Tools for Biblical Research, Part 2: Access to Scholarly Journals

Posted By on October 13, 2011

In the wake of the last post (the NT commentary example), I’ve had several requests about commentaries and journals. I’ll say something about commentaries in future posts, but those of you who are keeping up already know that I view them as one of several go-to resources, as opposed to them being the end of the destination. Along with scholarly/academic commentaries (defined here), the other two items in my “big three” are journals and monographs (books on very specific topics).† I’ll hit monographs in the future as well. For this installment, I want to focus on journals.

To start, what am I talking about when I talk about scholarly journals?† Let’s start at some similar things and work our way there.

Consider the magazine. Unlike a book, magazines turns out material in cycles (e.g., an annual subscription). General (“popular”) magazines are aimed at the lay user, the person with fleeting and casual interest. A magazine (like TIME, for example) has columns devoted to interest categories in each (“science”; “the arts”; etc.) that provides a distilled treatment of some topic or story in said category for the person who might have a passing interest — but no real devotion to stay current with a topic. This is why TIME is not a good resource for college (and seminary) papers. Its articles will lack both breadth and depth, and they are under no duress to present all sides of an issue so that a peer reviewer won’t flag them for turning a blind eye to something inconvenient. When TIME does its annual hit piece on Jesus and the gospels just before Easter (crazy timing!), you can be sure it isn’t going to give you anything that would impress or move an expert, regardless of their position on the issue. The writer might have 3-4 pages in the issue, so what can he or she really say? The author will interview some experts (often one-sided), cull a few choice quotes from those interviews, then do some “research” in encyclopedias or the internet (and possibly read a book), and out comes the article. It’s the nature of the beast. And while some magazine writers have devoted a lot of career time to a specific field interest, they are not content experts (i.e., they don’t have PhDs and no university department is going to hire them to teach their grad students — or even undergrads for that matter).These sorts of articles can range from nicely done with no glaring inaccuracies to pure agenda-driven pablum. And yet so many people have seen “TIME” at the supermarket, public library, or Barnes and Noble that they assign it respectability. Exposure means credibility. That’s the misinformed, superficial reality.

A jump up from popular magazines would be “trade magazines” (sometimes called trade journals, but they aren’t really journals – see below for why).† These are magazines whose aim is to provide academic content aimed at serious amateurs in a given field — people who may not work in a field but who nevertheless have sustained interest in it on the side. The articles are often written by experts who are able to communicate their content in a confined space (word count) so that it is accurate and decipherable to people outside their own guild. Biblical Archaeology Review is a good example, as is Logos’ Bible Study Magazine (though we devote more space to non-academic material / human interest stuff due to the clientele). But the academic material we have in the magazine is of high quality.

From there we move to journals. For a short summary of what makes a journal different from a magazine, check this page from the U of Michigan-Flint library page. I understand that what you read there may discourage you from getting into journals since they are written for people who have a certain measure of content knowledge already — but don’t be intimidated. It’s called stretching yourself. I regularly have undergrads read journal articles, telling them up front a lot of the reading will be over their head. I always distill what I want them to get out of the article. I just want to be disabused of the idea that popular publications are founts of knowledge. They need to realize that the journalist who wrote the hit piece on archeaology and the Bible would be soon embarrassed if a group of scholars grilled him on the content.

Now for the journals themselves. Two things to realize:

(1) There are a LOT of scholarly journals out there. To understand that I’m not exaggerating, check out this link to an online list of journal abbreviations (with names) from the Masters Seminary library. There are 41 pages to click through! Hundreds of titles. Most journals publish 3-4 issues a year, and some have been around for decades, even the late 19th century. So you can do the math — there are tens of thousands of high-quality, peer-reviewed articles to sort through on virtually any topic of passage under the sun. That’s why you need an index to all that … and that’s where libraries come in. And not only that, but in today’s age of digital resources, many journal publishers have converted all their articles to PDF — but they are available only by subscription. Libraries come in handy here, too.

(2) If you don’t have a faculty or student ID at a four-year college, you will have little or no access to this material. The reason is simple: the major indexes are not sold to individuals; they are licensed to institutions — for thousands of dollars per year (per index – and every discipline has them).

So what to do? There are three avenues you can pursue:

(1) Troll the web for stray issues and volume years that journal publishers have released to the web. These do exist. But by their very nature they are incomplete. They aren’t going to put everything out there for free when they can get a serious fee from each of a few thousand libraries out there. One of the best meta-resources for biblical studies in this regard is A short while back the Ancient World Online blog posted a description of this site, complete with a list of journals whose content you’ll find (in some form) on the site.

