On the Form, Function, and Authority of the New Testament Letters Richard N. Longenecker

On the Form, Function, and Authority of the New Testament Letters

Richard N. Longenecker



Of the twenty-seven New Testament writings, twenty-one are letters. The four Gospels, of course, are not letters; neither are the Acts of the Apostles and the Apocalypse of John. Within the Acts and the Apocalypse, however, there are nine more letters: one from the Jerusalem church to Gentile Christians in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (Acts 15:23–29); one from the commander Claudius Lysias to the governor Felix (Acts 23:26–30); and seven from the exalted Christ through John the Seer to seven churches in western Asia Minor (Rev. 2–3).

The letters of the New Testament, together with the Gospels, Acts, and the Apocalypse, have been accepted by the church as the touchstone for Christian faith and practice and therefore are designated “canonical” (i.e., “authoritative,” “officially approved”). Most orthodox Christians receive them as the revelation of God and view them on a par in authority with the Hebrew Scriptures, the so-called Old Testament. But orthodox Christians also affirm that they are fully human writings as well, in that they were written in specific historical situations with particular purposes in mind, using the literary forms then current. As we hold, then, to both their divine inspiration and their human provenance, questions naturally arise as to the impact of the divine on the human and of the human on the divine in the composition of the New Testament letters.

Our purpose here is to consider certain aspects of the latter point, asking about the impact of the literary forms used by the letter writers of the New Testament on the authority claimed by and/or attributed to their writings. Since form and content, in varying degrees, are inseparable in the study of any body of literature, it is necessary to give attention not only to what is said but also to how it is said—viz., to the form used to convey meaning and to the function served by that particular form.


The letter form is almost as old as writing itself, reaching a high point of development in Greco-Roman times. An emphasis on education, the need to administer far-flung peoples and provinces, and increased travel made letter writing among Greeks and Romans common. Extensive correspondence was in vogue in the imperial courts of Rome, with facility in the art considered of great importance in a young man’s training.

Most of the extant Greek and Roman letters are business letters expressing the interests and concerns of commerce. Even receipts, reports, contracts, wills, and land surveys were written up in letter form. Private letters dealing with all sorts of matters are common from the period as well, as are also official letters on political, judicial, and military themes. In addition, there were public letters written for political purposes and tractate or essay-type letters for literary and educational purposes. Isocrates (436–338 b.c.) and Plato (427–347 b.c.) were two of the earliest practitioners of the art of the public letter, addressing their appeals to kings and populace. The Roman statesman Cicero (106–43 b.c.) was famous for his use of the letter to influence public opinion, with 931 of his letters being published either during his lifetime or after his death. The twenty-four letters attributed to Hippocrates, written by the Hippocratic school during the first century b.c., are good examples of public letters for educational purposes. And Seneca’s (4 b.c.–a.d. 65) Letters to Lucilius are classic examples of the tractate type of letter, with their moralistic advice on “how to live.”

Letter writing among the Jews during the Greco-Roman period is a more difficult matter to document, simply because the Jewish impulse toward preservation was directed elsewhere and therefore very few Jewish letters remain. Acts 28:21 implies that Jewish officials sent letters when necessary, and the Talmud speaks of rabbis carrying on correspondence with Jewish communities in the Diaspora.1 The letters of which the Talmud speaks were pastoral letters, in which rabbinic authorities responded to questions from Jews outside Israel and gave counsel. In addition, there were tractate-type letters circulating within Israel, such as the Letter of Aristeas and the Epistle of Jeremy.

The letter form was popular in antiquity for the same reason that it remains so today, viz., its stress on “presence”—the presence of the writer with those being addressed, even though physically separated. This feature was of great importance, not only for writers of private and pastoral letters, but also for those who wrote commercial, official, public, and tractate letters. For personal letters, “friendly relationship” was at the fore in this feature of “presence”; for pastoral letters, a past relationship and present authority were highlighted; for letters of a more public or official kind, “presence” conveyed authority; and for tractate or essay-type letters, the conversational dialogue of spoken instruction was continued.


