A Review of “Mirror-Reading Moral Issues in Paul’s Letters”


Nijay K. Gupta builds on John Barclay’s methodology for mirror-reading by developing it further to deal specifically with moral issues. You can read the entire article here.

Gupta begins by giving a brief overview of mirror-reading, the importance of John Barclay’s contribution and previous attempts by others (primarily D. Peterlin’s work in Philippians) to mirror-read moral issues. Next, he divides his study into four parts: A review of Barclay’s methodology, his own mirror-reading model with respect to moral issues, applying that model to sexual immorality in 1 Thessalonians, and then again with sexual immorality in Romans.

I won’t take the time to review his review of Barclay’s work. Feel free to read about it in Gupta’s article or you can read my own review here.

Building on Barclay’s model, Gupta says he builds on Barclay’s eight criteria. However, I can only find seven in Barclay’s article. Furthermore, Gupta says five will be carried over with little modification and three more will be added. But again, I found four were carried over and four were added.

The ones carried over are:

  1. Type of Utterance: All things being equal, mirror-reading imperatives(commands and prohibitions) will provide more appropriate grounds for arguing that the letter-writer is reacting against moral problems among the readers, though with each kind of utterance (assertion, denial, command, prohibition) there is a range of possible exigencies to which it may address.
  2. Tone: If the tone of particular statements and commands involving moral issues are more urgent and emphatic, the more likely it is that the author is concerned with the readers’ current state of behavior.
  3. Frequency: The more frequent a reference to a particular moral problem (especially in commands and prohibitions), the more likely it is that the author is reacting against failure in such an area.
  4. Rarity (modified from Barclay’s “Unfamiliarity”): If the moral subject that is addressed in the letter is relatively uncommon, it is reasonable to suggest that it has been brought up in direct relevance to the situation of the reader.

The ones added:

  1. Coherence (this is perhaps modified from Barclay’s “Consistency”, although Gupta seems to categorically disregard it in his footnote): Any theory regarding moral problems behind an ethical discourse must take into account the character of the whole letter.
  2. Variety: One can more securely establish that the author is responding to moral failure (and not simply offering stock advice) if a variety of terms and forms of speech are used to describe the moral problem that is raised.
  3. Elaboration: If the discussion of a moral issue is extensive, it is likely that such an issue is being highlighted as a response to failure among the readers.
  4. Centrality: If particular moral issues are addressed at key points in the letter, it is more likely that a moral failure has encouraged the author to write the discourse and place this issue at the center of his discussion.

After establishing his principles, Gupta moves on to sexual immorality in 1 Thessalonians. The question is whether Paul wrote about sexual immorality as reparative or preventive. Did some or all of the Thessalonians commit the said sexual sins or was Paul simply warning them as a precaution?

The type of utterance in 4.3 is an assertion, but Gupta finds a hint of imperative. The principles in favor of reparative are tone and centrality, along with elaboration. The principles working against the reparative view are frequency, variety, rarity and perhaps the most damaging, coherence. He then lays out a range of possibilities as follows:

Paul is very concerned that the Thessalonians maintain a state of moral purity which is particularly characterized by control of their sexual desires.

Highly Probable
Some of the Thessalonians struggled with detaching themselves from the general social habits of their surroundings and former lives.


  1. Paul was made aware of at least one serious sexually deviant matter in the believing community and wished to address this while offering general counsel to the whole group.
  2. Some Thessalonian Christians did not hold to a stricter sexual ethic due to a misunderstanding of the eschatological implications of the gospel.

Incredible or Tenuous
Some Thessalonians have supported a full-scale opposition against Paul and his ministry demonstrated in their very dubious ethical practices including
sexual immorality.

He then moves on to sexual immorality in Romans. Again, Gupta applies his principles to analyze whether it is reparative or preventive.

Frequency and Centrality: There are four primary places that Paul discusses sexual immorality and two of them are located within important parts of his argument.

Types of Utterances: Only in 13.11-14 are there prohibitions. In 1.18-32, Gupta thinks it acts to indict the readers or the ‘judging ones’. Though 7.1-25 is within an autobiographic-like framework, the personal characterization would be intended to be a warning to Roman Christians who may be in danger of misplacing their trust in the law.

Rarity: Although sexual immorality is mentioned often throughout Romans, Paul does occasionally list specific vices.

