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Letters and Epistles in the Bible

A letter is generally regarded as a communication of a private, personal, confidential nature whereas an epistle is of a general nature, addressed to all whom it may concern, and intended to be made public. This distinction may be retained for the Bible, although quite a number of the New Testament Epistles contain those intimate touches which are proper to a letter. On the other hand since the letters are a part of divine revelation they are now of interest to all men.

Letters in the Old Testament

The letters of the Old Testament may be divided into two groups:

       1) Those which do not adopt any particular form but consist simply of the message. David's letter to Joab concerning Urias is an example of this group: "And when morning was come David wrote a letter to Joab: and sent it by the hand of Urias. Writing in the letter: Set ye Urias in the front of the battle, where the fight is strongest: and leave ye him, that he may be wounded and die" (11 Kings, 11:14-15). To this same class belong the letters of Jezabel concerning Naboth (III Kings 21:8-10), of the king of Syria to the king of Israel (IV Kings 5:5-7), of Jehu to Samaria (IV Kings, 10:1-6) of Elias to king Joram (II Paralipomenon, 21:12-15), and many others.
       2) Those which are formal, didactic, and elegent in form, which carry the name of the writer, the name of the addressee, a salutation, the message and a final greeting. As examples of this second group we may mention Aman's letter ordering the destruction of the Jews (Esther, 13:1-7), Artaxerxes' letter in favor of the Jews (Esther 16:1-24), the letter of the Romans to different nations in favor of the Jews (I Machabees 15:16-24), letter of the Jews in Jerusalem to the Jews in Egypt (II Machabees, 1-2), and the letter of the Apostles, assembled at Jerusalem, to the Churches (Acts 15:23:29). We shall quote the last one in full:

"The apostles and ancients, brethren to the brethren of the Gentiles that are at Antioch, and in Syria and Cilicia, greeting. Forasmuch as we have heard, that some going out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls; to whom we gave no commandments; It hath seemed good to us, being assembled together, to choose out men, and to send them unto you, with our well beloved Barnabas and Paul: Men that have given their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who themselves also will, by word of mouth tell you the same things. For it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay no further burden upon you than these necessary things: That you abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication, from which things keeping yourselves, you shall do well. Fare ye well."

The Epistles

The Epistles are the twenty-one books of the New Testament written in the form of letters to churches or individuals. The fourteen Epistles of St. Paul are called after the group or person to whom they were addressed. The remaining seven are called by the name of the author. They are called "Catholic" because they were intended for the Church at large, although the second and third Epistles of St. John are addressed to individuals.

The Pauline Epistles

The arrangement of St. Paul's Epistles in our Bibles goes back to the Council of Trent and to St Augustine's times: first come the Epistles addressed to churches, listed in the order of the dignity of the churches (Romans, Corinthians, etc.); second, Epistles addressed to individuals (Timothy, Titus); and, lastly, the Epistle to the Hebrews. In point of time, the Epistles to the Thessalonians are the first Epistles that St Paul wrote and also probably the oldest books in the New Testament. The Epistles to Timothy and Titus are called Pastoral Epistles because they contain instructions concerning the episcopal office. The Epistles to Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon are called the Epistles of the Captivity because they were written while St. Paul was imprisoned in Rome or Caesarea.

The Pauline Epistles are cast in the external form which was common to the letters of ancient times. They contain the name of the sender; the name of the addressee, to which is often attached a laudatory epithet; a greeting, to which is frequently added a thanksgiving and a prayer for the one to whom he writes; the body of the letter which is usually divided into the dogmatic and moral sections, the former explaining truths of faith, the latter pointing out rules for Christian living; concluding salutations and the oft-repeated phrase, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you." Paul usually dictated his letters to another, but he himself added brief exhortations and salutations at the end. His own signature was a sign of genuineness (I Corinthians 16:21; II Thessalonians, 3:17).

St. Paul's Epistles were not deliberate treatises and systematic expositions of Christian theology. They were not something studied and literary. They were simple letters, pastoral and not personal, written on a specific occasion and to a particular body of converts. They were suggestions in regard to local difficulties, or words of counsel, encouragement or consolation.

