Letters as a unique Christian genre

Discussion about the New Testament, apocrypha, gnostics, church fathers, Christian origins, historical Jesus or otherwise, etc.
User avatar
Joseph D. L.
Posts: 1416
Joined: Sat Nov 11, 2017 2:10 am

Letters as a unique Christian genre

Post by Joseph D. L. »

Originally I wanted to title this thread something like "Ignatius as a competitor to Paul", and I may still do that, but while trying to formulate my thoughts I had a quick aside.

Letters, epistles, ἐπιστολή, and letter writing was an especial genre in Greek and Roman literature. Seneca's letters themselves were as renown as his major books, while Cicero's letters were praised almost with a religious zeal around them and he wrote hundreds.*

It is easy to understand that Christians, far removed from one another and in need of communication, would converse and establish doctrines almost entirely through letters. But above all why did letter writing become so extant that they rival even the four Gospels in authority? The majority of the New Testament is composed of something like 40% of letters of Paul, Peter, John, as well as Jude and Hebrews. Also consider the existence of apocryphal letters from Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, Barnabas. Now of course all of these are suspect, but letters appear to be the quintessential Christian genre even predating the first Gospel for some; and the genre was even appropriated by non-letter texts like Luke (1:1-4) and Revelation of John (1:4).

*Wasn't there even competitions for writing letters in Greece and/or Rome as there was with plays?
lclapshaw
Posts: 784
Joined: Sun May 16, 2021 10:01 am

Re: Letters as a unique Christian genre

Post by lclapshaw »

Joseph D. L. wrote: Sun Mar 31, 2024 10:01 pm Originally I wanted to title this thread something like "Ignatius as a competitor to Paul", and I may still do that, but while trying to formulate my thoughts I had a quick aside.

Letters, epistles, ἐπιστολή, and letter writing was an especial genre in Greek and Roman literature. Seneca's letters themselves were as renown as his major books, while Cicero's letters were praised almost with a religious zeal around them and he wrote hundreds.*

It is easy to understand that Christians, far removed from one another and in need of communication, would converse and establish doctrines almost entirely through letters. But above all why did letter writing become so extant that they rival even the four Gospels in authority? The majority of the New Testament is composed of something like 40% of letters of Paul, Peter, John, as well as Jude and Hebrews. Also consider the existence of apocryphal letters from Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, Barnabas. Now of course all of these are suspect, but letters appear to be the quintessential Christian genre even predating the first Gospel for some; and the genre was even appropriated by non-letter texts like Luke (1:1-4) and Revelation of John (1:4).

*Wasn't there even competitions for writing letters in Greece and/or Rome as there was with plays?
But, are they actually letters? They seem to be artificial constructs to me.
ebion
Posts: 423
Joined: Wed Oct 18, 2023 11:32 am

Re: Letters as a unique Christian genre

Post by ebion »

lclapshaw wrote: Sun Mar 31, 2024 11:05 pm But, are they actually letters? They seem to be artificial constructs to me.
I strongly agree - they seem to be artificial constructs to me.
dabber
Posts: 47
Joined: Mon Mar 04, 2024 3:32 am

Re: Letters as a unique Christian genre

Post by dabber »

Pauls "7 authentic" are (to my reading) real letters. He introduces himself, says his sources, ends with greetings, writes passionate arguments. Most of rest of NT is either anonymous or written in someone else's name to add more weight. I think they were definitely written to be read out loud as scripture at the ecclesia.

The early "church" is interesting period to me You could argue that they were simply Jewish sect or a mystery cult at this point, not even Christians by our modern definition. Cheers Adam
ebion
Posts: 423
Joined: Wed Oct 18, 2023 11:32 am

Re: Letters as a unique Christian genre

Post by ebion »

dabber wrote: Mon Apr 01, 2024 2:05 am Pauls "7 authentic" are (to my reading) real letters.
I disagree and so does the whole Tubingen school: that's why we threw them out of the Ebionaen Canon.
dabber wrote: Mon Apr 01, 2024 2:05 am He introduces himself, says his sources, ends with greetings, writes passionate arguments. Most of rest of NT is either anonymous or written in someone else's name to add more weight. I think they were definitely written to be read out loud as scripture at the ecclesia.
The author of the Timothies introduces himself as Paul and they're probably later than Marcions - a 100 years after the Paul-of-Acts retired to Spain.
dabber wrote: Mon Apr 01, 2024 2:05 am The early "church" is interesting period to me You could argue that they were simply Jewish sect or a mystery cult at this point, not even Christians by our modern definition. Cheers Adam
Or you could look at them more deeply.
User avatar
Peter Kirby
Site Admin
Posts: 8483
Joined: Fri Oct 04, 2013 2:13 pm
Location: Santa Clara
Contact:

Re: Letters as a unique Christian genre

Post by Peter Kirby »

dabber wrote: Mon Apr 01, 2024 2:05 am Pauls "7 authentic" are (to my reading) real letters. He introduces himself, says his sources, ends with greetings, writes passionate arguments. Most of rest of NT is either anonymous or written in someone else's name to add more weight. I think they were definitely written to be read out loud as scripture at the ecclesia.

