Book Review: John D. Harvey, Interpreting the Pauline Letters

Harvey, John D.  Interpreting the Pauline Letters. An Exegetical Handbook (Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2012. 211 pages, pb. $22.99. Link to Kregel

Kregel has finally added a New Testament volume to their Exegetical Handbook series. The Old Testament series has several volumes edited by David M.  Howard, (Pentateuch by Peter Vogt; Historical Books by Robert B. Chisholm; Psalms by Mark D. Futato). The New Testament series editor John D. Harvey contributes the initial volume on the Pauline Literature. Future volumes are planned from David Turner (Gospels), Hebert Bateman (General Epistles) and Richard Taylor (Apocalyptic Literature).

HarveyLike the Old Testament volumes in this series, this book is intended as an exegetical handbook, not an introduction to Pauline theology or history. About half of the book is an exegetical primer, with sections on textual criticism, translation and analysis of the syntax Greek text. In addition, Harvey is interested in showing the student how to move from exegesis to sermon.

Even though the book is designed as an exegetical handbook, Harvey begins with three chapters laying a foundation for properly reading Paul’s letters. First, he describes the genre of the letter in the context of the Greco-Roman world (ch. 1). This is a quick overview of a field which is already crowded with handbooks on tracking Paul’s rhetorical moves. For Harvey, Paul’s letters were intended to convey information in a style which was recognizable by the first century Mediterranean culture. But Paul did not slavish model his letters after templates in rhetorical manuals, he adapted modes of rhetoric to serve his purposes.

Second, Harvey gives a brief overview of the historical background for Paul’s letters (ch. 2). In order to do this, he first deals with the authenticity and integrity of several oft-questioned Paul letters. A second background question is the historical value of the book of Acts. He then gives a succinct overview of the history of Paul’s mission. Since this is a handbook, there are a great many questions of chronology left unaddressed, but that is simply a by-product of the brevity of this kind of book.

Third, Harvey provides a brief overview of Pauline theology (ch. 3). He emphasizes a kind of “transfer theology” in Paul. Again, people who have read James Dunn’s Pauline Theology will find a 20 page overview of Paul’s theology too sketchy, but this is the nature of a handbook. For an average college student or layperson, this overview provides what is needed to read the letters of Paul, omitting many of the knotty problems which Pauline scholars tend to fret over for several chapters.  For example, Harvey must summarize the “New Perspective on Paul” into about a paragraph on the main points of Galatians and Romans.  Perhaps my personal interest in the topic make me think that this is a bigger issue that Harvey allows, but it is very difficult for a student to do Pauline exegesis without encountering Sanders, Dunn, and their critics.

The exegetical section of the book is also divided into three chapters. Chapter 4 deals with textual criticism and translation issues. Harvey provides a handy procedure for translating a text (p. 113-5) as well as a short bibliography of necessary tools for translation. Chapter 5 deals with historical analysis of Paul’s letters as a way to establish a literary context. Harvey provides a brief overview of a theological analysis of a text. He has a frustratingly brief page on the use of the Old Testament in the New, a topic which is extremely popular these days. I wish this had been given more space, even given the constraints of brevity in the handbook format.

The final three chapters describe the hermeneutical process from text to sermon. Harvey deals with the always difficult problem of moving from a text written in the first century to a sermon which has some impact on a contemporary listener. He calls the final product a “homiletical packaging” which focuses on the one thing that the listener needs to know form the text. After describing the process (chapter 5), he provides two examples by moving through his method for Col 3:1-4 and Phil 3:12-16. The final chapter of the book is an annotated bibliography of tools necessary for doing exegesis.

Conclusion. This series is intended to be a guide to interpreting specific sections of the New Testament, and as such it succeeds. While an exegetical handbook like Fee’s New Testament Exegesis does the same sorts of things, it may try to cover too much in a single volume. For a college or seminary class on Paul’s letters, Harvey’s manual will be useful. There are a few things missing or lightly covered which some teachers may emphasize (Greek Syntax, using the intermediate grammars, etc.) There is no section on creating a “syntactical display,” although not every Greek exegesis professor finds value in that sort of procedure. I personally would like to have seen more on doing a ‘word study.” In fact, I thought the resources listed under theological dictionaries overlooked a few key resources which I (and my students) have found useful. Word studies tend to be the source of most “exegetical fallacies” in preaching, so a proper method and warning against excess would have been appreciated.

Most of my criticisms of this book relate to its brevity. But this overview format is perhaps the greatest strength of the book. Harvey provides enough to show a student how exegesis is done and how to move from exegesis to sermon. He cannot be comprehensive because of the format of the series, but he does a nice job pointing the interested student to more detailed studies. This book will fit well into a college or seminary Greek class on the Pauline letters, but also will encourage the interested laymen to study the text of Paul’s letters at a deeper level.

Note: Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work

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