An epistle (/ɪˈpɪsəl/; Greek: ἐπιστολή, epistolē, "letter") is a writing directed or sent to a person or group of people, usually an elegant and formal didactic letter. The epistle genre of letter-writing was common in ancient Egypt as part of the scribal-school writing curriculum. The letters in the New Testament from Apostles to Christians are usually referred to as epistles. Those traditionally attributed to Paul are known as Pauline epistles and the others as catholic (i.e., "general") epistles.
The ancient Egyptians wrote epistles, most often for pedagogical reasons. Egyptologist Edward Wente (1990) speculates that the Fifth-dynasty Pharaoh Djedkare Isesi—in his many letters sent to his viziers—was a pioneer in the epistolary genre. Its existence is firmly attested during the Sixth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, and is prominently featured in the educational guide The Book of Kemit written during the Eleventh Dynasty. A standardized formulae for epistolary compositions existed by the time of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. The epistolary formulae used in the Ramesside Period found its roots in the letters composed during the Amarna Period of the Twentieth Dynasty. Wente describes the "Satirical Letter" found on the Papyrus Anastasi I of the Nineteenth Dynasty as an epistle which was commonly copied as a writing exercise by Egyptian schoolchildren on ceramic ostraca (over eighty examples of which have been found so far by archaeologists). Epistle letters were also written to the dead, and, by the Ramesside Period, to the gods; the latter became even more widespread during the eras of Persian and Greek domination.>
Epistles in prose and verse were a major genre of literature among the Greeks and particularly the Romans. The letters of Cicero are one of the most important sources on the history of the late Roman Republic and preserve features of colloquial Latin not always in evidence in his speeches and treatises. The letters of Pliny the Younger likewise are studied as both examples of Latin prose with self-conscious literary qualities and sources for historical information. Ovid produced three collections of verse epistles, composed in elegiac couplets: the Heroides, letters written in the person of legendary women to their absent lovers; and the Tristia and Ex Ponto, written in first person during the poet's exile. The epistles of Seneca, with their moral or philosophical ruminations, influenced later patristic writers.
Epistles are written in strict accordance to formalized, Hellenistic tradition, especially the Pauline epistles. This reflects the amount of Hellenistic influence upon the epistle writers. Any deviancy is not the result of accident but indicates an unusual motive of the writer.
In contrast to modern letters, epistles usually named the author at the very beginning, followed by the recipient (for example, see Philippians 1:1). The scribe (or more correctly, the amanuensis) who wrote down the letter may be named at the end of the episte (e.g., Romans 16:22). In the absence of a postal system, the courier may also be named (e.g. Ephesians 6:21–22).
After the names of the author and recipient, Pauline epistles often open with the greeting, "Grace and peace to you." "Grace" was a common Hellenistic greeting, while "peace" (shalom) was the common Jewish greeting; this reflected Paul's dual identity in Jewish faith and Hellenistic culture. There may also be a word of thanks to the audience. In secular letters, a prayer or wish for health followed.
The body begins with a brief statement introducing the main topic of the entire body.
The epistles of the New Testament canon are usually divided as follows:
These are letters written by some very early Christian leaders, in the 1st or 2nd century, which are not part of the New Testament. They are generally considered to form part of the basis of Christian tradition. The ennobling word "epistle" is used partly because these were all written in Greek, in a time period close to when the epistles of the New Testament were written, and thus "epistle" lends additional weight of authority.
In the context of a liturgy, epistle may refer more specifically to a particular passage from a New Testament epistle (the Pauline epistles and the General epistles)—sometimes also from the Book of Acts or the Revelation of John, but not the Four Gospels—that is scheduled to be read on a certain day or at a certain occasion.
In the Roman Catholic Mass and Anglican Eucharist, epistles are read between the Collect and the Gospel reading. The corresponding Gregorian chants have a special tone (tonus epistolae). When the epistle is sung or chanted at Solemn Mass it is done so by the subdeacon. Epistles are also read by an Elder or Bishop in the Lutheran Divine Service, between the gradual and the Gospel.
