On Footnotes and Scholarship

I (Dave) remember a while back, a classmate with open book in hand exclaimed with much adoration, “Wow, look at this first footnote!” It was the first page of an essay in an edited book, where the body text of the first page of the essay turned out to be only three or four lines, and the rest of the page was filled with an extensive footnote. To my colleague, this was impressive. It represented scholarship. On another occasion, I had heard a different classmate state that in order to impress others and/or to get an essay accepted for publication, the first footnote should fill over half the page. Again, this represented scholarship.

But what is a footnote? And what is its role (or roles) in scholarship and research? The major ways in which footnotes are used today is to identify references, sources, and citations related to statements in the text to which the footnote is attached. This could include sources that the author quotes, sources that the author consulted, sources that the author depends on for his/her own statement, and sources that are related to the statement in some way. In some instances, footnotes are used not just for citations but to carry on discussions of tangential topics—a discussion footnote (although one might well consider either putting this in the text or deleting it altogether). For a citation footnote, a footnote is required if you use the words of someone else; if you quote someone, footnote them. Obviously. If you as an author consult a source and get some idea or ideas from them, it is wise, and ethical, to footnote them too. Other footnotes seem to be optional.

Now, what is scholarship? Scholarship is the advancement of a particular field through research, writing, teaching, and practice by means of rigorous study and investigation, and thoughtful analysis of the object of study. Scholarship is not… simply a reproduction of previously made statements, even if they contain truths (or mistruths). There is nothing wrong with reproducing truths—in fact, truths ought to be reproduced (and of course, mistruths should not). But we want to make a distinction between scholarship and a reproduction of truths.

Admittedly, it gets a bit tricky in biblical studies, because we are dealing with a finite corpus (66 books, if you’re Protestant) that students and teachers have been studying for millennia. So, admittedly, scholarship in biblical studies is much more of a challenge than, say, physical science (in the sense of the object of study), since the object of study for science is the universe, and hence almost unlimited.

Interestingly enough, footnoting and referencing in the scientific field is much more limited in comparison to biblical studies. Footnoting even in linguistics is much more limited than in biblical studies.

Earlier generations of biblical scholars used minimal footnotes. Take for example James Barr’s Semantics of Biblical Language. Not many footnotes there. Look at F.F. Bruce’s books. Minimal. Ernst Käsemann’s Perspective on Paul, as another example—just enough. Perhaps, they had less printed material to work with. But the publishing industry has been around for very long time. They seem to have been more interested in scholarship than simply citing the work of others.

So where is the place of footnoting in biblical studies? Well, if an author wants to seem erudite and desires to impress people, footnote away! But if a biblical scholar wants to really advance knowledge of Scripture by positing real research and thoughtful inquisition—in other words, produce scholarship—then an abundance, or overabundance, of footnotes is not really required. Just good scholarship.

— Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon


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