In the New Testament letters are sorted into two groups, letters historically attributed to Paul and letters by others (John and Peter, sometimes called the catholic epistles or letters). The letters attributed to Paul are arranged first as letters addressed to churches (longest to shortest) and then letters addressed to individuals (again longest to shortest). The Letter to the Hebrews, whose authorship is unknown, is located between the letters of Paul and the catholic letters.
Sometimes the letter writer wrote their letter, sometimes they dictated their letter to a scribe. Dictation could be word for word, but sometimes the ideas and content were dictated and the scribe chose the words used. The literacy rate in the first century AD was between 10-15% and because of the low literacy rate, letters were written to be read out loud. The people of the early church lived in an oral culture and were used to listening.
There was no postal service for private letters. Letters were sent by couriers (Rom 16:1; 1 Cor 16:10; 1 Peter 5:17). As you can imagine, in the first century travel was hazardous and seasonal. Illness, accidents, bandits, bad weather and just plain bad luck all affected the delivery of letters. Scholars think that couriers were sometimes more than simply delivery agents. Couriers may also have had information to share with the recipients that was not contained in the letter (Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7-9).
In the New Testament
The letters we have in the New Testament are one side of a conversation. We don’t know with documented certainty what questions, concerns or situations Paul ( or Peter or John) were responding to in their letters. Scholars have well- researched ideas that are a great help in our understanding of the letters, but we do not have the letter or conversation that caused Paul, Peter or John to write.
We do know the letter writers were writing to particular congregations and individuals about particular issues and concerns. The original purpose of these letters are pastoral. The letters of the New Testament are not exercises in systematic theology removed from the actual situations of real people. They are written to particular congregations and individuals about particular concerns or situations.
Paul’s letters are carefully crafted and he uses different styles and rhetorical practices in different letters. His letters do have a common structure that is consistent with ancient letter writing conventions.
Opening: Here we find the name of the sender(s), the name of the recipients, a greeting and (with one exception) a prayer of thanksgiving for the recipients.
Closing: There is variety in how Paul closes his letters. There are greetings to and from friends, a benediction, sometimes a prayer, and there are final admonitions and instructions.
Body: Here there is much variety. Often “brothers and sisters” opens the body of the letter, along with a statement such as “I want you to know…” or “ We do not want you to be unaware…” or I appeal to you…” . Often at the end of the body is a moral exhortation to the reader. Sometimes these are lists of vices or virtues or a series of maxims.
Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, Revised Edition. Augsburg Fortress Press: 1999, 261-273.
Metzger, Bruce M., “Letters/Epistles in the New Testament” ,The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books. NRSV. Bruce M. Metzger, Roland E. Murphy, eds. Oxford University Press:1994.
Wall, Robert, W. “Introduction to Epistolary Literature” ; New Interpreter’ Bible, Volume X, Leander E. Keck, ed. Abingdom Press, 2002.