They were supplementary to the ordinary teaching, and he does not dwell in them on anything that is not a matter of controversy or difficulty. Hence, they were not called forth by any inward purpose or necessity on the part of the Apostle to formulate his thought, but each of them was written in response to particular conditions in the community to which it was addressed. And the contents and form are often due to the Apostle's vivid realization of the situation to which he is addressing himself. A brief analysis of the purpose and substance of each Epistle
       1. I Thessalonians. Some of the Thessalonian Christians, whom St. Paul converted about 50 A.D., had not wholly emerged from the Gentile way of living, were given to leisure and laziness thinking that Christ's return was at hand, and were extremely anxious about the lot of the dead at the second coming of Christ. St. Paul wrote his first Epistle to explain certain doctrinal truths to them and especially whatever pertained to Our Lord's second coming. He assures them that the dead would share equally with the living in the blessings of Christ's return. In the historical section of the Epistle (ch. 1-3) the Apostle rejoices over the happy condition of the Thessalonians, recalls his ministry and labors among them, and expresses the desire of visiting them. In the parenetic part (ch. 4-5) he urges the Thessalonians to avoid luxury, avarice and laziness, instructs them about the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead, and recommends obedience, peace, love, patience and prayer.
       2. II Thessalonians. The Christians persevered constant in their faith but were still too anxious about the day of Our Lord's coming which they thought was at hand. After thanking God in the opening chapter (ch.1) for their faith and constancy, St. Paul in the doctrinal part of the Epistle (ch. 2) instructs them about Our Lord's coming. The day of Our Lord's coming, though uncertain, is not yet at hand; it will be preceded by certain signs, such as the man of sin, the apostasy of many, the destruction of the adversary. In the parenetic part of the Epistle (ch. 3) he urges the Thessalonians to pray and to avoid laziness.
       3. Galatians. The Judaizers - certain Christian Pharisees of Judea - followed closely upon St. Paul's heels, invaded the Apostles' Galatian mission and maintained that if the Gentiles wished to be saved they must, in addition to embracing Christianity, "be circumcised, and be commanded to observe the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5). The Epistle to the Galatians was written to refute these zealots of the Mosaic Law. After the customary salutation (1:1-5), St. Paul at once states the central theme of his Epistle: His Gospel is of divine origin, it is immutable, and therefore cannot be supplemented or perfected by man (1:6-10). He defends this thesis by a historical argument (1:11 to 2:21) and by a Biblical argument (3:1 to 4:31). First, he shows that his Gospel was received directly from God, approved by the Apostles, and applied in practice. Secondly, he proves that the Galatians received the Holy Spirit not because of their observance of the Law but because of faith; that Abraham was justified by faith before circumcision or the giving of the Law; that the Law was a pedagogue unto Christ and abrogated at His coming. In the parenetic part of the Epistle (5:1 to 6:10) he exhorts the Galatians to abide in that freedom with which Christ made them free, and in the concluding section (6 :11-18) affirms that he himself will glory in Christ alone.
       4. I Corinthians. This Epistle is a solution of pastoral problems which arose in his mission at Corinth and which were referred to the Apostle for solution. After the customary greetings (1:1-9), the Apostle proceeds to deal with the abuses in the Corinthian church (1 :10 to 6:20): He condemns their dissensions, orders the ejection of the incestuous man, and commands the Christians not to bring their difficulties before pagan judges. He then answers the questions which had been submitted to him (7:1 to 15:58) and which dealt with marriage, virginity, meats sacrificed to idols, the proper decorum in worship, the Eucharist and the love feasts, charismatic gifts and the resurrection of the dead. In the epilogue (16:1-24) the Apostle lays down the rules for collecting alms and promises to visit the Corinthians shortly.
