I am driving to Home Depot in my little truck. I smell like the creosote that my chainsaw has tossed onto my clothing from the railroad ties I have been cutting. I am driving to Home Depot because I need more of those massive beams, along with some pine straw. Amidst tools and a messy pair of gloves on the passenger seat is Volume 2 of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, the one edited by Charlesworth. Earlier in the morning I was reading Joseph and Aseneth, an early Jewish narrative….
This snapshot provides quite a glimpse into the life of the Byers family. We are moving to England for me to begin the PhD program in New Testament at the University of Durham. I will be studying under Prof. Francis Watson, pouring over ancient texts, translating German essays, sifting through centuries worth of Johannine scholarship, parsing out Greek passages from the Septuagint…
…and so of course I am heaving railroad ties, cutting them with a chainsaw, pouring concrete, and distributing pine straw.
This is just the way the path has been for us. My dear wife and I have been praying and planning for this academic venture for almost a decade now. But the path has been strewn with railroad ties swollen with creosote (figuratively speaking). The roadblocks have been just almost insurmountable, the circumstances so logistically and financially grim just almost to demand a turn down a different street. But so far we are still plodding toward the PhD. We do, however, need to sell a house. And so, as I have done with another house along the way, I am painting, installing windows, repairing garage doors, and yes, replacing railroad ties (Miranda has the harder job, though—keeping the house show-ready with four kids and a part-time night job).
God has so ordered these ten years that I am quite at home with having a chainsaw in one hand and the Pseudepigrapha in the other. I am at home in the finest of libraries or in the roughest of lumber yards (I have now worked at four of them!).
But I am really eager to end up in a library soon, with the Pseudepigrapha in hand.
Why are we trying to get the PhD? Because I want to be held to the highest standards possible in my study of Scripture, because I need to be appropriately credentialed to teach in a seminary, because I cannot seem to be able to not do it. Am I “called” to PhD work? I think it is so easy to cloak our vain ambitions in the rhetoric of divine calling. But after ten years of testing my aspirations out of self-distrust, I will venture a “yes.”
Why England? Since the academic job market is so brutally tight, getting the strongest PhD possible is a practically necessary objective. The top tier schools in the U.S. (for NT—Duke, Princeton, Emory, et. al.) accept so very few. The top tier schools in the United Kingdom (Durham, Cambridge, Oxford) are becoming more and more difficult to get into, but they take a few more applicants than the top US schools. U.S. schools like Baylor, Marquette, and Fuller may offer no less in quality than the top tier options, and some great funding packages are available. I did not apply to these second-tier schools (I so dislike that language) and received rejection letters from the more illustriously named schools.
But I am actually so thrilled to be attending Durham. Thrilled. The only problem is that these UK schools are agonizingly expensive (the living costs will be shattering for a family of 6!). The design of the UK program fits me better. I have known what I want to write a dissertation on for almost a decade now. Studying at Durham will allow me to immediately begin writing. Within the US system it would take 2.5 years or so of coursework and comprehensive exams before I could get cracking on the thesis.
The more I have studied my research interest, the more I am convinced that there is no better place for me to go than Durham. I just need to get these railroad ties in place….