Today marks the beginning of week six of my first semester at one of the world’s premiere research universities. Six entire unbelievable weeks. Is it a dream? It might as well be.
For over a month I have rushed from class to class, jumping from lectures centered on the Dead Sea Scrolls to focused seminar discussions on the Gnostic writings (and everything in-between). Aside from studying under some of the biggest names in scholarship (my advisor is the legendary John Collins), I have had the pleasure of conversing with fellow students, whose discussions and ideas are just as riveting. To say that the experience has proven both exhilarating and exhausting would be to put it mildly.
I am essentially living a dream that I never seriously believed would have occurred.
To explain, when I graduated from high school (the homeschooled version), my first interaction with scholarship came in the form of a used copy of Bart Ehrman’s bestselling Misquoting Jesus, which summarized the field of Textual Criticism. I read the book in a day or so and quickly became addicted. Whereas many other conservative Christians have described Ehrman’s work as disorienting and a weakening moment for their faith journey, I had the opposite reaction. Ehrman’s book was a catalyst for my faith’s growth, forcing me to dive deep into my roots and discover everything I had remained ignorant to.
In the end, I owe Ehrman for reigniting my love for the Bible and God, one more achievement than he may have intended for (or necessarily desired).
Before Ehrman’s work, I had no motivation to go to college. After his work, I realized why I needed it. The year before I enrolled at my undergraduate studies at La Sierra University, I found Yale University’s recorded lectures for their Old and New Testament introductory classes (the latter of which was taught by the talented Dale Martin). The classes were amazing and I found myself falling in love with the Bible all over again. When I began classes in the Fall of 2013, I knew that my dream graduate school would be to go to Yale Divinity School (YDS). But of course, that was only a dream. Or so I thought.
Fast forward almost five years later , I submitted my application to Yale in January by the hard deadline. I never imagined that come March, I would be reading my acceptance letter. I can’t say that I was speechless, since I’m pretty sure my neighbors heard my screams that day. I certainly cried. It was one of those rare moments where you knew you were going where you were supposed to be.
Fast forward to my first day of classes in August, and I quickly discovered an entirely new world. Although I can’t say that I came unprepared for Yale, I can’t also say that I was prepared. The academic world I entered into here is unspeakably different.
My first two weeks I tried taking seven courses, anxious to soak in all the knowledge that I could. Each semester it seems that you are inevitably bound to be saddened by the fact that there are more amazing courses available than it’s possible for you to take. Of course, part of this process here I learned is figuring out where your limits are and avoiding getting burned out.
By week three, I had stopped going to two of the classes and was down to five (four required and one audit). To say that the workload here is intense would be underselling the experience too far. My hardest classes in undergrad seem to tug at my heartstrings when I compare them to what is required here. The amount of reading that many of these courses require is astounding, leaving little room for anything but studying (unless your a fast reader).
What’s my schedule look like currently?
I begin Monday with Hebrew in the morning (taught by the understanding and helpful Eric Reymond) and follow that up with the Gospel of John in the afternoon (taught by the renowned Harold Attridge). Through Tuesday and Thursday I add a dose each of Gnosticism (also Attridge), the Dead Sea Scrolls (taught by John Collins), Old Testament Interpretation (Joel Baden) and of course, more Hebrew. Finally, I finish the week on Friday the same way that I begin it and continue it, with a good dose of Hebrew.
On a note of faith, rather than academics, I’ve (happily) discovered that Yale’s students are not monolithic, but comprise many backgrounds and include many students who are conservative or moderate in their religious orientation. I am one of three Adventist students who have come here and there were four last year.
A number of students from my classes hail from various traditional Christian backgrounds and schools, including Wheaton. And the diversity on campus stretches far beyond the simple conservative and liberal dynamics, including different religious traditions, countries and life experiences. That all means that a good conversation is readily available 24/7 and each person you have the pleasure of talking with will be an unforgettable experience that not only interests you, but grows you.
Academically, Yale does not disappoint. The teachers are talented and overall understanding of each of their students. As long as you put in the work (there is no real such thing as slacking here), you will succeed. Every week at YDS feels equivalent to perhaps half or less of a quarter at a normal school. The amount of reading and depth that each week brings is overwhelming in the best possible ways (but also still physically and mentally overwhelming in the traditional ways).
Which brings me to another reflection: When I studied at La Sierra, I wondered at times whether I should have gone to a different school, both because at the time I worried that I would struggle to get into a good graduate school and because I wondered whether my university was pushing me hard enough. Now that I’m here, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have come to Yale or another Ivy League school for my undergrad even if I could go back and re-do everything.
There is something wonderful and fantastic about being in a smaller school where you have unlimited opportunities to be mentored by and become friends with your professors. In-particular, if you are studying religion at a faith-based school that represents your own faith tradition, the opportunity to explore the hard questions of your faith in a relaxed and familiar environment (as opposed to a race track) is priceless. I would not be the person that I am without that balance and experience.
Yale is everything people say that it is and so much more. It’s intensity exceeds all expectations, but the reward of learning and appreciating the Bible on a whole new level serves as more than enough motivation to continue pushing through any difficulty or challenge a class presents.
Six weeks in and sixteen days away from my birthday, I feel immensely blessed to be studying where I am. I believe that God has led me to where I need to be in order to grow more fully into God’s image. My dream became a reality and that reality will, I pray, continue to guide me on this journey to dream bigger dreams that benefit more than myself. And like all good journeys, it began by opening my Bible with fresh eyes and has continued by never closing it.
Matthew J. Korpman is a minister-in-training and published researcher in Biblical Studies and Church History. Pursuing his Masters at Yale Divinity School, he did his undergraduate work at the H.M.S. Richards Divinity School, where he completed four degrees in fields such as Religious Studies, Philosophy and Archaeology. He is an active member of the Seventh-day Adventist church whose research interests include everything from the Apocrypha to the Apocalypse.