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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Letters

The letter is perhaps the form of literature closest to oral speech; the author of a letter, like a speaker, addresses a particular, known audience concerning circumstances germane to both parties. The first letters written by Christians may have been short letters of recommendation, written from one community to another, encouraging the recipients to welcome those who carried them. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Priscilla and Aquila wrote a letter introducing Apollos to the church at Corinth (18.27). Corinthian Christians requested Paul himself to obtain a letter from others in support of his mission (2 Cor. 3.1–3 ), and he expected the Corinthians to send him a letter commending those who were to deliver money to Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16.3, see also Acts 9.1–2 and 22.5 ). Philemon and Romans 16 (which seems originally to have been detached from the rest of Romans) are also letters of recommendation.

First Thessalonians is the earliest of all surviving Christian literature. Believers in Thessalonica had requested additional teaching from Paul, so he wrote them a letter, reluctantly, twice telling them he really did not need to write them because they already knew what they needed to know ( 4.9 and 5.1 ). Paul showed no such reluctance in his other letters. Indeed, he became more effective as a letter writer than as a speaker: “‘His letters,’ so it is said, ‘are weighty and powerful, but when he is present he is unimpressive, and as a speaker he is beneath contempt’” (2 Cor. 10.10, cf. 10.1 ).

No literary genre (or form of writing) became more widespread for the expression of early Christian thought than the letter. Of the twenty-seven books that comprise the New Testament, twenty-one might be called letters. At least three of Paul's letters probably are compilations of several, originally independent, pieces of correspondence. Romans probably is not one letter but two, Philippians not one letter but three, and 2 Corinthians not one but three or as many as six. Furthermore, the Book of Revelation contains seven letters in chapters 2–3, and Acts contains two ( 15.23–29 and 23.26–30 ). The total number of letters in the New Testament, then, is at least thirty-five, perhaps thirty-eight or more. This catalogue by no means includes all early Christian letters. Some of Paul's letters were lost (1 Cor. 5.9 ), and Paul received letters from others (e.g., 1 Cor. 7.1 ).

Many early Christian letters survive independent of the New Testament, several found in the collection called The Apostolic Fathers. For example, the church in Rome wrote a long letter (1 Clement) to Christians in Corinth. A bishop from Antioch, Ignatius, wrote letters to churches in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna, and to Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp himself wrote to the church in Philadelphia. Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp each had read some of Paul's letters and modeled their correspondence after them. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, in spite of its present title, is a letter to the church at Philomelium.

During the second century several authors used the letter to advance defenses, or “apologies,” of the new faith. The apologists Quadratus and Aristeides wrote to the emperor Hadrian; Justin Martyr wrote to Antoninus Pius; Apollinaris, Melito, and Athenagoras to Marcus Aurelius. Though written to Roman emperors, these works seem to have been intended for other readers as well. The Epistle to Diognetus and Theophilus's To Autolycus likewise are apologetic letters. Such apologies provide valuable information concerning the emerging points of conflict between Christians and their pagan neighbors.

Early Christians also wrote letters in the names of others, a widespread ancient literary practice called “pseudepigraphy” (meaning “false attribution”). In some cases, authors wrote in the name of an apostle in order to enable the deceased hero to speak to conditions relevant to churches of a later date. In other cases, authors used pseudonymity to oppose objectionable causes for which the apostle's memory was (falsely) appropriated. The authors of 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus all imitate Pauline epistles. Letters outside the New Testament, too, made similar claims, such as 3 Corinthians, The Letter to the Laodiceans, and letters supposedly exchanged between Paul and the Stoic philosopher Seneca. First and Second Peter claim Peter as their author, six letters of the fourth century present themselves as products of Ignatius' pen, and other letters pass themselves off as the work of Barnabas, Titus, James, Jude, and even Jesus. (Strictly speaking, Hebrews, 1 John, and 2 Clement are not letters, even though they contain epistolary features.)

Christians with views later considered heretical also composed epistles, although few of them now survive. Among such Christians were Montanists (pneumatic [i.e., believing in certain spiritual gifts] and ascetic enthusiasts who promoted the idea of fresh revelations) and Gnostics (who claimed that by means of knowledge [Greek: gnosis] the soul could be freed from the body and from the wicked powers who created the world). The Montanist author Themiso composed a “catholic epistle” late in the second century. At about the same time, a certain Ptolemy wrote a letter to a woman named Flora, urging her to become a Gnostic Christian. The Nag Hammadi “library” contains four Gnostic letters: The Letter of Peter to Philip, The Treatise on the Resurrection, The Apocryphon of James, and Eugnostos the Blessed.

The popularity of the letter no doubt was due in part to its remarkable flexibility for meeting the various needs of early Christian communication. Sometimes the letters argued against rival groups (Galatians, 2 Cor. 10–13 , and 2 Peter), treated complex theological topics (Romans, 3 Corinthians, and The Treatise on the Resurrection), asked for money (2 Cor. 8 and 9 ), expressed thanks (Phil. 4.10–20 ), appealed for conversion (Ptolemy's Letter to Flora), established rules for church leadership (1 Timothy and Titus), communicated personal affection and concern (Philemon and Ignatius' Polycarp), responded to other letters (1 Corinthians), predicted future events (2 Thessalonians and 2 Timothy), defended the faith (the apologies), narrated martyrdoms (The Martyrdom of Polycarp and The Martyrs of Lyons and Vienne), interpreted scripture (Barnabas), opposed pagan philosophy (Paul to Seneca), shared the concerns of one church for another (1 Clement), warned of troublemakers (2 and 3 John), and revealed hidden, heavenly truths (The Letter of Peter to Philip and The Apocryphon of James).

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