Text Criticism and Biblical Authority in Origen’s Homily on Ps 77

Here’s another post I originally published in 2017 on Origen’s Psalm Homilies.

Below you’ll find the Greek text of section 1 of Origen’s first Homily on Ps. 77 along with my translation. Beneath this, you’ll find my notes and comments.

(Update 3/27/17: James Snapp Jr wrote in, several weeks ago to point out an embarrassing typo and to direct me to Willer’s textual commentary on the Greek gospels: http://www.willker.de/wie/TCG/index.html

Willker notes that Porphyry and Eusebius mention the reading; both seem to be repeating Origen.)

English Translation

We regularly say that the psalms with the prefix “of understanding” use this superscription to direct the listener to investigate carefully what has been said, as they need interpretation and explication, since every psalm with this prefix has dark sayings, riddles, and parables. This is indeed the case here, for we have the superscription, “of understanding, by Asaph” and immediately it says in the psalm, “I shall open my mouth in parables, I shall speak riddles as from the beginning.” (Ps. 77:2). One must know that Matthew mentions this saying– writing about how the Savior spoke in parables, he said, “so that the passage may be fulfilled ‘I shall open my mouth in parables; I shall speak in riddles as of from the beginning’ or rather, ‘ <I shall declare things hidden> since the establishing of the world’. (1) Though Matthew paraphrased with those sorts of words what was said in this way here, there occurred a scribal error in the copies of the gospel, for it says, “so that what was said through the prophet Isaiah may be fulfilled, ‘I will open my mouth in parables’”. It’s likely that one of the very first scribes found the text, “so that what was said through the prophet Asaph,” and supposed that it was an error because he did not realize that Asaph was a prophet. This caused him rashly to write “Isaiah” instead of “Asaph” because of his unfamiliarity with the prophet’s name.

Now it must be said that the devil generally plots against living creatures and plans to divide the churches, to contrive heresies and schisms, and to produce countless stumbling blocks among men. It’s no surprise, then, that he also plots against the scriptures. Since our salvation is through them, he contrives to introduce discrepancies among them, so that through these discrepancies readers might be scandalized. Which are we to heed, this one or that one? (2) You know all that we have labored over for God and for his grace, in juxtaposing the Hebrew text and the other editions to ascertain the proper correction of these mistakes. He will also grant aid in all that we want to do about the rest.

Now one must acknowledge this, that if someone ever proposes something as a contradiction in the scripture, we must not regard these as contradictions, as we know that either we don’t understand something or a scribal error has occurred, of the sort we find, for example, in the third book of Kings i.e. English 1 Kings. It is written there “Rehoboam reigned 16 years and reigned for 12 years over Jerusalem” (1 Kings 12:24) and later “He reigned for 41 years and 17 years over Jerusalem.” (1 Kings 14:21). It is impossible for the same man to have ruled for 16 years and to have ruled for 17 years.” But even if there not been this close scrutiny through our comparing the readings of the other editions, we would still hesitate to posit conflict among the scriptures because we discovered that one of them was interpolated.”

So we see that the devil plots against the scriptures, but we must not, therefore, rashly resort to correcting the text. For Marcion suffered from something of this sort in supposing that the scriptures were in error and that the devil had brought about additions. So he entrusted himself with the task of correcting the scripture. In so doing, he cut out from the foundations necessary parts of the gospels, like the birth of the savior, and countless others, like the visions and prophecies, and necessary parts of the apostle. As such, it’s reasonable for one have faith in the maker of heaven and earth and all within them more because of the universe and the order in it, than because of the scriptures. Likewise, it’s reasonable for one to believe in Christ Jesus more because of the clear display of his power in the churches, and from the multitude of the might he shows in ruling the world, than because the scriptures. Only afterwards should one then come to the scriptures, and even then, one should ask again for grace from God, so that we don’t misunderstand what has been written.

