An epistle (pronounced [ɪˈpɪsəl]) (Greek ἐπιστολή, epistolē, 'letter') is a writing directed or sent to a person or group of people, usually a letter and a very formal, often didactic and elegant one. 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' or general epistles.
Ancient Egyptian 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. It's 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 Eighteenth 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.
Form of Christian epistles
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.
To English readers, the epistles may appear more formalized than originally read, due to the process of translation. The writer sought to establish 'philophronesis', an intimate extension of their relationship as similar as a face to face encounter as possible. The writer hoped to revive the friendship, making the epistle a substitute for the actual writer. Letters written to a group of people, which include most of the New Testament epistles, were not read individually but read aloud to the entire church congregation.
The content is concise compared to modern letters. Writing required a great financial expense of paper and ink and long process of time.
The letter often intends to establish theological points (as in many of Paul's epistles), to comfort in the face of persecution (for example, 1 Peter), or to exhort Christians to do good works (James).
New Testament epistles
There are epistles that are written to particular areas, and general epistles that are written to groups or communities. Taking at face value the traditional ascription of epistles to their superscribed authors, Paul wrote more epistles to particular churches, as well as personal letters to Timothy, Philemon, and Titus. Peter was the author of his own. John was the author of his own, James was the author of his own, Jude was the author of his own. Sometimes Paul's epistles are divided into subgroups. For instance, the 'prison epistles' are the ones written by Paul while he was in prison, while the 'pastoral epistles' are the letters to Timothy and Titus, since they contain advice about providing pastoral care to their churches.
Questions of historical authorship or of date and authenticity are addressed in the entries to individual Epistles. Usually the Epistles of the New Testament Canon are divided as follows:
- Epistle to the Romans
- First Epistle to the Corinthians
- Second Epistle to the Corinthians
- Epistle to the Galatians
- Epistle to the Ephesians
- Epistle to the Philippians
- Epistle to the Colossians
- First Epistle to the Thessalonians
- Second Epistle to the Thessalonians
- First Epistle to Timothy
- Second Epistle to Timothy
- Epistle to Titus
- Epistle to Philemon
General (or "catholic") epistles
- Epistle to the Hebrews
- Epistle of James
- First Epistle of Peter
- Second Epistle of Peter
- First Epistle of John
- Second Epistle of John
- Third Epistle of John
- Epistle of Jude
- Revelation of John (also an Apocalypse)
The authorship of many of these epistles is contested by the majority of modern scholars and historians. In particular, with respect to the authorship of the Pauline epistles, the pastoral epistles are rejected by two thirds of modern academics, and only seven of the Pauline epistles are regarded as uncontested. The authorship of the Epistles of John is also questioned.
Non canonical epistles
- Epistle to Seneca the Younger
- Third Epistle to the Corinthians (canonical for a time in the Armenian Orthodox)
- Epistle to the Laodiceans (found in Codex Fuldensis)
- Epistle of the Corinthians to Paul (addressed to Paul, not written by him)
- Letter of Peter to Philip
- The first Epistle to Corinth referenced at
- The third Epistle to Corinth called Severe Letter referenced at and
- The Corinthian letter to Paul referenced at
- The Earlier Epistle to the Ephesians referenced at
- The Epistle to the Laodiceans referenced at
- The Earlier Epistle of Jude referenced at
- The Earlier Epistle of Johnreferenced at
Epistles of Apostolic Fathers
These are letters written by some very early Christian leaders, in the first or second 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.
- Epistle of the Romans to the Corinthians (1 Clement)
- Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians 
- Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians 
- Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians
- Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans 
- Epistle of Ignatius to the Philadelphians 
- Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans
- Epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp
- Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians
- Epistle of Barnabas
- Epistle to Diognetus
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 Catholic 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 Communion, 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 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). 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 reading is always chanted (never simply read in a spoken voice) 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.
- Wente, Edward F. (1990). Letters from Ancient Egypt. Edited by Edmund S. Meltzer. Translated by Edward F. Wente. Atlanta: Scholars Press, Society of Biblical Literature. ISBN 1555404723. Page 6.
- Wente, Edward F. (1990). Letters from Ancient Egypt. Edited by Edmund S. Meltzer. Translated by Edward F. Wente. Atlanta: Scholars Press, Society of Biblical Literature. ISBN 1555404723. Page 15.
- Wente, Edward F. (1990). Letters from Ancient Egypt. Edited by Edmund S. Meltzer. Translated by Edward F. Wente. Atlanta: Scholars Press, Society of Biblical Literature. ISBN 1555404723. Page 68.
- Wente, Edward F. (1990). Letters from Ancient Egypt. Edited by Edmund S. Meltzer. Translated by Edward F. Wente. Atlanta: Scholars Press, Society of Biblical Literature. ISBN 1555404723. Page 89.
- Wente, Edward F. (1990). Letters from Ancient Egypt. Edited by Edmund S. Meltzer. Translated by Edward F. Wente. Atlanta: Scholars Press, Society of Biblical Literature. ISBN 1555404723. Page 98-99.
- Wente, Edward F. (1990). Letters from Ancient Egypt. Edited by Edmund S. Meltzer. Translated by Edward F. Wente. Atlanta: Scholars Press, Society of Biblical Literature. ISBN 1555404723. Page 210.
- Also called A Prior Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians or Paul’s previous Corinthian letter., possibly Third Epistle to the Corinthians
- Also called 2 Jude.
- Also called The Epistle of John to the Church Ruled by Diotrephes
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Epistles
- David Trobisch, "How to read an ancient letter collection", 1999 : the possibility of a narrative critical study of the Letters of Paul