General Information of the Letter

Genre of Christian Foundational Writings

(notes from the New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version)


  1. Letters are the earliest writings of the Christian Foundational Writings (preceding the Gospel according to Mark)
  2. The are 21 letters; 13 are from Paul or his associates: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philipians, Colossians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon
  3. Hebrews was later attributed to Paul—making 14
  4. The other letters, some attributed to other apostles, include 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, James and Jude
  5. The Greek word “epistole” or  “letter” originally referred to an oral communication delivered by a letter-carrier or messenger
  6. Paul frequently mentions the missionary associates in the greetings of his letters
  7. 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, considered “pastorals” addressed to Paul’s key assistants—treating them like youthful bishops of local churches; these letters look to a future when Christians are established in the larger society
  8. 1 and 2 Thessalonians both have the theme of the return of Jesus as the end of time; other letters though continue to deal with concrete issues in the churches of the day
  9. these letters are considered “apostolic” letters and are considerably longer than private letters
  10. Ephesians is a letter lacking a personal address and any references to personal problems or specific individuals
  11. Hebrews and James appear to be “tractates” or general exhortations; Jude is a sharp apocalyptic warning to Christians in general
  12. 1John speaks to concrete problems in church circles, but isn’t exactly in letter form; 2 and 3 John are personal letters, but address different problems; 1 Peter uses the letter form as exhortation to suffering Christians in Asia Minor; 2 Peter is probably the latest of the CFW, is presented as the last testament of the apostle


Letters were common in antiquity—often connected to the emperor or philosophical letters of figures like Cicero, Pliny or Seneca; hundreds of papyri from Egypt record the letters of common people


The common existence of letters didn’t necessarily imply literacy—frequently letters were dictated to scribes; and messengers often read the letters on delivery


Form of the ancient letter:

  1. opening or prescript—identified the sender(s) and recipient (s) and concluded with a greeting or salutation; epithets, information about geographical location and terms of endearment/friendship might be in the opening; Paul frequently uses “Grace and Peace”
  2. formal statement of the sender’s wish for the health of the recipients (sometimes this comes at the close of the letter)
  3. also common was the sender’s prayer to the gods or thanksgiving on behalf of the recipients; in many of Paul’s letters this opening often develops into a longer thanksgiving or blessing section; this section will often preview some of the other topics of the letter
  4. the body of the letter would state the actual business, account of the situation, or request that was the purpose of the letter; sometimes the body of the letter was doctrinal—containing specific direction for actions of the community; other times the focus is hortatory—giving instructions for Christian conduct.  Paul often gives travel information or requests information on travel of others.  Paul will often give travel plan information near the end of his letters
  5. Often greetings are conveyed to others not mentioned in the letter-body
  6. encouragement/commands to follow the sender’s wishes would typically follow the business section of the letter
  7. Paul frequently has some type of pious conclusion
  8. Paul’s pastoral tone was generally attractive as he used personal and affectionate metaphors; he handled the tricky role of leadership well; he frequently used biblical images and metaphors
  9. The epistle generally refers to a longer and more literary art form—sometimes like a theological treatise
  10. scribes or amanuesis might change the tone or mood of letters by their own insertions (similar to the role of compilers)
  11. the Letters of the CFW are real letters/they deal with particular periods in the history of early Christian communities