Facts about Epistles
The word “epistle” comes from the Latin word epistula, which just means “letter” as in “correspondence.” We keep the word “epistle” for the letters in the New Testament because it sounds so majestic and holy.
The epistles do not actually have titles, but the ancient church had to call them something in order to refer to them, and that came down to us. The titles come from the destination (Galatians), the sender (James), or the recipient (Timothy). Ancient anthologies generally arranged things in the order of big stuff before little stuff. Like the prophets in our Old Testament, epistles appear in the New Testament roughly in the order of their length.
The title “second letter of Paul to the Corinthians” does not mean that Paul only wrote two letters to the church in Corinth. For all we know, Paul could have written 45 letters to the Corinthians. What we do know is that the ancient church selected these two for the New Testament canon. The words “first” and “second” refer to the order in which they appear in the New Testament, which follows the organizational principle of big stuff before little stuff. They weren’t necessarily written in that order.
The form of an ancient letter was as follows:
- The name of the sender
- The name of the recipient
- A salutation
- The body of the letter
- Closing greetings
There were no envelopes, so the contents weren’t very private.
The Roman Empire did have a postal service, but it was only for government use. To send a letter, you had to give it to someone going in the general direction of the destination. The letter got handed off repeatedly, until it reached the recipient. Letters could arrive very quickly if the traveler was going directly to the destination city and knew the recipient personally, such as in Colossians 4:7-8. It might take a long time if the letter had to be handed off several times, or if the traveler misplaced the letter and handed it on when it came to light again.
Here’s how it would work if we did it the same way today. You write a letter to a friend in Paris. You give it to someone who is going to Montreal by way of New York. In New York, that person gives it to someone who is flying to London. In London, that person gives it to someone going to Marseilles by way of Paris. In Paris, that person gives it to someone who lives in the same area as the addressee. Finally, your friend receives the letter.
Travelers often read the letters aloud for entertainment when they stopped at inns along the way. There wasn’t much else to do. There was an incident in which Augustine sent a letter to Jerome, and since it was a very entertaining letter, the contents got to Jerome before the letter did.
By the way, if we are trying to reconstruct ancient events, letters are very accurate sources of information, because if the external reference weren’t correct, the recipient would be puzzled and there would be no point in writing.
Paul’s epistles are written in a personable style in ordinary Greek.
Paul sometimes mixes metaphors.
Paul’s letters address problems that arose in the churches and answer questions. In other words, it’s like overhearing a telephone call. We can only hear one side of the conversation; however it’s often possible to make a good guess about what was going on on the other side based on what Paul was saying. When we read the epistles, we must often deriving general principles from a specific situation that Paul was addressing.
Paul’s letters contain two parts, theology and practical application.
- Definitely Paul:
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- 1 Thessalonians
- Maybe Paul, maybe not
Scholars go both ways on this letter. It isn’t exactly Paul’s style of writing and there are oddities in the vocabulary. It is paired with Philemon, which seems to give more weight to the idea that Paul wrote it.
- Maybe Paul, probably not
Most scholars think that Paul didn’t write it, even though it does seem to be a treatise or sermon derived from Paul’s theology. It is very similar to Colossians, but it isn’t really a letter. It has no address and no context. Most copies don’t mention Ephesus, so it may have been a circular letter that went out from there. Ephesus was a very large city and its church had a lot of influence over the churches in nearby cities. Ephesus is where the epistles were collected.
- 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus
These three letters have the same author, but they seem to be too late for Paul to have written them, because they reflect relative stability in the church—unless they only appear to do that because of their tight focus and small size. No surviving ancient document quotes or mentions them before the end of the second century—but since documents have to exist before anyone can quote them, the date of the quotation is the latest possible time of writing, not the earliest. Since these letters are short, fewer quotations would survive until today.
- 2 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians seems to be a rewrite of 1 Thessalonians, with some differences; if so, this would be the only epistle in which Paul quotes himself.
- Not Paul, maybe not even an epistle
Eusebius, the early fourth-century church historian, says that no one knew who wrote Hebrews. It begins like a treatise and ends like a letter. It is written in polished, literary Greek, completely unlike any of Paul’s letters or any other New Testament book, for that matter. It isn’t Paul’s style, but it is completely consistent with Paul’s theology, presented by a person who had a very sophisticated understanding of Judaism.
Because it is written to Jewish converts to Christianity who were thinking about reverting to Judaism, it would fit the period after the Roman Empire considered Judaism and Christianity to be separate religions, when it was safer to be a Jew (which was legal) than a Christian (which was not).
Just about everyone has been suggested as the author. My favorite theory is that Priscilla (Prisca) wrote it.
Hebrews is written in excellent literary Greek. The writer had to have been a native speaker of Greek. It is called an epistle, but it is in the literary form of a treatise. It does not follow the form for a letter, except it ends like one.
The idea that Paul wrote Hebrews was started very recently by a Bible printer, who got carried away with putting “The Letter of Paul to the” in front of the names of each of the epistles.
Ancient sources tentatively attributed the first epistle from John to the Apostle John. They weren’t sure. Whether John wrote it or not, it was written at a time when John would have been an old man, and in fact it reads as if it were written by an old man. Simple, but profound.
John was the youngest apostle. He ended his life as the only living apostle, which made him a celebrity among Christians. According to ancient sources, he was crippled by arthritis and had to be carried everywhere by his disciples on a stretcher. In the churches, he would wave his hand, and say, “Little children, love one another.” That sounds like 1 John.
2 and 3 John
No one can possibly know who wrote 2 and 3 John. Even ancient sources say they don’t know. The letters are too short to give us any clues.
James is very Jewish in character; in fact, some people have speculated that it is really a Jewish writing, not a Christian one. Whatever the case, the writer had to have been Jewish. Traditionally, the author is considered to be James, the brother of Jesus, to whom we also attribute the first Christian Communion service, the Liturgy of St. James.
The letter may have been included in the canon to counterbalance Paul’s epistles, because even though Paul stresses conduct in each of his epistles (Ephesians 2:8-10), many people in ancient times misread Paul as a libertine.
Who Wrote the New Testament?