Epistle (ἐπιστολή, something sent, as a "letter"). The use of written letters implies, of course, considerable progress in the development of civilized life. There must be a recognised system of notation, phonetic or symbolic; men must be taught to write, and have writing materials at hand. In the early nomadic stages of society accordingly, like those which mark the period of the patriarchs of the O.T., we find no traces of any but oral communications. In the Homeric poems, though messages are usual, yet a sort of hieroglyphical letters is not unknown (Il. 6:168). Messengers were sent instructed what to say from Jacob to Esau (Ge 32:3), from Balak to Balaam (Nu 22:5,7,16), bringing back in like manner a verbal, not a written answer (Nu 24:12). SEE MESSENGER. The negotiations between Jephthah and the king of the Ammonites (Jg 11:12-13) were conducted in the same way. It was still the received practice in the time of Saul (1Sa 11:7,9). The reign of David, bringing the Israelites, as it did, into contact with the higher civilization of the Phoenicians, witnessed a change in this respect also. SEE AMBASSADOR. The first recorded letter (סֵפֶר = "book;" comp. use of βιβλίον, Herod. 1:123) in the history of the O.T. was that which "David wrote to Joab, and sent by the hand of Uriah" (2Sa 11:14), and this must obviously, like the letters that came into another history of crime (in this case also in traceable connection with Phoenician influence, 1Ki 21:8-9), have been "sealed with the king's seal," as at once the guarantee of their authority, and a safeguard against their being read by any but the persons to whom they were addressed. The material used for the impression of the seal was probably the "clay" of Job 38:14. The act of sending such a letter is, however, pre-eminently, if not exclusively, a kingly act, where authority and secrecy were necessary. Hence they contained simply royal commands, and nothing is said of salutation or even address in connection with them. Joab, on the other hand, answers the letter which David had sent him after the old plan, and receives a verbal message in return. The demand of Benhadad and Ahab's answer to it are conveyed in the same way (1Ki 20:2,5). Jehu wrote letters, and sent them to Samaria to authorities, respecting Ahab's children, the form of which, or of the one transcribed, is the first instance in the Bible of anything like a formula. It begins, "Now as soon as this letter cometh to you," but ends without any like phrase. It was apparently replied to by a message, and Jehu wrote another letter, which, as given, has not the same peculiarity as the first. That Jehu, who, though perhaps well born, was a rough soldier, should have written and there is no ground for supposing that he used a scribe, but, from the extremely characteristic style, rather evidence against such an idea indicates that letter-writing was then common (2Ki 10:1-7). In this case secrecy may have been thought desirable, but the importance of the matter would have been a sufficient reason for writing. Written communications, however, become more frequent in the later history. The letter which the king of Syria, Benhadad, sent by Naaman to Jehoram, king of Israel, though to a sovereign with whom the writer was at peace, is in the same peremptory style, with no salutation (2Ki 5:5-6), from which we may conjecture that only the principal contents are given in this and like instances. The '"writing" (מַכתָּב) to Jehoram, king of Judah, from Elijah (q.v.) must have been a written prophecy rather than a letter (2Ch 21:12-15); though it must be observed that such prophecies when addressed to persons are of an epistolary character. Hezekiah, when he summoned the whole nation to keep the Passover, sent letters "from the king and his princes," as had been determined at a council held at Jerusalem by the king, the princes, and all the congregation. The contents of these letters are given, or the substance. The form is that of an exhortation, without, however, address. The character is that of a religious proclamation (2Ch 30:1-9). Hezekiah, in fact, introduced a system of couriers like that afterwards so fully organized under the Persian kings (comp. Herod. 8:98, and Es 8:10,14). The letter or letters of Sennacherib to Hezekiah seem to have been written instructions to his messengers, which were given to Hezekiah to show him that they had their master's authority. It is to be observed that the messengers were commanded, "Thus shall ye speak to Hezekiah," and that Hezekiah "received the letter" from them. What he received was probably a roll of papyrus, as that which Jehoiakim burnt seems to have been (Jer 36:23), for when he took it to the Temple he "spread it before the Lord" (2Ki 19:9-14; Isa 37:9-14; comp. 2Ch 32:17). It does not appear to have been usual for the prophets to write letters. Generally they seem, when they did not go themselves to those whom they would address, either to have sent a messenger, or to have publicly proclaimed what they were commissioned to say, knowing that the report of it would be carried to those whom it specially concerned. When Nebuchadnezzar had carried captive some of the people of Judah, we read how Jeremiah addressed them by a letter, which is a written exhortation and prophecy (29:1-23). It can scarcely be said that here we perceive a positive distinction between the later prophets and the earlier, for Elijah sent a letter or "writing" to Jehoram, king of Judah, as already noticed. The distance of Babylon from Jerusalem, and of Jerusalem from the kingdom which was the scene of Elijah's ministry, seems to afford the true explanation. That letters were not uncommon between the captives at Babylon and those who remained at Jerusalem before it was destroyed, appears probable from the mention of letters to Zephaniah the priest, and to others from a false prophet Shemaiah, at Babylon, in contradiction of Jeremiah's letter (24-29). Jeremiah was commanded to send to the captives a condemnation of this man (30-32), and it is therefore probable that at least three letters passed on this occasion. Though with the little evidence we have we cannot speak positively, it seems as if the custom of letter- writing had become more common by degrees, although there is no ground for inferring any change in its character. Still we find nothing of an address or signature. The letter seems to be always a document, generally a message written for greater security or to have full authority, and was probably rolled, tied up, and sealed with the writer's seal. SEE LETTER.
