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How to Understand the Epistles

The historical context is important in understanding the epistles because the audience was the Jewish 1st century. “Every book has a very specific setting and context.  If you know and understand these settings and contexts, your ability to connect with the letters will be greatly enhanced!” -Professor Jeremy Rader. Without understanding the times of the audience you cannot get to the plain meaning of the text. When you know the politics, culture and tradition of the times you can accurately find out what the message meant. Literary context says that word; phrases and sentences only have meaning in the context of what comes before or after. When you read each paragraph of an epistle continually ask, “What’s the point?” -Fee and Stuart pg. 65.


The great flaw of epistle hermeneutics is “related to one thing-our lack of consistency” -Fee and Stuart pg. 72.  The basic rule in getting the proper interpretation of an epistle is “the premise that a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers.” -Fee and Stuart pg. 74. The second rule “says this: Whenever we share comparable particulars (i.e., similar life situations) with the first-century hearers, God’s word to us is the same as his Word to them.” -Fee and Stuart pg. 75.

One common problem of epistle hermeneutics is extended application. Extended application is when the reader extends application of the text to other contexts. For example using 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 to apply to you, as an individual would take you outside the context of this verse directed towards the church body. A second problem comes from cultural relativity. There is a disconnect 21st century readers have from the 1st century. Cultural relativity is where the most difficulties and differences are found. Task theology is a third problem with two parts. First “Because of the epistles’ occasional nature, we must be content at times with some limitations to our theological understanding.” –Fee and Stuart pg. 86. Secondly, “Sometimes our theological problems with epistles derive from the fact that we are asking our questions of texts that by their occasional nature are answering their questions only.

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