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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"Interpreting the General Letters" (Herbert Bateman IV)

TITLE: Interpreting the General Letters: An Exegetical Handbook (Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis)
AUTHOR: Herbert Bateman IV
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2013, (320 pages).

There are eight letters in the New Testament called the "General Letters." What are they for? How do we understand them? What applications do such ancient letters have for modern readers? What is the background and theology behind them? These questions and many more are ably dealt with in this exegetical handbook, written by a meticulous scholar and lover of the Word. Indeed, it takes a lover of the Word to be so meticulous about the details of the Word.

Before any proper interpretation, one needs to understand the contexts, the history, the nuances of the texts, and the background of the origin of the texts concerned. Scanning contemporary sources, biblical and extra-biblical texts, Jewish texts like the Qumran, New Testament scholar Herbert Bateman IV has used his wide expertise and knowledge to put together a handbook for us to study and to learn the General Epistles in greater depth and breathtaking detail.

Looking at almost all conceivable angles, he leads us through the foundations of what it means to read the ancient letter, and compare them with modern letters. He looks at the ancient letters and show us how they differ from the biblical ones. The general similarity is that there is an opening, a main body, followed by a conclusion. The difference lies in the specific purpose of the letters. Various types of ancient letters are mentioned, like the commendatory; the vituperative; the advisory; the admonishing; and the consoling types. Other  types include congratulatory, conciliatory, consulting, contemptuous, etc. The general letters are Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1,2,3 John, and Jude. Other than 3 John, all of them are advisory types. Hebrews, James, and 1 Peter are consoling as well, while 3 John is strictly commendatory. Bateman also points out the way each epistle is to be used, and not to be used. For example, one should not use 1 Peter's message and uncritically apply it to long-suffering in marriages!

Background wise, Bateman covers a lot of ground. He describes the tumultuous Graeco-Roman world, the tensions in Judea-Roman relationships, and gives us powerful insights on the significance of James' request for wisdom on how to live during those times. False teachings are dealt with in Peter. Even the letter of Jude was written during a time of rebellion, on how Christians ought to live even in the midst of a deterioration in Jewish-Roman relationships. Theologically, the letters are rich in how God's plan was given in the Old Testament, and fulfilled in Jesus. Individually, the letters of Hebrews, 1-2 Peter, and 1 John speak toward humanity, suffering, and sacrifice. All agree that believers are to persevere on and be of good conduct as testimonies for the world.

Chapter 4-6 trace nine steps on exegeting, teaching, and preaching the texts.

  1. Initiate a Translation
  2. Identify Interpretive Issues
  3. Isolate Major Textual Problems
  4. Interpreting Structure
  5. Interpreting Style, Syntax, and Semantics
  6. Interpreting Greek Words
  7. Communicating Exegetically
  8. Communicating the Central Idea
  9. Communicating Homiletically

The last two chapters give examples on how to use the nine steps, followed by resources for readers who want more. Let me make five comments.

First, I find the handbook very comprehensive. The level of detail is reflective of Bateman's quality of work. That is another reason why his doctoral thesis had been awarded the prize for highest excellence back in 1993. Just leafing through the historical contexts is already very illuminating. His wealth of knowledge of history is impressive. The range of references include not only the ancient times, but also interpretive sources in the Church Fathers and modern commentaries.

Second, the handbook has an eye on communication, first to the reader, then to the reader's audience. Not only is the handbook describing the background information for interpretation, it is also a manual for communicating the information. The nine steps of how to read, interpret, and communicate the texts show us exactly why. After all, there is no point in mere study of the text if one cannot subsequently share it far and wide. Chapter 6 brings in all together for preachers and teachers to give the interpretation a homiletical push.

Third, the handbook helps me contemplate the general letters more. The biblical letters are no mere letters. They have a specific audience, written at a specific context. In order to apply the texts to our contemporary times, much contemplation is needed. Ask not what James is speaking to us today, but how wisdom had been crucial for the spirituality of the believers then, and the wisdom we sorely need for today's living. After learning the letters, ask what then does it mean for us today? Just like the tensions of Jews and Romans during those days, we can contemplate and build a homiletical bridge on what it means to live as Christians in a secular world.

Fourth, for the student, we can use the handbook as a companion in our study of the general letters. Sometimes, we can be misled by the word "general." honestly, the letters are neither superficial or general. There is a lot of depth and specific messages. Thankfully, this handbook will help to stem the tide of generalizing, that we can appreciate the very specific reason why each letter is written. With the handbook as a companion guide, we will be better equipped to learn, to live, and to leave a message of hope the letters give. This handbook is so good that it can be used as a primer to begin any study of the eight general letters of the New Testament. Bateman even has a guide on how to choose commentaries!

Finally, this book is useful for contemporary times. After learning about the contexts and history of the letters, we need to do the hard work of bridging the ancient-modern gap. The resources at the end of the book can help us to that. I appreciate Bateman's effort to bring readers back from the ancient to the modern world regularly. For example, he compares the ancient and biblical letters to the way that we write emails! While those who know Greek can benefit more from the exegesis, those without knowledge of Greek can also benefit from the many footnotes and translation helps incorporated within the text. Chapter 7 itself is a must read.

I am full of praise for this valuable addition to the Kregel list of biblical handbooks.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Kregel Academic in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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