Although no Hebrew letters are preserved of the time before David, it might be supposed that the form might have been derived from Egypt. We have papyri containing copies by Egyptian scribes of the kings of the Rameses family about the 13th century B.C., of letters of their own correspondence. These show a regular epistolary style, the conventionalism of which at once removes us from all ideas of Shemitic literature. There is an air of the monuments about it that strikes us in the descriptive character of certain of the formulas. Some letters, from a superior to an inferior, commence in the manner shown in the following example: "The chief librarian Amen-em-an, of the royal white house, says to the scribe Penta- ur, Whereas, this letter is brought to you, saying communication." A usual ending of such letters is, "Do thou consider this." Some begin with the word "Communication." The fuller form also seems to be an abbreviation. An inferior scribe, addressing his superior, thus begins: "The scribe Penta- ur salutes his lord, the chief librarian, Amen-em-an, of the royal white house. This comes to inform my lord. Again I salute my lord. Whereas I have executed all the commissions imposed upon me by my lord, well and truly, completely and thoroughly [?] I have done no wrong. Again I salute my lord." He ends, "Behold, this message is to inform my lord." A more easy style is seen in a letter of a son to his father, which begins, The scribe Amen-mesu salutes [his] father, captain of bowmen, Bek-en-ptah," and ends "Farewell." A military of, ficer writing to another, and a scribe writing to a military officer, appear to begin with a prayer for the king before the formula "Communication." A royal or government letter is a mere written decree, without any formal introduction, and ending with an injunction to obey it. The contents of these letters are ale ways addresses to the persons written to, the writer using the first person singular. The subject-matter is various, and perhaps gives us a better idea of the literary ability of the Egyptians, and their lively national character, than any other of their compositions (see Goodwin on the "Horatic Papyri," in the Cambridge Essays, 1855, page 226 sq.). Indeed in Egypt everything of importance was committed to writing (Wilkinson, Anc. Eg. 2:176, abridgm.), and the monuments constantly depict scribes taking an inventory or check of all sorts of operations. SEE EGYPT.
In the books of Scripture written after the return from Babylon, mention is made of letters of the enemies of the Jews to the kings of Persia, and of the kings to these persons, the Jews, or their officers, some of which are given. These are in an official style, with a greeting, and sometimes an address. The letter to Artaxerxes contains the form, "Be it known unto the king," "Be it known now unto the king" (Ezr 4:11-16); and his answer thus begins, "Peace [or "welfare"], and so forth" (17-22), the expression "and so forth" occurring elsewhere in such a manner that it seems to be used by the transcriber for brevity's sake (10, 11; 7:12). It must, therefore, not be compared to the common modern Arabic formula of commencement, "After the [usual] salutations." The letter of the opponents of the' Jews to Darius (Hystaspis) thus begins: "Unto-Darius the king, all peace. Be it known unto the king (Ezr 5:6-17)." The letter of Artaxerxes (Longimanus) to Ezra is a written decree, and not an ordinary letter, save in form (Ezr 7:11,26). Nehemiah asked for, and was granted, letters from the same king to the governors and the keeper of the king's forest (Ne 2:7,9). When he was rebuilding Jerusalem, Sanballat sent him "an open letter" by his servant, repeating an invented rumor of the Jews' intention to rebel (6:5, 7): no doubt it was left not sealed purposely, either in order that the rumor should be so spread as if by accident, or to show disrespect. At this time many letters passed between the nobles of Judah and Tobiah, and letter-writing seems to have been common (17; see also 19). In Esther we read of exactly the same custom as that spoken of in the case of Jezebel's letter, the authority of writings with the king's name and seal, even if not written by him. It is related that Ahasuerus "took his signet from his hand and gave it unto Haman," who caused letters to be written containing a mandate: "In the name of king Ahasuerus was it written, and sealed with the king's signet" (Es 3:10,12-13). In like manner; the same authority was given to Esther and Mordecai, and it is remarked, "For the writing which is written in the king's name, and sealed with the king's signet, may not be reversed" (8:7, 8). The influence of Persian, and yet more, perhaps, that of Greek civilization, led to the more frequent use of letters as a means of intercourse. Whatever doubts may be entertained as to the genuineness of the epistles themselves, their occurrence in 1 Macc. 11:30; 12:6, 20; 15:1, 16; 2 Macc. 11:16, 34, indicates that they were recognized as having altogether superseded the older plan of messages orally delivered. SEE LETTER.
