What is an Epistle?

According to my KJV Bible, the proper title of Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches is, “The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians”.  From a quick perusal of a few more modern translations I happen to have, titles for this work are as follows:

ESV Study Bible: The Letter of Paul to the Galatians
RSV/NA27 Diglot: The Letter of Paul to the Galatians
NIV Study Bible: Galatians
NASB Thomp. Chain: The book of Galatians

Here are 4 popular translations of Paul’s letter, each with a different title. Perhaps a Greek New Testament can shed some light on the isue. From a quick perusal of both my NA27 and H-F Majority Greek New Testaments, I find the title: “Πρὸς Γαλάτας” (to the Galatians). Interesting!

Greek Manuscript

Greek Manuscript

Now, clearly the inspired Apostle did not entitle a letter in the same sense as someone would title a book, just as any other letter writer would not. Each epistle of the Apostle Paul begins with a fairly familiar introductory formula, which serves the purpose of defining who the letter is from and who it is to. But there is no title as would be found on a book, paper, or magazine article. So how did these titles come to us and why are there variations?

Without considering the variant Greek Subscripts appended to the letter over the centuries (future post), I have two pretty simple questions in my mind regarding the uninspired title. What is the difference between an epistle and a letter, and why do modern versions (NIV simplicity aside) prefer to entitle the correspondence using the word “letter” as opposed to the word “epistle”?

From the Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (1913), the word epistle is defined as follows:

A writing directed or sent to a person or persons; a written communication; a letter; — applied usually to formal, didactic, or elegant letters.

For the modern e-savy computer crowd, perhaps the distinction between an epistle and a letter could be likened to the difference between an e-mail and a blog post.  An e-mail is a hasty/friendly short personal correspondence whereas a blog post is more formal and intended for a broad readership.

The entry in my New Bible Dictionary states that an epistle involves a more formal address and is a letter suitable for circulation.  Clearly this would be the case in a letter like the one Paul wrote to the Galatians.  The work was didactic in nature and intended, according to the introductory sentence, to be circulated amongst the churches of the Roman region of Galatia.  The International Standard Bible Enclyclopedia sheds some further helpful light on the distinction between letters and epistles:

A clear line of demarcation separates them [epistles and letters], owing not merely to differences in form and substance, but to the exalted spiritual mission and character of the apostolic letters. The characterization of a letter as more distinctly personal, confidential and spontaneous, and the epistle as more general in aim and more suited to or intended for publication…

Both the NDB and the ISBE articles mention at several points the line blurring in the New Testament epistles between the very familiar and spontaneous and the formal and didactic.  So much so, in fact, that is is probably difficult to rigidly distinguish the styles in the New Testament.

Now, why the difference between how the book is entitled in various Bible translations.  It may be that the term epistle has simply become an out-of-fashion theological term that is no longer helpful today to refer to the non-narrative and no-apolyptic portions of NT Scripture.  It may be that modern translators disagree with their ancestors and believe the letters to be more informal than previous generations held them to be.  My hunch is that the term epistle has simply grown into disuse and modern translations opt for the more common, simple, and clear word (or in the case of the NIV, no word at all).

It may be a relatively unimportant side note or perhaps a reflection of our theological “dumbing down”, but it seems the word epistle, at this point, is left to the big unabridged dictionaries.


One thought on “What is an Epistle?

  1. Pingback: What is an Epistle, part 2 « Abraham's Seed

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