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Thursday, June 6, 2013

"Interpreting the Pauline Letters" (John D. Harvey)

TITLE: Interpreting the Pauline Letters: An Exegetical Handbook (Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis)
AUTHOR: John D. Harvey
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2012, (224 pages).

Handbooks are meant to provide handy resources that are easily referenced and at the same time, provide a measure of reliable and reputable information. When handling the Bible, we need good resources that will help preachers, pastors, teachers, professors, and any Christian leader to teach accurately and effectively. In its original form, the New Testament is largely written in Greek. In order for modern audiences who are not familiar with ancient Koine Greek, or the ancient contexts, there is a need to research and to study the original texts for what they meant originally. Having done that, they will need to build a bridge from the ancient to the contemporary world, so that modern listeners will get to appreciate timeless truths and historical traditions. Kicking off a new series of exegetical handbooks on the New Testament, John Harvey begins with the letters of Paul, describing the genre, the theology, the background, the hermeneutics, the preparation for preaching, and many more essential tools, so that a good process of exegesis can be done by the serious student.

There are seven chapters that describe many of the above, and one chapter that lists the resources interested readers may want to pursue. What I like about the book is the way it is written with the reader in mind, with each chapter building upon what is typically a sermon or message construction process. For example, it begins with the initial study and exegesis, the understanding of the ancient contexts with a historical background description. The genre of Paul's letter is an important consideration. When we read the Bible, it is important to recognize that Paul's writings are letters, not a theological treatise or an academic paper. Hence, when we study it, we need to remember that it is quite personal in nature. Harvey goes into describing the three aspects of how first century communications are done. Firstly, it is done orally. Building on Walter Ong's categories of orality, we read that hearers learn through themes rather than rote memory; acoustically oriented instead of visual, "redundant rather than concise, additive rather than subordinate, aggregative rather than synthetic, and conservative rather than creative". Secondly, it is done rhetorically. He mentions George Kennedy's work on the different categories of rhetoric, namely, traditional, conceptional, and classical; and that the first century kind of rhetoric is more "practical" where listeners are comfortably trained in hearing a certain form of rhetoric. Thirdly, many listeners are also script-literate. Thus, first century listeners are able to grasp a lot of what Paul is saying in his letters. It makes me wonder about the level of modern arrogance among some scholars who read Paul's letters as if they know everything. Far from it. Harvey's observations make me surmise that an ordinary first century hearer will understand more of Paul's letters than a well-trained scholar in the contemporary era.

Chapter 2 goes into the historical era, with probing questions on Paul's authorship, number of letters written, as well as the "authenticity, integrity, and chronology" of the letters. Why are they important? The prime importance lies in the core purpose of the ministry of Paul in the first place, which is theological truths and applications for churches and leadership. Whether it is false teachings like syncretism, legalism, mysticism, or asceticism, in order to understand Paul's writings, one needs to appreciate and identify the contexts of the audiences, churches, and persons addressed.

Chapter 3 is where it starts to get more exciting. Here, in a theological survey, readers are treated to two spheres of influence, and how the great transfer of theological truths are done, namely, the first sphere of "in Adam," and the second sphere of "in Christ." When we remain in Christ, we ride on the transfer of one sphere to another. Harvey gives us an overview of how James Dunn as well as Gordon Fee use four ways of reading Paul's letters. Calling them a "deductive" and "preconceived structure" imposed on Paul's letters, the four essential ways are:
  1. Via systematic theology
  2. Via letter-by-letter
  3. Via chronological order
  4. Via levels, stories.    
Harvey prefers a fifth model, and says that this is more in line with Paul's own language and more "inductive," in which the understanding of both spheres of influence is necessary, and one must not over-read any of these spheres over the other, but to maintain the importance of both. Two words summarize this approach: coherence and contingency. The latter deals with the groupings of each of Paul's letters in order to detect themes. The former deals with the linking of the two spheres of influence.

Chapter 4 goes into the two primary tasks needed in order to begin interpretation of Paul's letters: "textual criticism" that leads to the second, proper translation. In textual criticism, we look at establishing what exactly does the text is. Here Harvey shows us the various resources as well as the different approaches toward textual criticism. We read about the different kinds of manuscripts, variant readings, as well as the three major ways to approach textual criticism.
  1. Eclectic approach: decisions based on "internal evidence"
  2. Reasoned approach: decisions based on a balanced approach to both internal as well as manuscript evidence. 
  3. Conservative approach: decisions based on "manuscript evidence"
We appreciate the differences between theories behind the Alexandrian texts and the Majority texts, out of which many important translations are based upon. This is one of the most fundamental differences in the translations of many modern Bible versions. 

In translation we look at what the text is saying. Four approaches are listed.
  1. Comparison approach: comparing different, vernacular translations in order to highlight the nuances of the original texts, using modern languages.
  2. Interlinear approach: correlating the Greek and the modern language together
  3. Partial passage: focusing on a central portion of the letter to get more details and understanding within a limited time frame.
  4. Full passage: most demanding but also most rewarding. This approach is best done when one's Greek is fresh and one has the time.
Working on both the semantics (meaning of the words) as well as the syntax (application and meaning of the words and relationships), readers get to appreciate the multiple steps in the translation process.

Chapter 5 to 7 contain more applications. Examples of various passages of Paul's letters are used to demonstrate the exegesis, interpretation, and the translation of meaning. There is also the crafting of a sermon, and how preachers can move from exegesis to interpretation, and from hermeneutics to homiletics.

My Thoughts

This is an excellent reference book for anyone interested in all things Paul. Whether it is an exegesis of the Greek, a historical overview of the first Century lands that Paul have traveled, the different translation philosophies or hermeneutical theories, readers will be pleased to have a handbook that shows us a systematic approach to understanding, appreciating, and communicating the meaning of Paul's letters, and to help others do the same. My feeling is that the handbook could have provided more.  For example, it misses out Patrick Gray's excellent work "Opening Paul's Letters" on the place of the reader in the reading of Paul's writings. What about the various views surrounding the interpretation of Paul, like the recent work by Michael F. Bird, on the Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant views? Considering that this book has been published by Kregel, it does not even mention another helpful resource: "Charts on the Life, Letters, and the Theology of Paul" by Lars Kierspel.

Maybe, the second edition of this handbook will incorporate some or all of the above. Having said that, this book is still a credible offering for the way it helps readers more from mere readers toward better interpreters. More helpfully, by showing readers the way sermons are crafted from text to delivery, it is a good resource to keep preachers faithful to the text, and to diligently preach and teach the word in season and out of season. That is the call of all who wants to share the Word more faithfully and fruitfully.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


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

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