Academic Writing

Academic Writing

"The Function of Letter Writing in Spiritual Expression"

By Harris Levon McRae  


Overview and Statement of the Problem

     I believe that because of the way we live our lives in this often hectic and 

overwhelming world with its seemingly unending suffering and hardships that it is easy 

to lose sight of what is truly important.  If we take the time to try to figure out how to

make this world a better place for humans and our environment we will see that our 

biggest problem is that not only does humanity in general need to find our way back to 

God—we must live in a way that is pleasing to God.   This study seeks to provide 

insights into just how we may achieve these goals. In order to do this, this work will 

explore the function of letter writing in the  spiritual expression of the writers of the 

New Testament  letters which provides spiritual knowledge that has ongoing healing

powers for generation after generation.  As our individual and global problems and 

challenges increase because of our distorted vision of self and God,  we can look to 

the letters of the New Testament to see just how humanity got off track and what we 

must do to reconnect with our Higher Power.  The New Testament keeps both the 

material world and the spiritual world in focus and shows us that salvation lies in 

our recognition of this duality.


    I, like many others believe that there is one God and getting to know God may 

take us on many different paths including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, 

Judaism—the list could go on and on. The spiritual knowledge imparted in the 

epistles of the New Testament—love each other,  God has no favorites among 

humans, look to past spiritual writings for guidance, etc. shows us that the 

New Testament epistles share knowledge broad enough to speak to 

people of any religious faith.  This is very important because as this 

study will show, one of humanities greatest problems is learning 

to be tolerant of the beliefs of others.  The New Testament letters gives 

us examples of how to please God as well as selfless examples of people 

taking the uplifting of humanity upon their own shoulders.   The New 

Testament letters gives us hope.  

Purpose of the Thesis

    Given the problem stated above, I believe that the best way to show the spiritual 

power of the letters of the New Testament is to show how through generation after 

generation the knowledge contained in these letters continue to have relevance for the 

uplifting of humanity.  For this thesis I have chosen three representative letter writers 

covering the Ancient, Medieval, and Contemporary time periods of history.  These 

writers are St. Paul, Hildegard of Bingen, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. respectively.

The variety and complexity of the situations that they encountered serve as vivid 

illustrations of just how valuable the knowledge in the letters of the New Testament can 

be to humankind.  Hence, the title of my thesis: “The Function of Letter Writing in 

Spiritual Expression.” 

Research Questions

    The primary research question is: Do the letters of the New Testament provide 

spiritual insights that people may rely on regardless of what time period of history that 

they live in?  

    The research sub-questions are: First: Is there spiritual knowledge that we can tap 

into to help us in our day-to-day struggles?  This would answer the question as to why 

the New Testament epistles continue to have relevance century after century.  The second 

question is made up of two parts: What is the function of  letter writing in spiritual 

expression and why is the letter many times used as a vehicle for expressing ourselves 

spiritually?  I am interested in why this form has endured for so long.  The third question 

is: What is the relationship between spiritual letter writers of  the different time periods of 


Thesis Statement

     By understanding the nature of ancient letter writing, we will see how 

the timeless themes and concern’s of the writers of the New Testament  

letters impart knowledge that remains important to us.

Significance of the Study

    Developing our spirituality nurtures all aspects our lives.  This study shows us just 

how we may go about doing so.  Throughout this work, certain key concepts including 

the aforementioned love each other and look to past spiritual writings for guidance, 

appear over and over.  The intention here is to introduce them and or reacquaint us 

with them to see how they may serve us through all eternity.  By coming into contact 

with these universal truths, it is my wish that we will learn to live more lovingly and 

more peacefully toward other humans and our planet.  


    In summary, though the teachings in the New Testament Epistles have roots in the 

Ancient time period of history, they are timeless.  We must never cease to mine the 

limitless spiritual power contained in its pages.  When we strive to get a clearer picture of 

God’s magnificence, more and more of us will come to the conviction that the best part 

of us longs to do God’s work.



     My review of the literature will cover a broad range of disciplines, including 

anthropology, philosophy, religion, history, and sociology, all related to exploring the 

theme of letter writing as a continuing form of spiritual expression in the Christian faith.  

History and religion are the disciplines that will launch our beginnings into this study and 

they will continue to weave in and out of the conversation in an interdisciplinary fashion 

during the course of our journey.  Part One will begin with a review of Greco-Roman 

letter writing and its relationship to early Christianity.  Also introduced will be the 

historical development of the New Testament canon and the modern study of the New 

Testament Epistles.  Part Two will focus on classifications, types, and format of New 

Testament Letters: What their major components are, and how they differ and/or are 

similar to each other.  Also included are examples of the function of each letter type.

By understanding the nature of ancient letter writing, we will see why the letter 

was “the most popular literary form in early Christianity” (Aune 159).  We will also see, 

how the timeless themes and concerns of the writer’s of the New Testament letters 

relates to us as readers today “as well as in the age to come” (Elwell and Yarbrough 23).

.Greco-Roman Letter Writing and Early Christianity

A.    Letter Writing and Greco-Roman Society

     Through the ages Greece and Rome have produced many literary classics 

including Homer's epics the Iliad and Odyssey and the poetry of Ovid.  It is easy to 

assume that those societies must have always been largely literate.   Research suggests 

that actually they were for the most part oral cultures (Ehrman 48, Witherington III 3).  

Speech is how Christians first shared the spiritual messages of hope, love, and keeping 

the faith during hard times.  These oral intimations ultimately went into the New 

Testament writings we may look to today for inspiration.  

This means that the New Testament is worth studying 

because it is the Word of God.  In a bewildering world of 

social change, political complexity, economic flux, and 

moral confusion, there is something firm to hold on to. 

There is light for the path ahead.  There is meaning.  There 

is even, to a far greater extent than mere mortals can grasp it,

truth.  (Elwell & Yarbrough 22)

    Ben Witherington III, author of The New Testament Story is committed to the idea 

that “before there were any written words that made up New Testament books there were 

spoken words—thousands of them.  The New Testament in all likelihood is barely the tip 

of the iceberg of verbiage about Jesus that was communicated in the first century A. D.” 

(4).  So we see that most people in the Greco-Roman world had to depend upon word of 

mouth to a large extent.  Many of them developed great skills for retaining information—

especially for matters of importance (Branick 40).  “People met Jesus, heard his stories, 

and watched him apply healing techniques to people who were  very sick.  

They talked about him.  Some of those  stories were passed on to relatives or friends”

(Selvidge 63).  

Witherington III provides further insight into the oral sharing of spiritual 

experiences by using the example of Paul’s letters that were written to congregations that 

had already been founded.  He states: “They had received the Word orally well before 

there was any written communication with them.  In fact, Paul’s letters serve as a sort of 

surrogate for the oral conversations Paul would have liked to have had with them could 

he have been present” (5).  Religious studies professor and author Bart D. Ehrman 

elaborates on the connection between the oral and written tradition of communicating: 

We now know that most people in the Greco-Roman world 

could not read, let alone write.  Estimates of the level of 

literacy vary, but the most recent studies have concluded 

that in the best of times (e.g., Athens  in the days of 

Socrates), only 10 to 15 percent of the population (the vast 

majority of them males) could read and write on the 

elementary level.  Moreover, in this world even literary texts 

were oral phenomena: books were made to be read out  loud, 

often in public, so that a person usually “read” a book by 

hearing it read  by someone else.  (48)

Ehrman’s example of books being “read” by hearing them shows how we relate in a

completely different way to the text in modern times. Witherington III agrees, adding 

“We reverse the process today when we read the text of the New Testament out loud and 

then proclaim and declaim on the basis of it” (5).   

So we have seen in our research that many Christians developed great skills for 

remembering information to be shared later by word of mouth.  This is how the spiritual 

messages of love and peace preached  by  Jesus Christ that we cherish today started to be 

passed on. 

        We have now come to see people in oral cultures typically 

do not share the modern concern for preserving traditions 

intact, and do not repeat them exactly the same way every 

time.  On the contrary, the concern for verbal accuracy has 

been instilled in us by the phenomenon of mass literacy 

itself; since anyone now can check to see if a fact has been 

remembered correctly (by looking it up). We have 

developed a sense that traditions ought to remain invariable 

and unchanged.  In most oral societies, however, traditions 

are understood to be malleable; that is, they are supposed to 

be changed and made relevant to the new situations in which 

they are cited.  (Ehrman 48)

From the oral preaching about Jesus that gave birth to Christianity (Brown 206)

we have seen that every time a person retells a story it changes, because people hear, 

understand and speak differently (Selvidge 63).   When talking about these oral 

transmissions (Branick 40, Selvidege 63) Witherington III writes “Thus, it is fair to say 

that when we tell the story of the New Testament, we are telling the story of a second-

order phenomenon, the story of the literary residue of a largely oral movement which   

grew on the basis of preaching and teaching, praying and praising, and other forms of 

oral communication” (Witherington III 5).      

Branick helps us immensely in understanding the concept of oral transmission.   

He states that number one, “oral transmission almost always involves clarifying” (40).  

This means that first and foremost, the person delivering the message is mainly 

concerned with being understood.   Certainly this would be the case with early Christians 

sharing information with each other.  For Branick, part of this clarifying means that the 

speaker will adapt to the listener to be better understood.  Second, oral transmission 

involves getting the material into a form that makes it easy to memorize (40).  This may 

include summarizing what was originally said into a more manageable message.  Many 

times this included using memory aids or mnemonics(43).  Third, “oral transmission from 

memory means random access to the material” (41).  This speaks to the fact that we recall 

memories in many different ways.  “The sequence and combinations, therefore, of an 

extended narration produced from oral transmission may very well be the result of the 

narrator’s decisions rather than a reflection of the historical events” (41).    

    The bridge between speech and letter writing suggests two important points for 

understanding letter writing in the Greco-Roman world. One, though primarily connected 

with oral delivery, rhetoric had a profound effect on letter writing (Aune 158, Brown 

411). Two, throughout the ancient world there was a high degree of social stratification. 

Most letters then as now, are written communications addressed to individuals or groups 

from whom the sender is separated by distance or social status (Aune 158).  Stowers 

agrees, adding, “The letter is adaptable to a wide range of circumstances and purposes but 

always has the characteristic of being a “communication” between people who are 

separated” (23).  The letter performs as a substitute for oral communication and its 

functionality rivals that of speech (Aune 158, Witherington III 49). 

For us to understand early Christian letters in a way similar to how people saw 

them in the Greco-Roman world, it is helpful to know about the three sets of social 

relationships typical of that culture.  Stanley K. Stowers, professor of religious studies 

and author of Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity describes them this way:

First are hierarchical relations between subordinates and 

superordinates, best exemplified by the social institutions 

of the client-patron relationship.  Second are relationships 

between equals epitomized by the Greek and Roman 

institutions of friendship.  Third are the social relationships 

of the household, which combine characteristics of both 

hierarchical relations and relations between equals. (27)

Here we see that the social status and the relationship of sender to the receiver will 

influence letter writing.   

Letters in Early Christian Communities

     As Stowers so eloquently puts it, “something about the nature of early

Christianity made it a movement of letter writers” (15).   There are in existence thousands 

of letters written by Christians in antiquity.  Twenty-one of the twenty-seven writings in 

the New Testament takes the form of letters (Brown 410, Stowers 15).   By looking at 

early Christian letters through the lenses of Greco-Roman letters, we can gain keen 

insight into the world of early Christianity.  

    In the modern context, it is natural to think about letters solely in terms of 

the information they give us.  In the broader context however, it is important to think of 

letters in terms of  what people actually tried to accomplish with their use.  As Stowers 

points out,  we should not overlook the many other functions that letters performed in 

favor of simply observing how they facilitated the communication of information (15). 

These other functions included dealing with concerns of ordinary life such as business, 

legal matters, friendship, and family (Brown 412).  The list can further be broken down to 

take into account threatening someone, causing someone to be sorry, giving a report of 

events, consoling someone and giving honor (Stowers 15).

Historical Development of Christian Letter Writing 

Marshall D. Johnson has written, “letters are frequently attested in the Old 

Testament and constitute the majority of the books of the New” (80).  He reminds us that 

the identifying marks of a letter are simple and universal.  Characteristics usually include 

the name of the intended recipient, a message, and the name of the sender.  He also 

highlights other features that letters may contain (and that we will explore shortly) 

including opening and closing greetings, thanksgiving, compliments, and references to 

past associations (80).  These features may be used in different types of letters such as 

official letters from rulers or city councils and the “familiar letter” or “friendly letter” 

between family and friends (80), which Aune, Doty, and Stowers elaborate on later in our 


The earliest documents in the New Testament were probably the letters of Paul 

(Brown 409, Reid 285).  They were written in the period between 50-65 C.E.  Scholars 

such as Raymond E. Brown believe that the letters of Paul were probably the first New 

Testament  books to be composed “partly because the early Christians thought that Christ 

would return soon, and so only “immediate literature” that dealt with existing problems 

was of import” (409).  Paul’s writings were, for the most part, letters addressed to the 

fledgling Christian communities which he had founded in the cities and provinces of Asia 

Minor and Greece (Reid 285).   An analysis of Paul’s letter to the Galatians will provide 

us with a great example of how the New Testament Epistles may give us not only  a 

historical view of the function of letters but also insights that speak to contemporary 


    Many scholars find Galatians to be Paul expressing himself at his fiery best.  

Brown believes that “in some ways this has been considered the most Pauline of the 

Pauline writings, the one in which anger has called Paul to say what he really thinks” 

(467), while Luke T. Johnson adds, “In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we find the apostle 

at his most difficult and exhilarating” (302). Paul uses techniques from letters of rebuke 

nd admonishment, which we will explain further in future analysis of the research.

