Doubt and the New Testament

Yale University religion professor Dale Martin has some words of warning for the students in his course Introduction to New Testament History and Literature (website, iTunes):

De omnibus dubitandum.”

Say it loud, he tells his students. Say it with feeling. “Say it tonight, before you go to sleep. Say it in the morning, when you wake. Every day of the semester say it before you go to sleep.”

What does it mean? Doubt everything. “And that includes me, because I’m going to lie to you a lot all semester long. Or, at least, somebody will accuse me of that I guarantee.”


A folio from P46, an early 3rd century collection of Pauline epistles. Image credit*

With his Texas twang and exhortations such as these, Martin’s speaking style has a passing resemblance to the cadences of a televangelist. Indeed Martin, a self-described “former fundamentalist” repeatedly emphasizes that it’s perfectly legitimate to read the New Testament through the eyes of faith.

But he has a different mission. He wants to teach his students to read the New Testament critically, as historical documents with a context and an agenda. He shows the class how it’s done in lecture 5, The New Testament as History, in which he contrasts the itinerary of Paul’s ministry in Acts of the Apostles with Paul’s own account of his travels in his letters. Then he asks the students to explain the many conflicts and contradictions.

Who is more likely to be telling the truth, Martin wants to know. Is it Paul or the author of Acts? They can’t both be right. And its the job of the doubting historian to try to pull apart each side’s likely motives to get at the truth.

Related posts:
How the Biblical texts became Holy Scripture
Web resources on early Christianity
Dreaming of the Apocalypse
The World of the Hebrew Bible

*Image credit: Wikipedia. Public domain.
This entry was posted in Academic podcasts, Bible, Courses, Five-star professors, Religion and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Doubt and the New Testament

  1. richard mullins says:

    “Their descriptions of a meeting in Jerusalem–a major council in Acts versus a small, informal gathering in Galatians–also differ quite a bit”.

    But couldn’t a “major council” also be a “small, informal gathering”? Major may mean e.g. “annual general meeting”. But maybe only 10 people turned up and they had a relaxed chat over coffee and biscuits.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s