Interpreting the General Letters by BatemanUnder the editorial leadership of John D. Harvey, Herbert W. Bateman IV has written Interpreting the General Epistles: An Exegetical Handbook as part of the Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis. This series seeks to provide the student of the New Testament with the basic background information such as authorship, historical background, literary context, theological context and interpretive guidance such as how to exegete and communicate the meaning of a text.

General Observations

The first chapter address the genre of the general epistles as letters (Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2 & 3 John and Jude). Through comparative studies with that of other contemporary letters to the NT, Bateman provides a skeletal picture of how letters were structured and functioned. Of particular interest is the issue of pseudonymity whereby the person who actually writes the letter with their own hand is not the one who provides the content of the letter. This is of great interest and contention for biblical critics and historians like Bart Ehrman who dismisses most of the NT letters as fakes over this issue. In the span of five pages Bateman ably defends its use by the general epistles authors showing the charge of the critics to be unwarranted.

In the second chapter Bateman provides the reader with good analysis and conclusions concerning the historical background to the general letters and how it shapes the writing of the books and how we are to interpret them. For instance, James writes against the backdrop of the Disporai. Much of James deals with wisdom and how the Jews were to live wisely during this time. After comparing the relevant extra canonical wisdom literature Bateman concludes that

James emphasizes the values and ethos of God’s kingdom community over which Jesus reigns as Messiah in order to socially orient the Jewish Disporia community in ways that distinguished them from others and encouraged tranquility” (79).

Further, for Peter we see a significant emphasis on household codes of conduct. Looking at the Roman literature on the home Bateman comments that “the Romans believed that disorder was a threat not only to the Greco-Roman family but also to the Greco-Roman society” (81).  So how does Peter make a distinguishing mark with his household codes? Bateman concludes the following concerning wives and slaves:

Using the same categories of those shaped in a predominately Greco-Roman culture in the geographical areas like Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, the province of Asia, and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1), Peter engaged his Greco_Roman culture in ways that both adopted and yet amended the household ethic for wives and slaved in order to transform culture” (83).

Essentially, Peter “elevated” the status and role of women and slaves within the Christians worldview.

The next chapter deals with the theology of the general epistles in which Bateman focuses on the biblical theology of the books. The aim is to show (1) what theology the letters have themselves and (2) how they fit into and “contribute to the canonical whole” (90). This is accomplished by first establishing an overview of the whole biblical story-line from creation to new creation. Next the biblical covenants are outlined with discussion on how they drive much of the Bible’s development and historical fulfillment. Coming to the NT we are faced with the era of fulfillment or “inaugurated fulfillment”. ” The authors of the General Letters present God’s kingdom-redemption program as having been initiated by God in the historical events of Jesus (Heb. 1:2; 1 Peter 1:20) and later consummated at the subsequent return of Jesus (James 5:7-8:2; 2 Peter 1:16; 3:2, cf. Jude 20)” (103). The kingdom has been inaugurated with the first coming of Christ (104) but there is a future physical establishing of the kingdom on earth during the millennium at the second coming of Christ (113-16). While clearly premillennial, Bateman avoids discussion of the rapture.

Chapters four through six contain the nine step process for interpreting the general letters. The nine step process is summarized as follows:

  1. Initiate a Translation – The goal here is for the interpreter to make their own translation of an isolated text. This is accomplished by diagramming the text according to grammatical function, understanding the placing and function of the verbs and then translating the text.
  2. Identify Interpretive Issues – The various helps to accomplishing this task include a knowledge of the various translations and their philosophies and  understanding textual families. The role of open-ended statements, Greek idioms and English sensitivities are discussed as well.
  3. Isolate Major Textual Problems – The central issue here surrounds manuscript variants. Guidelines are given for isolating textual problems, how to interpret the apparatus in Greek texts, weighing internal and external manuscript evidence. Entry and advanced level advice is given for how to evaluate the evidence.
  4. Interpreting Structures – This deals with how to identify and present the structural outline of a text. This is used to visualize the author’s flow of thought at the clause level (independent and independent clauses).
  5. Interpreting Style, Syntax, and Semantics – Here, Bateman examines the style of Hebrews, syntax of the Johannine letters and the semantics of Peter as examples of how to do the same for the other general letters.
  6. Interpreting Greek Words – Since the same word can have a variety of meanings, the interpreter needs to determine which one the author meant in a given context. Here synonyms, extra biblical usage, LXX usage and the semantic range of a word are discussed in order to determine an authors intended meaning for a given word.
  7. Communicating Exegetically – Here the exegete takes their translated diagram of the text and begins to turn each statement/clause into summary statements. This starts with summaries of each clause and ends with an exegetical outline.
  8. Communicating the Central Idea – The goal here is to further refine the exegetical outline into a single statement that summarizes the whole text under consideration.
  9. Communicating Homiletically – With 3 John as a test case, Bateman provides the reader with an example of a homiletical outline that is based on the exegetical outline.

With the nine step process in place, Bateman shows how it is to be used on two sample texts (Jude 5-7 & Hebrews 10:19-25). After wading through a lot of detail on each step some readers may be overwhelmed with everything there is to do in the process of interpreting a passage. The two samples really go a long way to putting it all into perspective and I feel they eliminate much of the anxiety some will feel as they consider the exegetical task. No doubt it is daunting but with continual practice the process with become more natural and less cumbersome. Chapter eight finishes off the book with a list of helpful resources for further study on all of the chapter topics, the nine steps and a list of helpful commentaries for each book.

Conclusion

As a handbook, Interpreting the General Letters definitely hits the mark. The quality work and high standard set by John Harvey in the inaugural Interpreting the Pauline Letters is no doubt continued here. This is a must have for graduate level study and should be in every pastor and teachers library for reference. Bateman shows himself to be well acquainted with the material and his explanation and exemplary use of the nine step process will serve readers well. This book deserves a wide audience and a long shelf life.

I received this book for free from Kregel for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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