Epistles in the Early Christian Church

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The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

By George Barker Stevens

Some of the most important literature of antiquity exists in the form of letters. The correspondence of men prominent in political and literary life often throws a clear light upon the conditions of the age. It reveals the civic, social, and religious forces that were operative in the time to which the letters belong. A familiar example is a correspondence between the younger Pliny and the emperor Trajan in the early years of the second Christian century. Pliny was governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor and, in the discharge of that office, sent letters and reports to his master, to some of which we possess the emperor’s replies. One of these letters of Pliny describes the beliefs and practices of the Christians in his province and asks for instruction as to the best way of dealing with them. The letter opens our view of the early church’s situation, struggles, sufferings, and successes. It shows how the ranks of believers were increasing by additions from all classes of society; how the strange “superstition,” as Pliny thought it, was spreading like a contagion in city and country; how the heathen shrines were almost deserted and the practice of sacrifice in danger of being abandoned. It reflects the piety, devotion, and blameless life of the Christians of the period, describing how they were accustomed to meeting at night and singing hymns of praise to Christ. It enables us to see them assembled at their common meal, the “love-feast,” at the close of which they solemnly celebrated the Holy Supper instituted by Christ. It depicts their orderliness and sobriety and describes the solemn promises by which they bound themselves to abstain from all impurity and crime and live a holy life.

The P52 PROJECT THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS 4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS
George Barker Stevens was an American Congregational and Presbyterian clergyman, theologian, author, educator, and Yale Divinity School professor.

The letters preserved to us in the New Testament are not less interesting than this letter of Pliny for the historical information they convey. Sometimes this information is more personal and biographical; sometimes more general, including matters of public and common interest and importance. A letter may have its main significance in revealing the mind and feeling of the writer, or its chief interest may lie in its portrayal of a historical situation, a form of belief, or a type of doctrine. In the New Testament epistles, all these elements of interest are blended together, though in very different proportions. We have one example of a private letter, that of Paul to Philemon. Some of our New Testament epistles, like those of Paul to the Galatians and Colossians, and the Epistles of Jude and Second Peter, are largely taken up with describing current forms of error that the readers are warned to avoid. Like the Epistles to the Corinthians, some deal mainly with perplexing practical questions of conduct. Still others, like Romans and Hebrews, are chiefly devoted to the exposition and defense of Christian doctrine. But these differences are differences in proportion. Every epistle is a reflex of its age and its author. Each of them has a message which reflects its own time, purpose, and circumstances.

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS

It is impossible to determine with certainty the exact order of the epistles of the New Testament. In the opinion of many scholars, the Epistle of James is the earliest.[1] In any case, the first ten epistles of Paul, included in this volume, are among the earlier of the New Testament epistles since they probably belong within the period A.D. 52–63. If the Epistle of James was written before 52 A.D., it is, in all probability, the only example preserved to us is a pre-Pauline letter. [This is not really the case, James was written before 62 A.D., Edward D. Andrews] However, it is possible that Paul himself may have written letters to churches before he wrote the earliest of his epistles, which have been preserved to us—those to the Thessalonians. In 2 Thess. 3:17, he speaks of his habit of adding a salutation in his own handwriting as a token of genuineness “in every epistle”—an expression that naturally suggests that he had already written a number of epistles. In the same letter (2 Thess. 2:2), he refers to a spurious epistle that was in circulation, purporting to come from him and his assistants. Such a forgery would be more natural if several genuine letters of Paul were already known to have been written.[2] We know that some of Paul’s epistles have been lost from other sources. In 1 Cor. 5:9, he speaks of what he had written in an earlier epistle to the Corinthians, to which they had replied (7:1).[3] In Col. 4:16, he directs that the epistle which he is writing be read to the church at Laodicea and that the epistle to the Laodicean church be read to the Colossians. Unfortunately, this epistle to the Laodiceans has also been lost.[4]

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot

Next to personal, oral teachings, the epistle was the best means of instruction available in the early church. The Christian congregations were widely scattered over Palestine and adjacent regions and throughout the vast range of territory from Jerusalem to Rome. It is possible also that, as vague traditions testify, there were churches in the far East that lived without a history and perished without leaving a memorial.

What Do We Know About Books, Reading, and Writing; Literacy In Early Christianity?

