Union Mourns Professor Lou Martyn

Categories: Union News

Dr. James Louis Martyn, Edward Robinson Professor Emeritus of Biblical Theology at Union Theological Seminary, died at home on June 4, 2015 of congestive heart failure. He was 89 and lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His beloved wife of 65 years, Dorothy Watkins Martyn, was with him to the very end.

A Memorial Service will be held on Saturday, June 13 at 11:00 a.m. at Carolina Meadows, 100 Carolina Meadows Drive, Chapel Hill NC 27517.

“Lou” — as he was known to colleagues and students alike — will be remembered first and foremost as one of the preeminent New Testament scholars of his generation, but more importantly as a friend and mentor. He was particularly adept at helping students untie the sort of intellectual knots students are wont to tie themselves in, usually by gently suggesting a return to the text. As Ray Brown wrote for Lou’s Festschrift in 1989, “His basic test is always the text, verse by verse, so that the theory has to fit the text and not vice versa.” I imagine that Lou’s former students, professors around the world, some perhaps emeriti/ae themselves by now, repeat this practical advice to this day.

At Union, Martyn, who joined the faculty in 1959, and Ray Brown, who joined in 1971, worked very much in tandem. Through the 1970s and 1980s they served as senior New Testament faculty, and together defined a generation of New Testament studies. Every NT and Biblical-Studies doctoral student at the Seminary in those decades worked closely with one or both of them; most Old Testament doctoral candidates had occasion to learn from them in seminars; and almost every M.Div. candidate of the period took such courses as Brown’s Gospel of John or Martyn’s Parables.

Martyn retired as Edward Robinson Professor Emeritus of Biblical Theology in 1987. Along with his landmark study of the Gospel of John, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, now in its third edition, he is renowned for his Anchor Bible Commentary on Galatians, which he completed in retirement.

As word of Lou’s passing spread, tributes poured in. Here are just three:

From Harold W. Attridge, Sterling Professor of Divinity and former Dean at Yale Divinity School:

“Lou Martyn was one of the leading New Testament scholars of his generation.  His contributions to the study of the Fourth Gospel, which explored the ways in which the Gospel reflects the controversies of the Johannine community with its Jewish environment, continue to shape scholarly debate.”

From James F. Kay ’91, Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Joe R. Engle Professor of Homiletics and Liturgics at Princeton Theological Seminary:

“Martyn… was personally known to many of us as a colleague, teacher, and mentor. As you know, his magisterial Anchor Bible commentary on Galatians, with its apocalyptic reading of Paul, was widely influential not only in Pauline studies, but also in systematic theology, Christian ethics, and homiletics.”

And from Beverly Roberts Gaventa ’73, Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Baylor University:

“Names, dates, publication titles — these all come easily to expression. What is far more challenging to convey to those who did not know him is the character of the man. I have heard the word ‘Mensch’ invoked often for him, and that may be the best we have. For all his brilliance, Lou was not concerned with being brilliant. He squirmed at the expression ‘Martyn School.’ He cared about the subject matter. What counted was Paul, or as Lou would say, ‘taking a seat in the early Christian congregation’ without succumbing to the temptation ‘to domesticate the text, to cage the wild tiger.’ (Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, 211-12.) Lou also would say, ‘Life is more than work.’ He was utterly devoted to his family… [and] his many students and friends could be forgiven for thinking ourselves part of that extended family as well… Little in my life can match the pleasure of picking up the telephone and hearing that unique voice, ‘Is this the Professor Gaventa? Do you have a minute?’”

Lou Martyn was a wonderful man and scholar. I personally got to know him over the years and found him a brilliant, kind, and creative biblical scholar with a theologian’s heart. What a loss to theological education and biblical theology!

He leaves his wife, Dorothy Watkins Martyn ’80, three sons, two granddaughters, and two great-grandchildren. Our heartfelt condolences go out to them.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Raymond E. Brown / J. Louis Martyn Scholarship at Union, or to Heifer International.

Serene Jones

President & Johnston Family Chair for Religion and Democracy