In our study of hermeneutics, the New Testament epistles are an important biblical genre on which to focus.

You can think of the epistles the same way you would think of a love letter.

It matters who wrote the letter, who received the letter, and why the letter was sent.

The entire meaning can alter based upon those elements.

Epistles’ Organization

  • The epistles’ order is based upon size and author.
    • Paul – Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon
    • ? – Hebrews
    • James – James
    • Peter – 1 Peter, 2 Peter
    • John – 1 John, 2 John, 3 John
    • Jude – Jude

Rules for Reading the Epistles

  • The epistles are occasional documents.
  • They are written arising out of a need and intended for a specific audience.
  • Epistles are letters, but they are different in that they are an artistic literary genre that was intended for public reading.
  • Epistles were not intended to serve as a theological treatise.  They do not contain the entirety of the author’s theology.

Typical Order of an Epistle

  1. Name of the author
  2. Name of the recipient
  3. Greeting
  4. Prayer wish or thanksgiving
  5. Body
  6. Farewell

How to Study the Epistles

  • Historical Context
    • Reconstruct the situation to which the author is speaking
    • Make notes of written clues
      • What you notice about the recipients
      • Author’s attitude
      • Anything mentioned to the specific occasion of the letter
      • The epistle’s natural, logical divisions
  • Literary Context
    • Trace the author’s argument
    • Must begin to think paragraphs
    • Acknowledge difficulties
      • The texts are sometimes difficult because they simply were not written to us.
      • Even if you are uncertain about certain details, usually the plain meaning of the whole passage is still within grasp.
      • In difficult situations, get some good help.
  • Hermeneutical Reminders
    • The text cannot mean what it never meant.
    • We are searching for authorial intent.
    • In most cases, a clear principle has been articulate that transcends the historical particularity.  We can understand and apply it.
  • Hermeneutical Guidelines
    • Distinguish between the essentials and the non-essentials of the writings.
    • Distinguish between what is moral and what is immoral.
    • Don’t expect the epistles to answer questions that have not been asked yet.
Travis Agnew is a Christian, husband, father, pastor, author, blogger, and religion instructor.