One of the frustrating parts of research, at least in my field, is the fact that you can spend large amounts of time doing research that only shows that something or other is almost certainly not the answer to your question. You can never show beyond all doubt that it isn’t because you can never prove that you’ve looked at every possible source and it’s very difficult to document your lack of results convincingly.
I am currently working on why all but one of the Kingdom parables in the Gospel of Thomas talk about the Kingdom as a person. “Maybe,” said one of my advisers, “it’s a Coptic story-telling device. Have a look in the Desert Fathers.” Not only did reading the Desert Fathers not reveal any such convention, it was also quite expensive. I had to borrow one volume of works of the DF on interlibrary loan and made the mistake of taking it into the toilet with me. I have possibly done this several thousands of times before with no problem, but this day I managed to drop the book into the toilet while it was flushing. I had to pay to replace the book (fortunately only a paperback Penguin Classics), plus an admin fee and the lending library wanted the book back!!!!! I could understand why they might want something irreplaceable back, but a Penguin paperback??? I put it into a plastic ziplock bag with a suitable warning on both sides and warned our librarians not to open it and went off muttering about obsessiveness.
“Perhaps,” said another person whose judgement I respect, “perhaps it’s a convention of Greek rhetoric.” So I read some Greek rhetoric textbooks in English translation, but to no avail. And, of course, I didn’t read every Greek rhetoric text book, nor have I read every Coptic story of the period so I can’t say categorically that it isn’t either of these things, just that it’s unlikely.
In connection with a problem with a piece of text, I wondered if the Coptic words SOP and OUOEISH were ever used as anything other than a direct equivalent of the Greek kairos. I spent many, many hours with the Coptic edition of the Nag Hammadi library looking at every instance in the index of Coptic words, seeing where SOP and OUOEISH occurred and checking whether they appeared to have any nuancing that might make them mean something other than kairos. I am very confident that there is no indexed usage of either of these words in the Nag Hammadi library where they could possibly mean anything other than kairos, but of course the index may have missed one or two occurrences and the Nag Hammadi library isn’t an exhaustive collection of Coptic of that era, so again I’m stuck with “it seems unlikely that…” [28 July: let me nuance this by saying that I am at least convinced that they couldn’t mean what they would need to mean in order for my hypothesis to be supported and that’s all I needed to know.]
So, what I want to know is how I go about getting due acknowledgment for all this painstaking but fruitless work. My SOP/OUOEISH thing isn’t so bad. I can say something like “a careful examination of the Nag Hammadi texts reveals no evidence of either SOP or OUOEISH being used in this way”, but “I am fairly confident that this is neither a Coptic story-telling device nor a Greek rhetorical convention” with a footnote indicating what I’ve read doesn’t sound particularly scholarly, somehow. I guess I could put in an appendix called “Dead ends I have pursued in the course of this research” and document how I have explored each issue and the amount of time I have spent in doing so. I could list the issues and indicate why I thought they were worth pursuing, how I went about their pursuit, the references I consulted and what the significance of a null result is. It doesn’t actually seem to be done in academic circles, of course. I’m not aware of any other thesis/dissertation with one of these appendices, so maybe I could become a pioneer!!! OTOH, as I would actually like to be awarded at PhD at the end of all this, perhaps I’d better just keep my records of dead ends in a file in case I need to justify an application for extension of time to complete my work. Who knows, one day I might actually find a use for an Excel spreadsheet documenting all instances of the use of SOP and OUOEISH in the Nag Hammadi Library, together with instances of other words translated “time”. 🙂