Snap quiz: An epistle is:
(A) A letter;
(B) A reading in church;
(C) A book of the Bible;
(D) The wife of an apostle.
Answer: All but D !
The word “epistle” is derived from the Greek word epistellein, which meant “to send to.” In modern usage we may hear somebody say something like “that was quite the epistle that the boss send out yesterday” by which is probably meant a lengthy formal communication. However, the original meaning was simply that of “a letter” (choice A).
During the early years of the Christian church, the Apostles travelled extensively to witness to the Gospel. They sometimes also wrote letters to the congregations that they had a special connection with, and these letters were read to the assembled worshippers. Paul was a particularly prolific author of such letters, but Peter and John also wrote them, as did a couple of other prominent figures in the church (the epistles of Jude and James are traditionally thought to have been authored by Jesus’ brothers). There were undoubtedly a lot more letters exchanged than we know about, but some seem to have been deemed particularly important and were regarded as authoritative because of the trusted status of the author. The Epistles of Paul seem to have been especially cherished and were widely shared among the churches at an early date. During this time Paul’s Epistles began to be used as standard readings during the church service as supplements to the Old Testament readings that were an ancient and essential part of Jewish worship services, and we continue to use them that way today (meaning B).
During the earliest years of the Christian church there was no idea of creating a “New Testament.” When the early Christians referred to “scripture” they meant the same Hebrew Scriptures which form our Old Testament. Since it was their expectation that Jesus was going to return in the near future, there was no initial incentive to create a new collection of writings. But as the years passed and the number of those needing instruction was increasing at the same time the pool of eyewitnesses was declining, there was motivation to create reliable written records for the use of the church – this led to the creation of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (named after their presumed authors). But by the time these documents were widely accepted throughout the church, many of Paul’s letters were already solidly established as authoritative Christian teaching. Consequently, as the Christian church developed the ‘canon’ (agreed collection) of books which were accepted as authoritative scripture – a process which took several centuries – the Epistles of Paul were early and “no brainer” choices, thus leading to meaning C. (Some of the other Epistles were more controversial.)
Many people are surprised to learn that the earliest books of our New Testament aren’t the Gospels. In particular, Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians is variously dated as 40-55 A.D., and may thus be the oldest book in the New Testament. By contrast, the Gospel of Mark, today widely regarded as the earliest of the four, is typically dated from 60-70 A.D. Of particular interest to us is Paul’s 1st Epistle to the Corinthians, which because it can be reliably dated as having been written close to 55 A.D., contains our earliest written description of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, including this remarkable assertion: “After that he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-8). Since this account was written about 20 years after the event, there would indeed have been many living persons who could vouch for (or dispute) this claim.
By the way, there is actually a grain of truth to response D in the above quiz. The word ‘apostle’ is derived from the same Greek root as ‘epistle’ with the meaning of “one sent out.” So there really is an intimate relationship between epistles and apostles – just not a matrimonial one!