As is well known, Adolf Deissmann was so impressed by the correspondence in form between Paul’s letters and the “true letters” of the nonliterary papyri—i.e., letters arising from a specific situation and intended only for the eye of the person or persons to whom they were addressed and not for the public at large or with the studied art of the “literary epistles” of the day—that he concluded, “I have no hesitation in maintaining the thesis that all the letters of Paul are real, nonliterary letters. Paul was not a writer of epistles but of letters; he was not a literary man.”2 What Deissmann was attempting to highlight by this distinction were (1) the genuine, unaffected religious impulse that can be seen in Paul’s letters and (2) the definite, unrepeatable situations to which they spoke. But laudatory and helpful as his thesis was at the time, it was also misleading. As Milligan pointed out:

The letters of St. Paul may not be epistles, if by that we are to understand literary compositions written without any thought of a particular body of readers. At the same time, in view of the tone of authority adopted by their author, and the general principles with which they deal, they are equally far removed from the unstudied expression of personal feeling, which we associate with the idea of a true letter. And if we are to describe them as letters at all, it is well to define the term still further by the addition of some such distinguishing epithet as “missionary” or “pastoral.” It is not merely St. Paul the man, but St. Paul the spiritual teacher and guide who speaks in them throughout.3

And scholarship today agrees that Paul’s letters are not merely private, personal letters—at least, not “private” and “personal” in the usual sense of those terms. They were written to Christian believers for use in their common life, by one who was self-consciously an apostle and therefore an official representative of early Christianity. Quite correctly Selby writes:

These letters are not, strictly speaking, private letters. As their character clearly shows, they were written to be read before the congregation to which they were addressed. The second personal plural, the allusions to various persons, and the greetings and salutations make them group communications.4

Paul’s letters are the principal New Testament writings coming closest to the standard form of nonliterary “true letters” in the Greco-Roman period. That form may be outlined as follows:

  1. An introduction, prescript, or salutation, which included the name of the sender, the name of the addressee, greetings, and often a wish for good health.
  2. The body or text of the letter, introduced by characteristic formulae.
  3. A conclusion, which included greetings to persons other than the addressee, a final greeting or prayer sentence, and sometimes a date.

All of the thirteen letters bearing Paul’s name conform in their structure and idiom to this standard form. Only the apostle’s thanksgiving sections (often with a prayer for his converts) before the body of the Letter (except in Galatians) and his parenthetic sections that follow the central body sections go beyond the common form of the day. But those features probably derive from Christian preaching and may have had parallels in Jewish pastoral letters now extinct. Romans and Ephesians, while in form like the rest, in content exceed the limits of a strictly pastoral letter and in tone suggest something more of a tractate letter. But of the rest—1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus—their structure, idiom, contents, and tone are those of what can appropriately be called a pastoral letter. This is true also of the writings known as 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude.

We must speak later of tractate letters, amanuenses, anonymity, and pseudonymity. Here our purpose is to point out that the pastoral letters of the New Testament took their form from the conventions of the day, were written as substitutes for being present in person, and were meant to convey the apostolic presence, teaching, and authority. Their form was that of the Greco-Roman world from the third century b.c. to the third century a.d.; their function was parallel to that of Jewish pastoral letters; and their authority was that of Christian apostles, to whom was given the right to teach and govern the church of God. As pastoral letters, they were to be read widely in the churches (cf. their salutations and such verses as Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27). Yet as letters arising from a particular situation and speaking to that situation, their message was more circumstantially than systematically delivered. They are not tractate- or essay-type letters. They are real letters dealing pastorally with issues then current, and they must be interpreted accordingly.


