Most textbooks on biblical interpretation include a section on genre, but due to the number and variety of genres, the attention devoted to each is generally too superficial. Gray’s book-length treatment on the genre of New Testament letters, focusing specifically on the Pauline collection, fills this need.
Gray opens the book with a brief overview of the cultural and historical context of Paul, a Jew steeped in Hellenistic influence and Roman imperial ideology. Through numerous examples, he demonstrates how Paul’s words come alive when read with sensitivity to this background. Next Gray devotes two substantial chapters to the genre and forms of Greco-Roman letter writing. He classifies each letter of Paul according to the known categories of ancient letter writing and discusses the literary forms (e.g., creed, household code, and vice-and-virtue list) and the common elements within the letters. Of great value to an interpreter are what the forms mean and why they are significant. For example, the use of the parenetic style indicates that the writer is not “imparting new information to the audience” but instead wishes to motivate “behaviors and attitudes to which no reasonable person would object” (p. 42).
In the fourth chapter, Gray deals with the issue of audience. In addition to providing a book-by-book summary of the recipients, he highlights the difficulties in gleaning information from Paul’s letters and the danger of making too much out of insufficient evidence. He takes on the complex yet vital issue of Paul’s use of the Old Testament, explaining how one can uncover subtle allusions and echoes of the Old Testament and why Paul seems to have misquoted the Old Testament or used it out of context. Along with defending Paul against allegations of abuse, the author introduces the reader to the interpretive techniques common in Paul’s day, namely the seven Jewish middoth and the Greco-Roman allegorical method, to help clarify Paul’s handling of the Old Testament. In the final chapter, Gray takes on the issue of pseudonymity in the disputed Pauline letters. In an objective and balanced manner, he presents the common reasons why some scholars reject Pauline authorship of these letters and why one needs to exercise caution and guard against overconfidence concerning these objections.
As an introductory textbook, Gray’s work hits the mark in many respects. Each chapter is well organized and supplemented with discussion questions and an up-to-date bibliography. Pedagogical and theoretical elements, such as ancient customs and literary conventions, are elucidated with modern-day equivalents to facilitate learning. As well, the author touches on a number of finer issues related to each topic, which will be a valuable guide for further research. Where the discussion involves a controversial issue, Gray is to be commended for offering a balanced approach and presenting both sides objectively and fairly.
Gray limits his scope to seeking the author’s intended meaning by focusing only on “the world behind the text” and “the world of the text” (pp. 4–7). A discussion on how to apply the text to the world of the interpreter, particularly considering the occasional nature of the letters, would further profit the reader. In addition, the book could benefit from more in-depth treatment of genre, since this subject is what distinguishes this work from others. It is unclear if the book-by-book summary of audience, which can readily be gleaned from most commentaries, adds value. These quibbles aside, this work will serve as a valuable introduction for students and keen readers of Paul.