What is an epistle? What are the Epistles in the Bible?

In the Greek, the word epistole means "letter" or "message," so an epistle is a letter or some type of written correspondence—most likely written on a scroll. Epistles were very common during the era that the New Testament was written. A lot of the books in the New Testament were written as letters to specific churches or people, so that is why they are referred to as the Epistles.

Epistles were generally dictated orally by the author to someone who would physically transcribe it. Then, the author would review it before having it sent to the intended audience. Peter and Paul both used others to transcribe their letters (1 Peter 5:12; Colossians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; Philemon 1:1). Paul signed his letters to verify their authenticity (Galatians 6:11). It has been suspected that Paul may have had vision problems, which would have necessitated him getting Timothy's help to do the actual writing.

The epistles within the Bible mirror each other in their formatting. They start with an introduction identifying the author and audience and then a greeting, which is followed by the body of the letter. Many times, they end with a blessing for the church and notes to a few specific individuals in the church.

The biblical Epistles are located in the New Testament, and they make up the majority of the New Testament—twenty-one of twenty-seven books, from Romans to Jude. The apostle Paul wrote thirteen of them, and they are known as the Pauline Epistles: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. The books of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon make up a subgroup called the Prison Epistles, which were written during Paul's house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:30–31). A few epistles, known as the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), were directly written to church leaders.

The General Epistles include Hebrews; James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; and Jude. These eight epistles are also referred to as the Catholic Epistles because they were written to a "universal" audience rather than one specific church. It is unknown who wrote the book of Hebrews, but it is commonly credited to Paul or one of his colleagues. James and Jude were both half-brothers of Jesus and wrote the epistles names after them (1 Corinthians 15:7; Jude 1:1). The apostle Peter authored 1 and 2 Peter. The apostle John authored 1, 2, and 3 John (he also wrote the Gospel of John and Revelation).

The known authors of the biblical Epistles are either family members of Jesus (James, Jude) or apostles (Paul, Peter, John). The Lord called each of them to write letters for the exhortation and instruction of the church. These Holy Spirit-inspired letters, which comprise a significant part of the New Testament, still bring fresh revelation and relevant insight for our Christian walk today.

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