Of the 27 books in the New Testament 21 are classified as letters and another, Revelation, contains seven letters to churches. But readers of the New Testament don’t always realize that they are reading other people’s mail. I remember when the light first went on for me. For years I didn't hear them called “letters” but “epistles.” Having no idea what an epistle was, I didn't realize I was reading a letter.
Large portions of the New Testament letters (thirteen) were either written by or are attributed to Paul the Apostle. That means that about half of the New Testament is made up of letters from Paul. Which is why the recent book by Patrick Gray, Opening Paul’sLetters: A Reader’s Guide to Genre and Interpretation (Baker Academic,2012), is a welcome addition to the resources available to the student of the New Testament. In this short book (176 pp), Gray provides the reader with an accessible introduction to reading, understanding and interpreting Paul’s letters. The book is broken into six chapters.
In chapter one Gray discusses Paul’s cultural context. He provides a background of the major historical events that would have impacted Paul’s life as well as the various philosophies and social practices. Understanding the world of Paul helps the reader better understand what Paul wrote and why.
In chapter two Gray looks at the different types of genres of letters that existed and their purposes. He gives an overview of the role of handbooks in antiquity and then provides a short description of each of Paul’s letters and how they should be classified.
Chapter three looks at the form and structure of letters and includes a section on how Paul uses rhetoric within that structure.
In chapter four Gray gives consideration to Paul’s audience, which is just as important as understanding the author. Gray then provides an overview of each of Paul’s letters and suggests an occasion for the letters and the personality of the various churches.
Chapter five is helpful because Gray gives attention to the way Paul uses scripture. While this is not a normal part of studying a letters genre and structure, it is important to understanding Paul. His letters are packed with quotations and allusions to the Old Testament.
In chapter six Gray tackles the question of pseudonymity. He looks at the arguments for and against pseudonimty and includes on a section asking does it matter whether or not Paul wrote them.
This is a well done introduction to studying Paul’s letters. It is short, accessible, but packed with good information that will help take the reader far into the process of studying Paul. Each chapter ends with a set of discussion questions which would be valuable if it is being used in a classroom or group setting. A short bibliography is provided in each chapter for those who want to study further.
I have been using Gray’s book as I teach my Pauline Epistles class and as I write the introduction to my commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians. I have found it helpful and well balanced. This would not only be a good textbook in undergrad or seminary, but would also do well in a small group Bible study. I have no criticism of the book, only praise. I plan to add it to my required reading list next year.