Since students often come to me asking about doctoral work after Talbot, I thought it would be helpful to share my personal experience in obtaining my own doctorate. Perhaps some will find my experience helpful as they prayerfully contemplate whether the Lord is leading them to pursue further studies in a doctoral program.
When I applied to UCLA for doctoral work in 1970, I went to the Department of Near Eastern Studies to talk with some of the professors and department administrators. At that time I discovered that there were two main emphases: ancient languages or ancient history. Either way, a lot of language study would be required. I learned who the professors of the various areas of interest to me were and asked questions of a couple of them. I got valuable information this way for deciding later that I would in fact go to UCLA.
One problem with UCLA was that I would need to earn a second master’s degree first; they considered an MDiv to be a “professional” degree. This would have been true even if I had stayed in seminary another year to get my ThM degree. However, they would give me advanced standing within their master’s program. It helped that I was able to pass my German exam prior to entering the course. Also, I was required to pass a test in Modern Hebrew, but I was also able to enroll in an advanced course in Modern Hebrew that covered two years in one. I had been warned that UCLA’s program was long. Had I known then that it would be eight years before I finished, I might have considered something else. In retrospect, though, I’m glad I attended UCLA and have always felt that my education there is just what I needed for what I am doing. It’s a good thing that the Lord doesn’t tell us in advance what is going to happen in our lives.
Knowing that I would start UCLA in the fall of 1971, I devoted the summer following graduation from seminary to two tasks: 1) studying some modern Hebrew at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles; and 2) reading through all the Minor Prophets in my Hebrew Bible, focusing on building my vocabulary and fluency in Hebrew reading.
When I registered for the fall quarter, I started with Modern Hebrew, Archaeology of Mesopotamia, Advanced Hebrew Grammar (biblical), and a graduate reading course in Hebrew Bible. I had taken an arranged course in archaeology of Mesopotamia in Seminary and thought the corresponding course at UCLA should be pretty easy. Was I ever in for a shock! I quickly realized in that class that I hardly knew what archaeology was. Studying under a world-renowned archaeologist who actually had years and years of field experience was a lot different from reading about it in books. We talked about pottery classification according to shapes and decorations and about how to study the complicated stratigraphy that one usually finds in a mound. It was fascinating material, but I decided after that class that I didn’t want to be an archaeologist.
In fact, the course in Advanced Hebrew Grammar, which was also much more difficult than I had expected, increased my sense that the Lord wanted me to study in the area of the Semitic languages. Modern Hebrew also proved to be a bit of a challenge. As one of only two goyim (Gentiles) in a class of about thirty students, I discovered that the other students had a “leg up” in terms of conversational Hebrew. My goal, though, was reading not conversation, and I usually did better than the other students in the area of grammatical analysis and reading texts. Outside of class I worked through some journal articles with a native speaker so I could pass a reading test in Modern Hebrew.
When I decided to take the language emphasis, I also chose to study general Semitics for the MA. That settled the issue of an adviser. I would be working with a noted Semitist and a Polish Jew. He was very personable and even had his students over to his house. The only down side was that I had to study Ethiopic or Geez. That was a language I hadn’t counted on ever having to learn, but it was my adviser’s major area of emphasis. It turned out that Ethiopic was the one language that gave me the most trouble in my whole time at UCLA. I think the professor soon learned I would never be a specialist in Ethiopic, but he was quite impressed with the work I did in his Advanced Hebrew Grammar course and felt I would succeed in the program anyway.
I was concerned about having a good Christian testimony at UCLA, and I soon discovered that one’s reputation quickly develops in this area. One time in Hebrew class the professor asked a particularly difficult question that nobody seemed to know the answer to. Looking around the class he said, “So. Do we have to wait until Tom’s Messiah comes to get the answer to this question?” Still, it was difficult to speak up for my faith in many circumstances in graduate school, and as I look back now I wish I would have taken more opportunities.
The main source of income during my studies at UCLA was, frankly, my wife’s full-time job as a teacher in a local Junior College. I owe an incredible debt to her for her hard work to support us and also for her patience with my need to have lots of time to study. Our daughter was born only at the end of my studies, and I honestly cannot see how it would have been possible if she had been born earlier. Another source of income was a part-time job I had teaching Hebrew and eventually Old Testament Introduction at Talbot Seminary. Working in an area so closely related to my studies helped greatly, but I think more than a few of my students left class with puzzled looks on their faces as I tried to impart to them the latest insights about the Hebrew language I had just learned in school. Timing the classes with my teaching schedule proved to be a challenge. I learned to leave school fast and get out on the freeway for the drive to UCLA. Then I knew just where I could find some free parking and run to class from there. Often I arrived late and breathless, but somehow the professors were understanding. The classes were to prepare one for the comprehensive exams, so what really counted was performance on those exams.
