The Relational Matrix Of The Pastoral Epistles -- By: Tom Thatcher

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 38:1 (Mar 1995)
Article: The Relational Matrix Of The Pastoral Epistles
Author: Tom Thatcher


The Relational Matrix Of The Pastoral Epistles

Tom Thatcher*

A popular introduction to hermeneutics defines “exegesis” as “the attempt to hear the Word as the original recipients were to have heard it, to find out what was the original intent” of the author.1 Traditional exegesis relies on a passage’s Sitz im Leben, which must be synthesized in terms of setting, date and similar concrete categories. The pastoral epistles, however, elude any neat attempt at contextualization. At best they speak from the silence of Paul’s later life; at worst they emerge from the dim recesses of the early Church. Thus exegesis proceeds with highly individual reconstructions that rely on theological, linguistic and historical approaches to the problem of “occasion.”2

Recent interdisciplinary trends offer a new perspective on the exegetical matrix of the pastorals. Comparison with ancient epistolary conventions can create a neutral rhetorical background that defines the audience anticipated by the text. The relationship between the author and this “implied audience” provides insight into the functional purpose of the letters. I will approach the context question via the conventions of ancient epistolary rhetoric with a view to reconstructing the rhetorical setting of the pastoral epistles.

The ancient letter was seen as a direct substitute for spoken conversation between parties who were spatially distant. This portrayal is evident in ancient theory and practice. In theory it led to an insistence that the letter convey the author’s “true self.”3 In practice the “substitute” concept generated a “surrogate presence” motif, more common among cultured writers but traceable even in the Egyptian papyri. Thus Cicero tells Atticus that he writes “because I feel as though I were talking to you” and elsewhere thanks Marcus for news: “All of you was revealed to me in your letter.”4 Stanley Stowers concludes that the epistle “fictionalized personal presence.”5

* Tom Thatcher is an instructor in New Testament studies at Cincinnati Bible Seminary, 2700 Glenway Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45204.

This aspect of the ancient letter, however, interacts with the complex nature of presence in a patronage society. As even published letters must posit a (fictional) social matrix, publication does not transcend David Aune’s conclusion that “the social status and relationship of sender and receiver will inevi...

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