Basic Research Stages for Evidence-Based Research Papers

Preliminary Stage

You may know nothing about the topic, or only have a vague sense of the topic. Any sort of resource is useful at this stage, though none of them will ultimately make it through as resources for the final paper. At this point you are simply trying to gain perspective on the basic framework of the topic: conversations with colleagues or other knowledgeable people, Google searches, Wikipedia articles, Study Bible notes, anything goes. This stage does not last very long, but will help orient the next step of your research.

For example, if you were assigned a paper on the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament, you might google “Old Testament in the New Testament” or find the Wikipedia article on “Quotations from the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament.” You may find some websites of lists of Old Testament quotations in the New Testament. You may see the terms sensus plenior, intertextuality, fulfillment, and quotation used in some of the discussions of the the topic. You might even learn about Gregory Beale and D.A. Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), though you will not read any of it yet because its contents are not available online for free. Take note of anything that looks like technical language and major resources at this stage because they will be useful guidelines in the next stage of research.

Academic Generalist Stage

Now that you have a sense of the topic, its key words, and its major concepts, you are ready to start sifting through academic, peer-reviewed sources. Your goal is to become conversant with a basic level of academic discourse on the topic. At this point you should focus on generalized academic sources because they are designed to give an overview of their topics. Unlike the preliminary stage of research, these sources are all written by experts whose writings are subject to the peer-review process. That process helps ensure that no major ideas are overlooked or misrepresented. It is not a perfect process, but peer-review helps sift out flawed methodologies, nonsensical ideas, and unqualified statements.

Generalist resources such as bible dictionaries & encyclopedias, textbooks &introductions, basic commentaries, and introductory journal articles are all useful at this stage. Websites are rarely useful here. Websites can be used only if they are published by known entities, if the articles include the author’s name, and if the ideas are all supported by specific data. But even so, if they are not subject to the peer-review process then they should be avoided. For all resources, pay attention to the author, original date of publication, and the publisher that produced the material.

Many commentaries and references are free online, but they are free because their copyright expired. They were written before the English-speaking world knew that Biblical Greek was common 1st century Greek (i.e., Koine Greek; see Deissmann, 1901); before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and published in their entirety (1947-1991); and before the horrors of the Holocaust led to a more nuanced analysis of Judaism from New Testament scholarship as a whole (1945). In the USA, these works were also written before the 19th Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote (1920) and before the Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin (1964). Works written before these events will reflect their social location and biases thereto. Though helpful in some ways, (e.g., familiarity with classical Greek and Roman literature), these works do not reflect the current state of knowledge or expertise.

Matthew Henry’s Commentary (1706); Easton’s Bible Dictionary (1897); Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown’s Commentary Critical and Explanatory (1871); and even the ISBE edited by James Orr (1915) are among the works that predate the modern state of scholarship and are therefore inappropriate for nearly all research papers (see the end of for a fuller list of such resources).

To continue with the example of a paper on the “NT Use of the OT,” by now you should use an academic library’s search function to find books and articles on the topic. You will try different combinations of keywords such as “OT use of the NT” (in quotes, and both in abbreviation and spelled out); intertextuality, sensus plenior, fulfillment, prophets, and prophetic literature. Pay attention to the authors and publication dates of the results. For journals, sift through at least 100 results per keyword search. Mix the keywords and put phrases in quotations. If you are not near an academic library to look at physical books, persistence in journal searches is critical. If you are stuck, call the library and ask for help.

If you are in a library, manually look for relevant articles in a bible dictionary/encyclopedia series such as the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, and the IVP Bible Dictionary Series (DJG2, DPL, DLNT, DNTB, DOTHB, DOT:Pentateuch, DOT:Prophets, & DOTWPW). Use the scripture index and table of contents to help find resources. Use the same technique to look through introductions to the NT and OT.

Academic Specialist Stage

Your research goal is to become familiar with the major authors, ideas, and terms that are prominent in the discussion of the topic. The research process will use more specific terminology and will rely on more technical literature. Technical commentaries, technical articles, specialized books (monographs, essay collections), and primary sources will comprise the body of research at this stage. Only with rare exception will an online source be useful.

By now you should know enough to carve the topic into a thesis. The thesis should drive the research as you fill in your gaps of knowledge needed to reinforce of argument that supports your thesis. The thesis will also drive the writing and revision as each step in your argument becomes clear. Each assertion the paper makes should be supported by evidence in the body and in the footnotes.

For example, the paper on the NT use of the OT will establish the variety of ways that the NT refers to the OT. It might then decide to focus on the Minor Prophets in Luke-Acts, or Isaiah in Mark, or “Day of the LORD” passages from the prophetic literature as they are influential in the Pauline Literature, or some other topic that is narrowly-defined and that can be stated as a thesis. The goal of research and writing is to demonstrate familiarity with scholarship that covers the same or similar theses, and to demonstrate the ability to both summarize and contribute to the narrowly-defined field of study. At this point in the process you are doing your own reading of specific biblical passages (i.e., primary sources) and making a defensible argument that is in conversation with other relevant literature (specialized secondary sources).

Theseus’ Ship Stage

You are mostly writing and revising at this point, so research continues as part of the refinement process. You might track down leads or find new gaps in knowledge that emerge as the research paper takes shape. You may do another round of keyword searches based on the specific details of your paper. But research is mostly a process of finding books and articles that have emerged as important literature to read because they have been referred to in other resources. As you continually revise and rebuild the paper, the final form may differ from the initial plan, but that is expected for research papers. Be willing to go where the data leads, and be willing to rearrange material for the sake of clarity.

For example, your paper on the NT use of the OT is focusing on the Minor Prophets as they are used in the New Testament. The thesis might be on a New Exodus motif, or on Remnant theology, or on personal ethics from the minor prophets as they are interpreted in the New Testament. The paper has already interacted with Maarten J.J. Menken and Steve Moyise’s The Minor Prophets in the New Testament (LNTS. New York: T&T Clark, 2009), as well as with other standard resources on this area of study. Research now consists of looking for subsequent work by Menken or Moyise, and for subsequent work on the topic by other experts who interact with Menken/Moyise.

This final literature review process ensures that your paper has done its due diligence in surveying the literature on the topic. After doing you due diligence with the secondary sources, as well as looking at the primary sources yourself (OT & NT texts), the paper should make its own defensible observations based on data.

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