Reading New Testament Letters: Part 1

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on Reading New Testament Letters from CSU’s Executive Vice-President Michael Bryant.

Introduction [1]

The New Testament contains a number of genres (e.g., Gospel, Apocalypse, Letter). Below we examine the genre of letter.

What is a letter?

A letter or epistle is an important form of writing in the NT. Twenty-one of the twenty-seven writings in the NT are letters (“letters” comprise approximately thirty-five percent of the NT). The letters of the NT are written by Paul, James, Peter, John, Jude, and perhaps an additional author (depending on whom one views as the author of Hebrews).

The traditional names of the NT letters come from one of three different categories:  (1) the individual to whom the writing is addressed (e.g., 1 Timothy), (2) the group who received the letter (e.g., Romans), or (3) the sender (author) of the letter (e.g., 1 John).

How were NT letters written? What was the process for their composition and sending?

NT letters were written as modern letters today are written, by an author. However, the process was (at times) more complex and certainly more expensive.[2] In light of these factors, letter writing was much less common in the first-century than in later times.

Ancient people employed animal skins and papyrus sheets (made from the stem of a plant) for their “paper.” In regard to a writing utensil, they used a reed. Finally, they made ink by mixing soot, oil and gum. These materials were costly and valuable. Understandably, it would have been quite challenging for some people to acquire such things. We should also note that illiteracy would have been a greater problem in the past than today.

In regard to the process of writing a letter, while an individual author served as the “mind” behind a letter’s contents, usually a trained secretary (scribe, amanuensis) was responsible for the actual writing of the letter. For instance, while Paul is responsible for the contents of Romans, Tertius served as his amanuensis (Rom 16:22).

Why did authors use scribes? Employing scribes was simply the practice of the day. Authors preferred this method because it allowed them to focus on what they wished to say while allowing another to carry out the physical task of producing a letter. Scribes were trained for their work. They were expected to provide the tools and materials for producing a letter. They made their own writing utensils, obtained their own writing material (e.g., papyrus sheets) and mixed their own ink.

The initial stage of writing a letter involved the scribe taking notes on a wax tablet from the author. Afterward, the scribe reproduced the letter on an animal skin or papyrus sheet into a beautiful script that was carefully crafted (like calligraphy).

Sometimes an author allowed a secretary more freedom in producing a letter (e.g., the author provided a general outline and allowed the secretary to flesh out the outline). Other times an author did not allow a secretary a great deal of freedom (e.g., the author dictated his thoughts to the secretary). Nevertheless, an author would review the final contents to ensure that the letter expressed his mind. Another common feature of letter writing was for an author to conclude his letter in his own hand so that his readers would know that it actually came from him (e.g., 1 Cor 16:21; Col 4:18; 2 Thess 3:17).

It is likely the most of the NT letters were produced with the assistance of an amanuensis. This was simply the usual method for composing a letter in the first-century.

What is a “cosender”?

We should also mention people known as cosenders. A cosender was an individual (or group of people) who was present with the author. Paul references fellow cosenders in eight of his letters (Timothy: 2 Cor, Phil, Col, 1 and 2 Thess, Phile; Silas: 1 and 2 Thess; see also Gal 1:2 and 1 Cor 1:1).[3] In truth, we do not know the specific role a cosender played in the production of the NT letters. For instance, while it is logical to assume that Paul discussed the writing of 2 Corinthians with Timothy, we should not necessarily conclude that 2 Corinthians was a “group project.” The letter came from Paul under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

In regard to the actual sending of a NT letter, when most people wrote a letter they sent it by others who happened to be traveling to the intended destination. Paul relied on various individuals to carry his letters to others (e.g., Tychicus, Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7-9; Epaphroditus, Phil 2:25). These letter carriers did more, however, than take a letter to its intended destination. They also explained the contents to the recipients. A postal system did exist in the first-century, but only people in the government had access to it.

How do NT letters differ from other letters in the ancient world?

First, NT letters are typically longer than other letters from ancient times. The following quote from Richards provides a helpful perspective:

In the approximately 14,000 private letters from Greco-Roman antiquity, the average length was about 87 words, ranging in length from about 18 to 209 words. Yet the letters of more literary men like Cicero and Seneca differed considerably. Cicero averaged 295 words per letter… and Seneca averaged 995… By both standards, though, Paul’s letters were quite long. The thirteen letters bearing his name average 2,495 words, ranging from 335 (Philemon) to 7,114 (Romans).[4]

Shorter NT letters required only one sheet of papyrus. Longer letters required multiple sheets, which could be made by gluing them at their ends and then rolling them into a scroll.

Second, NT letters fell between two major categories, private and public writings. In ancient times most letters were either private or public. Private letters were informal and personal in nature. An author usually intended only an individual to read a private letter (e.g., business contracts, civic records, letters between a husband and wife). On the other hand, public letters were more formal literary productions. Authors of public letters sought a wider public audience (e.g., some letters of Cicero). Examples of private letters include Philemon and 2 John, while examples of more public letters include Romans, Ephesians and 1 Peter.

In conclusion, we may say that (in general) NT letters share similarities with ancient Greco-Roman letters, at least to some extent. However, they are in truth unique compositions.


[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] E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition, and Collection, 165-169, estimates that if 1 Corinthians was produced by a professional scribe, it could have cost roughly $2,100 (in today’s money) to produce.

[3] Not all letters had a cosender. For example, Pauline letters that do not reference a cosender are Romans (Rom 1:1), Ephesians (Eph 1:1); 1 Timothy (1:1); 2 Timothy (2 Tim 1:1) and Titus (Tit 1:1).

[4] E. Randolph Richards, The Secretary in the Letters of Paul, 213. Cited by Duvall and Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 228.

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