New Eyes on the New Testament Pt.3

Studying the Letters

III. Interpretive Issues

  1. Understanding the Letters

Contextual Background

Although it is tempting to make assumptions when studying the letters, a good exegesis(1) requires consideration of the following factors. (2)

      (1) Chronology.  Material used to explain one text might not be representative of the time when another text was written. (3)    For example, information written about Judaism in either 500 BCE or 200 CE might not be reflective of first century Judaism. The teachings of the rabbis recorded in the Mishna in 200 CE (4) might not be consistent with the instruction of the rabbis in the days of Jesus.  Similarly, the instruction of religious leaders in 600 CE might not be representative of the teachings in the first century church.

      (2) Geography. Jewish concepts and practices were not necessarily monolithic in the ancient world. Perhaps the term “Judaisms” is a more accurate description than “Judaism”.  Judaism as practiced in Palestine was not totally consistent with the Judaism practiced in Egypt.  For example, in Egypt Jewish women could divorce their husbands while in Palestine they could not. 

      (3) Culture. As is the case today, various cultures had markers that were used to differentiate them from other cultures (ie. festivals, foods, entertainment, traditions, etc.).  When the letters were penned the Jews thought of themselves in contrast to the pagans, and the Greeks thought of themselves in contrast to the barbarians.

      (4) Anecdotal sources. Rabbis and Greek philosophers often held and taught different beliefs.  For example, Rabbi Akiba allowed men to divorce their wives if they found another woman more attractive. (5) Other rabbis were firmly against this practice. 

Hebrew Bible

Paul’s Hebrew roots were deeply imbedded in his theology (Acts 22:3). Taught under Gamaliel’s instruction as a rabbi, he maintained a high view of the Torah throughout his life.  Calling it holy, righteous and good (Rom 7:12), he regarded it as a source for example (1 Cor 10:11), teaching (Rom 15:4), and equipping (2 Tim 3:17).   His confidence in its instruction is further illustrated by his deferring to the Torah when he addressed Christian ethics outside of the Christ event and the character of God (Lev 11:44-45; 19:1; 20:7).

Theological Objective

Unlike the gospels that represent two occasions—the time the events occurred and the time they were recorded—the letters represent only one.  Similar to the gospels, each letter had a theological objective intended to address an issue or, as is the case in First Corinthians, multiple issues facing the church. 

Two of the most influential letters are Romans and Galatians.  In many ways they are similar in content, but very different in objective. The book of Romans was written to achieve unity between the Jew and Gentile factions in the same church.  Paul’s closing remarks emphasized acceptance of others and discouragement of division (14:1; 15:7; 16:17). Galatians was written to oppose a perverted gospel (1:7) and to encourage the new Christians to enjoy the freedom they had found in Christ (5:1-15)

In the Philippian letter Paul emphasized “one spirit and one man” (1:27) and the need to be like-minded (2:2).  In so doing he implied division within the church. Near the conclusion of the letter he mentioned conflict between two Christian sisters (4:2).  As a counter to their discord Paul instructed the church to have the attitude of Jesus, the perfect example of unselfishness and service to others.   He reinforced his teaching with part of an ancient hymn (2:5-11). Understanding the apparent purpose of this letter is crucial in the study of 2:12 for it is within this context Paul urged the church to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. The salvation under consideration was not one’s personal salvation, but the salvation of the church.  The survival of the church depended upon their willingness to move from selfishness to selflessness.  If the salvation of 2:12 is interpreted as a personal salvation, “working out salvation” contradicts Paul’s understanding of grace and the gospel. 

Different Translations

None of the original texts that comprise our New Testament remain today.  The earliest fragment of a copy is dated 125 CE.  The compiled translations of the letters that now form part of our New Testament represent versions that span the centuries.  It is erroneous to assume that any singular translation is completely honest to the original text.  Good scholarship does not demand knowledge of the original languages, but it does imply an open mind as updated translations from reliable sources are developed. (6) Consider the following two examples.

      (1) Romans 3:25, Philippians 3:8, and Galatians 2:15-16 all include a phrase that traditionally has been translated “faith in Christ”.  The NIV 2011 includes a footnote that explains the Greek preposition in all three passages has been translated as an objective genitive meaning “in” when in reality it functions as a subjective genitive correctly translated “of”.   With this better understanding, the texts take on a very different meaning.  Christians are not saved by their faith in Christ but rather by the faithfulness of Christ.

      (2) First Corinthians 7 is another such example. The 2011 NIV presents four modifications in its translation.  (a) The issue of the chapter is not marriage but sexual relationships (7:1).  (b) The emphasis in 7:2 is not that everyone should be married but that everyone should have sex with his or her own spouse. (c) The unmarried in 7:8 refers to widowers. (d) The subject of 7:27-28 is engaged and non-engaged people not those married and divorced.

Biblical Terms

Accurately defining biblical terms is often difficult.  While Bible dictionaries and Greek Lexicons are helpful, they are not fool proof in determining the meaning of words in a particular text.  For example:

      (1) The word temple in 1 Cor 3:16-17 refers to the whole church.  In 1 Cor 6:19 it signifies one’s body.

      (2) The Greek word for unmarried is agamos and is a combination of the word married (gamos) plus the negative “a” in front of it, hence “unmarried.”  This term is used four times in 1 Cor 7 and, given the contexts, has four different meanings.  In 7:8 it apparently means a widower.  In 7:11 it seems to mean divorced.  The context of 7:32 implies a man who has never married and in 7:34, a female virgin. 

     (3) The word porneia is used in the exception clauses of Matt 5:32 and 19:9. A study of the word reveals it can include all types of deviant sexual behavior. The Greek language had a specific term for adultery (moicheia) and Paul used both terms in 15:19.  This indicates a distinction of the two concepts. (7)  Moicheia is not used in either Matt 5:32 or 19:9; consequently porneia in those passages cannot mandatorily be translated as adultery.   Apparently Matthew was referencing another type of sexual behavior in those texts. In 1 Cor 5:1 Paul used porneia to describe an incestuous relationship.  Likewise, if Lev 17-18 is used to explain the Acts 15:29 text, porneia is referring to incest.

With these and previous thoughts in mind, I will address varying methods of biblical interpretation in the last and final entry of this series.


  1. Exegesis is the process of discerning an author’s intent and meaning. 
  2. I am indebted to a recorded lecture by Dr. Richard Oster for some of these observations.

  3. The daily routines of those in urban centers differ from those in rural Appalachia even though both locations are part of the United States.

  4. The collection of written Jewish teachings called the Mishna was first available in 190-200 CE.  Prior to that time instruction was typically oral. 

  5. It is uncertain to what degree Akiba represented Jewish thought in the days of Jesus.

  6. Increased scholarship in Greek grammar and sentence structure creates better comprehension of the text.

  7. The following texts also list porneia and moicheia separately: Mark 7:21; 1 Cor 6:9; and Heb 13:4.


  1. Thanks for your studies.

  2. Good stuff. I appreciate you studies. The longer I live, the more I realize that my studies are appalling! So again, thanks for helping my understanding of the text and the need for more careful study.

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