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Thursday, March 7, 2013

"Opening Paul's Letters" (Patrick Gray)

TITLE: Opening Paul's Letters: A Reader's Guide to Genre and Interpretation
AUTHOR: Patrick Gray
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012, (190 pages).

How can we make sense of Paul's letters and appreciate them not just for what they are, but also for what they mean for us in the modern era? Indeed, one of the difficulties for modern readers is to make sense of ancient letters written in a different time and place, to a different group of people and in a different genre that can often be understood in different ways. Do we read the letters like the way we read the constitution of our countries? Are the texts all capable of interpreting themselves? If there is any discrepancies, how do readers make sense of them? How do we prevent ourselves from superimposing our modern perspectives into Paul's times? In what way can we fairly and accurately interpret the epistles? The fact that many of these letters are canonized as Holy Scripture makes this guide an invaluable one. Readers at large need some way to understand the past, relate it with the present, and to let the letters point some direction toward the future for us as well as our descendants. The first thing to note is genre, where forms and structures differ a lot in content, and how they are used determine the context. In other words, before anyone attempts to interpret, the genre of the letter needs to be recognized first.

As long as we fail to recognize the historical contexts, the literary genres, and the appropriate way to read the epistles of Paul, we will not be able to understand, let alone apply the teachings of Paul. That is why this book has been written. Using a series of probing questions, filled with multiple insights from the world of genre categories, the nature and purpose of Paul's letters, Gray gives readers a guide as to how to read the text.
  • When should we read "in front of" the text, meaning that Paul is writing directly to us?
  • When should we read "behind the text," meaning that we need to probe deeper into the original contexts, the audiences, etc?
  • When should we be reading "of" the text, meaning it all depends on reader interpretation?
These questions and many more are ably dealt with. Moreover, with modern readers more used to electronic communications and social media on the Internet, it brings in a whole new challenge in trying to appreciate Paul's writings in a modern age. Scholars generally take on at least one of the three approaches when studying Paul. The first approach is historical or chronological, where the original contexts are learned, to make some sense of the ancient puzzle. The second approach is theological or thematic, and here is where applications are more freely offered through themes that are not necessarily time-dependent. The third approach is to see Paul's letters as "epistolary," where the medium of communications is key to understanding what the message is all about. There is a conversation going on. There is a personal touch amid the theological arguments in place. There is care and tenderness as well as rebuke and harshness.

As the reader plunges into the book, the depth and richness of nuancing Paul's letters quickly becomes evident. There is a multi-dimensional reading of the letters. Chapter 1 adopts the historical approach where the culture and nature of society in 1st century Palestine are described. Gray calls this step "absolutely necessary" if anyone wants to seriously understand what Paul is trying to say. Only by understanding the ethnic, social, cultural, linguistic, and various laws of the land. It compares the Hebrew worldview with the Romans and the Greeks. It touches on the politics of the lands and the philosophies at that time. It describes the social relationships, and to highlight the uniqueness in understanding the many facets of life in the 1st Century, as well as their view of spirituality and religion. Chapter 2 is a fascinating comparison of modern letter writing and the letters of Paul. It helps readers understand what Paul is trying to say, as well as what he is NOT trying to say. This chapter alone helps us avoid some common errors in saying things about Paul, that Paul obviously will frown on. Pseudo-Libanius even lists 41 different types of letters! Of particular interest is chiasm, where rhetorical and content are beautifully placed to exact maximum effect. Gray then goes through each letter of Paul to classify them accordingly. Chapter 3 goes into the letters viewing Paul as a skilled lawyer through argumentation and precise reasoning. It is a challenge to understand the implications and also a beauty in appreciating the whole flow of thought. There is healthy exhibition of ethos (from character of person), pathos (emotional), and logos (intellectual). Paul knows his audience well, and writes in a way for the benefit of the audience. Chapter 4 focuses on Paul knowing this very audience. Drawing from both biblical, non-biblical, and extra-biblical sources, Gray gives readers a kaleidoscope of knowledge about the target audiences of each letter. Here, Gray brings clarity to the question of who the primary audience and the secondary audience are. Chapter 5 reveals Paul as an Old Testament reader himself. Paul quotes and alludes to the Old Testament often. He is very familiar and demonstrates his mastery of the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, Gray comments that if one is to remove all the Old Testament references, very little of Paul's letters will be left for us! Chapter 6 talks about the authorship issues, confirming the authenticity of letters such as Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Thessalonians, and Philemon, while remaining agnostic about Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastoral epistles. Finally, Gray brings out some pointers for interested readers to ask and to research further upon. The appendices contain some historical information and classification for preachers, teachers, leaders, and laypersons to use for their teaching ministry.

My Thoughts

I have often wondered about how one man can exert such a powerful influence then and now. His letters having been canonized by the Church make for much reflection and obedience by those of us who call ourselves disciples of Christ. Paul is one disciple who has written the most, argued the most eloquently, and debated the most passionately. Imagine with me this. If the letters by themselves can be studied without knowing all the facts about the author, the audience, or the contexts, how much more will readers gain, if they get a better understanding of the background, the purpose, the original climate, as they study the letters. It will not only shed light on understanding. It raises new perspectives and powerful insights not just on how best to read Paul's letters, but a more glorious view of the Kingdom of God, for which Paul has fought a good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. All Pauline scholars, or anyone interested in the epistles of the New Testament ought to pick up this book. For in this book, it brings about greater clarity, a more nuanced understanding, and above all, a more appreciative view of what one man in Christ had to endure, in order to be a witness for God. Gray makes the technical, the scholarship, and the seemingly dry part of theology, and turns it into a concise logical flow, with thematic and highly readable style, coupled with a deep love for Scriptures that is infectious. I highly recommend this book for students and teachers of the Bible. For lack of a personal encounter with the Apostle Paul, this book is perhaps the best available for now.

Rating: 5 stars of 5


This book is provided to me free by Baker Academic and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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