Reading Paul: a book review

The apostle Paul is baffling to many. Who hasn’t puzzled over what Paul meant in Romans 9-11?  John Harvey, Professor of New Testament  and Dean of  the Seminary & School of Ministry at Columbia International University, has written a short volume to help us understand Paul’s epistles. Interpreting the Pauline Letters:  An Exegetical Handbook,  takes students, seminarians and pastors through Paul’s letters, highlighting pertinent background information and helping us get from ‘exegesis to exposition.’

Harvey’s eight chapters walk us through the whole process of exegesis of these letters. The first three chapters give a general overview.  In chapter one, Harvey provides background on the ‘genre’ and structure of Paul’s letters. Chapter two gives a bird’s eye view of the historical context for each of the epistles.  In chapter three he examines themes in Paul’s theology (organized with reference to Paul’s own vocabulary rather than imposing a structure from systematic theology).

In chapter four and five, Harvey unfolds the steps for his exegetical approach. The first step to proper interpretation is textual criticism and translation (chapter four). This helps us establish what the text says and what it means. As we begin the work of interpreting the text, we will need to look at the passage historically, literary and theologically (chapter five) Each of these spheres informs our understanding of the text.  Historical analysis helps us understand the social context of Paul and his original audience. Literary Analysis illuminates structural and generic elements, as well as gets us to pay attention to rhetorical features and syntax. Finally, theological analysis helps us articulate how this passage makes sense in relationship to the Bible’s wider themes (the analogy of scripture)  and doctrine (analogy of faith)(140-1).

Chapter six and seven discuss how to communicate the message of the passages we are exegeting. Chapter six describes how to move from the ‘big idea’ in the passage to how to relate it to a contemporary context. Chapter seven gives two case studies of how this approach works from ‘text to sermon.’ The final chapter  provides a list of resources and commentaries for understanding Paul’s letters.

This is a constructive guide and Harvey’s exegetical steps correspond well to the approach I learned in seminary.  I found this text simple to understand, and I thought he did a good job of describing the elements of good exegesis.  I  really like his three lenses on the text: history, literature, and theology. Harvey demonstrates the importance of understanding history, and literature for exegesis and highlights aspects of ‘theological analysis, especially as it relates to Paul (i.e. the Old Testament use in the New).

For me, a book on interpretation of the Bible is only ‘good,’ if I feel like it is worth putting into practice. The next time I am preaching from Paul’s letters, I will refer back to this book. I especially found helpful, Harvey’s succinct background on Greek and Jewish Epistles and how Paul’s letters fit the pattern (and where they are unique).  I think his exegetical approach is spot on; however I felt like he could have explored more in-depth  what theological analysis entails (i.e. what weight do we ascribe to patristic sources or historical theology?).

That small criticism aside, this is an introductory book on Pauline exegesis and does not attempt to untwist every issue in interpreting Paul’s letters.  What it does is give a framework for us to dig deeper into the text ourselves. I give this book four stars and recommend it for pastors and students alike.

Thank you to Kregel Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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