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.

New Eyes on the New Testament Pt.2

II. Exegetical Issues

  1. Understanding the Gospels

The Synoptic Problem 

Determining the relationship of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, or the synoptic problem, is challenging at best.  Initially it is important to recognize that each of the gospels represents two different occasions:  the occasion of its writing and the occasion the events actually occurred.   It is generally accepted the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) were written in the early to late 60s, however some critics contend that Matthew and Luke were probably written in the 70’s or even 80’s.   Their composition and content indicate that Mark was written first then Matthew, followed by Luke.  Matthew reflects the basic outline of Mark but includes more information.  Luke probably had access to the content of Mark and Matthew and any sources they had.  In fact Luke told his readers he that investigated materials about Jesus from various sources (1:1-3).

Target Audience and Objective

When a writer wanted to convey information to Christians in the first century he chose one of two forms, a letter or a gospel.  While the gospels are more biographical in nature, the objective of their authors was not just to tell a life story.  Their intent was to use life events to convey a specific purpose or objective.

Matthew was a Jew writing to a mostly Jewish audience and/or those who would have been familiar with the Torah and Jewish tradition.  His account is filled with quotations from the Hebrew bible with no explanation of Jewish customs. According to the author of Hebrews some Christians were beginning to question Jesus’s credibility (Heb 5:11-6:6; 12:12).  Apparently Matthew’s objective was to affirm Jesus as the promised Messiah, and also to affirm him as a pro-Torah rabbi. Mark was targeting a mostly Gentile audience therefore he used more Jewish detail in his explanation of events. Consider the comparison of Matt 15:2-5 with Mark 7:1-12.  Both texts address hand washing and support of parents however only Mark provides the Jewish components.  Probably Mark’s objective was to define the nature of discipleship to a mostly Greco-Roman readership.  Luke wanted his mostly Gentile audience to understand Jesus as not just the savior of the Jewish nation but of the entire world.  Accordingly he traced the genealogy of Jesus back to Adam instead of Abraham as Matthew had done.  The gospel of John was probably penned in the mid 90’s and stands in contrast to Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Even though it is not one of the synoptic gospels, it too, illustrates an author pursuing a specific objective.  John informed his readers that his purpose in writing was to provide a basis for the belief that Jesus was indeed the Son of God (John 20:21). 

Significantly, the chronology of events was evidently not important for the gospel writers, nor were the details.  For example consider the following:

  1. Matt 8:26 and Mark 4:40: little faith or no faith in calming the storm.
  2. Matt 7:11 and Luke 11:13: good gifts or Holy Spirit from the Father.
  3. Matt 10:10 and Mark 6:8: take no staff or take a staff when going out.
  4. Matt 17:20 and Mark 9:29: faith or prayer in driving out demons.
  5. Matt 8:15 and Mark 1:31: wait on him or wait on them by Peter’s mother in law.

Selection and Adaptation of Material

The amount of information we have about Jesus’s life is very limited.  John affirmed Jesus did “many other miraculous signs” (20:30), and did “many other things” (21:25) that were not recorded.  Luke indicated three times he knew more information than he “selected” to include in his treatise. One, he said John exhorted the people “with many other words” (3:18).  Two, he reported the guards “said many other insulting things” to Jesus at the time of his death (22:65). Three, he stated that Peter said “many other words” (Acts 2:40).

Because Matthew, Mark and Luke each had a specific audience and theological objective in mind, they selected material that would fulfill their purposes.   This is clearly demonstrated by the conflict concerning divorce between Jesus and the Pharisees.   Both Matthew and Mark chose to include this event but they used it in different ways.  Mark included the dialogue as one of three triads he used to teach against divorce (1).  Mark also seemed to adapt the situation to his largely Gentile audience (at this point talking to the disciples in the house and not the Pharisees) when he added instruction about a woman divorcing her husband.  A Torah knowledgeable audience would have known that under Jewish law a woman was the property of her husband and, as such, could not divorce him.  For that same reason, according to the Torah, adultery could not be committed against the wife.   Matthew used the dialogue as a focal point to illustrate the fallacy of law keeping over servant hood.  Luke would have known of this conflict but “selected” not to record it.   Instead he included only one isolated statement about divorce and apparently used it to illustrate the greed of the Pharisees (Luke 16:18).   

In another example Matthew and Mark adapted the illustration of the fig tree to accomplish two different objectives.  According to Matthew Jesus cursed the fig tree, it immediately withered, and then Jesus used the example to teach about faith (21:19).  In Mark, Jesus cursed the fig tree on the way to Jerusalem (11:12-14).  Upon his arrival there he rebuked the chief priest and teachers of the law (11:18), but it was not until the next morning that the withering of the fig tree was mentioned.  For Mark the cursing of the fig tree appears to be symbolic of Jesus’s judgment of Judaism, followed by his teaching on faith (11:22-26).