What is not often enough recognized is that in addition to pastoral letters the New Testament contains tractate-type letters. Their purposes, of course, are also broadly pastoral, and their form is in many respects that of ordinary letters. But their content and tone suggest that they were originally intended to be more than strictly pastoral responses to specific sets of issues arising in particular places. And at times, one or more of the extant texts or some ecclesiastical tradition gives us a hint of this difference.

The Letter to the Romans, for example, is the longest and most systematic of Paul’s writings and more a comprehensive exposition of the apostle’s message than a letter as such. A great many proposals have been made as to its purpose and audience, with that whole discussion becoming more intense of late.5 Probably, however, we should view the body of Romans (1:18–15:13) as something of a précis of Paul’s preaching in Jewish synagogues of the Diaspora and at Jewish-Gentile gatherings, with that précis during the course of his missionary activities having become more and more polished in literary form and having been used by his converts at various times as a kind of missionary tractate giving a résumé of his message, and which, when directed to Rome, was supplemented with an epistolary introduction (1:1–17) and the personal elements of chapters 15 and 16 (esp. 15:14–16:24, allowing the possibility of a separate provenance for most of chapter 16 and viewing the doxology of 16:25–27 as part of the original tractate). Such a view would explain the internal differences of content and tone between 1:18–15:13 and 1:1–17; 15:14ff. It would also go far to explain the uncertainties within the early church regarding the relation of the final two chapters to the rest of the writing, the absence of “in Rome” at 1:7 and 15 in some minor manuscripts, and the presence of two doxologies at 15:33 and 16:25–27, with the Western and Byzantine Texts adding a third at 16:24.

The so-called Letter to the Ephesians also has the appearance of a tractate letter, particularly if we accept the testimony of the earliest extant texts (Aleph, B, P46) and omit the words “in Ephesus” at 1:1. It may be an introduction by an early disciple of the apostle to the letters of Paul, as E. J. Goodspeed and others have argued. More likely it was originally meant to be a précis of Paul’s teaching on redemption in Christ and the nature of the church, and was sent out as something of a circular tractate letter to churches in the Roman province of Asia, of which Ephesus was the capital.

The Letter to the Hebrews has less of a letter form than any New Testament epistolary writing considered so far, being exceeded in this respect only by James and 1 John. Without salutation, without stated author, without specified address, it is almost entirely an expositional and hortatory tractate. Only at the close of the final chapter is there the form and idiom of a letter: in asking for the prayers of its addressees (13:18–19), in a rather eloquent benediction (13:20–21), and in a personal subscription (13:22–25). Just who wrote it and to whom it was written have been continuing questions that probably will never have a final answer—though I believe that Apollos to Jewish Christians with an Essene-type background is as good a guess as any. The original recipients of the letter undoubtedly knew who the author was, probably through a messenger authorized to deliver the composition. Nevertheless, whatever its provenance, Hebrews is in form a tractate letter, and that fact has some bearing on its interpretation.

Likewise, three of the seven so-called Catholic or General Epistles are identifiable as tractate letters. The Letter of James begins with a salutation typical of a letter (1:1), but thereafter it is a collection of moral maxims and exhortations. Probably the writing was first a sermon representative of James’s teaching—perhaps extracts drawn from a number of his sermons—and only later given a salutation and circulated widely as a tractate letter. First Peter also seems to be a compendium of Petrine sermonic and catechetical materials (1:3–4:11), to which has been added the salutation of 1:1–2, the exhortations of 4:12–5:11, and the personal subscription of 5:12–14. In the form sent out to Christians in the five provinces of northern Asia Minor and preserved for us in the New Testament, the work is genuinely epistolary. But in that it incorporates earlier material representative of Peter’s preaching—perhaps even an early baptismal hymn (3:18–22) used by Peter in his sermons and liturgical practice—it has the character of a sermonic tractate with an attached letter. So too 1 John probably was originally a compendium of John’s characteristic teaching. At no point does it have the form or idiom of a letter, though 2 and 3 John may have served as covering letters in two instances.

