Volume 20 - Issue 1
On reading a New Testament letter—devotionally, homiletically, academicallyBy Richard N. Longenecker
How do we read a NT letter? With respect to genre, some view a NT letter as a compendium of Christian theology, others as a structured literary instrument used for general teaching purposes that was known in antiquity as an epistle, and still others as a personal communication that reflects the particulars of a specific time, place and circumstance. With respect to contents, some read a NT letter devotionally, others homiletically, and others academically. There are, in fact, a variety of ways in which the letters of the NT are read today. So the question is pertinent: how should we read a NT letter?
I. A question of genre
It was Adolf Deissmann who, at the turn of the century, first alerted us to the fact that NT letters were written as real letters to specific people in response to particular situations. Deissmann called them ‘private letters’ as distinct from ‘public letters’ or ‘epistles’. And he argued that apart from their salutations, thanksgivings and closings, the letters of the NT have no standard epistolary structure or literary form at all—that they were dashed off as personal communications to address specific circumstances, without any thought, for the most part, as to structure or form.
Yet important and laudatory as Deissmann’s thesis was (and is), subsequent study has brought to light at least four ways in which his understanding needs to be more carefully nuanced. In the first place, his classification of NT letters as ‘private letters’ is somewhat misleading. Paul‘s letters, for example, are not merely private, personal communications—at least, not ‘private’ and ‘personal’ in the usual sense of those terms. They were written to Christian believers for instruction in their common life together by one who was self-consciously an apostle, and so were meant to be read aloud in the corporate worship of the community of believers to which they were sent and to be received as from an official representative of the Christian faith. As George Milligan long ago pointed out, they are ‘missionary’ or ‘pastoral’ letters and not just ‘private’ or ‘personal’ letters:
The letters of St Paul may not be epistles, if by that we are to understand literary compositions written without any thought of a particular body of readers. At the same time, in view of the tone of authority adopted by the author, and the general principles with which they deal, they are equally far removed from the unstudied expression of personal feeling, which we associate with the idea of a true letter. And if we are to describe them as letters at all, it is well to define the term still further by the addition of some such distinguishing epithet as ‘missionary’ or ‘pastoral’. It is not merely St Paul the man, but St Paul the spiritual teacher and guide who speaks in them throughout.1
A second correction that needs to be made in Deissmann’s thesis has to do with his contention that NT letters lack epistolary structure and literary form, except for a few stereotyped conventions and customary formulae in their salutations, thanksgivings and closings. This was a deduction that Deissmann drew from his premise that Paul’s letters are non-literary, personal communications and not literary, artistic productions—that Paul, while making tents with gnarled hands and sweating brow, dictated his letters to his associates in unstudied fashion, and that they took down his rapid-fire statements exactly as he gave them without any major improvements of style or expression. But Deissmann’s conclusion in this regard is a non sequitur, for recent study has demonstrated the existence of many conventional structural features and forms in both the common, private letters of the Hellenistic period and the Pauline corpus.2 Admittedly, there is a wide range of literary styles in the extant, real letters of the Hellenistic period. Yet there are certain epistolary conventions that can be observed in those letters, as well as in all the letters of the NT—conventions to be found not only in the salutations, thanksgivings and closings, but also in the bodies of both Hellenistic letters generally and NT letters in particular.
A third way in which Deissmann’s thesis needs to be modified has to do with the distinction he makes between a letter and an epistle, which distinction must be nuanced more carefully in view of the wide variety of types of letters to be found among the non-literary Greek papyri.3 Demetrius in his handbook On Style listed 21 types of real letters, while Proclus expanded that list to 41—identifying, for example, letters of friendship, of recommendation, of request, of information, of instruction, of consolation, of praise, of thanksgiving, of accusation, of apology, of introduction, of interrogation, of invitation, and of rebuke, with some letters evidencing a mixture of types.4 None of our NT letters corresponds exactly to the types described in the ancient handbooks on style or as exemplified in the Greek papyri. Nevertheless, an examination of the purpose, mood, style and structure of each of the letters of the NT provides a basis of classifying it roughly according to one or the other of the then existing types of Hellenistic letters. One Pauline example would be Philemon, as a letter of recommendation. Others are Philippians as a letter of thanksgiving, 1 Corinthians as a letter of response and instruction, and Galatians as a letter of rebuke and request.
