Review: Paul the Ancient Letter Writer

Dear Jack,

School is a wreck. I’m smashed with work, I failed my last exam, my roommate and I aren’t getting along, and the kids in my nursery class do whatever they please. My teachers have been piling on the homework, and midterms are next week!

Love, Jill.

I’ve adapted this from an example Weima uses in his introduction, and for all of us this looks like just another having-a-hard-time-in-college letter between two lovebirds. But for Tom, this letter is quite different from Jill’s other letters to him. She always writes “Dearest Tom,” she begins her letters with her fondness for Tom before getting into the tears and sweat of school, and she always ends her letters with “Love, Jillie.” Tom realizes this letter is much more terse and a lot less friendly. What would seem normal to another set of eyes is dramatic, perhaps even overwhelming, to Tom.

Jeffery A. D. Weima, professor of New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary for 25 years and author of Neglected Endings and 1-2 Thessalonians (BECNT), makes the case that we should not only be looking at the content of the Bible but also its form. This isn’t exactly a new idea, but Weima, who has studied Paul’s letters for over 30 years, compares all of Paul’s letters to understand the purposes and contents of his writings and the function they play in his persuasive purposes.

The Layout

Paul the Ancient Letter Writer is made up of six chapters.

1. Introduction: After using the above example of Jill’s letter to Jack, Weima explains his method of interpreting Paul’s letters (“epistolary analysis,” broadly called literary criticism). This means Weima reads Paul’s letters as they are—letters—which involves learning how to read their structure. Weima, contrasting epistolary analysis with the methods of thematic approach and rhetorical criticism, writes, “But though Paul employs [rhetoric], it would be wrong to conclude . . . that he was a rhetorician who constructed his letters according to the rules of ancient speech” (9). Instead, “the most important source for understanding the apostle’s letters must naturally be the letter-writing practices of his day rather than the rules for oral discourse” (9).

2. The Opening: Whereas most Bible readers (and commentators) overlook the opening verses of Paul’s letters, Weima sets all of Paul’s opening statements side by side and examines how Paul presents his apostolic position in relation to his readers “so that his purposes . . . are strengthened and enhanced” and foreshadows key themes in the letter (12).

3. The Thanksgiving: These sections in Paul’s letters are too long to place side by side, but Weima skillfully shows the differences between a few of Paul’s Thanksgiving sections. There are five parts to the Thanksgiving section, but some letters are missing one of the parts. Weima spends a few pages on Galatians, which is missing the entire Thanksgiving section!

4. The Body: Easily the longest chapter in the book, Weima spends 74 pages working his way through thirteen different forms that appear throughout his thirteen letters (e.g., appel, confidence, prayers, inclusios, etc.) and their functions.

5. The Closing: Paul’s closings usually receive equal (or less) attention than his openings (usually because people are ready to finish the letter by this time). But again, Weima shows that Paul’s closing sections pick up themes from within the letter and recapitulations the apostle’s concerns.

6. The final chapter is a test case of Paul’s literary techniques which Weima has covered in chapters 2–5. He shows how Paul’s persuasion can be most easily seen in the short letter of Philemon. All of the chapters are of high quality, but this was by far my favorite.

The Chocolate Milk

Paul the Ancient Letter Writer is an excellent resource for anyone who is studying Paul’s letters. Weima can be quite detailed, but the effort is not without its payment. In each chapter, after Weima introduces the form of a passage and it’s function, he gives its interpretive significance.

For example, Weima says that the apostolic parousia “refers . . . to the presence of Paul, whether this is experienced by means of a future visit from the apostle, the arrival of his emissary, or the letter itself” (114). All three of these instances are seen in 1 Corinthians 4.14–21.

First, Paul wrote to the Corinthians (v14) to admonish them as his “beloved children.” He loves them as his children, but they must obey him as the one who fathered them in Jesus Christ through the gospel.” Second, he sent Timothy (someone they knew well) to them to represent Paul’s ways. Timothy is described as Paul’s “beloved and faithful child” (v17). Paul imitates Jesus. Timothy imitates Paul. The Corinthians should see Paul represented in Timothy, imitate Paul, and thus image Christ rightly. Third, Paul stresses that he will come to them again (vv18–21). As their father, which would they prefer: Paul to come with a “rod” of discipline or in a spirit of gentleness?

The Spoiled Milk

The only negative I could find in this book came in chapter 5 on Paul’s closing sections. Three times Weima picks up the last few verses of 2 Corinthians, but the last two times (13.12a, 13) almost completely rehash the information used in the first discussion of 13.11. There is some new information, but too much that was repeated.

Recommended?

Weima shows just how important a close reading of the text is. While he doesn’t create a whole theology out of every nuance, he doesn’t brush them aside either. Would all of his readers noticed if a particular section was missing from his letter? It’s difficult for us to know for certain. However, while Paul’s original audiences would not have been able to compare all of his letters, we can, and by doing so we can get a bigger glimpse into the mind of Paul by seeing what he did and didn’t write. This semester, my Old Testament professor has been drilling into us the importance of the literary structures of the biblical books. Weima only confirms that importance by showing how to read Paul’s letters rightly. This is a must have for all who study Paul’s letters. 

Lagniappe

  • Author: Jeffrey A. D. Weima
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Academic (November 15, 2016)
  • Previous Posts: The Closing of 2 Corinthians

Buy it on Baker Academic or on Amazon!

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic through the Baker Academic Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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