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LETTER. This designates generally (1) an alphabetical symbol (Gal.6.11), (2) rudimentary education (John.7.15 kjv), (3) a written communication (see below), (4) the external (Rom.2.27, Rom.2.29 kjv), or (5) Jewish legalism (2Cor.3.6).

LETTER, used in several senses and to tr. several different terms in both Testaments. In all, the KJV and other Eng. VSS. tr. four Heb. terms as “letter.” In antiquity letters, messages sent by carrier from one location to another and set down on some material, consisted of three types. They were cuneiform signs written on clay tablets, sherds and fragments of pottery inscribed with inked letters, and sheets of parchment which had been scraped and dried and then been inked. Apparently all three of these were known in Biblical times and are mentioned in the OT. Engraving cuneiform wedges or hieroglyphic signs was the common method in Sumeria, Akkadia, Babylon, Persia and Egypt, and such a practice is mentioned in Job 19:24. After the introduction of the Phoen. alphabet the system of inscribed potsherds known as ostraca became widespread and even in Egypt memoranda and messages were dispatched in this fashion. The excavation of such ancient Heb. letters at Lachish (Josh 10:3, et al.) concerning the siege of the city, written in the time of Isaiah and dealing with the Assyrian campaign of Sennacherib into Syria-Pal. 701 b.c., proved that such were also known to the Jews. Undoubtedly this type of ostraca is involved in the stories of Naboth (1 Kings 21:8) and Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:14), as well as in the other references in the annals of the First Commonwealth. The parchment type of letter is not expressly distinguished in the OT, but the discovery of the Aram. papyri from the Jewish colony at Elephantine c. 5th cent. b.c. and the Bar-Kokhba letters dating from a.d. 132-135 written on parchment support the assumption that such letters were known at least after the Pers. era.

The four Heb. terms are: 1. אִגֶּ֫רֶת, H115, meaning a “letter,” a tablet of a specific small size with a clay envelope upon which the addressor and addressee were noted and on occasion some of the contents were indicated. It appears in the later books of the OT which would have been influenced by Neo-Assyria, i.e. 2 Chronicles, Nehemiah, and Esther.

3. A considerably less common Heb. term, נִשְׁתְּוָן, H10496, is a loan word from Iranian, such as ni-augment a-sta-yam, “ordered them,” “gave them orders.” Some have proposed the Neo-Pers. root nivishtan, “to write” (KB p. 641). The term appears in Ezra 4:7, et al. In Ezra 4:7 the text specifically states, “and the writing of the letter was written in the Aramaic character, and set forth in the Aramaic tongue” (JPS). However this does not determine the form of the communication as Aram. ostraca and stone inscrs. have been found as well as parchment rolls. In Ezra 4:18 and elsewhere a variant form, נִשְׁתְּוָנָ֕א is found but the meaning is identical.

4. Another word found seldom in the text but tr. as “letter” in Ezra 5:7, is, פִּתְגָם, H10601, which is also a loan word of Iranian origin possibly from paith, “to engrave,” nipaith, “to write.” The word also occurs in Ecclesiastes 8:11 where it is read “sentence” (KJV, RSV, JPS) and Esther 1:20, “decree” (KJV, RSV, JPS). Other references fall between the meanings, “writing” and “decision.” In considering the matter of written communication among the peoples and rulers of antiquity it must be remembered that although by all the evidence now known literacy was low, yet those with position and wealth could avail themselves of the service of a scribe, either slave or free, and so letters were commonplace. The vast royal correspondences from Mari, ancient center of Babylonian trade, c. 1700 b.c. and El Amarna, the capital city of the pharaoh Akhenaton, c. 14th cent. b.c., demonstrate the importance of such correspondence. In the last cent. great doubt was cast upon the historic reliability of the Heb. text by various European and American schools of Biblical criticism. However the discoveries of ancient letters of the type often alluded to and occasionally quoted in the OT has forced a major reconsideration of the more radical critical views.

The other term tr. “letter” in the NT is the familiar ἐπιστολή, G2186, which appears in the later titles of most of the NT antilegomena. In the contexts of the NT epistles only Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians and 2 Peter, along with Acts, actually utilize the term. In all occurrences the term means a parchment letter, a written message, an epistle (q.v.). It is used of both Christian documents which were prob. written in Gr. (2 Cor 7:8) and Jewish documents which were prob. in Aram. (Acts 9:2). The word appears rather late in classical Gr. as it is found no earlier than Herodotus who uses it in a tale about Hercules (IV. 10) in the sense of a verbal commission or command. It was apparently only later used with the exclusive meaning of “letter” as is clear from the comparison in 2 Thessalonians 2:2 where the bounds of communication are set at “word” and “letter.”

In classical Gr. an officer both of the military and civil order was denoted as ἔπιστολευς, “secretary,” but the term is not developed in the NT. In the LXX the term is used as equivalent to the Heb. terms for “letter,” “writing,” “command” and “message.” The exact sense of “written” messages does not seem to be foremost.


F. G. Kenyon, Books and Readers in Ancient Greece and Rome (1932); T. Hudson-Williams, A Short Grammar of Old Persian (1936); J. Bottéro and A. Finet, Répertoire Analytique, Archives Royales de Mari (1954), XV; J. A. Knudtzon, Die El-Amarna Tafeln (1964), Bnd. II; C. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (1965); G. Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (1965), Vol. II & IV, in loc.

See also

  • Epistle