Finally, it needs to be said that Deissmann’s rather simple classification of NT letters as real letters needs to be nuanced further to take into account the NT writers’ use of other literary traditions as well, such as their use of then current rhetorical forms and modes of persuasion, as well as their use of chiastic structures of thought and expression, midrashic exegetical procedures, early Christian hymns and confessional formulae, and certain fixed paraenetic materials. So though Deissmann was right to insist on the real, private Hellenistic letter as the primary category to which all of the NT letters belong, that must not be taken to exclude the NT writers’ use of other literary traditions as well, as drawn from their Jewish, Hellenistic and Christian backgrounds. Epistolary and rhetorical conventions were ‘in the air’ in antiquity, much like the details of grammar. One didn’t have to be a trained scribe, rhetoritician or grammarian to think, speak and write well. Literary, rhetorical and epistolary conventions were generally common to all, and the letters of the NT reflect many of the conventions of the day as well.
Given, then, that NT letters are of the genre of real letters—though letters that were sent with apostolic authority to various congregations of Christian believers and that reflect many of the epistolary and rhetorical conventions of the day—the question remains: How should they be read by us today? Broadly speaking, I suggest that they can be read in three ways: devotionally, homiletically and academically. My thesis is that each of these ways of reading a NT letter is legitimate in its own right, but that all three must be ultimately brought together for a proper understanding. And in spelling out this thesis I will use Paul’s letter to the Galatians as exemplar.
II. Reading devotionally
Probably most of us were first introduced to the NT as devotional literature—either because we were raised in a Christian home and within the church, or because, when witnessed to by others, we turned to one or more of the NT letters for spiritual direction and edification. Some may have first encountered the NT in a university religion, history or literature course, but even then any continued reading was usually for devotional reasons. For most of us, then, if not all, reading a NT letter began as a devotional experience, and it continued mainly out of a desire for spiritual direction and edification. Particularly as Christians, who have come into relationship with God through Jesus Christ, we read the NT letters first of all in a devotional manner.
The focus of a devotional reading is spiritual direction and edification. Doctrinal themes are looked for so that we might better understand our faith; moral guidance is sought so that we might better live our lives. A minimum of knowledge about what is written in a NT letter is helpful for a devotional reading of the texts, and so various Bible study aids on a popular level have been produced: brief introductions as to author, addressee(s) and occasion at the start of each letter; concordances so that we can trace out word usages elsewhere in Scripture; cross-reference Bibles so that we can identify historical allusions and tangent themes; and Bible dictionaries so that we can get a summary account of all that is deemed to be essential for an understanding of the material.
At the heart of a devotional reading of a NT letter are the great Reformation principles of (1) the perspicuity of Scripture (i.e., that Scripture is clear in its basic message and can be understood by everyone as to the essential content of that message; that Scripture is lucid and understandable, even to those of limited intellect and different cultures), and (2) the effectiveness of the Spirit in illuminating the Scriptures and witnessing to Christ. So the various Bible Societies, whether regional, national or international, distribute copies of the Bible with the conviction that the combination of the written Word and the Spirit—even apart from study aids—will bring men and women into vital union with Christ, the living Word, and so into a redemptive relationship with God himself. And the results of their wide distribution of Scripture have repeatedly vindicated their confidence.
Reading the Letter to the Galatians devotionally, it is hard to miss Paul’s major points: (1) that the Christian gospel is rooted in God’s grace; (2) that the gospel has as its focus what Christ has done on behalf of all people, principally in his death on the cross; (3) that redemption from sin and reconciliation with God are offered to all who respond to God’s grace and Christ’s work by faith; (4) that what the gospel offers is apart from human works (‘legalism’); (5) that the Christian life is to be lived out apart from any necessary allegiance to the Jewish law (‘nomism’), but rather (6) that the Christian life is dependent primarily on the Holy Spirit for its direction and enablement. When read devotionally, Galatians is clear that faith mixed with works is an impossible situation for either acceptance before God or a life lived out in his favour—even though true faith always expresses itself in appropriate works or actions—for Christianity vis-à-vis Judaism is Christ-centred and not just Torah-centred. So Luther, using an illustration drawn from one of Aesop’s fables, could assert that Paul’s teaching in Galatians is quite clear: that ‘the one who mixes faith and works is like the dog who runs along the bank of a stream with a piece of meat in its mouth, and looking down into the stream and seeing there what it thinks to be another dog with another piece of meat in its mouth and desiring both pieces of meat, opens its mouth to catch up the second as well—and so loses even that which it has.’ For Luther, as for most who read the letter, Galatians is clear in its main polemical and doctrinal thrusts. Read devotionally, most find the letter lucid and plain.
