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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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In dealing with ancient literature we have become accustomed to make a distinction between the epistle and the letter. In that sphere we frequently meet with a so-called letter, which, from the purely external point of view, shows all the characteristics of a genuine letter, and yet is in no sense designed to serve as a vehicle of tidings and ideas between one person and another, or between one person and a definite circle of persons, but on the contrary has been written in the expectation, and indeed with the intention, of gaining the notice of the public. Now, in designating such a document an ‘epistle,’ and reserving the term ‘letter’ for a letter in the true sense, we must remember that, while the distinction itself was quite familiar to the ancients, our terminology is modern. By ‘epistle’ we mean, accordingly, a letter expressly intended for the general public. Yet it must be admitted that, in the sphere of ancient literature, it is not always easy to decide whether a particular document is a letter or an epistle, as will appear from the following considerations. (1) In many such compositions there is nothing to indicate whether the writer desired to address the general public or not. (2) The art of the epistle-writer consisted very largely in his ability to personate a true letter-writer, so that the reader should never have the faintest suspicion that the writing in his hands was anything but a genuine letter. (3) Even in letters properly so called the writer did not always allow his words and thoughts to flow freely and spontaneously, but sometimes-and especially in the latter part of the ancient era, when rhetoric prevailed everywhere-as we find even in correspondence whose private and confidential nature is beyond doubt, invested the structure and style of his letter with rhetorical features such as we might expect to meet with in writings designed to influence the public mind, and therefore of necessity far removed from the free and easy prattle of a letter. (4) Finally, it is not easy to specify the point of transition between the limited circle to which the private letter may be addressed and the general public to which the epistle makes its appeal. In most cases, no doubt, it is possible to decide whether an epistle is meant for the public eye, but it is frequently far from certain whether a particular letter addressed to a limited public, as e.g. a church or a group of churches, or, say, the bishops of a metropolitan province, has not lost all claim to be regarded as a real letter. Notwithstanding these considerations, however, the distinction between epistle and true letter has every right to be retained. Like all such distinctions, it doubtless fails to make due allowance for the living current of literary development, but it teaches us to keep an open eye for the diversities and gradations of literature, and thus also, when rightly used, helps us to define more accurately the character of the epistolary writings in the NT.

Now, as the Christian writers of the Apostolic Age adopted the ‘epistle,’ and, we may even say, made use of it with a zest that may be inferred, in particular, from the fact that they enriched the literary side of the Gospel and the Apocalypse by means of the epistolary form (cf. Luke 1:1 ff., Revelation 1:4 ff.), it is necessary to give due weight to the following points: (1) that in this as in other respects the Apostolic Age was embedded in the same literary tradition of later antiquity as we are able to trace in various Greek and Latin prototypes of non-Christian origin; (2) that, nevertheless, the structure, style, and diction of the primitive Christian epistles nearly always carry us into a different sphere of culture from that. associated with the extant post-classical epistolary literature composed on classical models; and, finally, (3) that the influence of the hortatory addresses of Christian preachers in the primitive Church is clearly traceable in these Christian epistles.

Among the ‘epistles’ of the Apostolic Age the present writer would include the following: James, 1 Peter, Jude, Hebrews, 1 John, and Barnabas. These for the most part differ in no essential point from hortative addresses to a congregation, and the epistolary form, where it is present at all, or where, as in Hebrews, it is no more than suggested, is merely a form, which, in fact, is completely shattered by the contents. Among these Epistles there is not one which in virtue of a refined or even well-schooled art could claim to be considered a true letter. But this is itself a striking evidence of the significant fact that the Christian writers of the Apostolic Age, greatly as they had been affected by the stream of literary activity in the grander style of the ancients, were now feeling their way towards new forms in which to communicate their religious ideas to a wider public. With this end in view, therefore, they had recourse to the epistle, as the literary eidos at once of the simplest character and lying closest to their hands; but here-even in the case of a writer like the author of Hebrews, who has obviously been powerfully influenced by the elements of Greek rhetoric-the substance of the message was for them of much greater importance than the form. The fictitious, pseudonymous epistle is a literary phenomenon that first makes its appearance in the post-Apostolic Age.

Literature.-R. Hercher, Epistolographi Grœci, Paris, 1873 (a collection of Greek letters); H. Peter, Der Brief in der römischen Litteratur, Leipzig, 1901; E. Norden, Die antike Kunstprosa2, do. 1909; G. A. Deissmann, Bibelstudien, Marburg, 1895, pp. 187-225 (Eng. translation , 1901, pp. 1-59); C. F. G. Heinrici, Der litterarische Character der neutest. Schriften, Leipzig, 1908, p. 56ff.; J. Weiss, ‘Literaturgesch. des NT,’ in RGG [Note: GG Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart.] iii. [1912] 2175-2215; H. Jordan, Gesch. der altchristlichen Literatur, Leipzig, 1911, p. 123ff. (containing also a history of the Christian Epistle till a.d. 600); P. Wendland, Die hellenistischrömische Kultur in ihren Beziehungen zu Judentum und Christentum, ‘Die urchristliche Literaturformen,’ Tübingen, 1912, pp. 342-381.

H. Jordan.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Epistle'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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