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How To Read The Bible – Part 18 – New Testament Letters: Literary Context

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

Nowadays, when we want to send someone a letter, we turn on a computer or pull out a smartphone and start typing. In a world powered by email, I wonder how many of us still write or receive letters through the mail? Even so, the style and format of letter writing is still something we all understand.

How did letters in the first century differ from today and what can we learn about how to read the New Testament Letters by reflecting on their Literary Context?

Watch Episode 18 by clicking HERE. Come back after the video to continue reading.

The first valuable insight here is that letters were extremely valuable in the first century. Letter writing was a process that took time and resources. Additionally, without a dedicated postal service, sending a letter came with its own list of very practical and yet significant expenses.

For example, there were professional letter writers called scribes who could be hired to produce the letter. Then, letters would be sent with trusted couriers who would carry them to their destinations. These couriers would need to be provisioned for the journey and compensated for their efforts.

Because of the associated expenses, letters would often be written with the intention of being ‘circulated’ along a travel route. Since making copies would be an additional expense, the courier would ‘deliver’ the letter at each stop along the journey by reading it aloud to the recipient communities.

If a letter was deemed important enough by those communities, they would commission a scribe to make a copy so that the letter could be saved or shared with communities who weren’t on the courier’s travel route.

The fact that the New Testament Letters survived is a testimony to how valuable they were to the Christian communities who received them since many copies were made for distribution and preservation.

A second valuable insight is that first century letters were meant to be read publicly. This stresses the importance of reading each of these letters from beginning to end. At the very least, we need to consider any portion of a letter within the context of the whole.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that the standard format of letter writing in the 1st century is different than what we’re used to today. First century letters can more accurately be understood as discourses, a type of intellectual argument like a research paper.

Often, the introduction of the letter will contain a clue (or key) to what the letter is intended to argue. Likewise, transition words throughout the letter will help you to follow the logic of the argument leading up to its conclusion.

You can see that we still use transition words today by reviewing this reflection. Words like ‘because,’ ‘finally,’ and ‘for example’ helped me to structure this small ‘letter’ for you today.

When you read a New Testament Letter, take your time, and read it through from beginning to end. Watch for clues to the authors argument early on and then follow their argument by attending to the transition words along the way. Appreciate what it cost to have that letter produced and the journey it has taken to get to you today.

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