Epistolary Literature: Explanations, Illustrations and Applications

Topics: New Testament, Epistle, Literature Pages: 7 (2473 words) Published: August 20, 2013
The Epistolary Literature: Explanations, Illustrations, and Applications Introduction
Epistolary literature forms a major part of the New Testament: it makes up twenty one of twenty four books in the New Testament, and takes up one-third of the content. As its name implies, Epistolary literature, or epistles, is a literature. In contrast to expository writing, literature is often called “imaginative literature” or “creative writing” that needs literary methods to unfold its true meaning. This paper aims to conduct a brief overview of epistolary literature. It has these three main parts: the first part will talk about the background information about epistolary literature, its forms and patterns. It is followed by some illustrations of the key characteristics of epistles in the New Testament. The last part will discuss some practical ways to better interpret and apply New Testament epistles in light of the knowledge about epistolary literature. What is a New Testament Epistle?

Despite being a major genre in the New Testament, epistolary literature is also one of the oldest and most abundantly preserved forms of text from antiquity as early as 2nd millennium BC. It also appears many times in the Old Testament. For example, David to Joab concerning Uriah (2 Sam 11:14f), Jezebel to Jezreel officials concerning Naboth etc. During the time of New Testament writings, it became more popular in Greco-Roman world due to the increased need for different kinds of communication, for example, business, governmental, essays etc. The epistle used in this period follows a fixed form and there are six standard elements: 1. Name of writer; 2. Name of recipient; 3. Greetings; 4. Prayer wish or thanksgiving; 5. Body; 6. Final greeting and farewell. This form is also seen in two letters found in the book of Acts (Acts 15:23-29) . The New Testament epistles or NT epistles also follow this form very closely. Besides a fixed form, an epistle is flexible in embedding other literary genres. For example, proverbs and aphoristic sayings, liturgical formulas, creedal affirmation, and hymns could be found inside an epistle. Literary devices like poetic language rhetorical patterns are also used in epistles. NT epistles can be sub-divided into two groups: letters and epistles. Many years ago, Adolf Deissmann made a distinction between the literary forms of letter and epistle. A letter is more particular, concrete, personal, intended only to be read by recipients; while an epistle is intended for public reading, more like a treatise or essay and the greeting as a merely literary device. Deissmann considered all the Pauline Epistles together with 2 and 3 John are letters. In contrast to the Pauline Epistles, 2 Peter and 1 John are more like epistles. Though this distinction did shine some light on understanding of the New Testament epistles, it should not be rigidly emphasized. First of all, due to exchange of letters (Col.4:16), public readings (1 Thess 5:27) and intercommunity cooperation (Gal. 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1), the intended personal communication would be also be prepared for public circulation when apostles draft the letter. Therefore, the intent of the epistle might be twofold: a combination of personal and public. Second, even when the letter is addressed to particular recipients, we would expect there is a difference in degree of how “personal” the epistle is. For example, Philemon is far more personal than Romans. NT epistle is written out of specific occasion. Paul and other apostles used these epistles to address specific issues according to the needs of the readers. They used epistles to minister to the growing churches remotely and they address concrete and specific issues arisen from the readers. Some common occasions are false teachings and divisions in the church etc. This characteristic of NT epistle is unique among other sacred texts. “The Scripture of other oriental religions – the Vedas, the Zend Avesta, the Tripitaka,...
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