The designation “Catholic” or “General” originated on the assumption that these writings were intended for Christians “universally” or “generally,” in contrast to those of Paul that were addressed to specific congregations or persons. But it is becoming increasingly clear, particularly because of their affinities with the Qumran materials, that these writings are in reality Jewish-Christian compositions that circulated at first primarily within the Jewish-Christian cycle of witness in the church. Like their Jewish compatriots who collected representative teachings of prominent rabbis, Jewish Christians seem also to have been interested in the characteristic teachings of their three most prominent leaders—Peter, James, and John—and to have wanted this material disseminated widely, particularly to Jewish-Christian congregations of the Diaspora. The tractate-type letter was the form selected—either the more conventional tractate letter (as James), a tractate with an attached letter (as 1 Peter), or a tractate with a covering letter (as 1 John, with 2 and 3 John)—for it not only made known the apostolic teaching but also conveyed the apostolic presence and authority.


The extant nonliterary Greek papyri, the bulk of which (some 40,000 to 60,000) were found during the 1890s in the Fayum of Egypt, indicate quite clearly that an amanuensis or secretary was frequently, if not commonly, used in the writing of letters in the years before, during, and after the first Christian century. Literary men of the day may have preferred, as did Quintillian (c. a.d. 35–95), not to use an amanuensis for their personal correspondence, or they may have agreed with Cicero (106–43 b.c.) that dictation to a secretary was an expediency necessitated only by illness or the press of duties. But the papyrus materials, show that a common practice for more ordinary men was to use an amanuensis to write out their letters, after which the sender himself would often—though not invariably—add in his own hand a word of farewell, his personal greetings, and the date. Frequently the presence of an amanuensis is obvious by a difference of hands in a letter: the salutation, body, and conclusion being written in a more regular and practiced hand, with what follows more crudely put down. Sometimes the involvement of an amanuensis is directly stated; at times it can be inferred from what is said; and at times it may be assumed by the more official nature of the contents and the quality of the syntax, as well as by a more literary hand writing. A number of papyrus letters state that an amanuensis was used because the sender was “unlettered” (μὴ ἴδοτες γράμματα or ἀγράμματος) or “wrote slowly” (διὰ τό βραδύτερα γράφειν), though probably the difficulty of procuring the necessary materials for writing and the relatively low cost of hiring a secretary—who would not only do the actual writing but also have at hand all that was necessary for the task—helped to make the use of an amanuensis both fashionable and practical, even for those for whom writing itself was no problem.

Writing skills of amanuenses undoubtedly varied. A third-century a.d. Latin payment schedule reads: “To a scribe for best writing, 100 lines, 25 denarii; for second-quality writing, 100 lines, 20 denarii; to a notary for writing a petition or legal document, 100 lines, 10 denarii.”6 The Greek biographer Plutarch (c. a.d. 46–120) credited Cicero (106–43 b.c.) with the invention of a system of Latin shorthand, relating how Cicero placed a number of scribes in various locations in the senate chamber to record the speeches and taught them in advance “signs having the force of many letters in little and short marks”7—though it may have been Tiro, the freedman of Cicero, who actually was the inventor, for inventions of slaves were often credited to their masters. The reference by Seneca (4 b.c.–a.d. 65) to slaves having invented among their other notable accomplishments “signs for words, with which a speech is taken down, however rapid, and the hand follows the speed of the tongue”8 seems to support Tiro, or someone like him, as the originator and to suggest that at least by a.d. 63–64, when Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius were written, a system of Latin shorthand was widely employed. The earliest comparable evidence for the existence of a system of Greek shorthand is contained in P. Oxy. 724, dated March 1, a.d. 155 (“the fifth of Phamenouth in the eighteenth year of the emperor Titus Ailios Hadrian Antonius Augustus Eusebius”), wherein a former official of Oxyrhynchus by the name of Panechotes binds his slave Chaerammon to a stenographer named Apollonius for a term of two years in order to learn shorthand from him. Though Panechotes’ letter is a second-century writing, the developed system of shorthand that it assumes and which Chaerammon was to take two years to learn presupposes a workable system of Greek shorthand prior to this—at least in the first Christian century, and probably earlier.

