Opening Paul's Letters

A Reader’s Guide to Genre and Interpretation

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"This is the best entry on the letters of Paul in print. Gray invites students to experience Paul by opening their eyes rather than narrowing them. The cultural examples are a model of pedagogy."--Gregory E. Sterling, Yale Divinity School
It is sometimes easy to forget that the books of the Bible are not really "books" at all but individual documents composed in a wide array of literary genres. This clear, concise, and accessible text on the Pauline Letters orients beginning students to the genre in which Paul writes. The book compares and contrasts Paul's letters with ancient and modern letters, revealing the distinctive conventions, forms, and purposes of Paul's Epistles. It focuses on the literary genre of the letter in ancient Greece and Rome, providing an overview of subjects, strategies, and concerns of immediate relevance for readers who wish to understand Paul in his ancient context. Discussion questions and sidebars are included.
1. Paul's Cultural Contexts
2. Letter Genres
3. How Paul Writes: Organizing a Letter and Making an Argument
4. Paul's Audiences
5. How Paul Reads the Old Testament
6. Pseudonymity: Did Paul Write Paul's Letters?
Epilogue: Beyond Paul
Appendix 1: Dating Paul's Letters
Appendix 2: Defining Authorship


"This is the best entry on the letters of Paul in print. Gray covers the basic areas with clarity and balance. He invites students to experience Paul by opening their eyes rather than narrowing them. The cultural examples are a model of pedagogy."

Gregory E. Sterling, dean, Yale Divinity School

"Appropriately interpreting a work entails recognition of its literary genre, and that is especially true for reading the Bible, which contains a wide variety of genres. Gray's delightful new book provides useful guidance to students in learning how to read Paul's letters as letters, doing so in light of ancient epistolary theory and practice and with an eye to how ancient conventions differ from those used today."

John Fitzgerald, professor of religious studies, University of Miami

"A superb guide to Paul's letters, impressive in its command of the relevant ancient sources and current scholarly debates. Gray's exposition reflects a gifted teacher's instinct for connecting with students through astute use of popular culture and classic literary texts while giving due attention to the fascinating complexity of Paul's ancient context."

Carl R. Holladay, Charles Howard Candler Professor of New Testament, Emory University, Candler School of Theology

"Patrick Gray provides a refreshing approach to interpreting Paul's letters that places these documents solidly in their ancient literary contexts. Gray rightly notes that an accurate understanding of Paul's rhetoric and theology rests on a solid grasp of the conventions of ancient letter writing. He introduces the form and content of the letters themselves and then considers how Paul's letters would be received, read, and understood by their initial recipients. This clearly written and eminently practical work is sure to be appealing as a textbook for students or as an orientation for general readers. Instructors will appreciate the discussion questions, which provide guidance for review and further exploration in classroom settings. Reading this book will help change the way Paul's letters are read--for the better!"

Richard S. Ascough, associate professor of New Testament and Greek, Queen's University

"Gray not only describes complicated literary matters in clear and accessible ways but also provides helpful examples to show how knowing this information enriches understanding. His advice to readers wisely makes genre and rhetoric the servants of interpretation rather than straitjackets that demand particular forms or turns in an argument. This combination of introducing new information and demonstrating nuanced usage is just what beginning students need. The balance and clarity of this volume make it an excellent supplement in a course on Paul."

Jerry L. Sumney, professor of biblical studies, Lexington Theological Seminary

"This book should become the go-to introductory book on Paul's letters. Clearly written and carefully organized, it moves across the complicated landscape of Paul's letters with ease. Gray always has the reader in mind--the reader of Paul and the reader of this book--as he raises and answers questions that are essential for understanding Paul and his literary setting."

Gail O'Day, dean and professor of New Testament and preaching, Wake Forest University School of Divinity

The Author

  1. Patrick Gray

    Patrick Gray

    Patrick Gray (PhD, Emory University) is associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of Opening Paul's Letters and Godly Fear: The Epistle to the Hebrews and Greco-Roman Critiques of...

    Continue reading about Patrick Gray


"An easily accessible introduction to Paul's epistles and the canonical letters often attributed to him. Gray's careful literary analysis focuses especially on the letters' literary genre and on various subgenres found within the letters. . . . The book excels in placing Paul in his cultural context, in considering the characteristics of the audiences to whom he wrote, as well as in explaining how he read Scripture--specifically, the Septuagint. Gray also considers important issues of literary dating and of authorship, pseudonymity, and attribution in first-century C.E. culture. . . . An excellent undergraduate- or seminary-level introduction to Paul's writings and to the role of genre in literary interpretation, this will also interest general readers looking for a deeper understanding of the Pauline contributions to the Gospels."

Carolyn M. Craft,

Library Journal

"With an economy of words, [Gray] offers a fresh and insightful approach to reading the letters of Paul that is complex yet clear, focused yet balanced. Transparent, succinct, and accessible are words not usually associated with the letters of Paul, yet they accurately characterize Gray's scholarship. This concise, well-ordered, and practical text reveals a pedagogical intent that makes it immensely appropriate for beginning students. . . . This inherently interdisciplinary, multi-dialogical work draws from scholars and theorists from contemporary as well as ancient times. It addresses the multi-dimensional concerns of historical, cultural, philosophical, and literary analysis, toward an integrative intent, in order to render a richer, deeper, and more expansive perspective. . . . This text is a veritable treasure trove, filled with practical, applicable resources. This generative work makes an important and needed contribution to biblical studies because it not only asserts an exemplary pedagogical framework for teaching the letters of Paul, it implies a shift in how readers know what is to be known about Paul's letters. At the same time, it extends access to what is known to a broader readership. Indeed, this text achieves its stated purpose. It reorients the reader by providing an interpretive framework in which epistolary genre through cultural experience becomes the norm for interpreting the letters of Paul."

