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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, by Valentin de Boulogne or Nicolas Tournier (c. 16th century, Blaffer Foundation Collection, Houston, TX).

An epistle (pronounced [ɪˈpɪsəl]) (Greek ἐπιστολή, epistolē, 'letter') is a writing directed or sent to a person or group of people, usually a letter and a very formal, often didactic and elegant one. The epistle genre of letter-writing was common in ancient Egypt as part of the scribal-school writing curriculum. The letters in the New Testament from Apostles to Christians are usually referred to as epistles. Those traditionally attributed to Paul are known as Pauline epistles and the others as 'catholic' or general epistles.


Ancient Egyptian epistles

The ancient Egyptians wrote epistles, most often for pedagogical reasons. Egyptologist Edward Wente (1990) speculates that the Fifth-dynasty Pharaoh Djedkare Isesi—in his many letters sent to his viziers—was a pioneer in the epistolary genre.[1] It's existence is firmly attested during the Sixth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, and is prominently featured in the educational guide The Book of Kemit written during the Eleventh Dynasty.[2] A standardized formulae for epistolary compositions existed by the time of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt.[3] The epistolary formulae used in the Ramesside Period found its roots in the letters composed during the Amarna Period of the Eighteenth Dynasty.[4] Wente describes the "Satirical Letter" found on the Papyrus Anastasi I of the Nineteenth Dynasty as an epistle which was commonly copied as a writing exercise by Egyptian schoolchildren on ceramic ostraca (over eighty examples of which have been found so far by archaeologists).[5] Epistle letters were also written to the dead, and, by the Ramesside Period, to the gods; the latter became even more widespread during the eras of Persian and Greek domination.[6]

Form of Christian epistles

Epistles are written in strict accordance to formalized, Hellenistic tradition, especially the Pauline epistles. This reflects the amount of Hellenistic influence upon the epistle writers. Any deviancy is not the result of accident but indicates an unusual motive of the writer.



In contrast to modern letters, epistles usually named the author at the very beginning, followed by the recipient (for example, see Philippians 1:1). The scribe (or more correctly, the amanuensis) who wrote down the letter may be named at the end of the episte (e.g. Romans 16:22). In the absence of a postal system, the courier may also be named (e.g. Ephesians 6:21-22).

After the names of the author and recipient, Pauline epistles often open with the greeting, "Grace and peace to you." "Grace" was a common Hellenistic greeting, while "peace" (shalom) was the common Jewish greeting; this reflected Paul's dual identity in Jewish faith and Hellenistic culture. There may also be a word of thanks to the audience. In secular letters, a prayer or wish for health followed.


The body begins with a brief statement introducing the main topic of the entire body.


To English readers, the epistles may appear more formalized than originally read, due to the process of translation. The writer sought to establish 'philophronesis', an intimate extension of their relationship as similar as a face to face encounter as possible. The writer hoped to revive the friendship, making the epistle a substitute for the actual writer. Letters written to a group of people, which include most of the New Testament epistles, were not read individually but read aloud to the entire church congregation.

The content is concise compared to modern letters. Writing required a great financial expense of paper and ink and long process of time.

The letter often intends to establish theological points (as in many of Paul's epistles), to comfort in the face of persecution (for example, 1 Peter), or to exhort Christians to do good works (James).

New Testament epistles

There are epistles that are written to particular areas, and general epistles that are written to groups or communities. Taking at face value the traditional ascription of epistles to their superscribed authors, Paul wrote more epistles to particular churches, as well as personal letters to Timothy, Philemon, and Titus. Peter was the author of his own. John was the author of his own, James was the author of his own, Jude was the author of his own. Sometimes Paul's epistles are divided into subgroups. For instance, the 'prison epistles' are the ones written by Paul while he was in prison, while the 'pastoral epistles' are the letters to Timothy and Titus, since they contain advice about providing pastoral care to their churches.

Questions of historical authorship or of date and authenticity are addressed in the entries to individual Epistles. Usually the Epistles of the New Testament Canon are divided as follows:

Pauline Epistles

General (or "catholic") epistles

The authorship of many of these epistles is contested by the majority of modern scholars and historians. In particular, with respect to the authorship of the Pauline epistles, the pastoral epistles are rejected by two thirds of modern academics, and only seven of the Pauline epistles are regarded as uncontested. The authorship of the Epistles of John is also questioned.

