Bible History Online
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
e-pis'-'-l (epistole, "a letter," "epistle"; from epistello, "to send to"):
1. New Testament Epistles
2. Distinctive Characteristics
3. Letter-Writing in Antiquity
4. Letters in the Old Testament
5. Letters in the Apocrypha
6. Epistolary Writings in the New Testament
7. Epistles as Distinguished from Letters
8. Patristic Epistles
9. Apocryphal Epistles
1. New Testament Epistles:
A written communication; a term inclusive of all forms of written correspondence, personal and official, in vogue from an early antiquity. As applied to the twenty-one letters, which constitute well-nigh one-half of the New Testament, the word "epistle" has come to have chiefly a technical and exclusive meaning. It refers, in common usage, to the communications addressed by five (possibly six) New Testament writers to individual or collective churches, or to single persons or groups of Christian disciples. Thirteen of these letters were written by Paul; three by John; two by Peter; one each by James and Jude; one--the epistle to the Hebrews--by an unknown writer.
2. Distinctive Characteristics:
As a whole the Epistles are classified as Pauline, and Catholic, i.e. general; the Pauline being divided into two classes: those written to churches and to individuals, the latter being known as Pastoral (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus; some also including Philemon; see Lange on Romans, American edition, 16). The fact that the New Testament is so largely composed of letters distinguishes it, most uniquely, from all the sacred writings of the world. The Scriptures of other oriental religions--the Vedas, the Zend Avesta, the Tripitaka, the Koran, the writings of Confucius--lack the direct and personal address altogether. The Epistles of the New Testament are specifically the product of a new spiritual life and era. They deal, not with truth in the abstract, but in the concrete. They have to do with the soul's inner experiences and processes. They are the burning and heart-throbbing messages of the apostles and their confreres to the fellow-Christians of their own day. The chosen disciples who witnessed the events following the resurrection of Jesus and received the power (Acts 1:8) bestowed by the Holy Spirit on, and subsequent to, the Day of Pentecost, were spiritually a new order of men. The only approach to them in the spiritual history of mankind is the ancient Hebrew prophets. Consequently the Epistles, penned by men who had experienced a great redemption and the marvelous intellectual emancipation and quickening that came with it, were an altogether new type of literature. Their object is personal. They relate the vital truths of the resurrection era, and the fundamental principles of the new teaching, to the individual and collective life of all believers. This specific aim accounts for the form in which the apostolic letters were written. The logic of this practical aim appears conspicuously in the orderly Epistles of Paul who, after the opening salutation in each letter, lays down with marvelous clearness the doctrinal basis on which he builds the practical duties of daily Christian life. Following these, as each case may require, are the personal messages and affectionate greetings and directions, suited to this familiar form of address.
The Epistles consequently have a charm, a directness, a vitality and power unknown to the other sacred writings of the world. Nowhere are they equaled or surpassed except in the personal instructions that fell from the lips of Jesus. Devoted exclusively to experimental and practical religion they have, with the teachings of Christ, become the textbook of the spiritual life for the Christian church in all subsequent time. For this reason "they are of more real value to the church than all the systems of theology, from Origen to Schleiermacher" (Schaff on St.Paul's Epistles, History of the Christian Church, 741). No writings in history so unfold the nature and processes of the redemptive experience. In Paul and John, especially, the pastoral instinct is ever supreme. Their letters are too human, too personal, too vital to be formal treatises or arguments. They throb with passion for truth and love for souls. Their directness and affectionate intensity convert their authors into prophets of truth, preachers of grace, lovers of men and missionaries of the cross. Hence, their value as spiritual biographies of the writers is immeasurable. As letters are the most spontaneous and the freest form of writing, the New Testament Epistles are the very life-blood of Christianity. They present theology, doctrine, truth, appeal, in terms of life, and pulsate with a vitality that will be fresh and re-creative till the end of time. (For detailed study of their chronology, contents and distinguishing characteristics, see articles on the separate epistles.)
