Understanding Biblical Genres: Epistle

Today we’re bringing this survey of common biblical genres to a close with Epistles, which probably represent the least likely type of literature to find its way into a canon of Sacred Scripture. Epistles are nothing more nor less than letters written from a person to another, or to a group of people. They are therefore personal, specific, and highly contextual documents unlikely to have the universal message and appeal required to become ‘Scripture’.  And yet, by number, Epistles are the most common genre of the New Testament, accounting for between 20-22 (depending on how you count) of its 27 books.

One of the great advantages of studying the New Testament over the Hebrew Scriptures is that its books were all written in a relatively short and specific timeframe, roughly stretching from the middle of the first century to the middle of the second, within a specific historical and cultural milieu, the early Roman Empire. And that hundred-ish year period happens to be one from which we know a lot about literary conventions and style, not only because we have so much writing from the early Roman Empire but also because until our present time there was no people — at least in the West — more interested in writing about writing and rhetoric than the Romans of this period. This means that we know a lot about Roman letter-writing, both in terms of what someone living in that environment would expect when receiving a letter, and how these forms were understood.

The basic structure of a Roman-era letter looked something like this:

  • Greeting: Author’s name, to Recipient’s name: Formal greetings
  • Introduction
  • Statement of purpose or thesis
  • Body (including arguments, if applicable)
  • Exhortation
  • Conclusion: Summary, final greetings, and delivery instructions

A good example of how understanding these conventions can help us to see what an Epistle is doing is what Paul does with the Greeting portion. Just as how English-language letters conventionally begin with the words “Dear [name],” so too did the greetings in Greco-Roman letters have a conventional beginning:“Sender, Recipient, Greetings!” The thing about such fixed expressions, though, is that they only take on real meaning when they are either violated or adapted. For example, if I received a letter from someone that began, “Dear Mr. Root…,” I wouldn’t think twice about the greeting. But if it just began “Mr. Root: …” I’d notice the brusqueness and intentional breaking of polite convention. But if I received a letter from a close friend that started with “My Dearest Matt….” I would notice how they twisted the convention to make it more loving: ‘dear’ in this context means nothing; ‘dearest’ means everything. I mention all this because it seems Paul made use of this convention-with-a-twist in his Epistles. Rather than the expected, ‘greetings’ (khairete), Paul uses “grace [kharis] and peace …” He replaces the conventional greeting with a theological word that sounds like it. This not only suggests he intends it to be noticed and be meaningful, but also does the same for ‘Peace’, which was the common Jewish greeting but also doubled as an important theological word outside that context.

In a broader way, understanding the basic structure of Greco-Roman letters can help us understand what we’re looking at when we are reading a part of one of the Epistles. For example, the other month when I looked at Romans 1.18-32, it was helpful to understand that this section comes right after Paul’s thesis/purpose statement:

  • Romans 1.1-7: Greetings
  • 1.8-15: Introductory prayer introducing the theme of Paul’s desire to encourage the Roman Christians
  • 1.16-17: Thesis statement: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel. For it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who is faithful, both Jewish (first of all) and Greek. For God’s justice is revealed in him, from faith and to faith, as it is written “From faith the just shall live.”
    • 1.18-32: Gentiles have sinned
      • 2.1-16: But there is no room for spiritual arrogance on the part of Jews
    • 2.17-29: Jews have sinned
      • 3.1-8: But Jews have had the privilege of receiving God’s oracles
    • 3.9-20: Both Gentiles and Jews are in the same position before God.

In order not to misunderstand what Paul is doing, it was important to see that the verses I was looking at in that study were intended to support the general thesis, and in fact were  but one part of a much bigger argument.

Now we need to consider how it is the Epistles function as Sacred Scripture. The biggest thing here is to understand that the Epistles are not theological treatises, or full discussions of the Christian message, but were rather messages written to specific communities at specific times and places in order to address specific problems. For 1 Corinthians, it was a problem of people abusing their freedom in Christ to justify all sorts of bad behaviour that undermined the community. For Romans, it was the lack of shared vision between Jewish and Gentile Christians. For Philemon, it was a sticky legal and moral issue surrounding an escaped slave. When reading the Epistles, it’s important to keep this in mind and try to understand the problem the letter was written to address. Even something like Romans, which contains profound theology, is not primarily a theological text; it’s a functional one designed to address a specific problem. So we can’t expect it to represent the fullness of the Gospel. To do so would be like trying to extrapolate the whole engineering of an elevator from a maintenance report, however robust that report may be.

It’s interesting just how different this is to other biblical genres. Epistle is not about identity formation through myth-making, nor about ‘Thus says the LORD’ pronouncements, reflection on how to live well, or understanding history or current events within the framework of faith. Far less are they proclamations of the Good News. They are (wonderful, holy, important), small-scope documents written to address specific problems in specific communities.

From a historical perspective, it would seem that these letters became ‘Sacred Scripture’ simply by virtue of being read, loved, and shared by the churches who received them. One community would receive a letter from an Apostle and, if they thought it had wider value, they would send copies to their neighbouring Christian communities, who also read, digested, and shared it. The Epistles therefore had a kind of natural authority: they are in our Bibles not because a Council or institution said so, but because they were loved and shared by the communities to which they were first addressed.

The Epistles are a wonderful part of our Bibles. They are warm (sometimes overheated), personal documents that witness to real human relationships and the how we might faithfully deal with the real human problems that arise in community life. By understanding better how they work, we can get a better understanding of how we might faithfully deal with the real problems in our own life and communities.

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