In the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Rite Catholics the Epistle reading is called the Apostol (the same name is given to the lectionary from which it is read). The Apostol includes the Acts of the Apostles as well as the Epistles, but never the Apocalypse (Revelation of John). Unlike the Latin Rite there are never readings from the Old Testament. There are Epistle lessons for every day of the year, except for weekdays during Great Lent, when the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated. These daily Epistle readings are a part of the Paschal cycle, being ultimately dependent upon the date of Pascha (Easter). There are also lessons appointed for the feast days of numerous saints and commemorations. There may be one, two, or three readings from the Apostol during a single Liturgy. The Epistle is read between the Prokeimenon and the Alleluia. The Epistle reading is always linked to a reading from the Gospel, though some services, such as Matins, will have a Gospel lesson, but no Epistle. A number of services besides the Divine Liturgy will have an Epistle and Gospel reading. Such services often include a Prokeimenon and Alleluia as well. The Epistle is chanted by the reader, though at a Hierarchical Liturgy (a Divine Liturgy celebrated by a bishop), it is read by a deacon. The one who chants the Epistle also reads the verses of the Prokeimenon.
During the Middle Ages, the art of letter writing was taught in numerous manuals, and the ars dictaminis became an important genre of instructional discourse. The necessity for letter writing was in large part due to the general deterioration of civil life and the decay of the Roman road system in the early Middle Ages, factors that obliged literate people with business to transact to send letters instead of travel themselves. A vast number of letters and letter-writing manuals were written in the period's lingua franca, Latin.
The Epistle of Barnabas (Greek: Βαρνάβα Ἐπιστολή) is a Greek epistle written between 70–132 CE. It is preserved complete in the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus, where it appears immediately after the New Testament and before the Shepherd of Hermas. For several centuries it was one of the "antilegomena" writings that some Christians looked on as sacred scripture, while others excluded them. Eusebius of Caesarea classified it as such. It is mentioned in a perhaps third-century list in the sixth-century Codex Claromontanus and in the later Stichometry of Nicephorus appended to the ninth-century Chronography of Nikephoros I of Constantinople. Some early Fathers of the Church ascribed it to the Barnabas who is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, but it is now generally attributed to an otherwise unknown early Christian teacher, perhaps of the same name. It is distinct from the Gospel of Barnabas.Epistle of James
The Letter of James (Ancient Greek: Ἰάκωβος, romanized: Iakōbos), the Epistle of James, or simply James, is one of the 21 epistles (didactic letters) in the New Testament.
The author identifies himself as "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ," who is writing to "the twelve tribes scattered abroad" (James 1:1). The epistle is traditionally attributed to James the brother of Jesus (James the Just), and the audience is generally considered to be Jewish Christians, who were dispersed outside Palestine.Framing his letter within an overall theme of patient perseverance during trials and temptations, James writes to encourage his readers to live consistently with what they have learned in Christ. He wants his readers to mature in their faith in Christ by living what they say they believe. He condemns various sins, including pride, hypocrisy, favouritism, and slander. He encourages and implores believers to humbly live by godly, rather than worldly wisdom and to pray in all situations.
Within the New Testament canon, the Epistle of James is noteworthy because it makes no explicit reference to the death, resurrection, or divine sonship of Jesus. It refers to Jesus twice, as "the Lord Jesus Christ" and as "our glorious Lord Jesus Christ" (James 1:1, 2:1).Epistle of Jude
The Epistle of Jude, often shortened to Jude, is the penultimate book of the New Testament and is traditionally attributed to Jude, the servant of Jesus and the brother of James the Just.Epistle to Titus
The Epistle of Paul to Titus, usually referred to simply as Titus, is one of the three Pastoral Epistles (along with 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy) in the New Testament, historically attributed to Paul the Apostle. It is addressed to Saint Titus and describes the requirements and duties of elders and bishops.Epistle to the Ephesians
The Epistle to the Ephesians, also called the Letter to the Ephesians and often shortened to Ephesians, is the tenth book of the New Testament. Its authorship has traditionally been attributed to Paul the Apostle but starting in 1792, this has been challenged as Deutero-Pauline, that is, written in Paul's name by a later author strongly influenced by Paul's thought, probably "by a loyal disciple to sum up Paul’s teaching and to apply it to a new situation fifteen to twenty-five years after the Apostle’s death.Epistle to the Galatians
The Epistle to the Galatians, often shortened to Galatians, is the ninth book of the New Testament. It is a letter from Paul the Apostle to a number of Early Christian communities in Galatia. Scholars have suggested that this is either the Roman province of Galatia in southern Anatolia, or a large region defined by an ethnic group of Celtic people in central Anatolia.Paul is principally concerned with the controversy surrounding Gentile Christians and the Mosaic Law during the Apostolic Age. Paul argues that the Gentile Galatians do not need to adhere to the tenets of the Mosaic Law, particularly circumcision, by contextualizing the role of the law in light of the revelation of Christ. Galatians has exerted enormous influence on the history of Christianity, the development of Christian theology, and the study of the apostle Paul.Epistle to the Hebrews
The Epistle to the Hebrews, or Letter to the Hebrews, or in the Greek manuscripts, simply To the Hebrews ( Πρὸς Ἑβραίους) is one of the books of the New Testament.
