Bateman IV.  Herbert W. Interpreting the General Letters: An Exegetical Handbook. Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2013. 315 pp. Pb; $29.99. Link.

Herb Bateman’s Interpreting the General Letters joins series editor John Harvey’s Interpreting the Pauline Letters in this exegetical handbook series. When I reviewed Harvey’s volume a year ago, my main criticism was the brevity of the book. That is not a problem for Bateman’s book, since he has 100 more pages and considerably less material to cover.

The outline of the two books is similar. After a three chapter survey of the genre, background, and theology of the books, this Handbook provides an exegetical method, from translation to interpretation and finally communication. Since this book is intended as a textbook for classroom use, each chapter opens with an “at a glance” summary and a concluding review highlighting key points. Like other books in the series, the book concludes with a glossary of key terms.

Bateman, General LettersIn chapter 1, Bateman provides an overview of the genre of letter writing in the ancient world. Since this is a topic worthy of a monograph, Bateman must be brief. Nevertheless, this is a good introduction to a complex topic. He gives several examples of letters from approximately the same time as the General Epistles, to commendation letters, one conciliatory letter and two commanding letters. As is often observed, even though the canonical letters are longer than most Greco-Roman letters, the form is quite similar. Bateman briefly looks various “rules” for letter writing from Isocrates (436-338 B.C.E.), Pseudo-Demetrius (first century B.C.E.) and Pseudo-Libanius (fourth century C.E.)  The General Epistles roughly follow the patterns set in these famous manuals, although they sometimes mix genre.

The second chapter gives an overview of Greco-Roman history from Alexander the Great through the Maccabean and Roman periods. While this background is interesting and well-written, it might be too broad for a book on the General Epistles. Part of the reason for the lengthy historical narrative is Bateman’s thesis that Jude was written to Jewish Christian believers in Judea just prior to the rebellion in A.D. 66. The “godless ones” who have “secretly slipped in” are best understood in Bateman’s view in the light of the Jewish War not antinomians. This chapter also compares James to Wisdom Literature and briefly introduces Greco-Roman household codes as background to 1 Peter.

In order to introduce the theology of the General epistles, Bateman begins with an overarching biblical theology of the “strategic plan of God.” This section is a slightly slimmed version of progressive dispensationalism found in his Jesus the Messiah. Despite using the term dispensation, this presentation of God’s plan should not be dismissed out of hand. This is not the same kind of dispensationalism found in the Scofield Reference Bible or popular novels. Bateman presents a way of conceptualizing salvation history consistent with other narrative approaches to biblical theology.

His view of the kingdom is common in current discussions (the cross inaugurates the Kingdom; the second coming consummates the kingdom). He does an excellent job contextualizing this material to the General epistles, illustrating the “era of fulfillment” and “era of consummation” from these letters as much as possible. “In short,” Bateman says, “the corporate followers of Jesus have been transferred into the kingdom, live on earth as God’s redeemed community in anticipation of Jesus’ return and rule on earth, and model kingdom living for all other people so that they will be drawn to God” (118). After this overarching biblical theology, he offers a short, one page summary of the theological contributions of each book.

In chapter 4 (“Preparing to Interpret”), Bateman begins to outline his exegetical method. First the exegete must translate the text. This is a basic overview of how to approach a paragraph in Greek, identifying verbs and clauses. Second, while working through a portion of Greek text, the exegete begins to identify interpretive issues. Comparing English translations sometimes brings these issues to light. Rendering the tense of a verb may vary, as will any idiomatic Greek in the pericope. The final step at this stage is to isolate any textual issues in the pericope. Here Bateman gives a fifteen page introduction to textual criticism.

Once the sense of the Greek text is understood, the exegete moves to interpret the text, beginning with the structure of the passage. Bateman defines independent and dependent clauses and shows how these clauses function in a sentence. He works through 1 Peter 1:3-11 in order to demonstrate the usefulness of an analysis of the structure of the passage. By way of syntax and style, Bateman has in mind features like inclusio, chiasm, etc. He briefly highlights the style of the four writers in this section.

Most beginning exegetes find the syntax, grammar, and structural exercises boring and most want to rush right into word studies. Bateman states the goal in a word study is to “determine the author’s intended meaning of a symbol in his specific literary context” (199). By establishing a range of possibilities, the interpreter is in a better position to hear how the original audience might have understood the word. While he does suggest a study of the use of the word in classical, Septuagint, and Koine contexts, this may be “too much work” for the busy pastor (unless they are using Logos or Accordance!) Bateman does not instruct the student on the use of word-books or “theological dictionaries” (TDNT and the like).

Finally, chapter six deals with how to communicate exegetically, using 3 John as an example). If the exegete has done the work, then determining the “central idea” of the pericope is the next step. Ideally this is done for the larger passage by grouping summaries topically and creating an exegetical outline for the whole passage. But an exegetical outline is rarely preachable. If the goal of exegesis is “communicating homiletically,” then an additional step is necessary. Bateman gives his “homiletical outline” and a few examples of illustrations “sprinkled throughout the sermon” (237). Since this is more or less how I prepare a sermon, I feel at home in this section of the chapter. It is possible this “Haddon Robinson” style of delivery will not resonate with the more narrative style popular among preachers today.

Chapter seven offers two examples of the method outlined in the previous three chapters. Here Bateman shows how to go “from exegesis to exposition.” He selects Jude vv. 5-7 and Hebrews 10:19-25. Again, I find his method and results comforting since they are near enough to my own. But I wonder about application of the text: How can the exegete “bridge the gap”?  I am not sure Bateman does this well. For example, Jude 5-7, his final point is “do not join in the Zealot insurrection against Rome” (269). While this might be an accurate statement of Jude’s intention for writing the letter, how does that “preach” to a congregation today? That final step in the journey from exegesis to sermon seems missing in this book.

In the final section of the book, Bateman offers a list of resources for studying the General Epistles. Some of these are general works on historical and textual issues. Bateman has a very useful chart describing several commentary series (296—302). Here he gives the stated purpose of the series along with the published volumes on the General Epistles in the series with dates. There is some evaluation in this chart, describing the series as technical, critical or popular; conservative or moderate liberal, etc. The series in this list are recent and in most cases still being completed or publishing replacement volumes for older ones, such as the International Critical Commentary. The balance of the chapter is a list of other commentaries or monographs on the book without comment. Some of these monographs are in technical dissertation series and are not readily available for most pastors (WUNT, for example). There are a few unpublished dissertations in the list as well. This list might have been improved with a ranking of the best exegetical commentary or best popular expositional commentary, etc.

Conclusion. Bateman’s book is an excellent introduction to these often ignored letters. It is conservative, since he accepts the traditional views on most issues. There is very little interaction with challenges to the traditional authors of these letters. There is a brief discussion of Pseudonymity in his chapter on genre, but he does not discuss any specific the problems for the traditional view on these letters. Despite my criticism above, this is a very useful handbook, explaining and modeling the exegetical method.

In fact, the Exegetical Handbook series is ideal textbook for classroom use. Two more volumes are planned, David Turner on the Gospels and Acts and Marvin Pate on the Apocalypse. There are three volumes available in the Old Testament series (Pentateuch, Historical Books and Psalms). I look forward to the rest of the series.

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