Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

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11. New Testament Letters


This chapter should enable the student to

  • understand the arrangement of letters in the New Testament and recognize common categories into which certain letters are frequently placed.
  • describe the process through which letters were composed and delivered in the New Testament world.
  • outline the typical structure of an ancient letter and identify characteristics of its constituent parts.
  • discuss the question of pseudepigraphy as it relates to New Testament letters with nuanced understanding of what scholars mean when they say that a letter is “authentic” or “pseudepigraphical.”

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. Communications with Early Churches

To see the energies and organization that went into ancient written and oral communication between community leaders and their communities, have students work with 1 Thessalonians 2:17–3:13 or Philippians 2:19–30; 4:15–20. In these passages, students can map the exchanges between Paul and the community to whom he writes. Have students draw or map on paper the directions of travel and the exchange of letter(s), gifts, and people. What roles do Paul’s co-workers play in maintaining Paul’s relationship with Christian communities he has founded? How much time might these exchanges take? Who carried the letters from Paul to Thessalonica and Philippi respectively? Why didn’t Paul go himself?


Ancient letter writing is its own craft, part rhetorical prowess and part political savvy. And Paul was a master at both. But these arts, as well as the concept of writing and delivering letters, are quite foreign to most college students and even seminarians (although they will fast learn the arts)! Taking the time to work through a written passage and imagining the events that it describes is a good way to understand the shape, movement, and importance of communication between the first-century Christian communities. This exercise helps students visualize the exchange of communication and gives them another tool for analyzing written texts.

2. Ancient Letter Structure

To look at the typical letter structure, have students turn to a short (one page) letter like Philemon or 3 John. With these two writings, students can practice identifying the “salutation,” “thanksgiving,” “main body,” and “closing.” In their identification of epistolary elements invite students to also practice using standard biblical citation formulas (salutation: 3 John 1; thanksgiving: 2–4, etc.). You may have to explain the citation form to the class. This will help them read the textbook and understand the basic discipline of biblical study.

A second step is to look at a letter like Galatians where Paul interrupts the common structure for rhetorical reasons. Have students read Galatians and identify the changes from regular letter structure (the thanksgiving is missing). Next, ask students why. Why does Paul omit the thanksgiving? What evidence from the letter supports their hypothesis? Can they identify other shifts in tone throughout the letter?

For more work with the structure of letters, and the rhetorical effect or interruption, changing the form of letters, and identifying the purpose of letters, you could next look at the “subgenre” of letters within the apocalyptic genre of the book of Revelation (Rev. 2 and 3). What is the purpose of these letters? Do they follow the traditional form found in Philemon? What difference does it make that these letters were sent to each of the churches mentioned (locate on a map or turn to text p. 533, map 30.1) as a bundle within a larger vision, so that each church got to read the other church’s problems and praises? See if students can identify the “rhetorical moves” in this more complicated structure.


This exercise introduces one structure in a particular genre. As Powell has mentioned (text ch. 3), there are multiple genres students must work with to understand the ways in which the New Testament writings function. Epistolary structure is an easy place to begin building the concept of genre and structure because students can see the forms quickly, and they are familiar with letter writing—that our epistolary forms have a different structure (Dear Mary, etc.). This gives students a quick point of comparison. From there, students can see how authors “break” the structure to create a particular rhetorical effect. This is another basic building block to New Testament study and to analysis of any written (or oral!) communication.

Discussion Prompts

  1. If letters were read aloud by the letter carrier to the assembled church community (15–30 people in one place), what purpose might the liturgical material have? For example, look at Colossians 1:15–20 or Galatians 3:28 or Philippians 4:15–20. How might we imagine the early Christian assemblies “performing” these letters? Do these passages give us a clue as to the activities of early Christian assemblies? How might the so-called “household codes” function when read aloud in the same assembly (1 Pet. 3:1–7 or Eph. 5:21–6:9)? Imagining these early assemblies, how can we understand the role of letters from leaders to the local church assemblies?
  2. In what ways does the designation “disputed” or “undisputed” affect how one reads the New Testament letters? Does “authenticity” affect the importance or power of these texts as “scripture” in the Christian faith? Does the designation affect the role of certain texts as historical evidence in the historians’ task?
  3. What does Powell mean by the term “acceptable pseudepigraphy,” and how did the early church view such texts (text p. 232)?
  4. Ancient letters served as “an effective substitute for the actual presence of the apostles or church leaders whose name they bore” (text p. 235). Looking at 1 Thessalonians 1–2; 2 Corinthians 2:1–11; or Philemon, how does Paul make use of this rhetorical adage in his letters? To what effect?