How to Become a Biblical Scholar

Clifton Black is the Otto A. Piper Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has been a professor of biblical studies for 26 years. His credentials include a Bachelor of Arts in religion from Wake Forest University, a Master of Arts in theology and religious studies from University of Bristol, and a Master of Divinity from Emory University. He also earned a PhD in religion with specialization in New Testament and early christian origins from Duke University. 

Professor Black is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, and he has written 15 books and more than 200 articles, essays, and reviews in Biblical and theological scholarship. One of Professor Black’s books, “Anatomy of the New Testament: A Guide to Its Structure and Meaning” (6th ed.; Fortress, 2010), co-authored with Robert A. Spivey and D. Moody Smith, has sold more than 100,000 copies in the past 40 years. His most recent book, “The Disciples According to Mark” is out and in bookstores today.

What is Biblical studies?

Biblical studies is the academic study of Biblical literature. “Biblical literature” is an ambiguous term, since different religious communities that use scriptural texts appeal to Bibles with varying contents. Most of the Bible that modern Jews use is recognized by most Christian denominations. The contents of the Bibles used by today’s Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant churches vary slightly.

What do you find most interesting about Biblical studies?

Viewed in multiple dimensions, all great literature is fascinating: the era and culture from which it emerged; its language and style; its claims about life in every age that reads it. The Bible comprises the charter documents of the religious community in which I have been reared and still practice faith. On any given day Christians claim Biblical warrants for all sorts of beliefs that the Bible itself does not support. In such cases Biblical studies function as a reality check, a department of public health for the church and societies informed by the church. For those who do not approach the Bible confessionally, it’s hard to deny that its contents have shaped Western literature and Western society. The late Reynolds Price, novelist and essayist, called the New Testament alone “the most important collection of writings in the history of the human race.” That may exaggerate, but not by much. Who wouldn’t want to study something so influential?

What is your least favorite aspect of Biblical studies?

Though not a complaint of Biblical studies as such, I’m frustrated by how little that responsible Biblical scholarship influences public perceptions about the Bible in the daily marketplace of ideas. There are many reasons for that. As a group, Biblical scholars don’t do an especially good job of informing public discourse about the Bible. Responsible scholarship in any field — economics, medicine, whatever — proceeds cautiously and modestly. Most print and Web journalism wants it fast, simple if not simplistic, and often sensationalistic.

Are there subfields of Biblical studies that students might not be aware of?

Unless they have taken a basic course in the Bible at an accredited college or university, I’d bet that most students know very little about the Bible and its subfields. If you love languages, ancient or modern, you’ll love Biblical study. The same goes for history and culture — whether one speaks of the ancient world from which the Bible emerged or modern cultures still affected by it. In various ways the Bible makes basic claims about life and reality, which intersects, not only with religion, but also with philosophy and theology. Whether the subject is archaeology, literature, women’s studies, postcolonialism, science, or a hundred other subfields, you can bet that somewhere a lot of people are engaging their study of the Bible with those areas.

What careers do students commonly pursue with a degree in Biblical studies?

At the baccalaureate or master’s level, students who specialize in Biblical studies go into practically any field whose employers are interested in people with a solid background in the liberal arts. One hopes that a student who has studied the Bible under careful supervision can read carefully, analyze critically, and write cogently. At the master’s level a lot of students in the field pursue one of many ministries offered within or beyond a church. At the doctoral level, Biblical specialists try to secure teaching positions in colleges, universities, graduate schools of religion, and professional schools of theology. Some Biblical specialists are employed as editors or administrators in houses that publish books in religion.

Is a graduate degree preferable for a career in Biblical studies, or can someone enter the field with a bachelor’s degree?

For a career in Biblical studies as such, a degree beyond the baccalaureate is usually necessary, though some parochial, secondary schools may hire teachers with a bachelor’s degree. With a master’s, one may teach the subject at junior or community colleges. For teaching, research, and publication in a four-year college, university, or graduate-professional program, a doctorate is necessary.

What personality traits do you think a student should have in order to be successful in a Biblical studies program?

Do you enjoy close reading of texts? Are you interested in history and ancient cultures? At the advanced level of such study, are you willing to discipline yourself to learn the original languages in which Biblical texts were written? Are you prepared to immerse yourself in scholarship that has been trying to understand the Bible for more than two millennia? Do you have an open, inquisitive mind that is unafraid to be challenged by difficult texts of a world very different from our own? Can you think critically and sympathetically alongside ancient authors who intend to challenge your point of view, not simply confirm it?

What electives would you recommend that a student in a Biblical studies program take?

In most cases, certainly at the baccalaureate level, Biblical studies is the elective: usually a subspecialty within the study of religion. For many undergraduates religion is closest to fields in the humanities (literature and the fine arts), classics, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. Any subject that opens your mind and disciplines your imagination is a good elective.

What study tips would you give to a student to help him or her succeed in a Biblical studies program?

Study under the supervision of someone properly qualified. Like medicine and law, religion has its quacks and shysters: phonies who prey on the gullible and give the field a bad name. Likewise, learn from competent scholars which reference works, commentaries, and other contributions to the field are solid and reliable guides, so that you can differentiate solid information from tankers of rubbish on the internet. Beyond that, proceed as you would with any program of study: Dig in and work hard. Be humble and susceptible of correction: Don’t assume that you know what’s in the Bible. Unless you have received an extraordinarily fine education in the subject while growing up, it’s very likely that you don’t know and couldn’t be expected to. In religion as in all areas of human inquiry, don’t allow stubborn ignorance to get in your way — which, by the way, is also a good reminder for trained experts in the field.

Do you think Biblical studies is a subject that can be studied online, or is a traditional class environment ideal?

Sensibly used, the internet is a magnificent instrument for transmitting information. What the internet in itself cannot do, and will never be able to do, is train your mind to reason and inform your judgment to separate wheat from chaff. Who’s going to direct you to competent online sources? Who will help you evaluate the prejudices and biases — conservative, liberal, whatever — by which online information is packaged and distributed? Interactive blogs faintly replicate conversations that occur in classrooms — yet most classrooms operate in an environment where there is already some measure of quality control, where you engage hard ideas with other students and teachers on a level field. On an undisciplined frontier of the Internet, you can engage in conversation with a lot of nut jobs, which will enhance little more than your frustration.

What subjects should a prospective student of Biblical studies understand before entering a Biblical studies program?

An advanced-level course in the study of religion can be useful in preparing you for Biblical studies, but I don’t think that’s necessary. A lot of students are introduced to the study of Religion by a course in the Bible. What you really need before entering Biblical studies is not other subjects but basic skills. Can you read and analyze texts? Can you convey to others your interpretation of what you are studying in clear, readable prose? Studying the Bible will help you improve in both of those areas. Without some skill and aptitude for them before beginning Biblical study, however, heartache probably awaits.

What pieces of advice, or caution, would you offer to a prospective student of Biblical studies?

Approach the subject with an open mind and a willingness to reconsider fixed opinions. If, after giving it a try, it’s not for you, move on to something that excites you. If you fall in love with Biblical studies, as scholars have for thousands of years, resist those who would talk you out of it. Granted, there’s no money to be made in Biblical studies. The Bible digs into a place inside you deeper than your wallet.