Book Review: Herbert Bateman, Interpreting the General Letters

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.




A Common Foundation?

In his recent book on Paul, N. T. Wright argues that Paul has foot in three worlds, the Jewish, the Greek and the Roman worlds. His Jewish worldview is reinterpreted in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah and Paul’s mission is to present that reinterpreted Jewish Messiah to a world dominated by Greek categories of thought and Roman social practice. But as I mentioned in my last post, the final books of the New Testament canon seem to be written to primarily Jewish audiences that were not “Pauline” churches (i.e., mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles). Hebrews through Revelation are Christian, but with a decidedly Jewish-Christian appeal.

Bible TorahA couple of years ago I posted a summary of Raymond Brown’s article on Jewish Christianity (part 2 and part 3) and found myself in agreement with the idea that the Christian church is rooted in Judaism.  There was a range of opinion on how the followers of Christ related to the Jewish Law. While it is popular enough to emphasize the “Jewishness” of Jesus or Paul, there is still dissent in describing the roots of Christianity as “Jewish” and resistance to considering the “other letters” as a “Jewish Christian” literature.

Jacob Neusner, for example, does not believe that there is a common foundation for both Judaism and Christianity.  Neusner states that “Judaisms and Christianities never meet anywhere. That is because at no point do Judaism, defined by Torah, and Christianity, defined by the Bible, intersect” (p. xi).   He contrasts Christians and Pharisees as an example of this absolute disconnect.  Both Pharisees and Christians “belong to Israel,” Neusner says, but they had completely different definitions of “Israel” to the point that they could not even have dialogue. Christians say “Israel” as salvation, while Pharisees saw “Israel” as a way of life (3-4).  Christianity is all about salvation (in the next life), while the Pharisees is all about sanctification (in this life).

His point is well taken, since Judaism is not as much interested in salvation “out of this world and into heaven” but rather living out God’s will in this life.  But in a typically Neusnerian fashion, he makes this dichotomy so strong that the two cannot be said to have any common ground.  In my view, he is taking Christianity as we know it from the fourth century and later as his model of what “Christianity is” and (rightly) judging it as having little or nothing in common with Judaism.

This is a problem for many studies of the first-century church.  There is an assumption that the earliest believers in Jesus were somehow more correct in their doctrine and practice than later generations.  I cannot agree with this, since the earliest believers hardly worked out the implications of who Jesus claimed to be let alone what impact the Christ Event would have on “Israel.”  They were Jewish people who believe Jesus was the Messiah and that salvation only comes through him.  In practice, there was as much diversity as there was in Judaism at the time.  While James was welcome in the Temple courts, Peter and John were tolerated there, but Stephen and the Hellenists likely were not welcome.  All were Jewish and would likely consider themselves the “correct” continuation of Jesus’ ministry.

It is not until Paul’s letters that there is a serious attempt to understand Jesus’ death and resurrection and the implications that these events have for Israel.  For Paul, the people of God are a family (like Jesus taught), but also the Body of Christ.  Neusner correctly picks up on this and sees this as a dividing point between Christianity and the Pharisees as well.  Paul says that whatever the people of God are, they are a unique group apart from historic Israel.

If this s the case, what do we have in the  Jewish Christian literature? Are James, Peter and John Jews or not? Could a Jew in the first century maintain their “Jewishness” and be a follower of Jesus? Or are these mutually exclusive categories?

Bibliography: Jacob Neusner, Jews and Christians: The Myth of the Common Tradition. Classics in Judaic Studies.  New York:  Binghamton University, 2001.  Originally published by Trinity International, 1991.  The 2001 edition has a 40 page preface written for that printing.

Top Five 2 Peter and Jude Commentaries

Introduction.  Commentary series almost always combine 2 Peter and Jude for obvious reasons. They share quite a bit of material so publishers are inclined assign one author to both books. Both books are often considered examples of late first century Christianity, usually an emerging “early catholic” Christianity. As such, the identity of the opponents in both letters is an important consideration. If the letters are late, then an early form of Gnosticism may be in the background. If the letters were written by Peter and Jude, then the opponents cannot be Gnosticism, but perhaps Pauline theology gone bad or an “incipient Gnosticism.”  Jude’s use of non-canonical material is usually a feature of introductions to the letter of Jude.

Since the traditional authors of these letters are regularly challenged, commentaries need to evaluate the evidence and take a position on the possibility that Jude and Peter are pseudonymous. It is possible that 2 Peter, for example, was written by someone “in the tradition of Peter.” For the evangelical, it is possible to understand the genre of the letter as requiring a pseudonym and not consider this as a “error” in the New Testament.

