Epistles or letters were amongst the most important types of written texts in antiquity, in part because they were understood to function as a substitute for the author's presence. Thus it comes as no surprise to find that the letter is the most common literary form in the Messianic Scriptures (New Testament). Besides the nearly 20 scrolls or books written in this form, some letters are even found embedded within books of both the Tanakh (Old Testament) (e.g. 2 Sam.11:15) and the New Testament.
Letters in the Hellenistic era included several conventional parts or 'periods'. These were a greeting, often a thanksgiving or prayer, a body, and a closing. The greeting identified both the sender and recipient and sometimes included information about each, such as their relationship or their respective places in the social hierarchy. Thus the greeting established a context for the rest of the correspondence. It also included a health-wish for the recipient. When a letter included a thanksgiving or prayer to the gods, it often consisted largely of an extended health-wish, but not uncommonly it included other matters. After the letter's body, which contained the basic message and purpose of the letter, the closing was usually composed of stereotyped conventions and greetings to and from others known to both the sender and recipient.
Letters may broadly speaking be divided into two types:
Paul's epistles are, however, clearly occasional, and do not adopt the elevated style of a literary work, but they are not purely private either because they are intended to be read to congregations, as are all New Testament letters. Early messianic writers adapted the letter form to meet the needs of their congregations. Paul often expands conventional periods so that they contribute to the purpose of the letters of which they are a part. This is most evident for thanksgivings which signal in advance the main concerns of the letter. Paul draws on both the epistolatry and rhetorical conventions of the time. Not until the 2nd century AD do we find Christian letter-writers like Clement of Alexandria clearly trained in rhetoric which resulted in letters of a more literary nature. The second section in this Register gives examples of this.
- 1. Epistles, which were literary productions for a general or public audience; and
- 2. Genuine Letters, which were private, strictly occasional and nonliterary.
The style of the canonical letters falls between everyday correspondence and literary productions, their closest parallels being letters written by philosophers to exhort and teach their readers. But even this is not an exact parallel and it is significant that nearly all the New Testament writers (Paul, Peter, Jude and John) choose the letter as their primary genre. Since letters are also dialogical, a piece of conversation between the sender and the recipient, so modern readers need to know as much as possible about the circumstances of both the sender and the recipient to understand a letter's content.
Some New Testament writings which were given an epistolatry framework are not actually letters. Most notably, Hebrews and James have closing or opening features of letters but are treatises of a different sort. While therse writings are not genuine letters, they bear witness to the power of the epistolatry genre as a means of teaching and exhortation in early Christianity.
Over the years, since NCAY was organised in 1987, numerous letters have, of course, been exchanged between the leadership and especially with congregations abroad, and most particularly before the rapid mass communication of electronic mail became widely available. Three of these 'modern epistles', chosen most particularly because they resemble in structure those epistles found both in the New Testament and those written by the post-apostolic fathers like Clement, have been republished for the assemblies as they were originally for a general audience and were not private letters.