J. Louis Martyn, 89, a biblical scholar whose research into the theology and historical background of the Bible changed the way scholars view the New Testament, died last Thursday morning of congestive heart failure at his home in Chapel Hill. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, June 13 at 11 a.m. in the auditorium of the Carolina Meadows retirement community.
A native of Dallas, Texas who spent much of his youth on a cattle ranch in West Texas, Martyn graduated from Texas A&M in 1946 with a degree in electrical engineering. He later studied theology at Andover Newton and at Yale. After teaching for a year at Wellesley College, Martyn joined the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he became Edward Robinson Professor of Biblical Theology in 1967, a post he held until his retirement in 1987.
In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Martyn traveled to Germany on Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships to work with theologian Ernst Käsemann, whose interpretation of the letters of Paul had a formative influence on his work. Martyn’s “History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel,” now in its third edition, was first published in 1968. There followed books on John and on Paul, culminating in his commentary on the book of Galatians in 1997.
According to Joel Marcus, Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Duke Divinity School, what distinguished Martyn’s approach to the writings of the New Testament was a passionate urge to hear them with the ears of their first hearers. He saw the Gospel of John as a “two-level drama” that simultaneously tells a story about the earthly Jesus in A.D. 32 and about a Christian community caught up in the vicissitudes of late first-century Jewish sectarian strife. In his work on Paul’s epistles, Martyn highlighted their apocalyptic nature, by which he meant that in the gospel God liberates and redeems a hostile world.
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Friends, relatives, and former students remember Martyn as someone whose creative and nurturing spirit showed itself in many and diverse forms, whether through writing books, midwifing doctoral dissertations, engaging in philosophical debate with his sons, telling stories from his days on the ranch, building a house and two barns, or tending to his sheep, goats, and a donkey. He frequently said that “nothing exists except for relationships.”
Martyn is survived by his wife of 65 years, the former Dorothy Watkins of Chapel Hill; his sons Tim, Peter, and David; his granddaughters Diana Martyn Reeves and Emily Martyn; and two great-grandchildren, Alexander and Maya. Memorial gifts can be sent to Heifer International, in keeping with Martyn’s deep love for animals and concern for the needy.