The scriptures are the pretext for much death coming upon souls. Every heresy takes its ungodly notions from the scriptures and from them they also think to establish them further. Some heresies have their roots in the gospels, some in the apostolic writings, some from the law, and some of the prophets. I say this not to impugn the scriptures, but because I want to show that initial faith comes about not so much on the basis of the scriptures as on the proof of something clearer than the scriptures. Heaven and Earth, and all within it, are a much clearer proof than the scriptures. I recall saying once while in discussion with some Marcionites, “There are two choices— what ought we to do? Believe in the scriptures, which you say lead to the Father, or believe in the universe and its order, which leads to the Demiurge (3)? For if the scriptures did not contain these, it would be reasonable for someone to look at the universe, see its order, and to believe in its creator, instead of holding the sorts of notions that you hold.” (4) And it seems to me that this was rightly said, and able to strike the one who’s looking for an argument clearer than this less persuasive one. For it’s a much clearer argument to look to heaven, the constellations, the sun, moon, and stars, the earth, and the animals on the earth, and then to their king on the earth, mankind, adorned with such skills, and then to marvel at the one who made all of this and receive the herald of such marvelous teaching, Jesus Christ, our Savior. This then is my defense of the passage in the gospel of Matthew, “in order to fulfill what was said by the prophet Isaiah, ‘I shall open my mouth in parables; I shall speak riddles as from the beginning.’”


There’s quite a bit that’s fascinating in this passage. Origen has a problem: his copies of Matthew attribute this passage to Isaiah, when it clearly comes from the psalms. His solution is text critical: he posits an emendation to change the name from Isaiah to Asaph. He even goes a step further and speculates on the reason for the change: a scribe didn’t realize who Asaph was, and substituted the name of a prophet he did know.

The situation in the mss is quite different. All of the early majuscules simply say “the prophet” without specifying a name, with one notable exception: Sinaiticus. It seems likely, however, that “Isaiah the prophet” was the reading in all of Origen’s manuscripts, as he has to resort to emendation. Not only that, he supposes that it was one of the very first scribes that made the mistake (τὶς τῶν ἀρχῆθεν γραφόντων). Perhaps the “Isaiah” reading was widespread in Caesarea in the 3rd century. Someone who knows more about the textual history of Matthew can no doubt elucidate this better than I. For what it’s worth, it seems to me that the error arose because of the formulaic nature of the clause. Matthew cites Isaiah again and again; it would be quite easy for a scribe to insert the name by accident where it doesn’t belong. As one who’s memorized portions of Matthew, I can say that keeping straight the various subtle changes from one “fulfillment formula” to the next is not easy.

Origen does not want to resort to emendation too quickly, however. Marcion is his chief example of a rash emender. I find Origen’s strategy rather fascinating. He doesn’t have a shared authoritative text from which to argue, and so he can’t point to scripture. Instead, he points to extra-textual phenomenon: the order of the universe, the power of the churches, and it seems, the moral purity of Jesus’ teachings. The scriptures are sufficiently contested, especially in the most difficult passages, that they shouldn’t form the foundation of one’s faith, or, at least, shouldn’t be set forth as the way to convince someone to become a Christian. Ideally, for Origen, faith precedes serious engagement with the scriptures. That doesn’t mean, however, that the scriptures aren’t extremely important. Our salvation “is through them” and that’s precisely why the devil plots and schemes against them. The scriptures are a spiritual treasure, but can easily become a stumbling block if one doesn’t come to them with the right approach.


(Editorial additions marked with an asterisk are my own tentative suggestions. Those not so marked are Perrone’s).

There seems to be an error in the text here. The psalm reads φθέγξομαι προβλήματα ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς (“I shall speak riddles from the beginning”) , but the gospel reads ἐρεύξομαι κεκρυμμένα ἀπο καταβολῆς κοσμοῦ (“I shall reveal things hidden from the foundation of the world.”) The following text suggests we should have Matthew’s reading here (which we do in part with ἤτοι ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου), as Origen characterizes Matthew’s citation as a paraphrase (παραφρασάντος … Ματθαίου). I’ve supplied ἐρεύξομαι κεκρυμμένα after ἤτοι. We would then understand Origen to be correcting himself with the ἤτοι (these homilies are not explicitly labeled as impromptu in the ms, but others in the collection are). Conceivably Origen meant to cite the text as found in Matthew’s gospel, but instead used the Psalm’s wording. The following sentence seems suspicious too. We’d expect the δέ in the opening of the sentence, not after γέγονε, but Origen does seem to use so called apodotic δέ. I’ve tentatively inserted a μέν after παραφράσαντος to bring out the contrast. Such a construction (μέν+δέ with a genitive absolute) wouldn’t be classical Attic, but it seems we need something to smooth over the asyndeton. I’d have to do more work with the TLG to determine the insertion is fully warranted.

I wonder if something has dropped out here, or the text is corrupt. We have a very sudden transition with no nominative to clarify the change in subject. I’ve changed οἶδεν (“he knows”) to οἶδατε (“you all know”), which seems to make decent sense.

