Ancient Epistolary Theorists

By Abraham Malherbe
Atlanta : Scholars Press (1988). 88 Pages.

Reviewed by
7.2 (Fall 1996) : 277-278

The Bible contains many letters. The OT records the activities of messengers as well as their messages. For example, in Ezra and Nehemiah the author either records or speaks of many letters between the provincial government and Palestine. The Bible describes prophets (Hag 1:12), priests (Mal 2:7), and even kings in the language of messengers and their missives.

In the NT the same applies. Almost all the NT books are letters sent throughout the ancient world to spread the news of God's grace. Even Acts and Revelation, which may not be letters, per se contain letters. It is also important that much of the language of the NT that speaks of the spread of the gospel and the establishing of churches is in messenger language: "gospel" is the message of a herald-type messenger; "preach" is the action that the herald performs; "apostle" was one of the common words for a messenger who delivered mail and oral messages. God used the correspondence system of the day to communicate to His people in many ways.

With that background, a reader can appreciate the contribution of Malherbe's book. The author has collected ancient classical sources of information about ancient letters. Beyond the introduction which includes an interesting discussion of letter writing in schools, the author simply allows the sources to speak. In clear translation, the reader can hear the ancient writers express in their own words their perspectives on the nature and purposes of letters. Of particular interest are the definitions given to epistolary genre:

A letter is one half of a dialogue (Dem. 223) or a surrogate for an actual dialogue (Cic. Ad Fam. 12, 30, 1).

In it one speaks to an absent friend as though he were present (Cic. Ad Fam. 2, 4, 1; Sen. Ep. 75, 1; Ps. Lib. 2, 58; Jul. Vict.).

The letter is, in fact, speech in the written medium (Cic. Ad Att. 8, 14, 1; 9, 10, 1; 12, 53; Sen. Ep. 75, 1).

A letter reflects the personality of its writer (Cic. Ad Fam. 16, 16, 2; Sen. Ep. 40, 1; Dem. 227; Philostr.) (12).

Some ancient epistolary theorists viewed letters as organized into styles that served social functions and atmospheres. In the following list, some of the styles may have been employed by biblical writers:

 (1) paraenetic, (2) blaming, (3) requesting, (4) commending, (5) ironic, (6) thankful, (7) friendly, (8) praying, (9) threatening, (10) denying, (11) commanding, (12) repenting, (13) reproaching, (14) sympathetic, (15) conciliatory, (16) congratulatory, (17) contemptuous, (18) counter-accusing, (19) replying, (20) provoking, (21) consoling, (22) insulting, (23) reporting, (24) angry, (25) diplomatic, (26) praising, (27) didactic, (28) reproving, (29) 278 The Master's Seminary Journal maligning, (30) censorious, (31) inquiring, (32) encouraging, (33) consulting, (34) declaratory, (35) mocking, (36) submissive, (37) enigmatic, (38) suggestive, (39) grieving, (40) erotic, (41) mixed (67).

Though the potential for forcing correspondences of style on Scripture is ever-present, understanding how Ezra, the Apostle Paul, and others learned to compose letters as well as what were the expectations of their readers is helpful in understanding the letters and language of correspondence in Scripture.

The reviewer enthusiastically recommends this work to students of the Bible who would like to understand how the people who first received the Bible might have understood the documents and their messages.