    Paul had founded the churches of Galatia and his version of the gospel had come 

under dispute.(Brown 470, Luke T. Johnson  304, Reid 287).  Paul and other preachers 

with ideas contrary to his were at one in proclaiming that what God had accomplished 

through Jesus Christ in terms  of  “justification and the gift of the Spirit was for 

both Jews and Gentiles (Brown 469).  What allowed Gentiles to receive these 

blessings is what was being debated.  Paul’s detractors believed that his gospel 

was lacking in key areas:  “Like commitment to Christ, it is a beginning, but more is required for full 

maturity.     Obedience to the gospel without obedience to Torahs commandments is, according to 

Paul’s opponents, a superficial and distorted version of Judaism” (Luke T. Johnson 305).   

According to Paul’s preaching God offered justification through the “faith of/in Christ” 

(Brown 469).

Subsequently Paul’s version of the gospel had come under attack by other Christian 

missionaries who were preaching another gospel which insisted that the Galatians 

must become circumcised and become observant Jews in order to be members of the 

Christian or messianic community (cf. Gal 1:7-9; 5:2-11).  There preaching also seems to 

have been accompanied by an attack on Paul and his apostolic credentials.  Paul writes 

the letter to defend himself and his version of the gospel in order to win Galatians back to 

what  he considers the true saving message about Jesus.  (Reid 287)

In 3:1-5 Paul reminds the Galatians of past connections with him that should serve as 

proof of his gospel. He begins by recalling the time when they first heard and received in 

faith his gospel about Jesus Christ crucified without any mention of an obligation to 

observe the Law of Moses (Reid 288).  He also reminds them that the gospel of Jesus 

Christ had freed them from pagan gods as well as Jewish traditions that could not save 

them (Elwell & Yarbrough 300).    

“You foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you?  

Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly 

portrayed as crucified.  I would like to learn just one 

thing from you: Did you receive he Spirit by observing 

the law, or by believing what you heard?  Are you so 

foolish?  After beginning with the Spirit, are you now 

trying to attain your goal by human effort.  Have you 

suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for 

nothing?  Does God give you his Spirit and work 

miracles among you because you observe the law, or 

because you believe what you heard?”

    In chapter 5 we really get a sense of the Spirit shining through as Paul writes 

words that would resonate with generation after generation right up until the present day.  

In 5:6 he shares: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”  

Living life based on this philosophy of love being the most important thing that we can 

share is a way to contribute to the uplifting of humanity for all eternity.  “It is to start 

down a path of profound and desirable personal transformation.  It is to become part of 

the people of God, with all the privileges and responsibilities that entails.  It is to be 

prepared properly for life to the fullest in this world—as well as in the age to come” 

(Elwell & Yarbrough 23).  St. Paul continues to sing the praises of love and other  

necessary nourishment that we may daily get from God in Galatians 5:22-23:  “But the 

fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 

gentleness and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.”  Against such things 

there is also no time limit as we may continue to feast on the “fruit of the Spirit” 


In addition to the point that Brown makes that the letters of Paul were probably 

the first New Testament  books to be composed, he  also points out two other very 

interesting facts.  First, letters continued to be written even when more permanent 

literature such as Gospels and Acts had begun to be produced and second, twenty-one of 

the twenty-seven New Testament books are designated as “Letters” or “Epistles” while 

none of the Old Testament books carry that classification (409).

    The word “testament” means “covenant” or “agreement” (Brown 3, Selvidge 

40).  Writing about the distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament,  

Marla J. Selvidge is of the following opinion:

    Implicit in the naming of the Christian writings is the theological premise that the 

Jewish writings in what is termed the Old Testament were outdated.  God had made 

an agreement with the Israelites exemplified by the law, which was the “old” literature.  

And while this literature was valuable, it was not the most important literature for

Christians.  God has now made a new agreement, or New Testament, with people 

who follow Jesus.  The promises made in the “old” book have come true or have 

been fulfilled in the “new” book. (40)

Brown adds that before the term “testament” was applied to a set of writings, it referred 

to God’s special dealing with people.  He describes the story of the Hebrews and of Israel 

as a pact by which God made a commitment to Noah, to Abraham, and to David, 

promising special help or blessings (3).    He also states that “only in the 2d century do 

we have evidence of Christians using the term “New Testament” for a body of their own 

writings, ultimately leading to the use of the designation “Old Testament” for the 

Scriptures of Israel (4).  Tracing the history of early Christian texts, Witherington III 


    “Early Christians already had a sacred text when the Christian 

    movement began to flourish.  We call it the Old Testament.  

    They were then, to some degree, a text-formed community, but it is 

    difficult to discern how much this would have been the case in the

    largely Gentile congregations that Paul and others had founded.  

    Yet Paul frequently cites or alludes to various Old Testament texts 

    in his letters, and so we must assume that some of the audience, 

    perhaps especially the Jews and God-fearers, had access to the Old 

    Testament or were familiar with its various teachings. 

    (Witherington III 14)

The Canon of the New Testament Epistles

    So where exactly do we get the New Testament? How did it come into being?  

Who selected the documents?  How did they decide what would be considered in the 

collection? What inspired people to pass on certain documents from generation to 

generation that continued to have relevance throughout the ages? Many of the writings 

that we have been discussing such as the letters of Paul and Gospels and Acts along with 

others, were not only preserved but eventually became sacred and accepted as 

authoritative by a variety of Christian councils and committees during a period of almost 

1,600 years (Selvidge 40). “They were placed on the same level as the Jewish Scriptures 

(the Law, Prophets, and other Writings) and evaluated as a NT alongside them (so that 

the Jewish Scriptures became the OT” (Brown 10).  These timeless themes and concerns 

of the writer’s of the New Testament letters that continues to relate to us as readers today 

came to be part of the “canon.”  This was a long complicated process.  “The history of the 

development, copying, and editing of the New Testament texts is a fascinating story of 

political intrigue” (Selvidge 42).  The term “canon” or norm comes from a Greek word 

that originally meant “ruler” or “measuring rod”  (Ehrman 2) or “standard” (Branick 20). 

When applied to the Bible, the term canon denotes the collection of books that have come 

to be accepted as authoritative by the vast majority of Christian leaders over hundreds of 



My research suggests that although there is a lot of speculation as to how early 

Christians made their choices for New Testament books we don’t really know for sure.  

“Historians have attempted to chart the collection, edition, and organization of the books 

found in the New Testament, but their findings are not complete.  No one knows exactly 

which Christians read which books.  Neither do historians know if Christian communities 

actually followed recommendations about using certain books” (Selvidge 42). 

    Many significant factors concerning the canonization of Christian writings 

however, can be seen looking back through the eyes of history.   Among these are 

apostolic authorship and conformity with the rule of faith (Brown 10, Reid 285). We 

must also keep in mind that lives were on the line as people might be persecuted for 

hiding Christian Scriptures and they “wanted to know which ones they should be willing 

to die for” (Elwell and Yarbrough 27).   This gave church leaders urgent cause to choose 

documents that they believed best represented their faith.

    Although apostolic origin was not an absolute criterion for either preservation 

or acceptance of writings (Branick 27, Brown 10) it  is easy to see why it would have had

some major influence.  “There appears to be some evidence that the first formal 

collection consisted of ten of Paul’s letters which were bound together and published as a 

single corpus sometime prior to A.D. 100” (Barker et. al, 27).  Therefore, as the writings 

continued to circulate it made perfect sense to keep similar documents together to be 

available for use to all members of the church.   

Since the letters were written to early Christian communities, and were read aloud 

during the meetings of these communities, eventually becoming a part of the 

formal liturgy of the Christian worship, it may be that the first collections were 

made to satisfy needs for worship.  An additional stimulus may well have been 

the need for practical advice and instruction; especially in the later generations 

of the church, when dissension and problems of right belief were prominent, 

collections of the letters may have been made as a means of regaining the 

supposed wholeness and peace of the earliest church. (Doty 46)

It also made sense that these letters and other letters “written in the name, spirit, and 

authority of the apostles” (Brown 10), would gain  a lot of support for being part of the 

canon. Paul’s letters were seen as blueprints from the first generation of the church, 

and his letters were assumed to speak to all generations of the church.(Doty 46).

 “Thus by the beginning of the second century some Christians were ascribing authority 

to the words of Jesus and the writings of his apostles” (Ehrman 11).  

    Another possible criteria for acceptance or rejection of books into the Christian 

canon was conformity with the rule of faith.  This was imperative to most Christians.  

The importance of conformity with belief may be 

illustrated by a story told by Eusebius (EH 6.12.2-6) of 

Sarapion, the bishop of Antioch (ca. 190), who found the 

congregation in nearby Rhosssus reading from the  Gospel of 

Peter , a work with which he was unfamiliar.  At first 

hearing, he found the work a bit strange but was inclined to 

tolerate it.  When he later learned that this gospel was being 

used to support docetic teaching (that Jesus was not truly 

human), Serapion forbade further church use of the work.  

(Brown 11)

Brown goes on to make a very important point in all of this discussion about a canon of 

Christian writings.  He asserts that the term “canon” may have first referred to the 

standard beliefs of the Christian communities “before it referred to the collection of 

writings that became standard” (11).

Wide usage in a specific church or in many of the churches is an additional factor 

that was involved in the preservation and acceptance of a Christian composition into the 

canon.  Those to whom the writings were originally sent as well as those that were 

familiar with particular letters would more than likely try to aid in  their acceptance into 

the canon.   “This factor of the receiving church (catalyzed at times by the influence of 

some personality mentioned in a NT book who later was prominent in the particular 

church) may account for the preservation of works like Philemon and Jude, which are not 

lengthy or significant enough easily to be explained otherwise” (Brown 11).

Selvidge reminded us earlier that the history of the development of the New 

Testament is partly a story of political intrigue.  These conditions influenced the 

canonization of certain Christian writings.  We can get a closer look at the politics being 

played during the formation of the canon using the example of Marcion, a wealthy 

businessman from Pontus, in the second century C.E. (Selvidge 42).  

Marcion’s motive for developing a New Testament seemed to stem from the fact 

that he was the leader of a Christian community that saw a big difference between the 

religion preached by Jesus and Paul and that found in the Jewish Scriptures (Branick 22, 

Brown 14, Ehrman 3).  “Marcionite Christians maintained that Jesus did not belong to the 

wrathful and just God of the Jews, the God who created the world and chose Israel to be 

his special people.  In fact Jesus came to save people from this God” (Ehrman 3).  Here, 

we see clearly that for Marcion, there are two distinct and unrelated Gods, the God of the 

Jews and the God of Jesus. He came up with his own list of favored Christian writings.  

“He selected a canon of Christian writings that could be interpreted as favorable to his 

thesis, namely, one Gospel (Luke without chaps. 1-2: the euaggelion) and ten Pauline 

letters (without the Pastoral Epistles, the  apostolikon)” (Brown 14).  

So with Marcion, we see the beginnings of the idea of two collections—the 

Jewish writings of the Old Testament and the Christian writings of the New.  Playing into 

the political intrigue that we discussed, Selvidge writes “Marcions’s division of the Bible 

into the Old and New Testament Gospels accepted as Scripture/Canon and circulated 

anonymously” (42).

Marcion’s ideas met with strong opposition (Branick 23, Brown 14) and actually 

influenced what eventually made its way into the canon.  His short New Testament 

provoked other Christians to develop more complete collections (Branick 23) and 

“reaction to Marcion’s rejection of the OT influenced the larger church’s determination to 

maintain the OT as God’s word for the Christian people” (Brown 14).  

Delving deeper into explaining Marcion’s influence on what would become the 

Christian canon, Brown discusses how his truncated canon was a factor that pushed the 

church to accept four Gospels rather than just Luke alone and at least thirteen Pauline 

letters rather than ten (14).  Continuing his thought he goes on to say:

With its narrative about the work of Peter, the chief of the 

Twelve companions of Jesus, prefaced to its account of the 

work of Paul, Acts could logically stand between the 

assembled four gospels dealing with Jesus and the 

assembled letters of Paul.  The same instinct for favoring 

the Twelve probably explains the inclusion of I Pet and 

I John.  However that may be, in the decades just before 

and after AD 200, church writers in Greek and in Latin 

widely accepted a collection of twenty works as a NT 

alongside the Jewish OT. (14)

Branick sums up Marcion’s legacy by saying “more than anything else, this idea of a 

separate list was Marcion’s lasting contribution to the development of the New Testament 

canon” (22). 


Another influence that Marcion had was on the development of the Muratorian 

Canon (Branick 23, Sevidge 42).  Research suggests that an ancient fragment of this 

canon still exists today. It is a manuscript that seems to represent a larger canon than 

Marcion’s and was developed only decades after his—toward the end of the second 

century (Branick 23).   “Today it is known as the Muratorian Canon from the discoverer 

of this fragment, Lodovico Muratori (d. 1750)” (Branick 23).

The Muratorian Canon is not a canon in the narrow sense of the 

word, that is, a bare list of titles, but is a kind of introduction to 

the New Testament.  Instead of merely cataloguing the books 

accepted by the church as authoritative, the author discusses 

them and appends historical information and theological 

reflections as well.  These comments allow us to draw 

conclusions as to the author’s understanding of the motives and 

norms lying behind the formation of the New Testament canon.

(Metzger 194)

In addition to the twenty works mentioned by Brown seven remaining works 

went into the canon: Hebrews, Revelations, James, II and III John, Jude and II Peter.  

Branick highlights an important paragraph written in a letter by Athanasius, bishop 

of Alexandria concerning the final form of the canon.  Writing in 367 C.E. he states:

        Concerning the New Testament: There are four Gospels, 

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Then the Acts of the Apostles.  

