New Testament History and Literature


New Testament History and Literature by Yale professor Dale Martin is an excellent (and cheaper) alternative to Bart Ehrman’s college textbook on the New Testament. It’s a great introduction to how scholars think about the New Testament texts. Rating: 5/5 


Below is a whole collection of interesting quotes from the book for your convenience:

– On why John has a different date for Jesus’ death:

“According to all three synoptic Gospels the crucifixion takes place on the first day of Passover. The Last Supper in the Synoptics is a Passover meal itself. According to Jewish reckoning, the beginning of a day was a sunset of what we would consider the previous day. So after sundown on what we would call Thursday, Jesus ate a Passover meal at the beginning of Passover, and he was crucified on Friday, the first day of Passover. John provides a completely different account. In John, the Last Supper is not a Passover seder. Instead, Jesus is executed on the “day of Preparation”, that is, the day before Passover when people are having their Passover lambs slaughtered and sacrificed before they then eat the lambs along with the rest of the seder that evening (John 19:14, 19:31, 19:42). This may be symbolically for the author since he has already told us that Jesus is the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29, 1:36. At any rate, it is a significant departure from the account of the Synoptics.” – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 158)

– Why for Luke Jesus’ death isn’t “ransom”:

“Whereas Matthew follows Mark in taking the death of Jesus to be a ransom sacrifice, Luke does not. Although we have seen that Luke takes over much he finds in Mark, he does not copy Mark 10:45.

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  – Mark 10:45

The reason he does not is that he does not agree with the Christology: Luke does not interpret the death of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice. We can see this in several ways, as in Luke;s omission of Mark 10:45. Another is how Luke changes what he gets from Mark elsewhere. For example, Mark portrays Jesus as silent and in anguish before and at the time of his death, even asking God why God has abandoned him (Mark 15:34). Luke leaves out that saying of Jesus from his crucifixion scene. In Luke, Jesus goes to his death with full confidence and knowledge. Where Mark has the cry of lamentation on the lips of Jesus on the cross, Luke instead depicts Jesus as calmly and voluntarily giving up his spirit: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Mark depicts the veil of the temple being torn just at the time of Jesus’ death (Mark 15:38); this probably meant to signify that Jesus’ atoning death has now enabled humankind to gain access to the holy of holies, to God, by virtue of Jesus’ death as “ransom”. Luke moves the tearing of the veil to before the death of Jesus, probably precisely because he does not see Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice. On the contrary, Jesus’ death is the martyrdom of a righteous prophet, which is then reenacted in the death of Stephen and the sufferings of Paul and other Christian “witnesses”. – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 168/169)

– About the historical Jesus and on how historians go about their jobs:

“The “past” does not exist, at least not in any way that is accessible to any human being. Historians sometimes speak in a confusing way when they say that they are “reconstructing” a historical event. They actually are not “reconstructing” it; they are simply “constructing” a historiographical account of something that happened in the past.

Philosophers of history sometimes make this point by differentiating “history” from “the past”. The “past” refers to what actually happened – say, the Civil War. The “history” of the Civil war refers more particularly to some account of the Civil War; how a historian may depict or narrate “what happened” in a linguistic account.

A historian can confirm the probability using regular historical methods, but the historian cannot confirm -or deny- that “God” had anything to do with that fact. God is not one of those things that are subject to modern historical analysis. – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 182/183)

“The theological Jesus is just not the same as the historical Jesus. The theological Jesus -the full Christ who inspires and grounds Christian faith and doctrine- is a product of concerns for theologians and Christians. The historical Jesus is one constructed by the rules of modern historiography. The historical Jesus is an account of Jesus constructed by modern historians playing by the rules of modern historiography. And the historical Jesus is not a necessary foundation for or component of Christian faith or theology. In fact, the historical Jesus is radically unacceptable for Christian faith precisely because no historical Jesus can be divine.” – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 183/184)


– On the trial of Jesus:

