The New Testament contains 21 letters (also called 'epistles'), most if not all written within forty years or so of Jesus' death. They were written to various individuals and congregations of believers during the First Century A.D., and their authors include some of the most famous of the early apostles: men like Paul, John and James.
What's it all about?
Of course, no one writes a letter into a vacuum - there is always an audience or a recipient, and there is usually an occasion - a reason for writing. One of the most important tasks when reading the New Testament letters is to try to reconstruct the other half of the conversation. Reading a letter without any context is a bit like being in a room with someone who is on the telephone. You can hear what the person you are with is saying, but you can't hear what's going on at the other end of the line. However, with a bit of intelligence and educated guess, it's usually possible to work out the broad thrust of what the whole conversation (from both sides) must be about.
All of the New Testament letters contain clues which are very useful in working out why the letter was written, what the background was, and what life as a believer in the First Century must have been like. It's a slightly circular process, but this reconstruction can then be used to help cast more light on other parts of the letter.
But that's only part of it! Next comes the task of thinking how that particular set of circumstances, and the way it is handled has relevance for a believer today. If you are a believer in inspiration (that the Bible is the Word of God), then it's logical that there's a reason why God would have caused that particular letter and the circumstances it deals with to be preserved for posterity. Reflecting on that reason and learning from it is a crucial part of Bible study.
The letters of Paul
Thirteen of the New Testament letters bear Paul's name - almost half of the 27 New Testament books, in fact. While some scholars divide these into 'genuine Pauline' and 'pseudo-Pauline', this site takes the view that the stylistic arguments for doing this are uncompelling, accepting instead that all the letters that say they are from Paul are indeed genuinely written or dictated by him (his eyesight wasn't good, and we know that he used a scribe on some occasions).
The letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians were all written to congregations (or groups of them) in the Roman Empire, several of which Paul had founded himself. They encourage believers to remain strong in the faith, counteract false teaching, and they also contain important doctrinal and practical wisdom.
The letters of Timothy and Titus are often known as the 'pastoral epistles'. They were written to individuals of whom Paul was very fond and who needed encouragement and advice in the important work they had to do as leaders in the early communities of believers (hence the name 'pastoral' - Timothy and Titus were pastors or 'pasture-res' of the flock). Finally, the letter to Philemon is a very short letter Paul wrote to an individual believer about a very specific circumstance.
The other letters
The letter to the Hebrews is something of an outlier. In some respects it reads like a letter of Paul, and there are many who consider it to be Pauline. But it doesn't say who its author is, and there are also arguments that point away from Paul. Ultimately, though, what it says is more important than who wrote it!
That leaves seven letters - the so-called 'catholic' (nothing to do with the Catholic Church) or 'general' epistles. These include James, the two letters of Peter, three letters of John, and Jude. These letters contain lots of advice, much of it very practical in nature, which is invaluable for the modern-day believer.
Q: Questions coming soon!
A: And answers too...!