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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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The distinction between the ‘true letter’ and the ‘epistle’ was dealt with in the article Epistle. In the Christian literature of the Apostolic Age till the end of the 1st cent. we have, besides Acts 15:23-29; Acts 23:25-30, sixteen letters in the proper sense of the term-viz. the ten Epistles of St. Paul that may reasonably be regarded as authentic; the three Pastoral Epistles, which, if authentic, are undoubtedly real letters, and, if spurious, are at all events based upon genuine letters from the Apostle’s hand; the Second and Third Epistles of St. John, both of which could at once be characterized rather as something like short private missives; and, finally, the First Epistle of Clement. Of the genuine Pauline letters, Romans comes nearest in character to the ‘epistle,’ though the fact that it is less personal and intimate in its tone and more suggestive of the treatise is quite well accounted for by certain psychological considerations-as, e.g., that the writer was not personally known to the community which he was addressing; we should not therefore be justified in saying that the letter-form is a mere artifice. On the other hand, the so-called First Epistle of Clement, which is written in the name of one entire community to another, is a peculiar composite of ‘letter’ and ‘epistle’; it was certainly meant to be a true letter, arising out of the actual circumstances of the writer’s own church at Rome, and having in view the actual circumstances of the church in Corinth, but it is quite clear that Clement was working upon a tradition of Christian letters and epistles, so that-especially in regard to the length of his message-he does not altogether succeed in maintaining the characteristics of a true letter. The Christian writers of the Apostolic Age, in fact, had not yet become proficient in such literary forms as the treatise, the dialogue, or the controversial pamphlet, and this explains why they had recourse to the letter as the simplest literary vehicle, and yet at the same time burst the trammels of its form. A comparison of the true letters of the Apostolic Age with true letters from approximately the same period of the heathen world shows that, while the similarities in style and diction are manifold and by no means insignificant, yet the former class display a very remarkable independence in their use of the traditional form.

Literature.-Cf. the works cited in article Epistle; on the true letters of the ancients cf. esp. L. Mitteis and U. Wilcken, Grundzüge und Chrestomathie der Papyruskunde, 2 vols., Leipzig, 1912; also H. Lietzmann, Griechische Papyri2, Bonn, 1910; G. A. Deissmann, Licht vom Osten2, 1909 (Eng. translation 2, 1911), and the well-known edd. of Oxyrhynchus papyri, etc. On ‘true letters’ from the Christian sphere, cf. the present writer’s Gesch. der altchristl. Literatur, Leipzig, 1911.

H. Jordan.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Letter'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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