The Epistles in the Bible: Definition, Authorship, & Summary

Written by Joshua Schachterle, Ph.D

Author |  Professor | BE Contributor

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Date written: November 17th, 2023

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

There are twenty-one epistles in the Bible. But what is an epistle? The simplest definition of an epistle (from the Greek word epistolḗ) is a formal letter, often written to a large audience for the purpose of instruction. This was a common form of communication in the Greco-Roman world. In this article, I’ll write a bit about the functions of epistles and then summarize all the New Testament epistles.

The Epistles in the Bible - Definition, Authorship, & Summary

As formal written texts, epistles had a sort of formula which began every letter. Stanley Stowers explains it:

Most extant Greek and Latin letters begin with a prescript or salutation that contains the name of the sender, the name of the addressee and a greeting. The formula is: ‘Demetrius to Publius, greetings.’ … Often the greeting was followed by a prayer for the recipient, sometimes by a wish for the recipient’s health, and occasionally by a statement of thanksgiving to a god or gods.

By definition, an epistle had to begin with these elements. You’ll see this kind of opening, for example, in Paul’s authentic letters:

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.

Why were the epistles written? This type of formal letter always had an occasion and a purpose. For example, some of the New Testament epistles are written to Christians who are being persecuted. The purpose of these letters is to encourage them to remain strong in the faith despite their difficulties.

Below I’ll categorize the epistles and give a short summary of each one. By the way, my main source of information here, besides the epistles themselves, is Bart Ehrman’s New Testament textbook.

The Seven Undisputed Letters of Paul

Much of the New Testament is taken up by letters supposedly written by Paul. Scholars have known for many years, however, that only seven of those letters, summarized below, can definitely be traced back to Paul.

1 Thessalonians: Written in 49 CE. This is the earliest of Paul’s letters to a Jesus community that he started in the city of Thessalonica in modern-day Greece. Of all Paul’s epistles in the Bible, 1 Thessalonians is the friendliest. He praises the Thessalonians effusively for their faith and their kindness to him.

As I said before, the definition of an epistle includes an occasion and a purpose. In fact, most of Paul’s authentic letters are written to address problems or questions within communities he founded. The occasion in this letter was that some members of their community had died. Those who remained wondered if those who had died would still be included in the resurrection. Paul assures them that the dead believers will rise first to their heavenly reward, followed by those who are still alive.

Galatians: Written between the late 40s and early 50s CE. It was written to a group of churches in Galatia in modern-day Turkey.

In this epistle, Paul argues against other missionaries who came to Galatia and insisted that Gentile Jesus-followers had to be circumcised and obey the Torah. He starts by establishing that his own authority came straight from Jesus and/or God, rather than any human being. He then argues that Gentiles can only attain salvation through faith in Jesus and not by following the rules of the Torah.

1 Corinthians: Written in 53-54 CE. This is a letter to Paul’s community at Corinth in modern-day Greece. The community was made up of former worshippers of other gods. Paul has heard that some of them have been engaging in immoral behavior. He insists that since believers’ bodies will be resurrected by God, it’s important that they use those bodies now to act morally and remain pure.

2 Corinthians: Written in 55 or 56 CE. It is probably a combination of two letters later edited into one by someone else. After writing 1 Corinthians, Paul went to Corinth again but someone in the community apparently mistreated him. He wrote a furious missive to the community about this in chapters 10-13. However, this angry letter seems to have made the Corinthians remorseful, and Paul reconciled with them.

Philippians: Written in the 50s or early 60s CE. Like 2 Corinthians, this is a compilation of (at least) three letter fragments written to a community at Philippi in modern-day Greece.

Paul starts by thanking the Philippian community for presents they’d sent him. He then writes about rejecting worldly things for the sake of the gospel. Additionally, he cites an already-written Christ hymn about Jesus’ self-denying humility which resulted in his exaltation by God.

Philemon: Written between 57–62 CE. A letter from Paul who is in prison to a wealthy Christian named Philemon. One of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, has run away and visited Paul. Paul, who had converted Onesimus, urges Philemon not to punish him. This epistle may also be a subtle appeal to Philemon to let Onesimus serve Paul himself rather than forcing him to return.

Romans: Written between 55-57 CE. This is a letter to a community not founded by Paul. Its purpose was to confirm the Roman community’s support, financial and otherwise, for Paul’s coming mission to Spain. To do this, he corrects what he believes are the Romans’ misunderstandings about his gospel. Accordingly, he explains his gospel using two metaphorical models  for salvation.

The first is a legal model in which God is a judge and humans are criminals who have broken his laws. Jesus, therefore, takes the punishment that humans deserved. The second says that salvation is actually union with Christ, achieved through faith and baptism, which will allow humans to be resurrected with him.

