“EPISTLE” AND “LETTER”—SAME OR DIFFERENT?
by Shawn Brasseaux
The Greek word epistolē appears 24 times in 23 verses found in the King James Bible’s “New Testament” Scriptures. On 15 occasions, it is rendered “epistle(s).” It is translated “letter(s)” the remaining nine times. While they are the same in Greek, there is a difference in English. This Bible study will highlight that distinction.
Once, while I was speaking to one church member about “Paul’s epistles,” she stopped me and asked me what an “epistle” was. I was utterly amazed that, here she was, attending a so-called “Bible-believing church,” and she had never heard this Bible term before. Evidently, her pastor and her Bible teacher had never used that term. Her modern English “bible” version did not have that word either. It used the word “letter” instead. (Modern English translations of the Scriptures have robbed readers in numerous ways. Here is but another example of them omitting more precise terms and replacing them with generalized ones.)
Make no mistake about it, dear friends. There is a difference between an epistle and a letter, so these terms cannot always be used interchangeably. A letter is a form of written communication. It can be for personal/pleasure reasons, business reasons, and so on. However, a letter does not necessarily include teaching. An epistle is a letter, yes, but a very special kind of letter. All epistles are letters, but not all letters are epistles. Consider this easy example. While all instruction manuals are books, not all books are instruction manuals. By changing the noun from “books” to the restrictive “instruction manuals,” we are eliminating novels, phone books, and all other non-educational reading materials. “Epistles” limits the letters to educational resources. An epistle is doctrinal or instructional in nature—a letter from a teacher to a student.
When people talk about the so-called “letters” of the New Testament Scriptures, what they really mean is “epistles.” Those books are not merely friendship letters, although they do contain personal greetings in their openings and closings. More than anything, however, they are doctrinal works with tremendous teaching value. They contain doctrine meant to educate their readers concerning the purpose and plan of God. Epistles contain God’s various instructions to their recipients—who they are to Him, what He has done (or will do) to and/or for them, what they should believe, how they should behave, their destiny in God’s program, and so on.
With that said, we will look at the King James Bible’s various uses of the word epistolē, and we will notice how it can function as a general or specific noun:
- Acts 9:2: “And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.” (“Letters” here is general, as in “permission slips,” so the more specific “epistles” is unnecessary. No teaching is involved.)
- Acts 15:30: “So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle:” (This “epistle” was more than a letter; it was doctrinal, containing instructions. Leaders of the Jerusalem Church had written this to Paul’s Gentile converts, expecting them to abide by its words.)
- Acts 22:5: “As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished.” (As with Acts 9:2, “letters” here is general. They are “permission slips,” making the more specific “epistles” unnecessary. No teaching is involved here, either.)
- Acts 23:25: “And he wrote a letter after this manner:” (“Letter” here is general, so the more specific “epistle” is unnecessary. It is interesting to note that this “letter” is later called an “epistle” [verse 33]—see next bullet point. This shows us that, on some occasions, “epistle” and “letter” are interchangeable. However, please be mindful that this is the exception rather than the rule.)
- Acts 23:33: “Who, when they came to Caesarea, and delivered the epistle to the governor, presented Paul also before him.” (The more specific “epistle” is needed because the governor is being educated, brought up-to-date, concerning Paul’s predicament. He has read the letter and been informed. While not in the Greek, our 1611 KJV translators then added the words “the letter” in verse 34 to complete the thought.)
- Romans 16:22: “I Tertius, who wrote this epistle, salute you in the Lord.” (The more precise “epistle” is necessary because Romans is a doctrinal book, not just a casual letter filled with “chit-chat.”)
- 1 Corinthians 5:9: “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators:” (Like Romans above, the more specific term “epistle” is necessary here since Paul’s letter to Corinth had doctrinal content, teaching material.)
- 1 Corinthians 16:3: “And when I come, whomsoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality unto Jerusalem.” (The general word “letters” is sufficient here because these are not teaching books, merely “permission slips” concerning who will take up a collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem.)
- 2 Corinthians 3:1: “Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you?” (The more specific “epistles” is necessary here since they, had they existed, would have been letters teaching on Paul’s apostleship. They would have been more than letters, though. They would have been what we would call “teaching letters,” or precisely, “epistles.”
