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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Letter Form and Function

Letters may be divided into three parts: the opening, body, and close. Each part has typical conventions and its own basic function.

The basic function of the letter opening is to establish a relationship between the sender and the addresses. These parties are usually identified with the salutation formula “X to Y: Greetings” (Acts 15:23; Acts 23:26; James 1:1 ). In Paul's letters (and those influenced by his practice), the conventional greeting was transformed into a confession of faith: “Grace to you and peace from God our father, and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2 ). In secular Greek letters a wish (or prayer) for the recipient's good health often follows the salutation. 3 John 1:2 is the sole New Testament example. Pauline letters typically replace the health wish with a prayer of thanks ( Romans 1:8-15; 1 Corinthians 1:4-9; 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 ) which frequently builds relationship by mention of partnership in the gospel (2 Corinthians 1:6-7; Philippians 1:5-7; 1 Thessalonians 1:3 ). In Paul's letter to the Roman Christians (a church he did not found), Paul established relationship by laying claim to a mission to all Gentiles, including those at Rome ( Romans 1:5-6 ), and by anticipating gospel partnership (Romans 1:11-12 ). Hellenistic letter openings also frequently mention correspondence received (See 1 Corinthians 1:11 ). See Greeting .

The basic function of the letter body is communication. The body of a Hellenistic letter frequently began with a concise statement of the letter's primary theme, for example, the role of faith in salvation (Romans 1:16-17 ), the problems of division in the church (1 Corinthians 1:10 ), the impossibility of another “gospel” (Galatians 1:6 ). The communicative function of the body is underlined by the frequency of “disclosure” formulas: “We/I do not want you to be uninformed” (1 Corinthians 10:1; 2 Corinthians 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13 NSRV); “I want you to know” ( Galatians 1:11 NRSV; Philippians 1:12; Colossians 2:1 ); “Do you not know?” (Romans 6:3; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 9:24 NRSV). Frequently, these disclosure formulas mark the beginning of a new paragraph. Another common transitional formula is “Concerning” ( 1 Corinthians 7:1; 1 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Corinthians 12:1; 1 Corinthians 16:1; 1Thessalonians 4:9,1 Thessalonians 4:13; 2 Thessalonians 2:1 ). Letters may be distinguished according to the predominate purpose of the communication: letters of praise or blame, letters of exhortation and advice, or letters of mediation. Most New Testament letters are of a mixed type. New Testament examples of letters of censure or blame are found in Galatians (See 2 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:1 ) and five of the letters to the churches in Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3 (excluding Smyrna and Philadelphia). Such letters are characterized by expressions of shock ( Galatians 1:6 ), insulting address (Galatians 3:1 ), and the formulas “I have this against you” (Revelation 2:4 ,Revelation 2:4,2:14 ,Revelation 2:14,2:20 NRSV) and “I reprove and discipline” ( Revelation 3:19 NRSV). The letters to the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia serve as examples of letters of praise ( Revelation 2:8-11; Revelation 3:7-13 ). Philemon serves as the New Testament example of a letter of mediation. (Paul interceded with Philemon on behalf of his runaway slave Onesimus). The letter of recommendation is the most common form of letter of mediation in secular letters. Recommendations are embedded in several of Paul's letters: of Phoebe (Romans 16:1 ); of Timothy (1 Corinthians 4:17; 1 Corinthians 16:10-11; Philippians 2:19-24 ); and of Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25-30 ). Most New Testament letters are best characterized under the broad heading “letters of advice or exhortation.” Second John serves as an excellent example of a letter offering specific advice (2 John 1:10-11 ). More often New Testament letters have broader paraenetic goals.

The letter close again highlights the relationship between the sender and addressees. Secular letters frequently concluded with an oath formula such as “I swear by the gods that I will” Such formulas perhaps suggested James' concluding prohibition of oaths (James 5:12 ). A better New Testament parallel to the secular practice is Paul's calling God as witness (Romans 1:9; Philippians 1:8 ). Secular letters also frequently closed with a health wish. This practice perhaps suggested James' topic of sickness (James 5:13-16 ). Better parallels are again found in the Pauline letters in which a closing benediction (2 Corinthians 13:13; Galatians 6:18; Ephesians 6:23-24 ) expresses concern for the recipients' spiritual condition. Secular letters typically closed with the expression “farewell” (Acts 15:29 ).

Robert J. Dean and Chris Church

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Letter Form and Function'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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