       5. II Corinthians. The Judaizers, who had invaded Corinth, were making various insinuations about St. Paul's character and his work. Paul, they said, was dishonest, inconstant, ambitious, weak, compromising in his attitude, contemptible in his appearance and in his speech. The Second Epistle is St. Paul's defense of his apostolic authority and of the purity of his Gospel - his Apologia pro vita sua. In the first part of the Epistle (1:12 to 7:16) he explains to the faithful the character of his apostolic office; in the second (8:1 to 9:15), he urges the faithful to give alms; and in the third (10:1 to 13:10), answers his adversaries.
       6. Romans. St. Paul planned to stop at Rome on his way to Spain. In order to prepare the way for his visit, St. Paul sent them an Epistle, in which he summed up the principal points of his teaching and at the same time reviewed the teaching of the Epistle to the Galatians. After a rather lengthy introduction (1:1-15) the Apostle states the theme of the Epistle: "The gospel is the power of salvation to everyone that believeth, to the Jew, first, and to the Greek" (5:16). In the doctrinal section (1:16 to 11:26) St. Paul explains the necessity of justification for both Gentiles and Jews, the method of justification, the effects and fruits of justification, and the special problem of the justification of the Jewish people. In the moral section (12:1 to 15:13) he explains our duties to God, to our neighbor and to ourselves .
       7. Colossians. This epistle was written in defense of Christ's divinity and the dignity of our life in Christ against certain false teachers, who had invaded Colossa, and advocated the cult of angels as necessary for salvation, in this way minimizing the dignity of Christ, the one sole Mediator. They also inculcated a rigid abstinence from certain foods and strove to impose upon the faithful various Mosiac observances. In the dogmatic and doctrinal section of the Epistle (1:1 to 3:20) St Paul defends the unique dignity of Christ and refutes the false doctors. In the moral section (3:1 to 4:6) he urges the Christians to live up to their dignity as members of Christ's body, explains the moral obligations of various groups, and recommends prayer, vigilance and prudence.
       8. Ephesians. This epistle is an encyclical circular letter, addressed to the church of Ephesus and to the churches of Asia Minor, to explain to them that they are not isolated groups but incorporated into one and the same mystic body. In the doctrinal section of the Epistle (1:1 to 3:29) the Apostle explains our redemption by Christ and the incorporation of all men - Jews and Gentiles - into the one Church of which Christ is the Head. Of this mystery or Gospel St. Paul proclaims himself the privileged preacher. In the moral section (4:1 to 6:9) the Apostle explains our individual as well as social duties.
       9. Philemon. This Epistle is a letter which St. Paul sent with Onesimus, a run-away slave, to the latter's master, Philemon. In this letter St. Paul asks Philemon to restore and, if possible, to free Onesimus. It has been called the Epistle of Emancipation.
       10. Philippians. This is a letter of gratitude and joy addressed by the Apostle to his beloved converts at Philippi, who had befriended him and helped him on more than one occasion. He tells them of his great affection for them (ch. 1), recommends unity and humility to them (ch. 2), warns them against false teachers (ch. 3) exhorts them to persevere in virtue, and acknowledges their contributions (ch. 4).
       11. Titus, First & Second Timothy. These Epistles are called "Pastoral Epistles" because they were addressed to the pastors or bishops of the faithful and deal with Church government and the hierarchy. They treat of the following five points:
       1) The necessity of preserving the purity of doctrine;
       2) The method of proceeding against false teachers;
       3) The rules to be observed in selecting men for the diaconate, priesthood and episcopacy;
       4) Obedience towards religious superiors; 5) Duties of various groups of the faithful.
       12. Hebrews. The purpose of this Epistle was to point out the great superiority of the New Testament over the Old and to prevent the Christian Jews under the stress of persecution from falling back into Judaism which at the time had taken on a new vigor and splendor. St. Paul describes the dignity of Christ, of Christ's priesthood and of his office (ch. 1 to 10:27) and warns the Christians not to return to the abrogated institutions of the Old Law. In order to encourage his readers he places before them examples of heroic faith in the Old Testament (ch. 11).

