What does the word “epistle” mean? What were the “epistles” anyway and why is the word no longer in use today?
The Apostles Wives?
I read a survey many years ago that tested the biblical literacy of Christians. One of the questions was “What were the wives of the apostles called?” There were multiple choice answers and the one answer that received the most votes was the apostles wives were called “epistles” but that is, of course, wrong so let’s find out the answers to the questions: what were the epistles in the Bible and what does the word epistle mean?
What is an Epistle?
The word “epistle” is from the Greek word “epistolē” and is a derivative of “to send a message” (to “epi” send “sellein”) of which the roots are based in the Indo-European language so it shouldn’t surprise us that the letters sent from the Apostles are called “epistles,” in most translations. By the way, not all of the books of the Bible, including those in the New Testament , are epistles as we shall see. An epistle is a long, formal, didactic or teaching letter. For example, the gospels are not classified or called epistles or letters even though they were circulated among the churches but neither is the Book of Revelation regarded as an epistle. The so-called prison epistles were those that Paul sent to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, a slave owner, which he composed while in prison. These were letters sent by Paul to send messages to these churches because he couldn’t visit them. It’s important to know that not every book in the New Testament is an epistle but all of Paul’s letters or epistles were called epistles including the so-called “pastoral epistles” sent to Titus and Timothy (1st and 2nd). Bible scholars are not sure about who the author of the Book of Hebrews was. Some scholars believe it was Paul but there is no absolute overwhelming evidence of this. Some believe it is a compilation of various author’s work like Barnabas, Paul, Apollos and others but I suspect it was Paul who wrote it if I was forced to make an educated guess.
Evidence of an Epistle Being a Letter
Romans 1:7 “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people.”
First Corinthians 1:1:2 “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ-their Lord and ours.”
Second Corinthians 2:1b “To the church of God in Corinth, together with all his holy people throughout Achaia.”
Galatians 1:2b “To the churches of Galatia.”
Ephesians 1:1b “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 1:1b “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.”
Colossians 1:2a “To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae.”
First Thessalonians 1:1 “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
I have already mentioned James, Jude, Peter, and John’s epistles being sent specifically to Christians, whether they were those dispersed among the Roman Empire or those still living in Jerusalem. This list, including those of Jude, Peter, James, and John’s are all epistles, as well as Paul’s.
So now you know what an epistle is and which books were epistles, and that they were basically letters sent from the apostles (Peter, Paul, and John) or church leaders like Jude and James. These were sent to be read to specific cities or regions and sometimes letters sent (epistles) to specific cities or regions.
A Review on Non-Pauline Epistles
There are more authors than Paul who wrote epistles. These include the three books of John (1st, 2nd and 3rd John), Jude, James, and Peter (1st and 2nd). These are letters or epistles that are messages sent in written form like a letter with the intent of teaching the local churches or the Christians that have been dispersed. Peter sends his 1st letter or epistle to the scattered Jewish and some Gentile Christian “exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia in Asia” (1 Pet 1:10). James wrote “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1) which means the tribes of Israel or the Jewish Christians that had likely been scattered around or dispersed into the far reaches of the Roman Empire by the severe persecution that came to Jerusalem and to the city of Rome. Both James, Jude , and Peter sent these letters (epistles) to be read by all churches everywhere but like Paul’s epistles, they never wrote them to shame the churches (1 Cor 4:14) but in order that the churches would hold onto the teachings that were passed on to the church leaders that they had received from Christ (1 Cor 11:2). This is what is called the “apostolic teachings” which still have application today. That’s the whole idea of the letters or epistles. They are instructive teachings for the churches both in Judea and those Christians that were scattered about all the regions of the Roman Empire and which are every bit as relevant for believers today.
We don’t use the word “epistle” anymore in our language. We just say a “letter” but it’s essentially the same thing. I hope this completely clears up any question you might have had about what epistles are, what the word epistle means, who wrote the epistles, and what prison and Pastoral Epistles are. There is so much to learn from these epistles that apply to the Christian today. Some of these teachings will always be applicable to the believer and even those who haven’t yet been born again (John3:3) or even physically born yet. No wonder the Word of God hasn’t changed in these past two thousand years or so; you can’t improve upon perfection and the Word of God, from the Old Testament to the New, is perfect in every way and able to restore the damaged human heart (Psalm 19:7) and bring eternal life to all who believe in this Word (John 15:1-5).
Read more about Paul here: Apostle Paul Biography and Profile 
Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.