3. Letter-Writing in Antiquity:
While the New Testament Epistles, in style and quality, are distinct from and superior to all other literature of this class, they nevertheless belong to a form of personal and written address common to all ages. The earliest known writings were epistolary, unless we except some of the chronologies and inscriptions of the ancient Babylonian and Assyrian kings. Some of these royal inscriptions carry the art of writing back to 3800 BC, possibly to a period still earlier (see Goodspeed, Kent's Historical Series, 42-43, secs. 40-41), and excavations have brought to light "an immense mass of letters from officials to the court--correspondence between royal personages or between minor officials," as early as the reign of Khammurabi of Babylon, about 2275 BC (ibid., 33). The civilized world was astonished at the extent of this international correspondence as revealed in the Tell el-Amarna Letters (1480 BC), discovered in Egypt in 1887, among the ruins of the palace of Amenophis IV. This mass of political correspondence is thus approximately synchronous with the Hebrew exodus and the invasion of Canaan under Joshua.
4. Letters in the Old Testament:
As might be expected, then, the Old Testament abounds with evidences of extensive epistolary correspondence in and between the oriental nations. That a postal service was in existence in the time of Job (Job 9:25) is evident from the Hebrew term ratsim, signifying "runners," and used of the mounted couriers of the Persians who carried the royal edicts to the provinces. The most striking illustration of this courier service in the Old Testament occurs in Est 3:13,15; 8:10,14 where King Ahasuerus, in the days of Queen Esther, twice sends royal letters to the Jews and
satraps of his entire realm from India to Ethiopia, on the swiftest horses. According to Herodotus, these were usually stationed, for the sake of the greatest speed, four parasangs apart. Hezekiah's letters to Ephraim and Manasseh were sent in the same way (2 Ch 30:1,6,10). Other instances of epistolary messages or communications in the Old Testament are David's letter to Joab concerning Uriah and sent by him (2 Sam 11:14,15); Jezebel's, to the elders and nobles of Jezreel, sent in Ahab's name, regarding Naboth (1 Ki 21:8,9); the letter of Ben-hadad, king of Syria, to Jehoram, king of Israel, by the hand of Naaman (2 Ki 5:5-7); Jehu's letters to the rulers of Jezreel, in Samaria (2 Ki 10:1,2,6,7); Sennacherib's letter to Hezekiah (2 Ki 19:14; Isa 37:14; 2 Ch 32:17), and also that of Merodach-baladan, accompanied with a gift (2 Ki 20:12; Isa 39:1). Approximating the New Testament epistle in purpose and spirit is the letter of earnest and loving counsel sent by Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon. It is both apostolic and pastoral in its prophetic fervor, and is recorded in full (Jer 29:1,4-32) with its reference to the bitterly hostile and jealous letter of Shemaiah, the false prophet, in reply.
As many writers have well indicated, the Babylonian captivity must have been a great stimulus to letter-writing on the part of the separated Hebrews, and between the far East and Israel. Evidences of this appear in the histories of Ezra and Nehemiah, e.g. the correspondence, back and forth, between the enemies of the Jews at Jerusalem and Artaxerxes, king of Persia, written in the Syrian language (Ezr 4:7-23); also the letter of Tattenai (the King James Version "Tatnai") the governor to King Darius (Ezr 5:6-17); that of Artaxerxes to Ezra (Ezr 7:11 ff), and to Asaph, keeper of the royal forest (Neh 2:8); finally the interchange of letters between the nobles of Judah and Tobiah; and those of the latter to Nehemiah (Neh 6:17,19; so Sanballat verse 5).
5. Letters in the Apocrypha:
The Old Testament Apocrypha contains choice specimens of personal and official letters, approximating in literary form the epistles of the New Testament. In each case they begin, like the latter, in true epistolary form with a salutation: "greeting" or "sendeth greeting" (1 Macc 11:30,32; 12:6,20; 15:2,16), and in two instances closing with the customary "Fare ye well" or "Farewell" (2 Macc 11:27-33,34-38; compare 2 Cor 13:11), so universally characteristic of letter-writing in the Hellenistic era.
