The epistles: Learning to think contextually

These are my notes on Chapter 3 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.

Most of the NT epistles follow the form of the ancient letter:

  1. The name of the writer (e.g. Paul)
  2. The name of the recipient (e.g. to the church of God at Corinth)
  3. Greeting (e.g. grace and peace to you from God our Father…)
  4. Prayer wish or thanksgiving (e.g. I always thank God for you…)
  5. Body
  6. Final greeting and farewell (e.g. the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you…)

Some of the NT epistles lack some of these elements. What they all have in common is that they are occasional documents (i.e. arising out of and intended for a specific occasion). They were written out of the 1st century context of the author to the context of the original recipients. It is these two factors that most complicate their interpretation.

That they were occasional means we have the answers but don’t always know what the questions or problems were. Their occasional nature also means that they weren’t primarily written to expound Christian theology.

Historical context

In order to understand the historical context, consult a Bible dictionary or commentary for background information. Second, read the whole letter through in one sitting. As you read, jot down brief notes with references, along these lines:

  1. What you notice about the recipients themselves – whether Jew or Greek, wealthy or slave, their problems and attitudes, etc;
  2. The author’s attitudes;
  3. Anything mentioned as to the specific occasion of the letter;
  4. The letter’s natural, logical divisions.

You can also read through first and go back with a skim reading to pick up these items.

Using 1 Corinthians, the answers to the above are:

  1. The Corinthian believers are largely Gentile (12:2) and are arrogant (4:18, 5:2)
  2. Paul rebukes (4:8-21, 5:2, 6:1-8), appeals (4:14-17, 16:10-11), and exhorts (6:18-20, 16:12-14)
  3. Paul mentions reported information (1:10-12, 5:1), and likely also received a letter from them (7:1).
  4. 7:1 is an obvious major division. The first six chapters can be divided as follows:
    1. The problem of division in the church (1:10-4:21)
    2. The problem of the incestuous man (5:1-13)
    3. The problem of lawsuits (6:1-11)
    4. The problem of fornication (6:12-20)

Chapters 7-16 can be divided on the basis of the introductory formula “now about”:

  1. About behaviour within marriage (7:1-24)
  2. About virgins (7:25-40)
  3. About food sacrificed to idols (8:1-11:1)
  4. The covering of women’s heads in church (11:2-16)
  5. The problem of the abuse of the Lord’s table (11:17-34)
  6. About spiritual gifts (12-14)
  7. The bodily resurrection of believers (15:1-58)
  8. About the collection (16:1-11)
  9. About the return of Apollos (16:12)
  10. Concluding exhortations and greetings (16:13-24)

The literary context

Think paragraphs, not verses. In a concise manner, state the content of each paragraph. In another sentence or two, say how this content contributes to the argument.

Guidelines for problem passages (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:10, 15:29; 1 Peter 3:18, etc.):

  1. They are difficult because they weren’t written to us. The author and readers were on the same wavelength that allowed them to understand each other. We shouldn’t be dogmatic about these issues.
  2. Nonetheless, very often the point of the whole passage is still within one’s grasp.
  3. One needs to learn to ask what can be said for certain about a text and what is possible but not certain.
  4. Consult a good commentary which discusses all possible options. Keep in mind that even scholars don’t have all the answers.