Characteristics of New Testament Letters
Comparable to Other Ancient Letters
How do New Testament letters compare to other ancient letters? To begin with, New Testament letters are typically longer than their ancient counterparts. Richards observes:
In the approximately 14,000 private letters from Greco-Roman antiquity, the average length was about 87 words, ranging in length from about 18 to 209 words. Yet the letters of more literary men like Cicero and Seneca differed considerably. Cicero averaged 295 words per letter, ranging from 22 to 2,530 words, and Seneca averaged 995, ranging from 149 to 4,134. By both standards, though, Paul’s letters were quite long. The thirteen letters bearing his name average 2,495 words, ranging from 335 (Philemon) to 7,114 (Romans).
The added length makes sense when we consider how much space it took in a letter for these early Christian leaders to conduct their missionary work and shepherd their flocks from a distance. They needed room to say hello and goodbye, bring their readers up to date, encourage and instruct, tackle difficult issues, warn against false teaching, and much more.
Ancient letters tended toward two extremes. Many were informal, private letters—business contracts, civic records, letters between family members or friends, and the like. Such letters were a routine part of everyday life and were meant to be read only by the person to whom they were addressed. But others were formal, artistic, literary letters designed for public presentation. New Testament letters do not fit neatly into either category, but fall somewhere between the two extremes. Within the New Testament we find more informal, personal letters such as Philemon, 2 John, and 3 John, as well as more formal letters such as Romans, Ephesians, Hebrews, James, and 1 Peter.
Authoritative Substitutes for Personal Presence
People in the ancient world wrote letters for much the same reason that we do today. We want to be with the people we care about but are unable to be there, so we write a letter (or send an email) as a substitute for our personal presence. The original audience would have viewed Paul’s letters or Peter’s letters, for example, as substitutes for the apostles themselves. When these apostles and other leaders were unable to address a problem or deal with a situation in person, they did the next best thing. They wrote a letter. The letter provided a way for early Christian leaders to express their views and minister from a distance.
But New Testament letters were more than just substitutes for personal presence; they were authoritative substitutes. Often in the first verse of the letter the author identifies himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ:
Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead. . . . (Gal. 1:1)
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God. . . . (Eph. 1:1)
Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ. . . . (2 Peter 1:1)
Paul, Peter, and John write as more than just friends and acquaintances offering personal advice. They write as apostles (i.e., as witnesses to the resurrected Christ). Their letters of instruction, warning, and encouragement carry authority because they write as Christ’s authentic representatives. Even those authors who are not apostles in the strict sense are closely connected to an apostle and are seen as God-appointed leaders of the congregations to whom they write. As a result, their letters carry authority.
New Testament letters are occasional or situational. This means that they were written to address specific situations or problems related to the author or (usually) to the readers. Those who wrote New Testament letters did so to meet the practical needs of those receiving the letters. They wrote to clarify an issue (e.g., Thessalonians), to address a doctrinal problem (e.g., Colossians), or to confront the readers about their behavior (e.g., James). The topics covered in a letter were usually dictated by the specific situations at work within the community to which the apostles wrote.
These letters were never meant to be exhaustive dictionaries of Christian doctrine. Rather than writing systematic theologies, the authors used their letters to apply theology in practical ways to specific situations in churches. Fee and Stuart rightly conclude that
one will go to the Epistles again and again for Christian theology; they are loaded with it. But one must always keep in mind that they were not primarily written to expound Christian theology. It is always theology applied to or directed toward a particular need.
As a result, when interpreting New Testament letters we must be careful not to conclude too much from only one letter. Paul’s letter to the Galatians emphasizes freedom in Christ for a church struggling with legalism. In 1 Corinthians, however, he stresses obedience for a church that is taking its freedom to immoral extremes. Neither letter, by itself, represents Paul’s entire teaching on freedom or obedience. Both letters offer a corrective message tailored to the circumstances of those specific churches. We know from all of Paul’s letters that he endorses both freedom and obedience, but he emphasizes freedom in Galatians and obedience in 1 Corinthians in order to correct the course of each church headed in the wrong direction. If we fail to see the letters as occasional or situational, we will be tempted to conclude too much from one letter. This can easily lead us to misinterpret the letters.
