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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Literary Letters

Hence, any attempt to exclude from the picture the literary self-conscious production of the NT letters was bound to prove unworkable. Such an attempt is best exemplified by A. Deissmann's contrast between ‘the letter’, natural, impromptu, written with no eye to posterity—among which he included Paul's letters, no different from the papyri letters except in their authorship—and ‘the epistle’, artificial, designed for a wider and subsequent public, and consequently of inferior value, exemplified by the later (‘catholic’) epistles (1901); the history-of-religions proclivities in this approach are self-evident. Behind an attempt at such a distinction lies the fact that the letter-form was used in the Hellenistic world not only for actual communication but also as a favoured mode of literary expression, often with self-conscious references to and manipulation of the genre: many letters, even though sent, were written with an eye to eventual publication (such as those of Cicero, Pliny, and Fronto); there also circulated collections of letters, often of dubious or certainly fictional authorship, ascribed to significant figures of the past, including philosophers (such as Demosthenes, Epicurus, Isocrates, Plato, or the Cynics); moreover, a minimalistic letter-form could be adopted for a variety of purposes, such as the poetic Epistles of Horace; purely fictional letters appear prolifically either within narratives or to create a quasi-narrative as a novelistic device (including the imaginary letters of Alciphron or the heavenly letters of Lucian's Saturnalia), but can also be found extensively among the magical papyri (see Costa 2001; Rosenmeyer 2001).

Such a range renders the simple categorization of ‘epistle’ in contrast to ‘letter’ of little heuristic value. Others have proposed a distinction between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ letters; this would put the focus on the intention to send, and so bracket out purely fictional letters, including those employed for magical or cultic purposes. Here the Pauline letters would be ‘real’, while we might be more uncertain about the seven letters in Rev. 2–3, but this again would not illuminate the distinctive adoption of the genre in the early Christian context. Another type of differentiation would be between ‘official’ letters belonging to local, provincial, or imperial organizations and government, for which there was a skilled chancellery, and ‘unofficial’ letters written by private individuals. However, this too can be used in different ways: despite the marginal status of sender and recipients, it has been argued that Paul's letters, with their note of authority and the assumption of public reading in the community, are closer to ‘official’ letters—which were sometimes preserved for the public and posterity through inscription—than to ‘unofficial’ letters (Stirewalt 2003).

Yet, even with regard to Graeco-Roman letters, each of these contrasts proves hard to sustain: for those who conducted their lives in public, their letters, too, however ‘personal’ and real, belonged to their self- presentation, which itself was shaped by convention and by rhetoric (see below); even in other circles, ‘real’ ‘family letters’ envisaged a less ‘private’ hearing. Moreover, almost as old as our knowledge of the practice of letter writing is our knowledge of its association with the literary tradition of the (philosophical) dialogue (see Peter 1901), for the genre lent itself to encouragement, direct address, responses to (real or imagined) questions, ‘case studies’, and the dissemination of ideas among established networks of associates bound by friendship—hence the particular association of letters with philosophical schools. In addition, there was a body of theory about letter writing, including such topoi as the letter as half a conversation, as rooted in and aimed at maintaining friendship between the parties, as rendering the writer ‘as if present’ in their absence, or as inviting an appropriate style and brevity; such themes are to be found in the literary theorists (e.g. Demetrius, On Style 223–35), who, alongside the handbooks of epistolary practice, such as those by Ps.-Demetrius and Libanius which classify types of letters, offer us another source for our knowledge of ancient letter writing (some of these are usefully collected by Malherbe 1988). These same themes are reflected, with varying degrees of sophistication, in the more immediate letters of those who relied on a local scribe to send an inarticulate attempt at contact with a distant friend or family member. Yet they are also employed by the literary élites, whether in the fictitious uses of the genre or, for example, by Seneca, who wrote ‘moral letters’ (or essays) to a purported, but perhaps imaginary, friend, Lucilius, thus avoiding the systematization or abstraction of a treatise (see Thraede 1970; Koskenniemi 1956).

This suggests that we should locate the types and uses of letters on a spectrum without value judgements about epistolary authenticity. It also allows attention to focus on other formal aspects, including the modes of argumentation adopted.

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