An epistle (pronounced [ɪˈpɪsəl] ) (Greek επιστολη, "epistolē," "letter") is a writing directed or sent to a person or group of persons, usually a letter and a very formal, often
didacticand elegant one. The letters in the New Testamentfrom Apostles to Christians are usually referred to as epistles; those traditionally from Paul are known as Pauline epistlesand the others as Catholicor general epistles.
Epistles are written in strict accordance to formalized, Hellenistic tradition, especially the
Pauline epistles. This reflects the amount of Hellenistic influence upon the epistle writers. Any deviancy is not the result of accident but indicates an unusual motive of the writer.
In contrast to modern letters, epistles usually named the author at the very beginning, followed by the recipient (for example, see
Philippians[http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=philippians%201:1;&version=31; 1:1] ). The scribe (or more correctly, the amanuensis) who wrote down the letter may be named at the end of the "episte" (e.g. Romans [http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=rom%2016:22;&version=31; 16:22] ). In the absence of a postal system, the couriermay also be named (e.g. Ephesians[http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=eph%206:21-22;&version=31; 6:21-22] ).
After the names of the author and recipient, Pauline epistles often open with the greeting, "Grace and peace to you." "Grace" was a common Hellenistic greeting, while "peace" (
shalom) was the common Jewish greeting; this reflected Paul's dual identity in Jewish faith and Hellenistic culture. There may also be a word of thanks to the audience. In secular letters, a prayer or wish for health followed.
The body begins with a brief statement introducing the main topic of the entire body.
To English readers, the epistles may appear more formalized than originally read, due to the process of translation. The writer sought to establish "philophronesis", an intimate extension of their relationship as similar as a face to face encounter as possible. The writer hoped to revive the friendship, making the epistle a substitute for the actual writer. Letters written to a group of people, which include most of the
New Testamentepistles, were not read individually but read aloud to the entire church congregation.
The content is concise compared to modern letters. Writing required a great financial expense of paper and ink and long process of time.
The letter often intends to establish
theologicalpoints (as in many of Paul's epistles), to comfort in the face of persecution (for example, 1 Peter), or to exhort Christians to do good works (James).
In the context of a
liturgy, "epistle" may refer more specifically to a particular passage from a New Testament epistle (the Pauline epistlesand the Catholic epistles) — sometimes also from the Book of Actsor the Revelation of John, but not the Four Gospels— that is scheduled to be read on a certain day or at a certain occasion.
In the Roman Catholic Mass and
Anglican Communion, epistles are read between the Collectand the Gospelreading. The corresponding Gregorian chants have a special tone ("tonus epistolae"). When the epistle is sung or chanted at Solemn Massit is done so by the subdeacon.
Divine Liturgyof the Eastern Orthodox Churchthe Epistle reading is called the "Apostol" (the same name is given to the lectionaryfrom which it is read). The Apostol includes the Acts of the Apostles as well as the Epistles, but never the Apocalypse(Revelation of John). There are Epistle lessons for every day of the year, except for weekdays during Great Lent, when the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated. These daily Epistle readings are a part of the Paschal cycle, being ultimately dependent upon the date of Pascha (Easter). There are also lessons appointed for the feast days of numerous saints and commemorations. There may be one, two, or three readings from the Apostol during a single Liturgy. The Epistle reading is always chanted (never simply read in a spoken voice) between the Prokeimenonand the Alleluia. The Epistle reading is always linked to a reading from the Gospel, though some services, such as Matins, will have a Gospel lesson, but no Epistle. A number of services besides the Divine Liturgy will have an Epistle and Gospel reading. Such services often include a Prokeimenon and Alleluia as well. The Epistle is chanted by the reader, though at a Hierarchical Liturgy (a Divine Liturgy celebrated by a bishop), it is read by a deacon. The one who chants the Epistle also reads the verses of the Prokeimenon and Alleluia.
Heroides, by Ovid
Epistolary novel, a novel written as a series of letters or similar writings
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