Ancient Letters and the New Testament: A Guide to Content and Exegesis

07.01.07 | Denver Journal, New Testament, Michael Thompson | by Hans-Josef Klauck

    A review of Hans-Josef Klauck's, "Ancient Letters and the New Testament," by Michael Thompson.

    Klauck, Hans-Josef. Ancient Letters and the New Testament: A Guide to Content and Exegesis. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2006.vii + 469pp. Paperback, $34.95. ISBN 978-1-932792-40-9.

    Readers of Hans-Josef Klauck's work have come to expect a rigorous conversation with primary source material as well as the underlying culture and customs which comprise the ancient Greco-Roman world. His ability to synthesize a wide range of source material make much of his work (especially surveys) quite valuable to the study of the New Testament in its historical context. This release from Baylor University Press is a thoroughly revised and translated edition of the German Die antike Briefliteratur und das Neue Testament: Ein Lehr- und Arbeitsbuch (1998). English readers, especially students who seek an introduction to epistolary literature, will be grateful for the availability of this work.

    Foundational to Klauck's study of ancient letters is his conviction that more can be learned from the epistolary form than is generally assumed by the reader. He states, "The same written form that forces the author to more intense reflection also provides the addressee with opportunities for unhurried reading and interpretive rereading" (vii). With this in mind Klauck then seeks a methodology based upon the experience of both the recipient and the sender by examining closely the various aspects of epistolary genre found in a given letter.

    The opening chapter sets the foundation for the study by immediately reviewing two well known letters of Apion to his family, an interlude of standard ancient letter components, and then a parallel reading of 2 & 3 John. These latter two texts are chosen, admittedly, because of their brevity to quickly demonstrate the broad categories of an epistle. Throughout the book the primary texts are presented in both Greek and English, providing the reader an opportunity to compare and contrast the elements of various epistles alongside Klauck's commentary. At the end of each chapter are various exercises designed for the student (e.g., the ending of the first chapter "assigns" Philemon to the reader to practice Klauck's methodology).

    Before moving into a broad survey of Greco-Roman letters, Klauck devotes his second chapter to the realities of the ancient postal system and the limits of rudimentary writing tools, which also factor into the shape and style of the ancient epistle. Chapter Three then addresses various questions concerning the classification of ancient letter-types. Klauck divides the genre into three fundamental categories: 1) nonliterary letters, 2) official letters, and 3) literary letters (68). Essentially, this section of the book centers largely on diplomatic correspondence which Klauck will later use as important background in reading many of the NT letters attributed to Paul.

    An impressive fourth chapter provides a catalogue of numerous ancient Greco-Roman authors and their contributions to the genre of epistolary literature. While the information presented here is certainly too much for the introductory or casual observer to absorb in a single (or multiple!) setting, it is a tremendous tool to have as a brief survey of many significant ancient authors. Klauck again demonstrates his ability to summarize and categorize the wide breadth of primary literature.

    Following this, Klauck provides a discussion of epistolary and rhetorical theory within the ancient Greco-Roman world (Chapter Five). Reviewing Demetrius' writings on letter writing, he extracts theoretical foundations of the epistle, as well as topoi and phraseology. In this section Klauck introduces the ancient concept of letters serving the purpose of providing the sender's presence (parousia) during geographical absence (189). Such a notion is interesting to NT readers, and comes into contextual consideration again with Paul's letters referring to Christ's parousia. The next section of the chapter then provides the reader with letter types and letter writing guides, again drawing from the ancient manuals on such procedures that often seek to distinguish between the modes of speech and epistle (208-210). In the final section of the chapter Klauck turns the application of his discussion to the NT texts and summarizes current trends in recent biblical scholarship. Just how much formal training in rhetoric the NT authors had is left open to discussion--though Klauck asserts that whoever penned Hebrews was most likely well schooled in this area (226).

    Before focusing solely on the NT epistles, Klauck provides a survey of Jewish epistolary literature from the Hebrew Bible, the intertestamental literature, and epistles as late as the Bar Kochba letters (quite comparable to the earlier survey of the Greco-Roman literature). There is an extended discussion of 2 Maccabees and 2 Baruch embedded here, which may again prove helpful to those who are less familiar with them as background to the NT context.

    Chapter Seven begins the discussion of the Pauline letters, and Klauck operates from the mainstream views of authorship and date with virtually no discussion on how he arrives at his views (he accepts as Pauline the epistles to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon). Although he seeks to focus on matters of style and rhetoric in this particular survey, the nature of the study perhaps warrants a discussion regarding issues of authorship (again useful for those who would be generally interested in epistolary introductions in the first place). The one exception to this is a brief section to demonstrate Galatians as being dated at 55-56. In regards to the Pastoral Epistles, Klauck accepts the argument that the three are "doubly pseudonymous," indicating that both the sender and the recipient are fictitious (324). Most of his reasoning for this view can be gleaned from his discussion of internal circumstances of the text, although some of his choices come across as a bit forced and remain largely unconvincing to those who accept traditional views of authorship. Still, the reader will notice that the author here provides a good overview of the structure of each letter and draws solid conclusions based upon form and style from each one.

    Continuing in his discussion of the NT texts, Klauck rightly defends the placement of Hebrews in the canon as an important work in itself, rather than being relegated to an "appendix" of the Pauline corpus (335). His view here is that this epistle was intended to be a written correspondence from the outset rather than a collection of sermons (or one extended sermon). This is followed with a discussion of the catholic epistles, especially with James and 1 Peter (giving special attention to the role of Silvanus, which fits well within the overall theme of the book). The final section of Chapter Seven then examines Revelation. Interestingly, while Klauck's discussion of Revelation affirms a unique "letter frame" (35), the discussion itself comes across as very hurried and brief with only a brief overview of the seven letters in Revelation 1-3. What would have certainly proved more interesting is if Revelation as a whole would have been treated as an epistle rather than inappropriately segmenting the opening three chapters of the work.

    Chapter Eight provides Klauck with much room to develop prior discussions of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 2 Peter, and two letters found in Acts. The discussion of the Thessalonian correspondence provides an interaction with various options of outlining the letter, based upon a treatment of its rhetorical genre. The author favors the category of consoling letter (385), which often presupposes the ideas of the friendly or familial letter. While Klauck quickly attributes what he identifies as "disagreements in the message" between the two letters to pseudonymous authorship, such a move is quite unnecessary (398). A reading of Klauck�s own comparative analysis actually reveals a more urgent correspondence, which would fit the tone of a letter written to correct misguided theologies prevalent to the congregation. Following this he reviews 2 Peter and then turns to two letters found in Acts (15:23-29; 23:26-30) which are often overlooked in surveys of epistolary genre. Yet, as Klauck states, "A Spirit that speaks can also make resolutions and write letters" (424).

    The Epilogue serves not only to bring together various conclusions but also affirm the prominence of the study of epistolary genre in the arena of NT studies. The functions of rhetoric and style come to the forefront of understanding the message found in the epistles, and Klauck has done well to provide a foundational base for exploring such literature in its proper first century Greco-Roman context. This book will prove to be a wonderful addition to the libraries of those who seek to better understand the NT and its message as contained in these ancient letters.

    Michael Thompson
    July 2007

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