Richard Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1983). This commentary is the most important contribution on these two letters in modern times. All commentaries after Bauckham will need to deal with his understanding of the letters. The introductions to the letters are perhaps more important that the commentary sections. Bauckham treats Jude first because he dates the book very early, no later that A.D. 50. He does not see any evidence of “Paulinism” nor the “early catholicism” found in later letters. Jude is the brother of Jesus and the letter reflects an apocalyptic Palestinian Judaism. Whether this is really Jesus’ brother or someone writing in his name is an open question for Bauckham, but he thinks that all the evidence is “consistent with authorship by Jude the brother of Jesus” (16). Second Peter, on the other hand, Bauckham thinks is a pseudonymous example of the literary genre testament. Like the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, 2 Peter was written using the character Peter in order to give a moral exhortation to a new generation of believers. He argues that the original audience would have understood this as a common literary convention. The readers (living at the end of the first century) would have expected the writer to do an accurate job of reporting “the essence of Peter’s teaching” but they would not have expected that Peter wrote the letter himself (134). Bauckham is an expert in the literature of the Second Temple Period and he uses this literature to interpret these two letters as apocalyptic literature consistent with the literature being produced by Jews in the middle of the first century. His section on 2 Peter’s literary influences is excellent. The commentary proceeds phrase by phrase through the Greek text without transliteration. As expected, the commentary interested in the various allusions to the Hebrew Bible or other literature. This makes for a challenging read, but ultimately rewarding to the diligent student.

Thomas Schreiner, 1-2 Peter, Jude (NAC; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003). While this volume covers 2 Peter and Jude as well, Schreiner’s commentary is worth reading as an example of evangelical scholarship. He supports the traditional view that Peter and Jude are the authors of the respective letters. In contrast to Bauckham, he argues that the evidence for accepting pseudepigraphical letters is weak. He cites the punishment of the author of Paul and Thecla, for example, as evidence that the early church considered writing in the name of Paul was not accepted, even if the intentions were good (271). Bauckham did not say that 2 Peter was a letter written under a pseudonym, but rather that it is a testament, which were always written as if the historical person were addressing contemporary needs. Schreiner deals with this argument in detail, pointing out that not all testaments are fictional; Acts 20:17-38 is a “testament” created by Paul himself (274). With respect to Jude, Schreiner finds the evidence that the brother of Jesus wrote the short letter compelling. In the commentary portions, Schreiner moves through paragraphs, commenting on the English text, Greek is found in footnotes. Both of these books make heavy use of the Hebrew Bible and other Second Temple Period literature, Schreiner does an excellent job showing how these allusions function in the letter.

Peter H. Davids, 2 Peter and Jude (PNTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2006). This commentary begins with Jude (despite the title!), a letter which may have been written by Jesus’ brother, but Davids does not find compelling evidence for this. It is the opponents which the letter deal with which are determinative for Davids. Jude certainly comes from Palestine, but the opponents reflect a libertine attitude toward the Law which implies Paul’s law-free gospel is being misunderstood. But there is no way to be sure, so any date afer 50-55 could be defended (23). His conclusions on 2 Peter are similar, there is not enough evidence to state with certainty that the book is pseudepigraphic or not. I would recommend reading this commentary along side Bauckham, Davids interacts with Bauckham’s arguments. The commentary proper is rich with allusions to the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Period literature, treating the English text with all references to Greek in transliteration.

Ruth Anne Reese, 2 Peter, Jude (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007). This commentary is in the Two Horizons series from Eerdmans and is a bit more theological than exegetical.  Reese accepts the traditional view of the authorship of both 2 Peter and Jude. The commentary is based on the English text with sources cited in footnotes. After the commentary for each book, Reese provides a section entitled “Theological Horizons” which identifies a number of themes found in the book and connects them to larger canonical theology. The style of the commentary emphasizes this sort of biblical theology; these sections are as long as the traditional commentary sections! Since Jude makes use of the Hebrew Bible, she includes several pages on allusions to the Hebrew Bible in Jude and how they function as metaphors for salvation. The final section of this theological commentary attempts to bring the teaching of Jude and 2 Peter forward to the “contemporary context.” In the case of Jude, she engages Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace to discuss how the modern church deals with “outsiders.” In her comments on 2 Peter, Reese asks how 2 Peter’s eschatology impacts our ethical thinking.

J. N. D. Kelly, The Epistles of Peter and of Jude (London: A. C. Black, 1969). The Black’s Commentary series is well traveled: it was picked up by Hendrickson which sold it to Baker. Nevertheless, there are quite a few valuable volumes in the series, including this commentary by Kelly, usually associated with early church history. Kelly treats both 2 Peter and Jude in a single introduction, concluding that 2 Peter “belongs to the luxuriant crop of pseudo-Petrine literature which sprang up around the memory of the Prince of Apostles” (236). For Jude, there is simply not enough evidence for Kelly to decide for or against Jude’s authenticity. The commentary proper proceeds through the text phrase by phrase, all sources are cited in-text. Greek appears in transliteration. While Kelly is aware of some of the literature of the Second Temple Period, he writes before the massive collection from Charlesworth was published. This means that there is less reference to potential allusions to other literature and more attention to the text!

Conclusions. What have you found useful in your teaching of 2 Peter and Jude?