The text is traditionally attributed to Paul the Apostle, but doubt on Pauline authorship in the Roman Church is reported by Eusebius. Modern biblical scholarship considers its authorship unknown, perhaps written in deliberate imitation of the style of Paul. Although the writer's style reflects some characteristics of Paul's writing, there are some differences.
Scholars of Greek consider its writing to be more polished and eloquent than any other book of the New Testament, and "the very carefully composed and studied Greek of Hebrews is not Paul's spontaneous, volatile contextual Greek". The book has earned the reputation of being a masterpiece. It has also been described as an intricate New Testament book. Scholars believe it was written for Jewish Christians who lived in Jerusalem. Its purpose was to exhort Christians to persevere in the face of persecution. At this time, certain believers were considering turning back to Judaism (the Jewish system of law) to escape being persecuted for accepting Christ as their saviour, now following this system of grace (saved by Jesus' sacrifice on the cross). The theme of the epistle is the doctrine of the person of Christ and his role as mediator between God and humanity.
The epistle opens with an exaltation of Jesus as "the radiance of God's glory, the express image of his being, and upholding all things by his powerful word".[1:1–3] The epistle presents Jesus with the titles "pioneer" or "forerunner", "Son" and "Son of God", "priest" and "high priest".The epistle casts Jesus as both exalted Son and high priest, a unique dual Christology.Epistle to the Philippians
The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians, often referred to simply as Philippians, is the eleventh book in the New Testament. Paul and Silas first visited Philippi in Greece during Paul's second missionary journey, which occurred between approximately 49 and 51 AD. Philippi was the location of the first Christian community established in Europe.
Biblical scholars are in general agreement that the letter was indeed written by Paul of Tarsus. Although some consider that the letter was written from Ephesus in 52–55 AD or Caesarea Maritima in 57–59, the most likely city of provenance was Rome, which would make the date of the letter around 62 AD, about 10 years after Paul's first visit to Philippi.Epistle to the Romans
The Epistle to the Romans or Letter to the Romans, often shortened to Romans, is the sixth book in the New Testament. Biblical scholars agree that it was composed by the Apostle Paul to explain that salvation is offered through the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the longest of the Pauline epistles.First Epistle of Clement
The First Epistle of Clement (Ancient Greek: Κλήμεντος πρὸς Κορινθίους, romanized: Klēmentos pros Korinthious, lit. 'Clement to Corinthians') is a letter addressed to the Christians in the city of Corinth. The letter was composed at some time between AD 70 and AD 140, most likely around 96. It ranks with Didache as one of the earliest—if not the earliest—of extant Christian documents outside the canonical New Testament. As the name suggests, a Second Epistle of Clement is known, but this is a later work by a different author. Neither 1 nor 2 Clement are part of the canonical New Testament, but they are part of the Apostolic Fathers collection.
The letter is a response to events in Corinth, where the congregation had deposed certain elders (presbyters). The author called on the congregation to repent, to restore the elders to their position, and to obey their superiors. He said that the Apostles had appointed the church leadership and directed them on how to perpetuate the ministry.