Non canonical epistles

Lost epistles

Epistles of Apostolic Fathers

These are letters written by some very early Christian leaders, in the first or second century, which are not part of the New Testament. They are generally considered to form part of the basis of Christian tradition. The ennobling word "epistle" is used partly because these were all written in Greek, in a time period close to when the epistles of the New Testament were written, and thus "epistle" lends additional weight of authority.

Liturgical use

Opening of the Epistle to the Galatians, illuminated manuscript for reading during Christian liturgy.

In the context of a liturgy, epistle may refer more specifically to a particular passage from a New Testament epistle (the Pauline epistles and the Catholic epistles) — sometimes also from the Book of Acts or the Revelation of John, but not the Four Gospels — that is scheduled to be read on a certain day or at a certain occasion.

Western churches

In the Roman Catholic Mass and Anglican Communion, epistles are read between the Collect and the Gospel reading. The corresponding Gregorian chants have a special tone (tonus epistolae). When the epistle is sung or chanted at Solemn Mass it is done so by the subdeacon. Epistles are also read by an Elder or Bishop in the Lutheran Divine Service, between the gradual and the Gospel.

Eastern churches

The Kniga Apostol (1632), lectionary in Church Slavonic for use in the Divine Liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church the Epistle reading is called the Apostol (the same name is given to the lectionary from which it is read). The Apostol includes the Acts of the Apostles as well as the Epistles, but never the Apocalypse (Revelation of John). There are Epistle lessons for every day of the year, except for weekdays during Great Lent, when the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated. These daily Epistle readings are a part of the Paschal cycle, being ultimately dependent upon the date of Pascha (Easter). There are also lessons appointed for the feast days of numerous saints and commemorations. There may be one, two, or three readings from the Apostol during a single Liturgy. The Epistle reading is always chanted (never simply read in a spoken voice) between the Prokeimenon and the Alleluia. The Epistle reading is always linked to a reading from the Gospel, though some services, such as Matins, will have a Gospel lesson, but no Epistle. A number of services besides the Divine Liturgy will have an Epistle and Gospel reading. Such services often include a Prokeimenon and Alleluia as well. The Epistle is chanted by the reader, though at a Hierarchical Liturgy (a Divine Liturgy celebrated by a bishop), it is read by a deacon. The one who chants the Epistle also reads the verses of the Prokeimenon.

See also


  1. ^ Wente, Edward F. (1990). Letters from Ancient Egypt. Edited by Edmund S. Meltzer. Translated by Edward F. Wente. Atlanta: Scholars Press, Society of Biblical Literature. ISBN 1555404723. Page 6.
  2. ^ Wente, Edward F. (1990). Letters from Ancient Egypt. Edited by Edmund S. Meltzer. Translated by Edward F. Wente. Atlanta: Scholars Press, Society of Biblical Literature. ISBN 1555404723. Page 15.
  3. ^ Wente, Edward F. (1990). Letters from Ancient Egypt. Edited by Edmund S. Meltzer. Translated by Edward F. Wente. Atlanta: Scholars Press, Society of Biblical Literature. ISBN 1555404723. Page 68.
  4. ^ Wente, Edward F. (1990). Letters from Ancient Egypt. Edited by Edmund S. Meltzer. Translated by Edward F. Wente. Atlanta: Scholars Press, Society of Biblical Literature. ISBN 1555404723. Page 89.
  5. ^ Wente, Edward F. (1990). Letters from Ancient Egypt. Edited by Edmund S. Meltzer. Translated by Edward F. Wente. Atlanta: Scholars Press, Society of Biblical Literature. ISBN 1555404723. Page 98-99.
  6. ^ Wente, Edward F. (1990). Letters from Ancient Egypt. Edited by Edmund S. Meltzer. Translated by Edward F. Wente. Atlanta: Scholars Press, Society of Biblical Literature. ISBN 1555404723. Page 210.
  7. ^ Also called A Prior Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians[1] or Paul’s previous Corinthian letter.[2], possibly Third Epistle to the Corinthians
  8. ^ Also called 2 Jude.
  9. ^ Also called The Epistle of John to the Church Ruled by Diotrephes[3]

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

EPISTLE, in its primary sense any letter addressed to an absent person; from the Greek word E7rcaroXi, a thing sent on a particular occasion. Strictly speaking, any such communication is an epistle, but at the present day the term has become archaic, and is used only for letters of an ancient time, or for elaborate literary productions which take an epistolary form, that is to say, are, or affect to be, written to a person at a distance.