Marcion held that there were two distinct gods, one of the Old Testament and one of the New Testament. The OT god, generally called the Demiurge or Creator had created the universe, but was generally angry and arbitrary. The NT god, the Father, was the higher god and the father of Christ. He had sent Christ to correct the mistakes of the Demiurge.

Origen’s point is that even if you excise everything in the scriptures about God being creator, one could infer a good creator from the order in the universe.

Greek Text

Πολλάκις λέγομεν ὅτι οἱ ἐπιγεγραμμένοι συνέσεως ψαλμοὶ διὰ τῆς ἐπιγραφῆς ἐπιστρέφουσι τὸν ἀκούοντα ζητεῖν τὰ ἐν τῷ ψαλμῷ λεγόμενα ὡς δεόμενα ἑρμηνείας καὶ διηγήσεως τῷ σκοτεινοὺς λόγους καὶ αἰνίγματα καὶ παραβολὰς ἐμπεριέχεσθαι παντὶ ψαλμῷ, ὅπου γέγραπται τὸ συνέσεως. Τοῦτο δὴ καὶ ἐνθάδε γεγένηται· ἐπιγέγραπται γὰρ συνέσεως τῷ Ἀσάφ, καὶ εὐθέως λέγεται ἐν αὐτῷ τὸ ἀνοίξω ἐν παραβολαῖς τὸ στόμα μου, φθέγξομαι προβλήματα ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς. Καὶ τοῦτο χρὴ εἰδέναι, ὅτι τοῦ μὲν ῥητοῦ ἐμνήσθη ὁ Ματθαῖος. Περὶ γὰρ τοῦ σωτῆρος γράφων ὅτι ἐν παραβολαῖς ἐλάλησεν, εἶπεν· ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ “ἀνοίξω ἐν παραβολαῖς τὸ στόμα μου, φθέγξομαι προβλήματα ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς”, ἤτοι <ἐρεύξομαι κεκρυμμένα> ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου. Παραφράσαντος <μέν> τὸ ῥητὸν τοιαύταις λέξεσιν οὕτως ἐνθάδε εἰρημένον τοῦ Ματθαίου, γέγονε δὲ περὶ τὰ ἀντίγραφα τοῦ εὐαγγελίου σφάλμα γραφικόν· ‘ἵνα γάρ,’ φησί, ‘πληρωθῇ τὸ εἰρημένον ὑπὸ Ἠσαΐου· “ἀνοίξω ἐν παραβολαῖς τὸ στόμα μου”’. Εἰκὸς γὰρ ἕνα τινὰ τῶν ἀρχῆθεν γραφόντων μὴ ἐπιστήσαντα μὲν ὅτι ἐστὶν ὁ Ἀσὰφ προφήτης, εὑρόντα δὲ τὸ ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ εἰρημένον ὑπὸ Ἀσάφ, ὑπειληφέναι ὅτι ἁμάρτημά ἐστι καὶ τετολμηκέναι διὰ τὸν ξενισμὸν τοῦ ὀνόματος τοῦ προφήτου ποιῆσαι ἀντὶ τοῦ Ἀσὰφ Ἠσαΐου.

Καὶ καθόλου δὲ λεκτέον, ὅτι ζῶσιν ἐπιβουλεύει ὁ διάβολος καὶ τὰςἐκκλησίας βούλεται διασκορπίζειν, ἐπινοεῖν δὲ καθ’ ἑκάστην ἡμέραν αἱρέσειςκαὶ σχίσματα, ἔτι δὲ καὶ σκάνδαλα μυρία γεννᾶν ἐν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις. Οὐθαυμαστὸν εἰ καὶ ταῖς γραφαῖς ἐπιβουλεύει· ἐπεὶ γὰρ ἡ σωτηρία ἡμῶνδι’ αὐτῶν ἐστιν, ἐπινοεῖ διαφωνίαν γενέσθαι ἐν ταῖς γραφαῖς, ἵνα διὰ τῆςδιαφωνίας γένηται σκάνδαλον τοῖς ἀναγινώσκουσι· τίνι προσακτέον, τῷδε ἢτῷδε; Καὶ ὅσα μὲν διὰ τὸν θεὸν καὶ τὴν χάριν αὐτοῦ ἐκάμομεν, συνεξετάζοντεςκαὶ τὰ Ἑβραϊκὰ καὶ τὰς ἐκδόσεις ὑπὲρ τοῦ ἰδεῖν τὴν διόρθωσιν τῶν σφαλμάτων, οἶδατε (Perrone and the ms read οἶδεν)· ὅσα δὲ θέλομεν καὶ περὶ τὰ λείποντα ποιῆσαι, αὐτὸς εὐοδώσει.