The Catholic Epistles

The seven remaining Epistles are called "Catholic" Epistles because they were not written, like St. Paul's Epistles, only to one church or person but to several churches.
       1. Epistle of St. James. This Epistle was addressed to Jewish Christians, who maintained a close connection with the mother church in Jerusalem, but who did not express their faith sufficiently in good works, especially, works of charity, mercy and mortification of the tongue.
       2. Jude. This Epistle was written to Jews of both Palestine and the Dispersion whose communities had been invaded by fallen away Christians. These false teachers denied Christ's Divinity, His teachings and His second coming, blasphemed the angels, and inculcated pagan vices. St. Jude bids the Christians to stand firm in the faith delivered to the saints.
       3. 1 Peter. This Epistle is directed to the faithful of several provinces who were on the point of defecting from the Christian faith because of persecutions from both Jews and Gentiles. St. Peter places before them their true dignity: They are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of acquisition. Suffering is a test of their faith, and their exemplary life a refutation of the calumnies of the adversaries.
       4. II Peter. In this Epistle St. Peter again warns the Christians of Asia Minor against the heretical teachers who inculcated all kinds of vices and denied Christ and His second coming. St. Peter urges the Christians to walk worthily of the vocation in which they were called, describes the punishment in store for the seducers, and reaffirms the second coming of Christ and the conflagration at the end of the world.
       5. 1 John. St John warns the Christians against certain heretics who denied Christ's divinity (Ebionites) or who denied that Christ came in the flesh (Docetae). The Apostle briefly explains the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Redemption and urges all to practice charity.
       6. II John. St. John urges the Christians to preserve the faith, practice charity, and avoid heretics who were teaching that Christ did not come in the flesh.
       7. III John. This is a commendatory letter written to a certain Caius, who gave hospitality to Christian preachers sent out by John.

Discussion Aids

Set I
1. What, in a general way is the difference between a letter and an epistle?
2. Into what two groups may we divide the Old Testament letters? The style of which group did St. Paul and the Apostles follow?
3. How many Epistles does the New Testament contain? What are the "Catholic" Epistles? What is the main thought in each?
4. How many Epistles did St Paul write? Explain the arrangement of his Epistles in the New Testament. What is the main thought in each Epistle?
5. What are the Pastoral Epistles? the Epistles of the Captivity?
6. Is there any similarity of aim of St. Matthew's Gospel and the Epistle to the Hebrews?
7. St. Paul's Epistles were not deliberate treatises and systematic expositions of theology. Explain.
8. Which one of St. Paul's Epistles is the Epistle of Redemption and justification? of freedom from bondage to the Mosaic Law? of hope? of joy? of emancipation? of consolation and encouragement?
Which Epistle stresses Christ's Person? Christ's Body, His Church?
Which Epistle is a solution of practical difficulties? a defense of the Apostle's impugned authority? a manual for a Christian bishop? The testament of a dying soldier of Christ?

Set II
       1. Read Romans 5:12-21, 7:15-25 and 1:18-82.
The first speaks of the introduction of original sin into the human race, the second, of concupiscence which we inherit with original sin, and the third, of the life which results from the reign of original sin.
What is the antidote to all this?
       2. Read Romans 8:85-89. What qualities should our love of God possess?
       3. Read I Corinthians 7. What does St Paul say in this chapter about divorce? the Pauline privilege? virginity?
       4. Read I Corinthians, 13. What qualities should our love of neighbor possess?
       5. Read II Corinthians 4:17 to 5:5. What value does St. Paul attribute to suffering?
       6. Read Galatians 1:8-12. According to this passage, are we to lend - a willing ear to preachers of new religions?
       7. Read Galatians 5:16-26. What are the works of the flesh? What are the fruits of the Holy Spirit?
       8. Read Ephesians 5:22-83. What analogy does St. Paul establish between a husband and a wife, on the one hand, and Christ and the Church, on the other?
       9. Read Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 1:15-20, and Hebrews 1:1-14. What does St. Paul say about the Person of Christ in these passages?
       10. Read I Thessalonians 4:15 to 5:8. Does St. Paul say that we can predict the last day with certainty?
       11. Read II Peter 3:10-18. What will happen to the material universe on the last day?
       12. Read James 3:1-12. Why, according to St. James, are sins of the tongue so unbecoming?

Religions Practices

In the practice of charity I shall be guided by the following three principles laid down by St. John in his first Epistle:
1. "Let us therefore love God, because God first hath loved us" (4:19).
2. "God laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren" (3:16).
3. "Let us not love in word, nor in tongue, but in deed and in truth" (3:18).