The Epistles are probably, after the Gospels, the most well-known genre of Scripture. How many sermons have been preached on some verse of Paul? How many weddings have 1 Corinthians 13 read in them? Even Harry Potter quotes from an Epistle (1 Corinthians 15:26)! However, there are plenty of, in a word, troubling verses — a lot about slaves, women, and other societal issues. Someone reading today may totally disregard what the Bible says, because of something said about women not wearing jewelry or covering their hair, because the context of these things is not addressed. In order to understand the Epistles, we need to look at their nature/form, their historical contexts, and their literary contexts.
The Nature of the Epistles
What are the Epistles? They are the books in the New Testament that are not the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), not Acts, and not Revelation. They are everything else, from Romans to Jude. And they are like letters. In fact, there are a subset genre of letters. There are some books of the Epistles that seem to be personal letters — addressed to specific persons at a very specific point (e.g., 1 and 2 Timothy, Philemon). But then there are letters that are address to specific persons but intended to be received more publicly, e.g., Romans, addressed to the Christians in Rome, but with a wider audience in mind. Whatever the case, these are what is called occasional documents — historical documents that are written from one person to others on specific occasions. They are not theological treatises that systemically lay out someone’s entire theology. They are theological reflections addressing specific tasks or situations. So, in order to understand them, one needs to understand the context in which they were written, and the context in which they were received. There needs to be a merging of horizons, as Gadamer would say — an approach that takes seriously the context that the author is writing and what they are intending, and the context in which you are reading it as well. How do Paul’s admonishments to Timothy about women get interpreted today? How should they be? The context and our context is needed!
As we look at the Epistles, there a few basic questions one should always ask.
- Who is writing?
- To whom is the Epistle being written?
- What are the issues that the Epistle is addressing?
The first is generally the most straightforward, though there are questions about when in that person’s life they are writing (and in what point in the development of their theology). The second question is the one that requires a lot of historical knowledge or research. The question of whom is the Epistle is addressed to concerns geography, culture, religion, commerce, and many other issues. Understanding what kind of city Corinth is or Rome is helps us understand why Paul is writing what he is writing; and understanding the history of persecution and diaspora helps us understand Peter addressing the scattered believers in 1 Peter. One must read beyond the pages of Scripture, in order to get a sense of the history, culture, and issues of that the Epistle may be addressing. This brings us to third question — most of which may be discernible in the Epistle, but sometimes the full context is not, e.g., Paul telling Timothy not to let women speak in the gathering of Christians. If we understand the issue that Paul is addressing more fully, we understand more fully what he intended by these words and what they may mean or not mean today.
One reads a biology textbook differently than a love letter. The whole process of trying to understand what the author is saying is different. Epistles are more like love letters than biology textbooks. However, they do contain arguments and have a general structure. To understand best how to read an Epistle, read paragraphs. Think about the whole and see the flows and transitions, but understand each paragraph as doing something in a part of the whole. Ideally, one should read an Epistle out loud in one sitting. Doing this helps in understanding how it would have been received and one can begin to hear what the main points that the author intends and what we should be hearing today.
Some Guidance on “Problem Passages”
So, there are, of course, problem passages. And these are not just ones that we might be squeamish at as 21st century readers. They are passages or phrases whose meaning may be lost to us — and maybe entirely, e.g., the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2:3. We can guess, but that is all we can do. So, how do we begin to untangle or at least get by these passages? More on that in the next post on the Epistles, but for now, a few guidelines.
- Remember that the Epistles were not written to us. They were written to the intended audience. What God through the Holy Spirit has persevered is what we have. No more, no less. Sometimes that is frustrating, but it can also be freeing. It is alright not to know.
- Be curious. There are things dropped into the Epistles where we don’t know the full set of details and may never know — despite historical study. That does not stop us from being curious and listen carefully to the text.
- Discern from context. As details may not be given, it is still possible to read something through the context and the use of whatever the author is referencing (e.g., the baptism of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15). With that, some understanding may be worked out.
- Consult others. Look at commentaries. Join the ongoing conversations of scholars!