What’s In A Greeting?: The Epistles of Paul

What information is conveyed in a greeting? Greetings are usually fairly short, but even though short and often conventional, there are important bits of information that filter through simply because of what those conventions are. Let us examine, for example, the extant letters of Paul, to see what conventions he used and what information he conveyed. We know of the greetings for thirteen letters of his [1]. Let us compare the letters in roughly chronological order and then see what sort of connections we can draw from them.

The Greetings Of Paul

Let us turn to the thirteen books of Paul and look at their greetings in a roughly chronological order. We will look at Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 1 Timothy, Titus, and 2 Timothy. The greetings for these thirteen books are as follows:

Galatians 1:1-5: Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through men but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead), and all the brethren who are with me, to the churches of Galatia: grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

1 Thessalonians 1:1: “Paul, Silvanus [Silas], and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

2 Thessalonians 1:1-2: “Paul, Silvanus [Silas], and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

1 Corinthians 1:1-3: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, to the church of God which is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and hours: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

2 Corinthians 1:1-2: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia: grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Romans 1:1-7: “Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the Gospel of God which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of god with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection of the dead. Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name, among whom you are also the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Ephesians 1:1-2: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Philippians 1:1-2: “Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: grace to you and peace form God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Colossians 1:1-2: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Philemon :1-3: “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

1 Timothy 1:1-2: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the commandment of God our Savior and the Lord Jesus Christ, our hope, to Timothy, a true son in the faith: grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Titus 1:1-4: “Paul, a bondservant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God’s elect and the acknowledgement of the truth which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began, but has in due time manifested His word through preaching, which was committed to me according to the commandment of God our Savior; to Titus, a true son in our common faith: grace, mercy, and peace from god the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ our Savior.”

2 Timothy 1:1-2: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, according to the promise of life which is in Christ Jesus, to Timothy, a beloved son: grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.”

A (Brief) Comparative Analysis

What sort of patterns and similarities can we find in the greetings to these thirteen letters? The greetings of two of the letters, 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, which were written very close together in time, are identical, and the remainder of the letters show some variation in form but also a commonality of language that shows through even in translation. All thirteen letters end the greeting by wishing for grace and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ (though there is slight variation in how this is worded), and the last three of Paul’s letters (the pastoral epistles), add mercy to the grace and peace wished to the letter’s recipients.

In all of the letters Paul is (not surprisingly) listed as the author. Timothy is listed as a co-author in six of the letters (1st & 2nd Thessalonians, 2nd Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon). Silvanus (also called Silas), is listed as a co-author in 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, and the rather obscure Sosthenes, whose claim to fame (such as it is) is being beaten in an anti-Semitic mob in Corinth in Acts 18:17 as the head of the synagogue who had opposed Paul (and then apparently was later converted to Christianity), is listed as the co-author of 1st Corinthians. All of the letters are considered to be Paul’s, and what role (if any) the co-authors had in shaping the material of the letters where they are listed is unclear, there being no letters extant from any of the co-authors themselves apart from Paul.

In the various greetings, Paul gives himself different “titles.” Often, but not always, he is an apostle by the will of God, not of man (as opposed to self-appointed apostles). Sometimes he is a bondservant (or slave) of Jesus Christ, emphasizing his obedience to the will of God. He also calls himself a prisoner of God, on account of his being (in some of the letters) imprisoned for his ministry. In addition, he tends to give titles to his coauthors, usually calling them “our brother.” Also, he gives his audience titles, sometimes calling them the brethren of a particular city, or saints. Others are “fellow soldiers,” like Archippus. At other times the overseers (elders) and deacons are noted, as in Philippians.

Some of the greetings hint the thematic concerns of the letter as a whole. 2 Timothy and Titus, both written toward the end of Paul’s life, hint at the concerns about death and eternal life that Paul faced as his death approached. Romans provides a lengthy historical introduction to a congregation that he did not know largely in person, and that hinted at the thematic concerns of the promise of Jesus Christ through the prophets (as far back as Genesis), as well as the fact that Christianity was for all of the nations, and not for the Israelites (or Jews) only. These concerns, which Paul deals with much more in depth throughout Romans, he hints at in his lengthy introduction. Additionally, the introduction of 1st Corinthians hints at the moral concerns dealing with those who are sanctified, but are not really acting like it. In the greater length given to the greetings, there are hints of particular concerns within the letter itself.

