AskDefine | Define epistle

Dictionary Definition

epistle n : especially a long, formal letter

User Contributed Dictionary



From epistle from epistola from ἐπιστολή from ἐπιστέλλω from ἐπί + στέλλω.


  • /ɪˈpɪs.l/, /I"pIs.l/
  • Rhymes with: -ɪsəl


  1. A letter, or a literary composition in the form of a letter.
  2. One of the letters included as a book of the New Testament.
    • 1956 — Werner Keller (translated by William Neil), The Bible as History, revised English edition, Chapter 41, page 358
      Even last century scholars had begun to search for the cities in Asia Minor whose names have become so familiar to the Chistian world through the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of St. Paul.


a letter
  • Latin: epistola
  • Polish: list
  • Portuguese: carta
  • Spanish: epístola
book of the New Testament
  • Latin: epistola
  • Polish: list
  • Portuguese: epístola
  • Spanish: epístola

Extensive Definition

An epistle (pronounced [ɪˈpɪsəl]) (Greek επιστολη, epistolē, "letter") is a writing directed or sent to a person or group of persons, usually a letter and a very formal, often didactic and elegant one. The letters in the New Testament from Apostles to Christians are usually referred to as epistles; those traditionally from Paul are known as Pauline epistles and the others as Catholic or general epistles.


Epistles were written in strict accordance to formalized, Hellenistic tradition, especially the Pauline epistles. This reflects the amount of Hellenistic influence upon the epistle writers. Any deviancy is not the result of accident but indicates an unusual motive of the writer.


In contrast to modern letters, epistles usually named the author at the very beginning, followed by the recipient (for example, see Philippians 1:1). The scribe (or more correctly, the amanuensis) who wrote down the letter may be named at the end of the episte (e.g. Romans 16:22). In the absence of a postal system, the courier may also be named (e.g. Ephesians 6:21-22).
After the names of the author and recipient, Pauline epistles often open with the greeting, "Grace and peace to you." "Grace" was a common Hellenistic greeting, while "peace" (shalom) was the common Jewish greeting; this reflected Paul's dual identity in Jewish faith and Hellenistic culture. There may also be a word of thanks to the audience. In secular letters, a prayer or wish for health followed.


The body begins with a brief statement introducing the main topic of the entire body.


The close of a letter reiterates the relationship between the writer and the audience. There may also be expression of thanks, for example to the courier or amanuensis.


To English readers, the epistles may appear more formalized than originally read, due to the process of translation. The writer sought to establish philophronesis, an intimate extension of their relationship as similar as a face to face encounter as possible. The writer hoped to revive the friendship, making the epistle a substitute for the actual writer. Letters written to a group of people, which include most of the New Testament epistles, were not read individually but read aloud to the entire church congregation.
The content is concise compared to modern letters. Writing required a great financial expense of paper and ink and long process of time.
The letter often intends to establish theological points (as in many of Paul's epistles), to comfort in the face of persecution (for example, 1 Peter), or to exhort Christians to do good works (James).

Liturgical use

In the context of a liturgy, "epistle" may refer more specifically to a particular passage from a New Testament epistle (the Pauline epistles and the Catholic epistles) — sometimes also from the Book of Acts or the Revelation of John, but not the Four Gospels — that is scheduled to be read on a certain day or at a certain occasion.
In the Roman Catholic Mass and Anglican Communion, epistles are read between the Collect and the Gospel reading. The corresponding Gregorian chants have a special tone (tonus epistolae). When the epistle is sung or chanted at Solemn Mass it is done so by the subdeacon.
In the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church the Epistle reading is called the Apostol (the same name is given to the lectionary from which it is read). The Apostol includes the Acts of the Apostles as well as the Epistles, but never the Apocalypse (Revelation of John). There are Epistle lessons for every day of the year, except for weekdays during Great Lent, when the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated. These daily Epistle readings are a part of the Paschal cycle, being ultimately dependant upon the date of Pascha (Easter). There are also lessons appointed for the feast days of numerous saints and commemorations. There may be one, two, or three readings from the Apostol during a single Liturgy. The Epistle reading is always chanted (never simply read in a spoken voice) between the Prokeimenon and the Alleluia. The Epistle reading is always linked to a reading from the Gospel, though some services, such as Matins, will have a Gospel lesson, but no Epistle. A number of services besides the Divine Liturgy will have an Epistle and Gospel reading. Such services often include a Prokeimenon and Alleluia as well. The Epistle is chanted by the reader, though at a Hierarchical Liturgy (a Divine Liturgy celebrated by a bishop), it is read by a deacon. The one who chants the Epistle also reads the verses of the Prokeimenon and Alleluia.

See also

epistle in Catalan: Epístola
epistle in Czech: Epištola
epistle in Danish: Epistel
epistle in German: Epistel
epistle in Spanish: Epístola
epistle in Esperanto: Epistolo
epistle in French: Épître
epistle in Galician: Epístola
epistle in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Epistola
epistle in Italian: Epistola
epistle in Dutch: Epistel
epistle in Norwegian: Epistel
epistle in Portuguese: Epístola
epistle in Russian: Послание
epistle in Simple English: Epistle
epistle in Slovak: Epištola
epistle in Finnish: Epistola
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