Elaboration: In Romans 13.11-14, Gupta feels that although different vices are listed, they all fall under the category of “lust”.

Tone: Gupta finds urgency in Paul’s words when he claims that it is already the moment to wake from sleep.

With the above in mind, Gupta lays out the following range of possibilities:

Certain: Paul saw the temptation to commit sexual immorality as a real problem
(if only a future one) for the Roman believers.

Probable: It is probable, though not able to be sufficiently proven, that problems were already in existence in Rome.

Possible: The suggestion that ‘Jewish teachers’ are in mind as a group that Paul has singled out as unworthy leaders who demonstrate ‘immoral conduct’

My Thoughts

I question whether tone and frequency are able to indicate whether a statement is reperative or preventive (I question Barclay’s use as well). Is there data that proves that tone and frequency can indicate such or do we just assume it? Tone can indicate passion and frequency can indicate importance but I’m not sure they can go any further than that. Also, tone itself could be a matter of debate. What are the defining characteristics of tone? Regarding tone in Romans 13.11-14, Gupta says:

His words would seem to be unnecessarily charged if his readers were not ‘sleeping’ or guilty of demonstrating such vices.

But what if Paul was just responding to those were saying they were not awake yet and that they would awake later? The tone may not be charged at all.

I really like what Gupta says about the text as a whole:

Some theories, though they cannot be empirically proven, can make sense of a text as a whole and produce fresh insight.

However, he only uses the text that discusses sexual immorality. I propose that even the text that does not discuss sexual immorality could be useful in the discussion. If the other text could be mirror-read to reconstruct the false teaching that the Romans heard, then the implications of living out that false teaching may require or allow for sexual immorality that Paul is responding to.

I find both Gupta’s and Barclay’s methodologies valuable, but they are not designed to give definitive answers. They are good at tearing down the house of cards built by some with mirror-reading but they are unable to rebuild anything in its place and can only provide sets of blueprints that may or may not be possible to build. Could we develop a new methodology that would provide more certainty?

I appreciate Gupta’s contribution to the discussion of mirror-reading and I will keep his principles and Barclay’s criteria in mind during my studies.

A Review of “Mirror-Reading A Polemical Letter: Galatians As A Test Case”


John M.G. Barclay exams mirror-reading primarily in regards to Galatians. You can read his full article here. His criticism of mirror-reading methodology should not be confused for a disdain for mirror-reading. He attempts to refine and define a more accurate process of mirror-reading. He refers to mirror-reading as both “essential” and “extremely problematic”. It is necessary if we are to have a full understanding of the text:

However much we may be predisposed to agree with the New Testament authors’ arguments, we will not understand their real import until we have critically reconstructed the main issues in the dispute and allowed ourselves to enter into the debate from both sides.

Here is perhaps his most concise definition of mirror-reading:

we must use the text which answers the opponents as a mirror in which we can see reflected the people and the arguments under attack.

Barclay lays out three “Problems” and four “Pitfalls.”

The “Problems” are as follows:

  1. Paul is not addressing his opponents directly, so there may be some ambiguity in his writing as to whether he is addressing his opponents or the the Galatians themselves.
  2. Paul’s attempts to cast his opponents in the worse possible light distort what his opponents were really like.
  3. The linguistic problem of knowing only one partner in a particular conversation. Since we know little about Paul’s opponents, we know little about particular meanings that may have been attached to certain statements.

Before moving onto the Pitfalls, Barclay exams a dispute between a Bishop and a government official regarding a British miner’s strike. Barclay uses an article written by the government official in response to the Bishop, as an example of mirror-reading. He highlights some of the shortcomings of the article to obtain an accurate picture of what the Bishop said.

Barclay moves on to the “Pitfalls” by examining, in more detail, some of the recent attempts to mirror-read Galatians. I’ve summarized the pitfalls as follows:

  1. Undue Selectivity: Mirror-reading only select statements and not considering the letter as a whole.
  2. Over-Interpretation: Assuming that every statement by Paul is a rebuttal of an equally vigorous counter-statement by his opponents.
  3. Mishandling Polemics: Taking some of Paul’s descriptions of his opponents too seriously. Taking sides in the debate and dressing up Paul’s opponents in the clothes of one’s own theological foes.
  4. Latching onto particular words and phrases as direct echoes of the opponents’ vocabulary and then hanging a whole thesis on them.