Literary Style

The use of various literary devices was just as common in the ancient world as it is today.   A careful study of the gospels reveals that similes, puns, proverbs, metaphors, parables, and hyperboles were often used.   Parables and hyperboles were especially predominate in Jesus’s teaching.  The word parable comes from two Greek words and means to “cast along side of.”  Its intent is to compare something familiar with something that is not.   A hyperbole or overstatement is used to draw attention to an important concept.  For example when Jesus discussed wealth, he used the overstatement of a camel going through the eye of a needle.  A chiasmus is another literary device used in both ancient and modern times to emphasize a teaching, specifically statements are made (A, B) and then the concept is repeated in reverse order (B, A).  A modern day nursery rhyme is a good example: (A)“Old king Cole (B) was a merry old soul (B), a merry old soul (A) was he.”  An example of an ABCCBA chiasmus is found in Matt 6:24:   (A) “No man can serve two masters.” (B)“He will hate one”  (C) “and love the other.”  (C) “He will be devoted to one  (B) and despise the other.”  (A) “It is impossible to serve both God and Money.” A chiasmus can be found in one verse, a group of verses, a group of chapters or even a whole manuscript.


Perhaps we have erroneously tried to blend the gospels into one unit instead of regarding them as separate theological works.  Trying to harmonize them becomes a theological nightmare. The writers did not envision their work being copied or distributed to other audiences (Matt 24:15; Mark 13:14); nor could they have predicted that their texts would be combined into one volume.  Note: This would have been true of the letters as well (Col 4:16; Rev 1:3).  Few people were literate and fewer still would have had a copy of a gospel. Rather these works were read and discussed in public gatherings.   I will pursue these thoughts with the New Testament letters in following posts.


1. A triad is composed of a passion statement, misunderstanding by the disciples, and corrective teaching by Jesus.

New Eyes on the New Testament

Restudying the Gospels and the Letters

I. Fundamental Issues

In my early years as a disciple, I saw the Bible as a debater’s handbook. My preaching was mainly topical and I looked for scriptures that would answer what I perceived to be misinterpretations of the text by others. Years of study and maturity have convinced me that the Bible was not written for that purpose. I realize now that my method of seeking the truths within the text was very shallow. It has not been until more recent years that I have developed a more honest way of understanding scripture. Seeking the truths within the pages of the biblical text has been challenging and is a continuing process. My goal in the next several blog entries is to outline some considerations that have been very helpful to me on my quest. Perhaps they will be to you as well.

A. Inspiration

Initially, I want to emphasize that I choose to believe the Bible is the inspired word of God and is the nearest thing to the breath of God I know. Just as I accept but cannot understand how Jesus could be both divine and human, I believe scripture is a result of both divine and human involvement. I am willing by faith to accept the claims of scripture in respect to inspiration, the Holy Spirit’s influence on men of God, and the guidance Jesus promised (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:20-21; John 14:26). But that is the extent of my human understanding. It would be presumptuous of me to surmise how much the divine was involved in the version of the Bible I have today.

B. Translation

The involvement of humans in the construction of our present day Bible presents several challenges. We do not have any of the original texts of the New Testament, but only copies of copies created by scribes. These are called variants. For example, Jesus spoke in Aramaic, the writers recorded his teachings in Greek and scribes made copies of their recordings. Later scribes copied the copies they received (1). Sometimes the scribes made human errors, changed wording, and even added materials (Acts 8:37; 1 John 5:8 and possibly Mark 16:9-20; John 7:53-8:11). As a result numerous copies of the texts existed in the ancient world. Approximately 5000 partial Greek manuscripts of New Testament text have survived to the present day. Textual criticism is the comparison of these variants to create what is considered the most accurate copy of the original manuscript. It stands to reason that our copies of the synoptic gospels do not always agree on events, chronology, and arrangement of materials (2).

Centuries after their composition the gospels were brought together in one book, the codex. Prior to the Reformation Movement, the Latin version of the variants was used to create other translations. However during the Reformation, Erasmsus combined the Greek variants into one manuscript called the Textus Receptus. As a result, many English translations were produced. The King James Version is a comparison of these different translations. When the Westcott-Hort Greek text was created in 1881, it replaced Erasmus’s work. In 1901 Koine Greek was recognized and during the 20th century numerous English translations were composed. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls a new Textus Receptus called the Nestle-Aland was written. In recent times this text has under gone several revisions.

To a large degree the man in the pew is at the mercy of the textual critics who have tried to determine the best Greek texts from the many variants and the translators’ understanding of the resulting texts. With so many variables it can be conceded that no translation is a flawless rendering of the original text. Certainly the deficiencies of the KJV and other translations have created a number of problems (3).

