This summer we are reading together three epistles from the New Testament.
While communication by letter across distance was not uncommon in the time of the New Testament, these particular letters, which we honor as scripture, are distinct.
1--They are much longer than an average letter which might contain personal or official correspondence. Biblical epistles written by Paul average 1300 words each; other official epistles from the time average only 295 words.
2—Rather than carrying news or an official decree, biblical epistles are used for supporting a new worshiping community as it develops, providing theological correction and admonitions for particular behavior. Perhaps this is why they are so long: a theological argument is carefully constructed, including traditional information from local culture and religious customs, which then leads to a compelling argument about why following the Way of Jesus is the best way to go, and what it looks like when you do follow that way.
3—While the form of the epistle is somewhat standard with popular letter-writing customs of the day, the elements have been altered to make a theological statement. Rather than a simple “Greetings” or “Farewell”, a religious blessing opens and closes the letters: “Grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ”.
These epistles were written to communities of believers which Paul himself had organized in his travels. He* writes them to encourage their ongoing work in the gospel, to clarify theological questions, and to address problems or concerns that have arisen in the communities. As we read through these three, we will be able to reconstruct the situation in the church based on what is being addressed in the letter.
*Paul is noted as the “author” of 13 epistles in the New Testament. Only 7 of these are “undisputed”, based on timing and style. Probably the 6 others were written by others who knew Paul, but not Paul himself. In our reading, Galatians and Philippians are considered authentically Pauline; Ephesians probably came later, is more general, and was likely not written by Paul himself. Still, they are all regarded as normative scripture for Christian faith and life. The epistles are likely the oldest material in the New Testament (AD 50-60), as the gospels and Acts were collected and recorded later (AD 70-90).
Each week through September 4 we will read one chapter of these epistles. They will be the text for preaching and teaching on Sundays.
Note: I use study Bibles for much of this background material:
The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible with Apocrypha, NRSV, ed. Bruce M. Metzger & Roland E. Murphy. NY:Oxford University Press, 1991.
Lutheran Study Bible, NRSV. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009.
The Learning Bible, CEV. NY: American Bible Society, 1995.