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Epistle (In Scripture)

Epistle (in Scripture)

Lat. epistola; Gr. ’epistolé; in Hebrew, at first only the general term meaning "book" was used, then certain transitional expressions signifying "writing", and finally agrt, ’iggéréth (of Assyrian or Persian origin), and nshtwn, nishtewan (of Persian derivation), which the Septuagint always renders ’epistolé.

In the study of Biblical epistles, it will be found convenient to distinguish between the Old Testament and the New.


The Old Testament exhibits two periods in its idea of an epistle: first, it presents the epistle under the general concept of a book or a writing; secondly, it regards the epistle as a distinct literary form. It may be difficult to point out the dividing line between these two periods with accuracy; in general it may be maintained that the Hebrews developed their notion of epistle as a specific form of writing during the time of the Captivity. The first instance of a written Biblical message is found in II K., xi, 14-15, where we are told about David's letter to Joab concerning Urias; there was need for secrecy in this case as well as in that of Jezabel's order to the ancients and chief men of the city in the matter of Naboth (III K., xxi, 8-9), and of Jehu's commands sent to Samaria (IV K., x, 1, 6). It may have been in order to avoid the danger of a personal interview that the Prophet Elias (Eliseus?) wrote to King Joram concerning his impending punishment (II Par., xxi, 12-15). The desire to be emphatic and peremptory prompted the letter of the King of Syria to the King of Israel, asking for the cure of Naaman's leprosy (IV K., v, 5-7), and Sennacherib's open letter to Ezechias (IV K., xix, 14; Is., xxxvii, 14; II Par., xxxii, 17); the wish to be courteous seems to have inspired the letter of Merodach Baladan to Ezechias after the latter's recovery from sickness (IV K., xx, 12; Is., xxxix, 1). Similar to the foregoing authoritative letters is the message addressed by Jeremias to the exiles in Babylon (Jer., xxix, 1 sq.); the Prophet alludes also to letters sent by a pseudo-prophet from Babylon to Jerusalem with the purpose of undermining Jeremias's authority (ibid., 25, 29).

Thus far, letters are of relatively rare occurrence in the Bible, and they are not regarded as constituting a distinct class of literature. Hereafter they become more frequent, and both their name and their form mark them as a peculiar literary species. Their subsequent frequency may be inferred from their repeated occurrence in the Books of Esther, Esdras, and Nehemias: Esth., i, 22; iii, 12; viii, 5 sq.; ix, 20, 29; xiii, 1-7; xvi, 1-24; I Esdr., iv, 7, 11 sq.; v, 6; vii, 11; Neh., ii, 7; vi, 5, 17, 19. Their general name "book" gives way, first, to that of "writing" (II Par., ii, 11; xxi, 12; Esth., iii, 13-14; viii, 10, 13), and then to that of "letter" (II Par., xxx, 1, 6; I Esdr., iv, 7 sqq.; v, 5 sqq.; Neh., ii, 7- 9; vi, 5, 17, 19; Esth., ix, 26, 29). Their form begins to be marked by a formal address and a distinctively epistolary ending. Instances of such explicit addresses may be seen in Esdr., v, 7: "To Darius the king all peace"; Esth., xiii, 1: "Artaxerxes the great king who reigneth from India to Ethiopia, to the princes and governors of the hundred and twenty-seven provinces, that are subject to his empire, greeting"; I Mach., xi, 30: "King Demetrius to his brother Jonathan, and to the nation of the Jews, greeting". An instance of an epistolary conclusion occurs in II Mach., xi, 33: "Fare ye well. In the year one hudred and forty-eight, the fifteenth day of the month of Kanthicus"; a similar example may be seen, ibid., 38. But the Old Testament does not furnish us with any model of private correspondence between Hebrews.


The New Testament presents us with a very highly developed form of an epistle. Recent writers on the subject have found it convenient to follow Professor Deissmann in his distinction between the letter and the epistle. The letter is a private and confidential conversation with the addressee, his anticipated answers shaping the course of the writing; the epistle is general in its aim, addresses all whom it may concern, and tends to publication. The letter is a spontaneous product of the writer, the epistle follows the rules of art. If publication be regarded as an essential condition of literature, the letter may be described as a "pre-literary form of self-expression". In order to apply this distinction more effectively to the written messages contained in, or referred to by, the New-Testament Books, we shall group the relevant data as pre-Pauline, Pauline, and post-Pauline.


The Book of Acts (ix, 2; xxii, 5; xxviii, 21) shows that the Jews of Jerusalem sent occasional letters to the synagogues of the Dispersion; Acts, xv, 22-23, gives a parallel instance of a letter written by the Apostles from Jerusalem to the churches in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. We may also infer from the testimony of the New Testament (I Cor., xvi, 3; II Cor., iii, 1; Rom., xvi, 1-2; Acts, xviii, 27) that letters of commendation were of common occurrence. I Cor., vii, 1, informs us that the Corinthian Christians had applied to St. Paul in their difficulties by way of letter.


The Pauline Epistles form a collection which was formerly called ‘o ’apóstolos. They are called "epistles", though that addressed to the Hebrews hardly deserves the name, being really a theological homily. The Epistles mentioned in I Cor., v, 9, and Col., iv, 16, have not been preserved to us; their accidental loss makes us suspect that other Epistles may have perished. The peculiar form and style of the Pauline Epistles are studied in their respective introductions and commentaries; but we may add here that I Tim., II Tim., and Tit. are called Pastoral Epistles; owing to its peculiar style and form, it is supposed by some writers that the Epistle to the Hebrews was not even dictated by the Apostle, but only expresses his doctrine. Only the three Pastoral Epistles and Philemon are addressed to individuals; all the others are directed to churches, most of which, however, were well known to the writer. They exhibit more of their author's personal character than most profane letters do.


Generally speaking, we may describe the so-called Catholic Epistles as Post-Pauline. We need not note here that these Epistles are not named after the addressee, as happens in the case of the Pauline Epistles, but after the inspired author. The Epistle of St. James has no final greetings; it was meant for a class, not for persons known to the writer. In I John we have a sermon rather than a letter, though its familiarity of language indicates that the readers were known to the writer. The following two Epistles of St. John are real letters in style and form. St. Peter's first Epistle supposes some familiarity with his readers on the part of the writer; this can hardly be said of II Peter or of the Epistle of Jude. What has been said sufficiently shows that Professor Deissmann's distinction between the artistic epistle and pre-literary letter cannot be applied with strict accuracy. Quite a number of the New-Testament Epistles contain those touches of intimate familiarity which are supposed to be the essential characteristics of the letter.

      Jacquier in Vig., Dict. de la Bible (Paris, 1899), II, 1897; Bartlett in Hast., Dict. of the Bible (New York, 1900), s. v.; Knabenbauer, Lexicon Biblicum (Paris, 1907), II, 202 sq.; Prat, Théologie de Saint Paul (Paris, 1908), 33 sq.; Deissmann, Bibelstudien (1895), 189-252.

A.J. Maas

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