Teaching the Letters of Paul to undergraduate students is one of the more important invitations we have as biblical scholars and teachers. Finding readable introductions to the wisdom of these letters for our students is an ongoing challenge. Patrick Gray’s Opening Paul’s Letters: A Reader’s Guide to Genre and Interpretation offers us a student friendly primer to the letter genre of Paul, as well as important keys for the reader in the interpretation of these foundational teachings in the New Testament.
Gray’s primary focus is on the literary genre of Paul’s writings. He reminds us that understanding the New Testament is by and large an exercise in reading other people’s mail. Gray orients readers to the similarities and differences in Paul to other ancient letters in Greece and Rome, in order to give the reader a foundation of the unique message and theology of the evangelist. His focus is centered on what one needs to know in order to make sense of a particular passage, as one is guided by the key literary questions: Who wrote it? When was it written? What is the aim of the author in writing this? Is the author male or female? What kind of text is this? Is this the entire text or an excerpt? Is this an autobiographical report of actual events? Is it a report of a dream or fantasy? In what language was it originally written? How was this message received? Are the author and speaker the same person?
Methodologically Gray categorizes these questions into three basic categories. First the ‘world behind the text’ referring to the historical, cultural, social, political, literary, and religious context of Paul. Second, the ‘world of the text’ referring to the literary, aesthetic and structural characteristics of Paul’s letters. Third, the ‘world in front of the text’ referring to what takes place when one reads the letters on the page and what takes place in the readers who engage the text in their lives. His methodology systematically develops into chapters structured on the following themes: Paul’s cultural contexts; letter genres; organization of a letter; Paul’s audiences; how Paul reads the Old Testament; and pseudonymity.
Gray develops these chapters to prepare the reader to understand Paul in his first century context. He uses many clear and concrete examples from ancient and contemporary literature to assist students in discovering the meaning of Paul’s letters. His exploration of Paul’s diatribe style and use of rhetoric enables the reader to grasp the uniqueness of Paul as a first century author, and pastoral theologian. The preliminary sketches of the contexts of the letters and their audiences are a brief but essential mapping of the topography of Paul. In particular I found the chapter on how Paul reads the Old Testament useful for introductory readers of Paul. Gray enables students to understand how Jesus for Paul was the pivotal event in history. He assists the reader in appreciating how Paul reinterprets the Jewish scriptures in light of the Jesus event, as well as a source of moral guidance and instruction for his communities, and support for his theological perspectives.
Gray provides undergraduate students with a fine primer on the letters of Paul. Students who utilize this text should be prepared to read Paul’s letters with sensitized eyes to the unique literary genre and historical context of these foundational New Testament letters. They should also be prepared to study commentaries on each of these letters with greater facility and meaning.