There are, of course, dangers in any devotional reading of a NT letter. Two are immediately evident. First, it is always possible to impose one’s own concerns, issues and ideas onto the text, and so to read the letter as only reflecting some personal situation and/or as only confirming some previously held position. Indeed, we all come to the NT letters with a preconditioning that affects our understanding of what is written. The danger, however, is that we will do it to excess, without allowing the text itself to judge our own views and preconditioning.
History is replete with instances of reading Galatians, for example, as only a confirmation of one’s own views. Marcion did this in the second century, finding throughout the letter support for his sharp dichotomy between Paul’s gospel and everything Jewish. Origen did this as well in the late second and early third centuries, finding in the Hagar—Sarah allegory of 4:21–31 justification for his own allegorical method of exegesis. And the early Gnostics found in Galatians substantiation for their claim that the true Christian must move from a ‘fleshly’ to a ‘spiritual’ type of existence, as do also all sorts of cults today. What these excessively ‘biographical’ or ‘personalized’ readings fail to do, however, each in its own way, is to allow the text to judge their preconceptions and to correct their own preformed opinions.
A second danger in any devotional reading of a NT letter has to do more with volition or will than understanding or intellect. For frequently, even though we understand, we are reticent or opposed to put into practice the principles enunciated in what we read. Most often this is because such a response would require a reorientation of life such as we are not prepared to make. So we remain deaf, oblivious and unaffected by what we read and understand, with the result that our knowledge turns sour and becomes something to be discarded from our active consciousness.
Nonetheless, despite its dangers, a devotional reading of the NT letters is necessary, even vital, for the Christian individually and for the church corporately. As part of the Word written, NT letters feed the Christian soul. Despite their particularities, they are also both intrinsically and instrumentally—in ways constantly debated, but ultimately beyond our finite comprehension—the means God uses to give spiritual nourishment to his people. And so the reading of the NT letters devotionally is of great importance for the spiritual health of every Christian.
III. Reading homiletically
The focus of a homiletical reading of a NT letter is proclamation, which has to do with setting out the message of the letter clearly, indicating its relevance for the hearer, and applying its principles for life today. Homiletics has to do with preaching to others. So when preachers study a NT letter, their concerns are (1) how to capture the centrality of the message (both in its statements and in its ethos), (2) how to translate and package that message in a way that will be clear and meaningful to a particular audience, and (3) how to apply that message to the lives of those addressed, asking for a response of faith and action.
Reading Galatians with a view to proclamation, certain major emphases immediately stand out. Chief among these is that of the supremacy and completeness of the work of Christ, both for acceptance by God (justification) and for living as a Christian (lifestyle). In the salutation at the very beginning of the letter, for example, when Paul speaks of Jesus Christ he immediately adds ‘who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father’ (1:4)—which is a significant addition to Paul’s normal salutations as found in his other letters. Furthermore, in what has been identified as the ‘propositio’ or thesis paragraph of the Galatian letter in 2:15–21, Paul sets out the contours of his argument to follow in chapters 3 and 4, with that thesis paragraph laying all of the emphasis on the supremacy and completeness of the work of Christ as against the ‘works of the law’. For in speaking about our acceptance by God and setting out his thesis against legalism, Paul writes: ‘We know that a person is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ’ (vv. 15–16). And in speaking about Christian living and setting out his thesis against nomism, he writes: ‘Through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (vv. 19–20).
And this same emphasis on the supremacy and completeness of Christ’s work appears many times and in many ways throughout the Galatian letter. In 3:1, to cite a further example, when he begins to deal theologically with the issues that had arisen within his Galatian churches, Paul sets out at the head of his presentation the statement: ‘Jesus Christ has been clearly portrayed [or ‘placarded’] as having been crucified’—as though the work of Christ on the cross puts an end to all stray thoughts about the appropriateness of ‘works of the law’ for either acceptance by God or Christian living. And in 4:4–5, when he gives a précis of the Christian message, Paul quotes what appears to be an early Christian confession that relates our ‘adoption as God’s children’ solely to God’s action in sending his Son and the Son’s redemptive action on our behalf: ‘But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption as God’s children.’
