[K:NWTS 24/1 (May 2009) 54-57]

Book Review

Hans-Josef Klauck, Ancient Letters and the New Testament: A Guide to Context and Exegesis. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006. 504 pages. Paper. ISBN: 978-1-932792-40-9. $39.95.

The Department of Religion at Baylor University has been a nursery for structural, rhetorical even narratological studies of the Old and New Testament. Under the direction of Charles Talbert in particular, numerous fertile and suggestive books and articles have issued from Baylor University Press and other publishers. Klauck’s volume is a superb example of the strengths and weaknesses of this contribution. In these pages, we have an up-to-date survey of epistolary rhetoric, advancing the work of J. L. White, G. A. Kennedy (Classical Rhetoric and its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times) and David Aune (The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament & Early Christian Literature & Rhetoric[1]) and others. Klauck uses the classic Light from Ancient Letters by White and enlarges the discussion with articles and books published to 2005. He gives us a tour not only of types of letters found in the Greco-Roman world (67-182), but of writing materials (i.e., papyrus [cf. his diagram of how this was made, 50]), inks, pens, even ‘postal’ systems (43-66). While his focus is on the NT epistles, he situates them in the wider context of ancient epistolary practice (see his schematic of letter components, 42). The result is an informative exploration of similarities and differences in the apostolic letters vis-ŕ-vis their contemporaries. We are alerted to the common ground (a “letter”) between the letter writing apostles and their contemporaries without forgetting the uniqueness of NT epistles. This latter observation features the distinctive theology (even biblical theology) of the NT letters, a point that is not much emphasized by our author. That is, Klauck does do provide theological insight into the NT epistles.

Klauck alerts (191) us to the so-called ‘epistolary parousia’ or epistolary “presence” which is common to the apostle Paul. The ‘presence’ of the apostle with his reading audience is a means of identification, i.e., Paul’s readers with him and he with his readers. This ‘communion of the saints’ is anchored in the Christological parousia (“presence”), i.e., Christ with us, we with Christ. Which is to note that union and communion of the believer with Christ and Christ with the believer is prominent even in the epistolary style of the apostles, especially Paul. A biblical-theological focus on union with Christ (or union with the parousia of Christ) is preeminently Christian and Pauline (not to mention apostolic).

Klauck gives us a brief overview of the content and structure of letters by Epicurus, Cicero, Seneca, Philo, Josephus, Bar Kokhba (149-73, 229-97). This is followed by a précis of all the NT epistles (229-353). Then Klauck gives a detailed rhetorical exposition of 1 and 2 Thessalonians (355-408), 2 Peter (408-19) and two letters embedded in the book of Acts (15:23-29; 23:26-30) (419-34). (He also provides detailed analysis of 2 and 3 John, 28-41.) Each section of the book contains excellent supplementary bibliographies (there is a comprehensive general bibliography at the beginning of the work, xix-xxviii). And a feature which professors of NT will appreciate—Klauck includes exercises for students in each section and an Answer Key for these exercises (445-69). In fine, a remarkable accomplishment.

But Klauck is a member of the critical fundamentalist lobby and that factor skews his approach to the inspired NT text. He falls lock-step into line with the pseudonymous school, which holds that Paul wrote neither Ephesians (“Deutero-Pauline’) nor the Pastorals; that Peter did not write 2 Peter; that James did not write his epistle, nor Jude his. All of this is just so much same old same old liberal fundamentalism. We are not surprised, but with such well-informed understanding of pagan epistolary conventions, one would expect an equally discriminating recognition of the uniqueness of the apostolic letters. The problem of overmuch application of non-Christian epistolary technique to Christian (NT) epistles is that it fails to account for the unique difference Christ himself makes to the Christian author and his reading audience (cf. epistolary parousia above, for example). Hence, Klauck with his liberal fundamentalist colleagues, is eager to suggest of the NT epistles and their authors what he would never suggest of the pagan (non-Christian) letter writers—fraud and deceit. That is, he routinely endorses pseudonymity and ‘deutero’-authorship of Pauline and Catholic Epistles; something he would never suggest for Cicero, Seneca, Philo, Josephus, etc. Why? Why this prejudice against Christian epistolary style? Why is Paul not allowed Ephesians (Eph. 1:1) and the Pastorals (1 Tim. 1:1; 2 Tim. 1:1; Titus 1:1) when he says he writes them, while Seneca (e.g.) is allowed his letters when he says he writes them? Why are some of Seneca’s epistles not pseudonymous? Or why do we not search for Deutero-Cicero? If source criticism may be freely applied to the NT epistles, why is it not applied to pagan and non-Christian epistles? Why the ‘scholarly’ double standard? After all, a uniform ‘scientific’ method of investigation would apply to all letters, Christian and non-Christian alike. Our point here is the flat-out inconsistency in Klauck and all critical fundies. They do not treat secular, pagan authors the way they treat Christian, biblical authors. And the reason for this is plain: they are unfairly biased against the integrity of Paul and the authors of the Catholic Epistles because of their biased presuppositions which have been forged in critical fundamentalist lobbies and (un)hallowed halls.

It is time for these progressives to put off their blinders, to break free of their tunnel vision, to through off the shackles of the critical fundamentalist past which enslaves them and use the tools of research in a new and fresh exploration of the unique and distinct features of the ancient letters of the NT.

—James T. Dennison, Jr.

[1]  Cf. the review by Scott F. Sanborn in Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary 20/2 (September 2005): 69-72.