Veronica R. Goines,


"Written as a textbook for students of the New Testament who are beginning a more serious study of Paul, [this book] offers a clear and cogent introduction to the Pauline letters--not so much their content but their literary genre and the requirements for reading these ancient texts attentively. Gray, who . . . delights in the art of teaching, takes the student reader through such questions as the particular format of Paul's letters in comparison to standard forms of ancient letter writing, his relationship to the audiences to whom the letters are addressed, and his use of sources--particularly the Old Testament. A very helpful resource both for students and for their teachers!"

Donald Senior, CP,

The Bible Today

"Gray is a very capable writer and offers his discussion of historical, literary, and hermeneutical matters with clarity and wit. I found particularly valuable the many anecdotes and modern illustrations of concepts. There are also helpful sidebars offering definitions and additional information. . . . This book will serve its purpose well, especially for students who want to understand Paul's letters in their historical and literary contexts."

Nijay K. Gupta,


"Gray has written an eminently usable and student-friendly introduction to understanding Paul's writings as examples of ancient letters. In nontechnical prose he guides students through various aspects of ancient letters (e.g. structure, rhetoric, etc.) and shows how these insights can be fruitful for interpretation. The author is able to pack a great deal of balanced information into a brief compass, all the while introducing students to key scholarly issues and giving bibliographic hints for further study. The liberal use of contemporary illustrations . . . along with occasional text-boxes should make reading easier for undergraduates and general audiences. Each chapter ends with discussion questions that are well suited to stimulate further class investigation. . . . An outstanding secondary text for beginning courses on Paul or the NT. Paul's letters are handled with respect and with critical acumen as a foundation for understanding them better."

Kent L. Yinger,

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

"This is a well-written and interesting monograph on the fundamentals of the Pauline use of the letter genre. Gray provides helpful questions to ponder at the end of each chapter as well as suggestions for further reading in each subject area. He also calls out interesting sidebars and ancillary ideas to consider throughout the book. It is fair and balanced and easily accessible to pastors and students alike."

James M. Howard,

Bulletin for Biblical Research

"Gray addresses subjects and strategies germane to the interpretation of Paul's letter, and his precision and clarity make this work perhaps the first one in this specific field that is suitable for the beginning student. . . . Gray's work contributes to the field of Pauline studies, not primarily because he breaks new ground, but because he makes essential hermeneutical matters more accessible to the nonspecialist. This is a lucid, student-friendly volume."

Dillon T. Thornton,

Expository Times

"Gray's writing is clear and informed without being unnecessarily technical. Gray is selective in what he discusses in each chapter but consistently includes the essential topics that will help readers become conversant in the field. Discussion questions and bibliographies at the end of each chapter are useful tools for additional exploration. The length (and price) of the book makes it accessible for readers who seek a broad introduction to Paul's letters. . . . Readers who seek insight into what influenced Paul as a letter writer and as an educated Jewish Christian living in the Roman Empire in the first century will appreciate what this book has to offer."

Gregory S. MaGee,

Trinity Journal

"[Gray] uses many clear and concrete examples from ancient and contemporary literature to assist students in discovering the meaning of Paul's letters. His exploration of Paul's diatribe style and use of rhetoric enables the reader to grasp the uniqueness of Paul as a first century author and pastoral theologian. The preliminary sketches of the contexts of the letters and their audiences are a brief but essential mapping of the topography of Paul. . . . Gray provides undergraduate students with a fine primer on the letters of Paul. Students who utilize this text should be prepared to read Paul's letters with sensitized eyes to the unique literary genre and historical context of these foundational New Testament letters. They should also be prepared to study commentaries on each of these letters with greater facility and meaning."

John Trokan,

Catholic Books Review

"As an introductory textbook, Gray's work hits the mark in many respects. Each chapter is well organized and supplemented with discussion questions and an up-to-date bibliography. Pedagogical and theoretical elements, such as ancient customs and literary conventions, are elucidated with modern-day equivalents to facilitate learning. As well, the author touches on a number of finer issues related to each topic, which will be a valuable guide for further research. Where the discussion involves a controversial issue, Gray is to be commended for offering a balanced approach and presenting both sides objectively and fairly. . . . This work will serve as a valuable introduction for students and keen readers of Paul."

Luke M. Tsai with Joseph D. Fantin,

Bibliotheca Sacra

"Opening Paul's Letters is appropriately entitled as a guide to the major issues in the diligent reading of Paul's letters. It is obvious that Gray writes as teacher who seeks to steer readers to important issues, which are articulately yet concisely stated, so that he or she may come to their own conclusions. . . . [Gray] successfully finds parallels between how these letters were read at inception and how they are now read within the twenty-first century. Furthermore, Gray keenly summarizes general principles of interpreting and then applies them to relevant Pauline texts. In this way, Opening Paul's Letters is less theoretical and technical; instead, it aims at equipping beginning readers of Paul's letters to see how these principles are applied to the letters themselves. This book is valuable to any student or reader seeking to situate Paul's letters within their historical and literary landscape while at the same time connecting with how modern readers may interpret Paul within their own setting."

Robert J. Schulze,

Southwestern Journal of Theology

"I am very impressed by this book, especially as a text for undergraduates who are studying the letters of Paul for the first time in an academic setting. In addition to its brevity--which I regard as a great gain because too many scholars write textbooks for their peers rather than for young students--the book has an engaging style, with frequent use of illustrations to help in both communication and explanation. The next time I teach a survey course on Paul, this will certainly be a textbook that I use. Gray has done a great service for teachers of undergraduates."

Wendell Willis,

Restoration Quarterly