Because the letters are occasional, we must try to reconstruct the situation that called for the letter in the first place. What was going on in Thessalonica or in Philippi, for example, that caused Paul to write 1 and 2 Thessalonians or Philippians? Knowing the original situation will help us when it comes time to identify theological principles within the letter itself. But reconstructing the original situation is not as easy as it sounds. Fee and Stuart explain the difficulty of reconstructing the situation of a letter by using the illustration of a telephone conversation. Reading a New Testament letter, they say, is much like listening to one end of a phone conversation. We only hear what the New Testament letter-writers such as Peter or John are saying. We don’t hear what their audience is saying to them. We hear the response or the answer, but we are not quite sure what the questions are. Nevertheless, these authors are responding to real-life situations, and it is important for us to do our best to reconstruct the original situation. Later in this course we will talk about how to do that.
Carefully Written and Delivered
The process of composing and delivering a New Testament letter was more complex than we might imagine. The actual job of writing down a letter was normally assigned to a trained scribe or secretary (amanuensis). In Romans 16:22, the secretary even identifies himself: “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.” This does not mean that Tertius was the author of Romans, but he served as Paul’s secretary in this instance. Some secretaries were given more freedom in the composition of a letter, others received less freedom. In any case, the author (not the secretary) was responsible for the final contents of the letter. At the end of a letter, it was customary for the author to “pick up the pen” and add a final greeting in his own handwriting.
I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. (1 Cor. 16:21; Col. 4:18)
I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write. (2 Thess. 3:17)
These references indicate that a secretary wrote all but the last few lines of the letter. Most New Testament letters were probably produced in this way.
Along with secretaries, cosenders played an important part in New Testament letters. At the beginning of eight of his letters, Paul mentions a cosender. In six letters he mentions Timothy (2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philemon); in 1 and 2 Thessalonians he includes Silas as well as Timothy. In Galatians he refers to “all the brothers and sisters with me” and in 1 Corinthians it is Paul and “our brother Sosthenes” who cosponsor the letter. We should probably envision Paul and his cosenders discussing, drafting, editing, and rewriting a letter until they were ready to produce a finished copy to send. These cosenders were not just mentioned as a formality. Along with Paul, they were significantly involved in ministry among the people to whom the letters were addressed.
After a finished copy of the letter had been prepared, it was delivered. There was a postal system in the first century, but it was available only for official government use (military reports, diplomatic letters, and the like). Wealthy citizens used slaves or employees to carry their letters, but the average citizen depended largely on people who happened to be traveling in the direction that the letter needed to go. Paul used trusted friends such as Tychicus to carry his letters:
Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage you. (Eph. 6:21–22)
Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here. (Col. 4:7–9)
Letters were expensive endeavors and faithful carriers were important, not only to deliver the letter safely, but also to elaborate on the details of the letter in person.
Intended for the Christian Community
New Testament letters were meant to be read aloud again and again to specific congregations. When we read New Testament letters, we normally read them silently to ourselves. But for a variety of reasons, people in the first century preferred to hear their letters read aloud. For one thing, letters were too valuable to loan out to families or individuals. Also, Jewish Christians were accustomed to hearing the Scriptures read aloud in services of worship from their days in the synagogue. And, of course, some Christians simply could not read. Consequently, letters were normally presented orally for the benefit of the group. We get a glimpse of this in the book of Revelation, where a blessing is pronounced on the person who reads (aloud) the words of the prophecy to the listening congregation:
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. (Rev. 1:3)
In a few places in Paul’s letters the apostle clearly refers to this common practice of having his letters read aloud:
After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea. (Col. 4:16)
I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters. (1 Thess. 5:27)
So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thess. 2:15)
Even Paul’s more personal letter to Philemon was addressed not only to the slave owner himself, but also to the church that met in his house (Philem. 1–2). Everyone in the Christian community benefited from hearing the letters read aloud over and over.
In addition, New Testament letters were often meant to be exchanged with other churches. While writing to specific churches, these authors often saw their words as relevant and beneficial to the larger Christian community. From Colossians 4:16 (cited above), we know that Paul wanted his letter to the Colossians read also to the Laodiceans, and he wanted his letter to the Laodiceans (now lost) read to the Colossian church.
In summary, New Testament letters are generally longer than other ancient letters and fall between the two extremes of informal, private letters and the more formal, literary letters. Letters served as an authoritative substitute for the personal presence of their authors. They were occasional or situational, meaning that they were written to address specific situations in the communities that received the letter. The writers were most concerned with applying theology in practical ways to real-life situations.