Is There a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Bible Scholar
Denver Journal Book Review by Denver Seminary Professor Dr. Craig Blomberg
Ben Witherington III, Is There a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Bible Scholar. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. $18.99 pap. 156 pp. ISBN 978-9-310-49302-0
Regular readers of the Denver Journal will know that I have reviewed quite a few books by Ben Witherington, New Testament professor at Asbury Seminary and, with N. T. Wright, one of the two most prolific evangelical biblical scholars in the world when it comes to publishing. Ben is a friend. I admire deeply what he has been able to accomplish in his ministry. I look forward to his writings and try to read most of them even though it is a challenge to keep up. So any criticisms offered here are intended to be completely constructive, in hopes of making a wonderful man even more effective in his scholarship.
This book purports to be a guide to becoming a biblical scholar, laced with autobiographical reflections on Witherington’s own life. It accomplishes both goals admirably. Budding scholars receive guidance on choosing a school, program, and mentor for Ph.D. work; exhortation to mastering ancient sources and original languages as much as possible, and admonition for working hard at writing clearly, independently, and persuasively. Recognizing that a typical teaching assignment, if they get a job in their field, may directly apply the contents of their dissertation one or two days a year; they must become generalists as well as specialists. Many beginning instructors will teach Bible surveys, selected portions of both testaments, biblical languages, and perhaps a little theology or ethics on the side. They will learn to stay one or two weeks ahead of their students at best (I would have said, at times, one or two days!). They need to study pedagogy, communication skills, and the use of media. Personal reading habits should also leave time for inspiration, at both the academic and devotional levels, for topics not immediately necessary for preparing lectures and lesson plans, so that they are ever becoming more well rounded and mature Christians and learned individuals, not just technicians. Not all teachers and scholars are equally gifted or called to writing careers, though requirements for tenure and rank advancement often force them into at least some publishing. But those who have the abilities and passions should make every effort to include writing in their portfolios (including the informal formats of blogging and websites), because of the large number of people they will minister to by those means.
All of this comes at a cost, just like military service. Indeed, Paul points this out in 2 Timothy 2:4 for the Christian life in general. However, like the Marines, scholars may have to make extra sacrifices. There is little time in life for frivolous activity. A busy schedule of teaching, preaching, speaking, researching, writing, and mentoring means that one has to plan carefully each day’s itinerary, including time for physical exercise. Spouses and children, when present, can expect to have to make sacrifices for the scholar in their midst. Witherington regularly thanks his wife for her sacrifices but never discloses what toll his work did or did not take on his family. Although Witherington’s academic advice applies to all kinds of biblical scholars, not just Evangelical Christian ones, it is clear he cannot fully fathom why anyone would want to engage in the discipline from any other perspective.
A couple of the chapters seem to stray a little from the avowed purposes of the book, reading instead like reminders of basic hermeneutical principles for all good interpreters, whether or not they are embarking on scholarly careers. The personal vignettes from Witherington’s life disclose the amazing privileges of his educational career that are not choices available to all, especially before one decides on a vocation—studying multiple foreign languages growing up, being accepted into the most prestigious programs, having opportunities to travel and live all over the world, and so on. But they also reflect on important choices Witherington made en route—choosing the British over the North American model of doctoral studies, getting early pastoral experience, and not limiting his research and writing to one narrow area of specialization. He even intersperses into this book various poems he has written, at least tangentially related to the topics at hand.
It would be easy to envision budding Ph.D. students reading this little volume and being utterly intimidated by it. Witherington admits to having an almost photographic memory, to having had a schedule that has permitted him large chunks of time for writing, and to being able to afford early on a large personal library that facilitated his work remarkably quickly. Almost no one perusing this book will replicate Witherington’s accomplishments, and readers need to remind themselves of that regularly. Even those with his gifts and perks in life may have different callings. Some do need to become the world’s leading experts in a very narrow specialization, despite Witherington’s frequent disparagement of such an approach. Most do need to spend more time in reflection and less time in writing, or what they write will not be worth reading. Witherington discloses a conversation he had with Richard Hays at Duke in which he encouraged Hays to write more, just as Hays was urging Witherington to write less and ponder more. He even makes one of his characteristic puns about not wanting things to become too “ponderous”.
But if there is a widespread criticism of Witherington’s work in the academic guild, both within evangelicalism and outside of it, it is that he has written too much. Even two-thirds of his current output would have been prodigious, but it would also have allowed him time to hone his own writing style more and leave less for editors to clean up (I have spoken with several of them!). It would have allowed him to avoid linguistic gaffes that still haunt his writing. For example, I recently reviewed in pre-publication form one of his manuscripts soon to be published and found him still referring to the basic Greek word for “parable” as parabolos rather than the correct form parabolÄ“. This was a mistake I first noticed as long ago as his commentary on Mark in 2001. I have seen it several times since and have even pointed it out in my reviews of his books. Tragically, I have met scholars who do not take his work seriously because he produces much of it so hastily, even though there are numerous volumes that have included more meticulous research, and do involve groundbreaking and important ideas and approaches.
But I am saying nothing Witherington hasn’t heard many times before, and it is clear that he has made his choices for priorities in life. Even if he does not slow down one whit, I pray that God will grant him many more good years to continue to bless the rest of us mortals with his writing. This is so even if some of us who are also his groupies recognize a fair amount of repetition within and between volumes and identify places where he has not considered important interpretive options in his haste to see yet one more book appear in finished form. Plus it is always refreshing to have a strong Wesleyan voice in the biblical guild to balance out, at least a little, the hegemony that Calvinist scholars have so often had.
Craig L. Blomberg
Distinguished Professor of New Testament