Then seven epistles, as follows: one of James, two of Peter, 

three of John.  After these one of Jude.  Fourteen of Paul follow

in this order: first to the Romans, then two to the Corinthians,

one to the Galatians, one to the Ephesians, one to the Philippians, 

one to the Colossians, two to the Thessalonians, later one to the 

Hebrews, then two to Timothy, one to Titus, and another to 

Philemon.  Finally the Apocalypse of John.  (24)

So, we see that though the Old Testament and New Testament are side by side in 

one  book today, this has not always been the case.  “This standardization involved 

churches accepting from other churches books about which they had some doubts, and 

such “ecumenism” reflected an increasing contact and communion between the East and 

the West” (Brown 15).  The New Testament canon has come to be a collection of 

Christian writings that include Gospels, letters, treatises, narratives, and an apocalypse. 

The list of the twenty-seven New Testament books—which can now be found in the table 

of contents in any bible—forms the standard, which was centuries in the making.


E.    The Modern Study of the New Testament Epistles

Writing about the ongoing knowledge that one can gain from reading the New 

Testament letters, Elwell and Yarbrough want us to always keep in mind that the New 

Testament story does not end in the first century.   Using the legacies of Abraham 

Lincoln and Winston Churchill as examples, the authors illustrate the sacrifices that one 

may have to make for the uplifting of humanity.  They go on to say that:

In the same way, the lives of Jesus Christ and his followers

continue on into the future long after their deaths.  What 

have later generations inherited from the rich deposit of 

truth and insight preserved in the New Testament’s sacred 

pages?  Perhaps we should put a finer point on the question: 

What are some of the lessons that we ourselves should take 

to heart from our survey of New Testament times and 

writings?  (388)

    Johnson demonstrates his faith in how the timeless themes and concerns of the 

writer’s of the New Testament letters continues to relate to us as readers today.  He 


Through the human words, written by so many different kinds 

of persons and reflecting various perspectives, readers may 

find themselves gripped by unexpected insights that elevate 

consciousness and transcend both author and reader.  

Perhaps at such serendipitous moments the ancient writings can 

become the word of God for the reader.  (141)

According to Branick, the New Testament represents a public faith, shared with others 

and related to contemporary events, and is to use his phrase “constantly reexpressing 

itself as opened to an inexpressible Mystery” (386).  For Barker, Lane, and Michaels, if 

the New Testament is the vehicle through which God speaks, then it is apparent what our 

relationship to the Scripture must be.

To say that God speaks is also to say that man must hear, 

that God can and does in fact make known his purpose for 

man, that By his words God discloses himself, making 

himself open to man’s knowledge and entering into 

relationship with man.  Consequently, man’s concern with 

respect to Scripture is equally clear.  As God is the discloser, 

so before the word of God man becomes the listener.  He 

must listen to God’s voice—God’s word.  For man this poses 

no small responsibility.  (17)

Not only does the New Testament continue to be a relevant and rewarding 

read for people of today, scholars continue to hunger for more knowledge of it as well.  

Anthropology, history, philosophy, theology—the list goes on and on.  The field of New 

Testament studies is truly a field that embraces interdisciplinarity and scholars continue 

to give us ideas of how to approach the New Testament letters in the twenty-first century.  

Mark Allan Powell, author of several books in the field of New Testament studies and 

criticism including New Testament Today, describes the continuing growth of the field as 


        We have witnessed, first, an incredible increase in knowledge.  

        At a basic level, the achievements of archaeology in the last 

        hundred years have surpassed those of the previous centuries 

        combined.  Highly publicized discoveries such as the Dead 

        Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library, along with the more 

        mundane dating of pottery shards, have brought a more exact 

        awareness of what happened, where and when.  The                     

        development of such sciences as cultural anthropology has 

        served also to explain what happened, why.  We now have 

        methodological tools for interpreting first-century events in 

        light of the cultural values intrinsic to that age.   We know far

        more about the first-century world today than we did a few 

        decades ago. (Powell ix)

    Summary of Part One

There are in existence thousands of letters written by Christians in antiquity.  

Twenty-one of the twenty-seven writings in the New Testament takes the form of letters. 

By looking at early Christian letters through the lenses of Greco-Roman letters, we can 

gain keen insight into the world of early Christianity. Most letters then as now, are 

written communications addressed to individuals or groups from whom the sender is 

separated by distance.  The letter performs as a substitute for oral communication and its 

functionality rivals that of speech. 

Through the ages Greece and Rome have produced many literary classics 

and it is easy to assume that those societies must have been largely literate.  Research 

suggests that actually they were largely oral cultures.  The timeless themes and concerns 

of of the writer’s of the New Testament letters that relates to us as readers today  were 

first shared by word of mouth.  The bridge between letter writing and speech suggests 

two important points for understanding letter writing in the Greco-Roman world. First, 

though primarily connected with oral delivery, rhetoric had a profound effect on letter 

writing.  Second, throughout the ancient world there was a high degree of social 


The earliest documents in the New Testament, which continue to give us useful 

insights today, were probably the letters of Paul.  They were written in the period 

between 50-65 C.E. These writings along with other Christian writings which were 

declared acceptable by a variety of Christian councils and committees during a period of 

almost 1,600 years came to be known as the “canon.”  This means that this particular 

group of writings is accepted as authoritative by the Christian councils and committees 

mentioned above. Not only does the New Testament continue to be a relevant and 

rewarding read for people of today, scholars continue to hunger for more knowledge of it 

as well.  


Classifications, Types, and Format of New Testament Letters


We will begin by defining the terminology “Letter” and “Epistle.” The Greek 

word epistole (“epistle”) originally referred to an oral communication sent by messenger 

(Aune 158).   For most purposes the terms “Letter” and  “Epistle” are interchangeable but 

some  scholars such as Adolph Deissmann, a pioneer in the comparative analysis of 

ancient letters, see a distinct difference between the two.  Deissmann classifies an 

“Epistle” as being an artistic literary exercise and a “Letter” as a nonliterary means of 

communicating information between a writer and a recipient separated by distance  Aune 

160, Branick 199, Brown 410, Deissmann 228).    Using these guidelines, of the twenty-

seven books of the New Testament, the authentic letters of Paul together with II-III John 

would be seen as “Letters” and the Pastorals and most of the Catholic letters such as 

Hebrews, James, I-II Peter, and Jude  would be classified as “Epistles” (Aune 160, Brown 

410, Johnson 80).   

In  Light from the Ancient East, Deissmann describes further his reasoning behind 

wanting to distinguish letters from epistles.  Concerning the importance of the discovery 

of ancient Greek papyrus letters to understanding the New Testament he urges us to 

recognize that:

        Most scholars regard all these texts unhesitatingly as works 

        of literature.  But now that the new discoveries of letters 

        have shown the necessity of differentiation, and have given 

        us a standard for judging whether an ancient text is letter-like 

        in character, the problem can no longer be kept in the 

        background.  And I think the study of these ancient letters, 

        newly discovered, obliges us to maintain that in the New 

        Testament there are both non-literary letters and literary 

        epistles. (233)

Deissmann’s categories of non-literary letters and literary epistles resonates with 

many scholars including Marshall D. Johnson who writes that an epistle is writing in 

letter style that is intended for publication or posterity, while letter suggests personal 

correspondence to the named addresses (80). Dr. William Barclay, author of The New 

Testament Volume II: The Letters and the Revelation, agrees with the two.  Offering the 

letters of Paul as examples, Barclay writes “the word epistle tends to remove them out of 

the ordinary run of things into a special theological and literary category” (7). Frank W. 

Beare makes some very solid points in St. Paul & His Letters that reinforces Barclay’s 

reasoning.  Using Voltaire’s Lettres sur les Anglais and Junius’s “letters,” as examples of 

works of literature in the form of letters,  he writes  that Paul’s letters are not theological 

treatises or essays and therefore we should not treat them as if they are. (12).  For Beare, 

letters are as most of us see them today—a personal communication between a writer and 

a reader:

        They are not addressed to the public at large, not even to the 

        Christian world in general, nor are they intended for all time

        And for all men everywhere.  They are occasional 

        writings—writings prompted by particular circumstances 

        involving the writer and the     readers and of no immediate 

        concern to anyone else.  For that reason they are not to be 

        understood apart from some knowledge of the man who 

        wrote them, the readers for whom they were     intended, and 

        the circumstances which caused them to be written.  

        They spring out of the personal relationships between Paul 

        and his churches, and each of them bears upon local 

        conditions in the church to which it is addressed.  (12)

Although Deissmann, Beare and others, may believe that making the 

distinction between real letters and literary epistles simplifies matters,  they are in the 

minority.  Few typologies of Greco-Roman or early Christian letters have been proposed 

and none are widely accepted (Aune 161,  Brown 410).  For the purpose of this study, we 

will define an epistle as any literary composition in the form of a letter—regardless of its 

typology. The New Testament Epistles can be defined as letters to Christian 

communities. The letters were written so that they could be shared with the general 

public (Branick 199, Reid 285).  The first Christian epistles, which comprises the first 

Christian literature that we know about, were apparently letters to beginning churches 

written by Paul in the period between 50-65 C.E. (Brown 5, Reid 285).   

Types of Letters

Paul, like other writers of letters at the time, wrote letters that fell into many 

different categories.   Consequently, treatises on ancient epistolary theory provide 

long lists of letter types.  I have found the list compiled by Stanley K. Stowers to be 

particularly insightful and have selected his work for special attention in this section.  

In Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, Stowers has provided us with a 

typology of six epistolary types of Greco-Roman letters largely based on ancient 

epistolary theory.  He recognizes that like most other instruction in antiquity, letter 

writing was taught by the imitation of models rather than through theory and 

comprehensive rules (32).  The types include letters of friendship; family letters; letters of 

praise and blame; hortatory letters (with seven subtypes: paraenetic letters, protreptic 

letters, letters of advice, admonition, rebuke, reproach, and consolation); letters of 

recommendation (or mediation); and lastly  accusing, apologetic, and accounting letters.  

Most all of these forms can be found in New Testament letters.  

While considering these categories Stowers  wants us to be sure to keep in mind 

that “the modern student of ancient letters should understand both the limitations and the 

logic which the various types represent and the enormous flexibility in composition 

which they allow” (56).  David E. Aune elaborates on the contribution to the study of 

ancient letters by Stowers:

Following the epistolary theorists, Stowers views letters 

functionally, i.e., in terms of the actions that people 

intended to perform through them.  Consequently one must 

understand the typical social occasions that provided the 

context for letter writing, i.e., the Greco-Roman social 

conventions for communicating with equals or with people 

of higher or lower status.  (162)

Letters of Friendship

Letters of friendship were an important type of correspondence in antiquity (Aune 

162, Stowers 58).  When being together was impossible, friendly letters were said to 

provide a suitable substitute for actual companionship.  It is interesting to note that letters 

of friendship were not always written by a friend to a friend however.  Demetrius who 

wrote what is regarded as the most classical treatment of the letter, On Style notes: “For 

frequently men in prominent positions are expected by some to write in a friendly manner 

to their inferiors and to others who are their equals, for example, to military commanders, 

viceroys, and governors” (Stowers 58).  Although Stowers does not see any of the letters 

in the New Testament as letters of friendship,  some letters such as Philemon and I 

Thessalonians however used language such as “absent in body but present in spirit” and 

“longing to be with the loved one” from the friendly letter tradition (Stowers 60).  Of 

Philemon Branick writes that it exhibits the clearest parallel in Paul to the typical Jewish 

Hellenistic letters of the day and he provides us with the following example (207):  

Opening (1-6)

Identifications (1-2)

Greeting (3)

Letter prayer (4-6)

Body (7-22)

Conclusion (23-24)

Greetings from those with Paul (23-24)

Prayer (25)

Family Letters 

Since many different letter types were customarily employed in correspondence 

between members of the household, ancient theorists never recognized family letters as a 

specific type (Stowers 71).  Stowers however, focuses on isolating the family letter as a 

type analogous to the friendly letter. His Westminster Press publishing mate David E. 

Aune, classifies family letters as “private” or “documentary” letters.  According to him, 

such letters functioned in three basic ways including maintaining contact with family and 

friends, communicating information, and requesting information or favors (162): “Private 

letters therefore include several types determined by function: (1) letters of request or 

petition; (2) letters of information; (3) letters of introduction; 

(4) letters of order and instruction; (5 family letters; and (6) business letters (contacts, 

leases, receipts, etc.).  While some letters exhibit only one function, others function in 

several ways” (162).

Letters of Praise and Blame

In the Greco-Roman society it was important that things were carried out in 

“proper” order.   Stowers believes that praising and blaming were fundamental activities 

through which the social construction of the ancient world was maintained (77).  Praise 

showed that the one praised was conforming to accepted rules and standards.   Stowers 

goes on to say that the fundamental elements of the praising letter included the writer 

usually having a relationship of inferiority or equality with the recipient and also, the 

writer honors and sometimes encourages the recipient by “praising a limited number of 

the recipient’s actions as manifestations of character traits” (79).

There are no pure letters of praise that exist in the New Testament (Stowers 80), 

but Paul makes a significant use of praise in certain parts of his letters.  Romans 1:8 

reads “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is 

being reported all over the world.”  In Philemon 1:4 he states “Your love has given me 

great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the 


The letter of blame assumes an established positive relationship between writer 

and recipient (Stowers 86).  It makes sense that as Stowers tells us that the most common 

letters of blame occurred between friends and family members blaming each other for 

failing to answer their letters.  This gentle type of blame is admonition (125).  One of the 

basic elements of the letter of admonition is the writer as the recipient's friend, peer, or 

moral superior (older or wiser for example).  Another basic element is the writer’s 

attempts to show and constructively criticize certain aspects of the recipient's behavior so 

that the latter can understand and amend the behavior (127).  Paul gives a good example 

of admonishment in Corinthians 4:18-21:

Some of you have become arrogant as if I were not coming 

to you.  But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is 

willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant 

people are talking, but what power they have.  For the 

kingdom of God is not a matter of  talk, but of power.  What 

do you prefer?  Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love 

and with a gentle spirit?

