Epistolary Form (Genre) in Scripture


The Epistle is the dominant literary genre of the NT in terms of space. It is a mixed form that combines literary and expository features. The NT Epistles are, moreover, a combination of private correspondence and public address. They may lean in a literary or non-literary direction, depending on how a given writer on a given occasion treats the letter form.[1]

The NT epistle has a relatively fixed form, consisting of five main points: Opening, thanksgiving, body, exhortation, and closing. It typically follows this type of format:

  1. Opening
    1. Salutation
      1. Author
      2. Addressees
      3. Greeting
    2. Health wish
      1. Request of welfare of reader
      2. Report of welfare of writer
    3. Prayer formula
  2. Body
    1. Introduction of the subject
    2. Requests of the author for the readers
    3. Conclusion
  3. Closing
    1. Closing greeting
    2. Health wish
    3. Farewell salutation

This formal element in the NT Epistles satisfies the literary impulse for pattern and design, and proves that the writers self-consciously met certain understood conventions of letter writing when they wrote the Epistles.

The Epistles are occasional letters evoked by a specific situation, not formal essays on theological topics.[2] They consist of poetic language, figures of speech and have a rhetorical pattern. “They are a product of artistic and highly patterned prose. The NT Epistles employ a fixed form, incorporate smaller literary genres into the overriding letter form, and rely on poetic language and stylistic patterns to communicate their meanings with power. The corresponding skills that they require from readers are the ability to determind the overall structure of an epistle, to ‘think paragraphs’ in following the logical flow of ideas, to interpret figurative language, and to be sensitive to the effects of artistic patterning.[3]

Below is a an example of Epistolary form from the book of Philemon.



  1.     Opening (vv. 1-7)
    1.     Salutation (vv. 1-3)
      1.     Author (vv. 1a)
      2.     Addressees (vv. 1b-2)
      3.     Greeting (vv. 3)
    2.     Health wish (NA)
      1.     Request of welfare of reader (NA)
      2.     Report of welfare of writer (NA)
    3.     Prayer formula (vv. 4-7)
  2.     Body (vv. 8-22)
    1.     Introduction of subject (NA)
    2.     Requests of the author for the readers (vv. 8-16)
    3.     Conclusion (vv. 17-22)
  3. Closing (vv. 23-25)
    1. Closing greeting (vv. 23-24)
    2. Health wish (vv. 25)
    3. Farewell salutation (NA)

[1] Leland Ryken, “How to Read the Bible as Literature…and get more out of it,” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 155-158.

[2] Ibid, 157.

[3] Ibid, 158.


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