Should You Do a PhD in Bible?
If you google “Should I Do a PhD in Bible?”, you will most likely come up with several blog posts warning you about the trials and tribulations of completing a doctorate and lamenting the dire state of the academic job market. The general response is that doing a PhD in Bible or theology will take up all your time and energy for 5-7 years, during which time you will be fantastically poor and really stressed out, and at the end of which you will likely have a mountain of debt and no job prospects. So if that sounds good, go for it! (For a list of several blog posts on this subject, see the Wheaton Doctoral Blog).
Having done a PhD in Old Testament, I can certainly sympathize with much of this advice. For an academically bent seminary student, doing a PhD sounds like the life. But once you actually enter a program, you realize that academic work requires long, long hours, makes you feel highly vulnerable and inadequate much of the time, and that the North American job market is so over-flooded with PhD’s looking for work it’s not even funny. Peter Enns noted last year that a recent job opening advertised at the Society of Biblical Literature received over 200 applications (!).
This is not to say that there aren’t joys and benefits in doing a PhD in Bible or theology. There are many. But the costs are indeed very high — higher than most of us realize when we apply — and the job market in the U.S. is extremely tough.
What Should Guide Your Decision?
Yet I question whether these two major points used to warn would-be academics — (1) difficulty in completing a PhD, and (2) poor North American job market — are sufficient for a Christian. Is a Christian really to make decisions based on (1) finding the path of least resistance, and (2) being landlocked in their home country? As I read the Bible, it clearly says that Christians should be willing to (1) endure difficulty, and (2) expand to other parts of the world with the gospel.
To me, this suggests that a Christian who feels a sense of call to academics should not let difficulty and a low probability of landing a job in the U.S. dissuade them from pursuing this avenue of ministry. Rather than pursuing a different calling, what many folks need is to examine what they are being called to.
Are you called to a tenure-track teaching appointment in an English-speaking institution in relative proximity to your family and loved-ones? If you think so, why is that? Is your sense of call really that specific, or are you simply unwilling to sacrifice your personal wants in your pursuit of using your gifts? Instead, could it be that you are really called to serve Jesus with your gifts wherever they are needed most? And given the depressing lack of opportunity in North America, might that not be an indicator that you need to open your heart and mind to options in other parts of the world where your skills and knowledge are truly needed?
What should guide our decisions as Christians should not be the pragmatics of ease and success but the spread of the gospel, the needs of the world, and the glory of God. Of course, a genuine calling to academic ministry may involve one teaching in a North American institution — there is nothing wrong with that. Nor do I believe that teaching overseas is superior to teaching here. But if we are unwilling to go somewhere else to use our gifts for the growth of Jesus’ church, perhaps we should question whether our decisions are being guided in a biblical manner.
Amidst 5 posts concerning the depressing state of affairs in Christian academia, Enns has one small paragraph advocating that potential scholars “Think globally,” that is, look outside North America for teaching opportunities. I believe this option needs more consideration in the PhD world.
Returning to the original question, “Should you do a PhD in Bible?”, I would answer, “If you have been affirmed by older, wiser, and experienced scholarly mentors, if you have realistically counted the cost of doing so, and if you are willing to serve Jesus wherever you are needed most, then absolutely yes.” The path is strenuous, but exceedingly valuable, and the global job market is ripe with opportunity. However, if you simply have your heart set on being the next North American academic superstar, then I would say probably not.
For Further Reading
One of the better known blog posts on this subject was written by Nijay Gupta here, which he eventually expanded into a book: Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond. Gupta gives very helpful information concerning the whole spectrum of doing a PhD in biblical studies. For those considering this path, I highly recommend you take advantage of this resource.