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Genre: Epistle October 28, 2009

Posted by TJ Friend in Genre.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Hello. We are continuing our study of genres this week with a look at the letters written in the Bible. The word “epistle” simply refers to these letters. The majority of letters occur in the New Testament although there are a few shorter letters written in the Old Testament as well. So, I want to go over 1: the general characteristics of letters and how we can recognize them; and 2: the specific characteristics of the NT epistles. We will look at how epistles need to be interpreted in light of their unique characteristics.

Letters today are similar to those written back in Biblical times. Today we have an abundance of methods of communication, but back then they had to rely on either a messenger or a letter brought by a messenger. On a side note: when a messenger brought the message of the person he was representing he took on the authority of the person who was sending the message. The person who received the message would have heard it and accepted it as if it was spoken directly by the person sending it. For instance, if a king sent a message to one of his servants, the words of the person delivering the message have the same authority as if the king himself were speaking.

It is fairly easy to recognize the genre of letters. They have a set pattern and are pretty consistent in their form. Besides their unique form, they are usually specified in the text as being letters. In the New Testament, where there are entire books as letters, this forewarning is not there, but the characteristics of the letter are clues enough to tell their genre.

When we come to a letter in the Bible we need to ask four basic questions:
1) Who wrote it?
2) Who was it written to?
3) What prompted it to be written?
4) What is its message?

To say this another way, we should try to discover the author, audience, occasion and purpose of the letters we find in Scripture.

NT Epistles

The New Testament contains a lot of epistles. Paul wrote a lot of letters to churches and even individuals. These epistles have certain characteristics that put them in this genre. The main characteristics of these epistles is the same four things I just mentioned: an author, audience, occasion and purpose. Stylistically, the letters follow a general style, but even if a few of these characteristics are missing we can still call them letters. Formal letters today have a short greeting at the beginning telling who the letter is addressed to, then there is the body of the letter and a conclusion at the end that tells who the letter is from. The epistles follow a similar pattern. The main difference is that both who the author and audience of the letter are put at the beginning of the letter in the greeting. Also, at the beginning of the letter, there is usually a prayer before getting into the body of the letter. At the end of the letter there is a final salutations. One of the biggest differences between our letters and the epistles is the greeting section. Our letters have really short greetings, we usually just a have a “dear someone” and then get right into what the letter is about. The epistles though have lengthy introductions. Even the shortest introductions are longer than ours. Take for instance the introduction to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. It starts out: Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Compare this to the seven verses of introduction in the book of Romans.

Because of these introductions it is fairly easy to see who these letters are written by and who they are written to. The other two questions are more difficult to answer, but will yield more benefits. When reading these letters we should seek to find out what situation or problems were going on that the author was writing about. We also need to see what the author’s overall purpose for writing was. When we come to the letters written by Paul, we can usually go back to the book of Acts and see what the city was like and the circumstances surrounding the original bringing of the gospel to that region. This will help us get a picture of what may have motivated the writing of the letter.

Most of the information about the people who the letter was written and what is going on with them can be found in the letter itself. Some of the purposes of the letter will be clear from even a cursory reading of it. It could be that the letter is a warning against false teachers, a call to unity, teaching certain theological ideas, or just encouraging them to stand firm in the face of persecution. These are a few big ideas to look for when reading through these epistles. You can sometimes figure out the problems that were going on by looking at what the author is admonishing the people to do. If he is telling them to be united, it is probably because they were things going on that had caused the people to splinter or isolate themselves. If the author is warning against false teachers, it is because there actually are people that are teaching false doctrines. The authors of these epistles are addressing real issues that need real answers.

Optimally, the best way to read an epistle is to read it as a whole in one sitting. When you read the book as a whole, you get a better understanding of the big picture of the letter. The overarching themes become clear and it is easier to understand what the book is about. When you are reading an epistle it is especially important to recognize the transitional words. As you read notice especially when you get to words like “finally”, “therefore” or “now”. These words can signal breaks between large blocks of text. Romans 12:1 starts with a “therefore” and signals a transition in the book. I Cor. 15:1 shows a transition using the word “now” and Phil. 3:1 shows an example of the word “finally” as a transition. When you read through the epistles it is helpful to follow these transitions so that you can see when the author is moving from one topic to another.

The letters of the Bible, especially the NT epistles were written with a purpose. To best understand them, we need to try to understand why they were written and what issues they were addressing. As you read look for hints and clues as to what these purposes are.


The book of Philemon is really short and can be easily read in one sitting. Read through it and answer these questions:
Who is the author of this book?
Who is this written to?
What is the problem the author is addressing?
What does the author want Philemon to do or believe?



1. Peason - August 2, 2012

It’s very helpful, thank you!

2. Peason - August 2, 2012

Could you provide more information about the difference between Epistls and letters? Now I’m writing my research on 1 Timothy. thank you!

3. Kelli - May 24, 2016

Thanks for the explanation. I’m beginning a study on Ephesians and needed some direction.

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