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Early Christian Letters

Ancient Letters

A letter is basically a substitute for oral communication. This was recognized by the first-century CE philosopher Seneca in the quotation at the beginning of this chapter. As Seneca's quote suggests, a letter is occasioned when oral communication is impossible, as when two people are separated by distance, or undesirable, as when a durable record of the communication is needed. The absence of telecommunications in antiquity made letters even more important than they are today.

Initially, letters were carried by messengers. The Greek word epistolē, a synonym for “letter,” originally referred to oral communication sent by messengers (Herodotus, Histories 4.10.1). Messengers sometimes supplemented what was written in a letter with oral greetings or additional information. Before the establishment of postal service, the availability of a traveler who might serve as a messenger and letter bearer was often the occasion for the writing of a letter. As with so many other conveniences that we take for granted today, it was the Romans—specifically the emperor Augustus (27 BCE–14 CE)—who established the first postal system.4 Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, Paul the Letter-Writer: His World, His Options, His Skills, Good News Studies 41 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1995), 37. Postal systems continue to be an important part of our society, despite the invention of telecommunication, indicating the enduring significance and usefulness of letters.

In addition to the messenger, the sender of a letter in the ancient world would often use a scribe or professional letter writer. This was partly because many people, especially the commoners, were illiterate. In addition, in Greco-Roman culture letter writing was a skill and an art; it called for a degree of formality and expertise, which most people did not share and in which certain individuals were specially trained.

The genre of letters functioned in the ancient world much as it does today. Ancient letters, like modern ones, were written for a variety of reasons. Just as a modern personal letter differs in form from a business letter, so the specific forms of ancient letters varied according to their function. All letters can be divided into three general subgenres: private or documentary, official, and literary.5 There have been many attempts to classify ancient letters. The most recent and detailed study of this matter is Stanley K. Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, Library of Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 49–173. Stowers has been criticized for failing to include many official and literary letters. The broad categorization followed here and much of the description of the categories is drawn from David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, Library of Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987), 161–62. Stowers's work remains especially useful for its categorization of types of private letters.

Private or documentary letters served primarily as a way for friends and family members to maintain contact with one another. They were also a means of dealing with problems at home, making requests, giving instructions or advice, dealing with personal business concerns, and introducing or recommending a third party. Such letters were usually brief and dealt with specific matters. They were typically discarded soon after being read, although some authors kept copies of their letters for revision and preservation.

Official letters were typically those written from one government official to a constituted body or to (an)other official(s). They include imperial decrees and other forms of diplomatic correspondence. Official letters were often posted for purposes of public information and influence.

Literary letters are those intended primarily for a literary, philosophical, or educational purpose. Essays and treatises were sometimes couched in letter form. Letters of this kind were typically longer than private or official letters and were also often pseudepigraphic, that is, written under someone else's name, usually a person of prominence. Fictional letters could be embedded within a narrative. Some letters were even written to serve as models of letter writing or as the ideal of some letter form for educational purposes.

The typical Greco-Roman letter consisted of three parts. The opening or prescript usually contained three parts as well. It identified the sender and the recipient of the letter and then offered a salutation, frequently the single word, “Greeting” (charein in Greek). The opening could be expanded in a variety of ways. One common expansion was the inclusion of a wish or prayer for the recipient's health or a statement that the sender prayed for or was thankful for the recipient.

The main body of the letter dealt with its principal agenda, the reason for writing it. It was not unusual for a sender to discuss travel plans near the end of the main body, particularly if those plans involved a visit to the recipient.

The conclusion might include a wish for the recipient's health or report of prayer, if these were not in the opening. It might also convey greetings to others not mentioned in the letter's main body. If the letter's sender employed someone else to do the actual writing of the letter, the sender might use the conclusion to add greetings in his or her own hand. Alternatively, the letter writer could identify himself and add a greeting if he were acquainted with the recipient. Letters then typically closed with the word “Farewell” (erroso).

Since letters were, in effect, substitutes for personal conversation, it is not surprising that their composition, especially in the Greco-Roman world, was strongly influenced by the conventions of rhetoric—the art of persuasion.6 See George Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1984). The study of rhetoric was a central component of education in that world. Anyone who was well-enough educated to write a letter, therefore, had likely received some training in rhetoric. As a result, the writing of a letter in the Greco-Roman world was not only an occasion for communication but also an opportunity to display one's skills at literary artistry and persuasion.

In a tradition going back to Aristotle, rhetoric was considered to be of three types. Judicial or forensic rhetoric was associated with the courts. It focused on the past and sought to convince hearers to adopt a particular understanding of what had happened in a given instance or event. Its tools were accusation and defense. Epideictic or display rhetoric dealt primarily with public gatherings in the present. It used praise or blame to induce hearers to honor or disdain a contemporary. Deliberative rhetoric was centered in politics and oriented toward the future. Its concern was to persuade hearers to adopt a particular course of action or direction.

