The first thirteen letters in the New Testament are (or purport to be) from the correspondence of Paul. They tell us, as letters should, who was the writer and to whom they were written. In Acts, we possess a brief biography of Paul which (as we can see when we read Paul's own letters) tells us only some of the facts and is not always perfectly accurate. But from this biography, and from occasional pieces of information scattered in the letters themselves, we can make a rough outline of Paul's travels, and gain some picture of the circumstances which caused him to stay a relatively brief time in each of the churches which he founded and to keep in touch with them afterwards by correspondence. In the case of the letters to Corinth, we can be more specific: these letters were written while Paul was in Ephesus some time between A.D. 51 and 54. For the rest, we do not know for certain where and when they were written, beyond the fact that none of them is likely to have been written earlier than A.D. 45 or later than A.D. 65 (when Paul was probably martyred). Nor do we know when and how they were collected, and how far, if at all, they were rearranged by a subsequent editor. Some of them may even have been written by imitators after his lifetime. But these questions are relatively unimportant. The essential thing is that we possess in these letters a number of unquestionably authentic documents which bear witness to the first generation of the church's existence.
For the most part the letters were addressed to churches, and were probably intended to be read aloud to the assembled congregation. They were all elicited by particular questions which had arisen, and they cannot be understood unless an attempt is made to picture the circumstances of the recipients, to understand the arguments which Paul had to refute, and to lay bare the presuppositions which Paul shared with his converts. But the result of such an enquiry is not merely a better understanding of a particular crisis or difficulty in the progress of the early church. It was a part of Paul's genius that he saw the wider implications of each problem he was confronted with, and his treatment of them often involved an exposition of fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. The letters are real letters, and the issues they deal with belong to a particular period in the history of the church. Yet they have a depth and generality which has given them an interest far beyond their own time and place; indeed they soon became, and have justly remained, among the primary documents of the Christian faith.
The character of (he remaining letters is somewhat different. The letter to Hebrews is hardly a "Idler" ai all, but a treatise by an unknown writer addressed to an unknown church or group ol Christians. The other seven
are all (in some sense) "letters" but, though the name of the writer is usually mentioned, it is true of most of them that we do not know whom they were written to. Consequently it has been customary, since early times, to refer to them as the "General" (or "Catholic") letters. The letters of John (and indeed the Revelation, which is also in the form of a letter) are real letters, in that they were clearly addressed to readers in a particular area, and in each case the author had some personal acquaintance with those to whom he was writing. But the letters of James, Peter and Jude, being apparently addressed to almost any Christians who might read them, are letters only in a rather special sense. James and i Peter may have been what we would now call encyclicals, written from the centre of authority to Christian churches at large; while 2 Peter and Jude are, at most, "open letters", that is to say, treatises for the general reader dressed up (as was commonly done by ancient writers) in the form of a letter. With them, we can perhaps see Christian writing beginning to conform to contemporary literary models. But for the rest, the LETTERS of the New Testament seem to have given new life and content to the hackneyed conventions of Greek letter-writing. Like the gospels, they represent something startlingly new and original in the literature of their time.