After laying out the “Problems” and the “Pitfalls”, Barclay goes on to suggest a possible methodology made up of seven points:

  1. Type of Utterance: There are four types of statements that have ranges of possibilities: assertion, denial, command and prohibition
  2. Tone: If Paul’s statements have a sense of urgency, then those statements are likely important and central. If casual, then less important to the debate.
  3. Frequency: If Paul repeatedly addressed an issue, then it is important to him. If only occasionally, then consider it a side-issue.
  4. Clarity: We can only mirror-read with confidence when Paul’s statements are clear.
  5. Unfamiliarity: We should be cautious when handling unfamiliar motifs in Paul’s letters
  6. Consistency: The results of previous criteria should be tested
  7. Historical Plausibility: Our mirror-reading must be historically plausible.

Barclay gives a brief overview of plausible results when mirror-reading Galatians and arranges them in categories which he borrows from Ed Sanders:

  • Certain or Virtually Certain
  • Highly Probable
  • Probable
  • Possible
  • Conceivable
  • Incredible

He goes on to list issues on which Paul and his opponents would have agreed upon:

  1. Scripture, God’s word, is now reaching its fulfillment through Christ.
  2. Salvation is now available to Gentiles, in fulfillment of the promises to Abraham.
  3. The Spirit has been given to the people of God who believe in the Messiah.
  4. God’s people should abstain from idolatry and the passions of the flesh.

My Thoughts

And Galatians itself is our only reliable source of evidence for what the opponents were saying and doing in Galatia.

I think this is true to an extent. However, if the false teachings themselves were prominent throughout the church, at the time, then we can look to other books in the NT to get a fuller picture of those false teachings. Yes, the situation in Galatia was unique in many regards but if the false teachers were using the same widespread, bad theology, then we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the letter to the Galatians. I’ve found this to be true in my studies of Ephesians.

Another aspect that I would have liked Barclay to address is the use of OT quotations and allusions. Is there a methodology that we can use to determine whether Paul was plucking OT references simply for his own use? Or if the false teachers were using those references, was Paul was correcting their use of it?

it is so easy to jump to conclusions about what the conversation is about and, once we have an idea fixed in our minds, we misinterpret all the rest of the conversation.

So true, but at the same time, this only highlights the negative side of a coin. We must not jump to conclusions but we do need to form hypotheses, which should be tested against the rest of the context. Barclay touches on this when speaking of the spectrum of possibilities when dealing with types of utterances:

One can only decide where in this range of possibilities the truth lies when some of the other criteria are brought into play.

His point on consistency in his methodology hits on this point as well:

Unless we have strong evidence to suggest that Paul is responding to more than one type of opponent or argument, we should assume that a single object is in view. Thus the results of the previous criteria may be tested to see if they amount to a consistent picture of Paul’s opponents.

Barclay later states:

J. Louis Martyn suggests that we need to employ both ‘scientific control’ and ‘poetic fantasy’ in this matter

Barclay downplays the “poetic fantasy” and I’m not fond of that term either. However, some creativity is useful when forming hypotheses, but beyond that, that creativity must yield to the “scientific control”. It must be supported, not just by the rest of the text, but by the mirror-reading of the rest of the text.

Turning now to the dispute between the Bishop and the government official, Barclay says:

The most striking feature of the comparison is that Jenkins’s comments on the miners’ strike take up less than a quarter of his sermon, so that from Walker’s reply alone, one would be totally ignorant of three-quarters of the Bishop’s total message.

I don’t think it really matters that one would be ignorant of such a large portion of the total message. When mirror-reading, we are concerned primarily with the portion that the government official is responding to and not the entire message of the Bishop.

Additionally, it would have been nice to have the sermon and the news article to check Barclay’s work. Perhaps he overlooked something and we would be none the wiser.

Overall, I found Barclay’s article to be quite helpful and thought provoking. It made me realize how much one needs to substantiate their mirror-reading. His methodology offers a solid footing for anyone who is attempting to mirror-read. I also think it would be beneficial to use the categories of certain, probably, possible, etc., however, in the end, I think there is still some subjectivity when using these categories. There is no formula for placement in such categories but rather, it seems to be an estimate that one arrives at after considering Barclays’ “Problems and Pitfalls”.