The work is traditionally attributed to Clement I, the Bishop of Rome. In Corinth, the letter was read aloud from time to time. This practice spread to other churches, and Christians translated the Greek work into Latin, Syriac, and other languages. Some early Christians even treated the work like scripture. The work was lost for centuries, but since the 1600s various copies or fragments have been found and studied. It has provided valuable evidence about the structure of the early church.First Epistle of John
The First Epistle of John, often referred to as First John and written 1 John or I John, is the first of the Johannine epistles of the New Testament, and the fourth of the catholic epistles. It is attributed to John the Evangelist, traditionally thought to be the author of the Gospel of John and the other two Johannine epistles. This epistle was probably written in Ephesus in AD 95–110. The work was written to counter docetism, which is the belief that Jesus did not come "in the flesh", but only as a spirit. It also defined how Christians are to discern true teachers: by their ethics, their proclamation of Jesus in the flesh, and by their love.First Epistle of Peter
The First Epistle of Peter, usually referred to simply as First Peter and often written 1 Peter, is a book of the New Testament. The author presents himself as Peter the Apostle, and, following Roman Catholic tradition, the epistle has been held to have been written during his time as Bishop of Rome or Bishop of Antioch, though neither title is used in the epistle. The text of the letter states that it was written from Babylon. The letter is addressed to various churches in Asia Minor suffering religious persecution.First Epistle to the Corinthians
The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Ancient Greek: Α΄ ᾽Επιστολὴ πρὸς Κορινθίους), ususally referred to as First Corinthians or 1 Corinthians is a Pauline epistle of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. The epistle is attributed to Paul the Apostle and a co-author named Sosthenes, and is addressed to the Christian church in Corinth.[1 Cor.1:1–2] Scholars believe that Sosthenes was the amanuensis who wrote down the text of the letter at Paul's direction. Called "a masterpiece of pastoral theology", it addresses various issues that had arisen in the Christian community at Corinth.First Epistle to the Thessalonians
The First Epistle to the Thessalonians, commonly referred to as First Thessalonians or 1 Thessalonians, is a Pauline epistle of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. The epistle is attributed to Paul the Apostle, and is addressed to the church in Thessalonica, in modern-day Greece. It was likely the first of Paul's letters, probably written by the end of AD 52.Pauline epistles
The Pauline epistles, also called Epistles of Paul or Letters of Paul, are the thirteen books of the New Testament, composed of letters which are largely attributed to Paul the Apostle, although authorship of some is in dispute. Among these letters are some of the earliest extant Christian documents. They provide an insight into the beliefs and controversies of early Christianity. As part of the canon of the New Testament, they are foundational texts for both Christian theology and ethics. The Epistle to the Hebrews, although it does not bear his name, was traditionally considered Pauline for a thousand years, but from the 16th century onwards opinion steadily moved against Pauline authorship and few scholars now ascribe it to Paul, mostly because it does not read like any of his other epistles in style and content. Most scholars agree that Paul really wrote seven of the Pauline epistles, but that four of the epistles in Paul's name are pseudepigraphic (Ephesians, First Timothy, Second Timothy, and Titus); scholars are divided on the authenticity of two of the epistles.The Pauline epistles are usually placed inbetween the Acts of the Apostles and the general epistles in modern editions. Most Greek manuscripts, however, place the General epistles first, and a few minuscules (175, 325, 336, and 1424) place the Pauline epistles at the end of the New Testament.Second Epistle of Peter
The Second Epistle of Peter, often referred to as Second Peter and written 2 Peter or in Roman numerals II Peter (especially in older references), is a book of the New Testament of the Bible, traditionally held to have been written by Saint Peter. Most critical biblical scholars have concluded Peter is not the author, considering the epistle pseudepigraphical.Second Epistle to the Corinthians
The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, commonly referred to as Second Corinthians or 2 Corinthians, is a Pauline epistle of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. The epistle is attributed to Paul the Apostle and a co-author named Timothy, and is addressed to the church in Corinth and Christians in the surrounding province of Achaea, in modern-day Greece.[2Cor.1:1]Third Epistle of John
The Third Epistle of John, often referred to as Third John and written 3 John or III John, is the antepenultimate book of the New Testament and attributed to John the Evangelist, traditionally thought to be the author of the Gospel of John and the other two epistles of John. The Third Epistle of John is a private letter composed to a man named Gaius, recommending to him a group of Christians led by Demetrius, which had come to preach the gospel in the area where Gaius lived. The purpose of the letter is to encourage and strengthen Gaius, and to warn him against Diotrephes, who refuses to cooperate with the author of the letter.
Early church literature contains no mention of the epistle, with the first reference to it appearing in the middle of the third century. This lack of documentation, though likely due to the extreme brevity of the epistle, caused early church writers to doubt its authenticity until the early 5th century, when it was accepted into the canon along with the other two epistles of John. The language of 3 John echoes that of the Gospel of John, which is conventionally dated to around AD 90, so the epistle was likely written near the end of the first century. Others contest this view, such as the scholar John A. T. Robinson, who dates 3 John to c. AD 60–65. The location of writing is unknown, but tradition places it in Ephesus. The epistle is found in many of the oldest New Testament manuscripts, and its text is free of major discrepancies or textual variants.
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