Hortatory Letters (Letters of Exhortation and Advice)


This category has seven subtypes including paraenetic letters, proteptic letters, 

letters of advice, admonition, rebuke, reproach, and consolation.  Before we can take a 

proper look at letters of exhortation and advice, it is helpful to look at the three modes of 

argumentation in rhetoric distinguished by Aristotle which contemporary scholars have 

recently attempted to apply to the New Testament letters.   The three modes are judicial 

or forensic argumentation, such as would be found in the law courts, deliberative or 

oratory (paraenetic) argumentation, such as would be found in public or political 

assemblies that are debating what is expedient for the future, and demonstrative or 

epideictic argumentation, as in speeches given at a public celebration (Brown 412).  

Stowers characterizes the paraenetic letter as being from a writer that is the 

recipient’s friend or moral superior (e.g., wiser or more accomplished)  recommending 

habits of behavior and actions that conform to a certain model of character: “In this 

discussion I will use  protreptic in reference to hortatory literature that calls the audience 

to a new and different way of life, and paraenesis for advice and exhortation to continue 

in a certain way of life” (92).   Aune adds that paranesis means “advice” or “exhortation” 

and “refers to general moral and religious instruction that falls between symbouleutic and 

epideictic rhetoric” (191).  This seems to be an important distinction because according to 

Stowers the question of the difference between the two has annoyed scholars through the 

years (93).  Concerning this difference he states:

If so, advice would concern specific, occasional matters (Shall 

we sail or go by land?)—and paraenesis would concern 

general, universal matters (The good man is honest). The fact 

is that paraenesis was not generally distinguished from advice 

and the terms paraenesis and symboule (advice) were often 

used  interchangeably.  It is also true, however, that the 

distinction could be made, although practically it is very 

difficult to entirely separate traditional general advice from 

specific occasional advice. (93)

Paul mixes exhortation and specific advice in the New Testament letter 

1 Corinthians 5:7-8 when he states: “Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch 

without yeast—as you really are.  For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 

Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and 

wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.”

Stowers observes that in both form and function, Paul's letter to the Romans is a 

protreptic letter (114).  Romans serve as both an introduction of his gospel and as his 

credentials as a teacher.  It seems that most scholars researching various Greco-Roman 

letters find it hard to tell the difference between letters of exhortation and letters of advice 

but Stowers seems to make the distinction relatively easily.  In his opinion “advice in the 

stricter deliberative sense is specific and occasional” (108).  The “strict deliberative 

sense” that Stowers speaks of  contains the following fundamental features: The writer is 

older, wiser, or more experienced than the recipient is and the writer tries to persuade, or 

dissuade the recipient with regard to some particular course of action in the future (108).  

Raymond E. Brown is not so sure of the Stowers definition.  He warns us to proceed with 

caution when looking for specific rhetorical patterns.  Using Paul as an example, he states 

that “there is no way to be sure that Paul would have been aware of the classic analyses 

of rhetoric and/or would have been consciously following them. The different forms of 

argumentation may have been simply unconscious responses to what needed to be done” 


We discussed admonition as one of the seven subtypes of hortatory letters 

presented by Stowers earlier.  As I mentioned, it is considered the gentlest type of blame. 

Other examples: “Second Thessalonians 3:6-12 admonishes certain people in the 

community and 3:15 urges members to admonish one another.  Somewhat as in Romans, 

James also employs diatribal address for indirect admonition (e.g., 4:13-5:6)” (Stowers 128).

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the One who 

called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different 

gospel—which is really no gospel at all.  Evidently some people 

are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the 

gospel of Christ.  Galatians 1:6-7

We also encountered admonition and rebuke when we analyzed Galatians earlier in 

our study and as we can see in the above example, “rebuke was directed at fundamental 

flaws of character or a basic pattern of ‘immoral’ behavior” (Stowers 133).  In Stowers 

view, rebuke was generally considered to be harsher than admonition—in fact, shame 

was essential to rebuke (133).  

When it comes to the letter of reproach Stowers likens it to the letter of blame 

in that it “is most typically written by a wronged benefactor and concerns a failure of 

reciprocity” (139).   These letters seem to be absent from the collections of Christian 


The final category of the seven subtypes of hortatory letters presented by   

Stowers is the letter of consolation.  It seems as if consolation was just as important in the 

Greco-Roman world as it is in ours.  With the consolation letter, more than likely the 

writer had a positive relationship with the recipient and wants to ease the recipients grief 

by expressing his own grief (144).  Here is an example from I Thessalonians 4:13-14: 

“Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to 

teaching.  Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message 

when the body of elders laid their hands on you..”


Letters of Recommendation or Mediation

Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the 

brothers, even though they are strangers to you.  They have 

told the church about your love.  You will do well to send 

them on their way in a manner worthy of God.  It was for 

the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help 

from the pagans.  We ought therefore to show hospitality 

to such men so that we may work together for the truth.

            III John 5-8

As shown above, the letter of III John has typical features of letters of 

recommendation.  These letters can be called an act of friendship, addressed to one party 

on behalf of another party (Aune 167, Stowers 155).      “Assume a pleasant state of mind 

when writing the letter, because a cool or standoffish attitude will only harm the person 

you are trying to help.  A feeling of warmth and enthusiasm should be felt by the reader” 

(Meyer 448).

Accusing, Apologetic, and Accounting Letters

Stowers suggests that there are no accusing, apologetic, or accounting letters in 

the New Testament, unless we consider the letters in Revelation 1-3 to be accusing 

letters (173).  Other scholars disagree with Stowers and think that Galatians follows the 

outline of a Greco-Roman apologetic letter.   Reid describes Galatians 1:10-2:21 as “a 

long apologetic defense of Paul’s apostleship” (287).   He characterizes the accusing type 

as that which consists of an accusation of things that have been done beyond the bounds 

of propriety, the apologetic type as that which adduces, with proof, arguments, that 

contradict charges that are being made, and the accounting type, as reasons being given 

why something has not taken place or will not take place (171).

More Letter Types

We have seen that the six epistolary types of Greco-Roman letters proposed by 

Stowers can be a great tool in helping us to understand how letter writing was used in 

ancient times.  Aune is of the opinion that the epistolary typology that Stowers gives us 

has “disadvantages as well as advantages”(162).  Aune isn’t so much commenting on the 

work of Stowers concerning letters in the New Testament as he is other type of letters, 

which appeared in antiquity.  I can see his point. Ancient official letters, an important and 

influential type of correspondence to Aune (164) and other scholars of primitive letter 

writing such as Doty (6), is of little importance to Stowers’ typology.  “Further, many 

types of literary letters, embedded letters, or the use of epistolary conventions to frame 

literary works are not considered” (Aune 162). For contrast and context then let us 

approach ancient letter writing from the perspective of three additional categories of 

import to understanding Greco-Roman letters—official letters, business letters, and 

literary letters.

Official Letters

Official letters are properly authorized letters from heads of state and/or their 

representatives to citizens in an official capacity.  Ancient populations were very familiar 

with such letters since they were often posted in prominent places for public viewing 

(Aune 162, Doty 6 ).

Official Roman letters of the late Republic and early Empire 

addressed to Greek cities followed Hellenistic models.  

Senatorial decrees and other official communications were 

translated into Greek (a measure taken for no other language 

group under Roman authority) and published as inscriptions.  

They usually begin with a typical epistolary prescript: “X 

[nominative] to Y [dative], greetings [chairein].” (Aune 164)

In comparing the epistolary situations in official letters with early Christian 

letters, it is easy to see similarities between the authority these letters evoke and the 

authority evoked in the New Testament letters written by authors like Paul.  

“The official letter was of great significance, carrying as it did the sense of the presence 

of the ruler in epistolary form, and being often intended to establish a new situation or at 

least to convey directions or information to a large body of persons at once” (Doty 6). 

Business Letters

A large part of business communication today is carried on by way of letter 

writing.  Communicating business matters by way of the letter was also very popular in 

Greco-Roman times.  “The form was so impelling that hundreds of contracts, surveys, 

even wills and testaments, were composed in letter form.  No little care was given these 

letters, and scribes were trained in writing appropriate letters for specific situations” 


Aune considers the importance of the business letter in his typology of what he 

calls “private” letters.   These letters in Aune’s typology work in three basic ways—to 

maintain contact with family and friends, to communicate information, and to request 

information or favors (162).  The typology is broken down further into six different 

categories including: letters of request or petition; letters of information; letters of 

introduction; letters of order and instruction; family letters; and lastly business letters 

which includes leases, receipts, and the like (162).   

Literary Letters

I found this to be the most thought-provoking category in all of the research. 

Literary letters includes a wide range of epistolary forms including the epistolary novel, 

letter-essays and the pseudonymous letter.  We get a good idea of just how confusing and 

complicated this category can be with Doty’s definition of the typology—“The Non-Real 

Letter (6).”  He considers the title of the category “inept” but can’t quite come up with a 

phrase to capture the letters as a group.  Although not a perfect definition, for our 

purposes “literary letters” (Stowers 35, Aune 165) will work quite nicely.  “Literary 

letters are those which were preserved and transmitted through literary channels and were 

valued either as epistolary models, as examples of literary artistry, or as vignettes into 

earlier lives and manners” (Aune 165).  Concerning our research, the most important 

letter in this category is the pseudonymous letter—a letter written under a name other 

than that of the actual writer (Doty 6).

    For our study we will focus on the possibly pseudonymous writings attributed to 

Paul—the “DeuteroPauline” (Brown 585, Doty 69, Ehrman 261) letters.  These letters 

list Paul’s name as author but it is not certain that they were written by him.  

“Six letters are involved: II Thess, Col, Eph, I-II Tim, Titus” (Brown 441).  Titus, I 

Timothy, and II Timothy are usually referred to as the three “Pastoral Epistles” (Brown 

638, Ehrman 261, McRay 254, Selvidge 231), while Ephesians, Colossians, and II 

Thessalonians are often grouped as the “Deutro-Pauline” or “Pseudo-Pauline” letters 

(Ehrman 261, Selvidge 244).

    Doty tries to put all of this into perspective by asking “What better way to stress 

continuity with Paul than to form one’s material into letters?  And since standards of 

authorship were hardly as legalized and copyrighted as they are today, why not take the 

final step of claiming that the letters were from the hand of Paul?” (65).

In his book The Letters of Paul: Conversations in Context, Calvin J. Roetzel 

suggests that the idea that persons would write under the name of a famous person from 

the past shocked no one in the ancient world (93).  Using Daniel and the books of Moses 

as examples of Old Testament pseudonymous writings he says that these types of 

writings flourished then, in the period between the Testaments and in the New Testament 

as well (93).  He also opines that “while such a practice opened the door to extreme 

forgeries in the second and third centuries of the Common Era, the possibility of abuse 

did little to discredit or discourage writing under a pseudonym in the late first century” 

(93).  In a similar vein, Brown writes “In NT research some who first proposed that 

letters attributed to Paul were really pseudonymous hinted that the purpose might be 

fraudulent, but that connotation has largely disappeared from the discussion” (586). 

While many complicated conditions influenced the adoption and use of a 

pseudonym, most scholars would agree that concerning the letters of Paul, the author 

writing under an assumed name  did so within the Pauline tradition as interpreters or 

defenders of Paul’s theology (Roetzel 93), or as assuming “the great apostle’s mantle to 

continue his work” (Brown 586).  

    Brown sums up perfectly how it may help us to think of pseudonymous writings: 

Modern readers also encounter writing under an alias or pen name, 

a method adopted for various reasons.  In the 19th century Mary 

Anne Evans wrote under the male name George Eliot because it 

was difficult for women to get serious writing accepted. 

In the 20th century more than one author of mysteries has written 

under several names, sometimes with a particular fictional detective 

featured respectively by each “name,” e.g.. John Dickson Carr and 

Carter Dickson are names for the one male author; Ruth Rendell 

and Barbara Vine are names for the one female author. (586) 

Selvidge also gives us some good examples: “Someone wrote the letters and claimed that 

Paul had written them.  Paul’s name was famous and would have fostered a greater 

acceptance of the material in the letters in communities throughout the empire.  

This happens even in our time.  For example, the names of famous sports people are used 

to sell athletic equipment” (229).

Most scholars agree that Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I 

Thessalonians, and Philemon are written by Paul himself.  These “undisputed” or 

“protoPauline” (Brown 410) epistles are similar in terms of writing style, vocabulary, and 

theology.  Also, “the issues that they address can plausibly be situated in the early 

Christian movement of the 40s and 50s C.E. when Paul was active as an apostle and 

missionary” (Ehrman 262).    

    As mentioned above, Titus, I Timothy, and II Timothy are usually referred to as 

the three Pastoral Epistles.  Referring to “pastoral” Brown says that designation has been 

applied to them since the early 18th century as recognition of their central concern—“the  

care of evangelized communities after the missionaries had moved on either 

geographically or through death” (638).  For Doty, these letters “portray the clearest 

examples of the attempt to rest on Paul’s laurels, while making “Paul” say what their 

author (s?) thought that Paul would have said if he had been alive to confront the 

situations of their own later times” (69).  Ehrman tells us that these are the letters 

allegedly written to the pastors Timothy and Titus, to provide instruction on how these 

companions of Paul should engage in their pastoral duties in their churches (261).  He,   

like most scholars believe that these letters were not written by Paul but by a follower of 

Paul sometime after his death  (Ehrman 261, Roetzel 118, Selvidge 333).  