It is also important to note what is not present in any of the greetings of Paul. We see that Paul clearly marks two beings, God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Though we are prone of thinking only of Jesus Christ as our savior, Paul himself also refers (in 1 Timothy, for example) to God the Father as our Savior, through His resurrecting Jesus Christ through His power from the dead. But Paul nowhere, not a single time, speaks of the Holy Spirit as a personage apart from the Father and the Son. Only one time does the Holy Spirit itself seem to be referred at all in the greetings (as the Spirit of holiness in Romans 1:4), and here it is more of an impersonal declaration by virtue of the resurrection of Christ in the spirit. This seems a striking omission, and any serious study of the biblical view of the nature of God must recognize the greetings of Paul as bearing heavily on that question.

Conclusion

The thirteen introductions of the Pauline epistles offer some fine and intriguing greetings to various individuals and congregations. They offer enough similarity to recognize the same hand in their authorship, one deeply concerned to defend the will of God, show the origin of peace, grace, and mercy in our lives, and are also careful to provide blessings to God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord. The letters show attention to the honor and respect due to the recipients of the letters as well as to the author (as well as his associates). Even though the greetings of the various letters of Paul are ‘conventional,’ the convention itself teaches us something useful (for example, the binetarian view of the present Godhead according to Paul), as well as Paul’s upfront claiming of his apostleship from God and his love and concern for Timothy and Titus as sons. Let us therefore gain such insight as is possible from these greetings, especially as they help us to understand Paul and his mindset in writing his letters better.

[1] It is often thought, especially by Eastern churches, that Paul wrote the book of Hebrews, even though the book is formally anonymous. Be that as it may, the book itself lacks the greeting of a letter, so it may be safely left to the side in this case, regardless of the questions as to its authorship.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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18 Responses to What’s In A Greeting?: The Epistles of Paul

  1. William E. Males says:

    Just wanted to say I appreciated this post Nathan. Stay safe and on fire.

    William

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  8. Jeremy Andress says:

    Thanks for this. I’m really curious as to what you believe the significance of the omission of the Holy Spirit from the greetings is.Why do you think Paul never refers to the Holy Spirit the way he does Father and Son in his greetings?

    • I have my own ideas, but it’s fairly difficult to prove something from absence.

      • Jeremy Andress says:

        To be greeted from the Spirit means the Spirit is away from us and sends a greeting. Since we always have the Spirit with us it would not make sense to do so. I don’t think you have to prove something difficult, it’s an obvious inference.

      • I wouldn’t say that’s an obvious inference. The most obvious inference is to say that there is no greeting sent to the Spirit because it is not a separate being. That’s glaringly obvious :D.

      • Jeremy Andress says:

        I don’t feel like your last comment makes sense in light of our current context. We’re not talking about greetings being *sent to the Spirit* as you have written, we’re talking about greetings on behalf of the Father and the Son and why the Holy Spirit is omitted from being referenced in all of those greetings.

        Maybe to better get where you are coming from, as I haven’t had the time to get to know you from your other posts, can I ask whether or not you affirm orthodox belief about the triune nature of the Godhead?

      • I am not a Trinitarian, and I have written about it on several occasions. And not being a Trinitarian, again, these greetings come off more obvious to me in a way than they do for you. What is obvious depends on presuppositions.

    • Jeremy Andress says:

      I’m guessing neither of us want to get into this debate on here. What is obvious hinging on presuppositions is sort of the classic answer nowadays to get out of having to debate a subject with evidence. I used to entertain the binatarian position until the first time I read the Gospel of John in one sitting.

      • I’ve read the Gospel of John numerous times in one setting, and I remain binetarian myself, but your assumption in your initial comment about your reason for the greeting being related to the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit does not pass muster, because Paul and his co-authors are merely stating that they are servants of God and Jesus Christ, something that could easily be added to. It would have even made sense to comment that the recipients of the letter, namely brethren in various congregations or other leaders like Timothy and Titus, were joined together with them through the Holy Spirit. Yet there is no such reference, even where it would be obvious. One could not imagine, for example, a contemporary writer failing to make some sort of statement about the Holy Spirit or the Trinity in this same context, if one is familiar any books by mainstream Christian writers. The inferences one can draw from this are fairly obvious.

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