When reading an epistle (or letter), one is presumably only reading half of a conversation or dialogue. So interpreters practice what is called “mirror reading.” Mirror reading is the attempt to reproduce the dialogue, circumstances, etc. that gave rise to the response reflected in an epistle. For example, if you hear me say “ouch,” you can presume that something or someone has caused me to say it. Mirror reading would attempt to identify what had caused me to say “ouch.” If the identification is successful, then presumably we would have a better understanding of the significance of “ouch” in this particular context. Or in other words, mirror reading is an attempt to move from the known (the epistle) to the unknown (the circumstances behind the epistle), in order to better understand what is known (the epistle). As such mirror reading is an indispensable tool for understanding the epistles in Scripture. However, the practice of mirror reading is not without certain challenges. Although he is dealing with Galatians in particular John M. G. Barclay has helpfully identified four “pitfalls” of mirror reading epistles which have been summarized below.
1. The first we may call the danger of undue selectivity.
2. The second pitfall is the danger of over-interpretation.
3. A third pitfall awaits those who are guilty of mishandling polemics.
4. The fourth pitfall is that of latching onto particular words and phrases as direct echoes of the opponents' vocabulary and then hanging a whole thesis on those flimsy pegs. John
M. G. Barclay, “Mirror-Reading a Polemical Letter: Galatians as a Test Case,” in The Galatians Debate, ed. Mark Nanos (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 372–6.
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