Patrick Gray Opens Paul’s Letters for Us (Review)

There are many introductions on Paul – perhaps too many! However, Patrick Gray (assoc. prof. @ Rhodes College) has a specific interest in his book Opening Paul’s Letters which is revealed in the subtitle: A Reader’s Guide to Genre and Interpretation (Baker, 2012). Personally, I agree with Gray that much bad interpretation happens because readers are not attentive to the roles and purposes of the various genres of NT books (and OT ones for that matter!).

It is a short introduction (~150 pp.), but covers almost all the necessary areas: Paul’s cultural contexts (ch 1), Letter Genres (ch. 2), How Paul Writes: Organizing a Letter and Making an Argument (ch. 3), Paul’s Audiences (ch. 4), How Paul Reads the OT (ch. 5), Pseudonymity: Did Paul Write Paul’s Letters? (ch. 6).

Gray is very up-front that this is an exercise in studying the historical Paul and his literary works as a historian. So, he might offend canonical interpreters and proponents of theological interpretation of Scripture when he says, “This volume will focus on making sense of the letters by reading Paul as he wanted and expected to be read and understood, with only occasional forays into the world in front of the text” (p. 7). I am OK with Gray’s more traditional approach, because sometimes genre gets blurred or neglected without this kind of specific focus of attention on the ancient context (only, as a first step).

Here is Gray’s thesis: “Identification of genre is absolutely essential when attempting to make sense of a text, and Paul’s letters are no exception…Once a genre is known, it is easier to gauge the relative importance of questions about the author’s identity, purpose, and so forth” (p. 10). He goes on to say that genres give the reader expectations. Thus, we can compare what Paul does in terms of “distinctive conventions, forms, and purposes” (p.13) in view of other ancient letters.

Again, perhaps, stepping on the toes of some recent theologians, Gray refers to interpreting Paul’s letters as “reading other people’s mail” (p. 17). Joel Green, though, is emphatic that when this view is pressed too far, the NT loses its value as Holy Scripture with a message for the church (of every age). I think that what Gray proposes is not necessarily at odds with what Green cares about. I think we can have both, but attending to “original meaning” is critical. This same conversation goes round and round with Jesus studies, and I am with the “Third Questers” who want to ground Jesus in the Jewish background and Greco-Roman world of the first century, all-the-while pursuing the impact and importance of the “living Jesus” as a true purpose and goal of engaging with Scripture. The same goes for reading Paul, I think (but Paul is, of course, dead).

So, back to genre. What types of letters were there in Paul’s time? Pseudo-Libanius mentions 41 types (e.g., parenetic, commending, ironic, insulting, praising, diplomatic, erotic, declaratory). There are all kinds of handbooks that talk about how one should write a letter. When it comes to Paul, Gray gives an appropriate caveat

It would be a mistake to think that all letter writers consulted these technical handbooks as they put quill to papyrus. While the advice they contain represents generally recognized protocols, there would be no point in writing them if everyone were already writing letters according to standard operating procedure or “best practices” (p. 43).

I think Gray is right. Paul did not constrain himself into a specific form. None of his letters fits any one “letter type” perfectly.

Elements of most of the letter types listed in the handbooks are…present in his letters…Paul [was]…fluent in the fundamentals of letter writing (p. 52).

I could go along with this. My concern with the amount of coloring outside the lines Paul does is that once he deviates from the genre or form too far, how much does genre criticism help?

One useful insight Gray gives is that, when his letters are closely compared to other ancient letters, we see that they resemble Greco-Roman letters much more closely than Jewish epistolary conventions (p. 63). It is hard to say what this means for interpretation, I think.

Gray also recognizes that ancient rhetorical techniques are found in Paul’s letters, as if they were speech transcripts. Again, he cautions readers against being too rigid in identifying one particular letter as only one particular type of rhetorical speech.

Overall, I was not blown away by this book, but Gray has the advantage of being a very good writer – he has an interesting and lucid style. He uses loads of anecdotes and modern illustrations of concepts. He leaves out non-essential information. There are great sidebars with helpful definitions and additional information. At the end of each chapter you will find discussion questions and a short topical bibliography.

I spotted a few weaknesses – very little discussion of letter-carriers and their roles (see only short discussion ~p. 136). It would have been nice to have more examples of real ancient letters compared to Paul’s letters. Perhaps most importantly, at the end of it all, I was still not clear what the “ancient Greco-Roman letter genre” actually looked like. There was so much variety and disagreement (or non-conformity) that I missed the big pay-off. Perhaps the appendix could have included a sample “genre-based” analysis that walks the reader through doing genre-interpretation.

I would probably not use Gray’s work as a textbook for a Paul course (I use Gorman’s fantastic Apostle of the Crucified Lord), but I enjoyed reading it and I did learn a few things from it.