Teaching while I was in school proved very valuable in several ways. First, it supplemented my income. Second, it kept me in a solidly conservative environment where I could discuss things I learned at UCLA. Third, it affirmed for me God’s call on my life to be a teacher. Fourth, it provided a practical outlet for what I was learning. And finally, it gave me a good opportunity to minister to my students.
Learning French and Latin
My first exposure to French was through an accelerated course at a local Junior College. That proved to be unsatisfactory because it was too focused on conversational French. At UCLA I was able to take a non-credit summer course, “French for Graduate Students.” After some additional practice with the readings from the textbooks on the “Social Sciences” and on “Humanities,” I was able to pass the exam. Even so, it has always been difficult for me to read technical articles in French. The same summer I took French, I also took a course in Latin, because we normally read some from the Vulgate in the graduate course in Hebrew Bible that I had to take every semester.
I already mentioned that I passed the German exam before coming to UCLA. German proved to be one of the most important languages I needed for the doctorate program. For several classes one or more of the required textbooks was in German. Plus I had many classes with a professor who often used manuscripts for one of his forthcoming books as a substitute for a textbook. Sometimes these materials were in German. Back in High School when I chose to study German for three years I never realized how significant that decision would someday be. It is wonderful to contemplate how the Lord takes seemingly minor decisions in our life and later works them into the plans He has for us.
Moving from the MA to the PhD
After I passed the MA exams, I was granted permission to continue with the PhD. There was no MA thesis to write. For the PhD I chose to concentrate in the Akkadian language (Assyrian and Babylonian). As part of this course I had to learn Sumerian as well. I was able to participate in my adviser’s project to enter various Akkadian texts into a computer database (using punch cards!). My adviser then suggested I work with Western Akkadian texts (by scribes in Syria-Palestine) and consider doing my dissertation on that area. I chose to write the dissertation on the issue of word order in these texts. While I have not been able to mine that dissertation for a lot of the writing I have done since getting the degree, it did set me on a course for specializing in Hebrew language. Also, it has been interesting to me over the years to see how others have taken that dissertation and built upon it for their own research.
In the fall of 1976 I came on full-time at Talbot, but there were only a few classes I needed to complete before taking the oral qualifying exams, at which time one also presents a proposal for the dissertation. I soon realized, however, that the dissertation itself was a bigger project than I had initially imagined. Because the administration at Biola and Talbot at that time was trying to increase the number of faculty with doctorate degrees, I was able to participate in a program that funded my salary for the fall semester of 1978 while I worked on my dissertation. As a result, I was able to complete the work in time for a graduation with the PhD in June of 1979.
Right at the very end of the dissertation project I did something that almost ruined the whole thing. The committee that attended the oral qualifying exam was quite large and not everyone was actually scheduled to be part of the dissertation committee itself. One of the professors who attended taught Sumerian and was really just visiting UCLA for a few years. The examining committee agreed to waive a final defense of the dissertation, because they thought my proposal was sound. When I made copies of the initial draft for everyone on the smaller dissertation committee to see, I somehow failed to realize that the professor of Sumerian should also get a copy. Then when I sent around the final draft for everyone’s signature, it came to light that I had neglected to include his name. Hastily I got a copy to him and apologized profusely for the oversight. He was not very pleased at the time, especially since he had only a couple of days to read my work. However, after he read it he said he liked it and agreed to sign. To this day I don’t know how I didn’t keep my committee members straight, but I am thankful that the Lord intervened in a situation that had the potential for great disaster.
I would close by emphasizing how getting a PhD was not just my personal project but required the help of others. Dr. Feinberg and Talbot Seminary played a big role by providing me with encouragement and part-time work to help fund the enterprise. My wife had to struggle through the classes and the dissertation with me, and she was the major financial contributor to the family at the time. A great deal of who I am today is because she believed in me and helped me in so many ways. I tried hard not to compromise our relationship through my work and studies, and I am very grateful for that today. Less than fifteen years after I received the doctorate the Lord called her home to heaven. Our relationships are so important and ought never to be neglected for the sake of our personal ambitions. Finally, I owe everything to the Lord, who made it all happen. He answered my prayers so many times and was constantly affirming that I could do this difficult thing with his help. I believe he called me to do the program, and he was faithful to bring me to the point of completion. To God be the glory!