Aristotle, followed by others, also delineated three components to deliberative rhetoric, which are regularly found in New Testament letters, especially those of Paul: the exordium, which set the mood of the hearers through praise; the proof (probatio), which appealed to the hearers' honor and self interest; and the peroration, which reviewed and expanded the appeal.

Other forms of oratory that helped to shape the New Testament letters were diatribes and sermons. The former was associated especially with an educational setting and often involved the Socratic method of question and answer with a hypothetical discussant or rival. The latter arose in both synagogues and churches and featured the explication of texts from the Hebrew Bible.7 There was, of course, no New Testament yet. For a more detailed description of diatribes and homilies, see Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, 200–202.

The New Testament Letters

Letters were the most popular genre of writing in early Christianity. Letters are also the most common genre of literature in the New Testament. All of the New Testament books outside of the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation are commonly called letters. The full list, in their order in the New Testament, is:

Romans Titus
1 Corinthians Philemon
2 Corinthians Hebrews
Galatians James
Ephesians 1 Peter
Philippians 2 Peter
Colossians 1 John
1 Thessalonians 2 John
2 Thessalonians 3 John
1 Timothy Jude
2 Timothy

These letters can be classified in different ways. One way is according to their purported authors. The first thirteen of them (Romans through Philemon) are attributed by the books themselves to Paul and are known by the names of their addressees. Among these are the earliest books of the New Testament, with 1 Thessalonians, dated about 50 CE/AD usually considered the first. Hebrews has also been attributed to Paul but not by the book itself. The other books are known by the names of the authors named within them.

A second way of classifying these books is by their addressees. In this system, there are three groups. The first group consists of letters addressed to specific churches: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Some of these are circular letters, designed to be circulated among several churches. Galatians, for example was written to the churches in the cities of the province of Galatia, rather than to a single city. The letter to the Ephesians may also have been circular.8 Depending on whether the words “in Ephesus” in Eph 1:1 are original. They are missing in some of the best textual witnesses, leading to the suggestion that the letter was circular. It is important to recognize that the reference to churches at this point in time is somewhat anachronistic. These were loosely bound groups of believers, who did not yet have the organization usually associated with churches. I use the term “church,” nevertheless, for the sake of convenience. Writing circular letters was borrowed from the Jewish practice of sending letters to synagogues in the Diaspora from the Jerusalem authorities.

The second group is letters addressed to individuals: 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and 2 and 3 John. 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are known as the Pastoral letters, because they concern the specific issues related to shepherding or pastoring a church.

The last group includes letters written to Christians at large: Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and Jude. This group is often called the Catholic letters, using “catholic” in the sense of “universal.” Among these, 1 Peter, and James are addressed to churches in the Diaspora, the term originally used for Jews scattered outside of Palestine. 1 Peter 1:1 also mentions the specific regions of Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. These regions covered such a large geographic area that it is unlikely that the letter was intended as a real circular letter.

Not all of these books are real letters. First John, for instance, neither begins nor ends as a letter; it has no opening address or prescript and no concluding wish or farewell. Other books are presented in the form of a letter but are really a different kind of document. Indeed, one of the reasons for the letter form being so popular in early Christianity was its flexibility. Almost any composition could be turned into a letter by framing it with a simple prescript and a concluding farewell. So, the book of Hebrews concludes like a letter but has no beginning prescript, and its contents appear to be a homily (sermon) or a tractate, i.e., an essay or pamphlet on a particular topic. Similarly, James, 2 Peter, and Jude all begin as letters but do not conclude as such; James has no real conclusion; 2 Peter and Jude end with doxologies. They are also addressed to broad audiences rather than to specific communities. All four of these books are presented in the dress of open letters to early Christians but are really documents of a different nature. James and Jude are tractates. 2 Peter appears to be a “testament,” a work offering the last advice and warning before its author's death. Even Revelation, as we have seen, frames its message with the prescript and conclusion of a letter, though its genre is that of apocalyptic literature.

The New Testament has other examples of the literary use of letters. Two letters are embedded in the narrative of the book of Acts (15:23–29; 23:26–30), and the book of Revelation incorporates the seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor. The letters to the seven churches take the form of the official correspondence of a royal edict.

In 1895, a German scholar named Adolf Deissmann pioneered the study of letters in the New Testament by comparing them to ancient Greek papyri discovered in Egypt.9 Adolf Deissmann, Bible Studies, trans. A. Grieve (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1901). See also his Light from the Ancient East, trans. L. R. M. Strachan, rev. ed. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1927). On the basis of his study, Deissmann drew a distinction between letters and epistles. A letter, he claimed, amounted to half of a private conversation. Letters, therefore, were informal, spontaneous, and personal with no concern for their literary form or writing style. Epistles, on the other hand, were public, intended for reading by a broad audience. An epistle was formal and mechanical, reflecting a conscious concern for literary artistry. Deissmann considered all of Paul's authentic letters and 2 and 3 John to be true letters, but he classified the Pastoral and Catholic letters as epistles.