Many have suggested that Titus was originally designed as 

an introduction to 1 and 2 Timothy because it contains 

elements from both.  The contents of the pastorals deal with 

the structural, social, and theological problems within 

Christian groups. Little space is devoted to speculation or 

arguments about truths or philosophies.  The writer of the 

pastorals passes on a “received” tradition, including 

community organizational guidelines. (Selvidge 332)  

Many experts also doubt that Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 

Thessalonians.  Doty is one of  them.  He believes that Ephesians and Colossians have so 

many ties to the Pauline letters that they frequently have been understood as stemming 

from Paul himself (69).  He can also see why though, noting that Ephesians, Colossians, 

and Second Thessalonians reflect Pauline imagery, theology and letter form  (69).  Of  

these letters Ehrman writes: 

“Next, there are the three epistles of Ephesians, Colossians, 

and 2 Thessalonians, called the “Deutero-Pauline” epistles 

because each  of them is thought by many scholars to have 

been written by a “second Paul,” a later author (or rather 

three later authors) who was heavily influenced by Paul’s 

teachings (the term “Deutero-”means “second”). (261)

William Barclay has also encountered those believers in a “second Paul.”  Speaking of 

Ephesians, he states: “There are some who do not think that it is one of Paul’s letters at 

all. They feel that the style and the thought are so different from Paul’s usual style and 

thought that he cannot have written it” (116).  Brown has a theory about the epistle to the 

Ephesians as well. He notes that Ephesians is different from other letters attributed to 

Paul in that the address does not contain the name of the church to which it was written 

and is “dubious textually” (626).  This is entirely possible.  Concerning the Pauline letters 

it seems that the most important thing to remember is that  “most often what is being 

suggested is that one of the Pauline “school” of disciples took it upon himself to write a 

letter in Paul’s name because he wanted it to be received authoritatively as what Paul 

would say to the situation addressed” (586).   

It appears that the vast majority of scholars understand that “Paul’s letters” means 

”the production by Paul and his fellow workers (Johnson 367).  Elwell and Yarbrough 

agree, adding: “On purely scholarship grounds it is not irresponsible to draw from the 

entire thirteen letter New Testament collection in summarizing Paul’s theology (258).  

B.   Format

As we have seen the study of both Greco-Roman and Egyptian papyrus letters 

have been invaluable in helping to identify the different parts of New Testament letters, 

as well as the function of each part  (Brown 412, Roetzel 52).  

Letters tend to follow a certain structure that generally includes four parts: Opening, 

Thanksgiving, Body, and Conclusion (Aune 184, Brown 413).  


The Opening of the letter during Greco-Roman times usually consisted of 

three  basic elements-sender,  addressee, and greeting (Aune 184, Brown 413).  Brown 

adds that “sometimes another element extends the greeting, e.g., one remembering the 

addressee, or wishing good health to the addressee and reporting on the writer's own 

(good) health” (413).  We come now to a detailed look at each of these elements as they 

are found in early Christian letters.

    1A.   Sender

    This includes the personal name of the writer. Sometimes a title is used to 

describe the writer further.  Examples include Paul addressing himself as “an apostle 

through Jesus Christ,” and as “a servant of Christ Jesus” (Brown 413), as well as his 

identifying himself as a “prisoner for Christ Jesus” (Roetzel 55).  

    1B.   Recipient

    This is usually in the form of a personal name, but at times, as in the case of 

the sender, more information on the addressee is given.  For instance, "to Polycarp who is 

bishop" (Brown 414). Brown goes on to point out that the recipient section may also 

include an expression of affection such as "to the beloved Gaius" in III John (414).    


    1C.   Greeting.  

    This was left out at times.  Some New Testament letters, in the tradition 

of Jewish  letters of the day replaced the Greek "greetings," with the Hebrew "peace"  

(Brown 414, Johnson 252). Powell uses “Grace to you and peace from God our Father 

and the Lord Jesus Christ,” from Paul’s letter to Philemon as an example.  He writes: 

“The words greetings  and grace resemble each other in Greek: “greetings = chairein and 

“grace” = charis.  Thus, Paul’s salutation begins with a wordplay that reveals the effects 

of God’s activity, and he develops his altered greeting by coupling a common Jewish 

greeting, “peace,” with “grace” (88).

          1D.   Remembrance or Health Wish.  

    Another feature that was used in the letters of the time, still within the 

Opening, was a remembrance or a health wish.  Here, the sender prayed for the health 

of the recipient while also stating her or his own well being.   Brown gives us this 

example: "Serapion, to his brothers Ptolemaeus and Apollonius, greetings.  If you are 

well, it would be excellent; I myself am well"  (414).  Brown also points out that III John 

gives the only clear example of an opening health wish in a New Testament letter: 

"Beloved, I hope you are in good health" (414).  


In the New Testament epistles, the opening of the letter is often followed by a 

prayer of thanksgiving  immediately after the opening (Aune 185, Brown 415).  Often 

closely related to this is a statement where the sender gives thanks to the gods for a 

particular reason such as protection from some hardship.  

In the Pauline letters, many times some of the main themes of the Body of the letter are 

briefly mentioned in the Thanksgiving (Brown 415, Roetzel 56). 

Body of the Letter    


In describing Paul’s letter writing, Calvin J. Roetzel writes, "After passing 

through the thanksgiving, the reader enters a vast and varied conversational world" 

(58).  And so it was with many letters of the time.  

The body of the letter is the section providing the information on the purpose for which 

the letter was written (Aune 188, Brown 416). 

The Body of a letter is many times thought of simply as what comes between the 

Opening and the Closing of a letter.  Actually, upon closer observation, we find that it is 

a lot more than that.  In fact, the Body many times has its own set form  (Brown 416, 

Witherington III 51).  Witherington III also observed that the Body was “complete with 

introductory formula, body proper, conclusion, sometimes a travelog” (51).  Giving a nod 

to his colleagues, Brown characterizes the contributions of scholars like Funk, Mullins, 

and White, as being paramount in helping us to recognize and understand the distinct 

parts in the Body “especially in the transitional sentences at the beginning (Body 

Opening) and the end (Body Closing)” (416). 

          1A. Body-Opening.

    The research suggests that there is a rather narrow range of opening 

sentences in the Body of the Hellenistic letter.  Examples include: "I want you to know," 

"Do not think that,” "I appeal to you," and “On this account,” (Brown 416, Johnson 253).

Similar formulas are found in the Body-Opening of the Pauline letters and as Calvin J. 

Roetzel reminds us, "other comparisons would yield similar results" (55).   

          1B. Body-Closing.  

    The Closing had pretty predictable characteristics. Its function is to reinforce 

what has been written in the Body and to create a positive environment for further 



        Hellenistic letters regularly came to a conclusion with two—

        later three—conventional formulae.  First came (for the 

        second time in the letter) a wish for the good health of the 

        recipient (“take care of your health”) a wish for the good 

        health of the recipient (take care of your health”), then a 

        word of farewell, usually errose.  In the Roman period a 

        closing greeting preceded these two elements, although 

        frequently the two were assimilated: the health wish 

        increasingly took on the function of bidding goodbye. 

        (Doty 39)

    In the New Testament an example of the Body-Closing can be found in II 

John 12: “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink.  Instead, I 

hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”  III 

John 13-14 ends on an almost identical note stating “I have much to write you, but I do 

not want to do so with pen and ink.  Hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.”

4. Conclusion of the Letter  


    Brown notes that a wish for good health and a word of farewell are two 

conventional expressions that mark the end of a Greco-Roman letter (418).  

Many times they can be very brief as illustrated by the last two lines of Papyrus 

Oxyrhynchus 746: "For the rest take care of yourself that you may remain in good health.  

Farewell" (418).  Brown goes on to discuss a customary third feature which can be found 

at the end of Greco-Roman letters—an expression of greetings.  This feature is 

represented well in I Corinthians 16:19.  

Paul writes: “The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings.  Aquila and 

Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.  

All the brothers here send you greetings.  Greet one another with a holy kiss.  I Paul, 

write this greeting in my own hand.”

     Besides greetings, Paul's Concluding Formula sometimes contains a doxology of 

God and a benediction of the recipients (Brown 418).  In Philemon 4-7 he writes:

        I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because 

        I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the 

        saints.  I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that 

        you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in 

        Christ.  Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, 

        because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.

    Brown also points out that in eight of the Pauline letters the benediction is a 

slight variant of the form: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ [be]  with you", but five 

of the letters have a shorter form: "Grace [be] with you" (418).   Other New Testament 

letters have similar features.  I Peter has a final greeting section in 5:12-14 which reads 

“With the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you briefly, 

encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God.  Stand fast in it. 

She who is in Babylon , chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does 

my son Mark.  Greet one another with a kiss of love.  Peace to all of you who are in 

Christ.”  III John and as noted above, I Pet use "peace" instead of "grace."  Brown 

concludes his thoughts by  reminding us that “the combinations "peace" and "grace" in 

Eph 6:23-24, and "peace" and "mercy" in Gal 6:16 confirm that "peace" was an 

alternative benediction in Concluding Formulas of Christian letters” (418).  

    Summary of Part Two

Few typologies of Greco-Roman or early Christian letters have been proposed 

and none are widely accepted.  For the purpose of this study, we define an epistle as any 

literary composition in the form of a letter-regardless of its typology. The New Testament 

Epistles can be defined as letters to Christian communities. The letters were written so 

that they could be shared with the general public.  The first Christian epistles, which 

comprises the first Christian literature that we know about, were apparently letters to 

beginning churches written by Paul in the period between 50-65 C.E.

Paul, like other writers of letters at the time, wrote letters that fell into many 

different categories.   Consequently, treatises on ancient epistolary theory provide 

long lists of letter types.  The list compiled by Stanley K. Stowers is particularly 

insightful..  In Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, he has provided us with a 

typology of six epistolary types of Greco-Roman letters largely based on ancient 

epistolary theory.  The types include letters of friendship; family letters; letters of praise 

and blame; hortatory letters (with seven subtypes: paraenetic letters, protreptic letters, 

letters of advice, admonition, rebuke, reproach, and consolation); letters of 

recommendation (or mediation); and lastly  accusing, apologetic, and accounting letters. 

For contrast and context we approached ancient letter writing from the 

perspective of  three additional categories of import to understanding Greco-Roman 

letters—official letters, business letters, and literary letters.

As we have seen the study of both Greco-Roman and Egyptian papyrus letters 

have been invaluable in helping to identify the different parts of New Testament letters, 

as well as the function of each part  (Brown 412, Roetzel 52).  

Letters tend to follow a certain structure that generally includes four parts: Opening, 

Thanksgiving, Body, and Conclusion (Aune 184, Brown 413). 



Through the use of representative letter writers from the Ancient, Medieval, and 

Contemporary time periods of history, we can compare and contrast how the themes and 

concerns of the writers of the New Testament letters relate to people of all eras.  I will 

provide an in-depth look at how subsequent writers were influenced by the New 

Testament Epistles to see why these letters impart knowledge that remains important to 

us.   We will also examine how the representative letter writers from the Ancient, 

Medieval, and Contemporary time periods of history use writing methods and styles 

present in the types of letters presented in Chapter Two, and what effect this may have 

had on their composition of letters.

     As Chapter Two shows, letter writing is measured not only in terms of one’s 

ability to cut across distance—but often across social status—with words. The discussion 

of the function of letter writing in spiritual expression throughout history will 

demonstrate the rich diversity among the letter writers.  Analyzing letters from these

different periods will allow us to gain a better understanding of how the timeless themes


and concerns of the writers of the New Testament letters relate to us as readers today.  

We will now take a look at the function of letter writing in spiritual expression by 

focusing on the letter writing of St. Paul, Hildegard of Bingen, and Dr. Martin Luther 

King Jr.  They represent the Ancient, Medieval, and Contemporary time periods of


history respectively.

The Ancient Period: St. Paul

A.  Biography

    Starting with the Ancient Period, Paul the Apostle’s letters provide us with fine 

examples of how writing can affect one’s spiritual life.  A complex individual, Paul has 

been seen in many lights including as “a corrupter of the religion of Jesus “ (Roetzel 3) 

and  “next to Jesus [...]the most influential figure in the history of Christianity” (Brown 

422).  Many scholars see Paul’s importance as a writer as significant as his importance as 

a theologian.  Writing is at the heart of St. Paul’s spiritual contemplation and is in the 

soul of his ministry. To release the inner feelings of his soul, Paul provides plenty of 

spiritual passion in his letters, which transports us into the world that he lived in.  His 

letters are meant to address specific issues in specific Christian communities.  When we 

read these writings, we're listening in on Paul’s side of the conversation with community 

churches, but we are also listening to insights he has about his Creator.  Each person has 

her or his own way of connecting with the concept of God and Paul's love for Jesus 

Christ reveals a man with a unique perspective on his faith, which inevitably manifests 

itself in his writing.   

The kind of writer that one becomes has everything to do with the things that he 

or she is exposed to and Paul was no exception. He had a very diverse cultural and 

educational background (Brown 425, Like T. Johnson 245).  

Although it is impossible to say for sure, most scholars agree that Paul was born in 

Tarsus, the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia, around 5-10 C.E., during the reign 

of the Emperor Agustus (Brown 423).  “We know more about Paul and his life from Acts 

than we do from Paul’s own letters” (Witherington III). According to Acts 22:3 he was 

taught at the rabbinical school of Gamaliel, a celebrated rabbi, where he excelled in his 

studies. Also, being a Roman citizen and living in a Greco-Roman environment at Tarsus, 

Paul received a thorough education in Greek language, history, and culture (Brown 425).

The Function of Letter Writing in St. Paul’s Spiritual Expression:   

Letter to the Romans

      As we learned in Chapter Two, there are seven undisputed Pauline letters (or 

letters that virtually all scholars believe to have been written by Paul himself): Romans, 

I and II Corinthians, Galatians, I Thessalonians, Philippians, and Philemon (Brown 407, 

Luke T. Johnson 255).   Other often referred to as the "Deutero-Pauline" (Brown 407) are 

letters attributed to Paul but whose authorship is disputed: Ephesians, Colossians, 

II Thessalonians, I and II Timothy, and Titus (Luke T. Johnson 255). 

