Reading New Testament Letters: Part 3 Michael Bryant

December 7, 2016

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of posts on Reading New Testament Letters from CSU’s Executive Vice-President Michael Bryant. [1] You can read part 1 HERE and part 2 HERE.

What form do NT letters take?

Modern letters often follow a standard form. For example, a writer of a typical business letter may arrange his letter as follows: address of sender, date, address of recipient, greeting, body, closing, and signature. In a similar manner, ancient letters also followed a standard form. The authors of NT letters by and large followed ancient letter writing customs. We may summarize the typical formal of an ancient letter as follows:

Opening/Introduction

Name of sender(s)

Examples:

1 Corinthians 1:1, “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus.”

(“apostle,” Paul wishes to emphasize his role as an apostle)

Philippians 1:1, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ.”

(“servants,” Paul wishes to emphasize his role as a servant; also he references Timothy as a cosender of the letter)

Name(s) of recipients

Examples:

1 Corinthians 1:2, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours.”

Paul’s reference to the Corinthian believers as “sanctified . . . and called to be holy” is deliberate. The Corinthians struggle with living holy lives before the Lord. Paul wishes to remind them of their special calling.

The NT letters may at times be addressed to individuals (e.g., Philemon). However, the authors always have a local congregation in mind.

Greeting

In ancient times Greco-Roman letters included a greeting (“greetings”). NT authors followed this practice; however, on occasion they Christianized the greeting by writing such phrases as “grace and peace”  (e.g., 1 Cor 1:3) and “grace, peace and mercy” (e.g., 1 Tim 1:1).

Prayer

Greco-Roman letters usually included a wish of health for the recipient(s) of the letter as well as a prayer to the gods on their behalf. As with the      greeting, Christian authors Christianized the prayer section and offered up a prayer on behalf of the recipient(s).[2]

Our study of the introduction NT letters reveals the important of reading them carefully, for often times the introduction will include clues as to the themes the author wishes to express or issues he desires to address.

Body

The body includes of course the “meat” of the letter. In regard to this section of NT letters, the biblical authors demonstrate a great deal of diversity. The structure of each letter is a matter of great debate among NT scholars. NT letter writers do not follow a single format or structure in regard to the body of a letter.

Closing/Conclusion

NT letters do not follow a single pattern in regard to how they conclude. Furthermore, it is sometimes quite challenging to know when the body section ends and the conclusion section begins. One may identify at least nine elements that are typically found in the conclusion portion of NT letters.[3]

(1) Travel plans or personal situation (e.g., 1 Cor 16:5-9)

(2) Prayer (e.g., Rom 16:25-27)

(3) Commendation of fellow workers (e.g., 1 Cor 16:10-12)

(4) Prayer requests (e.g., Col 4:2-4)

(5) Greetings (e.g., 1 Cor 16:19-21; 2 Cor 13:12)

(6) Final instructions/exhortations (e.g., 1 Cor 16:13-18; Gal 6:11-17)

(7) Holy kiss (e.g., 1 Cor 16:20b; 2 Cor 13:12a)

(8) Autographed greeting (e.g., 1 Cor 16:21; 2 Thess 3:17)

(9) Grace benediction (e.g., Rom 16:20b; 1 Cor 16:23-24; Eph 6:24)

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NOTES:

[1] This article relies substantially on the following works: J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 2nd ed.; Robert Plummer, 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible; and Thomas Schreiner, Interpreting the Pauline Epistles, 2nd ed.

[2] On most occasions, at least in the Pauline writings, the prayer is a prayer of thanksgiving. “Almost all of Paul’s Letters have a thanksgiving (e.g., 1 Cor 1:4-9; Col 1:3-8) or blessing (2 Cor 1:3-7; Eph 1:3-14). Only Galatians and Titus lack a thanksgiving; the latter lacks it because Paul was writing a brief letter of instruction to his trusted assistant, while the former lack it because the Galatians’ abandonment of the gospel rather than thanksgiving was in the forefront of Paul’s mind. He does not follow any set pattern in his thanksgivings.” Schreiner, Interpreting the Pauline Epistles, 2nd ed., 16.

[3] Here we follow closely Schreiner, Interpreting the Pauline Epistles, 2nd ed., 17-18.

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