Monday, February 11, 2008

A Case of Bad Exegesis: Case Study of 3 John 2

I mentioned in a previous post about my experience in a church that heavily promoted the infamous "health and wealth" gospel. Well, one of the favorite passages that was brought up to justify this so-called gospel was 3 John 2.

Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers. (NAS)

This passage, ripped out of its context, puts the authoritative stamp on the health and wealth gospel. The pastor would say something like, "You see, it is God's desire for every believer to be prosperous and healthy." On a practical level, this statement became problematic when someone in our congregation would be diagnosed with cancer, lose their home to foreclosure, or lose their job due to company wide layoffs. Usually these unfortunate incidents were attributed to the devil attacking these believers faith. After all 3 John 2 does say that God wants all believers to be prosperous and in good health. Or does it?

I remember towards the end of my time at this particular church, after I'd recently begun seminary, realizing that this reading was erroneous at best. It does not even require a close reading to point out the obvious, all one has to do is consult 3 John 1:

The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.

It turns out that the elder (John) is addressing a believer named Gaius. One does not have to be a world-class exegete to understand or notice this. Unfortunately, readings like this are allowed to hold sway so long as the believer or church member does not read their Bible. That is what the televangelists depend upon. This is one of the reasons that there needs to be exegetically trained and theologically astute pastors in the pulpit.

Knowing the history of ancient letter writing also adds a dimension to one's understanding. Lately, I have been reading Hans-Joseph Klauck's Ancient Letters and the New Testament where he astutely mentions that the elder's use of the "health wish" was part and parcel of typical epistolary topoi in ancient Greco-Roman letters. Klauck states:

Only the reader unfamiliar with this formula from the stock of epistolary topoi would fall prey to the mistake some interpeters make when they conclude from the health wish that Gaius was or recently been sick, or that he destroyed his health in a quarrel with Diotrephes. (32)

While Klauck may underestimate the sincerity of this health wish, chalking it up solely to epistolary convention (see Witherington, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians: Volume I: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Titus, 1-2 Timothy and 1-3 John [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2006],587-588), the point remains the same, namely, this is not a blanket statement about how God wishes us all to be prosperous and in good health!

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