“In the social world [of the early Christians], letters were one of the most important media with which to communicate: Almost anything could be (and was) shared in letter form, all the way from simple instructions for household workers, to invitations to family celebrations such as weddings, to . . . essays that today would be published in literary journals.” –William G. Doty, The Epistles
The New Testament epistles are not treatises or sermons. They are letters. They resemble the Greek and Roman letters of the ancient world. But the conventions of letter writing are universal. We will make much better sense of the New Testament epistles if we view them in terms of familiar features such as beginning with a salutation and greetings and signing off with final bits of information. Above all, the epistles are occasional in nature, written to address specific topics that were current in the lives of the writers and his recipients.
The epistles constitute all of the books of the New Testament between the Gospels and Book of Acts before them and the Book of Revelation after them. First and foremost, they are religious in content. Most were addressed either to churches or pastors of churches. They consist of ideas about religious topics and early church issues. They follow a five-part structure, which is always capable of minor modifications:
- Opening or salutation
- Main body
- Paraenesis: moral exhortations that list vices to avoid and virtues to practice
- Closing: final greetings and benediction
The first and major section of a New Testament epistle is usually doctrinal in content. Halfway or two-thirds of the way through the letter, the writer turns to practical application of the doctrine, showing how the doctrine should influence moral behavior. The epistles address actual situations facing the founders of the Christian church. This, in fact, is one of the things that make the epistles literature: they convey the immediacy of real life. Taken together, the epistles paint a vivid portrait of the varied life of the early Christian church.
More than that, the epistles are literary by virtue of their rhetorical flourishes — their use of repetition, rhetorical questions, parallel clauses — as well as their poetic figures of speech, such as “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
Before we see how this works itself out in a specimen epistle (the book of Colossians), you may wish to take a few minutes to read it. Then ask yourself the following questions: (1) How does the letter follow the five-part paradigm? (2) What real-life event do you infer has occasioned the letter? (3) What literary qualities does the letter possess?
Here are thoughts on the three questions listed above. (1) The five-part structure of Colossians is as follows: salutation in the form of sender, recipient, and “grace and peace” greeting [1:1-]; thanksgiving [1:3-14]; body, consisting of variations on the theme of the supremacy of Christ [1:15—3:4]; paraenesis or list of moral commands [3:5—4:6]; multi-faceted close [4:7-18]. (2) Paul is responding to the heresy of Gnosticism, which had taken root in the church at Colossae. Adherents of Gnosticism claimed to have superior insight into the mysteries of religion beyond ordinary Christian belief. Against this heresy, the author continuously asserts that Christ is sufficient, and that nothing more is needed. (3 The letter is written in an exalted style, with long, sweeping clauses and parallel constructions (the Christ hymn in 1:15-20 should be printed as poetry), heightened language, and frequent use of poetic imagery. Even though the epistles are topical, expository letters, they are written using a forceful and affective literary style that uses poetic language and rhetorical flourishes.