The extent of freedom that amanuenses had in drafting letters is impossible to determine from the evidence presently at hand, and it undoubtedly varied from case to case. Amanuenses may have written a client’s message word-for-word or even syllable by syllable; they may have been given the sense of the message and left to work out the wording themselves; or they may even have been asked to write in the sender’s name on a particular subject without being given explicit directions as to how to develop the topic, especially if the sender felt his amanuensis already knew his mind on the matter. Scholarly opinion as to what the evidence indicates on this is sharply divided. Roller, for example, believed that ancient amanuenses had a great deal of freedom and that dictation of a word-for-word variety was rare,9 whereas Hitchcock drew exactly the opposite conclusion.10 But whatever method or methods may have been used in the writing of any particular letter, the sender often added a personal subscription in his own hand, thereby attesting to all that was written. At times he even included in that personal subscription a résumé of what had been written, thereby acknowledging further the contents and details.

Although we possess no autograph of any of the New Testament letters, it may be assumed that their authors followed current letter-writing conventions in their use of amanuenses as well—though in this case, amanuenses were probably more apostolic companions than trained scribes. In 2 Thessalonians 3:17 Paul says explicitly that it was his practice to add a personal subscription to his letters in his own handwriting, thereby attesting to what was written and assuring his converts that the letter was really from him. Such a statement fits well the literary convention of the day and alerts us to the likely presence of other such personal subscriptions in his own handwriting within the Pauline corpus, though it provides no guidance as to how to mark them off precisely. Likewise, the words of 1 Corinthians 16:21 and Colossians 4:18 (“I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand”) give reason to believe that the personal subscriptions in these letters were also distinguishable by their handwriting from their respective texts—necessitating, of course, the involvement of amanuenses in what precedes the subscriptions. The words “I, Tertius, who wrote this epistle in the Lord” in Romans 16:22 cannot be understood in any way other than that an amanuensis was involved to some extent in Paul’s letter to Christians at Rome (or, as some suggest, to believers at Ephesus). Galatians 6:11, while admittedly allowing some uncertainty as to the precise extent of the reference, recalls certain features observable in the subscriptions of Greek letters when it declares, “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!” And Philemon 19 may well be the beginning of such a personal subscription with its words, “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand,” thereby attesting what has been said in verses 1–18 and going on to restate a willingness to assume all Onesimus’s debts to Philemon.

Of the non-Pauline materials in the New Testament, 1 Peter among the Epistles and John among the Gospels (to go for a moment beyond just letters) are most plausibly to be viewed as written by amanuenses. As Milligan observed, “In the case of the First Epistle of St. Peter, indeed, this seems to be distinctly stated, for the words διὰ Σιλουανοῦ, ‘by Silvanus,’ in c. 5:12, are best understood as implying that Silvanus was not only the bearer, but the actual scribe of the Epistle. And in the same way an interesting tradition, which finds pictorial representation in many mediaeval manuscripts of the fourth Gospel, says that St. John dictated his Gospel to a disciple of his named Prochorus.”11

Just how closely amanuenses were supervised in the writing of the canonical pastoral and tractate letters is impossible to say. As we have seen, the responsibilities of amanuenses could be quite varied, ranging all the way from taking dictation verbatim to “fleshing out” a general line of thought. Paul’s own practice probably varied with the circumstances encountered and the companions available. Assuming, as Roller proposed, that amanuenses were often identified in the salutations (particularly if they would be known to the addressees), more might be left to the discretion of Silas and Timothy (cf. 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1) or to Timothy alone (cf. 2 Cor. 1:1; Col. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Philem. 1) than to Sosthenes (cf. 1 Cor. 1:1) or Tertius (cf. Rom. 16:22)—and perhaps much more to Luke, who alone was with Paul during his final imprisonment (cf. 2 Tim. 4:11). And if in one case an apostle closely scrutinized and revised a letter, at another time he may have allowed it to go out practically unaltered.

