Guidelines for Writing a Research Paper in New Testament Exegesis

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1. There are two general purposes for writing research papers: The first is to help the writer discover and clarify what is true and useful about a certain topic; the second is to communicate to a reader the truth and use what the writer discovered.

1.1 The first purpose is by far the more important one for college students. It works like this: When you have to put your ideas on paper for another to read, you are forced to think in a logical, orderly fashion; otherwise, the paper will be incoherent and incomprehensible.

Another thing that writing a paper does for you is to show you what you truly understand and what you don't. You don't understand what you can't explain in writing (presuming you learned how to write). And in showing you what you don't understand, it forces you to think more deeply.

Another value that writing has for you, the writer, is that it enables you to keep a large and complex series of ideas before you which you cannot hold in your head all at once (unless you are a genius). In this way you are able to sort out the complexities of a problem, systematizing them in some way so that they make sense. If you did not write all this down, there would probably be just a swirl of unrelated ideas in your head (which is the case with most people who never write).

Finally, writing is an immense aid to concentration. Who can hold an idea in his head for five hours, examining it, looking at it from all angles, comparing it with other ideas, etc? Would not the mind wander a hundred times? But with pen in hand and with eyes riveted to book and paper, the mind wanders far less. Students are thus enabled to think thoughts and get insights they never knew they were capable of.

1.2 The second purpose for writing research paper is to communicate your insights to somebody. If a paper is published, the readers are many and varied. If a paper is done for a seminar, it may only be for a few students or a teacher. But in writing papers in Biblical exegesis, one of the main persons you want to communicate with is yourself-not yourself as you are now, but as you will be in five or ten years when all your insights may have been forgotten. Then, when the same problem in the Scriptures arises later, you can pull out your paper and see how you solved it five or ten years ago.

2. The first step in writing a research paper is to determine what problem you intend to solve. The Germans would say the first step is the "Fragestellung," the "question-setting." Every paper should aim to answer a question. An unanswered question is the same as a problem and an answer is a solution. Before you can even begin, you must pose a question or find a problem. Your paper should begin by posing this problem or asking your question. It should be limited in accordance with the length you want your paper to be. You would not ask, for example, "What is the Biblical view of man?" in a five-page paper.

3. The next step is to find where other good thinkers have posed the same problem and to read how they tried to solve it. This is where research comes in. Here you have to dig about in the library and in bibliographies to find those who have done the best thinking on this problem. Writing that does not reflect a concern with what other great men have thought is probably be born of provincialism and arrogance. It will have no historical depth to it and will probably propose as "new" what has been said for centuries.

So the second step in the actual writing of the paper (after the problem is posed) will be the setting forth in a brief fashion what other scholars have said. This may include also an observation of how they may have posed the problem differently than you.

3.1 The second half of this step is to explain why you think the problem you have posed deserves another treatment (yours) after others have already presented their solutions. If you think they are wrong, then you will point out some of their weaknesses and propose to do better yourself. If they leave some aspect untreated, you can make it your aim to treat that. You may simply say you want to view the problem from a different angle and perhaps throw more light on it in this way. You may admit you agree with what has already been written by others and simply say that you want to test and synthesize their views and come up with your own way of stating the solution. Or there may be other approaches to take. The point is, you should make clear what your goal in writing is in view of what has already been written.

4. If in the statement of the problem (#2) you did not mention the precise New Testament passages with which you will be working, this is the time to do it. If you question is, "What does 'sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ' mean in 1 Peter 1:2?" then you would have already cited this text in your first sentence, probably. But if your question is, "What is the concept of 'rebirth' in 1 Peter?" then you may not have said which specific passages you are concerned with. You should do that here and it would be very helpful to quote them in your paper, for example, 1 Peter 1:3 and 1:23. This does not mean you can't then use other texts to shed light on these, but these are the ones where the concept "rebirth" is mentioned.

It is far better to be specific and to narrow down your focus onto a few texts (or one text) then to try to cover too much material and get stuck in generalities.

5. Now begins the actual exercise, the process of interpreting what the author of a certain passage of Scripture meant. What you write here should be an orderly presentation of many hours of reading, reflection, head scratching, and doodling on scratch paper. This is the fruit of your research. Thus is will consist of arguments, not pronouncements; reasoning, not ranting.