(2) You can purchase full archives (and up to date) of many journals in digital form through Logos. Some journals can be purchased by journal title, but I recommend the collections (such as this one, $15K worth of journals, some going back 70 years, for under $400). One problem, though, is that there is no index. But you can do research online to find articles on any subject and then look up the title of the journal you found in your Logos library to see if you have the journal. Or you can run a search in Logos through all your journals at once and find information that way. Very helpful.

(3) The mega-solution, though, is to get access to the journal databases and their motherlode. Even if the article are PDF (far less searchable than in Logos) you still have them. But to get access to all that you need a college or university ID.† That isn’t hard, actually — but it presumes you live near one. College and university libraries all sell “community user” library cards (which have ID numbers) to anyone in the area (they will likely not mail it, so you need to be reasonably close). These libraries will all have web portals that will get you to the journal databases and the PDFs of the articles once you get behind their ID portal. It’s that simple. I have two such cards now since not all libraries are equally up-t0-date on their subscription licenses.

Before you go ahead and do this, though, you should visit the website of the college or university library in your area to see if they subscribe to two key indexes for the humanities:† The ATLA (American Theological Library Association) Religion Database (the big one for religion and biblical studies) and JSTOR (short for “journal storage”) – much wider coverage than ATLA, and has a lot of the same content as ATLA — but it’ll get you to serious journals in archaeology, for example.† If your library subscribes to at least one, it’s worth paying $30-40 a year for the ID card.

If you aren’t near a four year college or university, you have two other options, but both are spotty: community colleges and public libraries. If you live in a metropolitan area, you may find a library in these two categories that subscribes to ATLA or JSTOR.† They often do not due to the expense, but you might get lucky. They can always get you an article via inter-library loan, but that’s a last-ditch substitute.

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13 Responses to “Tools for Biblical Research, Part 2: Access to Scholarly Journals”

  1. Sam says:

    Thank you so much for your time into others and sharing this valuable info. Now all I need is time to do some research. Just looking forward to what is next that you have to offer.

  2. tom bionic says:

    good post Dr. Heiser.

    I might make a minor recommendation, as to something to be treated later in the series. How to sort through it all! Things like: What journals are more prestigious than others? What are ones to ignore? ( I was forwarded a pdf onetime of an actual peer reviewed article entitled something like “Adam: man, spirit, or hermaphrodite”…) personal favorites, great authors, etc. (I’ve learned much from meredith kline of late, who’s got his own ‘fansite’ with some highlights up to read.) and other ‘helps’ you can give us.

    thanks for all you do.

    • MSH says:

      yeah; there’s weird stuff in journals. You should hear some of the stuff at conferences that never makes it to the journals! Good idea for a post.

  3. Jonnathan Molina says:

    Thanks for this article; it’s crucial to understand the differences between magazines and academic journals. I’m one of those people who like great journal articles, even when some of the content goes over my head. I would say to others not to become discouraged. The elements that do make sense will stick and make some things clearer; what you don’t understand can become another bible study for later, or a good question for a forum like this one. I need to check if my community college has access to JSTOR (they do offer an database through the library). Good information!

  4. frances m. davis says:

    Michael – Facade – I purchased the download – never got username or password. Sent 5 emails no reply. Hate to post here out of discussion – but I have got no reply elsewhere and this seems to be a place you pay attention to. No human seems to be minding “THE FACADE” store. Highest Regards and Respect.

  5. PM says:

    Firstly I want to thank you for all of your contributions, in particular this most recent series that you are now doing. I wanted to suggest another option for people that don’t have access to the indexes you mentioned and want to find Journal articles. I will also put a note that I’m not affiliated with this group at all, but the study platform has a search function built-in and one of the tabs for an area of searching is in fact Journals! So after being disappointed about not having easy access to the indexes and not wanting to search high and low on the internet I was very pleased with this free online tool!

  6. Ken Berry says:

    Some public libraries offer cardholders online access to various journal databases. Some universities and seminaries offer JSTOR or ATLA access to alumni. I can take advantage of all three of these options.

  7. tom bionic says:

    PM. Dang that is neat, I appreciate the fact that has that option, even though it’s not a complete search.

    MSH. If can do a limited free search of online journals, what’s the likelihood that this is an option that could be added to logos bible software, either for free or a nominal cost?

  8. [...] while back I blogged on the importance of scholarly journals for biblical research. J-STOR, one of the premier database repositories for academic journals in [...]

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