Bible Book List
Asbury Bible Commentary – Letters

LettersSee William G. Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity, Guides to Biblical Scholarship (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973); Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature, 155-58. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, 158-225.

Ancient letters served as communication between parties separated by some distance, and attended a wide variety of purposes. For centuries, NT letters were compared with those composed by classical authors and found to be wanting in literary quality. Around the turn of the last century, with the vast discoveries of Egyptian papyri recording quite mundane matters in a simple style, Deissmann advanced the romantic view that the NT letters were best placed among these epistolary papyri as examples of informal, artless, private Hellenistic letters. But in truth, the somewhat public character of NT letters and their occasional literary flourishes suggest that they be placed somewhere between the formal literary productions of the learned on the one hand, and common everyday correspondence on the other.

Some insight can be gained by viewing NT letters according to a taxonomy of epistolary types proposed by Quintilian, the ancient rhetorician. His scheme classified Hellenistic letters largely by their purpose and content. Viewed through this lens, Galatians and part of 2 Corinthians approximate letters of Rebuke; 1 Thessalonians approaches a letter of Consolation; Philemon and part of Philippians correspond with letters of Recommendation; and Romans can be viewed as a Protreptic letter (one calling readers to a certain lifestyle).Cf. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, 161-69; 204-212. But such singular categories cannot account sufficiently for the complexity of purpose in a writer like Paul since in nearly every letter of his may be found passages of praise, admonition, exhortation, recommendation, advice, gratitude, and instruction. The surest conclusion to be drawn from exploring these ancient epistolary types affirms the multiplicity of purpose and variety of content typically present in NT letters.

More fruitful still is examination of letter form. Standard features of a Hellenistic letter were the Introduction (including the identification of sender and receiver; the salutation; a healthwish often taking the form of a prayer; and occasionally a notice that the writer held the reader in his memory), the Body (in which the main concern of the letter was broached), and the Closing (including final greetings to the reader, greetings to third parties, perhaps a closing prayer sentence, and occasionally the date). It is not certain that the letters of Hebrews, James, Peter, Jude, and John are in fact “real” letters. The absence of certain letter features (e.g., final greeting in James, initial greeting in Hebrews) supports the view that several are homilies or testaments merely cast in letter form. But the Pauline letters do not suffer from these uncertainties, and are well illumined by comparison with standard Hellenistic letter form.

In the letter Opening, Paul is never content merely to identify himself and his readers. In most cases, his apostolic status is affirmed at the outset, establishing not only his authority as an ambassador of Christ but signaling his intention that the letter itself mediate his authoritative presence to the community gathered to read it (see 1Co 5:3-4). His readers are not simply identified by name, but are described in theologically significant ways (e.g., as saints [Php 1:1]; faithful brethren [Col 1:2]; the sanctified [1Co 1:2]; and the called [Ro 1:6]). Furthermore, every Pauline salutation grants God's grace and peace to the readers. It is possible that such a greeting intentionally merges both Greek and Jewish forms of address (chairein and shalom, respectively) to signal the universal unifying power of the gospel.

Attracting most attention has been the Pauline Thanksgiving, which is more extensive than the short, formulaic Hellenistic thanksgiving to the gods for protection from danger. Instead of thanking God for protection, Paul thanks God for the readers' commendable growth in the faith, places them within the larger progress of the gospel throughout the world, and prays for their continued spiritual development. Readers not only are inclined toward the writer by his praise and prayer for them, but acquire a sense of identity within the worldwide Christian movement. Furthermore, the Pauline Thanksgiving anticipates themes that will be treated later in the body of the letter. Paul's praise of the Corinthians for their fullness of spiritual gifts, for example, adumbrates later directives regarding the same matter (1Co 12-14). Finally, whether explicitly by reference to the approaching day of Christ (e.g., 1Co 1:8; Php 1:6; 1Th 1:10; 2Th 1:6-12), or implicitly by his praise of their spiritual successes, Paul is already in his Thanksgiving about the business of shaping the behavior of his readers.

The beginning of the Body may be signaled by such openings as the Disclosure formula (e.g., “I want you to know/not be ignorant that. . .” [Ro 1:13; Php 1:12], the Appeal formula (“I appeal to you. . .” 1Co 1:10), or the Amazement formula (“I am astonished that. . .” Gal 1:6). But beyond the initial formulae, little standard structure can be detected.John Lee White, The Body of the Greek Letter: A Study of the Letter-Body in the Non-Literary Papyri and in Paul the Apostle, SBL Dissertation Series 2 (Missoula, Mont.: Society of Biblical Literature, 1972). The body may be composed of a series of relatively independent discussions (e.g., 1Co), or may weave through an intricately connected argument (e.g., Ro, Gal). Occasionally, large divisions can be detected that correspond on the one hand with foundational theological argument (often termed the “indicative”), and on the other hand with specific behavior instructions for the readers (often termed the “imperative”). Both in Ephesians and Romans, for example, Paul moves from a depiction of God's gracious salvation to exhortations for living a life commensurate with that salvation (Ro 1-11, 12-16; Eph 1-3, 4-6). It is theologically significant that the command to satisfy the ethical demands of the gospel is in these cases preceded by an elaborate presentation of the grounds for that obedience.

Paul's Closings differ from the brief formulaic closure of Hellenistic letters. In the place of a simple wish for good health may appear a request for prayer (e.g., Ro 15:30-33; Eph 6:18-20; Col 4:2-4; 1Th 5:25), greetings (e.g., Ro 16:2-18; 1Co 16:19-20; 2Co 13:11-13; Col 4:10-15) a closing grace (e.g., 1Co 16:23-24; Gal 6:18; Php 4:23), and a doxology (Ro 16:25-27). In almost every case, Paul's intense feelings, whether of warmth (1Co 16:24; 2Co 13:12-13) or warning (1Co 16:22; Gal 6:17), come to final expression.

Analysis of NT letters in light of ancient rhetoric has proved provocative, if not always determinative. Since they seek to persuade readers to take a (future) course of action, most letters should be classified as deliberative speech. Portions of Romans, Galatians,Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Churches in Galatia, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 14-25. and 2 Thessalonians correspond in varying degrees to standard components of persuasive speech: the proemium (the case is stated and the hearer's sympathy is gained); the narratio (the background of the case is presented); the probatio (the case is argued); the confutatio (the opponents arguments are neutralized); the conclusio (the matter is concluded and settled). Yet argumentative style, even more clearly than argumentive structure is employed by Paul in Romans. In a style known as the diatribe, Paul battles vociferously against hypothetical opponents who offer objections to Paul's claims. The objections Paul places in the mouths of these opponents are turned by him both to strengthen and extend his claims.Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, 198-202.

But in all efforts to analyze the features and components of these letters in the light of Hellenistic rhetoric and epistolary form, their occasional nature must not be obscured. With few exceptions, these letters have been written to specific congregations to address particular problems. Conversely, they have not been composed as abstract theological treatises to serve the general doctrinal inquiries of a timeless audience. It is the circumstance of the modern reader who overhears (one side of) an ancient conversation between a congregation and its spiritual leader, which creates both the difficulty and delight of encountering the epistles.