Epistles, New Testament

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Twenty-one of the New Testament's 27 books are known as "epistles." The name derives from the Greek and Latin words, epistolē, epistola, meaning letter. Tradition ascribes 14 epistles to the Apostle Paul, seven to other authors. Late nineteenth and early twentieth-century discovery in ancient ruins, rubbish heaps, and tombs included many papyri containing Hellenistic letters. The discovery of these letters enabled biblical scholars to come to a better understanding of the art of letterwriting in the Hellenistic era than had previously been possible.

Pauline Epistles. The oldest of the New Testament epistles is Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians. The earliest Christian communities who expected an imminent Parousia and accepted the Hebrew scriptures as their own scripture experienced no need to produce any literary documentation for their own use. Paul, on the other hand, experienced the need to keep in touch with the communities that he recently evangelized. His letter tells the story of his attempt to stay in contact with the Thessalonians after he had left Macedonia. Unable to return personally to Thessalonica, Paul first sent Timothy as his personal envoy to strengthen and encourage the Thessalonians, then he sent a letter to respond to what was lacking in their faith.

Paul's letter was written in the style of a Hellenistic personal letter. It opens with the name of the sender, the name of the recipient, and a brief greetingthe first things that would be read when the scroll was unrolled and read aloud to the designated recipient (s). Paul omits the customary wish for good health. In its stead he mentions his prayer of thanksgiving for those to whom he was writing as did several other letter-writers of his time. After the body of the letter, containing the specifics of his communication, Paul offers a farewell greeting. Paul did not sign the earliest of his extant letters in his own hand as he would some of the later letters (1 Corinthians; Galatians). Paul's letters frequently address the community as his "brothers and sisters" and speak of his desire to be with them. These features of his epistolary style correspond to the norms of Hellenistic letter writing. His contemporaries considered that, in addition to whatever specific message it contained, the major purpose of a letter was to serve as a means being present when absent (parousia ) and as an expression of the friendship between the letter writer and its recipient (philophronēsis ). In the largely illiterate Hellenistic world it was customary for a letter-writer to dictate his letters and for a reader, often the one who delivered the letter, to read its contents to its intended audience. The letter was normally "written" and "read" as an oral composition. The message of a letter (homilia ), both ancient and contemporary, is always situational. Scholars accordingly speak of the occasional nature of a letter. A letter is always written on a given occasion to a particular recipient and for a specific purpose. These elements of the literary form of a letter must be carefully weighed by those who wish to understand Paul's letters as he wrote them.

Before the first of the canonical gospels had been written, the memory of Paul's creative use of a letter to communicate some aspect of the gospel message had a major influence on the church and was an important piece of church history. The "apostolic letter" became a common way to proclaim the gospel. Thus, letters were written by Clement, Polycarp, and Ignatius respectively to the Corinthians, the Philippians, and various churches in Asia Minor.

By the end of the twentieth century biblical scholars generally held that only seven of the 14 New Testament epistles attributed to Paul were actually written by him (Romans, 12 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon). Six of the other epistles attributed to Paul (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 12 Timothy, Titus), the so-called Pauline pseudepigrapha, have the form of a letter written by Paul but were not written by him. Rather, they were written by disciples of Paul who used Paul's authority to communicate an important message to one or another of his church communities.

The practice of writing in another's name was not altogether unusual in the Hellenistic world. The ancients readily considered as spurious works written in another's name for base motives, for example, for the sake of profit or to discredit an authority. They were not ready to condemn as false works written in another's name when such works were intended to honor the person whose name they bore or when they were intended to use his authority and some of his essential ideas in order to address a situation that he had not personally addressed.

With the acceptance of Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 12 Timothy, and Titus in the Canon, the church expresses a conviction that Paul's authority lies behind these epistles and that they are a legitimate, Spirit-inspired, expression of the Pauline tradition. The cultural and religious situation which allowed anonymous Christian writers to compose the Pauline pseudepigrapha allowed other anonymous authors to write James, 12 Peter, 123 John, Jude, the "catholic" or "general" epistles of the New Testament. The qualification derives from the fact that these texts were ostensibly intended for various people in the "dispersion" (James, 1 Peter), the faithful (2 Peter), or those who had been called (Jude) rather than for specific communities as were Paul's letters. James, 12 Peter and Jude have a typical epistolary opening, with mention of the sender, the recipient (s), and a greeting. Otherwise their style and content is quite unlike that of a typical Hellenistic letter. In the case of these letters the form of the apostolic letter was used by anonymous authors to convey authentic early Christian teaching on pertinent topics.

Catholic Epistles. Among the catholic epistles the three Johannine letters form a group apart. The second and third epistle of John are real letters. Their length and their style make them, along with Paul's letter to Philemon, most similar to the letters found among Hellenistic papyri. An anonymous elder wrote 2 John and 3 John, respectively to a church and to Gaius. The First Letter of John, on the other hand, is totally lacking in epistolary features. This short treatise is included among the Johannine letters because of its similarities with the Fourth Gospel. In this respect it is somewhat similar to the Epistle to the Hebrews which makes no claim to have been a letter nor to have been written by Paul. Only its last three verses bear any real similarity with a letter and these may have later been added to an otherwise self-contained "word of exhortation" (Heb. 13.22).

Other Letters. The New Testament contains eight other epistolary compositions in addition to the traditional 21 epistles. The Book of Revelation contains "letters" to the seven churches of Asia Minor, Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (2.13.22; cf. Rv 1.11). These "letters" are clearly written in the style of the Book of Revelation itself. That they were ostensibly written to churches in the Roman province of Asia where Paul had evangelized and that they are presented as having been written as letters bears testimony to the importance of literary form of Paul's apostolic letter in the early church.

The 29th epistle in the New Testament (Acts 15.2329) is a communication from an apostolic and presbyteral group in Jerusalem to Gentile Christians in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. Luke borrowed the letter from the Antiochene source that he used in the composition of Acts of the Apostles. The letter stipulates the conditions that Gentile Christians must meet if they are to enjoy table fellowship with Jewish Christians. Along among the New Testament letters, this letter to Gentiles opens and closes with the simple "greetings" (chairein ) and "farewell" (errōsthe ) of a typical Hellenistic letter.

Bibliography: r. f. collins, Letters That Paul Did Not Write: The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Pauline Pseudepigrapha (GNS 28; Wilmington 1988); The Birth of the New Testament: The Origin and Development of the First Christian Generation (New York 1993). h. koskenniemi, Studien zur idee und Phraseologie des griechischen Briefes bis 400 n. Chr (AASF B 102/2; Helsinki 1956); j. murphy-o'connor, Paul the Letter-Writer: His World, His Options, His Skills (GNS 41; Collegeville 1995); j. l. white, Light from Ancient Letters (Philadelphia 1986).

[r. f. collins]