Paul Put His Own Stamp on the Ancient Pattern of Opening and Closing Letters

The apostle used his hellos and goodbyes to teach, bless, and worship.

You can learn a lot about a culture from the way people begin and end their letters.

Written correspondence in the email age, for example, is brief and functional. We start as quickly as we can (maybe with a “Dear” or a “Hi,” but often with nothing at all), and conclude with dismissive brevity (“Yours,” “Regards,” “Best”). By contrast, when people had more time and letter-reading was a moment of intimacy to be enjoyed by candlelight, correspondents would use ornate, florid sign-offs: “I need not say how much I am your ever-faithful friend,” “I have the honor to be your obedient servant,” and so forth.

In many parts of the world today, it is normal to begin by asking about the well-being of the recipient’s whole family; in the individualistic West, that is much less common. Our greetings communicate more than we realize.

One of the most striking examples of this in history, and certainly the most theologically significant, is in Paul’s epistles. In the first-century Greco-Roman world, letters opened in a standard format. You would give your name, then the name or names of whomever you were addressing, and then a one-word greeting: “Hilarion, to his sister Alis, many greetings.” Several letters in the New Testament follow this pattern exactly (Acts 15:23; 23:26; James 1:1).

But Paul (and subsequently Peter) developed a modified introduction. After identifying himself and the church he was addressing, he would offer “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul was obsessed with grace, so it might come as little surprise that he starts all his letters with it. The addition of peace, …

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