Deissmann's distinction between letters and epistles was criticized and rejected almost immediately. There was no basis for such a distinction on the grounds of formality or artistry, since all of the New Testament letters use rhetoric and mix in other genres, such as hymns, prayers, or homilies. Deissmann's distinction was also not supported by considerations of audience. Paul, for instance, wrote to specific people for specific reasons—a letter; but he also intended his writings to be read publicly in the churches like an epistle.

Unfortunately, the attention given to Deissmann's differentiation between letters and epistles has sometimes obscured his main point, which was that the books of the New Testament did not appear out of nowhere, unconnected with human time and space, but that they were closely tied to the culture and issues of their day.

The point of the distinction [between letters and epistles] as far as Deissmann was concerned, was to force those among his contemporaries, who thought of the New Testament writings as something apart and therefore timeless and rootless, to recognize that what Paul wrote were letters, a medium of genuine communication and part of real life in the mid-first century AD.10 Murphy-O'Connor, Paul the Letter-Writer, 44.

This is an extremely important observation and one that, on the surface, is widely accepted today. Everyone recognizes, for instance, that Paul wrote to specific churches about their issues and problems. Yet, it is also the case that Deissmann's observation is better accepted in theory than it is in practice.

Like the student whose story I related at the beginning of this chapter, there has always been a tendency in the church to apply the instructions of the New Testament letters directly without regard to their specific contexts and settings. This tendency was evident already in the second century CE. “The second-century church preferred to understand apostolic letters in terms of their universal applicability rather than in terms of the particular situations in which they originated.”11 Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, 218. Aune cites the Muratonian Canon (ca. 170 CE) as alluding to the universal applicability of Paul's letters as well as Tertullian. Thus, the second-century Latin church father Tertullian (ca. 160–230 CE), wrote that when the apostle [Paul] wrote to one church he wrote to all.12 Tertullian, Against Marcion, 5.17.1. See The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, repr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997). This desire to apply Paul's teachings more broadly may even have been part of the reason for the composition of some of the letters in the New Testament itself.13 A point also made by Aune, The New Testament, who states, “General letters (except Romans) tend to be both late and pseudonymous…. The tendency to understand Paul's letters in a general sense encouraged the production of pseudepigraphical letters (e.g., Ephesians, James, 1 Peter) in which past apostolic advice was understood as applicable to subsequent situations, and conditions.” The author of 2 Peter, for instance, at the end of his letter, which is addressed to Christians at large, refers to the writings of “our beloved brother Paul.”

This is not to suggest that the teachings in Paul's letters and the others in the New Testament have no application for the church in general. The question is how to apply them properly, and this can be done only if the historical, cultural, and literary contexts of the letters are taken fully into account. Granted, the general letters may not address a specific local community or circumstance, or their original audience may be unknown. But even they were written within a historical and cultural context in the first or second century CE, which was also the context of the audience for which they were intended. In the remainder of this chapter, we focus on Paul, the most prolific and important of the New Testament letter writers.

Notes:

4. Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, Paul the Letter-Writer: His World, His Options, His Skills, Good News Studies 41 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1995), 37.

5. There have been many attempts to classify ancient letters. The most recent and detailed study of this matter is Stanley K. Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, Library of Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 49–173. Stowers has been criticized for failing to include many official and literary letters. The broad categorization followed here and much of the description of the categories is drawn from David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, Library of Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987), 161–62. Stowers's work remains especially useful for its categorization of types of private letters.

6. See George Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

7. There was, of course, no New Testament yet. For a more detailed description of diatribes and homilies, see Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, 200–202.

8. Depending on whether the words “in Ephesus” in Eph 1:1 are original. They are missing in some of the best textual witnesses, leading to the suggestion that the letter was circular. It is important to recognize that the reference to churches at this point in time is somewhat anachronistic. These were loosely bound groups of believers, who did not yet have the organization usually associated with churches. I use the term “church,” nevertheless, for the sake of convenience.

9. Adolf Deissmann, Bible Studies, trans. A. Grieve (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1901). See also his Light from the Ancient East, trans. L. R. M. Strachan, rev. ed. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1927).

10. Murphy-O'Connor, Paul the Letter-Writer, 44.

11. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, 218. Aune cites the Muratonian Canon (ca. 170 CE) as alluding to the universal applicability of Paul's letters as well as Tertullian.

12. Tertullian, Against Marcion, 5.17.1. See The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, repr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).

13. A point also made by Aune, The New Testament, who states, “General letters (except Romans) tend to be both late and pseudonymous…. The tendency to understand Paul's letters in a general sense encouraged the production of pseudepigraphical letters (e.g., Ephesians, James, 1 Peter) in which past apostolic advice was understood as applicable to subsequent situations, and conditions.”

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