What is an Epistle, part 2

In my last post about the meaning of the word “epistle” and it’s disuse in contemporary writing, I failed to consider the Biblical use of the word.  Although the word does not appear in the formal titles of any of the New Testament letters, as there are no titles in the Greek text, it is a biblical word and does appear in scripture.

The English word epistle derives from the Greek word ἐπιστολή.  The Middle LSJ has the following definition:

“ἐπιστολ-ή, ἡ, (ἐπιστέλλω) –
anything sent by a messenger, message, order, commission, whether verbal or in writing, Hdt.4.10, Th.8.45, etc.; ἐξ ἐπιστολῆς by command, Hdt.6.50: used by Trag. always in pl., A.Pr.3, Pers.783, Supp.1012, S.Aj.781, OC1601, etc.; Πενθέως ἐπιστολαῖς by his commands, E.Ba.442; τέκνων ἐπιστολὰς ἔγραψεν commands about her children, Id.Hipp.858

The word itself is found in literature as old as Herodotus and is used to represent the message which is sent by a messenger.  Interestingly, the word bears a close relationship to the word ἀποστολὴ (akin to the greek word with is transliterated Apostle) which  means a dispatching or a sending off.  A message which is dispatched is an ἐπιστολή, a dispatching of a message or person is a ἀποστολὴ, and a person dispatched is an ἀπόστολος (messenger or envoy; see future blog post).

According to Wigram’s Englishman’s Greek Concordance, the three cases where epistle used as a verb (ἐπιστέλλω), it simply connotes the idea of composing a letter – Acts  15:20, 21:25, and Heb 13:22.  Where used as a noun the KJV usage stats are a follows – 24 total uses, 5 in the book of Acts, 2 in Second Peter, and all the rest in Paul.  Of the 24 uses, 9 are translated as “letter” in the KJV, whereas the rest are transliterated as “epistle”.  Of the modern translations I consulted, the NIV, NASB, and ESV do not use the word epistle at all, but favor a consistent usage of the word “letter”.  This makes sense in an era of computer analysis and the desire for consistent translation of Greek words and phrases over phonology.  The HCSB curiously only uses epistle in a single place – Rom 16:22.  The NKJV retains the word in 13 places, whereas Wycliffe used the word in 22 or 24 places in his New Testament.

John Wycliffe

I thought I might look more closely at the usages in the book of Acts as a case study to determine whether the translations that have a mix of usages, Wycliffe, Tyndale, Geneva, KJV, NKJV actually discriminate based on context or whether this is a stylistic decision.  Because the book of Acts is a narrative, I presume there would be enough diversity of usage to make it a reasonable case study.  The 5 uses, according to Wigram, are as follows:

* 9:2 – Paul receives a message/order/commission from High Priest to deliver to Jews in Damascus, giving them permission to persecute Christians. Perhaps this message is more along the lines of a letter or commission. It is certainly more formal than a personal letter. It is not know whether this message was written in a quick “one off” style intended for circulation or repeated reference.
* 15:30 -The Jerusalem Council writes a message/order to be published amongst the Gentile Christians of Antioch that they do not need to enter into Old Covenant ritual in order to be the New Covenant children of God as some Jews were teaching amongst them. Clearly this is epistolary. A formal epistle is drafted to be referenced and circulated.
* 22:5 – Paul, having been almost beaten by riotous Jews in Jerusalem for preaching the Gospel, is rescued by the commander of the Roman army. Paul is allowed to appeal to the crowd before he is carried into safety into the Roman Garrison and he makes reference back to the commission/order he was given to persecute the Christian church in Acts 9:2.
* 23:25, 33 – As Paul, now a prisoner, was to be transferred to stand before Felix the Governor at Caesarea, a plot was discovered where 40 Jews covenanted together not to eat until they murdered him. The Roman commander put together a military transport and drafted a personal letter to Felix the Governor explaining why Paul was being transferred and why the Roman escort.

All in all, there are 5 mentions of the word ἐπιστολή in the book of Acts, but only 3 unique cases. Of these, TR-based translations use the following word choices.

Passage – Wycliffe, Tyndale, Geneva, KJV, NKJV
Acts 9:2 – letters, letters, letters, letters, letters
Acts 15:30 – epistle, epistle, epistle, epistle, epistle
Acts 22:5 – epistles, letters, letters, letters, letters
Acts 23:25 – epistle, letter, epistle, letter, letter
Acts 23:33 – epistle, epistle, epistle, epistle, letter

I’m not exactly sure what to conclude from this limited sample. I would expect that Wycliffe would have translated 22:5 and 9:2 consistently. It seems that this and 23:25 are the two places where the KJV revisers decided to change Wycliffe – 22:5 is understood for consistency, but 23:25 doesn’t made sense in that the same letter is referred to as an epistle in 23:33. The NKJV translates every use of ἐπιστολή as letter, with the exception of 15:30. That particular instance, though, seems to be the most clear cut usage of the epistolary form.

So what do we learn form this exercise? I guess that in Wycliffe’s day, the word epistle was as common as letter is today and was the most direct choice. Or, perhaps Wycliffe just wanted to transliterate in cases where the exact categorization of the ἐπιστολή was in doubt. The KJV revisers changed some but not all translations and from this short sampling, their method is indeterminate. The KJV Bible, however, was chiefly made to be a liturgical translation and perhaps one word or other provided the right meter in the passages in which either word was used. The NKJV perhaps sought to bring a more consistent and rigorous distinction between the two translations of the word, but more passages would have to be examined to be certain.


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