Much more, of course, could and should be said about the major proclamation themes that appear in Galatians. All we have done is to ‘scan the surface’ in support of our argument that a homiletical approach to a NT letter looks for ‘grist for its preaching mill’ from its reading, with attention then given as to how to translate, package and apply that message to a particular audience being addressed by the preacher. But such a superficial scanning must suffice, at least for now.
There are, however, dangers in reading any NT letter (or, for that matter, any portion of Scripture) in a homiletical fashion. First, there is the danger of imposing one’s own organizational structures on a text and not allowing the text itself to speak its own message in its own way. We all know preachers who seem to organize their sermons on almost every portion of Scripture considered in terms of such standard logical questions as ‘Who?’, ‘What?’, ‘How?’, ‘When?’, ‘Why?’, etc. Or who restructure everything in a passage in terms of three or four alliterative points. Seldom, it seems, do people under such preaching ever hear the Word of God preached, but rather come away impressed only with the preacher’s own cleverness. A second danger in a homiletical reading of a NT letter, and one that is probably even worse than the first, is the temptation to seek too quickly for contemporary relevance in the text—or to allow relevance itself to be the only criterion of truth, so turning Scripture into only a modern commentary on our times.
Another danger in a homiletical approach, of course, particularly in recalling the importance of a devotional reading, is to read Scripture only in terms of what can be proclaimed to others, without feeding devotionally on that same material for one’s own spiritual nourishment. And finally, looking ahead to what will be discussed in terms of an academic reading, it needs to be asserted that just as dangerous is the reading of any biblical text in a homiletical fashion without being at least somewhat attuned to scholarly readings of that same material in order to check one’s own interpretation and to expand one’s own understanding.
Nonetheless, despite its dangers, a homiletical reading of the NT letters is also necessary and vital for Christians individually and the church corporately. For without proclamation, the Christian and the church become stagnant, always taking in but never giving out. According to the commissions given by our resurrected Lord in such passages as Matthew 28:18–20, Acts 1:8 and elsewhere, proclamation is a major mandate of the Christian and the church. And that requires not only a devotional but also a homiletical reading of Scripture.
IV. Reading academically
Many Christians today know only two kinds of reading of a NT letter (and of Scripture generally): a devotional reading, which they absorb from popular Christian books and experience (at times) for themselves when they read the Bible privately, and a homiletical reading, which they hear in church. There is, however, a vitally important third kind of reading, an academic reading, which not only serves to inform the above devotional and homiletical readings but also functions, at its best, to lead both Christians and the church into deeper understandings of Scripture and heightened appreciations of their Christian faith. Each of these three kinds of readings of Scripture is important for Christians individually and the church corporately. In fact, it is only as these three kinds of readings are brought together and allowed to interact with one another that real spiritual health for Christians and the church comes about.
It can be noted, of course, that whenever a devotional or homiletical reading gives consideration to such matters as authorship, addressee(s), chronology and/or the circumstances involved in the writing of a biblical portion, there is something of an acknowledgment of the value of an academic reading of the portion in question, even though unstated. And certainly in many devotional and homiletical readings of Scripture there exist various elements that can be attributed, in one way or another, to past scholarly study, even though not always credited. For much of the popular piety of today lives off the intellectual capital built up by scholars of the past.
But whether credited or not, an ongoing and actively pursued academic reading of Scripture is vitally important for the spiritual health of Christians individually and the church corporately. And while it is obvious that such introductory matters as authorship, addressee(s), chronology and the circumstances of writing are part-and-parcel of any academic reading of a biblical portion, I would go on to claim that the following eight areas of consideration are also of great importance for an academic interpretation of a NT letter.
A first consideration in any academic interpretation must always be that of a history of interpretation, i.e. giving attention to how the letter has been understood in the past. The maxim ‘Those who are ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past!’ is as true for biblical interpretation as it is for any other discipline. Understanding how a NT letter has been read in such times as the Patristic period, the Reformation period, among Roman Catholics and during the past century-and-a-half of critical scholarship enables one to profit from both the advances and the false starts of previous interpreters. Of equal importance, it gives direction to one’s own study through the isolation of perennial and crucial issues.
Sadly, some academic studies of NT letters seem to work de novo, as though nothing of significance has been written or said on the subject before the modern commentator began his or her work. But we can learn from the history of interpretation. And this is an important facet in the scholarly study of a NT letter—particularly in the scholarly study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which has been interpreted in all sorts of ways in the past.