1. Epistles and Letters. - The student of literary history soon discovers that a broad distinction exists between the letter and the epistle. The letter is essentially a spontaneous, nonliterary production, ephemeral, intimate, personal and private, a substitute for a spoken conversation. The epistle, on the other hand, rather takes the place of a public speech, it is written with an audience in view, it is a literary form, a distinctly artistic effort aiming at permanence; and it bears much the same relation to a letter as a Platonic dialogue does to a private talk between two friends. The posthumous value placed on a great man's letters would naturally lead to the production of epistles, which might be written to set forth the views of a person or a school, either genuinely or as forgeries under some eminent name. Pseudonymous epistles were especially numerous under the early Roman empire, and mainly attached themselves to the names of Plato, Demosthenes, Aristotle and Cicero.

Both letters and epistles have come down to us in considerable variety and extent from the ancient world. Babylonia and Assyria, Egypt, Greece and Rome alike contribute to our inheritance of letters. Those of Aristotle are of questionable genuineness, but we can rely, at any rate in part, on those of Isocrates and Epicurus. Some of the letters of Cicero are rather epistles, since they were meant ultimately for the general eye. The papyrus discoveries in Egypt have a peculiar interest, for they are mainly the letters of people unknown to fame, and having no thought of publicity. It is less to be wondered at that we have a large collection of ancient epistles, especially in the realm of magic and religion, for epistles were meant to live, were published in several copies, and were not a difficult form of literary effort. The Tell el-Amarna tablets found in Upper Egypt in 1887 are a series of despatches in cuneiform script from Babylonian kings and Phoenician and Palestinian governors to the Pharaohs (c. 1400 B.C.). The epistles of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, Seneca and the Younger Pliny claim mention at this point. In the later Roman period and into the middle ages, formal epistles were almost a distinct branch of literature. The ten books of Symmachus' Epistolae, so highly esteemed in the cultured circles of the 4th century, may be contrasted with the less elegant but more forceful epistles of Jerome.

