Writing a letter in Paul’s day wasn’t as simple as grabbing a pen and paper and placing the finished letter in a mailbox. In this episode, Tim and Jon explore the world of 1st century letter writing, including “cosenders,” letter drafts, the cost of production, and delivery. Listen in on this fascinating conversation.
“I’ve found I have all sorts of assumptions about how the letters were produced that were totally incorrect and were preloading me with assumptions about what to look for and expect. It’s a simple principle—how you think something came into existence will affect what you think it is, what you do with it, and what you expect from it.”
In part one (0:00–19:40), Tim and Jon begin the second part of a conversation about the New Testament letters. Our series on how to read the New Testament letters covered three kinds of context—biblical, cultural/historical, and situational. In this episode, Tim and Jon discuss literary context, which examines how 1st century letters were formed.
Paul assumes his letters would be listened to, not read. He highlights this in Colossians 4:16 and 1 Thessalonians 5:27.
When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea.
Tim says we need to learn to recognize differences in how we read the letters as well as how we understand the letter-writing process. How we think the letters came into existence will affect what we do with them and expect from them. Tim mentions two books that have been helpful for him: Paul and First-Century Letter Writing by Randolph Richards and Paul the Letter-Writer by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor.
Tim describes the way many people picture Paul writing the letter—alone, in a study, producing a single, unedited draft. Or we think Paul might have used a scribe and imagine him orating the entire letter in one take. However, these mental images don’t line up with what we know about 1st century letter writing. “I have found,” Tim shares, “even walking through how letters were written has transformed how I engage them.”
In part two (19:40–29:15), Tim and Jon talk about Paul’s letter writing process. We can learn a lot from the letters of Cicero, a Roman statesman who lived around the same time as Paul, as well as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, which were letters found in a trash heap in an Egyptian city from around the time of Paul.
First, Tim points out that Paul often names cosenders of his letters, such as Timothy or Sosthenes. Richards found this to be very rare in 1st century letters written to recipients outside of immediate family. When non-family members are named in the first line, it is often because they contributed to the writing of the letter. So while the letters are written in Paul’s voice, group or communal authorship is a strong possibility.
Second, Paul didn’t have a study. He was an itinerant church planter who worked full-time as a tradesman and traveled from place to place. The most common places for Paul to write letters would have been guest rooms, inns, and rest stops, and other communal spaces.
In part three (29:15–44:30), Tim and Jon discuss the writing process in the 1st century. Ideas could be kept on a collection of wax tablets that functioned like an ancient notebook. This would have allowed Paul a way to build up his material over time. When Paul writes his final letter to Timothy, he says, “When you come, bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the scrolls, especially the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13).
Tim says that we see evidence of Paul keeping and reusing material when comparing books like Ephesians and Colossians or considering the repeated imagery of the “armor of God” he uses. Tim shares an extended quote from Richards that explores more of the ancient writing process.
“Ancient letter writers composed material in the midst of daily life… Paul would certainly take opportunities afforded by a few days’ stopover in a town to write and work on his letters. Paul preached in synagogues and in the market; he no doubt spoke to guests after dinner in the homes where he was hosted. He debated and discussed material with his team as they walked along the road or aboard a ship. All of these occasions gave opportunities for Paul to write notes and hone material. It is reasonable that Paul, like other ancient letter writers, was always in the process of composing, editing, and polishing material as he traveled and ministered.
The material under construction might best be termed ‘pre-letter’ bits of writing. Composing a major letter, and transferring notes into a complete letter was a significant undertaking… First, Paul and his team needed to locate an available secretary and reach an agreement about when the work would be done and how much it would cost…. When available, the secretary would come with proper materials ready, and begin writing down a first draft based on notes. They would then leave and prepare a written first draft. After returning with the first draft, the team would go over it and the secretary would jot down corrections, additions, and changes noted by Paul and his team. Then the secretary would leave and prepare the next draft. This process would continue until a final draft was approved, and then the secretary would leave and prepare a final polished copy on better materials and with the best handwriting. Needless to say, this entire process required more than a few days! We are wise to locate the writing of the final drafts in places where Paul had longer stays, such as Corinth, Ephesus, or Rome.” -- Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, p. 91.
Tim says that this process of letter writing seems to match his experience of reading them. Most of the letters seem fairly polished rather than hastily put together. Other places in the letters (like Romans 5:12-18) stand out as a paragraph that seems to have been inserted after the fact for clarification. Tim and Jon take a closer look at Romans, where the secretary of the letter speaks up.
In part four (44:30–57:30), Tim and Jon consider a few more distinctives of New Testament letters. First, Tim notes two moments when the New Testament letters identify the scribe involved.
I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord.
1 Peter 5:12
By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you….
Tim says these secretaries were involved in crafting and forming the letters into literary works, not just recording the apostles’ thoughts. Jon asks why sections of Paul’s letters still feel “unpolished.” Tim says that instead of trying to identify one way that the letters were formed, we need a spectrum of methods to understand the letters’ formation.
Letters were also a costly investment. Richards estimated the cost of producing Romans or 1 Corinthians adjusted to 2004 would have been around $2,300 (or $3,100 today). To deliver a letter, Paul would have had to entrust his letter to a private party. And Richards argues that the person who delivered the letter was often the person to read it to the recipients.
In part five (57:30–end), Jon processes the conversation. He enjoys the idea of Paul developing his thoughts through his days with other followers of Jesus, but the idea of a paid scribe having a say in his words seems odd. Tim says these human processes help us to have a more robust understanding of what we mean when we say the Bible is inspired.
Jon also feels that the New Testament letters should either be more informal (as letters) or more polished (as literary works). Instead, we have a combination of sections that feel both informal and polished. Tim says this varies from letter to letter. For example, Romans is very polished while 2 Corinthians is much less formal.
Tim says that our theology doesn’t hang on how the letters were written, but this information can be helpful to orient our approach to reading them. The next episode will look at how the New Testament letters kept and changed the template of ancient letters.
Show produced by Dan Gummel and Camden McAfee.
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