What the Epistle Readings Really Mean

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Every Sunday and during most days of the year there is a reading called an Epistle. Epistle readings are sections taken from the New Testament, but not including the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and also not including the last book of the bible, Revelations. Found in between the Gospels and Revelations are 22 different books. It is actually a misnomer to call them books, because they were letters either written to specific Churches or to specific people (except for Acts, which is said to be written by Luke the Evangelist, and is mostly a historical book) that lasted and were approved to be included in the Bible during the 4th Century AD. The name Epistles comes from the Greek επιστολη, meaning letter. Most letters are said to be written by St. Paul (14 in total), with others written by the Apostles Peter (2 letters), John (3 letters), and James and to St. Jude. Every single one of these books is used in a liturgical function throughout the year as an Epistle reading, except for Paul’s Letter to Philemon.

Paul’s 14 include: Romans, 1st Corinthians, 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1st Thessalonians, 2nd Thessalonians, 1st Timothy, 2nd Timothy, Titus, Philemon and Hebrews. As you can tell, he wrote some of his to specific people (Timothy, Titus, Philemon), others to churches (in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse, Thessaloniki) and lastly one to the Hebrews. Some of these churches Paul had established others he had just come in contact with. James, 1st & 2nd Peter, 1st John, and Jude are called the catholic/universal epistles because they didn’t address specific peoples, but rather the Church at a whole (while 2nd John was written to “the elect lady and her children” and 3rd John was written to Gaius).

Acts is essentially a history book of the Apostles and their early challenges and missions within Jerusalem and beyond. The book talks about the Feast of Pentecost and then follows Peter for a while and then also follows Paul. This book also speaks of the Jerusalem Council, which was a council that all the Apostles participated in trying to decide what to do with non-Jewish Christians. We take this as a model for our councils and synods, starting with Parish Councils all the way to the Patriarchal Synod and Ecumenical Councils.

These books answer many questions of even contemporary Christians on how to live life in a Christian way, modeled after the teachings shown and given to these early churches. It became an early practice for these letters and other things to be read in the earliest liturgies (remember, there were no Gospels yet, nor a formulized New Testament). We sit during the Epistles as it is much like going to class. Our teachers are Paul, Peter, James, John and Jude, and we are supposed to listen to their words of wisdom and ponder them in our hearts. For those of us who read/intone the Epistle, let us remember that these words are meant to be heard and understood, so we read/intone slow enough for comprehension.

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This post was written by Andrew Athanasiou

About Andrew Athanasiou

Andrew is a student of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, located in Brookline, Massachusetts. Andrew is a Masters of Divinity Student who is also a Seminarian. Andrew is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and his knowledge comes from five major sources: Greek Orthodox Seminary; Greek Orthodox Summer Camp; both being taught and teaching in Greek Orthodox Sunday School; and finally further readings and interests in other theological areas.