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The Genre of New Testament
Letters and Epistles

Dennis Bratcher

The term "genre" has been used in various ways in biblical studies. In one sense it refers to larger types of literature that can be recognized by certain general features, such as gospel, apocalyptic, prophecy, wisdom, etc. In another more technical usage, it refers to smaller literary units, such as miracle stories, proverbs, salvation oracles, etc., that could supposedly be traced into pre-written oral tradition. In that sense, early "form criticism" aimed to reconstruct that historical setting (German: Sitz im Leben, "setting in life") from which the oral tradition arose in order to understand the particular genre that it produced. For beginning students reading scholarly writing it is sometimes a challenge to distinguish which usage a given author has in mind.

However, genre has come to be less a technical term. Since the smaller pre-literary oral units were only posited as a hypothesis, the historical setting and its connection to the proposed oral tradition was of necessity largely speculation. By the 1970s, biblical scholarship became more concerned with focusing on the actual biblical text rather than trying to use posited material "behind" the text as a basis for interpretation. As a result, genre came to be more a general designation for types of literature that could be identified by shared features and function, without much emphasis on any pre-literary oral stage for the material. This does not invalidate the idea of oral traditions behind the written text. It only emphasizes that we no longer have either that oral tradition or its historical context, but do have the written text. Genre, then, is now largely used to identify various types of written text.

While genre refers to the general type of literature, such as an epistle, the term "form" refers to the structure or shared features that can be used to identify that type of literature. The idea of genre within biblical traditions begins with the observation that material that is repeated at regular times and places within a community tends to take on common structure.

For example, public prayers tend to have identifiable parts that mark certain aspects of the prayers. This common structure, or form, is shared to varying degrees among various groups and times. Certain features of the prayer do not have as much meaning in the actual words that are spoken as they do in framing the structure so that it can be recognized as a certain genre. In other words, the communication is in the form more than the words. We know from listening to hundreds of such prayers what the formulaic elements are that will be more or less the same, and what is the actual content of the prayer to which we need to give attention. The same thing is true of other activities that are regularly repeated, such as public worship. No matter how much some churches want to deny that they have any structure to worship, if worship is repeated at regular intervals within a community, it will take on certain structures or forms.

Letter writing is another activity that has taken on certain forms even to distinguish between different kinds of correspondences. We learn these forms and their functions through use, so that when we receive a letter that begins "dear sir or madam" we immediately respond differently than a letter we receive that begins "my dearest." The form, the structure and features of the writing or speech, serve to identify the genre, and that identification of the genre helps us to know how to respond appropriately to the letter. In biblical studies, a lot of miscommunication can occur when we have not properly identified the genre of literature that we are reading.

We have discovered through preserved ancient documents that Greco-Roman and Jewish letter writing followed very regular conventions. In other words, ancient letters had a certain form. It was not that there was a template that everyone followed. It was that, like modern letter writing or even other forms of communication like talking on the telephone, there were certain features that people adopted through repeated usage that aided communication. They could be altered in various ways, but followed a general pattern or form.

There were four general elements of ancient Greco-Roman letters.

1) opening salutation containing writer's name, the recipient's name, and a greeting

2) a prayer, blessing, or thanksgiving

3) the body of the letter (what the sender wanted to say that occasioned the letter)

4) final greeting and farewell

Most of the New Testament letters follow this convention, for example, Philippians:

1) opening salutation

a) name of the writer

1:1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

b) the name of the recipient

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:

c) the greeting

1:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

2) a prayer, blessing, or thanksgiving

a) thanksgiving

1:3-11 I thank my God every time I remember you, 1:4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you. . .

b) report of circumstances

1:12-27 I want you to know, beloved that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel . . .

3) the body of the letter (what the sender wanted to say that occasioned the letter)

a) occasion of the letter

[the report of Paul’s circumstances serves as the occasion of the letter]

b) request

1:27-28 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ . . .

c) content

2:1-4:20 If then there is any encouragement in Christ . . .

4) final greeting and farewell

a) well wishes, greetings to others

4:21-22 Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The friends who are with me greet you. 4:22 All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor's household.

b) final farewell

4:23 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

As noted, letters did not have to follow the form exactly. There can be various modifications of the elements according to the purposes of the writer. However, if there is a significant movement away from the common structure, we might need to ask the significance of the alteration. It is possible that the alteration of a form may be a significant clue to the message. For example, in Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia, he totally omits the Thanksgiving section. Note how quickly he moves to the body of the letter.

1:1 Paul an apostle--sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead-- 1:2 and all the members of God's family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: 1:3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 1:4 who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 1:5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. 1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--

In just six verses he has launched into a defense of his ministry and begins calling the Galatians to accountability for their failure to live up to the preaching of the Gospel. It is obvious that Paul is upset with them, evidenced not just in the language and content, but by the fact that he begins with no prayer for them, no thanksgiving for God’s work among them, and no blessing. The modification of the form helps communicate his distress over their actions.

In other cases the omission of features of the letter may be a clue that the writing is not an actual letter but is a treatise, a sermon, or some other type of writing cast in the literary structure of a letter. This is especially true if it lacks the salutation and the final greetings, those personal elements that we would expect in a true letter. Note that the Book of Hebrews, while in some ways cast in the form of a letter, contains none of these features that one would normally expect in a letter. It is usually identified as a homily or a sermon written with some features of a letter. James, 2 Peter, and 1 John are similar in that they also lack the personal elements that mark a letter. These writings especially are more truly epistles, pastoral letters that are intended for a larger community. Actually, most of Paul’s letters, even those that follow the letter from closely, are epistles written for a larger community. Only Philemon among the New Testament letters is obviously written to a single individual as a personal letter.

There is one aspect that we should always keep in mind in dealing with New Testament letters and epistles. They were written for specific people in specific circumstances to address specific topics. That is part of the function of the form of a letter. Since they are now contained within Scripture, it is easy to yield to our modern temptation to universalize these letters and make them absolute. But we must always take seriously the occasional nature of the letters. That is, they must be heard within the context in which they were written and within the occasions that they were addressing. To take occasional writings intended to address specific historical circumstance, such as Paul’s admonitions to the factions and immature Christians at Corinth, and assume that they are universal law for all circumstances and all times is to radically misunderstand the nature of New Testament letters even as Scripture.

That does not mean that the New Testament letters and epistles have no value for us today. Quite the opposite is true. As Scripture, they have been preserved by the community of Faith for 2,000 years precisely because they have enduring value for the Church as the word of God. But that value must be understood within the occasional nature and limited scope of the issues that the letters themselves were addressing. We must resist the temptation to abstract them into generic and universal truths that ignore that specific context. Keeping in mind the genre of letters/epistles and the forms that help identify them as letters will help us keep their occasional nature in view. That provides us some guidelines and boundaries for how to read and apply them in contemporary contexts.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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