“It is quite probable that there never was a trial of Jesus at all. Jesus was executed by crucifixion, which was a common method of torture and execution used by the Romans. The usual manner of execution among the Jews was stoning. So the execution of Jesus was a Roman affair, possibly with the cooperation of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. The Romans did not need to try a troublesome Jewish peasant in order to kill him. They tortured and crucified nameless lower-class people all the time. In order to get rid of Jesus, who had caused a disturbance in the temple, had made radical-sounding pronouncements and prophecies, and was rumoured to have aspirations to kingship, the Romans would have simply taken him by force and crucified hime the next day along with a few others they were getting rid of. There was no need for any trial, much less two or more before different “courts”. It would have been more trouble than a Roman governor needed for the desired result.” – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 181)

“If there were some kind of trial of Jesus, there is no way information about it would have survived to be transmitted to his disciples, who could then pass the stories along so that they could eventually be recorded in our Gospels. By most of the evidence, Jesus disciples scattered when he was arrested. Even if Peter tried to follow and observe a trial, as the Gospels suggest, there is no way he, a lower-class, uneducated peasant from Galilee without significant connections among the elite in Jerusalem, could have gained access to any actual hearings. If any such hearings took place, they did so behind closed doors, without stenographers or note takers, and with no report later to the disciples, there is simply no way any real information about any such trials could have made it back to the followers of Jesus. Any narrative of any such trial is purely the product of later Christian imagination, which thought that since Jesus was the most important man in history, there “must have been” significant trials before his execution. The fact is that in all probability, no trial even took place, and if it did, we have no historical record of it.” – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 182)


– On the “original” text of 2 Corinthians:

“What is now called 2 Corinthians in our Bibles is almost certainly a later edited document containing fragments of what were previously at least two different letters, and some would even argue as many as four or five. Some scholars believe that chapters 8 and 9 were originally two different letters related to the collection of funds Paul was taking up from his various Gentile churches to take to the church of Jerusalem. That may be true, although if I were pressed, I would argue that 2 Corinthians 1-9 may be read as one letter. It seems to me certain, however, that 2 Corinthians 10-13 must have originally belonged to a different letter and different circumstances entirely.” – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 228)

– On literacy in the Roman Empire:

“Literacy levels were so low in the Roman Empire of this time that it has been estimated that not more than 10 precent of people, and probably fewer, could read and write. Many people may have been able to read a bit, but not write, the two skills being quite different. Then, as always, writing required much more education than simple reading.”– Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 207)

 – On Acts not being a reliable source for the life of Paul:

“Acts portrays Paul as having grown up and been educated in Jerusalem, even at the feet of Gamaliel, a famous first-century rabbi and Pharisee (Acts 22:3). That is very unlikely. Paul never mentions it, even when it could have been useful for him, as in Philippians. Paul also speaks fluent Hebrew in Acts. But Paul never gives an indication in his letters that he read Hebrew or spoke Aramaic. To judge by his writing style and the fact that the version of Jewish scripture he used was Greef, and by the apparent fact that he grew up in an urban environment in the Roman East, Paul’s first language was probably Greek. (That he was from Tarsus is found only in Acts and may or may not reflect actual history) We have no reason to suppose that he spoke or read Hebrew. Many urban Jews outside of Palestine did not.” – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 204)

– On Paul’s reasons why he said he received his Gospel through revelation:

“The first part of Galatians consists of Paul telling how he was called by Christ and given his apostolic commission. Paul insists that he got his gospel not from Peter, John, James, or anyone else, but directly from a revelation from Christ. He insists that he had long been serving as an apostle, preaching his gospel, before he ever even visited the others in Jerusalem, Paul insists so much on his independence from Peter, James, and every “pillar of the church” in Jerusalem and Judea in order to undermine any accusation that he got his message from Jerusalem.” – Dale Martin: New Testament History and Literature (p. 233)

– On Paul’s view of Jesus as a divine being and the difference with Collosians:

