In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Epistolography (Ancient letters)

  • Introduction
  • Collections of Texts
  • Letter Composition and Delivery
  • Epistolary Theory
  • Classification of Ancient Letters
  • Epistolography and Rhetoric
  • Epistolary Forms and Structure (New Testament)
  • Epistolary Thanksgivings (New Testament)
  • Other New Testament Letters

Biblical Studies Epistolography (Ancient letters)
Runar M. Thorsteinsson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0137


The term “epistolography” refers to the practice and art of writing letters or epistles, derived from the Greek words epistolē (a letter) and graphein (to write). The term applies to letter writing in general, but this article is concerned with epistolography in the ancient Mediterranean world and, in particular, early Christian epistolography. Letters were of great importance as communicative tools in the ancient world, whether for private, administrative, legal, diplomatic, didactic, dogmatic, or propaganda purposes. Basically, the letter constituted a written communication between two or more individuals who were separated by distance or by social status. Its primary function was to make or maintain contact, provide information, give instructions, or make requests. A letter could also be used as part of a literary work. Ultimately, the purpose of the letter depended on the nature of the relationship between sender(s) and recipient(s). While extant letters from Antiquity show considerable formal flexibility, as a rule, epistolographers followed certain standard conventions for writing letters, including dividing the text into the three parts of opening, body, and closing. They could also apply formulaic expressions that were designed and known to be appropriate for certain occasions and social relations. The fact that most of these formulaic expressions were optional, or existed in several versions depending on the occasion and relation concerned, gives modern interpreters the opportunity better to understand the specific setting and situation in which the letter was written, and hence its content. Systematic research into ancient epistolography started at the end of the 19th century, and it is very much alive today, in classical as well as in biblical studies. In both cases, it was mostly thanks to the pioneering work of the German scholar Adolf Deissmann that the interest in the discipline came about.

General Overviews

A number of helpful overviews of the topic are available, many of which constitute good starting points for students as well as scholars. For the sake of convenience these are divided into three subsections, broadly classified according to the letters’ religio-cultural context: Greek and Latin Letters, Ancient Jewish Letters, and Early Christian Letters. The various collections of epistolary papyri are included among these.

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