Deutero-Pauline Epistles

Deutero is a Greek word meaning “second”. These are “secondary” because there is some debate about whether Paul wrote them or not. The authors of all three of these letters claim to be Paul. The vast majority of scholars, however, believe they are not.

Ephesians: Probably written between 80 and 100 CE. Both its writing style and its theology are very different from Paul’s. It is addressed to a Jesus community in the city of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey. The main subject is relations between Jews and Gentiles in the community. The author says they should be one in Christ.

Colossians: Probably written between 80 and 100 CE. Like Ephesians, the style and theology are very different from Paul’s. For example, the author writes about the resurrection of believers which he calls a past, inner event. For Paul, the resurrection was coming any day, but had not yet happened.

2 Thessalonians: Written between 80–115 CE. The main difference between this letter and Paul’s undisputed letters is the way it talks about the coming end of the world. Paul believed that the end would come any moment, while 2 Thessalonians says it’s going to be a while, probably a reaction to the community’s doubts since it had been decades since Jesus’ death.

Pastoral Epistles

While these letters claim to be written by Paul, scholars agree that they definitely were not. They’re called “pastoral” because they are addressed to young leaders of Jesus communities, recommending solutions to the communities’ problems.

1 Timothy: Probably written in the late 1st century or the first half of the 2nd century CE. The author claims Paul was writing to Timothy, giving him advice as a young leader of communities. Problems addressed include false teachers and whether women should have authority.

2 Timothy: Probably written in the late 1st century or the first half of the 2nd century CE. Very similar to 1 Timothy, addressing similar issues.

Titus: Probably written between 80 and 100 CE. Similar to 1 and 2 Timothy, written to Titus, a young pastor of a community dealing with similar issues.

Hebrews: A Category All Its Own

Hebrews: Written between 70-100 CE. It was traditionally attributed to Paul by some early Christians. However, the style and theology are entirely different from Paul’s and the author never claims to be Paul.

Also, even though it’s called an epistle, it’s really a sermon. Its audience consists of Christians who have been persecuted. The purpose of the sermon is to convince the audience not to convert to Judaism by proving that Christian belief is superior.

Definition of epistles

The Catholic Epistles

The catholic epistles (catholic here means “universal” or “general”). They are called this because they are not addressed to specific communities but to Christians in general.

James: Written in the late 1st to mid-2nd century CE. Although this epistle was traditionally ascribed to James the brother of Jesus, it was almost certainly written by a different Jewish Christian.

Unlike Paul’s letters, James absolutely encourages observance of the Jewish Law. While the author seems to argue with Paul’s ideas about “faith” vs. “works,” he interprets “works” differently from the authentic Paul. For Paul, works meant Torah prescriptions such as kosher eating and circumcision. For the author of James, “works” means good deeds. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of Paul.

1 Peter: Probably written around 80 CE. The author claims to be Simon Peter the apostle, but his knowledge of Greek makes this highly unlikely. It is addressed to Christians in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) who are being persecuted. It urges them to stay faithful to God.

2 Peter: Written between 80-150 CE. Again, the author claims to be Simon Peter but is almost certainly someone living much later (Peter died before 68 CE). It is addressed to Christians all over Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The author again calls for faithfulness in the face of persecution and confronts corrupt teachers who he says have twisted Jesus’ message.

1, 2, and 3 John: All written between 95-110 CE. These were traditionally ascribed to John the Apostle, but most scholars don’t accept this. It shares some themes with the Gospel of John although the author of that Gospel did not write these epistles. These themes include imagery of light and darkness, new and old commandments, being hated by the world, and Christ being sent by God out of love.

Jude: Probably written in the early 2nd century. This letter starts with an introduction: “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James." Because of this, tradition has long ascribed this epistle to Jude, one of Jesus’ brothers. However, most scholars don’t accept this.

The author writes vehemently against heretics who deny God and Christ. He writes that immoral behavior is a common feature of such heresy and says the heretics will be punished if they don’t repent. He encourages his addressees to stay faithful to correct doctrine in order to avoid divine punishment.


Definition of epistles: Epistles were formal letters written in the ancient world. Their subject matter was usually based on a specific situation or problem and served the purpose of instructing the letter’s recipients in how to deal with the situation or problem.

Who wrote the New Testament epistles? Seven letters were written by the Apostle Paul to Jesus communities in different cities. Several others were written in his name but were likely not authentic. Other epistles were written in the names of other apostles such as Peter and John but were also not authentic.

Josh Schachterle

About the author

After a long career teaching high school English, Joshua Schachterle completed his PhD in New Testament and Early Christianity in 2019. He is the author of "John Cassian and the Creation of Monastic Subjectivity." When not researching, Joshua enjoys reading, composing/playing music, and spending time with his wife and two college-aged children.

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