Interpreting Paul’s Letters as Letters

Interpreting Paul’s Letters as Letters

by Patrick Gray

With new technologies come new ways of breaking the law. Take email, for example. In 2010, a Michigan man was arrested for logging on to his wife’s laptop and reading her email. (She happened to be having an affair at the time.)  Prosecutors with the Florida State Attorney’s Office say that opening and reading someone else’s email without their consent is, in fact, a felony that can result in a five-year prison sentence. But relax: simply accessing someone’s email without permission is only considered a misdemeanor, punishable by a year or less in prison.

When I teach courses on the New Testament, I like to tell my students that, were it not for the expired statute of limitations, Christians and other Bible readers might be subject to prosecution by the federal government. Why? Reading the New Testament is, in no small part, an exercise in reading other people’s mail. Of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament canon, all but six are letters. And two of the six exceptions (Acts and Revelation) contain multiple letters embedded in them. Opening Paul’s Letters is intended as a reminder that Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and all the rest were written and sent—as letters—to Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians, and that getting the most out of them requires different strategies and approaches from those one might use in reading texts belonging to some other literary genre.

Every literary genre has its distinguishing characteristics in terms of form and content. These “rules” may not be hard and fast, but they are sufficiently consistent such that competent readers can tell one genre from another. Poetry in English often (but not always) rhymes. Topics treated in verse typically include love, death, and nature but not economic policy or automotive maintenance. Country and western lyrics regularly mention trucks, trains, prison, and getting drunk. Newspaper stories are written at a fifth-grade level. Comedies end in love and laughter, while tragedies end in death and destruction.

Letters are among the literary genres from antiquity that are still in use today. For this reason, their literary form does not present the same interpretive challenges as some other genres. But modern literary genres are not identical to their ancient counterparts. Reading an ancient letter is similar to and yet different from reading a letter today. Letter-writing conventions have changed over time, sometimes quite radically. In some ways, the emergence of new communications technologies have caused the role of letters in society to change more in just the last decade than in the preceding century. Writers in antiquity, who frequently comment that speaking face-to-face is the ideal way to communicate and maintain relationships, only resort to letters out of necessity.

According to a recent poll, by contrast, only fifty-three percent of teenagers say that their favorite way to communicate with their friends is “in person.” Cell phones, instant messaging, email, and text messages are the preferred communication methods for more than one-third of teenagers.[1] Conspicuously absent from this list is the letter. Each new medium, while similar to the letter, has its own distinct conventions and typical uses. An email message, for example, is not simply a letter in electronic form. The role of email, moreover, has evolved substantially in its still-short history, with many now viewing it “as something you use to talk to ‘old people,’ institutions, or to send complex instructions to large groups”.[2]  As technology and society continue to change, it may be that in the not-too-distant future, making sense of yesterday’s online correspondence will present many of the same challenges as reading Paul’s letters from two thousand years ago does today.

[1] Dana Markow, “Friendships in the Age of Social Networking Websites,” Harris Interactive Trends and Tudes 5, no. 9 (October 2006): 1–5.

[2] Amanda Lenhart, Paul Hitlin, and Mary Madden, “Teens and Technology,” Pew Internet and American Life Project (2005): ii,


Patrick Gray (PhD, Emory University) is associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of Godly Fear: The Epistle to the Hebrews and Greco-Roman Critiques of Superstition and the coeditor of several books, including Teaching the Bible: Practical Strategies for Classroom Instruction.

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