Research has shown that it is difficult to date Paul's letters.  Without the luxury 

of being able to look at Paul's spiritual growth from letter to letter it is also difficult to see 

just exactly how Paul's spiritual quest may have changed over the years.  Still, 

throughout, his letters reveal an undying passion for Jesus Christ and his followers: 

When, moreover, he had established one church and 

moved on to work in another area, he did not forget the 

first community.  Many of the letters that he wrote were 

sent back to these young churches, to help them deal 

with their difficulties and to bring them to a fuller 

understanding of the Gospel he had preached to them, 

so that they should  live by it more truly.  (Best 4) 

For the purpose of this study we will concentrate on Paul’s letter to the Romans 

which was written to a church which Paul had neither founded nor visited (Luke T. 

Johnson  315). It was written around 55-58 C.E. (Brown 560).  It is a towering example 

of Paul’s ability to communicate his thinking about God and spirituality in letterform.  

So, what issues concerning Christianity is this letter to the Roman’s built upon?  What 

inspired Paul’s eloquent words?  

          1.    The Background

As we saw in Chapter Two the early church was constantly threatened with the 

possibility of a split by feuding factions of Christians with one group consisting of people 

that were all born Jewish and one group, which was made up mostly of Christians that 

were non-Jews.   Paul, because he wanted a church that was representative of non-Jews 

as well as Jews,  was put right in the middle of the dispute.  In Readings in Western 

Thought: The Ancient World, Patrick V. Reid tells us:

At the time of writing, Paul is very concerned with 

the question of the unity between the Jewish mother 

church in Jerusalem and the Gentile churches which 

he has founded in Asia Minor and Greece, and the 

question of the unity between Jews and Gentiles in a 

single Christian or messianic community will 

dominate the letter.  This question was also of great 

interest to the Roman Christian community which 

was made up of Jewish and Gentile Christians. (294)

These factors affected the tone of the letter.  Paul wrote in a very diplomatic 

fashion while still maintaining his passion for truth and love.  In Romans 2:10-11 Paul 

writes: “But glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good  first for the Jew, 

then for the Gentile.  For God does not show favoritism.”  

General Analysis of the Letter

Opening of the Letter

We have learned from past research that the Opening of the letter during Greco-

Roman times usually consisted of three basic elements: sender, addressee, and greeting 

and all of these elements are present in Romans. Sometimes a title was used to describe 

the writer further and so as sender, Paul adds “a servant of Christ” after his personal 

name (1:1).  He also writes about the gospel that had changed his life, speaking of its 

beginnings in the “Holy Scriptures” (1:2).  The addressee was usually in the form of a 

personal name but as in the case of the sender, more information is sometimes given and 

Paul writes: “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (1:7).  Instead 

of using the usual  Greek phrase “greetings,” Paul replaced it with “grace and peace.”  

This was in the tradition of Jewish letters of the day (Brown 414, Johnson 252) and gave 

Paul a chance to offer blessings from God early on in his epistle.  


In 1:8 Paul returns to the usual letter-writing custom of the day giving a prayer 

of thanksgiving for his readers.  Closely related to this is his statement thanking God for 

the Roman Christians because their faith “is being reported all over the world.”  He also 

expresses his longing to visit them (1:10).  


Body of the Letter 

After the thanksgiving, Paul makes a smooth transition into the Body of the letter.  

He writes first of his wish to “impart some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, 

that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith (1:11-12).  In this way, 

Paul assures the Roman Christians that what he preaches is in harmony with the 

preaching of those that founded the Roman church.  He maintains his diplomatic writing 

style by stating: “I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the 

foolish.  That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome” 


Paul continues into the Body of his letter by emphasizing that this gospel is the 

power of God for the salvation of every believer, first for the Jew, then for the Gentile

because in the gospel “a righteousness from God” is revealed (1:17).  The gospel 

message makes salvation available to people by their faith in Jesus Christ.  In this verse 

Paul refers to “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: The 

righteous will live by faith.”  This “righteousness from God” allows a person to be 

acquitted from their sins through their faith in Jesus Christ.  According to Paul this was 

an important concept for every Christian to grasp because  “the wrath of God is being 

revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress 

the truth by their wickedness” (1:18).  

The above passages set the tone for what follows in the epistle to the Romans.  

Not only do they begin the body of the letter; they also introduce the key themes for 

Paul’s reason for writing—God’s righteousness for Jew and non-Jew, salvation through 

faith, justification of believers and “the wrath of God” upon godless and wicked people.  

Throughout the letter these various themes concerning the righteousness of God are 


Paul really starts to write about issues that continue to speak to us as readers today 

in the next section.  God exists and has always existed and many of the problems of 

humankind relate to our being unable to see God because we are distracted by the 


For since the creation of the world God’s invisible 

qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have 

been clearly seen, being understood from what has 

been made, so that men are without excuse.  For 

although they knew God, they neither glorified him as 

God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became 

futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Although 

they claimed to be wise, they became fools and 

exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images 

made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and 

reptiles. (1:20-23)

These passages give a description of how Paul viewed human spirituality at the 

time he wrote the letter.  For Paul, the vision of God is obscured from humankind 

because of our own way of visualizing things.  We exist in God’s presence and ignore 

what makes this existence possible.  Paul believes that the result of the ignoring of God’s 

existence by humankind is the cause of our suffering.  

Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to 

retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a 

depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.  

They have become filled with every kind of 

wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.  They are full 

of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice.  They are 

gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and 

boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey 

their parents, they are senseless, faithless, heartless, 

ruthless.  Although they know God’s righteous 

decree that those who do such things deserve death, 

they not only continue to do these very things but also 

approve of those who practice them. (1:24-32).

As we remain uninterested in the “knowledge of God” which has the power to 

help free people from the evils of the material world, the negative behavior that Paul 

describes during the Ancient period of history is all too alive and well today.  We’ve got 

the same types of murderous acts and humankind’s lack of humanity—now with the 

added threat of nuclear war—as Paul saw during his time.  People now, as then, worship 

the idols of gold and precious gems—money.  Sexual offenses run rampant this year as 

they did yesteryear and many times these offenses involve leaders of Christian churches.  

What does Paul say about these matters that has as much relevance in the 

Contemporary time period of history as it did in the Ancient time period?  How do we


regain our clear view of the magnificence of God?      Well, first we must get rid of the 

notion that it is only the murderers, sexual offenders, and idol worshipers that fall short of 

God’s glory.  In Paul’s eyes, all humanity is sinful.  “There is no one righteous, not even 

one” (3:10).  If any person is compared to a perfectly righteous God whether they are 

moral and religious or immoral and criminal, they are in the same predicament as far as 

Paul is concerned.

The apostle then writes about “the Law and the Prophets” using ancient 

knowledge to support his viewpoint (3:21).  Paul believes that the Law promises the 

righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all that believe (3:22). Romans is 

about how humanity can be saved by coming to Jesus Christ with our problems and 

shortcomings no matter what “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and 

are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (3:23-

24).  Paul wants his readers to understand that through Jesus Christ a path is cleared to 

receiving God’s righteousness and to avoiding the wrath of God.  Through Christ’s death 

on the cross, God’s judgement of human sin is prevented.  This allows all sinners to be 

born into a new life.   

God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, 

through faith in his blood.  He did this to 

demonstrate his justice, because in his 

forbearance he had left the sins committed 

beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate 

his justice at the present time, so as to be just and 

the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.


Here, Paul describes the gift of righteousness of God that may be received through faith 

in the blood of Jesus Christ, justifying without distinction both Jew and non-Jew.  He is 

confronting head-on those that believed that Gentiles had to be circumcised to be 

considered “true” Christians.  Paul writes in Romans that God is a fair God absolving all 

sin through faith in Christ.  

Where then is boasting?  It is excluded.  On what 

principle?  On that of observing the law?  No, but on 

that of faith.  For we maintain that a man is justified 

by faith apart from observing the law.  Is God the 

God of Jews only?  Is he not the God of Gentiles 

too?  Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, 

who will justify the circumcised by faith and the 

uncircumcised through the same faith.  Do we then, 

nullify the law by his faith?  Not at all!  Rather, we 

uphold the law.   (3:27-31).

Justification by faith, redemption from sin, sacrifice of atonement—the foundation for 

much of Paul’s theology can be found in the early chapters of Romans.  He builds upon 

that foundation in subsequent chapters.  

    We saw Paul putting the wisdom of the Law and Prophets to use in chapter 3, and 

in chapter 4 he also cites the Law in relation to Abraham to reinforce his ideas of 

justification by faith.  The apostle believed that for Abraham righteousness came by faith, 

not by the Law and he mentions this to the Romans.  “What does the scripture say? 

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (4:3).  According to 

Paul, David “says the same thing” (4:6).  One must walk in faith.  Faith means rejoicing 

in God through coming to Jesus Christ as the only hope for deliverance.  “Consequently, 

just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one 

act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.  For just as through the 

disobedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (5:18).  The power of 

God was revealed anew to the world “so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace 

might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” 


    In chapter 8, the apostle writes about Christ’s healing effect on the entire material 

world.  Jesus will bring redemption to the whole of creation living in pain and suffering.  

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up 

to the present time” (8:22).   Paul then talks about how the new life found in Christ is 

sustained by the power of the Spirit helping us on life’s journeys.  He also provides us 

with one of his most eloquent spiritual nuggets: “If God is for us, who can be against us” 


    In chapters 12 through 15 Paul deals with mostly ethical issues.  The advice 

that he gives the Romans should also by heeded by contemporary society.  One idea that 

the apostle shares with the church at Rome is that God gives people many types of gifts 

and these gifts no matter how small they may seem to us must be used for the uplifting of 

humanity.  “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.  If a man’s gift is 

prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.  If it is serving, let him serve; if it is 

teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the 

needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it 

is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully” (12:6-8).   This illustrates in clear language 

that whatever the gift may be that God gives us—it  has the potential to help to make the 

world a better place.  

The apostle then passes on more words of wisdom, this time echoing the loving 

teachings of Jesus Christ:  “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (12:10).  

Following the path that these words may take one on makes for a better human 

environment no matter what period of history.

    Paul’s Opening of the letter to the Romans begins with Jesus Christ and he comes 

full circle to sum up the letter.  He reminds his readers that Christ is the example in 

putting others ahead of themselves (15:2).  He also mentions the influence that writing 

may have on spiritual expression: “For everything that was written in the past was written 

to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might 

have hope” (15:4).  Just as the letters of the New Testament function to inspire spiritual 

expression generation after generation Paul also found spiritual inspiration in the 

Scriptures written before him.


Conclusion of the Letter 

In the Conclusion of the epistle to the Romans Paul outlines his special calling to 

minister to the Gentiles “I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind 

you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to 

the Gentiles with the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles 

might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (15:15-16).  

He also asks for the Romans to help him to come to visit them while on his journey to

Spain (15:23-33). Finally, the letter ends giving praise to God: 

Now to him who is able to establish you by my 

gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, 

according to the revelation of the mystery hidden 

for long ages past, but now revealed and made 

known through the prophetic writings by the 

command of the eternal God, so that all nations 

might believe and obey him—to the only wise God 

be glory forever through Jesus Christ!  Amen” 


The Medieval Period: Hildegard of Bingen

A.  Biography

Research has shown that during the Medieval Period “the sources for intellectual 

and theological revival were the monasteries and the schools connected with the 

cathedrals “ (Reid 182).  Nowhere is this more evident than in the writings of Hildegard 

of Bingen.  Like St. Paul’s epistles Hildegard’s writing provides us with great examples 

of how letter writing can help us express our connection to our Higher Power.   


    Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179 C.E) was born in 1098 C.E. in Bemersheim, 

Germany, a small town close to Mainz (Baird & Ehrman 5).  She lived during a time 

when not many women could read and write (Reid 210).  She was the tenth child of 

Hidebert, a local nobleman and his wife Mechthild. At the age of three, Hildegard started 

observing paranormal phenomena in the form of bright lights and visions (Baird & 

Ehrman 5).  She eventually came to realize that she had a unique ability that not everyone 

could understand and started keeping knowledge of her spiritual insights to herself. 

As happened often during this time period with the tenth child, Hildegard was 

given to the church as a spiritual tithe (Baird & Ehrman 5). Baird & Ehrman go on to 

point out that at age eight, her family sent her to a Benedictine monastery to receive a 

religious education from the anchoress Jutta of Sponheim (5).   During Hildegard’s time 

with Jutta, the urge to speak about her spiritual gifts, the corruption of church and state, 

and her relationship to God deepened, but women were discouraged from voicing 

their opinions.  Hildegard makes this evident when she writes “Yet ever within me 

grew the pressure to speak out. But how could I, a woman, make my voice heard?  Who 

would listen to me?  Who would believe my words, not learned by rote from any human 

tutor?  How could my words in any way be useful” (Boyce-Tillman 2). 

God slowly guided Hildegard down a path that helped her find a way to make her 

words a little more than “useful.”  She would remain at the monastery for many years 

contemplating life and living before her writing about spiritual growth, faith, and reason 

came to be recognized as a potent force.  The abbesses’ writing inspired others to ask 

enduring questions about humankind’s relationship to the Creator. As she writes in 

Secrets of God in a passage from Scivias:

And behold, in the forty-third year of my life’s course, 

when I had fixed upon a celestial vision with great 

fear and trembling attention, I saw a very great 

splendor, in which sounded a voice from Heaven, 

saying to me:  “O frail mortal, ashes of ashes and dust 

of dust, say and write what you see and hear.  But since 

you are fearful of speaking, artless at explaining and 

untaught in writing, speak and write not according to 

human words nor following the understanding of 

human intelligence, nor according to the rules of human 

composition, but according to what you see and hear in 

the heavens above and in God’s wondrous works.  

(Flanagan 8)

Hildegard’s writing helped her to harness the power in the spiritual experiences 

that she lived. Through her writing, the abbess shares her internal voice and also 

illustrates eloquently such loving ideas as how all of us should live more in harmony with 

our environment—not just with humans—but with all creation.  The theme of the 

connection between humankind, God, and the earth is one of Hildegard’s favorite 

subjects to write about and she reminds us that “the Godhead is like a wheel, a whole.  In 

no way is it to be divided…Every creature is linked to another and every essence is 

constrained by another” (Boyce-Tillman 33).   So, we see in Hildegard’s view, it is in 

humanity’s best interest to take care of the earth for both spiritual and practical reasons.  