A high view of New Testament authority does not demand that everything was actually written by an apostolic man himself, nor does the recognition of an amanuensis at work in a writing diminish our access to the mind of the writer or lessen our confidence in its message. Historically, in all extant letters from antiquity—as well, of course, as in all modern letters, unless there is a disclaimer—it is assumed that the sender is responsible for everything written at his direction and attested by his hand, however the actual composition took place. And theologically, a doctrine of inspiration refers to the original writing as finally produced and faithfully reproduced, whatever methods and procedures were used in its formulation. The recognition of amanuenses at work in the New Testament writings keeps us from being wooden in either criticism or interpretation, but it does nothing to detract from the New Testament’s authority. Rather, being sensitive to the methods used in the writing of canonical letters, we gain a new appreciation for their message, for we are able to interpret a message better by understanding not only its linguistic features and historical context but also its literary conventions.


While the involvement of amanuenses in the writing of New Testament letters poses no threat to their authority, many view their anonymity (Hebrews, 1 John, and probably Ephesians) and possible pseudonymity (e.g., the Pastoral and General Epistles) as doing just that. With F. E. D. Schleiermacher, J. G. Eichhorn, W. M. L. de Wette, and F. C. Baur, a new literary category of “canonical pseudepigrapha” arose in nineteenth-century criticism and has been commonplace in New Testament scholarship ever since.

The issue is usually treated by claiming that pseudonymity was merely a literary convention of the day—an innocent literary device under no onus of deception, forgery, or blame—and was therefore acceptable to early Christians, as it was to others in antiquity. Appealing for support to the fact of numerous anonymous and pseudonymous writings in antiquity, the proponents of such an approach are mainly interested in the psychology underlying the production of such materials and not in their acceptance. But Candlish long ago aptly disputed the relevance of an appeal to ancient historiography as a justification for the innocence and acceptability of pseudonymity, concluding from a study of the evidence

that in the early Christian centuries, when any work was given out as of ancient or venerable authorship, it was either received as genuine, which was done with very great facility of belief, or rejected as an imposture; that such fictions, though very common, were regarded, at least by the stricter Christian teachers, as morally blameworthy; and that the notion of dramatic personation as a legitimate literary device is never mentioned, and seems never to have been thought of as a defence of such compositions. If any author wrote a pseudonymous book in such a way, he must have been very unsuccessful in his purpose; for it was generally taken as a genuine work, or else rejected as feigned and worthless.”12

Aland has recently proposed an eschatological and theological explanation for these issues.13 He argues that with the expectation of an imminent Parousia and the experience of the Spirit’s active presence in the church, there was no impulse among Christians to assign authors’ names to their writings, but with the abating of eschatological enthusiasm and the loss of a consciousness of the Spirit’s activity, there arose an awareness of history that called for the assigning of authors to the describing of events that accompanied revelations. So in the earliest period of the Christian movement a notion of anonymity dominated, but some time around the beginning of the second century the ascription of authorship became important—and with that later interest pseudonymity arose. Paul’s letters, of course, do not fit into such a pattern, but Aland identifies them as real letters to be distinguished from literary epistles and so does not consider them in opposition to his thesis. Yet it must be asked (1) if Aland has not inadvertently resurrected Deissmann’s overdrawn distinction between letters and epistles in the interests of his thesis; (2) why Paul was able to manifest the Spirit’s activity and also identify his authorship, whereas others could not; and (3) whether the picture of the early church as drawn by Aland and others who stress the effects of “Parousia Delay” and the rise of “Early Catholicism” is really accurate.