The distinction between letters and epistles has particular interest for the student of early Christian literature. G. A. Deissmann (Bible Studies) assigns to the category of letters all the Pauline writings as well as 2 and 3 John. The books bearing the names of James, Peter and Jude, together with the Pastorals (though these may contain fragments of genuine Pauline letters) and the Apocalypse, he regards as epistles. The first epistle of John he calls less a letter or an epistle than a religious tract. It is doubtful, however, whether we can thus reduce all the letters of the New Testament to one or other of these categories; and W. M. Ramsay (Hastings' Diet. Bib. Extra vol. p. 401) has pointed out with some force that "in the new conditions a new category had been developed - the general letter addressed to a whole class of persons or to the entire Church of Christ." Such writings have affinities with both the letter and the epistle, and they may further be compared with the "edicts and rescripts by which Roman law grew, documents arising out of special circumstances but treating them on general principles." Most of the literature of the sub-apostolic age is epistolary, and we have a particularly interesting form of epistle in the communications between churches (as distinct from individuals) known as the First Epistle of Clement (Rome to Corinth), the Martyrdom of Polycarp (Smyrna to Philomelium), and the Letters of the Churches of Vienne andLyons (to the congregations of Asia Minor and Phrygia) describing the Gallican martyrdoms of A.D. 177. In the following centuries we have the valuable epistles of Cyprian, of Gregory Nazianzen (to Cledonius on the Apollinarian controversy), of Basil (to be classed rather as letters), of Ambrose, Chrysostom, Augustine and Jerome. The encyclical letters of the Roman Catholic Church are epistles, even more so than bulls, which are usually more special in their destination. In the Renaissance one of the most common forms of literary production was that modelled upon Cicero's letters. From Petrarch to the Epistolae obscurorum virorum there is a whole epistolary literature. The Epistolae obscurorum virorum have to some extent a counterpart in the Epistles of Martin Marprelate. Later satires in an epistolary form are Pascal's Provincial Letters, Swift's Drapier Letters, and the Letters of Junius. The "open letter" of modern journalism is really an epistle. (A. J. G.) 2. Epistles in Poetry. - A branch of poetry bears the name of the Epistle, and is modelled on those pieces of Horace which are almost essays (sermones) on moral or philosophical subjects, and are chiefly distinguished from other poems by being addressed to particular patrons or friends. The epistle of Horace to his agent (or villicus) is of a more familiar order, and is at once a masterpiece and a model of what an epistle should be. Examples of the work in this direction of Ovid, Claudian, Ausonius and other late Latin poets have been preserved, but it is particularly those of Horace which have given this character to the epistles in verse which form so very characteristic a section of French poetry. The graceful precision and dignified familiarity of the epistle are particularly attractive to the temperament of France. Clement Marot, in the 16th century, first made the epistle popular in France, with his brief and spirited specimens. We pass the witty epistles of Scarron and Voiture, to reach those of Boileau, whose epistles, twelve in number, are the classic examples of this form of verse in French literature; they were composed at different dates between 1668 and 1695. In the 18th century Voltaire enjoyed a supremacy in this graceful and sparkling species of writing; the Epitre a Uranie is perhaps the most famous of his verse-letters. Gresset, Bernis, Sedaine, Dorat, Gen di - Bernard, all excelled in the epistle. The curious "Epitres" of J. P. G. Viennet (1777-1868) were not easy and mundane like their predecessors, but violently polemical. Viennet, a hot defender of lost causes, may be considered the latest of the epistolary poets of France.

In England the verse-epistle was first prominently employed by Samuel Daniel in his "Letter from Octavia to Marcus Antonius" (1599), and later on, more legitimately, in his "Certain Epistles" (1601-1603). His letter, in terza rima, to Lucy, Countess of Bristol, is one of the finest examples of this form in English literature. It was Daniel's deliberate intention to introduce the Epistle into English poetry, "after the manner of Horace." He was supported by Ben Jonson, who has some fine Horatian epistles in his Forests (1616) and his Underwoods. Letters to Several Persons of Honour form an important section in the poetry of John Donne. Habington's Epistle to a Friend is one of his most finished pieces. Henry Vaughan (1622-1695) addressed a fine epistle in verse to the French romance-writer Gombauld (1570-1666). Such "letters" were not unfrequent down to the Restoration, but they did not create a department of literature such as Daniel had proposed. At the close of the 17th century Dryden greatly excelled in this class of poetry, and his epistles to Congreve (1694) and to the duchess of Ormond (1700) are among the most graceful and eloquent that we possess. During the age of Anne various Augustan poets in whom the lyrical faculty was slight, from Congreve and Richard Duke down to Ambrose Philips and William Somerville, essayed the epistle with more or less success, and it was employed by Gay for several exercises in his elegant persiflage. Among the epistles of Gay, one rises to an eminence of merit, that called "Mr Pope's welcome from Greece," written in 1720. But the great writer of epistles in English is Pope himself, to whom the glory of this kind of verse belongs. His "Eloisa to Abelard" (1717) is carefully modelled on the form of Ovid's "Heroides," while in his Moral Essays he adopts the Horatian formula for the epistle. In either case his success was brilliant and complete. The "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot" has not been surpassed, if it has been equalled, in Latin or French poetry of the same class. But Pope excelled, not only in the voluptuous and in the didactic epistle, but in that of compliment as well, and there is no more graceful example of this in literature than is afforded by the letter about the poems of Parnell addressed, in 1721, to Robert, earl of Oxford. After the day of Pope the epistle again fell into desuetude, or occasional use, in England. It revived in the charming naivete of Cowper's lyrical letters in octosyllabics to his friends, such as William Bull and Lady Austin (1782). At the close of the century Samuel Rogers endeavoured to resuscitate the neglected form in his "Epistle to a Friend" (1798). The formality and conventional grace of the epistle were elements with which the leaders of romantic revival were out of sympathy, and it was not cultivated to any important degree in the 19th century. It is, however, to be noted that Shelley's "Letter to Maria Gisborne" (1820), Keats's "Epistle to Charles Clarke" (1816), and Landor's "To Julius Hare" (1836), in spite of their romantic colouring, are genuine Horatian epistles and of the pure Augustan type. This type, in English literature, is commonly, though not at all universally, cast in heroic verse. But Daniel employs rime royal and terza rima, while some modern epistles have been cast in short iambic rhymed measures or in blank verse. It is sometimes not easy to distinguish the epistle from the elegy and from the dedication. (E. G.) For St Paul's Epistles see Paul, for St Peter's see Peter, for Apocryphal Epistles see Apocryphal Literature, for Plato's see Plato, &c.

