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Interpreting the Pauline Letters

Interpreting the Pauline Letters: An Exegetical Handbook by John D. Harvey

John D. Harvey, Professor of New Testament at Columbia International University has written an accessible, thorough yet insightful book on introducing students to the great Apostle Paul’s letters.  The book is divided up into 8 chapters that begin from the genre and historical background of Paul’s letters onto theological and interpretive matters.  The beauty of this book is that it provides a snapshot of the key features of Paul’s writings while not overburdening the student with various rabbit trails a book like this could take (New Perspective, meaning of dikaiosune, Galatian hypothesis, etc.).  Rather than try to capture every chapter in review, I think it would be best to outline some of the highlights the book has to offer while also engaging the book where I think it could be stronger.

Key Highlights

Harvey’s concept of apostolic apologia in Ch. 1 was immensely helpful in seeking to understand Paul’s life, his gospel message and his ministry as an apostle.  Harvey writes, “In those sections, he deals with the gospel, defends his ministry, and/or presents his credentials.  These sections are particularly useful sources of information in seeking to develop an understanding of Pauline biography and chronology from his letters” (37).  Passage in Ephesians 2 and 3, material from the book of Galatians (ch. 1-2), and other areas bring to the surface a timeline of Paul’s ministry efforts, his opponents and their teaching, an how the gospel went forth through the church communities.  Rather than taking Paul’s defense of his gospel ministry as another rung on a ladder of information, these sections provide very concrete details on how his gospel ministry went out among the cities and nations, bringing both Jew and Gentile into one body.  This kind of an understanding fills the gaps for students trying to piece together the chronology of Paul’s life and also the events that are mirrored in Luke’s telling of the story in the book of Acts.

Drawing together a theological model for understanding Paul’s letters is no difficult task.  Even harder is seeking to focus on one controlling model for Paul’s theology.  Yet, Harvey points out a largely assumed but ignored point by writing, “In many ways Paul’s language is antithetic.  For example, the opposing pairs of flesh and Spirit, of law and grace, of Adam and Christ, and of old man and new man are readily apparent to anyone who reads Paul’s letters….they provide a starting point for understanding the major contours of his theology” (80).  Particularly illuminating is Paul’s insistence of describing people as “in Christ” 172 times in his letters (81).  Harvey details this use of “in Christ” in Paul’s writings by highlighting the two spheres of existence which come out of a full glance at his writings.  By focusing on concepts like ‘in Adam’ and ‘in Christ, ‘ and the transfer from darkness to light, works of the flesh to fruits of the Spirit, we get a sense of the radical change that takes place when a person moves from one sphere to the other.  Harvey writes, “Practically, it expresses the way in which being “in Christ” affects every sphere of life” (81).  In good Reformed fashion, we see how being in Christ should be proclaimed in every facet and sphere of life, not just in a private spiritual life. 

The process of interpreting sections of Paul’s letters in Greek can be a daunting task but Harvey has helpfully outlined 6 steps to help students with the task (114).  The encouragement that Harvey gives is that the task of translating should be broken down into bite size pieces that are manageable.  In putting it this way, Harvey has given the student an eye for the main clause of the sentence and the clauses that surround the main point of the text.  As someone who has studied Greek but has not kept up with it, this reminder pushes aside the overwhelming feeling of seeing such large chunks of material and feeling overwhelmed. 

Area Which Could be Stronger

I only see one area in which the book could have been strengthened.  We really only get a little over a page of material on the Use of the Old Testament in the New Testament (142-3).   Interpreting Philippians 2:5-11 is a bear to interpret without an understanding of Isaiah 45 as a backdrop for the hymn.  Furthermore, portions of Galatians really need some good understanding of Genesis to help aid in interpretation.  I know that a book this size can’t include everything (Beale’s work is a great example of OT in NT), but a few more pages will help the student with a grasp on interpretive strategies for understanding OT passages in the NT. 

Overall, I was really impressed with this book and would recommend to anyone wanting to cut their teeth on Paul’s letters, in Greek and English.  For the student, this handbook is a valuable resource in study while also providing select resources for further study.

Thanks to Kregel Academic Publishers for the free book in exchange for an unbiased review.


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