The epistolary genre
As the church spread geographically, it became more difficult for the apostles to visit personally. Instead, they gave leadership by writing epistles and sending them. Some epistles were written specifically for one church (but often passed on to neighboring churches). Other epistles were encyclical, i.e. meant for circulation among churches in a larger region.
Twenty-one of the New Testament books are epistles. They may me classified as follows:
The epistles follow the patterns of other letters from the Greco-Roman culture, but are longer and more varied. The typical elements in an epistle are:
- Sender, recipient, greeting (“Grace to you and peace …”)
- Body of the letter:
- Encouragement (“I thank God for you because …”)
- Narration (occasion for writing the letter)
- Gospel “indicative”: facts about salvation
- Gospel “imperative”: rules for Christian living
- Responses to questions from the church (“Concerning …, I want you to know …”)
- Final exhortation
- Personal greetings (“Greet …”)
- Benediction (“The grace of the Lord be with you.”)
Authenticity and pseudepigraphy
It was not uncommon in the NT times to encounter pseudepigraphy, letters that mention a famous person as their sender but in reality written by someone else. Many Bible scholars believe that of the 13 Pauline epistles, only seven are authentic; the remaining six may have been written by someone else.
In several epistles, Paul assures his readers of authenticity. While he probably employed a scribe to write most of the letter, he writes a few lines in his own handwriting to authenticate it.
Churches had great regard for the epistles sent by apostles. They collected and copied them; this collection became the basis for the New Testament. It is clear that authorship and authenticity were important selection criteria. Way therefore be reasonable certain that the epistles that were incorporated in the New Testament are authentic apostolic writings. (In a few cases, such as Hebrews and 2/3 John, questions about authorship remain.)
Paul’s epistle to Philemon is his shortest; it deals with a practical and personal matter, but also shows much about Christian life and relationships. Philemon is a wealthy man in Colossae and a Christian. His slave, Onesimus, has run away. Onesimus has met Paul and become a Christian. Paul now returns Onesimus to his owner and asks Philemon to take him back, and to treat him like a brother in the faith.
This is a bold request, given that runaway slaves were often put to death or at least branded and no longer trusted. But Paul, through clever rhetoric, compels Philemon to view everything from a Christian point of view.
Paul, as an apostle of Christ, has the right to demand Philemon’s cooperation (8), but he’d rather have Philemon do it voluntarily (14). Paul makes it personal (12): since Onesimus is now a believer, Paul loves him as a son (10). Onesimus is better off now, anyway, since he now gains a brother in the faith (16). To put things in perspective, Paul points out that, from a spiritual point of view, Philemon owes him his life (19).
All in all, Paul shows in a bold and persuasive way that Christianity changes human relationships in a profound way.