Τοῦτο μέντοι χρὴ εἰδέναι· ἐάν ποτε προτείνηταί <τι> ὡς ἐναντίωμα ἀπὸτῆς γραφῆς, μὴ νομίζωμεν ἐναντιώματα εἶναι, εἰδότες ὅτι ἤτοι ἡμεῖς οὐνοοῦμεν ἢ ἁμάρτημα γέγονε γραφικόν, οἷον ἐπὶ παραδείγματος ἄντικρυςεὕρομεν διαφωνίαν τῇ τρίτῃ τῶν Βασιλειῶν. Γέγραπται γὰρ ἐκεῖ ὅτι Ῥοβοὰμἑκκαίδεκα ἐτῶν ἐβασίλευσε καὶ δώδεκα ἔτη ἐβασίλευσεν ἐπὶ Ἰερουσαλὴμ καὶπάλιν· τεσσαράκοντα ἑνὸς ἐτῶν ἐβασίλευσε καὶ τὰ ἑπτακαίδεκα ἔτηἐβασίλευσεν ἐπὶ τὴν Ἰερουσαλήμ. Ἀμήχανον δὲ τὸν αὐτὸν ἑκκαίδεκα ἐτῶνπαρειληφέναι τὴν ἀρχὴν καὶ ἐπὶ ἑπτακαίδεκα βεβασιλευκέναι. Καὶ εἰ μὴπολλὴ ἐξέτασις ἐγεγόνει, συνεξεταζόντων ἡμῶν ταῦτα τὰ ἀναγνώσματα ταῖςλοιπαῖς ἐκδόσεσιν, ἐμέλλομεν οἴεσθαι μάχην εἶναι τῶν γεγραμμένων, ὡςεὕρομεν ὅτι τὸ ἕτερον αὐτῶν παραγέγραπται.

Ἐπιβουλεύει τοίνυν καὶ ταῖς γραφαῖς ὁ διάβολος, ἀλλὰ οὐ διὰ τοῦτο ἡμᾶς χρὴ τολμᾶν καὶ προπετῶς ἥκειν ἐπὶ τὴν διόρθωσιν. Τοιοῦτον γάρ τι παθὼν καὶ ὁ Μαρκίων καὶ ὑπολαβὼν ἡμαρτῆσθαι τὰς γραφὰς καὶ τοῦ διαβόλου γεγονέναι παρεγγραφάς, ἐπέτρεψεν ἑαυτῷ διορθοῦν τὴν γραφήν. Καὶ ἐπιτρέψας, ἦρεν ἐκ βάθρων τὰ ἀναγκαῖα τῶν εὐαγγελίων, τὴν γένεσιν τοῦ σωτῆρος, καὶ ἄλλα μυρία, καὶ ὀπτασίας καὶ προφητείας καὶ τὰ ἀναγκαῖα τοῦ ἀποστόλου. Διὰ τοῦτο εὔλογόν ἐστι τὸν πίστιν ἔχοντα, οὐ τοσοῦτον διὰ τὰς γραφὰς ὅσον διὰ τὸν κόσμον καὶ τὴν τάξιν τὴν ἐν αὐτῷ, <εἰς> τὸν ποιήσαντα τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν καὶ τὰ ἐν αὐτοῖς καὶ πιστεύοντα εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν, οὐ τοσοῦτον ἀπὸ τῶν ἀναγνωσμάτων ὅσον ἀπὸ τῆς ἐναργείας ἐκ τῆς δυνάμεως τῶν ἐκκλησιῶν, ἐκ τοῦ πλήθους τῆς ἰσχύος αὐτοῦ κεκρατηκότος τῆς οἰκουμένης, ἔπειτα ἥκειν ἐπὶ τὰ γράμματα, μετὰ τοῦτο πάλιν αἰτεῖν ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ χάριν, ἵνα μὴ παρεκδεξώμεθα τὰ γεγραμμένα.

