I. Characteristics of New Testament Letters
A. Comparable to Other Ancient Letters
1. New Testament letters are typically longer than their ancient counterparts.
-“In the approximately 14,000 private letters from Greco-Roman history, 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, ranging from 22 to 2,530 words, and Seneca averaged 995 words, ranging from 149 to 4, 134. 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).”
2. Ancient letters were either informal (meant to be private) or formal (meant to be public). New Testament letters do not fit neatly into either category. Some are more informal (i.e., Philemon, 2 John, and 3 John), while others are more formal (i.e., Romans, Ephesians, Hebrews, James, and 1 Peter).
B. Authoritative Substitutes for Personal Presence
Whenever the apostles or leaders were unable to address a problem or deal with a situation in person, they wrote a letter. It was a way to express their views and minister from a distance. But New Testament letters were more than just substitutes for personal presence; they were authoritative substitutes.
–NOTE: Galatians 1:1—“Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father…” Also Ephesians 1:1—“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…” Finally, 2 Peter 1:1—“Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ…”
In other words, their letters carry authority.
New Testament letters are occasional or situational. This means that they were written to address specific situations or problems related to the author or (usually) to the readers. The topics covered in a letter were usually dictated by the specific situations at work within the community to which the apostles wrote. So for instance, instead of writing systematic theologies or complete doctrines, the authors used their letters to apply theology in practical ways to specific situations in churches. If we fail to see the letters as occasional or situational, we will be tempted to conclude too much from one letter. This can easily lead us to misinterpret the letters.
Because they are occasional or situational, we must try to reconstruct the situation that called for the letter in the first place. In doing this, we must remember that we are only listening in on one side of the conversation. Nevertheless, these authors are responding to real-life situations, and it is important for us to do our best to reconstruct the original situation.
D. Carefully Written and Delivered
The actual job of writing down a letter was normally assigned to a trained scribe or secretary (i.e., Romans 16:22—“I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord.”) But in any case, the author (not the secretary) was responsible for the final contents of the letter, which was shown by their signature (i.e., 1 Corinthians 16:21 and Colossians 4:18—“I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand.” 2 Thessalonians 3:17—“I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write.”
There were also cosenders. Paul mentions cosenders in eight of his thirteen letters. They were mentioned not just as a formality. Along with Paul, they were significantly involved in ministry among the people to whom the letters were addressed. Finally, there were carriers who were used to deliver the letters (i.e., Tychicus delivered Ephesians (6:21-22) and Colossians (4:7-9).
E. Intended for the Christian Community
New Testament letters were meant to read aloud again and again to specific congregations. We see this in Colossians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:27, and 2 Thessalonians 2:15.
II. The Form of New Testament Letters
There are four elements in a typical introduction—name of the writer, name of the recipients, a greeting, and an introductory prayer. Often the writer and the recipients are described in more detail in words that gives us greater insight into the letter (Galatians).
The New Testament letters transformed the standard greeting from “greetings” to “grace and peace.” “Grace and peace to you” is a greeting, but it is also a prayer that the recipients might continue to experience God’s unmerited favor and the peace that flows from it.
Finally, the author added a prayer, normally a prayer of thanksgiving (1 Corinthians 1:4-9). When it is missing, we should pay attention (Galatians).
The body is the largest part of the letter. There is no set format for the body of a New Testament letter.
There are a number of different elements that appear in conclusions:
1) travel plans
2) commendations of coworkers
4) prayer requests
6) final instructions and exhortations
7) holy kiss
Not all letters conform to the standard letter form. Hebrews doesn’t start out like a typical letter, but it does have a letter-like ending. The author of Hebrews even refers to the book as a sermon (13:22). James opens like a letter, but it doesn’t close like one, and it is organized more like a collection of short sermons aimed at a general audience. First John doesn’t open or close like a normal letter, but it was written to a specific group of people.