A second important matter in an academic study of a NT letter has to do with an analysis of the epistolary structures and conventions of the letter. After all, a NT letter is a letter. So one of our initial approaches to it must be in terms of it as a letter, which means understanding what type of letter it is, its basic letter structure and the various epistolary conventions used in it in order that we might better understand its contents.
The study of a NT letter in terms of epistolary genre, structure and conventions is a rather new discipline. It began with the discoveries during the last decade of the 19th century of some 40,000–60,000 non-literary (koine or common) Greek papyrus letters in the Fayum district of Egypt. These discoveries revolutionized our understanding of the morphology, syntax and usages of koine Greek (the type of Greek in which our NT is written), with the result that all of our Greek grammars and lexicons today are based on these materials. But these discoveries did not, at the time, have any great impact on understanding the epistolary genre, structures or conventions of NT letters, that being left for investigation during the last quarter century. In the past 25 years or so, however, a great deal of research has gone into analysing the forms of the non-literary Hellenistic letters that are roughly contemporaneous with our NT letters, into identifying the functions of the various component parts of a typical Greek letter, into spelling out the various types of early letters and how their component parts operate within them, and then in comparing the letters of the NT to what has been found from the studies of these Hellenistic letters.
In brief, it has been shown that the Greek papyrus letters from Egypt are usually constructed according to a fairly consistent pattern—i.e., an opening salutation, a section that in some manner establishes personal contact with the addressee (s), a central body section, a paraenesis or hortatory section, and a closing—and that our NT letters follow this usual pattern. As well, it has been demonstrated that the respective sections in this usual epistolary pattern, for both the Greek letters generally and NT letters in particular, have quite definite and distinctive functions. Furthermore, it has been shown that the papyrus letters evidence a number of fairly standard epistolary conventions—e.g., motive for writing formulae, disclosure formulae, rebuke formulae, request formulae, vocative formulae in the paraenesis sections, autographic subscriptions, farewell formulae—and that the letters or the NT have many of the same. And, interestingly, it can be seen in the Greek letters that these epistolary conventions tend to appear in clusters at the beginning and end of the units or sub-units of a writing, and so serve to indicate breaks or turning points in the development of a letter-writer’s argumentation—which is how they also appear in NT letters, thereby providing us with a more objective way of identifying the various phases of an argument in these letters.
This is not to suggest that the NT letter-writers must now be seen as trained epistolary theorists or that they used the letter-writing conventions of their day in any slavish manner. Epistolary styles and conventions were ‘in the air’ during the Hellenistic period and were evidently widely practised by all reasonably educated people, much as certain letter-writing conventions are today or as is the proper use of grammar. Rather, what we are arguing is that, though at first sight a somewhat mundane or even trivial exercise, epistolary analysis of a NT letter vis-à-vis what we now know about the types of ancient Greek letters, their structures and their conventions is of real importance for (1) establishing what type of letter we are dealing with, (2) laying out the structure of the letter in a more objectively defensible fashion, and (3) signalling the epistolary markers that serve to set out the course of the writer’s argument. And while not telling us everything we might want to know about the letter, these matters are of great significance for interpretation.
A third matter of importance for any scholarly study of a NT letter has to do with an analysis of rhetorical modes of presentation and persuasion in the letter. For if letters represent the written form of oral arguments, then we are not only interested in a letter’s epistolary structures and conventions but also its rhetorical features and conventions. So it is important in an academic study of a NT letter to identify the correlations between (1) its rhetorical features vis-à-vis what can be found in other writings of the time, both Greco-Roman and Jewish (i.e., ‘synchronic rhetorical analysis’), and (2) the development of its argument vis-à-vis how arguments were developed in the Greco-Roman world generally and the Jewish world in particular, both according to the ancient style books on rhetoric and according to what we find was actually practised (i.e., ‘diachronic rhetorical analysis’).
