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

Hans-Josef Klauck Baylor University Press, Waco, TX September 30, 2006

Hans-Josef Klauck has produced a helpful guide for enhancing one’s understanding of New Testament epistolary literature through a detailed study of ancient letters. This volume will help readers understand and appreciate the epistolary form and how this form contributes to the message.

The introduction and chapters 1 and 2 are practical and contain many points of interest, including discussions of standard letter form, writing materials, handwriting, scribes, and delivery systems. Chapter 1 introduces four sample letters to illustrate the form. Two letters from Apion (second century A.D. from papyri) are described and then compared with 2 and 3 John. This provides a helpful starting point for understanding ancient letter form. In addition Klauck discusses the value of letters in contrast to cell phones, text messages, and email (pp. 2–5). Letters, he points out, are more than substitutes for oral communication. They can be the result of deep reflection. Their arrival can be anticipated with great longing. Many people can remember with delight the anticipation and then the arrival of a letter from a girlfriend or boyfriend, wife or husband, parent or child, and others. Many have tucked away these letters in a safe place and bring them out on occasion to read slowly with renewed excitement. How much more would the letter in the ancient world be valued when communication could take weeks or even months. This brief section puts into perspective the New Testament letters in a new and more exciting way.

Much of Klauck’s volume is dedicated to listing and examining the primary sources themselves. Chapters 3 and 4 describe various types of ancient literature, including nonliterary letters, diplomatic correspondence, and literary letters (poetry and philosophy). These chapters list and describe ancient letters of various types. Klauck does not limit himself to obvious letters such as those of Cicero and Seneca. He also discusses letters found within literature (e.g., correspondence in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, pp. 138–39). Many of these letters are important for New Testament studies beyond their use as epistolary form samples. For example Klauck provides an interesting discussion of the emperor Claudius’s letter to the Alexandrians (pp. 83–101).

Chapter 5 is a discussion of theory and rhetoric. Topics such as letter styles and writing guides are discussed. Also Klauck discusses ancient rhetoric and its use in New Testament studies. Chapter 6 returns to epistolary literature and describes Jewish letters in detail. Klauck’s discussion of letters has drawn from every imaginable source (papyri, inscriptions, literature, etc.), and he seems to provide a comprehensive view of all available data. The amount of detail in these chapters may be difficult for nonspecialists or readers who do not need such a thorough description. For such readers, selective reading of sections and letters will give them an overview of the discussion and enable them to use the book with value for New Testament studies.

The final two chapters apply the findings to the New Testament itself. In chapter 8, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 2 Peter, and two letters in Acts are analyzed in detail. However, prior to this (chap. 7), the remaining New Testament letters are surveyed (including the letters in Revelation 2–3). For each letter a brief discussion of date, authorship, and issues related to the epistolary form takes place. Klauck does not attribute traditional authorship to a number of the epistles (e.g., Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, and the Pastorals); however, this does not affect the value of the discussion. In addition Klauck views 1 Corinthians 14:33b–35 as a later interpolation (p. 308) and maintains that 2 Corinthians is two letters (chaps. 1–9 and 10–13; p. 310), though he acknowledges that a unified 2 Corinthians is “not impossible.” Klauck correctly views Galatians as having been written in the same time period as Romans and the Corinthian letters.

As already noted, in chapter 8 Klauck analyzes five letters in detail. For each letter the structure is examined and a rhetorical analysis is provided. Klauck gives a helpful discussion of pseudepigraphy. But this reviewer would have liked to have seen more discussion on two issues: the view that the practice of pseudepigraphy was deceptive, and the perspective of the early church on the matter. The discussion of 2 Peter (also seen as pseudepigraphical) includes a detailed comparison with Jude. Klauck concludes that 2 Peter must have been written sometime after Jude, probably between A.D. 110 and 120, the latest New Testament letter. Two letters in Acts are discussed: the apostolic decree (Acts 15:23–29) and an official Roman letter (23:26–30). These are not viewed as actual letters but as woven into the narrative as letters for the author’s purpose (although Klauck acknowledges that the apostolic decree is pre-Lucan).

The volume’s layout enhances its usefulness. In addition to a general bibliography at the beginning, separate bibliographies are included at the start of each section. Questions appear at the end of each chapter. An answer key is included in the back of the book. Three indexes (ancient sources, authors, and subjects) conclude the volume.

Klauck has provided a thorough and thought-provoking study of ancient letters, a study that will enhance one’s understanding of New Testament epistolary literature and that can also serve as a reference handbook on ancient letters.

—Joseph D. Fantin

January 1, 2009

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2009 vol. 166 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

Subscribe Today