By taking care of the earth we can help feed both our spiritual and physical hunger.

     Hildegard’s writing including books, poems, plays, songs, —and like St. Paul—

letters, finally gave her the voice that she so desperately craved.  It allowed her to put her 

most profound experiences of self, world, and spirit into a form that not only attracted the 

attention of others but also led them to seek her spiritual advice.   A great example of the 

function of letter writing in Hildegard’s spiritual expression can be found in the abbess’ 

letter to Eberhard, Bishop of Bamberg.  The sentiments written in this letter continue the 

theme of eternal salvation to be found in God’s life-giving love expressed by the writers 

of the New Testament Epistles.  These sentiments remind us that there is a Higher Power 

that we can lean on if we choose to.  Just because humans may forget about this Higher 

Power does not mean that it is not always there.  God was there to feed the spirits of the 

writers of the New Testament letters, God was there to feed the spirit of Hildegard in the 

writing of her letters.  God is there to feed the spirit of letter writers today.  

        God has composed the world out of its elements for 

the glory of God’s name.  God has strengthened it 

with the winds, bound and illuminated it with the 

stars, and filled it with the other creatures…

The shape of the world exists everlastingly in the 

knowledge of the true Love which is God: 

constantly circling, wonderful for human nature, 

and such that it is not consumed by age and cannot 

be increased by anything new.  It rather remains just 

as God has created it, everlasting until the end of time. 

(Boyce-Tillman 62)

Now, others look closely at what she had to say and her written work shows us how co-

authoring with the spirit can help give us a deeper knowledge of self and a deeper 

understanding of God.   

The Function of Letter Writing in Hildegard’s Spiritual Expression:  


Eberhard, Bishop of Bamberg, to Hildegard      


Hildegard to Eberhard, Bishop of Bamberg

Hildegard’s reply to a letter from Eberhard, Bishop of Bamberg is seen by many 

scholars as a “theological treatise” (Baird & Ehrman).    Although Eberhard’s writing 

follows closely the letter writing tradition that we have been focusing on, Hildegard 

seems to break from this tradition altogether in her letter answering the bishop.  There is 

no sender, addressee, or greeting.  Perhaps this was in keeping with the theme that her 

words were inspired by God—not by any letter-writing protocol of the day.  Therefore, I 

will follow the general analysis of Eberhard’s letter in sections a. through d. with  an 

analysis of Hildegard’s reply in section e. 

The Background

In a letter written circa 1163-64 C.E. Eberhard, Bishop of Bamberg “seeks 

information from Hildegard on a fine theological point” (Baird & Ehrman 94).  The 

authors go on to point out that the bishop is “currently engaged in a Christological quarrel 

with Gerhoch of Reichersberg, and he seeks ammunition for his argument from 

Hildegard, which he receives at length, for Hildegard takes the question very seriously 

(94)”.   For the purposes of this study, we will use The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen: 

Volume 1 translated by Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman. 

General Analysis of the Letter

a.   Opening of the Letter

As we saw in Paul’s letter to the Romans, his letter writing followed closely 

the pattern of other Greco-Roman letters of the time—sender,  addressee, and greeting.  

All of these elements are also present in Eberhard’s letter to Hildegard with a few subtle 

differences.   Where in his letter to the Romans Paul used “a servant of Christ” after his 

personal name (1:1), Eberhard  writes “your devoted servant” (94). Paul pens “To all in 

Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (1:7) in adding more information 

about the addressee of his letter.  Eberhard states “to Hildegard, venerable sister and 

superior of St. Rupert” (94) in his. Instead of using the usual Greek phrase “greetings,” 

we saw Paul replace it with “grace and peace.”  In a similar fashion Eberhard writes “by 

the grace of God”  (94).


In the Thanksgiving Eberhard carries on the usual letter writing custom of Paul’s 

time of giving a prayer of Thanksgiving for his readers (Brown 415).  He writes “with 

prayers for eternal blessedness” (94).  

Body of the Letter 

Eberhard’s letter to Hildegard shows the interconnectedness of the New 

Testament letters with subsequent generations using letter writing as spiritual expression.  

After the Thanksgiving, Eberhard makes the transition into the Body of the letter by 

quoting St. Paul in 2 Cor 2:15: “By favor of heavenly grace, the report of your sanctity 

resounds in the ears of people everywhere so we can say in all truth that ‘we are the good 

odour of Christ unto God’” (94).   He adds: “And so perfumed by the fragrance of your 

good reputation, we run enthusiastically to the Lord whom you venerate and reverently 

consult” (94).  Eberhard uses this quote to show the high regard that he holds Hildegard 

before enlisting her spiritual insights into the “various attributes of the person of the 

Trinity” (95).  The bishop asks Hildegard to give him the guidance that she has offered to 

so many others:

You surely will not deny to me alone what you have 

offered so many.  Now, since we are passing through 

on our way from the imperial court, we wish to submit 

the following matter to be expounded through your 

spiritual love, since you are imbued by the Holy Spirit: 

eternity is an attribute of the Father, equality an attribute 

of the Son, with the Holy Spirit being the connection 

between the two.  We earnestly desire to have this matter 

explained through God’s revelation to you. May the Lord 

be with you, so that we also may be helped by your

prayers. (95)

Conclusion of the Letter

In the conclusion of the letter Eberhard breaks from the usual praise to God by 

wishing for Hildegard that “the Lord be with you” so that she will be able to help others 

with her prayers (95).


Hildegard to Eberhard, Bishop of Bamberg

In Hildegard’s reply to Eberhard, she gives him “God’s revelation” to her 

concerning the question in his letter on the essence of the Holy Trinity of the Father, the 

Son, and the Holy Spirit.  As we hear her echo many of the sentiments of St. Paul we 

can’t help but be reminded of how the New Testament epistles have spiritual insights that 

continue to speak to subsequent generations.   After wishing for Eberhard the radiance of 

Jesus Christ as a guiding light in his spiritual quests, Hildegard moves quickly in the 

body of the letter to address the reason that Eberhard had written.  

“Father, I, a poor little woman, am able to expound upon the question you asked 

me, because I have looked to the True Light, and I am sending along to you the answer I 

saw and heard in a true vision—not my words, I remind you, but those of the True Light, 

which has no imperfection” (95).

Right from the beginning, Hildegard reinforces Eberhard’s feelings of reverence 

and awe of her spiritual gifts.  These feelings allow him to take comfort in the fact 

that no matter what his colleagues had to say about the matter, they had not gotten their 

answer firsthand from God as they both believed that Hildegard had.  She writes first of 

the Father whose essential quality she describes as “eternity” (95).  

How is this so?  It is the function of the Word of the 

Father to bring forth every created thing.  And so the 

Father is not idle in his great might.  Hence, God is 

called the Father, because all things are born from Him.  

And so, once again, eternity is an essential quality of the 

Father, because He was Father before the beginning, and 

was eternal before the inception of His magnificent 

works, all of which he forsaw eternally.  But the state of 

the Father is not the state of man, which is sometimes 

uncertain, sometimes past, sometimes future, sometimes 

new, sometimes old, but that which is in the Father is 

always stable.

Such an argument shows that Hildegard’s spiritual insights had a solid base in the 

Scriptures of the New Testament.  The above passage takes us all the way back to 

Romans where St. Paul wrote of God’s “eternal power.”  She also seems to be inspired by 

Paul when she writes about “every created thing” and “the state of the Father is not the 

state of man”  (95).  Paul wrote in a similar fashion in Romans 1:20-23: “For since the 

creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—

have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are 

without excuse.”

Hildegard continues on with the same life-affirming message that Paul had 

shared—and which still has the power to help us build a better world today—God exists 

and has always existed and many of the problems of humankind result from our being 

unable to see God because we are distracted by our own people-made images.   Although 

they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God 

for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles,” said Paul in 

Romans 1:20-23.  Hildegard seems to continue his thought while writing about the 

“brightness of the Father”  (95).  “Indeed, the works which God established no longer 

have their undivided essence, since man has brought about divisions” (95).  She also 

reminds us that we have the power to make this world a better place because of God’s 

abundance and the human potential for greatness: “So too, it is God’s will that His power 

be manifested in all His creatures, because they are His work.” (96).

As she moves into part two of the Body of the letter, Hildegard writes “Equality is 

the essential characteristic of the Son” (96).  The abbess relates that through the Son 

humanity has a chance at salvation:

For God had foreknowledge of all the works which he 

generated, and, therefore, He stooped into the 

loneliness of humanity to become a man, because 

divinity is so perfect that, if He had not clothed 

Himself in humanity, He could have tolerated nothing

in man which opposes the good, since “all things 

were made by him: and without him was made 

nothing” [John 1.3].  All things perceived by sight, 

touch, and taste were made by Him, and he foresaw 

that all these things were necessary for mankind, some 

for knowledge, some for discipline, and some for 

discretion.  (96)

Hildegard then goes on to address another issue that speaks to every generation—

“an attitude of mind which has regard only for itself and has faith in nothing” (96).   This 

relates to Romans 1:22 where Paul speaking about humankind’s lack of consideration 

for anything other than themselves writes “although they claimed to be wise, they became 

fools.”  Hildegard says that this attitude is caused by “ insolent pride” (96).  She 

continues in this Pauline line of thinking from Romans when she writes about “wishes 

that are the opposite of God’s and it thinks only of its own fabrications”  (96).   As we 

may remember from Romans, Paul called this a human lack of interest in the “knowledge 

of God.” 

In part three of the Body of the letter, Hildegard writes to Eberhard that “the 

connection between eternity and equality  is the Holy Spirit” (97). The Holy Spirit resides 

in both the eternal powers of the Father and the equalizing powers of the Son.  

Hildegard believes that the three spiritual forces come together to bring us the divine 

power of one God. Her insights remind us of the interweaving of all levels of existence—

within ourselves and the entire universe.  For Hildegard, the Holy Spirit is the eternal 

connecting force of these many levels of existence. 

The meaning of this Scripture is that all created things,     

visible and invisible, have life imbued with the spirit, 

and those created things that man doe not know, his 

intellect searches out until he does.  For from the sap, 

flowers; from flowers, fruit.  The clouds have their 

course, and the moon and stars burn with fire.  

The tree brings forth flowers through invigorating sap, 

and water, in its rarer essence,  has the ability both to 

make the wind moist and to bring forth rivulets.  Even 

the earth exhales moisture.  (97)

In the Conclusion of her epistle to Eberhard, Hildegard bestows blessings and a 

wish for God’s guidance on the bishop: “O father and shepherd of the people, may God 

grant that you reach the light where you will receive the knowledge of true blessedness” 


The Contemporary Period: Martin Luther King Jr. 


Martin Luther King Jr. was the grandson of a slave, and the son and grandson of 

Baptist ministers (Mullane 630).   He was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia 

(Modern Curriculum Press 13). At the age of fifteen he entered Morehouse College.  

He was awarded a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Crozer Theological Seminary in 

Pennsylvania in 1951, married Coretta Scott in 1953 and in 1955, he received his Ph.D. 

from Boston College (Mullane 630).     He led the U.S. Civil Rights Movement from the 

mid-1950s until “he was assassinated in 1968” (Modern Curriculum Press 13). 

In ways similar to St. Paul the Apostle and Hildegard of Bingen, the importance 

of Martin Luther King Jr. as a writer also seems as significant as his importance as a 

theologian.  Writing pervades his spiritual contemplation and fuels the fire of his 

ministry.   He used writing in many ways to keep his courage up and his God close 

including sermons, speeches and following in the tradition of Paul and Hildegard—

letters.  Martin was so inspired by Paul’s mastery of the form that one of his most famous 

writings is a sermon entitled "Paul's Letter to American Christians,"  where he writes an 

epistle to the American Christian community in a way that he thinks St. Paul would have. 

Martin as Paul writes:

It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind 

your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to 

talk about "improved means to an unimproved end." 

How often this is true. You have allowed the material 

means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual 

ends for which you live.  You have allowed your 

mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed 

your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through 

your scientific genius you have made of the world a 

neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual 

genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood.  

So America, I would urge you to keep your moral 

advances abreast with your scientific advances. 

This document can be found at:  Paul’s letter to   American  Christians. html.

Martin channeling Paul reminds us that it is important to control our senses and to live 

day-to-day on a level that will enhance our relationship to self, other humans and God.  

He ends the piece writing more like Martin than Paul, but we can still hear an echo of St. 

Paul as well as a whisper of Hildegard as he speaks of  “God’s eternity.”  

I must say goodbye now. I hope this letter will find 

you strong in the faith. It is probable that I will not get 

to see you in America, but I will meet you in God's 

eternity. And now unto him who is able to keep us from 

falling, and lift us from the fatigue of despair to 

the buoyancy of hope, from the midnight of 

desperation to the daybreak of joy, to him be 

power and authority, forever and ever. Amen.

Martin’s most well known piece of spirit-filled writing is probably his “I Have a 

Dream" speech, which he delivered during a protest march on Washington, DC. on 

August 28, 1963, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (Mullane 630).

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.  And 

when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring 

from every village and city, we will be 

able to speed up that day when all of God's children, 

—black men and  white men, Jews and Gentiles, 

Catholics and Protestants—will  be able to join hands 

and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 

"Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we 

are free at last."  (Washington 220)

These words that have relevance for generation after generation can be traced back to 

Paul’s letter to the Romans where he writes: “For God does not show favoritism” 

(Romans 2:11).  Both Paul and Martin believe that God’s love is meant for all of 

humankind regardless of race, creed or color. After the speech, Mrs. Coretta Scott King 

went on to say that “at that moment it seemed as if the Kingdom of God appeared.  But it 

only lasted for a moment” (Washington 217).

