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  • Writer's pictureMarco Inniss

Understanding the Letters in the New Testament

Did you know that of the 27 books in the New Testament, 21 of them are letters written to communities of Jesus’ followers, and they were spread throughout the Roman Empire. Most of the letters, (also known as epistles), are attributed to Paul – Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. The remaining letters are Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John and Jude.

Letters can be thought of as a conversation you might have with a friend. And like a conversation with a friend, a lot of background information is assumed but not stated directly in the letters. As you read the New Testament letters, it’s helpful to keep in mind –

The Cultural Context

• The churches receiving the letters were under strict Roman rule. Because Roman society was hierarchical, Paul’s message might have sounded different to people of varied social status. Men who were Roman citizens had some ability to raise their social status, while women, enslaved people and the poor were considered inferior and had little hope of doing the same. Jesus’ message that God cares for everyone might threaten and convict those in high places but be liberating for those looked down upon in their societies.

• Jesus’ followers were viewed as radical because they threatened the dominant social order. Jesus’ love was for all, and his death and resurrection meant the creation of a new humanity—one without divisions based on race, gender or social class. As you read, look for these countercultural moments.

• In the beginning, the author often provides us with context about the letter. For example, it’s easy to read a letter like Romans as one long essay on theology, but Paul is actually addressing division between Jewish and non-Jewish followers in Rome. Some higher-status Christians were treating Jewish Christians with disrespect, but Paul wants the church to realize they’re all members of God’s family now. As you read, think about how the message might apply to the specific issues in the church receiving the letter.

While our context today looks different than these early church communities, we can see in these letters our own tendencies to create division and fail to love one another as beloved siblings in God’s family. But the gospel of Jesus Christ can transform our communities just like it did theirs.

How They Were Created and Communicated

Have you ever found yourself imagining the writers of the New Testament while reading them? If so, what were they like? Did you picture them alone or with others?

The authors of the New Testament were probably rarely alone. Paul was a missionary traveling throughout the Mediterranean, preaching the gospel and starting new churches. He had companions and cowriters who helped him craft his letters, probably drawing from speeches, prayers and poems, all pieced together and written down by a scribe.

Whoever delivered the finished letter to the church community would read it out loud like a speech. Since the community would have heard the letter read from beginning to end, it’s helpful for us to read it that way as well.

The Literary Context

Ancient letters have a specific format. They begin with an opening that gives the name of the author, followed by thanksgiving for the community receiving the letter. The body of the letter addresses particular issues in the church, and the conclusion includes additional greetings, travel plans, final requests and prayers.

Although most New Testament letters follow this format, they are sometimes adjusted to suit a purpose. For example, you might notice Galatians skips over thanksgiving as Paul jumps into a heated critique of the Galatians turning away from his teaching to a different gospel.

Also note that the big idea of the letter is usually stated right after the greeting. Each paragraph generally has its own main idea, and sections are joined together with transition phrases such as “therefore,” “so then,” and “because of this.” Keep the big idea in mind and watch for these transitions to see how the author builds the argument.

As you think about the situations the New Testament letter writers sought to address, consider how their words relate to us today.

Drawn from study features in the NIV, The Telos Bible.

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