The final result of all the New Testament writings is God’s communication with his creation through fallen and sometimes uneducated vessels. Just as he did with the Torah (2 Tim 3:16) (4) and regardless of the discrepancies, God guided the original writers’ objectives to provide the needed message. In spite of different recordings of the same events, dissimilarities in vocabulary, the lack of eye-witness accounts, the transmission of the synoptic gospels by scribes, and the creation of a proper Greek text and its translation into English, we acknowledge that in some way God used the divine to provide direction to the apex of his creation.

C. Historical and Cultural Background

Because the New Testament was not constructed in an historical vacuum, it is beneficial to consider the Greco-Roman world from 400 BCE through the first century. Having some understanding of this period makes interpreting the textual references to government, customs, religious factions and practices in Judea and the surrounding areas easier. LeMoine Lewis observed the following:

“Each book in the New Testament was produced in a particular historical context and first spoke to that situation and its problems. If the student of the New Testament wishes to receive anything approaching the fullness of its riches, he must master as much as possible of the history that is relevant…the more the modern reader looks back and knows of history, the better tuned his mind will be to catch the message of the New Testament for that time and for this.” (5)

During this time the Jews were not a homogenous group. Several different sects existed among them including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Herodians. Regardless of their differences however, they all the held to Torah and the function of the synagogue. This is seen throughout the gospels and Acts.

The Jews also shared basic beliefs that had sustained them through the centuries. From 722 BCE the Jewish people had been subject to exile and rule of foreign nations. Deeply imbedded in their minds was the hope of freedom. Two ideas controlled their view of the future. (1) They believed they were the elect and chosen people of God, and (2) they believed the one God who controlled the world would save them as he had done in the past history of Israel. This confidence in a redeeming God formed their views of eschatology or beliefs about the end of time. Consider the example of Paul and his view of an imminent return of Jesus. If a new convert in Corinth had read only one letter from him, he would have concluded the Lord would return in his lifetime (1 Corinthians 1:7; 3:13; 4:5; 5:5; 7:29, 31; 15:50-57; 16:22.) Paul’s later letters show a different attitude. In Phil 1:23 he mentioned being with the Lord before his return. References to an early return of Jesus can also be found in writings of John, James and Peter (Jam 5:8; 1 John 2:28; 1 Peter 5:4). (6)

Historically we must also acknowledge that we do not have all the writings by the apostle Paul. Two and possibility three letters by him are missing (Col 4:16; 1 Cor 5:9; 2 Cor 2:3). (7) We only have hints regarding other communication. His directives regarding marriage 1 Corinthians allude to a present distress (7:27), which quite possibly influenced his response. Historical information confirms the prediction by Agabus (Acts 11:26) that Macedonia area was experiencing a famine during this period of time. If that were the case, providing for a family would be challenging.

Understanding the culture of the Jewish and Greco/Roman worlds is equally important. Consider the following three examples: One, in the Greco/Roman world a couple was divorced if either party walked out of the marriage. No divorce certificate was required unless money was involved. Incestuous marriages were possible. Because the wife was considered the property of her husband in the Jewish world, only the husband could obtain the divorce. Incestuous marriages were forbidden (Lev 20:11-21). Second, Gentiles could eat meat offered to idols because consuming blood and the meat of strangled animals was acceptable. This was not the case in Jewish culture (Acts 15:29). Most Christian activity took place in houses and the Jews regarded eating as an expression of fellowship. Sharing a meal of questionable food was an issue for Jewish Christians (Gal 2:11). Third, Jesus asked a question: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matt 7:9) Ancient people heated their ovens with hot stones, therefore both bread and stones would be in the oven. (8)

For an extensive examination of the world of Jesus, I would suggest Backgrounds of Early Christianity (third edition)] by Everett Ferguson. In following blog entries I will address the exegetical issues in understanding the gospels and letters of the New Testament.


  1. A scribe helped write at least some of Paul’s letters (Gal 6:11; Rom 16:22). Tertius felt free to add his own greeting to the church in Rome. Paul felt free to insert personal requests (2 Tim 4:13).
  2. Two of the synoptic writers (Mark and Luke) were not eyewitnesses to the accounts they recorded.  The source of their information could have been their own investigation (Luke 1:1-4)  other people (Peter and Paul).

  3. Rom 3:23; Phil 3:9; Gal 2:15-16; 1 Cor 7:28-29; Mal 2:16.

  4. Ps 19:7-9 Torah is perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure and sure. Ps 19:12-13a.  Humans have errors, faults and willful sins, but without them man can be blameless (Ps 19:13b).

  5. Furman Kearley, Edward P. Myers and Timothy D. Hadley, eds.  Biblical Interpretation: Principles and Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 244-45.

  6. Jude 24; Heb 12:28; Acts 1:9-11. See Phil 1:6; 3:20; 4:5; Rom 13:11-12; Col 3:4; Titus 2:13; 1 Tim 6:14 1 Thess 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 5:23).

  7. Paul was shipwrecked more times than recorded in scripture (2 Cor 11:25).

  8. Sometimes a literal translation of words does not communicate the accurate meaning of a text.