What Is an Epistle? What Are the Epistles in the Bible?

An epistle was a letter written on a scroll most often dictated by an author to a scribe and then reviewed by the author before being delivered by a trustworthy messenger. Epistles in the Scriptures are only found in the New Testament, which contains 21 such letters extending from Romans to Jude.

Connor Salter
What Is an Epistle? What Are the Epistles in the Bible?

The Epistles in the Bible may not appear at the top of your reading list. They’re not narratives like Acts or the Gospels, and some of them can be hard to get into at first. However, if you’re willing to dive into them and learn about their context, even the shorter ones can be very nourishing.

What Books Are in the Epistles?

The word epistle means “letter,” and in New Testament studies it refers to letters written by the apostles to churches or individuals. Here are the epistles included in the New Testament:

Romans is written by Paul to the church in Rome, systematically explaining the Gospel and its implications.

1 Corinthians is Paul writing to the church in Corinth to repent from their many sins and advising how to navigate the particularly pagan culture they lived in.

2 Corinthians follows with Paul commending the Corinthian church for their repentance, but also responding to claims that he doesn’t care about them.

Galatians is Paul writing to the church in Galatia, rebuking them for drifting into false teaching and reminding them grace removes the need for legalism.

Ephesians is Paul writing to the church in Ephesus about the need for Christian unity and how to achieve it.

Philippians is Paul writing to the church in Philippi about finding joy in Christ and the freedom that comes from that new life.

Colossians is Paul telling the church in Colossae to avoid pagan ideas about Jesus that downplay his divinity, along with instructions about living well.

1 Thessalonians is Paul commending the church in Thessalonica for their great faith and telling them how to continue on that path.

2 Thessalonians follows up the previous letter with Paul encouraging the Thessalonian church to stand amidst persecution.

1 Timothy is Paul writing to his disciple Timothy about how to avoid false teachings and operate a church well.

2 Timothy is apparently written by Paul in his last years, now in prison and suffering, describing what he’s gained and warning Timothy about the last days.

Titus is Paul writing to a disciple pastoring a church on Crete, advising him on how to pastor well.

Philemon is Paul writing to a Christian named Philemon, letting him know he’s met Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus and asking Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother when he returns.

Hebrews reminds Christians who had initially practiced Judaism why Christianity is a better covenant.

James gives Jewish Christians “scattered abroad” practical principles on how to live for Christ.

1 Peter tells Christians (living mostly in modern-day Turkey) to place their trust and hope in Christ, even amidst persecution.

2 Peter tells Christians to watch out for scoffers and false prophets and affirms that Jesus will return soon.

1 John tells Christians that Jesus was human as well as divine, appealing to the fact the apostles actually saw and touched Jesus.

2 John encourages “the chosen lady and her children” to practice Christian love and watch out for deceptive people.

3 John encourages a Christian named Gaius who was going through a church dispute.

Jude warns believers to watch out for false prophets.

What Is the Template of the Epistles?

The structure of each epistle varies a bit depending on whether it’s Paul writing it or someone else. Overall, when you look at the epistles, you get the following structure:

The epistles usually start with a personal greeting, often identifying the sender (Romans 1:1) and the intended recipient (Corinthians 1:2). This may often include a sort of mini-blessing where the writer blesses the recipient (Galatians 1:3-5).

Having made his greetings, the writer will then present a topic for discussion. For example, Galatians 1:11 goes the greeting into Paul using his story to explain the Gospel is from a divine source and does away with legalism. This makes up the main section of the epistle, and will often mix admonitions to turn away from sinful things (1 John 2:15-17) with instructions about how to live (Ephesians 5).

From there, the writer moves into the last section, which often combines “business matters” with a final farewell. The business matters are messages for individual people (Philippians 4:2-3), people who the recipient should expect to visit soon (Colossians 4:7-9), or things the author need someone to do, such as picking up clothing the writer left with someone (2 Timothy 4:13) or preparing a room for when the writer visits (2 Timothy 4:13). With the business matters finished, the epistle will usually end with greetings from other people (2 John 1:13) and a prayer or blessing for the recipients (Jude 1:24-25). If the epistle is addressed to a church as opposed to individuals, then this prayer functions like a benediction.

Who Are the Authors of the Epistles?

Not all of the epistles mention who wrote them, and there’s at least some indication that some of them were a person dictating the letter to a secretary (which is traditionally believed to be how the Gospel of Mark was written). To keep things simple, here are who church tradition says wrote the various epistles, with some explanations about alternate authors and why in some cases the authorship is debated.

The epistles of Peter are believed to be written by the apostle Peter, and the three epistles of John are believed to be written by the apostle John. Peter is also traditionally believed to have dictated the story of Jesus to his disciple John Mark, which created the Gospel of Mark. John is believed to also have written Revelation.

The epistle of James has traditionally been attributed to one of Jesus’ brothers, who became a Christian after Jesus’ resurrection. Others have suggested it was written by James son of Alpheus, mentioned as one of the original disciples. Jude is listed as written by a “brother of James,” and as a result, it has traditionally been attributed to another one of Jesus’ brothers. Since very little is known about Jesus’ siblings (although Matthew 12:46-50 indicates he had some), the question of how accurate tradition is on this point continues to be argued.

As the summary earlier shows, the other 14 epistles are traditionally attributed to Paul and are often called the “The Pauline Epistles.” Scholars today generally agree that seven of these letters were genuinely written by Paul, and they might be called the undisputed epistles:

Romans, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians

For various reasons, scholars debate whether Paul wrote the other seven epistles. The big reasons are that the writing style seems different and some of them don’t have the opening greetings used in the undisputed epistles.

Hebrews is perhaps the most hotly debated. It’s clearly written by someone with a strong background in Judaism arguing for Christianity, which as a former Pharisee is the sort of thing that Paul would have been good at. However, it doesn’t state its author and its particular Greek writing style reads very differently than the undisputed epistles.

Some scholars have suggested Hebrews was written by someone in Paul’s circle, such as Barnabas or Apollos. There is also an argument by early church historian Eusebius that Clement of Rome, an early Christian bishop ordained by Peter, translated Hebrews into the version we have today. In other words, Clement took an original version of Hebrews (written in, well, Hebrew), and created the stylized Greek version that scholars have today. As a Zondervan Academic article noted, that would actually mean Clement reworked Hebrews, changing the structure to get the particular Greek style we have today. Therefore, if Eusebius was right, we would consider Clement a co-writer of Hebrews.

Why Are These Books So Important to the Christian Faith?

While these aren’t the only letters written by Paul and the other apostles, they are the ones that have become part of the Scripture canon. From a content perspective, they provide an interesting look at what the first generation of Christians looked like. Many of the debates described in these epistles still continue today, under different labels. The epistles advising on how to run churches provide much-needed advice on how to select elders, pastors, and so forth. Epistles like Romans help us to know not only the basic content of the Gospel message but its implications for our lives.

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Originally published November 21, 2019.