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Interpreting the Letters of the New Testament

Text with gray shading was not in the original class handout, but was added to make the online
version easier to understand if you weren't in class to hear the discussion.

21st century Christians reading 1st century Contexts

Principle #1 for interpreting letters: Consider the occasion.

The letters in the New Testament were written to address specific occasions. Because they are
addressing specific occasions, they are essentially lessons on how the gospel applies to our lives. But,
also because they address specific occasions, they are not complete teachings on theology; they only
teach the theological issues directly related to the occasions.

Our first task is to find out what situations the letters are addressing. And, since they were all written
in the 1st century, they are based in cultures very different from our own. That can make it difficult to
completely understand every situation. But, here are some examples of situations addressed in New
Testament letters:

• Galatians was written to counter Judaizers (Jews who believed Gentiles had to become Jewish
before becoming Christian) who wanted Christians to keep Jewish law.1
• Romans was written because of tensions between Jewish believers and Greek believers. 1
• Philippians was written because of divisions in the church.1
• Colossians was probably written to address church members starting to follow a religious
leader who taught the worship of angels and other mystical beliefs. There are clues in the text,
such as angel worship, but we don't know who the false teacher was or even if he was Jewish
or Greek.2

So, the first task in interpreting a letter is to determine the historical context of the letter.3 Why was
the letter written?

Step 1: Use a good Bible dictionary,4 or an introduction from a study Bible, to learn about the
historical setting and situation of the letter.

Step 2: Read the letter all the way through in one sitting. This takes time, but is the best way
to get a feel for the message. In this first reading, you're just trying to get the big picture of the
letter; you're not trying to make sense of every detail. But, as you read, you should jot down
notes on four main issues:
a) What do you notice about the recipients themselves?
Are they Jewish or Greek or both? (1 Cor 6:9-11; 8:7; 12:2)
What problems are they facing? (6:12; 11:18-22)
What are their attitudes? (3:21; 4:6-8, 18-19; 5:2-6)
b) What is the writer's attitude toward the recipients? (1:8; 11:2, 17; 16:24)
c) Are there any specific references to the occasion of the letter? (1:11; 5:10; 7:1)
d) What are the letter's natural, logical divisions? (7:1; 11:2, 25)

The second task is to determine the literary context of the letter. Literary context is just a technical
term for figuring out what the actual words and sentences mean based on the context of the
surrounding words and sentences.
What is the meaning of this sentence: “Jack and Jill had a ball”?

What if I add some context? Consider these four examples.

1. Jack and Jill had a ball. Jill's dress made her look like Cinderella.
2. Jack and Jill had a ball. Unfortunately, the ball rolled down a hill and was never seen
3. Jack and Jill had a ball. Their entire evening was filled with activities.
4. “I can't find my soccer ball,” Steve said. “Can you help me find it?” I told him, “Jack
and Jill had a ball.”

Those sentences show three possible meanings of “ball.” The word could mean a round
object, a good time, or a formal dance. And those sentences show two possible meanings of
“had.” The word could indicate past tense that is no longer true; the ball is gone; the ball is
over; their good time has ended. Or, the word “had” could indicate I am no longer sure if it's
true; they had a ball, but I don't know if they still have the ball.

To determine literary context, study one logical division of the book at a time.

Step 1: Think paragraphs. Ask yourself, “What's the main idea of this paragraph?” A
paragraph's main idea is more important than the individual sentences because the sentences
are there to build the idea of the paragraph.

Step 2: Looking at individual sentences and paragraphs, ask yourself, “Why is he making this
point at this time?”3 Your goal is to find the progression of thoughts and how the ideas are
connected. Otherwise, you're taking parts out of context.

The goal of studying literary context in the Bible is to discover how the:
a) sentence fits into and builds the paragraph.
b) paragraph fits into and builds the section of the book.
c) section fits into a builds the book.
d) book fits into and builds the:
i) writer's other books.
ii) Old or New Testament.
iii) Bible, as a whole.5

Principle #2 for interpreting letters: Look for an emphasis on particular ideas.6

Because Romans and Galatians both address aspects of the Christian's relationship to Jewish law, they
both emphasize how we are saved. The word “justify” appears 15 times in Romans and 8 times in
Galatians, but only twice in all Paul's other letters (1 Cor 6:11, Titus 3:7).

The words “wisdom” or “wise” appear 26 times in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, yet they
only appear 18 more times in all Paul's other writings. It's also interesting to note that those words
have a negative tone in 1 Corinthians.

Baptism is discussed three times in 1 Corinthians (1:14-17; 10:1-5; 15:29-30), and every time it is
discussed because of a problem.

The word “credited” is used 12 times in Romans 4.

Principle #3 for interpreting letters: Words, by themselves, have no clear meaning.
Remember the Jack and Jill example.

The word “faith” is used 8 times in Ephesians and 12 times in James. But, some people see a conflict
between Paul's idea and James's idea. Martin Luther, for example, called James 'an epistle of straw'
because he thought James contradicted Paul.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the
gift of God—not from works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can his
faith save him? (James 2:14)

Romans 4:1-3 tells us Abraham was justified apart from works.

James 2:21-23 tells us Abraham was justified by his works.

What does Paul mean by “works?” Look at Ephesians 2:9 and Romans 4:2.

Paul uses “works” to mean some action that the actor can boast about—some action that
would make God owe something to the person.

What does James mean by “faith”? Look at James 2:19.

James uses “faith” for belief in God, regardless of whether that belief results in submission to
God or rebellion against God.

Ask, would Paul say that demons are saved because they have faith God exists? Of course
not. And, would James say those who have good works have earned their salvation and God
owes them salvation as a payment for their works? Of course not.

So, Paul and James do not contradict each other, at all. They are merely using the same words
in different ways to address different situations. Paul was addressing the conflict between
Jewish Christians and Greek Christians over the place of Law in salvation. Paul says we're
saved by faith apart from works of the Law. And James was addressing the problem of
Christians who said they had faith, but their lives did not show any signs of the love that is
characteristic of the Holy Spirit's influence.

Thomas Schreiner. (1999). “Interpreting the Pauline Epistles,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. p. 4.
“Introduction to Colossians.” (2008). ESV Study Bible, Crossway.
Much of the material in this study (with the exception of examples of 1 Corinthians and places otherwise noted) is
largely taken from Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart's How to Read the Bible for all its Worth. Zondervan. (2003).
The Holman Bible Dictionary is available online for free. A Bible dictionary can also
provide information on people (e.g., Sadducee) and issues (e.g., propitiation or slavery) in the Bible.
Adapted from George Guthrie's “Literary Context” lecture in the Inductive Bible Study course, available at
Adapted from Robert Stein's Hermeneutics course at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Available at