“The high Christology of Collosians also clashes with Paul’s Christology. Paul certainly believe that Christ was divine and was to be worshiped. He calls him “Lord” in the same way he calls God “Lord”. But Paul never completely equates Jesus with “God”. In fact, there are places where Paul implies that Jesus is inferior to God in ways that many in the church would later consider heretical. In 1 Corinthians 11:2/16, Paul is trying to persuade women to veil their heads when praying or prophesying. In order to explain why women should be veiled but not men, Paul constructs a hierarchy: Christ is the head of man; man is the head of woman; and God is the head of Christ (1:3). Just a Paul needs a hierarchical relationship between man and woman for his argument to work, and just as he obviously accepts hierarchical relationship between Christ and man, some must be assuming one also between God and Christ. God is superior to Christ.” – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 257)

– About baptism:

“A common belief in among Christians in late antiquity is that baptism worked to forgive sins one had already committed, but any serious sin committed after baptism might not be forgiven. Christian emperors, therefore, often put off baptism until their deathbeds, since they knew that they might have to commit actions, such as killing or sexual intercourse, as part of their office.” – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 298)

– About the authorship of 1 Peter:

“The First Letter of Peter is another example of a pseudepigraphic letter in the New Testament. There are several reasons for believing it is a forgery and not actually by the apostle Peter. The most galring is that all our evidence indicates that Peter was an illiterate peasant fisherman from galilee. He is called “uneducated and ordinary” in Acts 4:13. if Peter could read or write at all, it is all but certain that he would not have been able to write the quality of Greek represented in 1 Peter. Moreover, to historians, who sketch out the development of Christianity over many years, the letters seems to represent a kind of Christianity that developed only later in the first century, not likely in the first three decades of the movement when Peter was active.” – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 368)

– On the different views of the Jewish law in the New Testament:

“Our earliest Christian texts show remarkable diversity on how they viewed the jewish law, the law of Moses. Matthew seem to have expected that all followers of Jesus, whether Jew or gentile would keep the law and submit to its regulations with even greater care and piety than those of the Pharisees.

Paul, at the other extreme, taught that although Jews could continue with their observations of the law of Moses, if gentiles even attempted to observe the law, they would by that action “cut themselves off from Christ”, they would “fall from grace”. Law observance was not even an option for gentiles, in Paul’s mind.

Luke, we might imagine, occupied a middle position. He took the law of Moses to be simply the ethnic law of the Jews, just as Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and other peoples.Luke likely had none of the grand theological problems with the law entertained by Paul, but he likewise did not expect gentile converts to observe it, as did Matthew.

The author of Hebrews saw the law as a code that one could “read” in order to discern previously hidden truths about the now revealed “liturgy” of Christ. It was a clue, but not a problem, as long as Christians made no attempt to live by it.” – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 390)

– On the text of 2 Peter:

“With 2 Peter, we are no longer in a kind of Christianity caught in eschatological fervour. We are in a Christianity that has its own scripture, that looks back to the apostolic age deep in the past, and that is politically rather conservative – there are no curses against Rome, nor even hints that it is an “evil power”. The apocalyptic elements of 2 Peter seem to function as nothing more than doctrines one is supposed to accept, elements of “correct belief” that separate the “right” Christians from the “wrong” Christians. In the words, even though we are still not at a time when “orthodoxy” has been clearly defined, apocalyptic elements are called forth as doctrines that separate the “orthodox” from the “heterodox” Otherwise, the apocalypticism itself has lost fire and steam” – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 374)

– On Matthew depicting Jesus as a new kind of Moses:

“Matthew provides an account of Jesus’ birth and upbringing that looks a bit like a Jewish story depicting Jesus ad Moses. A baby is born under extraordinary conditions, an evil king orders the slaughter of all infant boys of a certain area, but the baby escapes survives, and eventually becomes the one who saves the people. By divine order, Jesus is taken for protection to Egypt. Jesus, like Moses, comes out of Egypt to save the people. it is quite possible that Matthew has Jesus deliver his new interpretation of the Torah, the law of Moses, on a mountain because Moses delivered his law from a mountain.” – Dale Martin – New Testament History and Literature (p. 96)


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