The early "church" is interesting period to me You could argue that they were simply Jewish sect or a mystery cult at this point, not even Christians by our modern definition. Cheers Adam
You're surely in good company, and your reading has been sustained by most critics. That doesn't mean that there isn't some room for doubt or discussion on the subject. Surely they can be seen as literary compositions, given their dissimilarity in length and partial dissimilarity in function to letters known from the documentary papyri. They are self-consciously the work of someone who knows that their text will be given a second read. This is both a characteristic of pseudepigraphic epistolary texts and simultaneously a form of non-pseudepigraphic literature cultivated by those who sought to shape their own literary image by writing letters as literature. This kind of overlapping feature, having literary intent, shared both by pseudepigrapha and by genuine works, at least introduces the question of whether the trappings of a genuine letter were affectations. At the same time, the question is not quickly resolved on this note. While keeping in mind both one hypothesis and the other, it is possible to read the letters while suspending judgment in order to learn more about their author and situation.
User avatar
Peter Kirby
Site Admin
Posts: 8483
Joined: Fri Oct 04, 2013 2:13 pm
Location: Santa Clara
Contact:

Re: Letters as a unique Christian genre

Post by Peter Kirby »

Joseph D. L. wrote: Sun Mar 31, 2024 10:01 pm Originally I wanted to title this thread something like "Ignatius as a competitor to Paul", and I may still do that, but while trying to formulate my thoughts I had a quick aside.

Letters, epistles, ἐπιστολή, and letter writing was an especial genre in Greek and Roman literature. Seneca's letters themselves were as renown as his major books, while Cicero's letters were praised almost with a religious zeal around them and he wrote hundreds.*

It is easy to understand that Christians, far removed from one another and in need of communication, would converse and establish doctrines almost entirely through letters. But above all why did letter writing become so extant that they rival even the four Gospels in authority?
One idea is that popular Christian letters preceded the four Gospels.
User avatar
Peter Kirby
Site Admin
Posts: 8483
Joined: Fri Oct 04, 2013 2:13 pm
Location: Santa Clara
Contact:

Re: Letters as a unique Christian genre

Post by Peter Kirby »

Joseph D. L. wrote: Sun Mar 31, 2024 10:01 pm But above all why did letter writing become so extant that they rival even the four Gospels in authority?
BeDuhn has a suggestion, posted here: viewtopic.php?f=3&t=11822
User avatar
Joseph D. L.
Posts: 1416
Joined: Sat Nov 11, 2017 2:10 am

Re: Letters as a unique Christian genre

Post by Joseph D. L. »

Peter Kirby wrote: Thu Apr 04, 2024 9:15 pm
Joseph D. L. wrote: Sun Mar 31, 2024 10:01 pm But above all why did letter writing become so extant that they rival even the four Gospels in authority?
BeDuhn has a suggestion, posted here: viewtopic.php?f=3&t=11822
That's really interesting. Thank you for this Peter!

If that's the case then it makes the argument of Christianity being a gentile friendly Hellenized version of Judaism very plausible. Wonder if ancient cults argued over canon also.
User avatar
Joseph D. L.
Posts: 1416
Joined: Sat Nov 11, 2017 2:10 am

Re: Letters as a unique Christian genre

Post by Joseph D. L. »

Peter Kirby wrote: Mon Apr 01, 2024 10:06 pm
Joseph D. L. wrote: Sun Mar 31, 2024 10:01 pm Originally I wanted to title this thread something like "Ignatius as a competitor to Paul", and I may still do that, but while trying to formulate my thoughts I had a quick aside.

Letters, epistles, ἐπιστολή, and letter writing was an especial genre in Greek and Roman literature. Seneca's letters themselves were as renown as his major books, while Cicero's letters were praised almost with a religious zeal around them and he wrote hundreds.*

It is easy to understand that Christians, far removed from one another and in need of communication, would converse and establish doctrines almost entirely through letters. But above all why did letter writing become so extant that they rival even the four Gospels in authority?
One idea is that popular Christian letters preceded the four Gospels.
I think I've said before that one idea I've had for a while is the original "gospel" was an epistle* that was believed to have been delivered from heaven to Paul. It would make sense why competing groups would adopt this genre in their polemics against one another.

*The contents of which I cannot fathom but probably something to the effect that Torah has been subverted by the "gospel".
Post Reply