The two stages of the history of the N.T. present in this respect a very striking contrast. The list of the canonical books shows how largely epistles were used in the expansion and organization of the Church. Those which have survived may be regarded as the representatives of many others that are lost. We are perhaps too much in the habit of forgetting that the absence of all mention of written letters from the Gospel history is just as noticeable. With the exception of the spurious letter to Abgarus (q.v.) of Edessa (Euseb. H.E. 1:13) there are no epistles of Jesus. The explanation of this is to be found partly in the circumstance of one who, known as the "carpenter's son," was training as his disciples those who, like himself, belonged to the class of laborers and peasants, partly in the fact that it was by personal rather than by written teaching that the work of the prophetic office, which he reproduced and perfected, had to be accomplished. SEE JESUS CHRIST. In the Acts of the Apostles we have the short epistle addressed by the apostolic council held at Jerusalem to the Gentile converts in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (Ac 15:23-24). There is also a letter from Claudius Lysias to Felix, which may be supposed to preserve the official style of the provinces. Both these use the common Greek formulas, beginning, after the names of the writer and the person written to, with the salutation, and ending with the adieu. The epistles of the N.T. in their outward form are such as might be expected from men who were brought into contact with Greek and Roman customs, themselves belonging to a different race, and so reproducing the imported style with only partial accuracy. They begin (the Epistle to the Hebrews and 1 John excepted) with the names of the writer, and those to whom the epistle is addressed. Then follows the formula of salutation (analogous to the ε῏υ πράττειν of Greek, the S., S.D., or S.D.M., salutem, salutem dicit, salutem dicit multam, of Latin correspondence) — generally in Paul's Epistles in some combination of the words "grace, mercy, and peace" (χάρις, ἔλεος, εἰρήνη); in others, as in Ac 15:23; Jas 1:1, with the closer equivalent of χαίρειν, "greeting," which last is never used by Paul. Then the letter itself commences in the first person, the singular and plural being used, as in the letters of Cicero, indiscriminately (comp. 1Co 2; 2Co 1:8,15; 1Th 3:1-2; and passim). When the substance of the letter has been completed, questions answered, truths enforced, there come the individual messages, characteristic, in Paul's Epistles especially, of one who never allowed his personal affections to be swallowed up in the greatness of his work. The conclusion in this case was probably modified by the fact that the letters were dictated to an amanuensis. When he had done his work, the apostle took up the pen o - reed, and added, in his own large characters (Ga 6:11), the authenticating autograph, sometimes with special stress on the fact that this was his writing (1Co 16:21; Ga 6:11; Col 4:18; 2Th 3:17), always with one of the closing formula of salutation, "Grace be with thee" — "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit." In one instance, Ro 16:22, the amanuensis in his own name adds his salutation. In the "farewell" (ἔῤῥωσο of Ac 23:30, ἔῤῥωσθε of Ac 15:29) we have the equivalents to the vale, valete, which formed the custonary conclusion of Roman letters. It need hardly be said that the fact that Paul's Epistles were dictated in this way accounts for many of their most striking peculiarities, the frequent digressions, the long parentheses, the vehemence and energy as of a man who is speaking strongly as his feelings prompt him rather than writing calmly. An allusion in 2Co 3:1 brings before us another class of letters which must have been in frequent use in the early ages of the Christian Church, the ἐπιστολαί συστατικαί, or letters of recommendation, by which travelers or teachers were commended by one church to the good offices of others. Other persons (there may be a reference to Apollos, Ac 18:27) had come to the Church of Corinth relying on these. Paul appeals to his converts as Christ's epistle (ἐπιστολή Χριστοῦ, 2Co 3:3 ), written, "not with ink, but with the spirit of the living God." For other particulars as to the material and implements used for epistles, SEE WRITING.