Learn how to wisely read the New Testament letters by asking key questions about Paul’s context, a practice called mirror reading that can help us read and apply these letters to our lives responsibly.
“I’ve found it to be so helpful to be asking these questions as I’m reading the letters: Is there a certain problem that keeps resurfacing that Paul is addressing? What types of statements does he use to address it? And can I infer from that the actual language or theology of the group he has to deal with?”
In part one (0:00–14:00), Tim and Jon begin with a recap of the series so far. The New Testament letters were written by some of Jesus’ earliest followers. There are four layers of context that help us understand the New Testament letters: biblical context, cultural context, situational context, and literary context.
In the last episode, Tim and Jon began discussing situational context. In this episode, they will continue this discussion and explore five ways to wisely discern situational context (mirror reading) in the New Testament letters.
Tim brings up the work of John Barclay, a biblical scholar who has responded to those who wonder whether Paul quotes his critics in the book of Galatians. This leads Tim and Jon to look at a similar situation in the Corinthian letters.
1 Corinthians 7:1 (NASB)
Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.
1 Corinthians 7:1 (NIV)
Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”
1 Corinthians 7:1 (NLT)
Now regarding the questions you asked in your letter. Yes, it is good to abstain from sexual relations.
Tim points out that Paul’s argument changes based on whether he’s quoting the Corinthians or asserting his own thoughts. Paul seems to regularly quote his audience, but because quotation marks don’t exist in biblical Greek, this forces us to make an interpretive decision. Wise mirror reading helps us see and make these interpretive choices.
In part two (14:00–25:00), Tim and Jon look at another difficult passage to interpret in 1 Corinthians.
1 Corinthians 6:12-13 (NASB)
All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, but God will do away with both of them. Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body.
Again, the location of quotation marks in this passage varies by translation. The question becomes: when are we reading Paul’s thoughts, and when is he quoting the Corinthians?
Tim says the phrase, “God will do away with both of them” (1 Corinthians 6:13) is contested. Whether we read this as a quote or not has significant implications for Paul’s message. Tim argues that Paul goes on to talk a lot about why we should care for the body, so it makes sense that Paul would be quoting and disagreeing with the Corinthians in this passage.
Tim and Jon proceed to examine five guideposts from John Barclay for wise mirror reading.
In part three (25:00–39:30), Tim and Jon discuss five questions that help us read the letters wisely. Tim also cites a scholar named Nijay Gupta, who has been helpful in identifying these criteria.
1. What kind of statement is being made?
Tim and Jon discuss several kinds of statements we make in our language, including questions, answers, assertions, denials, commands, and prohibitions.
In Galatians 1:1, Paul opens with a strong assertive claim about his authority. Because this is a letter, Paul must have a motivation for making this claim. We can reasonably suppose that some of the Galatians doubted or challenged Paul’s authority.
Tim gives another example in 1 Timothy 1:3-4, where Paul gives a prohibition, implying that many people in Ephesus are teaching bad doctrine. If we take the time to break down Paul’s letters, it’s fairly intuitive to see the kind of statements he’s making.
2. What is the tone of these statements?
How is Paul talking about a topic or issue? Does he see it as a mild problem or as a major issue? Jon points out that reading multiple translations can help us get a better sense of tone.
3. What is the frequency of these statements?
4. How consistent is Paul about this problem?
Is there a common thread that unites Paul’s letter? Tim points out that the Corinthian letters cover a wide variety of issues. However, 1 Thessalonians seems to be about one main problem, and the whole letter is oriented around this problem.
5. Does this issue come up elsewhere in the New Testament or in early Church history?
Tim says the issue of historical plausibility asks whether the issue in question comes up in other historical documents or is an isolated incident.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of criteria, but they are helpful for understanding the letters. Tim and Jon discuss how these guideposts help us read the letters wisely. The guys then use these guides to understand the letter to the Romans.
