Chapter 15: The Study of the Epistles

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 15: The Study of the Epistles

We read the epistles for the teaching which they give, and for their interpretation of the meaning to be placed upon the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Their authority is in one sense inherent in their message; even if Bishop Barnes were right and I Cor.13 was not originally from Paul himself, (The Rise of Christianity, p. 230) this great chapter on Christian Love would still have an authority of its own. Yet in another sense there is a special authority attaching to writings which we know to come from the apostles themselves and from men who claimed, like Paul, to have gained their approval for their individual interpretations of the gospel.

The apostolicity of some at least of the epistles is therefore an important issue. It is true that both the gospels and the speeches of Peter and Paul in Acts give important testimony as to what the apostles taught about the Christian life and proclaimed about the meaning of Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection; yet both the gospels and Acts were written, not by apostles, but by later disciples, and their evidence on particular points stands in need of confirmation, if possible, from the apostles themselves.

Of our epistles seven are ascribed by tradition to original apostles or to brethren of Jesus, James, I and II Peter, I, II and III John, and Jude. The Petrine authorship of II Peter is almost universally rejected, and the epistles of John are held by the great majority of scholars not to be by the apostle John, the son of Zebedee. The authorship of James, I Peter, and Jude, are matters of dispute; the establishment or rejection of their traditional authorship is of more than academic importance.

The Pauline epistles raise further important questions. Few, even of those who reject the apostolic authorship of James, I Peter, and Jude, would deny that Paul had met the leaders of the Church and submitted to them the gospel which he preached (Gal. 2:2 ff.). But Paul’s epistles show that some elements of his thought, at least, were highly individual, and that his ‘development’ of the apostolic gospel was not a static one, but changing in some aspects over the years. A comparative study of the other epistles, including the ‘apostolic’ ones, shows that developments of various kinds continued through the first century, and that, within a wide unity, there was much variety of expression and interpretation.

In studying the epistles the reader should set before him four aims. First, he should make up his mind, in the light of the evidence, on the problems of authorship taking into consideration the value of the speeches in Acts. By this means he will be enabled to reach a reasoned view of how the earliest Christians proclaimed their faith. Second, he should study the epistles of Paul, in their chronological order to understand both how Paul was a great pioneer in his preaching, and how his thought developed as he grew older. Third, he should study the later developments of doctrine as they manifest themselves in Ephesians, Hebrews, I John, etc. It is only then that he will be able satisfactorily to pursue his fourth aim, that of understanding the growth of Christian theology and teaching in New Testament times.

Books for Reading

A translation in modern English is of great value for understanding the sometimes involved and complicated thought of the epistles. Paraphrases are also useful: a good one is J. W. C. Wand, New Testament Letters (Oxford).

Commentaries (those marked with a star are particularly helpful).

Romans: C. H. Dodd * (Moffatt), K. E. Kirk (Clarendon Bible).

I and II Corinthians: E. Evans (Clarendon Bible). Corinthians: Moffatt (Moffatt).

Corinthians: R. H. Strachan (Moffatt).

Galatians: G. S. Duncan (Moffatt), A. W. F. Beunt (Clarendon Bible).

Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon: E. F. Scott * (Moffatt).

Philippians: M. Jones (Westminster).

I and II Thessalonians : Bicknell (Westminster) .

Pastorals: B. S. Easton (S.C.M.), E. F. Scott (Moffatt).

Hebrews: T. H. Robinson (Moffatt), F. D. V. Narborough (Clarendon), Nairne (Cambridge Bible).

James: Knowling (Westminster).

James, Peter, Jude: Moffatt (Moffatt)

Johannine Epistles: C. H. Dodd * (Moffatt).

The Life and Teaching of Paul, etc.

C. H. Dodd,The Meaning of St. Paul for Today (Swarthmore Press).

A. D. Nock, St. Paul (Home University Library). An excellent short life.

A. H. McNeile, St. Paul (Cambridge). A good exposition of Paul’s thought.

A. H. McNeile, New Testament Teaching in the Light of St. Paul (Cambridge).

C. A. Anderson Scott, Christianity according to St. Paul (Cambridge).

E. F. Scott, Varieties of New Testament Religion (Scribner).

H. A. A. Kennedy, The Theology of the Epistles (Duckworth).

A. Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (Black). For advanced study.

K. Lake, The Earlier Epistles of St. Paul (Rivington). For advanced study.

W. L Knox, St. Paul and the Church of Jerusalem (Cambridge). For advanced study.

W. L. Knox, St. Paul and the Church of the Gentiles (Cambridge). For advanced study.