same time, the members of my doctoral committee were reviewing the manuscript and offering advice on method, argument, accuracy, and nuance. Once I had worked through their recommended revisions, the dissertation went to the examination board and I defended it before a panel including my doctoral committee and four outside readers some months later. After a few minor revisions, the dissertation was filed.


About a year later, established in a faculty position with my diploma on the wall, I began to explore publication options. Professor Reinhartz suggested that I send the manuscript to the Society of Biblical Literature for their dissertation series, if for no other reason than to have some useful feedback and maybe a suggestion for other publishing options. Furthermore, as they accept manuscripts in dissertation form, I would not need to re-write. Much to my surprise and delight, the manuscript was accepted! I was advised to prepare indices of modern authors and biblical citations and to prepare the manuscript in printer-ready format. Within a year, the book was in print.

Further Reflections

Learning how to write about the Bible in a dissertation was a challenge. In spite of the fact that I had to balance the needs of my family, the demands of being a teaching assistant, and the hunt for meaningful employment, I had to get the job done. Sometimes the work bogged down, but at other times it moved quickly forward; I needed to give it my best time and to keep working. I appreciated that my advisors set high standards and were clear about their own expectations. In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed the process of writing my doctoral dissertation and now feel well prepared to take on further independent research and writing in biblical studies.

Jane S. Webster teaches at Barton College and chairs the SBL Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession.

Author's Note: This web site is an excellent resource for people writing a dissertation:

Citation: Jane S. Webster, " Writing a Dissertation in Biblical Studies," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2004]. Online:


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