A better approach, I believe, is to recognize (as I have done above) that there are features that distinguish pastoral letters from tractate letters in the New Testament—even though both types are broadly pastoral in purpose and of the same genus in form—and to relate the questions of anonymity and pseudonymity to these two species of related writings. The issues are somewhat different for each, and therefore we must deal with them separately.

Eleven of the Pauline letters and four of the General Epistles we have called pastoral letters, and of this lot 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Peter, and Jude are most commonly identified as canonical pseudepigrapha. Yet a good case for the internally claimed and traditionally accepted authorship of each is by no means impossible. With Schleiermacher’s 1807 attack on the genuineness of 1 Timothy and Eichhorn’s 1812 widening of that criticism to include all three so-called Pastoral Epistles, the category of canonical pseudepigraphy was born. Principally on the basis of their more formal tone and the high frequency of words not found elsewhere in the acknowledged writings of Paul, these three letters were discounted and have been set aside by many as not being by Paul but a later Paulinist. But taking into consideration the difference of topic in these letters, the altered situation presupposed by them for the apostle at the time of writing, and the probable use of an amanuensis, such features need not be considered fatal to Pauline authorship. In fact, scholarship of late has begun to return to a consideration of the authenticity of these letters as a live possibility—largely along the lines of Otto Roller’s 1933 vindication of them on an amanuensis hypothesis, as witness the treatments by J. Jeremias (1949), J. N. D. Kelly (1963), and C. F. D. Moule (1965).

The absence of any reference to an amanuensis in 2 Peter may be the key to its stylistic and conceptual differences from 1 Peter. Perhaps this is how Peter himself wrote when not aided by Silas (1 Peter 5:12), Mark (à la Papias on the composition of Mark’s Gospel), or Luke (cf. Peter’s preaching in Acts). And the departure from the LXX in its one Old Testament quotation in 2:22, evidently translated directly from the Hebrew of Proverbs 26:11, suggests a Hebraic background for 2 Peter. Likewise, a circumstantial case can be made for Jude. Paul’s reference to “brothers of the Lord” carrying on an itinerant ministry (1 Cor. 9:5) suggests that Jude’s conversion and prominence in the early church was no more impossible than was James’s. “It is not inconceivable,” as Beasley-Murray points out, “that after the death of James, Jude should have addressed a similar circle of readers as his brother to safeguard them from new perils.”14 The reference to 1 Enoch in verse 14 and the allusion to the Assumption of Moses in verse 9 seem to relate the author and his readers to the category of Jewish Christians. And it is difficult to see why a pseudonymous writer would assume the name of Jude to commend his work when a more prominent figure would surely have served better.

Anonymity is principally an issue for what we have called tractate letters in the New Testament. But tractate letters were undoubtedly not anonymous to their original recipients, being introduced by messengers who delivered them and/or covering letters from their authors. Thus Hebrews, while anonymous, was probably introduced by the one who delivered it, with its personal subscription of 13:18–25 validating the messenger’s statements and emphasizing the author’s “presence.” Likewise, 1 John was probably delivered by someone who could speak regarding its provenance, and it may have had covering letters (2 and 3 John) attached on two occasions. Romans, James, and 1 Peter, while probably formulated first as tractates, were sent out as letters and in this manner circulated widely. And the hypothesis that Ephesians was authored by Paul at about the same time as the Colossian letter and meant to be something of a tractate or circular letter to Christians in the Roman province of Asia is as good an explanation for its peculiarities of style, structure, and contents as any other.

Anonymity may be a frustrating phenomenon for us today as we seek to reconstruct situations and purposes, but it is doubtful that it was to the original authors and recipients. Messengers, covering letters, and incorporated personal references all served in various ways to provide these details and to strengthen the feature of “presence.” Ecclesiastical tradition has attempted to preserve these details; and while we may not be prepared to accept everything that tradition tells us on these matters, it is folly to refuse everything simply because it is traditional. Anonymity, therefore, it may be assumed, had no necessary adverse effect on authority for the original recipients of the canonical tractate letters, and it need not be a disparaging factor for us either.