Πολὺς γὰρ θάνατος ἐπεισῆλθε ψυχαῖς προφάσει τῶν γραμμάτων. Πᾶσα αἵρεσις ἀπὸ τῶν γραμμάτων φέρεται τὰ ἀσεβῆ νοήματα καὶ ἀπ’ αὐτῶν οἴονται αὐτὰ κατασκευάζειν· ἀπὸ εὐαγγελίων, ἀπὸ ἀποστόλων, τινὲς δὲ αἱρέσεις ἀπὸ νόμου, ἀπὸ προφητῶν. Οὐ ταῦτα λέγω κατηγορῶν τῶν γραφῶν, ἀλλὰ βουλόμενος τὴν προηγουμένην πίστιν γενέσθαι οὐ τοσοῦτον ἐπὶ τὴν γραφὴν ὅσον ἐπὶ τὴν τῆς γραφῆς ἐναργεστέραν ἀπόδειξιν· ἐναργεστέρα δὲ τῆς γραφῆς ἀπόδειξις οὐρανός, γῆ καὶ τὰ ἐν αὐτῇ. Τοῖς ἀπὸ Μαρκίωνος διαλεγόμενος <μέμνημαι> εἰρηκέναι· “δύο προκειμένων—πιστεύειν τῇ γραφῇ, ὡς ὑμεῖς λέγετε πρὸς τὸν πατέρα, ἢ πιστεύειν τῷ κόσμῳ καὶ τῇ τάξει πρὸς τὸν δημιουργόν—, τί χρὴ μᾶλλον ποιεῖν; Εἰ γὰρ καὶ ἡ γραφὴ <μὴ> ταῦτα περιεῖχεν, εὔλογον ἦν ἐπὶ τὸν κόσμον ἐλθόντα καὶ ἰδόντα τὴν τάξιν, πεπιστευκέναι τῷ δημιουργῷ ἢ τοιαύτας ὑπολήψεις ἔχειν περὶ θεοῦ ὁποίας ὑμεῖς ὑπειλήφατε”; Καὶ ἔστιν ἀληθῶς τὸ λεγόμενον, ὡς ἐμοὶ δοκεῖ, οἷόν τε πλῆξαι τὸν ζητοῦντα ἀπόδειξιν ἐναργεστέραν παρὰ ὑποδεεστέραν· ἐναργεστέρα ἀπόδειξις βλέπειν οὐρανόν, ἄστρα, ἥλιον, σελήνην, ἀστέρας, γῆν καὶ τὰ ἐπὶ γῆς ζῷα, αὐτῶν βασιλέα τὸν ἄνθρωπον τὸν ἐπὶ γῆς τοσαύταις τέχναις κεκοσμημένον, θαυμάζειν τὸν ταῦτα πεποιηκότα καὶ ἀποδέχεσθαι τὸν κήρυκα τῆς διδασκαλίας τῆς τοιαύτης, Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν τὸν σωτῆρα ἡμῶν. Καὶ τοῦτο εἰς ἀπολογίαν διὰ τὸ ἐν τῷ κατὰ Ματθαῖον γεγράφθαι, ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ Ἠσαΐου τοῦ προφήτου· ἀνοίξω ἐν παραβολαῖς τὸ στόμα μου, φθέγξομαι προβλήματα ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς.


Perrone, L., M. M. Pradel, and A. Cacciari, Origenes Werke, vol. 13: Die neuen Psalmenhomilien (Berlin 2015)

Evagrius, On Prayer 47–49


The demon is exceedingly envious of a person at prayer and uses every means to ruin this goal. That’s why it never ceases stirring up thoughts about daily affairs through the memory and inciting compulsive desires through the flesh. It does this so that it can impede our progress in our journey out of this country to God.


Whenever that most foul demon is unable, after much trying, to hinder earnest prayer, it withdraws for a short time and then later has its revenge after the end of prayer. It either kindles some sort of anger within you and ruins that excellent and disciplined state that comes from prayer, or seduces you to some irrational pleasure and does violence to your mind.


After you have prayed as you ought, be on your guard against what you ought not to do and stand with courage as you guard your fruit. After all, in the beginning you were commanded “to work and to keep.” So after you have done your work, do not let the result of your labor go unguarded. Otherwise, you’ll have no benefit from your prayer.

Evagrius, On Prayer 44–46


If your mind still gazes about you during the time of prayer, you know that a solitary mind is no longer praying, but a worldly one, for it is trying to adorn its outward tent.


In your prayer. guard your memory with all your power so that it doesn’t present all the normal things to the mind but instead moves you to knowledge of the presence. By natural inclination the mind is easily held captive by memory during the time of prayer.