6. Epistolary Writings in the New Testament:
The most felicitous and perfect example official correspondence in the New Testament is Claudius Lysias' letter to Felix regarding Paul (Acts 23:25-30). Equally complete in form is the letter, sent, evidently in duplicate, by the apostles and elders to their Gentilebrethren in the provinces of Asia (Acts 15:23-29). In these two letters we have the first, and with Jas 1:1, the only, instance of the Greek form of salutation in the New Testament (chairein). The latter is by many scholars regarded as probably the oldest letter in epistolary form in the New Testament, being in purport and substance a Pastoral Letter issued by the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem to the churches of Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. It contained instructions as to the basis of Christian fellowship, similar to those of the great apostle to the churches under his care.
The letters of the high priest at Jerusalem commending Saul of Tarsus to the synagogues of Damascus are samples of the customary letters of introduction (Acts 9:2; 22:5; compare 28:21; also 18:27). As a Christian apostle Paul refers to this common use of "epistles of commendation" (2 Cor 3:1; 1 Cor 16:3) and himself made happy use of the same (Rom 16:1 ff); he also mentions receiving letters, in turn, from the churches (1 Cor 7:1).
Worthy of classification as veritable epistles are the letters, under the special guidance of the Holy Spirit, to the seven churches of Asia (Rev 2:1 through 3:22). In fact, the entire Book of Rev is markedly epistolary in form, beginning with the benedictory salutation of personal and apostolic address, and closing with the benediction common to the Pauline epistles. This again distinguishes the New Testament literature in spirit and form from all other sacred writings, being almost exclusively direct and personal, whether in vocal or written address. In this respect the gospels, histories and epistles are alike the product and exponent of a new spiritual era in the life of mankind.
7. Epistles as Distinguished from Letters:
This survey of epistolary writing in the far East, and especially in the Old Testament and New Testament periods, is not intended to obscure the distinction between the letter and the epistle. A clear line of demarcation separates them, owing not merely to differences in form and substance, but to the exalted spiritual mission and character of the apostolic letters. The characterization of a letter as more distinctly personal, confidential and spontaneous, and the epistle as more general in aim and more suited to or intended for publication, accounts only in part for the classification. Even when addressed to churches Paul's epistles were as spontaneous and intimately and affectionately personal as the ordinary correspondence. While intended for general circulation it is doubtful if any of the epistolary writers of the New Testament ever anticipated such extensive and permanent use of their letters as is made possible in the modern world of printing. The epistles of the New Testament are lifted into a distinct category by their spiritual eminence and power, and have given the word epistle a meaning and quality that will forever distinguish it from letter. In this distinction appears that Divine element usually defined as inspiration: a vitality and spiritual endowment which keeps the writings of the apostles permanently "living and powerful," where those of their successors pass into disuse and obscurity.
8. Patristic Epistles:
Such was the influence of the New Testament Epistles on the literature of early Christianity that the patristic and pseudepigraphic writings of the next century assumed chiefly the epistolary form. In letters to churches and individuals the apostolic Fathers, as far as possible, reproduced their spirit, quality and style.
See LITERATURE, SUB-APOSTOLIC.
9. Apocryphal Epistles:
Pseudo-epistles extensively appeared after the patristic era, many of them written and circulated in the name of the apostles and apostolic Fathers. See APOCRYPHAL EPISTLES. This early tendency to hide ambitious or possibly heretical writings under apostolic authority and Scriptural guise may have accounted for the anathema pronounced by John against all who should attempt to add to or detract from the inspired revelation (Rev 22:18,19). It is hardly to be supposed that all the apostolic letters and writings have escaped destruction. Paul in his epistles refers a number of times to letters of his that do not now exist and that evidently were written quite frequently to the churches under his care (1 Cor 5:9; 2 Cor 10:9,10; Eph 3:3); "in every epistle" (2 Thess 3:17) indicates not merely the apostle's uniform method of subscription but an extensive correspondence. Col 4:16 speaks of an "epistle from Laodicea," now lost, doubtless written by Paul himself to the church at Laodicea, and to be returned by it in exchange for his epistle to the church at Colosse.
Dwight M. Pratt
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'epistle'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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