Friday, July 8, 2011

Paul and Ancient Letter Writing

Letters have had a huge impact on my life. At the beginning of the summer of 2004 I met a girl in Texas. Though I had recently sworn off relationships, I was enchanted. Unfortunately for our blooming romance, my summer was committed to traveling around the country. For the next eight weeks I moved every Saturday shuffling from one summer camp to another. These camps lacked the technologies of modern communication. I had no cell service or wireless internet. In fact, I didn’t own a cell phone and high speed internet was still a novelty, certainly not available in the rural areas where I worked. Landlines charged exorbitant rates for long distance calls and I was a poor college student. Still, I could not risk having no contact for two months. So, I wrote letters . . . lots of letters. She wrote me letters too. It turned into quite a collection. It also built the foundation for a relationship that would eventually become a marriage.

That summer was probably the only time in my life I worried about the aesthetics of my handwriting. As I reflect on that process, it seems like ancient technology. Since then, I have not penned a single letter. Anymore, I never write anything by hand except the occasional illegible signature.  Contemporary literate communication is now conducted through almost entirely electronic means. It is fascinating to think about how drastically different communication is today than it was just seven years ago. To consider the literary communication of the early Christians is to step back almost 2,000 years. As one would expect, the technologies and conventions involved were even more unlike today.

Unfortunately, we often pay no attention to letter writing practices in the ancient world. How did people communicate across vast distances without phones or telegraphs? Letters of course! But how did most people communicate with letters when the vast majority of the population was illiterate? Interpreters usually give no thought to the technology and conventions involved in ancient letter writing. As a result, we mistakenly import our cultural and technological assumptions into Paul’s letters. We picture the Apostle sitting at a desk scratching on paper in silence, deep in theological thought. Then, Paul rushes the letter to the nearby post-office and the process is complete. E. Randolph Richards in Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection provides a fascinating analysis of the historical processes involved in ancient letter writing. Throughout his analysis Richard illuminates Paul’s letter writing practices. The result is a uniquely insightful picture of Paul’s letters were written and thus ought to be interpreted.

After a brief introduction to the topic of ancient letter writing, Richards spends his first chapter showing how modern portraits of Paul, both popular and academic, are rife with anachronistic assumptions. Paul’s letters were not lone productions scratched out in silence as Paul conjured them in his head, only to be mailed the next day. The rest of the book is spent analyzing ancient letter production from the evidence of Cicero, papyrus letter collections and occasionally Seneca. Richards’ book is thoroughly documented and provides explanations that are based on historical precedent rather than modern assumptions.

Summary of Chapters:
  • Chapter 2: Richards places Paul in the larger context of the first century letter writing. Most uniquely, he suggests that Paul’s “coauthors” must be taken into account as active participants in producing the letters. 
  • Chapter 3: How does one write without pens? Here Richards provides an overview of the nuts and bolts of letter composition describing the writing materials, rough drafts and final products. 
  • Chapter 4: Richards describes the involvement of secretaries (paid letter writers) who were an almost universal part of ancient letter writing process. Here Richards shows that there was a spectrum of influence the secretary would wield ranging from little more than transcriber to full blown composer. “The role played by the secretary depended on how much control the author exercised at that particular moment in that particular letter, even shifting roles with the same letter” (80).
  • Chapter 5: Here Richards explores Paul’s use of secretaries. The letters explicitly mention secretaries six times (Rom 16.22; 1 Cor 16.21; Gal 6.11; Col 4.18; 2 Thess 3.17; Phlm 19). For the most part, Richards considers Paul’s use secretaries to be in the middle of the spectrum of influence as more than a transcribers but ultimately submissive to Paul’s literary will. 
  • Chapter 6: Richards outlines criteria for identifying “interpolations” or preformed material in Paul’s letters.  He concludes, “Even though this material was non-Pauline, it was not un-Pauline or post-Pauline. The material was inserted during the letter’s composition and thus had Paul’s ultimate authorization” (108). 
  • Chapter 7: Having identified interpolations, Richards provides explanations for how various preformed material was woven into Paul’s letters to produce a complete letter. “The arguments went were [Paul] intended them to go; the conclusions were what Paul intended to reach. Nevertheless, the smaller, quieter voices of others can still be heard in his letters” (120). 
  • Chapter 8: Richards suggests that Paul’s letters reflect neither the top nor bottom of the literary scale of ancient letters. Rather, “Paul’s fall closer to the middle of the spectrum and reflect a Jewish subculture” (140). 
  • Chapter 9: Any description of Paul’s epistolary style must recognize the length of time involved in letter composition, the use of secretaries and the presence of coauthors. Richards even suggests that stylistic statistical analysis indicates the kind of diversity one would expect in thirteen letters written in these circumstances. 
  • Chapter 10: Describes the process (in terms of time and cost) by which letters were prepared to be dispatched. Richards argues that at least two final copies of each letter were made. One was sent to the recipients and the other kept for Paul’s personal records. There is an interesting chart calculating the comparative cost of producing these letters (169). As a conservative estimate, Richards thinks Paul’s longest letter (Romans) would have costs upwards of $ 2,200 and his shortest (Philemon) around $ 100. “Weeks, if not months, of work likely went into a letter” in addition to “considerable expense” (169). 
  • Chapter 11: Once completed, ancient letters had to be sent. Unfortunately, there was no publicly accessible postal system in the Roman Empire. As a result, letters were sent through happenstance travelers who were already going to the intended destination or were sent privately at the expense of the sender. 
  • Chapter 12: Travel in the ancient world was far from convenient by modern standards. Still, letters were carried. Depending on the time of year and difficulties of the journey a letter could take just a few days or multiple weeks to be delivered. 
  • Chapter 13: Turning to Paul’s specific practices with letter carriers, Richards thinks, “Paul most likely used happenstance carriers to deliver his early letters, Galatians and 1-2 Thessalonians” (200), but then smartened up and began using members of his team as private letter carriers to ensure safe delivery as well as serve as interpretive guides (cf. 209). 
  • Chapter 14: The question of how Paul’s letters came together into a collection is something of a mystery. Richards suggests, based on the common practice of authors keeping records of their letters, that Paul himself was responsible for collecting all his letters in a notebook format. These notebooks were posthumously circulated as a collection and eventually canonized. 
  • Chapter 15: After explaining the complexity of the ancient letter writing process, and the multiple stages of human activity, Richards probes the question of inspiration. He wonders, at what stage(s) of the process was Paul “inspired” by the Spirit?

This is a book that deserves much attention, but I fear it will not gain the notoriety it deserves. Paul and First-Century Letter Writing is notable for at least three reasons. First and foremost, Richards’ arguments are historically grounded at every turn. With the disciplined imagination of a historian Richards allows the historical context to fill in the picture of Paul’s letter writing rather than pontificate based on modern assumptions.  Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, Richards provides a well-researched argument. 

Second, and this is all too rare in much of contemporary Pauline studies, Richards appreciates Paul’s role as a missionary-pastor working with a team. Richards brings years of personal missionary experience in a culture more similar to Paul’s world than the contemporary West. He provides numerous illustrations that help make sense of cultural differences and missionary dynamics. 

Third, this book is actually readable to people who are not consumed with NT studies. Often when I talk about my reading with my wife she can’t wait to change the subject. With this book, however, she was keenly interested to hear about Richards’ insights. Why might such a triumph of scholarship wallow in obscurity? It lacks a widely published name or a weighty endorsement. Also, the title seems boring. Please don’t let this fine book be ignored. Take and read.