While in prayer your memory will present to you either mental images of old matters, or newer concerns, or the face of someone who has caused you pain.

Evagrius, On Prayer 41–43


See to it that you are truly present with God in your prayer rather than being overcome by the desire for human praise. When you spur yourself with human praise you are using prayer as a veil to true presence.


Whether you are praying with your brothers and sisters, or all alone, strive to carry out your prayer not through habit, but with perception.


Perception in prayer is the reverent and sorrowful awareness of a soul in pain from the confession of its faults by silent groaning.

Evagrius, On Prayer 38–40


Pray persistently first to be cleansed of compulsions; second, for deliverance from ignorance and forgetfulness; and third, from every temptation and sense of abandonment.


In your prayer seek only righteousness and the kingdom, that is, virtue and knowledge, and all the rest will be added to you.


It is right to pray not only for your own cleansing, but also for all your fellow people, so that you may imitate the way of the angels.

Evagrius, On Prayer 34–37


Do not fall into doubt when you do not immediately receive from God your request. He wants to bless you still further as you persevere with him in prayer. After all, what could be more exalted than conversing with God and exerting oneself for intimacy with him?


Undistracted prayer is the mind’s highest mental activity.


Prayer is the mind’s ascent toward God.


If you desire to carry out your prayer, reject all things so that you may inherit the all.

Evagrius, On Prayer 31–33


Do not go on praying that your own desires come to pass, since they do not cohere perfectly with the desire of God. Instead, pray persistently as you have learned, “thy will be done in me.” In every endeavor, pray this way, so that his will would be done. After all, he desires what is good and beneficial for your soul. But quite often you do not pursue this.


Often after praying I would ask for what I thought good to come to pass and would persist irrationally in this request, thereby doing violence to the will of God and refusing to yield to it so that he would carry out what he knows to be best. Indeed, when I got what I asked for, I was extremely bitter that I hadn’t been asking for his will instead, for the matter does not work out like I’d supposed.


What is good besides God? So let us entrust all our affairs to him and they will go well. After all, he who is entirely good is also the giver of good gifts.

HTD: Time/Project Management (Pt. 1)

Ah, there’s nothing like finally making the time to write a post on time management. Improving my ability to manage my time was certainly one of the most important skills I gained from the dissertation project. Good time planning is a meta-skill: it fosters flourishing across the different parts of your life. In this post I discuss some of the big picture challenges of the dissertation and argue that time management’s biggest boon is not the increased productivity, but its potential to free you from one of the most pernicious aspects of PhD life: the anxiety spiral about never having done enough. In another post, I’ll dive into more specific approaches I found helpful and talk about planning individual days. My thinking on all this in deeply indebted to Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work, which you should go buy immediately if you haven’t read it. It’s both extremely practical and rooted in a philosophically rich vision of the good life.

What’s so hard about a dissertation anyway?

The dissertation was unlike anything else I had done in graduate school (my program didn’t include an MA thesis). It’s a long-term project with few, if any external deadlines. You receive infrequent input from outside sources. Moreover, the “finished dissertation” is a rather abstract and nebulous: it’s difficult to say when any given chapter, much less the whole is “ready.” The combination of large-scale and ill-defined final product is a project manager’s worst nightmare (you are essentially your own project manager while doing your dissertation). Compare coursework, where you typically see a professor several times a week, often have graded assignments other than a final paper, and usually have clear parameters about page-length and topic. In short, my strategies for doing course work well did not work well for getting a dissertation done. It wasn’t enough simply to do the reading, read a couple of books, read some articles, and assemble something near the end of the semester. Even comprehensive exams, which for me required months of study, were much more clearly defined tasks. I could simply ask how many questions I had prepared or how much of the primary reading list I had gotten through. By contrast, with a dissertation you always feel the pressure to read that one more book, or that one more article in German, because you’re supposed to be the “expert.” This quickly leads even sanguine types to a persistent anxiety and frustration, because you never feel like you’ve done enough. Frankly, I think getting free of this anxiety spiral is much more important than the actual productivity you get from good time management, because the phenomenon this anxiety spiral persists even when you are objectively productive. There were lots of days I put in significant time, made respectable progress based on external metrics (pages read, words drafted, etc.), and still felt spent and hopeless at the end because there was still more to do (one of the reasons rest is so vital). Flourishing as a person is vastly more important than your objective output. Careful time planning not only makes your work time more efficient and productive, but also makes your off-time more restful and nourishing.

