2 Peter and Jude are some of the most ignored books in the entire Bible, probably in large measure due to the significant culture gap between the contemporary reader and the authors and their immediate audiences. One way to make such writing come alive is to understand the conceptual framework, theological presuppositions, and social structure of the community surrounding the letters. Jerome Neyrey has produced a very interesting socio-cultural analysis of these letters that begins such a venture. He is at his best when explaining Hellenistic Greek and 1st Century Hebrew life and culture in terms a contemporary sociologist might use.
This approach can be extremely helpful when done in conjunction with other methods of biblical commentators. Gordon Wenham's commentary on Leviticus does exactly that. He explains the Hebrew concepts behind sacrifice and atonement, cleanness and uncleanness, commonness and holiness, social justice in the context of communitarian identity, blessing and curse, etc. Yet he does this in the context of exegesis and actual explanation of what the text says. He examines the theology behind this conceptual framework and draws out the significance of such theology in a way that can transcend the sociological framework. He spends time examining the terms used in the text, not just in terms of their sociological background but also in terms of their theology, their immediate significance for the spiritual life of those involved, and their contribution to the overall biblical picture that Leviticus is a mere part of.
Neyrey does some of these things, and he even does some of it well, as other reviews have pointed out. Yet his work seems at best incomplete in comparison with the kind of thing Wenham has done with Leviticus. The narrow focus on sociological concerns without engaging in detailed exegesis and actual explanation of meaning in this commentary makes it far less useful for what most people use commentaries for. It could provide an excellent supplement to a standard commentary on these books such as Richard Bauckham's fine work, but on its own there is hardly any discussion of the meaning of the text and the questions an average reader would ask. It is light on exegesis and theology and almost wholly lacking on hermeneutical issues and applying the thought behind these letters in a different context with a different sociological framework.
Another serious problem of Neyrey's approach is the significance he finds in applying his reconstruction of ancient value systems, rhetorical patterns, and other background behind these letters. Much of what he says is hardly supported by the text, even in light of such background, primarily because there are lots of possible backgrounds, and his reconstruction cannot be much more than mere speculation. His focus on Greco-Roman background doesn't crowd out Jewish background, but the biblical theology behind much in these books gets pushed to the sidelines too often and is largely unexplored.
The biggest hesitation I have about this work is the sociologist's distance from the text, as if we can look from our height of informed scholarship at the interesting culture we've moved beyond. Neyrey doesn't explicitly look down on the cultural values and conceptual system behind these letters. No sociologist could get away with such a thing in our pluralistic times. However, one might get the impression that this is a merely quaint system of thought that we've left behind, not allowing for any possibility of taking Jude or 2 Peter as authoritative for a Christian today. Neyrey doesn't come out and say any of these things, but the distance he creates by focusing on the difference between our values and conceptual framework today and those of these letters can lead to such a response.
Not every reader of a biblical text will see the Bible as authoritative, but those who do will profit little from this book. Ideally, a commentator on a biblical text will not just point out the cultural distance but will help the reader to understand how to bridge that distance and how to think the thoughts of the original writer in our times and with our conceptual framework. Some of this requires understanding the thought behind the original text, and Neyrey has made some good advances in that area. But a significant amount of work still needs to be done in examining our own conceptual framework and cultural values to see how 2 Peter and Jude might impact our own thought, attitudes, and actions. Only by doing that can someone who sees the Bible as authoritative apply it today, and Neyrey offers little help to the contemporary preacher or interpreter in doing this. [I didn't originally say this in the review, but I have to mention that my favorite commentary on these epistles is now the 2003 work by Thomas Schreiner in the New American Commentary series. I should also say that Douglas Moo's commentary in the NIV Application Commentary series does exactly the thing I was just talking about at the end, bridging contexts from the time of 2 Peter and Jude to our time. That whole series specializes in this, but Moo's is one of the best in the New Testament portion of that series.]