Introduction to the Letters/Epistles in the New Testament
LETTERS, OR EPISTLES, are the earliest documents in the New Testament, and its most common literary form: Some scholars date 1 Thessalonians before 50 CE, about twenty years before Mark, the earliest of the gospels, and there are twenty‐one separate letters in the New Testament. Thirteen are from Paul or his missionary associates: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. When Hebrews was attributed to Paul, the number of Pauline letters in ancient manuscripts and lists came to fourteen. Another seven letters, which appear to be pseudonymously attributed to other apostles, round out the group: 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; James; and Jude. The Greek word “epistole” (“letter”) originally referred to an oral communication sent by messenger (Herodotus, Histories 4.10.1). Even in the New Testament period, the letter‐carrier might be entrusted with crucial information about a letter's content that was conveyed to its recipients orally. Paul often includes missionary associates in the greeting of his letters (1 Cor 1.1; 2 Cor 1.1; Phil 1.1; Col 1.1; 1 Thess 1.1; Philem 1 ). He omits them in Galatians, where he has no future plans to visit the region, and in Romans, addressed to a church he did not found. Ephesians lacks a specific destination in the best manuscripts and may be an exhortation sent to several churches in Asia Minor by a later disciple of Paul.
Several other Pauline epistles also differ in language and theological emphasis from the major Pauline letters. The Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus; see p. 349 NT), addressed to his key assistants, treat them as youthful leaders of local churches. The Pastoral Epistles look to a future in which Christians are established in the larger society. While both 1 and 2 Thessalonians have as their principal theme the return of the Lord Jesus in the end time, the second letter seeks to moderate expectations that the last days are at hand, and this change in eschatological perspective, as well as its warning against pseudo‐Pauline writings, has led some scholars to conclude that 2 Thessalonians was written by a later disciple of Paul as well. Since Paul had a number of close associates in his missionary activities, it would not be surprising if they used a familiar medium, the apostolic letter, to continue dealing with concrete issues in the churches of the Pauline mission. Although many of the letters unquestionably by Paul are considerably longer than ordinary private letters, they address concrete situations in the churches.
Ephesians, however, lacks not only an address but also references to specific individuals or problems. Among the non‐Pauline letters, Hebrews and James also appear to be tractates or general exhortations, rather than letters to specific communities. Jude addresses a sharp apocalyptic warning to Christians in general. First John speaks to concrete problems in its church circles, but lacks the form of a letter; 2 and 3 John are both personal letters, though addressed to different problems. First Peter uses the letter form as exhortation for suffering Christians in Asia Minor. Finally, 2 Peter appears to be the latest epistle in the New Testament. It contains a possible allusion to the Gospel account of the transfiguration of Jesus ( 1.16–18; see Mk 9.2–8 ) and refers to Christians who misinterpret Paul's letters ( 3.15–16 ). Like 2 Timothy, 2 Peter is presented as the last testament of an apostle. It affirms the unity of apostolic teaching concerning the “day of the Lord” ( 3.1–14 ) against some who used Paul's authority to deny that God would end the world.