“So, What is Your Dissertation topic?”

As I have engaged in conversations with various people in my life regarding our decision to pursue this step of additional education and research at Cambridge, roughly 50% of folks have ventured into the uncharted waters of asking me the question, “So, what is your dissertation topic?” (The other 50% were probably wise to keep it to other matters!)

In a single sentence, my research topic is as follows. I aim to demonstrate that the NT authors who quote the OT “stone” passages in powerful and important ways in Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Romans, and 1 Peter, are drawing their rhetorical power from the multi-faceted and ambiguous nature of the “stone” as a metaphor, which shaped the preconceptions of their hearing and reading audiences in such a way that the quotations themselves achieve remarkable results. (I didn’t say it would be a short sentence!)

A few caveats

For those unfamiliar with the British style of PhD work, a few things should be kept in mind.

  1. First, any UK dissertation must make a particular contribution to the field, which typically means it must push the ball forward in some way not done before (read: it must be something new). In biblical studies, when our source material is limited and has received intense study for thousands of years, new frontiers are increasingly hard to come by. As a result, dissertations are often very technical!
  2. Second, the goal of the dissertation is not, strictly speaking, to produce your magnum opus that you’ve always wanted to write. Rather, the goal (apart from what I mentioned above) is to demonstrate the ability to conduct sustained, rigorous, advanced research that culminates in a polished and publishable work. Therefore, the more narrow and focused, the better. This does not typically result in a NYT Bestseller, but that is not actually the goal.
  3. Third, the audience is not typically the general public but rather specialists in the field. That is just the nature of the beast, but it is helpful to keep this in mind, for the average person, when hearing about someone’s PhD topic, quickly lapses into a blank stare and wishes they had never asked!

A more detailed synopsis

Courtesy of ChristArt
This will absolutely show up somewhere in the dissertation

Though it is easy to overlook, the imagery of the “stone” (stumbling stone, cornerstone, rejected stone, crushing stone) shows up literally all over the Old Testament.[1] Within various passages in the law, the prophets, and the Psalms, the OT authors appear to be drawing on, expanding, and reinterpreting an antecedent tradition as they envision the stone as both cornerstone and stumbling stone. In other words, sometimes the stone is good news for certain folks and other times it is bad news – it depends on how one responds to the stone.

When this stone tradition crystallizes in several important discourses in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke),[2] Acts, various Pauline letters, and 1 Peter, one is forced to inquire as to how exactly these numerous NT passages are bringing the OT texts to bear. In every case, the “stone” metaphor is used in a powerful way that either (a) produces a strong response from the audience (e.g., the Pharisees want to kill Jesus after he quotes the “stone”) or (b) functions as a lynchpin in a larger argument in play (e.g., the “stone” figures prominently in Paul’s crucial Romans 9–11 sequence). Prior research has either been distracted by ancillary issues or has short-circuited towards the conclusion, “This is a messianic proof text, end of story.”  The proposed study would address this gap by demonstrating how the inherent nature of the “stone” as a dual-edged metaphor is precisely the reason why the NT authors use it the way they do. In other words, the stumbling-or-upbuilding nature of the “stone” gives the rhetorical weight and content that the authors are bringing to bear with a first century audience, typically Jewish, that was steeped in a rich literary tradition of the “stone” developed throughout the Old Testament.

So what? Connecting to the pew

While I believe the study of this “intertextual” phenomenon[3] is interesting in its own right, I do believe there are two ways in which this research will benefit the church more broadly.

  1. Metaphor itself is worthy of study. At the core of this dissertation is the analysis of the “stone” not merely as a collection of proof texts but as a rich literary (and spiritual) metaphor that is one of the most common and vivid of all the metaphors in the Old Testament. Others on the list would include the “righteous branch,” the “stump of Jesse,” the “lion of Judah,” the “shepherd,” the “rod / staff,” and so on. These vivid metaphors play a huge role in communicating who God is and what he is like in the pages of Scripture. Likewise, in day-to-day life metaphor is vital to communication and, in fact, shapes the way we think and interact with others. Our thoughts and language are littered with metaphor, even if we do not realize it.[4] Importantly, most metaphors are culturally conditioned, and that dramatically impacts the role they play in speech and writing. For instance, the metaphorical use of “Benedict Arnold” for traitorous behavior generally means nothing to a non-American; its use is only valid if you have any idea what is going on in the metaphor. The net effect? Understanding metaphor is a key step in understanding how people think, feel, and write in any give culture or context. In the case of the NT, the “stone” metaphor opens up tremendous avenues in understanding how the various audiences understood the Old Testament, who the “stone” refers to, and how it relates to this person named Jesus.
  2. The “stone” metaphor is particularly prominent in the NT. I would argue along two different lines that the “stone” metaphor is a prominent instance of an OT metaphor shaping NT thinking about Jesus. (a) Statistically, key stone passages show up in at least nine discrete passages, several of which are combining multiple OT “stone” quotations: Matt 21:42ff; Mark 12:10ff; Luke 20:17ff; Acts 4:11; Rom 9:33; Rom 11:9; Eph 2:20; 1 Cor 1:22; 1 Pet 2:7–8. Allusions could be detected as well in 1 Cor 1:22; Matt 16:28,23; and 1 Cor 10:4 as well. In other words, it shows up all over the place in the NT. (b) Theologically, the passages referenced above are not trivial.[5] They deal with some of the most important theological concerns facing any Christian today, including Christology (connecting Jesus Christ to the Jewish Messiah), soteriology (nature of faith / unbelief), and ecclesiology (both the building of the church and the broader Jew-Gentile question). Consequently, understanding how the metaphor of the “stone” functions will help the reader grasp in a deeper way these central teachings of the Bible.

A more heavily academic research proposal can be found here. It’s a bit stale, as my thinking has progressed since I first crafted it, but it provides a little more color for those who are interested.



[1] See my detailed analysis of the Hebrew “eben” (stone) passages here. The word shows up 250 times in the Hebrew Bible; of those, fully 120 are “religiously significant” by my count, referring to a variety of concepts: temple, altar, Torah, covenant, Yahweh, Jerusalem / Zion, king, messiah, and the community of faith.

[2] The “stone” also figures prominently in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other literature of the period.

[3] Intertextuality is a bit of a loaded or diluted term (depending on whom you ask). For our purposes, it simply signifies how authors (in this case, NT authors) are shaped and influenced, either explicitly via a quotation or implicitly via an allusion, by prior literary works (in this case, OT passages dealing with the “stone”).

[4] He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. That takes the cake. He’s carrying the torch for the company. The basketball player shot a brick. Your analysis hit the bullseye. And so on…

[5] Yes, I know that it goes without saying that no passage in Scripture is trivial! But not all passages weighted the same when it comes to their importance in revealing who Jesus is or what he did.

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