Aland, Kurt. “The Problem of Anonymity and Pseudonymity in Christian Literature of the First Two Centuries,” Journal of Theological Studies 12 (1961): 39–49; also in The Authority and Integrity of the New Testament (SPCK Theological Collections 4). London: SPCK, 1965. Pp. 1–13.

Bahnsen, Gregory L. “Autographs, Amanuenses and Restricted Inspiration,” Evangelical Quarterly 45 (1973): 100–110.

Bahr, Gordon J. “Paul and Letter Writing in the First Century,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 28 (1966): 465–77.

———. “The Subscriptions in the Pauline Letters,” Journal of Biblical Literature 87 (1968): 27–41.

Deissmann, Adolf. Light From the Ancient East, trans. L. R. M. Strachan. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1909.

Doty, William G. Letters in Primitive Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973.

Exler, Francis X. J. “The Form of the Ancient Greek Letter: A Study in Greek Epistolography.” Dissertation, Catholic University of America, 1923.

Funk, Robert W. “The Letter: Form and Style,” in Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God. New York: Harper and Row, 1966. Pp. 250–74.

———. “The Apostolic Parousia: Form and Significance,” in Christian History and Interpretation. Studies Presented to John Knox, ed. W. R. Farmer, C. F. D. Moule, and R. R. Niebuhr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967. Pp. 249–68

———. “The Form and Structure of II and III John,” Journal of Biblical Literature 86 (1967): 424–30.

Guthrie, Donald. “The Development of the Idea of Canonical Pseudepigrapha in New Testament Criticism,” Vox Evangelica 1 (1962): pp. 43–59; also in The Authority and Integrity of the New Testament (SPCK Theological Collections 4). London: SPCK, 1965. Pp. 14–39.

Koskenniemi, Heikki. Studien zur Idee und Phraseologie des griechischen Briefes bis 400 n. Chr. Helsinki: Suomalaien Tiedeakatemie, 1956.

Longenecker, Richard N. “Ancient Amanuenses and the Pauline Epistles,” in New Dimensions in New Testament Study, ed. R. N. Longenecker and M. C. Tenney. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974. Pp. 281–97.

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1 Cf. J. Neusner, A Life of Yohanan ben Zakkai, Ca. 1–80 C.E., 2nd. ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1970), pp. 238–41.

2 Adolf Deissmann, Light From the Ancient East, trans. L. R. M. Strachan (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1909), p. 232; cf. pp. 224–46.

3 George Milligan, The New Testament Documents, Their Origin and Early History (London: Macmillan, 1913), p. 95.

4 Donald J. Selby, Toward the Understanding of St. Paul (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1962), p. 239.

5 Cf. K. P. Donfried, ed., The Romans Debate (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977).

6 Edictum Diocletiani de pretiis rerum venalium, col. vii, pp. 39–41.

7 Plutarch, Parallel Lives 23, on Cato the Younger.

8 Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales XC. 25.

9 Otto Roller, Das Formular der Paulinischer Briefe (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1933), p. 333.

10 F. R. M. Hitchcock, “The Use of graphein,” Journal of Theological Studies 31 (1930): 273–74.

11 Milligan, New Testament Documents, pp. 22–23; cf. pp. 160–61 and plate V.

12 J. S. Candlish, “On the Moral Character of Pseudonymous Books,” The Expositor, 4 (1891): 103.

13 Kurt Aland, “The Problem of Anonymity and Pseudonymity in Christian Literature of the First Two Centuries,” Journal of Theological Studies 12 (1961): 39–49.

14 George Beasley-Murray, The General Epistles (New York: Abingdon, 1965), p. 73.