A written message sent as a means of communication between persons separated by distance. Letters in the Bible consist of two categories: (1) letters mentioned and sometimes found in Bible books and (2) books of the Bible that are themselves letters.
Old Testament One of the earliest biblical references to a letter was the letter that David wrote to Joab about Uriah (2 Samuel 11:14-15). Ironically, Uriah was the bearer of the letter that contained orders for his own death. This letter was typical of many in the Old Testament in its brevity and terseness. This can be accounted for by the fact that the letter was from king to subject; thus, many standard expressions of polite address have been omitted (compare
Jezebel sent letters in Ahab's name ordering Naboth's death. She sealed the letters with Ahab's seal (1 Kings 21:8-11). The king of Syria sent Naaman to the king of Israel with a letter instructing that Naaman be cured of his leprosy (2 Kings 5:5-6). Jehu sent letters to the guardians of the sons of Ahab, ordering that the sons of Ahab be killed (2 Kings 10:1-7). King Hezekiah of Judah sent letters by couriers ordering that the Passover be kept (2 Chronicles 30:1-6). The king of Assyria sent a threatening letter to Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:8-14). The king of Babylon sent Hezekiah letters and presents (2 Kings 20:12).
Jeremiah 29:1 contains a different kind of letter. The prophet Jeremiah wrote a pastoral letter to Jewish exiles in Babylon. Unable to be with the exiles, Jeremiah wrote words of exhortation and encouragement. The content, purpose, and tone of this letter foreshadowed the letters that became books of the New Testament and sound very much like the letters Paul, Peter, James, and John wrote.
The period of the restoration resulted in many letters. The Persian Empire must have been a fertile period for letter writing (See Israel, History of). These letters are mentioned in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. See
New Testament Letters are even more important in the New Testament. A number of references appear to letters within other Bible books. More than half of the books of the New Testament are letters.
The Book of Acts contains several letters and references to letters. When Saul went to Damascus to persecute believers, he went armed with letters from the high priest (Acts 9:1-2;
Acts 22:5). After the Jerusalem conference, a letter was written to inform the churches of the decision that had been reached. Men were selected to carry the letter and to explain it to the churches (Acts 15:22-23). (Compare also
1 Corinthians 16:3;
2 Corinthians 3:1-2).
Archaeological finds have confirmed that letters were common. Many letters were written on papyrus for business and personal reasons. See Paper; Papyrus. These archaeological finds also show that the form of letters in the New Testament reflected the letters of that time.
The nature of Paul's work made letters an important means of communication. He traveled widely and established many churches. He spent part of his time imprisoned. He continued and expanded his ministry by writing letters. He wrote letters to places he had been and to places he hoped to visit. Paul's critics in Corinth accused Paul of being bolder in his letters than in his personal ministry. Paul denied the charge. He viewed his letters as consistent with what he would have said had he been there in person (2 Corinthians 10:9-11).
Most of Paul's letter were addressed to churches. Even the letters addressed to individuals were designed to minister to churches. The so-called Pastoral Letters to Timothy and Titus were sent to men who were working with churches in given areas. Even the Letter to Philemon included the church in its greeting (Philemon 1:1-2).
The Roman Empire had a postal service, but it did not include personal letters. Paul's letters, therefore, were carried by messengers (see
Most of Paul's letters were designed to be read to entire churches.
Colossians 4:16 instructed the Colossian church to read the letter and to pass it along to the Laodicean church. The Colossians also were told to read the letter that Paul had written to the Laodiceans. Scholars disagree about the identity of the letter to the Laodiceans. Some say that it was the Letter to the Ephesians. Others feel that it was the Letter to Philemon. Or it may have been a letter that has not survived. Paul wrote other letters that have not survived. Perhaps two such letters are mentioned in
1 Corinthians 5:9 and
2 Corinthians 7:8.
2 Peter 3:15-16 mentions the difficulty some people had in understanding Paul's letters. This implies that Paul's letters were widely read. It also shows that some first-century readers had problems understanding all that Paul wrote.
The New Testament contains other letters. The two Letters of Peter and the Letter of Jude follow the familiar first-century form of letters.
The salutation is the only letter characteristic that has been positively identified in the Book of James. The content and approach of James is that of a wisdom writing. (See James; Wisdom and Wisemen). Hebrews on the other hand, begins like a sermon and ends like a letter. See Hebrews.
The three letters of John have some distinctives in style and format; only 2 and 3 John have the basic letter format. Their brevity parallels the vast majority of surviving Hellenistic letters.
Even the Book of Revelation has some characteristics of a letter. John sent it to the churches of Asia (Revelation 1:4).
Revelation 2-3 contain letters to these churches from the risen Lord.