Reflection: Greco-Roman Letter Writing and Thoughts on Paul

The cultural norms in the Greco-Roman world in regards to letter writing may not seem like an exciting topic to some, but its value is undeniable in reconstructing the messages found in the NT. I, for one, have enjoyed learning more about it and what it brings to the conversation.

As someone who grew up reading the NT letters, I certainly felt like I was learning the formal language for a pattern that I had already come to recognize. Of course, Western letter writing has, in a sense, most of the same elements, so NT epistles aren’t entirely foreign. Understanding the cultural influences that are present in the letters, however, increase our recognition of the context and aid in interpretation.

Specifically standing out this week was a point in the lecture concerning the letter to the Galatians. The lack of a proem was a great example of how understanding the historical norms of letter writing tells us more than we could immediately interpret in the text. Not only does this fact of this omission have value, but it also gives us an incredible insight into how the church at Galatia would have received Paul’s words.

Hartman’s “On Reading Others’ Letters” was a great read as well, especially concerning his conclusions on Paul’s letter writing. As we approach the Word in our young Christian walk, we Westerners see through Western eyes, and so we envision a solo Paul penning yet another letter to another of his children churches. More study results in ideas about how letters were copied and distributed, and uncertain authorship and inspiration. Hartman, for me then, provides a new suggestion in that Paul understood his writings were useful to a much wider audience that his primary recipient, and so purposefully wrote them to accommodate such a fact. That the Holy Spirit provided inspirational guidance to that effect had certainly crossed my mind, but not that Paul himself would have considered it.

Furthermore, the idea that Paul kept copies of his letters in a local collection is striking enough to cause us to relook at his work under such a suggestion. “Paul writing to the Galatians” and “Paul writing to the wide Christian world by means of the Galatians” would be similar volumes, but the amplitude and specificity of ideas and suggestions would likely be noticeably different.

Finally, Hartman makes a comparison that I found compelling and will undoubtedly find a way to use in the future. Hartman references reading Scripture through a contemporary lens while disregarding the original intended meaning, using as an example a Lutheran reading of Paul that equates the Law with God’s will. (Hartman, 143). He then likens this to how Christian interpretations of the Tanakh must appear to the Jew. This is an excellent reminder that the Hebrew Bible has both always pointed to Jesus and simultaneously had a primary meaning separate from Jesus.

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