Index for the Top Five Commentary Series


Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

Matthew        Mark        Luke        John        Acts
Romans        1 Corinthians         2 Corinthians
Galatians         Ephesians        Philippians        Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians        Pastoral Epistles         Philemon
Hebrews        James         1 Peter         2 Peter & Jude 
Letters of John         Revelation

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries

Who was Jude?

The author of Jude identifies himself simply as Jude, brother of James and servant of Jesus Christ.  There are eight New Testament persons with the name Jude (Greek, Judas, or Hebrew, Judah), but the most likely is Jude the brother of Jesus.  Of the various persons named Jude in the New Testament, only the brother of Jesus and James would be well known enough to identify himself so simply.

If Jude was the brother of Jesus, why does he not say so in his letter?  Why use the title “servant of Jesus?”  The fact that Jude and the other brothers of Jesus were unbelievers until after the resurrection, the title “servant of Jesus” can be seen as a humble acknowledgment of Jesus’ Lordship.

Objections to this identification center on the language of the book, which seems too Hellenistic for an author who grew up in Galilee. The vocabulary is obscure and is full of rare words, including thirteen words not found elsewhere in the New Testament. This objection does not carry much weight since the author is familiar with at least two popular apocryphal texts, indicating some degree of education and sophistication.

We know virtually nothing about Jude, the brother of Jesus, in the New Testament. Jude is listed in Matt 13:55 and Mark 6:3 simply as a brother of Jesus. He likely was not a believer during the ministry of Jesus, (Mark 3:21, 31).  He would have become a believer after the resurrection (Acts 1:14), but we know nothing of his conversion, whether he was a witness to the resurrection, etc. The “brothers of Jesus” are mentioned in 1 Cor 9:5 as having taken believing wives, although it is not clear whether this is literal brothers or not.

According to tradition reported by Julian Africanus, the brothers of Jesus were involved in missionary activity.  Eusebius. (Hist. Eccl. 1.7.14) says that the family of Jesus evangelized Palestine.  In another section (Hist. Eccl., 3.19.1 – 20.8) the grandsons of Jude are arrested during the reign of Domitian.  Since they are in the line of David, they are potential messianic pretenders.  Domitian allegedly interview them but they claimed to be farmers – as evidenced by their calloused hands!  This story has always struck me as legendary, since I cannot imagine Domitian rounding up potential Jewish rebels from Palestine.

It is somewhat intriguing that a brother of Jesus should write a book which is so much dependent on the Hebrew Bible.  Perhaps, like his brother James, Jude was well trained in the Hebrew Bible and able to use the scripture to argue against a false teaching within Jewish Christian communities.

It is not critical that the Jude of the letter of Jude is a brother of Jesus.  This tradition helps explain how a letter like this was accepted as canonical, but it is not required by the text since it does not state that the writer is the brother of Jesus.

The Most Neglected Book in the New Testament

Jude has been described as “the most neglected book in the New Testament” (Douglas J. Rowston,  NTS 21 (1975) 554-563).  Perhaps because the letter is so short, or possibly because of the book’s close relationship to 2 Peter, the book is rarely preached on, and few people turn to the book in devotional reading.  It is, however, an important witness to the way the early church responded to false teaching. While the book is brief, it is a very “dense” book, in that nearly every line is packed with allusions to the Old Testament or laced with colorful metaphors to described the false teachers.

Why do many scholars deal with 2 Peter along with Jude?  One factor is the is the similarity between the two letters – virtually the entire book of Jude appears in 2 Peter, with the exception of the two allusions to non-biblical books.  For this reason scholars wonder if Jude used 2 Peter, or vice versa, or if both letters used a third source, perhaps a standard statement against false teachers who abuse their freedom in Christ.  Either way, there are some strange things in Jude that are easier to ignore than sort out.

I have preached out of Jude a few times, mostly because it is so obscure.  But there is a great deal in the book which ought to be a warning to the modern church.  There is a great deal of tolerance for weak teaching in American churches, so much so that the Scripture is not all that important.  “Practical sermons” are far more important than using the Bible to address the issues of our day.
This was the problem in the first century – individual teachers with visionary experiences were more important than the Scripture.  Jude tells us to have nothing to do with these sorts of teachers.  Jude calls the false teachers “blemishes at the love feast,” perhaps I can update this a bit and paraphrase the line as “zits on the face of your communion service.”

Here are a few of the vivid metaphors used for these false teachers:

  • Waterless clouds
  • Fruitless trees in autumn
  • Wild waves on the sea
  • Wandering stars

In each case, there is something intended for good: a could brings rain, a tree gives fruit, a star ought to give guidance.  A “wandering star” is a planet, which is in a different position every night and may not even be visible at some times in the year.  If you were trying to navigate by the planet Venus, for example, you would be lost.  To navigate, you need the Pole Star.  These teachers claim to be guides, but in the end the obscure the truth and people get lost.  There are some obvious implications to present teachers who attain a level of authority without really providing any real spiritual leadership.