While it may be claimed that rhetorical analysis has always been a part of the study of any biblical text (for in dealing with the argument of any passage commentators have usually had to take into account similar features found in other writings (at least those within the canon of Scripture) and to observe how the author develops his argument), it is only of late that rhetorical analysis of biblical materials as a distinguishable discipline has come to full bloom. It began as a sub-discipline of OT scholarship, but has become important in NT studies as well. To date, Hans Dieter Betz’s work on Galatians is the most serious and significant attempt to interpret a NT letter on the basis of a diachronic rhetorical analysis,5 though others during the last decade have interpreted the rhetorical data within Galatians somewhat differently.6
What a rhetorical analysis of a NT letter attempts to do is to show how one part of an argument relates to another, thereby revealing something of the underlying structure of the author’s presentation. By means of a diachronic analysis, it seeks to identify the particular type of rhetoric used by the author and to isolate the various rhetorical conventions that appear, showing how those conventions carry forward the argument. By means of a synchronic analysis, it seeks to show how the argument is developed through such main modes of persuasion as ethos (the personal character of the speaker or writer), pathos (putting the audience in a certain frame of mind) and logic (setting out the proofs of the argument), with all sorts of supplementary modes of persuasion brought in as well as the occasion demands. In so doing, rhetorical analysis offers interpreters a great deal of help in their attempts to understand more adequately the argument of an author in a particular NT letter—assuming, of course, that such an analysis is done properly.
After dealing with the usual introductory matters of authorship, addressee (s), chronology and circumstances involved in writing, and following hard on the heels of a history of interpretation, an epistolary analysis and a rhetorical analysis, a fourth important area in the academic study of a NT letter arises, that of exegesis proper, with its attendant disciplines of comparative and historical linguistics (i.e., ‘philology’). Here the scholar is concerned with the meaning of words, phrases, idioms, expressions and sentences in the text studied, both as to how these units of language were used in the author’s day and as to how a given author shaped them for his own purposes.
True, devotional and homiletical readings of the Bible are also interested in exegesis, for their interpretations depend on making sense of the materials before them. But an academic reading works with the text in its original language; and since Greek, the original language, is much more inflected than English, an academic reading is able to discern nuances in the text that are often impossible to carry over into English, apart from some paraphrastic elaboration, cumbersome locution or commentary exposition. Thus the academic study of words, phrases, idioms, expressions and sentences in a NT letter is vital for the spiritual life of Christians individually and the church corporately, for without such scholarly, exegetical study all other readings of Scripture would be only superficial, at best, and erroneous or harmful, at worst—as the various cultic forms of Christianity have repeatedly demonstrated, both in the past and in our day.
A fifth matter of importance in an academic reading of a NT letter is that of a comparative study of Jewish exegetical procedures and practices, both those of the rabbis as codified in the Talmud (and associated materials) and those of the extant sectarian writings. This is especially true for the Letter to the Galatians, which has the highest percentage of biblical quotations of any NT writing. But it is also true of many other NT materials, particularly the letters designated as Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Hebrews and 1 Peter—as well, of course, as the Gospels of Matthew and John (if not also those of Mark and Luke) and the Apocalypse. While there are scholars who try to work only from the canonical materials, one cannot really understand what is going on in a NT writer’s use of the Jewish Scriptures without taking into account that writer’s usage vis-à-visthe Jewish uses of the day of those same Scriptures, including both rabbinic and sectarian usages.
A sixth matter has to do with the identification of incorporated Christian confessional materials and the detailing of how these materials have been used in a NT writer’s argument. For in the letters of the NT there often appears a formulaic statement of belief that seems to have (1) arisen from the central convictions of the earliest believers, (2) taken various forms dependent on their respective settings (e.g., worship, preaching, liturgy, teaching, catechism, apology and the like), and (3) been used by the NT writers to support their presentations, often in conjunction with quotations from Scripture. Form criticism is the prerequisite tool for identifying these early Christian confessional materials. As well, it is necessary to treat the content of these portions in two ways: first, on their own, in terms of what message they would have conveyed in their original settings; then, as they appear in the writings of the NT, in terms of how they are there used. In Galatians there are, I believe, six such confessional portions used by Paul in support of his arguments (i.e., 1:4; 3:1; 3:13; 3:26; 3:27–28 and 4:4–5).
