I have been working my way through the collected essays of Helmut Koester on Paul and His World (see sidebar for book details). The thing that strikes me above all is the way in which many of the essays seem to work with a single, basic question that forms the basis for Koester’s research. To take an example, in an essay on "Apostle and Church in the Letters to the Thessalonians", Koester explores the simple question: is Paul’s description of his apostolic calling and existence qualitatively different from his description of the calling/existence of the Thessalonian church?
In fact, it is probably easy to reconstruct what enabled Koster to formulate his simple question (this is my own reconstruction of a possible process, it may be entirely mistaken, but it seems to make sense). Koester is reading Ehrhardt Güttgemanns Der leidene Apostel und sein Herr: Studien zur paulinischen Christologie and comes across statements like "Because of their function as proclamation the sufferings of the apostle have to be distinguished clearly from the sufferings of the community" (Koester’s translation). He then thinks, "I am really not sure that is right" and turns to take a look at 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Through some careful exegesis he can then show how, for example, in 1 Thessalonians 1.5 Paul is not speaking about miraculous signs accompanying apostolic proclamation (that the Thessalonians could not imitate) but ‘joy and confidence in adverse circumstances’ which is a matter for imitation of the apostolic example by the Thessalonians (1.6-8). Further investigation of 2.3-6 and 3.15 also demonstrate that Paul is concerned not to demonstrate apostolic superiority, but rather apostolic surrender and love. By contrast, Koester can then turn to 2 Thessalonians and argue that here the picture is different and the congregation is indeed placed in a subordinate position to the apostle. This distinction makes best sense on the view that 2 Thessalonians is pseudonymous not least because the portrait of apostle-congregation from 1 Thessalonians is confirmed in other genuine epistles.
By responding to the simple question (is Güttgemann right about apostle-congregation relations?) Koester can offer a new contribution to the discussion, and offer an additional argument to the debate over the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians. The end result is a nice little essay for a Festschrift for Günther Bornkamm.
It strikes me that this is how research often works, and that the great skill to be learned is the skill of identifying the simple question. Once this is done, other things are needed (deep knowledge of the texts etc.) and Koester has all of this in spades. But the question is the thing.