In part four (39:30–59:30), Tim and Jon discuss biblical, cultural, and situational context in the letter to the Romans. Tim references a helpful book by Scot McKnight called Reading Romans Backwards.
Tim and Jon begin with Romans 1:1-7, which shows how Paul located himself in the broader biblical story. The first several verses of Romans were discussed in episode three of this series. Jesus is the cosmic King promised in the Scriptures, who was exalted to heaven to draw all nations back into the family of God.
The global reach of Jesus’ mission causes us to consider the next layer: cultural context. We learn important background information about Christians in Rome from the book of Acts.
After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.
Tim shares additional background from a Roman historian.
“Suetonius [an earlier Roman historian] said, ‘Claudius expelled from Rome the Jews constantly making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.’”
-- Orosius, Hist. 7:6, 15–16
In response to unrest caused by messianic Jews, Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome in 49 C.E. Tim shares an excerpt from Robert Jewett that comments on the return of these Jewish believers to Rome five years later.
After the Edict of Claudius was no longer enforced following the emperor’s death in 54, the banned leaders apparently began moving back to Rome, but they soon found that they were no longer welcome as leaders in the congregations that had found new meeting places after 49.
-- Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, 59.
Knowing the biblical context leads us into the cultural context, and knowing the cultural context leads us into the situational context. Paul addresses the tension between the Gentile Christians and the returning Jewish Christians. This is what we see in Paul’s letter.
In Romans 16, Paul gives many greetings to what scholars believe to be about a half dozen house churches in Rome from a blend of ethnic backgrounds. Tim reads from Romans 16:17-18 to show how Paul is responding to “those who cause dissensions and hindrances.”
In the previous two chapters, Paul uses two titles for house churches in Rome. In Romans 15, he calls one group “the powerful” (Greek: dunatos) and another “those without power” (Greek: adunatos).
Romans 15:1, 7
Now we who are powerful (dunatos) ought to bear the weaknesses of those without power (adunatos) and not just please ourselves… Therefore welcome one another, just as the Messiah welcomed you to the glory of God.
In chapter 14, Paul uses different terminology to refer to two groups within the church.
Romans 14:1-5 Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to offer judgment the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.
Tim points out that these categories—not eating meat and observing one day over another—are both Jewish versus Gentile markers. Tim shares a quote from Scot McKnight.
“The ‘weak’ are Jewish believers who are in the stream of God’s elect people, who know and practice the Torah, and still probably attend synagogue, but who sit in judgment on gentiles, especially the ‘strong’ in the Christian community of Rome, even though they have no status or power… The ‘strong’ are predominantly gentiles who believe in Jesus as Messiah, who do not observe Torah as God’s will for them, and who have condescending and despising attitudes towards Jews and especially to Jewish believers in Rome, over whom they have superior high social status in Rome… The tension between these is not just a matter of theological differences… ‘powerful’ and ‘non-powerful’ from Romans 15:1 are status terms in the Roman world.”
-- Scot McKnight, Reading Romans Backwards, 21.
Tim highlights how many of the issues that we often read strictly as theological texts are connected to current cultural issues. Understanding this helps us to see how we should or shouldn’t quote and apply these passages in our own day.
In part five (59:30–end), Jon shares that his biggest takeaway from this series has been understanding the New Testament letters as letters instead of theological essays. Yes, they carry deep theological meaning, but that meaning is most accurately reached when we learn to read and apply the New Testament letters based on an informed understanding of context.
Tim says his goal is to poke at the assumption that reading Paul’s words at face value in English in the 21st century is the right way to understand their basic meaning. “If anything,” Tim adds, “I should give this way more thought and invest in a set of responsible reading skills, so that I can understand what Paul was doing and understand what the Spirit is saying through Paul’s letter to churches in other contexts.”
The letters of the apostles were not written to us, but by the work of the Holy Spirit, they are for us. Our understanding of the letters should be guided by wise reading skills and our community as we learn to apply the letters to our own context.
Show produced by Dan Gummel and Camden McAfee.
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