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By Charles H. Welch

We are not, at the moment, concerned with any particular epistle, but with the true significance of the Greek word epistole. A superficial acquaintance with language may lead a reader to say, ‘epistle is most evidently but the Anglicized form of the Greek epistole and should therefore be adopted without demur’. This, however, takes no notice of the subtle changes that words undergo in the course of time. Did the apostle desire the high priest to send ‘letters’ or ‘epistles’ to Damascus (Acts 9:2)? Did the Corinthians compose ‘epistles’ or merely send ‘letters’ of approval? (1 Cor. 16:3). To the uninstructed, it would seem quite obvious that the French word demandez should be translated by the English word ‘demand’, but that is not so. The English word has developed a peremptoriness that is absent from the French, and so demandez is better translated by the word ‘ask’.

So while on the surface ‘epistle’ appears to be the normal translation of epistole, it is too formal a word and many times the more homely word ‘letter’ must be used. The question therefore before us is, are Paul’s epistles to be considered as ‘epistles’ in the formal sense or ‘letters’ in the homely sense? The following quotation from Deissmann’s Bible Studies will express the difference that we must make between ‘letters’ and ‘epistles’.

‘Men have written letters ever since they could write at all. Who the first letter-writer was we know not. But this is quite as it should be: the writer of a letter accommodates himself to the need of the moment; his aim is a personal one and concerns none but himself, - least of all, the curiosity of posterity. We fortunately know quite as little who was the first to experience repentance or to offer prayer. The writer of a letter does not sit in the market-place. A letter is a secret and the writer wishes his secret to be preserved; under cover and seal he entrusts it to the reticence of the messenger. The letter, in its essential idea, does not differ in any way from a private conversation; like the latter, it is a personal and intimate communication, and the more faithfully it catches the tone of the private conversation, the more of a letter, that is, the better a letter, it is. The only difference is the means of communication. We avail ourselves of far-travelling handwriting, because our voice cannot carry to our friend: the pen is employed because the separation by distance does not permit a tête-à-tête. A letter is destined for the receiver only, not for the public eye, and even when it is intended for more than one, yet with the public it will have nothing to do: letters to parents and brothers and sisters, to comrades in joy or sorrow or sentiment - these too, are private letters, true letters. As little as the words of the dying father to his children are a speech - should they be a speech it would be better for the dying to keep silent - just as little is the letter of a sage to his confidential pupils an essay, a literary production; and if the pupils have learned wisdom, they will not place it among their books, but lay it devoutly beside the picture and other treasured relics of their master. The form and external appearance of the letter are matters of indifference in the determination of its essential character. Whether it be written on stone or clay, on papyrus or parchment, on wax or palm-leaf, on rose paper or a foreign postcard, is quite as immaterial as whether it clothes itself in the set phrases of the age; whether it be written skilfully or unskillfully, by a prophet or a beggar, does not alter its special characteristics in the least. Nor do the particular contents belong to the essence of it. What is alone essential is the purpose which it serves; confidential personal conversation between persons separated by distance. The one wishes to ask something of the other, wishes to praise or warn or wound the other, to thank him or assure him of sympathy in joy - it is ever something personal that forces the pen into the hand of the letter-writer. He who writes a letter under the impression that his lines may be read by strangers, will either coquette with this possibility, or be frightened by it; in the former case he will be vain, in the latter, reserved, in both cases unnatural - no true letter-writer. With the personal aim of the letter there must necessarily be joined the naturalness of the writer’s mood; one owes it not only to himself and to the other, but still more to the letter as such, that he yield himself freely to it. So must the letter, even the shortest and poorest, present a fragment of human naivete - beautiful or trivial, but, in any case, true.

Here are two ‘letters’ taken from a collection of papyrus discovered in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, and dating from or near the same period in which Paul wrote his epistles.


Letter of recommendation from Theon to Tyrannos

About A.D. 25

‘Theon to his esteemed Tyrannos, many greetings. Herakleides, the bearer of this letter, is my brother. I therefore entreat you with all my power to treat him as your protégé. I have also written to your brother Hermias, asking him to communicate with you about him. You will confer upon me a very great favour if Herakleides gains your notice. Before all else you have my good wishes for unbroken health and prosperity.


Address: ‘To Tyrannos, dioiketes’.


Letter of consolation from Eirene to Taonnophris and Philon

Second century

‘Eirene to Taonnophris and Philon, good cheer. I was as much grieved and shed as many tears over Eumoiros as I shed for Didymas, and I did everything that was fitting, and so did my whole family, Epaphrodeitos and Thermuthion and Philion and Apollonios and Plantas. But still there is nothing one can do in the face of such trouble. So I leave you to comfort yourselves.

Athyr 1’.

Address: ‘To Taonnophris and Philon’.


Coming to the question of the true nature of Paul’s epistles, we further quote from Deissmann:

‘The written words of a letter are nothing but the wholly inartificial and incidental substitute for spoken words. As the letter has a quite distinct and transitory motive, so has it also a quite distinct and restricted public - not necessarily merely one individual, but sometimes, according to circumstances, a smaller or larger company of persons: in any case, a circle of readers which can be readily brought before the writer’s mind and distinctly located in the field of inward vision. A work of literature, on the other hand, has the widest possible publicity in view: the literary man’s public is, so to speak, an imaginary one, which it is the part of the literary work to find’.

At first sight there is confessedly a great difference between the epistle to Philemon, with its personal appeal, and the epistle to the Romans with its logical presentation of fundamental doctrine. Both are, however, true letters written to known readers, without any thought of posterity, without any idea that a wider public would ever read them. That they prove to be a part of all Scripture which is given by inspiration of God, in no wise alters the personal intention of the original writer.

Instead, therefore, of conceiving of Paul writing ‘epistles’ with an eye to a future public, we have the privilege and the sacred joy of seeing him dealing in private with the problems of the infant Church. Had the Lord intended that we should learn Doctrinal and Dispensational Truth in a formal manner, Paul could have most surely framed the most complete and authoritative compendium of Christian doctrine that the mind of man could conceive and the Church demand. As it is, we have to exercise faith, patience and prayer, and can only piece together as the spirit of wisdom and revelation is granted to us, the majestic doctrine that underlies, but is never fully expressed in the ‘epistles’ of the apostle to the Gentiles. See the CHRONOLOGY OF THE ACTS for the relationship that exists between the affairs of the Church at the time, and the epistles that were prompted by those selfsame times.