In the posts on this series, I will be summarising and reflecting on a Yale course by Dale Martin called “New Testament: History and Literature.” The purpose of the course is succinctly clarified in the overview of the first lecture. Its objective is to study the New Testament (NT) as a text produced in a particular historical context and not as scripture.

Studying in a particular historical context means understanding what the author of a text was intending to say and how the contemporary audience of a text received it in light of their particular historical circumstance. We must, of course, bear in mind here that an ancient text has gone through many revisions and redactions before it has achieved the form in which we have received it today. In that sense, a text can have multiple authors and if it is possible to find out, it is worthwhile to know how and why a text changes over time and space. Likewise, even if a text has not changed, it is interpreted differently by its readers with different intellectual needs on account of being located in different historical periods.

Thus, in case of the Vedas, for example, Sayana was interested in a ritualistic interpretation and Aurobindo Ghosh in a spiritualistic interpretation. While there can be mistakes in an interpretation, an interpretation cannot be wrong just because it pursues a ritualistic or spiritualistic goal. Instead of arguing about which is the more correct mode, what needs to be understood is what drives people to approach a text in one way or another. And the answer cannot be ‘because this or that scholar knew what the text was really all about.’ For each one of us is embedded in a historical context which poses before us certain intellectual problems and it is to solve these that we refer to the ancient texts.

My interest in this course arises from the fact that it intends to study the NT in this manner and, as a person located in the contemporary historical context, I would like to know what it can teach me in the interpretation of ancient Hindu scriptures from the “outside” – as Martin puts it. I will not dwell here on why I consider such a study important.

“Scripture” means any text that is regarded as authoritative and sacred by a community. No text is necessarily scripture. It becomes scripture only when it is regarded as authoritative and sacred by a community for one or the other reason. This means that a text can be studied in ways other than as scripture because no text is “only” scripture.

The NT consists of 27 books written between 50 – 150 CE. These include:

  • The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
  • The Acts of the Apostles
  • The Letters of Paul
  • The Epistle to the Hebrews
  • 1 Peter
  • 2 and 3 John
  • The Revelation of John, the Apocalypse

While the history of early Christianity is a narrative of how the 27 diverse documents came to be included in the NT, of how a diverse group of different people united by their faith in Jesus, from different geographical situations with different beliefs, were pulled together somehow into one unified movement, to get some kind of uniformity of belief and practice, this course seeks to pull apart the unity and see the differences within early Christianity and of the NT documents with regards to controversies such as: the conception of Jesus as divine or human, the origin of the movement in Judaism, the treatment of women and slaves, reaction to the contemporary politics of the Roman Empire.

Recommended Bible: The Oxford Annotated Version of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible by Bart Ehrman.