The following steps of exegesis are the steps to follow in your research and reflection as well as your writing of the paper. I don't mean that they will be perfectly sequential or that each one applies equally to your particular problem. Just make sure you follow the steps which are pertinent to your topic and that, in presenting your findings, the sequence be logical.

5.1 Establishing the text. If there is any question as to the actual words which a Biblical author wrote you must decide which words are more likely original. This is called "textual criticism" (See George Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism, 1963, chapter 3). If you are not working from the Greek, you will have to depend on the margins of some Bibles and on the commentaries. If you are working with the English Bible you should attempt to find the best translation and state why you think the translation you are using is accurate. The commentaries will also help here by pointing out why there are certain differences between the various versions of the Bible.

5.2 Coming to terms. After you have a sure text, then you need to find out how the author used the words in the text. That is, what do the words and phrases mean for him? A dictionary cannot answer this question for you; it only gives you a range of possible meanings. You must base your decision on the way the author uses the sources that may have influenced his usage.

You won't try to define every word in a text. You need only treat those words in detail which affect your particular problem.

5.3 Relating the parts of a text. This step and the preceding one may be intertwined because often the meaning of a term can only be determined by seeing how it relates to others in the text. Besides relating words and phrases so that a single proposition makes sense, you must also attempt to understand how the propositions relate to each other. That is, the flow of the author's argument must be made plain. We must think his thoughts after him and know why he put things in the order he did. Here the implications of little connecting words like "for," "therefore," "but," since," "because," "although," "in order that," "in that," etc become very significant.

5.4 Seeing the text in context. After the unity of the text itself is understood, you should inquire into its function in the larger context of the document. Is it the conclusion which all else supports, or it is a support for a greater conclusion? How does it relate to the other thought units in the wider context? How wide a context you should examine will vary with your particular problem. Don't do it mechanically; do it if it sheds light on your problem.

5.5 Seeing the text in its historical setting. This means simply that you should at least inquire whether some historical situation or circumstance prior to or at the same time your text was written may shed light on its context. For example, what Roman persecution may lie behind and explain some of the chapters of Revelation? Or what was the custom in Corinth that caused some Christians to oppose eating meat offered to idols? Sometimes the historical context is given in the text itself; other times you may have to read commentaries, Bible dictionaries, etc, to get a picture of the historical context. Again, whether you stress this or not will depend on the nature of your problem.

5.6 Seeing the text in its theological context. The final step of exegesis is to determine, on the basis of the others, what theological truth (if any) is expressed by a given text. This will involve relating the meaning of the text to the theology of the author as a whole.

6. After you have set forth your exegesis in an orderly and concise way, you should summarize your conclusions briefly and tie together the loose ends. Here would also be the place for pointing out unanswered questions which need further investigation which you cannot now do.

7. Beyond exegesis everyone who would be relevant for his own day must ask the question, "So what?" What difference does your conclusion make for our life today? This section of the paper may be shorter or longer, depending on your teacher's assignment.

8. A word on footnotes. Footnotes are a way of paying your respect to an author whose work has helped you-even if you have disagreed with it. They are always used when you quote a book directly or paraphrase another author's view. They are also used to list works in which the readers can find further information pro or con on a certain issue. The best way to get a feel for footnotes is to read several footnoted articles in a journal or a heavily footnoted book.

The alternative to footnotes is (a) to cram all that data into your text, which would make reading it harder, or (b) not to mention to whom you are indebted for certain ideas.

9. Papers should always be typed. It is simply presumptuous to ask a professor to wade through even the neatest handwriting. They should be double-spaced and have wide margins.

10. Summary of the steps to following in writing the research paper:

10.1 State the problem.

10.2 Report the views of others.

10.3 Give a rationale for your goal in writing in view of these views.

10.4 Quote the specific passages you are concerned with and why you have limited yourself to these.

10.5 Give an orderly presentation of your exegesis. 10.51 Establish the text. 10.52 Come to terms with the author. 10.53 Relate the parts of a text (words and propositions) to each other. 10.54 Relate your text to its context in the document where it occurs. 10.55 Relate your text to its historical context. 10.56 Put the message of the text into the larger theological framework of the author.

10.6 Summarize your findings.

10.7 Discuss their relevance for today.

11. Note: These dozen steps should not be considered hard and fast rules for the way every paper must be presented. Many times the steps will coalesce and there may be other steps you think need to be added. These are only "practical guidelines." But take them seriously as the kinds of questions that must be asked and the general order in which to ask them.