Interpreting the Pauline Letters by John HarveySecond only to the Gospels, the thirteen letters of Paul are comprise some of the most discussed, debated and studied books in the New Testament. Having written nearly half of the NT himself, Paul covers a broad scope of both theological and practical subjects. If the new perspective on Paul has shown us anything it is that a basic understanding of Pauline theology, philosophy, methodology, etc. is built on a proper exegetical method and tools.

It is towards this goal of providing basic exegetical tools for interpreting the letters of Paul that John D. Harvey has written Interpreting the Pauline Letters: An Exegetical Handbook in the new Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis published by Kergel. This is the first of four volumes to be written by Harvey the others of which are Interpreting the Gospels and Acts, Interpreting the General Letters and Interpreting the Apocalypse. The goal of this series of books is to provide seminary students with a textbook on all the NT books who have already had one year of Greek. However, since the English translation is also provided along with the Greek text, non-Greek students can still benefit greatly from these books.

Background for Interpreting Paul’s Letters

As is typical for books like this, Harvey begins by looking at the genre of Paul’s letters. Paul writes his letters against the backdrop of a culture that placed a high price on oral and rhetorical skills as well as literary. By utilizing the letter form of writing Paul is able to address multiple people at once with the intention of dispersing the letter once the original recipients have read it. Harvey does a great job showing the similarities and differences between Paul’s letters and that of the Greek culture. One of the noticeable differences being that Paul’s letters are much longer than average and he covers many topics in a single letter (29). Harvey provides the reader with a most helpful chart which breaks down each of Paul’s letters into their overall literary structure (32-33).

Following genre, Harvey turns to the historical context of Paul’s letters by providing a short yet comprehensive outline of the historical flow of each book by itself and all thirteen as a whole. Harvey briefly and satisfactorily tackles the historicity, or, integrity, of each book and especially addresses the issues surrounding 2 Corinthians and Philippians (51-54). Concerning the historical flow of Paul’s letters Harvey presents the method based on Paul’s letters alone versus the book of Acts. Noting that a chronological sketch of Paul’s ministry as extracted from his letters alone is difficult, he leans towards Acts to provide a more full chronology stating, “The book of Acts provides a connected account of Paul’s ministry.” (67) Essentially, Harvey walks through the books three times: first, through the letters themselves establishing the chronology, then briefly through Acts and finally through the letters once again focusing on the historical background of each letter.

Moving to the theology of Paul’s letters we come to perhaps the pinnacle of Harvey’s work. After briefly presenting the various methods of outlining Paul’s theology Harvey suggests that the primary way in which to dissect Paul’s theology is through antithetic (80). With this in mind, the primary antithesis that characterizes Paul’s theology is that of being “in Adam” or “in Christ.” These constitute the two spheres of human existence. It is from this antithesis that Harvey delves into much of Paul’s theology such as justification, propitiation, adoption, faith and the church. With the big picture of Paul’s theology in mind Harvey then walks through each of Paul’s letters and highlights their distinctive theological contributions to Paul’s overall theology. Harvey has a lot of good content here and some readers will wish he had developed some Pauline themes a bit more to their satisfaction.

Process for Interpreting Paul’s Letters

With Paul’s theology behind him Harvey begins to move into the area of interpretive tools. First he discusses textual criticism. The eclectic, reasoned and conservative approaches to textual criticism are discussed along with a synopsis of the various text theories. Harvey walks the reader through a detailed process of utilizing various linguistic tools for determining both the original text of Paul’s letters but also their correct translation. He gives a six step process for translating the text and provides a solid list of accompanying resources to aid in translation work.

After translation work comes contextual considerations such as historical, literary and theological context. Historically there are issues to address such as how daily life was viewed or what might it mean to be a Roman citizen. Also, it is important to know who the rulers were at the time and what each of the cities were like that Paul visited and wrote letter to. With some repetition, but mostly new information, Harvey revisits the literary and theological aspects of Paul’s letters as it pertains to interpreting them. Throughout he provides a wealth of other books and resources to aid in this task.

The final two chapters deal with crafting a sermon for preaching Paul’s letters and Harvey provides two passages to serve as examples of how it might be done. Harvey lays out a three step to the exposition of a text: synthesis of the passage, appropriation to the hearers and homiletical packaging for how the passage bears on my life. The two examples in chapter seven really bring home the three step process Harvey lays out and will benefit anyone. The final chapter provides a list of resources under headings such as Greek text editions, textual criticism references, NT theology books as well as commentaries for all of Paul’s letters. There is also a helpful glossary of all of the terms in bold throughout the book with a once sentence definition

With the inaugural volume of the Handbook for New Testament Exegesis there is no doubt that these four volumes will quickly become some of the most used books by students, teachers and pastors for their target use. Interpreting the Pauline Letters will find its place next to Thomas Schreiner’s already popular Interpreting the Pauline Epistles as a perfect complimentary book. If one can master the content in Harvey’s book then they will be well on their way to gaining an impressive grasp of most of the NT.

NOTE: I received this book for free from Kregel in exchange for my honest review. I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review. The words and thoughts expressed are my own.

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