The word "epistle" is from the Greek word epistolos which means a written "letter" addressed to a recipient or recipients, perhaps part of exchanged correspondence. Nowadays this term is usually used in connection with a specific group of books in the New Testament that either were letters or were written in that literary form. "Epistle" is also used to refer to other letters, such as a bishop's open letter to the congregants of his see. Referring to more commonplace letters as epistles is a rather pretentious use of language, but not incorrect. In particular an epistolary novel or story is told in the form of a series of letters.

New Testament epistles

There are epistles that are written to particular areas, and general epistles that are written to groups or communities. Taking at face value the traditional ascription of epistles to their superscribed authors, Paul wrote more epistles to particular churches, as well as personal letters to Timothy, Philemon, and Titus. Peter was the author of his own, John was the author of his own, James was the author of his own, Jude was the author of his own. Sometimes Paul's epistles are divided into subgroups. For instance, the "prison epistles" are the ones written by Paul while he was in prison, while the "pastoral epistles" are the letters to Timothy and Titus, since they contain advice about providing pastoral care to their churches.

Questions of historical authorship or of date and authenticity are addressed in the entries to individual Epistles. Usually the Epistles of the New Testament Canon are divided as follows:

Pauline Epistles as written by Paul:

General (or "catholic") epistles

The authorship of many of these epistles is contested by the majority of modern scholars and historians. In particular, with respect to the authorship of the Pauline epistles, the pastoral epistles are rejected by two thirds of modern academics, and only seven of the Pauline epistles are regarded as uncontested. The epistles of John are also questioned.

Non canonical epistles

Lost epistles

  • The first Epistle to Corinth referenced at
  • The third Epistle to Corinth called Severe Letter referenced at and
  • The Corinthian letter to Paul referenced at
  • The Earlier Epistle to the Ephesians referenced at
  • The Epistle to the Laodiceans referenced at
  • The Earlier Epistle of Jude referenced at
  • The Earlier Epistle of Johnreferenced at

Epistles of Apostolic Fathers

These are letters written by some very early Christian leaders, in the first or second century, which are not part of the New Testament. They are generally considered to form part of the basis of Christian tradition. The ennobling word "epistle" is used partly because these were all written in Greek, in a time period close to when the epistles of the New Testament were written, and thus "epistle" lends additional weight of authority.

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