Understanding Genre's - Letters

HOW TO STUDY THE BIBLE - Understanding Genre's

Let's say you found a letter from my wife to me. You don't read the whole letter you just look at one statement she made where she said, "Moe has been saying the "s-word" a lot lately and Isaac has been having temper tantrums and bit me twice." When reading that you may have some thoughts or questions. Who are Moe and Isaac? Do their children need discipline? Are these people foster parents? Before continuing to read this post, think about that statement in the letter and see if you can determine what's going on.

The fact is, unless you know our home and what is going on within it, you can not fully understand the statement you read in the letter. In fact, unless the letter reveals some answers to these questions then you may never fully know what's happening; because what's happening is that Moe is a rescue African Grey bird and Issac a rescue Umbrella Cockatoo bird. Were your assumptions of what was going on correct? Chances are, unless you've had birds you would have never guessed that fact.

The majority of the New Testament are letters written by Paul, Peter, and John; and Hebrews is questioned on who wrote it. The letters were written to specific churches or people. The difficulty of letters is that it's like listening to one side of a phone conversation. In order to determine what's being said you need to determine whats going on. Fact is, the letters are not a doctrinal treatise by which the writers sat down to make. They are not books of theology. The letters are addressing questions and issues that are revolving around the church or person who the letter is written to. They do not answer OUR QUESTIONS; they answer THEIR QUESTIONS. Therefore, like all of the Bible, we need to see what it's saying to them and why and then see how that relates to us.

Because of the lack of knowledge of how to read the letters it causes bad theologies and great confusion. For example, I know of a person who looked at 3 John 1:2 and said it's a promise of prosperity to servants of Christ. They looked at a letter from John to Gaius and treated the statement like a doctrinal teaching rather than the greeting that it is. Another example is the confusion that comes when Paul said Abraham was NOT justified by works (Romans 4:2) but then James says that Abraham WAS justified by works (James 2:21-25). What happens is that almost all denominations ignore the context of the statement and therefore omit James' statement from their teaching in order to push a Grace only teaching. They completely miss the points being made. Paul was talking about circumcision for salvation and James was talking about helping people in need. Why does Romans 12 have a different list of spiritual gifts than 1 Corinthians 12? Because each letter was dealing with what was going on in two different countries and answering their questions.

So, how to read the letters:
1. READ AND/OR LISTEN TO THEM OUT LOUD. The churches were not churches in the way we see them today. They were a bunch of small gatherings. The letters would have been passed from one gathering to another and read out loud. Start by listening to an audio Bible and listen to the letter out loud, like it would have been read in the first century. Then read the whole letter yourself. After this then start breaking down each point.

2. SEE THE CONTEXT. The rule of context is "context rules". Without context, we can make these letters say anything we want them to say. Find out about the city of that time. See what's happening in the church. When you understand that Corinth had two international seaports and multiple languages in the church you then understand why Paul only wrote to them about tongues. Use a secular source for information because people and denominations tend to twist in order to support the theology they are teaching.

3. UNDERSTAND DIFFERENCES IN SPEACH. If four different people wrote a letter revolving around the same subject there would be different forms of speech used. I often talk Bible with a friend and we will debate a subject and often come to the conclusion that the debate was useless because we agreed but communicated the belief differently. Remember that these are different individuals who communicate differently. Even Peter had problems understanding Pauls writings (2 Peter 3:14-16).

4. AVOID SUPPORTING A BELIEF OF A STATEMENT BY USING OTHER LETTERS. Like the examples of Paul and James or the letter of Romans and Corinthians, each letter was written by different people to answer the questions and issues of the church or person they were writing to. Try to avoid supporting a statement of one letter by using a statement in another; especially if they were written by two different individuals.

5. Noting that not all letters have all these things, the common form of the letters are as follows:
1. Introduction of author (Hebrews is missing)
a. Greeting
b. Identification of the author
c. Identification of the audience
d. Prayer / Thanksgiving
2. Body of the letter (no real format)
3. Conclusion
a. Sometimes a Final farewell

If there are differences in the form of the letter, make note of these differences because they may provide clues to the meaning. For example, there is no strong thanksgiving in the letter to the Galatians. Paul heads straight into a rebuke. So, we know there is something important that is going on in the church of Galatia that is needing to be addressed.