The Function of Letter Writing in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Spiritual Expression:  


Letter from Birmingham City Jail

Letter writing continues to be a powerful tool for spiritual expression until this 

very day.   Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is my representative for letter writing that uplifts 

the spirit for the Contemporary Period which  spans the 20th and 21st centuries.  Martin 

shows us that when challenges back us up against a cold hard wall and we feel that we 

don’t even have enough room to think in, we can find our center again and help others 

find their center by relying on the written word.  He also shows us what can be gained 

by paying attention to the knowledge that has been passed down to us from the New 

Testament epistles.   By looking deep into our souls, we can write ourselves into a better 

understanding of what is happening in our spiritual and mortal lives.  

Martin was inspired to write in one sermon “the great burden of life is to always try to 

keep that higher self in command.  Don’t let the lower self take over” (Boates 275).  This 

is the sentiment that he expresses in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.”

The Background

Martin’s reply to an open letter from eight prominent white Alabama clergymen 

about the “unwise and untimely” protests he was leading as part of the “outsiders” 

(Boates 215) has come to be considered by many scholars as one of the greatest 

American documents ever written.   King wrote the letter on April 16, 1963 while in jail 

serving a sentence for participating in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, 

Alabama (Washington 289).  As we continue to compare and contrast how the themes 

and concerns of the writers of the New Testament letters relate to people of all eras,  we 

will again see the inspiration of St. Paul in Martin’s letter.  Stephen Boates, author of 

Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us of this when he 

describes how the letter came about: “It was signed by eight Christian and Jewish 

clergymen of Alabama, all of them white.  As King read over their statement, he had an 

inspiration. He was going to compose a rebuttal to those clergymen in the form of an 

open letter, a letter such as Paul might have sent them.” (215).   For the purposes of this 

study, we will use the letter from The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther 

King, Jr. edited by James M. Washington. 

General Analysis of the Letter

Opening of the Letter

As we have seen, the Opening of a letter usually consisted of three basic 

elements: sender, addressee, and greeting.  Since this was an “open” letter Martin broke 

from tradition and skipped the usual sender and addressee parts of the letter and opened 

with the simple greeting “My dear Fellow Clergymen” (289). In a move that St. Paul 

would have been proud of, he reminds his critics that they were all one in Christ.


Martin also broke tradition here.  He gave no prayer of thanksgiving for his 


Body of the Letter 

Transitioning quickly into the Body of the Letter, Martin begins his diplomatic 

writing style by commenting on the criticism of his work: “But since I feel that you are 

men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to 

answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms” (289). In this 

way, the minister reaffirms that he is a calm and reasonable man.  He continues into the 

Body of his letter by emphasizing that although his critics considered him an outsider 

coming to Alabama to make trouble, in actuality he was invited there.

We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South—one being the                 

Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.  Whenever necessary and possible 

we share    staff,  educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months 

ago our local affiliate here in Birmingham invited us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent 

direct-action program if such were deemed necessary.  We readily consented, and when the 

hour came we lived up to our promise.  So I am here, along with several members of my staff, 

because we was invited here.  I am here because I have basic organizational ties here.  (289)

The reverend then starts to write about issues that continue to have relevance generation after 

generation.  The forces of good can not let the forces of evil go unchecked without trying to 

intervene.  Martin writes “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here” (290).   In the same 

paragraph he once again leans on St. Paul: Just as the eighth century prophets left their little


villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; 

and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus 

Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world,  I too am compelled 

to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. Like Paul, I must   

constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.  (290)

Like Paul and Hildegard before him, Martin reminds his readers that each and every one 

of us is connected in the human bond.  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice 

everywhere” (290).  He goes on to confront his critics comment about him being an 

“outsider” with loving grace when he states that “whatever affects one directly, affects all 

indirectly.  Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside 

agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an 

outsider anywhere in this country” (290). 

As he moves forward in the Body of the letter, Martin contends “You deplore the 

demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham.  But I am sorry that your 

statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the 

demonstration into being” (290).  Here, he takes the clergymen to task for standing by 

idly while injustices ran rampant.  He agrees that it is unfortunate that the demonstrations 

had to take place “but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more 

unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no 

other alternative” (290).

Next, Martin reeducates his critics on just what makes up a nonviolent campaign.  

He does so by relating four “basic” steps including collection of the facts to determine 

whether injustices exist; negotiation; self- purification; and direct action (290).  He lets 

his readers know that his organization had gone through all of those steps in Birmingham 

and with unsolved bombings of churches, police brutality, and unfair treatment in the 

justice system it was a proven fact that racial injustice engulfed the Birmingham 

community (290).  The reverend then reminds his “fellow clergymen” that although it 

was a known fact that these conditions existed “the political leaders consistently refused 

to engage in good faith negotiation” (290).  Hence the demonstrations—or as Martin 

liked to call them “direct action” (290).

The purpose of direct action, according to Martin was to seek to create such a 

crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to 

negotiate is forced to confront the issue (290).  He sees this as a type of constructive, 

nonviolent tension, which is necessary for growth and just as St. Paul had done many 

times in Romans, Martin uses his knowledge of ancient precedents to support his 


Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create                     

a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise                     

from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the                 

unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective                 

appraisal, we must see the need for nonviolent                

gadflies to create the kind of tension in society                     

that will help men to rise from the dark depths of                

prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of                 

understanding and brotherhood. (291)

With a feeling of frustration and a hint of sadness Martin writes, “we have waited 

for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights” (292).  This is the 

perfect segue into the issue claiming that those involved in direct action were law 

breakers.   The reverend knew that people questioned how he could advocate breaking 

some laws but still feel the need to obey others.  He again reaches back in time for the aid 

of a great spiritual writer before giving his answer.   “The answer is found in the fact that 

there are two types of laws: there are just and there are unjust laws. One has not only a 

legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.  Conversely, one has a moral 

responsibility to disobey unjust laws.  I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust 

law is no law at all’" (293).  

Martin continues to call spiritual writers from days gone by to his aid.  He 

gives his readers more and more timeless life-affirming sentiments with roots in the 

epistles of the New Testament.  Up next is Thomas Aquinas: “An unjust law is a human 

law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law” (293).  In other words, an unjust law is 

not at one with God’s law.  Paul couldn’t have said it better himself.  For Martin this 

illustrated the fact that “segregation is not only politically, economically and 

sociologically unsound, but is morally wrong and sinful” (293).  To drive his point home, 

he reminds us that everything that Hitler did in Germany was “legal” (294).  

    The Pauline type of admonishment that Martin shows in the Body of the letter 

continues to grow as he moves next to talk to his “Christian and Jewish brothers” (295) 

about his disappointment about what he called the “white moderate.”  He calls the 

white moderate’s devotion to order rather than justice “a great stumbling block in the 

stride toward freedom”  for African-American people because they were always taking 

the stance that black people should wait for a “more convenient season” (295).  Martin 

wanted them to realize that now was the time to do God’s work.  “We must use time 

creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.   Now is the time to 

make real the promise of democracy,  and transform our pending national elegy into a 

creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the 

quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity” (296).  

    With a growing spiritual fire he writes:

         In your statement you asserted that our actions, 

even though peaceful. Must be condemned because 

they precipitate violence.  But can this assertion be 

logically made?  Isn’t this like condemning Socrates 

because his unswerving commitment to truth and his 

philosophical delvings precipitated the misguided 

popular mind to make him drink the hemlock? 

Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because His unique 

God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to his 

will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?  We must

come to see, as federal courts have consistently 

affirmed. That it is immoral to urge an individual to 

withdraw his efforts to gain his basic constitutional 

rights because the quest precipitates violence.  

Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.  (296)

“God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to his will?” New Testament knowledge 

continues to pour forth in the writing of our representative of the Contemporary time 

period of history all through the remainder of the Body of the letter.


Next, the minister addresses the clergymen’s talk about his activity in 

Birmingham as “extreme” (296).   Martin mentions that at first he did not like being 

categorized as an extremist.  He clarifies for his critics the point that he stood between 

two opposing forces in the black community—on one side were complacent people who 

had adjusted to segregation and on the other side were the forces of  “bitterness and 

hatred” of the black nationalist (296).  Then Martin flips the script totally on the eight 

prominent white Alabama clergymen with words that came to him down through  

eternity:  “But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of 

satisfaction from being considered an extremist.  Was not Jesus an extremist in love—

"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you" 


    Martin also mentioned the white church amongst the things on his list of 

disappointments.  He believed that white clergymen of the South “would be some of our 

strongest allies.  Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the 

freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more 

cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of 

the stained-glass windows” (299).  In true Pauline fashion, he also reminds them that  

“There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.  Yes I love the 

church; I love her sacred walls” (299).  

    Rounding out the Body of the letter Martin states that even if the white church 

does not come to their aid, all would be well. “We will win our freedom because the 

sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing 

demands” (301).

Conclusion of the Letter 

In the Conclusion of his open epistle to the eight Alabama clergymen, Martin “is 

impelled to mention one other point in your statement that troubled me profoundly” 

(301).  He challenges their statements commending the Birmingham police department 

for "preventing violence" because he had witnessed their brutality firsthand.  He had seen 

them use attack dogs on nonviolent protesters, he had seen them slap and kick the old and 

the young, he had felt the hunger from being denied food (302).

    “Never before have I written a letter this long,” he tells his readers while 

wrapping things up.  He says that it would have probably been shorter if he were writing 

from a comfortable desk instead of a jail cell where there is little else to do (302).  

Showing the humility of St. Paul right up until the end Martin writes: “If I have said 

anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an 

unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me.  If I have said anything in this letter 

that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes 

me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me” (302).     Paul 

had a similar reverence for the truth and it’s relationship to furthering brotherhood.  In 

1Corinthians 13:4-6 Paul writes “Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does 

not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, 

it keeps no records of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.”     

     Next, Martin wishes that the clergymen be found “strong in their faith,” and that 

“the clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away.”  Finally, the letter ends: “Yours for 

the case of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King Jr.” (302).

IV.    Summary

     The spirit-filled writings of St. Paul the Apostle, Hildegard of Bingen, and 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have shown us that letter writing can help us to delve into the 

deepest core of ourselves in order to mine the precious jewels of our spirituality and share 

them with others.  Their writings have also shown us how the themes and concerns of the 

writers of the New Testament letters relate to people of all eras. Through the power of 

writing, we can strive to be true to our God and ourselves.  Hildegard puts it this way: 

“And I heard and wrote them not according to the invention of my own or anyone else’s 

heart, but as I saw, heard and understood them in the heavens, through the secret 

mysteries of God” (Flanagan 11).  This means that for us to understand what “the 

heavens” have to offer we must forget all about preconceived ideas and not merely rely 

on other people’s viewpoints.  We must write about how we feel in this living moment.  

By writing in this way, we will come to realize that through our own words, the voice of 

the Divine can speak to us, and through us, today. 


Review of Important Findings

During the course of our interdisciplinary journey we have seen the function of 

letter writing in the spiritual expression of the writers of the New Testament  letters 

provide spiritual knowledge that has ongoing healing powers for generation after 

generation.  These letters are centered on a philosophy of love for humanity and love 

for God.  As St. Paul says in Romans, “If God is for us, who can be against us” (8:31)?

    We have also seen that the letters of the New Testament are building blocks for 

others to use as templates in their own spiritual expression through letter writing.  

St. Paul’s influence on other spiritual letter writers can be seen all through history as was

illustrated by Hildegard of Bingen in the Medieval time period of history and Dr. Martin 

Luther King, Jr. during the Contemporary time period.

Review of Something New

    Through the use of representative letter writers including St. Paul from the  

Ancient time period of history, Hildegard of Bingen, from the Medieval era, and Martin 

Luther King, Jr. as the Contemporary period representative, we compared and contrasted 

how the themes and concerns of the writers of the New Testament letters relate to people 

of all eras.  We got an in-depth look at how subsequent writers were influenced by the 

letters of the New Testament to see why these letters impart knowledge that remains 

important to us.  

We also examined how the representative letter writers from the Ancient, Medieval, and 

Contemporary time periods of history used writing methods and styles present in the 

types of letters presented in Chapter Two and what effect this may have had on their 

composition of letters.


We can do better in our relationships with other humans, our environment, and 

God.  This study has pointed out that there are many tools around us to help us find our 

way but we must be open to learning the knowledge that they may impart.  Among these 

tools are the letters of the New Testament.  These letters remind us that our biggest 

problem is that not only does humanity in general need to find our way back to God—we 

must live in a way that is pleasing to God.   This study has provided insights into just 

how we may achieve these goals.  Most importantly we must not only focus on the 

mortal aspects of our lives, we must also focus on what Hildegard called “God’s 

wondrous works” (Flanagan 8).

One way to get in tune with this way of living is by exploring the function of 

letter writing in the spiritual expression of the writers of the New Testament  letters.  

These letters provide spiritual knowledge that has ongoing healing powers for generation 

after generation.  As our individual and global problems and challenges increase because 

of our distorted vision of self and God,  this work shows that we can look to the letters of 

the New Testament to see just how humanity may get off track and what we can do to 

reconnect with our Higher Power.  The New Testament letters keeps both the material 

world and the spiritual world in focus and shows us that salvation lies in our recognition 

of this duality. The spiritual knowledge imparted in the epistles of the New Testament 

such as love each other and God has no favorites among humans shows us that the 

New Testament epistles share knowledge broad enough to speak to people of any religious faith—no matter the time 

period of history.  

Closing Comments

    We must remember to experience God for ourselves.  Nurturing our spiritual 

awareness feeds all aspects our lives. We must make a lifetime commitment to finding  

different ways to come  into contact with universal truths be it through reading, writing,

meditating, praying, music—whatever it may be.  In this way we will learn to live more 

lovingly and more peacefully toward other humans and our planet.  

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