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

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Ancient Letters and the New Testament: A Guide to Context and Exegesis. By Hans-Josef Klauck. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006, xxxv + 504 pp., $34.95 paper.

Professor Klauck, the Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature at the University of Chicago, has given us an expanded and updated English translation of his wonderful 1998 German textbook. Embarrassingly, a copy of his original book came into my hands during the page proofs of my last book on letter writing. I was able to slip in only the most token of nods to this book that deserved far more attention. I am grateful for this small chance to remediate.

While my little textbook is designed for late college or early graduate school, Klauck's work is clearly targeting the more serious and advanced student. At twice the length of a typical textbook, he gets more than twice the utility. Klauck gives readers access to extensive amounts of primary (and relevant) source material, providing the Greek text (less commonly the Latin text) of a letter when useful and always with an English translation. Klauck carefully guides the reader, sometimes going line by Greek line through an ancient source, mining it as a modern commentary might a NT letter (e.g. Claudius's letter to the Alexandrians, PLond. VI. 1912, on pp. 83-100). This is the best study of Greco-Roman epistolography currently available to NT scholars, supplanting (in my opinion) Otto Roller's work (Das Formular der paulinischen Briefe [Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1933]).

Any review should include a brief summary, although scanning his table of contents tells as much. Klauck begins by quoting Dickens to remind us how seriously ancients (up to the mid-1800s) took the sending and receiving of letters and Kafka to remind us also that letters were more than "half a conversation," since letters allowed thoughtful re-reading and reflection (pp. 2-4)-an excellent and often overlooked point. As an introduction (and illustration of what will become the pedagogical approach of this book), Klauck cites two short papyrus (Egyptian) letters (second century AD). A detailed analysis (9 pages) of these two letters segues into a description of the basic components of an ancient Greco-Roman letter (no surprises there), ending with a parallel treatment of two NT letters (2-3 John), showing well the similarities. Having demonstrated the usefulness of this approach, Klauck then repeats it on a much larger scale. After a brief summary of writing materials, secretaries, and postal systems (chap. 2), Klauck examines recommendation and royal/imperial letters (chap. 3), literary letters (chap. 4), epistolary theorists (chap. 5), and early Jewish letters (chap. 6). The results of this extensive analysis are then applied to the NT, first in an overview (chap. 7) and then with select texts (chap. 8), namely 1-2 Thessalonians (53 pages), 2 Peter (11 pages), Acts 15:23-29 (10 pages), and Acts 23:26-30 (6 pages). A brief epilogue (9 pages) mentions but does not analyze 1-2 Clement, the Apostolic Fathers, the NT apocrypha, the Nag Hammadi codices, and the Church fathers.

At every place one opens the book (e.g. Klauck's description of ancient epistolary theorists, pp. 183-206), one finds an excellent review of scholarship on the topic (such as the pseudonymous nature of both Demetrius of Phaleron, On Style, and PseudoDemetrius, Epistolary Types, pp. 194-95) and significant excerpts from the works (with appropriate notation of scholarly discussion of those texts, e.g. Aune on Pseudo-Libanius, p. 203, n. 20). The discussion then ends with an exercise guiding the reader to do similarly with a parallel text, in this case, Philostratus of Lemnos, De epistulis (pp. 205-6).

The original German subtitle, Ein Lehr- undArbeitsbuch, is more accurate, since this text includes well-chosen "exercises" to allow the reader or student to put into practice what has just been read. …