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Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



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From Old French epistle from Latin epistola from Ancient Greek ἐπιστολή (epistolē) from ἐπιστέλλω (epistellō), I send a message) from ἐπί (epi), upon) + στέλλω (stellō), I prepare, send).





epistle (plural epistles)

  1. A letter, or a literary composition in the form of a letter.
  2. (Christianity) One of the letters included as a book of the New Testament.
    • 1956 — Werner Keller (translated by William Neil), The Bible as History, revised English edition, Chapter 41, page 358
      Even last century scholars had begun to search for the cities in Asia Minor whose names have become so familiar to the Chistian world through the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of St. Paul.


Bible wiki

Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From BibleWiki

Lat. epistola; Gr. ’epistolé; in Hebrew, at first only the general term meaning "book" was used, then certain transitional expressions signifying "writing", and finally agrt, ’iggéréth (of Assyrian or Persian origin), and nshtwn, nishtewan (of Persian derivation), which the Septuagint always renders ’epistolé.

In the study of Biblical epistles, it will be found convenient to distinguish between the Old Testament and the New.


The Old Testament exhibits two periods in its idea of an epistle: first, it presents the epistle under the general concept of a book or a writing; secondly, it regards the epistle as a distinct literary form. It may be difficult to point out the dividing line between these two periods with accuracy; in general it may be maintained that the Hebrews developed their notion of epistle as a specific form of writing during the time of the Captivity. The first instance of a written Biblical message is found in II K., xi, 14-15, where we are told about David's letter to Joab concerning Urias; there was need for secrecy in this case as well as in that of Jezabel's order to the ancients and chief men of the city in the matter of Naboth (III K., xxi, 8-9), and of Jehu's commands sent to Samaria (IV K., x, 1, 6). It may have been in order to avoid the danger of a personal interview that the Prophet Elias (Eliseus?) wrote to King Joram concerning his impending punishment (II Par., xxi, 12-15). The desire to be emphatic and peremptory prompted the letter of the King of Syria to the King of Israel, asking for the cure of Naaman's leprosy (IV K., v, 5-7), and Sennacherib's open letter to Ezechias (IV K., xix, 14; Is., xxxvii, 14; II Par., xxxii, 17); the wish to be courteous seems to have inspired the letter of Merodach Baladan to Ezechias after the latter's recovery from sickness (IV K., xx, 12; Is., xxxix, 1). Similar to the foregoing authoritative letters is the message addressed by Jeremias to the exiles in Babylon (Jer 29:1 sq.); the Prophet alludes also to letters sent by a pseudo-prophet from Babylon to Jerusalem with the purpose of undermining Jeremias's authority (ibid., 25, 29).

