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.