Reading New Testament Letters: Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of posts on Reading New Testament Letters from CSU’s Executive Vice-President Michael Bryant. You can read the first article in the series HERE.

What are some important principles to keep in mind regarding NT letters? [1]

The NT letters are occasional writings.

By this we mean that when a NT author wrote a letter, he did so within a specific set of circumstances. These circumstances were linked to events related to the author’s own situation, the circumstances of those who received his letter, or both (circumstances of the writer and the recipients).

One implication of the occasional nature of the NT letters is that in order to interpret their contents accurately, we must try to understand the letter’s setting. Was the author trying to address a specific problem (e.g., 1 Corinthians or Philippians, unity)? Did his own situation play a role in what he chose to include (e.g., In the Book of Romans, Paul gives a lengthy explanation of the gospel in the hope that the Romans will support his desire to take the gospel to Spain). If we come to grasp the factors related to a letter’s occasion, we will better understand its contents. It is interesting to note that often times (but not always) a NT author is concerned to address either ethical problems or doctrinal misunderstandings in the lives of those to whom he writes.

Another implication of the occasional nature of the NT letters is their limited or incomplete treatment of a subject. When a biblical writer discusses a certain subject in his letter, we should not conclude that he says everything he believes about that subject, i.e., we should not view his comments as thorough and complete. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 Paul criticizes believers in Corinth for taking fellow Christians to court and suing them. When reading Paul’s comments we must understand that he sought to address a specific problem. Thus, his teaching about Christians taking fellow Christians to court is limited. Paul did not aim to give a comprehensive theology (systematic theology) of Christians and litigation in 1 Corinthians 6:1-11.[2] If we wish to know whether a Christian may take another Christian to court we will need to explore additional texts (e.g., Rom 13:3-4) and topics (e.g., justice).

A final word about the occasional nature of NT letters is appropriate. Even though the NT letters are occasional writings we should not conclude that they apply only to ancient believers. The authors of the letters regarded them as Scripture (2 Pet 3:16). Moreover, they called for the recipients to exchange letters (Col 4:16). It is incorrect to conclude that the authors of the NT letters intended them for only their original recipients.

The NT letters are culturally conditioned.

By this we mean that the NT letters are situated within the first century Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures. We cannot understand them correctly without a basic grasp of these two important cultures.

One implication of this fact is that while a great many principles are still applicable to today, some are culturally conditioned and should not be applied in the same manner today (as they were in the first-century). For example, Paul’s teaching regarding women covering their heads in public worship (1 Cor 11) is culturally conditioned. Whatever he means by women covering their heads in worship (e.g., wearing a veil, wearing their hair up as opposed to down?), we need to understand that in Greco-Roman culture how a woman wore her hair communicated certain ideas. Women who engaged in pagan worship sometimes wore their hair down (as opposed to pinned up). Furthermore, women known for adultery or lesbianism sometimes cut their hair short. The specific practice Paul criticizes is not clear. However, what is certain is that he does not want the Corinthian women to send the wrong signal. Sending the wrong signal, not how a woman wears her hair, is the abiding principle. The great challenge, of course, is determining what features of a text within a letter still apply today.

Another implication of the occasional nature of the NT letters is the need to appreciate the unique circumstances in which a biblical author provides instruction. A NT author’s comments may initially appear odd or extreme to a modern reader. However, when we realize that the biblical author is responding to a specific issue faced by first-century believers, and that he tailors his comments to that issue, his words will not seem so strange. For instance, some may read Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:3-4 and wrongly conclude that a wife must have intimate relations with her husband when he demands it. However, an understanding of the occasional nature of the writing will reveal that this is not what Paul means. His words are addressed to Christian husbands and wives who avoid intimate relations with their spouse because they view themselves as “spiritual” beings who do not need to engage in the lower things (e.g., intimate relations) of this world (they are influenced by first-century Greek dualism). In response to those who hold this misguided view of intimate relations Paul says, “Do not deprive each other or your partner may be tempted to have relations outside of marriage.”

NT letters are meant to be read from beginning to end in one sitting.

When studying a NT letter, ideally one should read it from start to finish in one sitting. This is how the earliest recipients of the NT letters experienced them (at least initially). One benefit of this approach is that the reader is able to see the “big picture.” Another            benefit is that one is able to trace the biblical author’s train of thought from beginning to end. Think about it. If you start reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians in Galatians 4:3, you will have a difficult time understanding his argument in this verse, not to mention his larger overall purpose in the letter. By the way, when is the last time that you received a letter from a friend and starting reading in the middle of it? No one does this. At some point, then (not necessarily every time you read), read a letter from its beginning to end in one sitting. Longer letters (e.g., Romans, 1 Corinthians) may be read in two sittings.

Most of the NT letters were likely read out loud in a group setting.

 Reading out loud was the usual way that people read in ancient times. Interestingly, even when people read in private they still usually read out loud. This approach to reading continued even into the nineteenth-century. With this in mind, the NT letters, at least initially, would have been read within the context of a local congregation out loud rather than privately. The challenges associated with making copies, widespread illiteracy and cost factors, all served as reasons as to why people would have experienced the Scriptures in a public rather than in a private context. Interestingly, things that we take for granted today such as possessing our own copy of Scripture, reading silently to ourselves, and having a “personal quiet time,” would have been atypical for the vast majority of believers throughout history, except for a privileged few who had access to Scripture.


[1] This article relies substantially on the following works: J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 2nd ed.; Robert Plummer, 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible; and Thomas Schreiner, Interpreting the Pauline Epistles, 2nd ed.

[2] The limited nature of Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 is revealed when we realize that he likely addresses less serious offenses (see esp. 1 Cor 6:1-2) rather than serious offenses (e.g., murder or rape). In my view, it is wrong to conclude that Christians must never take other Christians to court.


You Might Also Like

No Comments

Leave a Reply