Thus far, letters are of relatively rare occurrence in the Bible, and they are not regarded as constituting a distinct class of literature. Hereafter they become more frequent, and both their name and their form mark them as a peculiar literary species. Their subsequent frequency may be inferred from their repeated occurrence in the Books of Esther, Esdras, and Nehemias: Esth., i, 22; iii, 12; viii, 5 sq.; ix, 20, 29; xiii, 1-7; xvi, 1-24; I Esdr., iv, 7, 11 sq.; v, 6; vii, 11; Neh 2:7; vi, 5, 17, 19. Their general name "book" gives way, first, to that of "writing" (II Par., ii, 11; xxi, 12; Esth., iii, 13-14; viii, 10, 13), and then to that of "letter" (II Par., xxx, 1, 6; I Esdr., iv, 7 sqq.; v, 5 sqq.; Neh 2:7- 9; vi, 5, 17, 19; Esth., ix, 26, 29). Their form begins to be marked by a formal address and a distinctively epistolary ending. Instances of such explicit addresses may be seen in Esdr., v, 7: "To Darius the king all peace"; Esth., xiii, 1: "Artaxerxes the great king who reigneth from India to Ethiopia, to the princes and governors of the hundred and twenty-seven provinces, that are subject to his empire, greeting"; I Mach., xi, 30: "King Demetrius to his brother Jonathan, and to the nation of the Jews, greeting". An instance of an epistolary conclusion occurs in II Mach., xi, 33: "Fare ye well. In the year one hudred and forty-eight, the fifteenth day of the month of Kanthicus"; a similar example may be seen, ibid., 38. But the Old Testament does not furnish us with any model of private correspondence between Hebrews.


The New Testament presents us with a very highly developed form of an epistle. Recent writers on the subject have found it convenient to follow Professor Deissmann in his distinction between the letter and the epistle. The letter is a private and confidential conversation with the addressee, his anticipated answers shaping the course of the writing; the epistle is general in its aim, addresses all whom it may concern, and tends to publication. The letter is a spontaneous product of the writer, the epistle follows the rules of art. If publication be regarded as an essential condition of literature, the letter may be described as a "pre-literary form of self-expression". In order to apply this distinction more effectively to the written messages contained in, or referred to by, the New-Testament Books, we shall group the relevant data as pre-Pauline, Pauline, and post-Pauline.


The Book of Acts (ix, 2; xxii, 5; xxviii, 21) shows that the Jews of Jerusalem sent occasional letters to the synagogues of the Dispersion; Acts 15:22-23, gives a parallel instance of a letter written by the Apostles from Jerusalem to the churches in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. We may also infer from the testimony of the New Testament (1Cor 16:3; 2Cor 3:1; Rom 16:1-2; Acts 18:27) that letters of commendation were of common occurrence. 1Cor 7:1, informs us that the Corinthian Christians had applied to St. Paul in their difficulties by way of letter.


The Pauline Epistles form a collection which was formerly called ‘o ’apóstolos. They are called "epistles", though that addressed to the Hebrews hardly deserves the name, being really a theological homily. The Epistles mentioned in 1Cor 5:9, and Col., iv, 16, have not been preserved to us; their accidental loss makes us suspect that other Epistles may have perished. The peculiar form and style of the Pauline Epistles are studied in their respective introductions and commentaries; but we may add here that I Tim., II Tim., and Tit. are called Pastoral Epistles; owing to its peculiar style and form, it is supposed by some writers that the Epistle to the Hebrews was not even dictated by the Apostle, but only expresses his doctrine. Only the three Pastoral Epistles and Philemon are addressed to individuals; all the others are directed to churches, most of which, however, were well known to the writer. They exhibit more of their author's personal character than most profane letters do.


Generally speaking, we may describe the so-called Catholic Epistles as Post-Pauline. We need not note here that these Epistles are not named after the addressee, as happens in the case of the Pauline Epistles, but after the inspired author. The Epistle of St. James has no final greetings; it was meant for a class, not for persons known to the writer. In I John we have a sermon rather than a letter, though its familiarity of language indicates that the readers were known to the writer. The following two Epistles of St. John are real letters in style and form. St. Peter's first Epistle supposes some familiarity with his readers on the part of the writer; this can hardly be said of II Peter or of the Epistle of Jude. What has been said sufficiently shows that Professor Deissmann's distinction between the artistic epistle and pre-literary letter cannot be applied with strict accuracy. Quite a number of the New-Testament Epistles contain those touches of intimate familiarity which are supposed to be the essential characteristics of the letter.

Portions of this entry are taken from The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907.

Simple English

An epistle (pronounced [ɪˈpɪsəl]) (Greek επιστολη, epistolē, "letter") is a writing sent to a person or group of people. It is often a written as a letter. The letters in the New Testament from the Apostles to Christians are usually called epistles; those from Paul are known as Pauline Epistles and the others as Catholic or General Epistles.


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