A seventh item in our listing has to do with what has been called phenomenological historiography, i.e., the identification and tracing out of similar themes and parallel ways of looking at things in roughly contemporary and cognate materials, with the hope of spawning fresh interpretive insights. It is necessary in biblical scholarship that one be a comparative religionist. In particular, this means that in the area of NT study one must be as familiar as possible with Israel’s Wisdom literature, Greek classical and popular religious philosophy, the Jewish apocalyptic writings, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Josephus, Stoicism, the Talmud and its associated compilations, and the Nag Hammadi texts. And while at times such quests for tangent material may seem something like ‘parallelomania’ (to use a term coined by Samuel Sandinel), when properly done such a tracing out of similar themes, concepts, expressions and approaches in roughly contemporary and cognate materials can prove to be highly significant for interpretation—particularly, I believe, for the interpretation of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Finally, by way of concluding our listing with an eighth matter of importance, it is also vital in an academic study of a NT letter that one be involved in tracing out the development of thought and expression that appears both within a particular letter being studied and between that letter and the other writings of the NT. A NT letter is neither a static nor an isolated phenomenon. Within it an argument is developed, and between it and its neighbouring canonical writings there is development. So just as there is the need for NT scholarship to trace out matters having to do with historical circumstances and chronological relations that appear both within a given writing and between writings, there is the need to trace out conceptual developments and relationships both within a particular writing and between the writings of the NT as well. And, as has been said before of other approaches, such an endeavour is particularly helpful in an academic study of Galatians, for it enables us to appreciate better how the message of Galatians functions and how it should be taken in the broader scope of early apostolic proclamation.
Of course, each of the above eight matters involved in an academic reading of a NT letter can engage the mind and strength of any one scholar for a lifetime. The task when laid out as above seems staggering, perhaps impossible. But scholarship is a co-operative enterprise. So while perhaps working in only one area, a scholar can learn from the work of others in other areas and thereby allow their work to inform and temper his or her own work.
There are, however, many dangers in an academic study of Scripture. Pride of accomplishment, laziness after having to some degree attained and resting on past laurels without always pushing ahead in the quest for understanding, are perennial dangers for the scholar. As well, there is the danger of becoming so engrossed in one area of study as to fail to appreciate the insights gained from study in the other areas. But probably most disastrous for the individual personally and the church corporately is getting so wrapped up with an academic reading of the NT letters (and Scripture generally) as to forget about reading them devotionally, and so to separate oneself from their spiritual nourishment, or to forget about reading them homiletically, and so retreat from being interested or involved in the proclamation of the gospel.
The purpose of what has been said above has not been to spell out the details of each of the disciplines cited as being important in an academic reading of a NT letter. That would take much more space and time than are available here. In fact, it would take volumes to do it properly. Rather, my purpose has been twofold, with the first having something of a scholarly bent and the second being more pastoral in nature: (1) to set out a number of areas of study, some of which are sometimes neglected, that I believe are vitally important for an academic reading of the NT letters, and (2) to urge a bringing together of a devotional, homiletical and academic reading of the NT letters, both in our own lives as Christians and in the life of the church at large. It is very easy to become myopic, whether as laity, ministers or scholars. So while we may have our own special interests and particular expertise, we need to be reading the NT letters in all three ways: devotionally, homiletically and academically. Our mental health and spiritual vitality as Christians individually and as a church corporately depend on it.
1 The New Testament Documents, Their Origin and Early History (London: Macmillan, 1913), p. 95.
2 Cf. esp. J.L White, The Form and Function of the Body of the Greek Letter: A Study of the Letter-Body in the Non-Literary Papyri and in Paul the Apostle (Missoula, 1972); idem, The Form and Structure of the Official Petition: A Study in Greek Epistolography (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1972); C. H. Kim, The Form and Structure of the Familiar Greek Letter of Recommendation (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1972).
3 Cf. my treatments of ‘Letters in Antiquity’, ‘Pastoral Letters’ and ‘Tractate Letters’ in ‘On the Form, Function and Authority of the New Testament Letters’, in D.A. Carson and J.D. Woodbridge (eds.), Scripture and Truth(Grand Rapids: Zondervan/Leicester: IVP, 1983), pp. 101–106.
4 Cf. W.G. Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973), p. 10; see also T.Y. Mullins, ‘Petition as a Literary Form’, NovT 5 (1962), pp. 46–54; C.H. Kim, ‘The Papyrus Invitation’, JBL 94 (1975), pp. 391–402; J.L. White and K. Kensinger, ‘Categories of Greek Papyrus Letters’, SBLASP 10 (1976), pp. 79–91.
5 See Betz’s The Literary Composition and Function of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians’, NTS 21 (1975), pp. 353–379; idem, Galatians. A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1979), pp. 14–25.
6 e.g., G.A. Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), pp. 144–152; and my own commentary on Galatians (Dallas, TX: Word, 1990), pp. cix–cxiv, passim.
Richard N. Longenecker
McMaster Divinity College, Ontario