EPISTLE: I. The Epistles of the New Testament: Importance and Significance. Westcott and Hort's Greek New Testament has 531 pages of text, of which slightly over one-third is taken up by the Epistles. This is a striking fact, showing that the epistolary element is a significant part of Holy Scripture and decisive for the study of the nature and meaning of revelation and inspiration. Since the New Testament reflects the history and mental perspective of the Christian consciousness out of which it came, it is also certain that letter-writing played a large part in the building and development of the Apostolic Church.
Other facts found in or near the Apostolic Age have similar bearing. The letters to the churches in the Apocalypse of John (chaps. ii. and iii.) are strong evidence. Their existence as an organic part of an apocalypse is, in itself, notable. Christianity took the apocalypse from the Jews. For two centuries it had been in constant use and, like all abiding literary types, had created for itself a traditional mold. The prophetic consciousness of the new religion boldly altered and adapted it. The New Testament apocalyptist takes the letter as a part of his method. His letters are something more than a form; each had a definite address and, like a real letter, takes color from actual and local conditions. This original element in the Christian Apocalypse proves that letter-writing had already played a considerable part in the making of the new religion's fortune; otherwise, the apocalyptist would not have made this use of the epistolary form.
The First Epistle of Clement (95 A.D.?) shows a Christian congregation manifesting a lively interest in the affairs of another. Evidently, correspondence was the means whereby the new religion both expressed and intensified its deep common consciousness. The Shepherd of Hermas (100-140 A.D.?) enjoins Clement, the head of the Roman congregation, to send the prophet's outgivings to the other churches. Thus it is evident that the letter satisfied a deep need of primitive Christianity. Religions differ in their power to create a high and sustained common consciousness. It was because the religion of Jesus excelled at this point all competing religions which invaded the Roman Empire in the same period that it eventually conquered. Therefore, the large space within the Scripture canon occupied by the Epistles illumines the history of the Apostolic Church and the nature of the Christian religion.
The Apostolic letters were in large part written before 70 A.D., while three at least of the Gospels were published after that date. Here, again, is a fact significant for the interior history of the Apostolic Church. The publication of the Gospels corresponds to the need which impels a nation to publish and codify its organic law. The building of the Apostolikon (the Epistles) accompanies the founding and building of the Catholic Church, while the publishing of the Gospels indicates the deepening self-consciousness of the Church.
The Epistles of Paul. In the founding of the Catholic Church St. Paul played the leading part. It was his ambition as a missionary to evangelize the empire. In the pursuance of that splendid aim he planted churches widely scattered over Asia Minor and Greece, the care of which was on his heart night and day (II Cor. xi. 28). Consequently through letters and the disciples who served him as letter-carriers (Timothy, Epaphroditus, Sylvanus, and others) he kept himself in touch with these outposts and sought to shape their development. It is easy, then, to understand why the Pauline letters constitute the main part of the New Testament Epistles. In the first place they occupy a large part of the space within the canon. Of the 183 pages given to the Epistles in Westcott and Hort's Greek New Testament, St. Paul fills 127. In the second place, the Pauline letters are the only real letters in the New Testament. The Catholic Epistles are largely homilies; the Epistle to the Hebrews is a theological treatise, with a small personal element (xiii. 23-25); but the Pauline letters are in large part real letters. The apostle was informed regarding conditions in his churches, and his letters go to the heart of specific problems and needs.
St. Paul used the letter as he used the Greek language, with masterly freedom. His salutation is a distinct literary evolution. Compare it with the salutation of James, which is cast in the literary mold of his time. Paul builds up a salutation which becomes an apologetic and doctrinal instrument (Gal. i. 1-5; Rom. i. 1-7). His eager, creative mind reaches forward to his conclusion and greets his correspondents with it.
St. Paul's letters are, in sense, an autobiography. In them he expresses himself with great freshness, surrendering himself to the matter in hand, taking color from it while he imposes form upon it. In this way he makes himself the only man of the Apostolic Age who is largely and vitally individual to us and comes before us as a real person. No life of Peter or John can be written which is not mainly generalization and more or less diffuse sermonizing. But a biography of Paul is possible.
HENRY S. NASH.
II. Apocryphal Epistles. See APOCRYPHA, B.
III. Epistles, in the Liturgical Sense. See PERICOPE; and also EVANGELIARIUM; for those in the ecclesiastical sense see COMMENDATORY LETTERS; DECRETALS; ENCYCLICAL LETTERS; LETTERS DIMISSORY.
Bibliography: As an aid to penetrating the internal life of the Apostolic Age through study of the Epistles, consult in general the literature on that period and the works on Introduction to the N. T., especially: E. Renan, Hist. des origins du christianisme, 7 vols., Paris, 1863-82, Eng. transl., London, n.d. (brilliant, but the conclusions are to be scanned); E. Reuss, Geschichte der heiligen Schriften des N. T ., Brunswick, 1887, Eng. transl., London, 1890 (somewhat antiquated, yet precise and clear in insight); A. C. McGiffert, Hist. of Christianity in the Apostolic Age, New York, 1897 (belongs to the Harnack school); A. Jülicher, Einleitung in das N. T., Tübingen, 1901, Eng. transl., London, 1904 (best for Introduction); J. Moffatt, Historical N. T ., Edinburgh, 1901 (handy); E. von Dobschütz,, Das apostolische Zeitalter, Halle, 1904, Eng. transl., London, 1904 (on the religious and social background); P. Wernle, Die Anfänge unserer Religion, Tübingen, 1904, Eng. transl., Beginnings of Christianity, 2 vols., London, 1903-04 (the doctrinal predominates over the practical and social); W. M. Ramsay, Letters to the Seven Churches, ib. 1905; J. H. Ropes, The Apostolic Age in the Light of Criticism, New York, 1906 (best popular work); H. von Soden, Beginnings of Christianity, London, 1906.