The Function of NT Letters
Certainly, the emphasis on Paul as a writer of letters (and not of treatises) has been invaluable, as too has been the recognition that the NT authors were not creating a totally new (and so, perhaps, unreadable) type of literature, however multiple influences are detected. Yet the way in which Paul or other NT authors, like any author, not only reflect but also manipulate the recognized conventions may offer greater insights. For example, Paul's greetings both highlight his claim to be ‘apostle’ and consciously avoid the ‘secular’ greeting (Lieu 1985 and below); he continues to assert his apostolic authority in a variety of ways, reinforcing it in the closing paragraphs (Gal. 6: 11–17); the dynamics of absence and promised presence, and of the letter as the representation of the person, fundamental to the letter genre, acquire a particularly important resonance in this regard, even combining with the eschatological tone of his sense of the present (1 Cor. 5: 3–5; 2 Cor. 12: 14–13: 10; see Funk 1967). Letters also marked and maintained patterns of relationship, whether between equals or between those of different status. Study of the Pauline letters can expose how he too manipulates the patterns of superiority and subordination, of friendship, or of client relations, through his language and expectations (Stowers 1986). Letters might also be used in competing attempts to gain influence (2 Cor. 3: 1–3). Therefore, increasingly, attention has focused on the function of the Pauline letters and on their distinctive role within his self-understanding and strategy. On the other hand, the non-Pauline NT letters are not to be dismissed as in some way secondary (‘epistles’), but should also be understood with attention to their distinctive place within the tradition; for example, the reasons for the survival of 2 and 3 John and their relation to, and even role in the preservation or authority claims of, the Johannine corpus remain unresolved.
It is within this context that it becomes significant that in the ancient world pseudonymity was particularly closely related to the epistolary genre; a number of early Christian letters are ascribed to a significant figure who was almost certainly not their author, a feature that should be problematized not only under the label of falsification.
More recently, the hermeneutical question has been raised of how a letter functions beyond its intended readership, and how the reader who is not the addressee can read it (Panier 1999). Although this is true of any text, it is exacerbated by the I/you structure of the letter.