- 2 Corinthians 3:2: “Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men:” (The more exact “epistle” is necessary here because the Corinthians, in their behavior, were communicating doctrine to their observers.)
- 2 Corinthians 3:3: “Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” (The more exact “epistle” is necessary here because the Corinthians, in their behavior, were communicating doctrine to those who observed them.)
- 2 Corinthians 7:8: “For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season.” (“Letter” here means it is a written statement Paul had sent to them. The more exact “epistle” is necessary in that it instructed the Corinthians to the extent it made them “sorry” of their disobedience.)
- 2 Corinthians 10:9: “That I may not seem as if I would terrify you by letters.” (The general word “letters” is all that is needed. There is nothing here about instruction.)
- 2 Corinthians 10:10: “For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” (Again, the general word “letters” is sufficient. No instruction here.)
- 2 Corinthians 10:11: “Let such an one think this, that, such as we are in word by letters when we are absent, such will we be also in deed when we are present.” (Once more, the general word “letters” is enough. No instruction is here.)
- Colossians 4:16: “And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.” (Like Romans, earlier, Colossians is a special letter, a teaching letter—an “epistle.”)
- 1 Thessalonians 5:27: “I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren.” (Like Romans and Colossians, earlier, 1 Thessalonians is a special letter, a teaching letter—an “epistle.”)
- 2 Thessalonians 2:2: “That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.” (Once more, the general word “letter” is enough. It was a written communication to which someone had forged the Apostle Paul’s name.)
- 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” (Here, notice the link between being “taught” and an “epistle.” Paul’s “epistles” were instructional materials.)
- 2 Thessalonians 3:14: “And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.” (Like Romans, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians, the Book of 2 Thessalonians is also a teaching letter—an “epistle.”)
- 2 Thessalonians 3:17: “The salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every epistle: so I write.” (Again, Paul’s “epistles” were teaching materials.)
- 2 Peter 3:1: “This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you; in both which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance:” (And, again, Peter’s “epistles” were teaching materials.)
- 2 Peter 3:16: “As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” (As the Holy Spirit led Peter to affirm, Paul’s “epistles” were teaching materials.)
While “epistle” and “letter” are the same Greek word (epistolē), the English language allows us to appreciate a nuance. All epistles are letters, but not all letters are epistles. An epistle is a very special letter: it is doctrinal, didactic, or instructional in nature. Remember, an epistle is a letter from teacher to student. It would be more than a “Hi, how are you? I am doing well…” letter. An epistle would be advice on how to think about a certain topic, how to understand not just terms and definitions but the actual concepts of that topic, and how to apply that knowledge to life and/or other disciplines.
Although modern-English-version people have grown accustomed to using the word “letter,” the more precise term is “epistle.” When referring to the Bible books such as Romans, Hebrews, Philemon, or Jude, it would be beneficial to our hearers if we called them “epistles.” They are “the Epistle to the Romans” (not “the Letter to the Romans”), “the Epistle to the Hebrews” (not “the Letter to the Hebrews”), “the Epistle to Philemon” (not “the Letter to Philemon”), and “the Epistle of Jude” (not “the Letter of Jude”).
Now, we must answer this anticipated objection: “Brother Shawn, you said it yourself. Since the modern English versions are so common, almost no one knows what an ‘epistle’ is anyway. Should we not just use ‘letter?’” Friend, let me remind you that our job as Bible believers is to teach the Bible to those who find it confusing. Before we go around teaching others, we had better know the material ourselves! We simply use the term “epistle,” and then define it for our audience. (The job of the teacher is to teach!!!) We tell them, “An epistle is a letter of instruction, doctrine, or teaching.” We need not change words in the King James Bible we find difficult or obsolete. We leave them where they are in the Bible, and we define them! Let us not get angry with our Bible because it uses words we do not know. Our King James Bible will teach us much—not only about God’s thoughts, but about our own English language. I mean, come on, my friends. We are going to teach our audience a new word—“epistle”—and, by doing so, we will be an “epistle” (teaching device) ourselves!
NOTICE: The 2016 Slidell Grace Bible Conference is less than a month away! This is our 5th annual conference, just outside of New Orleans, December 2-4. Speakers are Richard Jordan, John Smith, and I (Shawn Brasseaux). Please see this flyer for more details: https://arcministries.files.wordpress.com/2016/10/2016-slidell-gbc.pdf. We would love to have you join us!