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A communication, especially from a king or high official, usually containing commands, promulgations, or reports. There are letters extant from Arad-Nana, the royal physician, to his master Ashurbanipal on the matter of the monarch’s spondylitis and a young prince’s eye trouble. The famous Amarna letters are reports and appeals from petty subject princes in Palestine disturbed over the weakness of Pharaoh Akhnaton’s foreign policy in the area. There is a tantalizing letter from Tutankhamen’s widow to a Hittite king on the subject of a marriage arrangement.
Examples of OT letters are David’s deadly letter to Joab about Uriah (2 Sm 11:14–15), Jezebel’s equally evil letter over Ahab’s forged signature to the elders of Jezreel (1 Kgs 21:8–9), and the Syrian king’s letter to the king of Israel about Naaman’s leprosy (2 Kgs 5:5–7). All these are reported in the OT record without the customary greetings and the polite forms of address. In Ezra (Ezr 4:11–23; 5:7–17; 7:11–26), Nehemiah (Neh 6:5–7), and Jeremiah, correspondence appears that purports to be the full text. Commonly there is paraphrase, abbreviation, or mere report of content (Neh 2:8; Est 9:20–31).
Official communications in letter form like those noted in the OT are found in the Egyptian papyri. For example, there is the letter of Claudius sent in ad 42 to the turbulent Alexandrians about the Jewish problem in that city. A circular letter of the early second century ad from the governor of Egypt about the approaching census, and highly relevant to the story of the Nativity, is known. The letters of Cicero provide invaluable information on the stormy period in which senatorial rule ended and the Roman Empire was established. The letters of Pliny show Roman society at its best at the turn of the first century of the Christian era, when the writer was governor of Bithynia, and they give much information about the first clash between the state and the church.
Ancient correspondence throws vivid light on common life and the mundane occupations of ordinary people in Greco-Roman times and the early Christian centuries in a manner only to be paralleled in the documents of the NT. It provides background, illustration, comment, and sometimes direct historical evidence—as, for example, the letter file of the leader of the second rebellion of the Jews (ad 132–35), Bar-Kochba. A cache of Bar-Kochba’s letters and campaign documents was discovered in a cave by the Dead Sea. In one letter he orders, “Whatever Elisha says, do.” Another orders the arrest of Tahnun ben Ishmael and the confiscation of his wheat. Another calls for punishment of some who had repaired their homes in defiance of some scorched-earth policy.
Paul observed, with some care, the forms of letter writing common in his day. There is an opening word of salutation, followed by thanksgiving and prayer for the person or company addressed. Then comes the special subject of communication, greetings to friends, and perhaps a closing word of prayer. Here is a second-century letter that shows strikingly the Pauline style in brief:
Ammonous to her sweetest father, greeting. When I received your letter and recognized that by the will of the gods you were preserved, I rejoiced greatly. And as at the same time an opportunity here presented itself, I am writing you this letter being anxious to pay my respects. Attend as quickly as possible to the matters that are pressing. Whatever the little one asks shall be done. If the bearer of this letter hands over a small basket to you, it is I who sent it. All your friends greet you by name. Celer greets you and all who are with him. I pray for your health.
In subject matter Paul ranges from delicate irony over Corinthian pretensions to stern rebuke for heresy, and from news of friends to some precious books and the warm cloak he left at Troas.
The NT letters continue and adapt a mode of didactic correspondence that can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle, except that the NT writers address themselves to groups or communities (Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Hebrews), to the church at large (the letters of Peter, Jude, James, and John’s first epistle), or to individuals or a specific Christian community. The apostolic letter recorded in Acts 15 may have inspired this practice. Revelation 2 and 3 are genuine letters to seven churches on John’s Asian circuit.
By Walter A. Elwell and Philip Wesley Comfort