It was quite impracticable for the apostles to frequently visit these widely scattered congregations. The writing of letters partially supplied the place of such visits. In letters, a particular church’s unique needs or a group of churches could receive attention. Hence, we find that each New Testament epistle has well-defined characteristics which adapted it to its particular purpose. Some teach practical duties; others expose current errors. Some are chiefly doctrinal, others mainly practical. They warn the readers against erroneous or dangerous practices, encourage them to endure persecution, picture the perils of apostasy, and fortify their faith by depicting the Christian’s hope for the future. Thus, the epistles were the most natural, vital, and effective means of Christian teaching in the apostolic age.

English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

To its correct understanding, every epistle must be studied in the light of its time, purpose, and circumstances. Something must be known of the readers, their situation, faults, dangers, and progress in Christian life; if possible, of the writer, his personality, experience, present condition, and relation to the readers. The epistles were, in a sense, projections of the personalities of their writers. They reflect definite and concrete conditions. In proportion, as we apprehend these conditions, these writings become vivid and realistic. They live and breathe again; they become a pleading and warning voice, now tender and persuasive, now stern and threatening, proclaiming to the struggling and often misguided believers of the first age the way of safety and peace.

Such being the occasion and purpose of the New Testament epistles, it would be very unnatural to expect in them a finished literary character or a strict logical structure. In the main, they are written in clear and expressive language, and in many passages, they rise to heights of real eloquence. The Epistle to the Hebrews, especially, is marked by a high degree of rhetorical power and finish. From a merely literary standpoint, however, the epistles of the New Testament are not classic productions, for they were not the work of cultured writers. The primitive apostles were plain, though by no means illiterate, men.[5] They gave heed not so much to the form as to the practical effectiveness of their teaching. Through their rugged forms of expression, they conveyed messages of truth and wisdom, which are valid and essential for all times. These are among the original documents of our religion, emanating from those who constituted the inner circle of our Lord’s followers. As such, they have a unique and imperishable value for all believers.

PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL

[1] This is actually not the case, the first epistle to the Thessalonians is the earlies, written about 150 A.D. The Epistle of James was not written until sometime before 62 A.D.

[2] Some in the church were wrongly claiming that the presence of Jesus Christ was looming. There was possibly even a letter incorrectly attributed to Paul that was interpreted as indicating that “the day of the Lord has come.” (2Th 2:1, 2) This is likely why the apostle spoke of the genuineness of his second letter, saying: “The greeting is by my hand, Paul’s, which is a sign in every letter; this is the way I write.” – 2 Thessalonians 3:17. Edward D. Andrews

[3] The apostles may have written other letters to certain congregations. For example, Paul’s statement in his supposed first letter to the Corinthians (5:9): “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people,” suggests that he had written a previous letter to the Corinthians. This one is no longer in existence. Such writings clearly were not preserved by the Holy Spirit for the church because they were crucial only to the recipient. – Edward D. Andrews.

[4] Inventive explanations have been offered by scholars to explain Colossians 4:16, and they solve some things. We should simply view it as an interesting possibility. Regardless, Edward D. Andrews accepts the letter to the Ephesians to be just that, a letter by Paul specifically meant for the Ephesians, and not the one sent to Laodicea discussed in Colossians 4:16. The one to the Laodiceans has been simply for them only, or a repetition of points already covered in the canonical letters, or it simply was not inspired, so it was left out of the Scriptures.

[5] THE READING CULTURE OF EARLY CHRISTIANITY: The Production, Publication, Circulation, and Use of Books in the Early Christian Church by Edward D. Andrews. (ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1949586848) https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949586847

THE READING CULTURE OF EARLY CHRISTIANITY provides the reader with the production process of the New Testament books, the publication process, how they were circulated, and to what extent they were used in the early Christian church. It examines the making of the New Testament books, the New Testament secretaries and the material they used, how the early Christians viewed the New Testament books, and the literacy level of the Christians in the first three centuries. It also explores how the gospels went from an oral message to a written record, the accusation that the apostles were uneducated, the inspiration and inerrancy in the writing process of the New Testament books, the trustworthiness of the early Christian copyists, and the claim that the early scribes were predominantly amateurs. Andrews also looks into the early Christian’s use of the codex [book form], how did the spread of early Christianity affect the text of the New Testament, and how was the text impacted by the Roman Empire’s persecution of the early Christians?

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