Managing Expectations

Time management, or life really, is about expectation management. A good process for time management should allow you to make reasonable estimations about what you can accomplish in a certain time period with the resources at your disposal. This usually requires a few things. I’ll list them here and expand below:

  • Dedicated time to plan and reflect.
  • Clear estimates for how long it will take to perform tasks.
  • A clear schedule for when and where you’ll be working on the task.
  • Deadlines that influence your behavior

Time for Planning and Reflection

You probably only need 5–10 minutes at the beginning of the day to plan, and maybe 20–30 minutes at the end of a week to reflect on how things went the past week. It’s easy for planning to get put off in favor of some more “productive” task like reading an article or reading a primary source, but I try to keep myself from falling into that trap. Regular planning, however brief, is vital not because you need to keep to your plans meticulously, but planning brings awareness into a process that often proceeds without any consciousness at all. Reflection on how things have gone helps you re-calibrate your expectations on how long things will take. This reflection allows you to say things like, “Oh, I didn’t read quite as much as I wanted to this week, but that’s because I took that one morning off to go to the zoo with my kids. That trade off is worth it to me.”

Clear Time Estimates for Common Tasks

Some research tasks are fairly predictable and you should have concrete numbers for. How long does it take you to read a page of academic prose in English? How about in German? French? Questions like that are vital but it took a surprisingly long time before I had explicit answers. I found, for instance, that in an hour I could normally read about 60 pages of academic prose in English. I read German, French, or Italian at about half the rate. I know that I can read 250–300 lines of Homer in an hour, or normally between 1500 and 2500 words of Greek prose an hour, depending on the difficulty of the author and how much sleep and coffee I’ve had. This means that when I was deciding between reading an entire book or just selecting the chapters I needed, I could see immediately that a 500 page book in English would require 8–9 hours of time, while selecting, say, the most relevant chapter or two may only require 1–2. Or, when I was selecting which primary sources to deal with, I knew that reading ps.-Basil’s De vera virginitate in Greek would take about 10 hours. Other tasks are a little bit more variable, like drafting new material are more variable, but even here you you should track your progress and make educated guesses. During periods when I was writing new material I’d typically shoot for 1,000–1,500 words a day. Sometimes I’d get there, other times not. Perhaps the most difficult task to estimate time for is editing. Proofreading for style is different than incorporating suggestions from an advisor or friend, for instance. Ballpark figures are still useful though, because you don’t want to obsess to the point where you refuse to move on to the next chapter. So you probably want to a deadline (I’m sending this to my advisor in two weeks) and then work backward from that to fit in however much editing is possible.

A Clear Schedule

Because of family responsibilities, I normally had about 15–20 hours a week that I could spend on the dissertation. Setting a normal work schedule allows you to project into the future. You don’t have to have the exact same schedule each week, but by the beginning of the week you should be able to say something like, “I’m going to work from 8–11 MWF and 2–4 on T/Th). For those, like me, who have kids, your work time is set by how much childcare you can afford or when your spouse or a family member can watch the kids. Arranging childcare is a pain, but on the flip side, it helps you focus, since there’s a dollar amount attached to the time you’re working.

As for location, it’s often helpful to have a space devoted to work (a study at home, a certain part or desk at the library). Our brains associate locations with task, so it’s easy to get into a flow state if you’re working in a spot that you’ve learned to associate with productive work. More important, however, is that the spot be free of distraction. For me, this meant the library was a much better space than the graduate student office in our department, and a home office was better still.

Deadlines that Influence your Behavior

Working backward from a deadline is actually one of the most important things you can do with a dissertation, because there’s always more that you could read or incorporate into any given chapter. You want both large scale deadlines (I’m going to defend in April, 2019) but you want them at a smaller scale too (I’m going to finish the reading and research phase of this chapter by the end of the month, or I’m going to turn this chapter in by the end of the Summer). Once you’ve set a deadline, you can figure out how many hours that translates into (a month was typically 60–80 work hours for me). Then you figure out how much you can read and write within that time. You’ll inevitably have to make some compromises, but you’ll be conscious of the trade-offs: “I didn’t read those articles because I thought it was more important that I read Gregory of Nyssa’s De virginitate in Greek” or “I cut that section from my chapter because it would have required 40 hours of reading that I don’t have time for now. I’ll save that for a future article instead.”