Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Understanding the Bible: the Study of Ancient Letter Writing

The letter is one of the oldest forms of written communication, becoming a very important means of interaction in the early church. Epistolography, the study of ancient letter writing, is particularly relevant to biblical analysis because the letter is the most common literary genre in the New Testament. Twenty-one of the New Testament’s twenty-seven documents are rendered in letter form. All of Paul's extant writings are letters. The General Epistles exhibit epistolary features, and Hebrews, despite the ongoing debate concerning its genre, has an epistolary conclusion. In addition to these, there are two letters imbedded in Acts (15:23; 23:26), and even the book of Revelation has an epistolary frame.1

Due attention ought to be given to the exegetical implications of this mode of communication whenever New Testament writings are examined. For at least three centuries before and after the beginning of the Christian era, rigid epistolary conventions were in force. Much of our knowledge of ancient letter writing has come since the latter part of the 19th century, with the discovery and subsequent analysis of papyrus letters from Egypt.2

A particularly important contribution of Greek papyrus materials is the abundant evidence they provide of the frequent, if not common, presence of amanuenses in letter writing during the Hellenistic age. Business documents were often written in two, three or more different hands. Many personal letters show signs of having been drafted by an amanuensis on behalf of another. Repeatedly a refined hand is seen in the body of the letters, with the closing subscription written in a less sophisticated hand. During the time approximating the composition of New Testament letters, it appears from the papyri evidence that it was a common practice to use a secretary to draft a document, after which the correspondent himself would often add a word of farewell, his personal greetings, and the date in his own hand. 

That Paul and other New Testament writers used amanuenses in writing their letters is generally acknowledged. Paul appears to have followed the customary practice of his contemporaries by employing the aid of secretarial expertise (Rom. 16:22) and then writing his own subscription (1 Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11; Col. 4:18; 2 Thess. 3:17; Philem. 19).Even in the letters wherein attention is not specifically drawn to Paul having taken the pen from his amanuensis, the original autographs probably evidenced a shift to the apostle’s distinctive handwriting (cf. 2 Thess. 3:17). Apparently this was Peter’s convention as well (1 Pet. 5:12).

Even though New Testament letters are not private correspondence in the usual sense, the inspired authors did not abandon the immediate epistolary situation to write theological essays with merely an epistolary flavoring (W. G. Doty, Letters 26-27). New Testament letters were occasioned by real situations, requests, and problems in different Christian communities, and while the letters differ considerably in content, they show a consistent general pattern in form, particularly at the beginning and end.   

The letter in the Greco-Roman world served as a means of communication between separated parties and functioned in three basic ways: to sustain contact with friends and family, to disseminate information, and to request information or favors. For New Testament authors, however, the letter was more than just a mode of conversation – it was also an extension of divine authority as inspired communicators of heavenly truth.

--Kevin L. Moore

     See E. S. Fiorenza, “Composition and Structure” 367-81; J. M. Lieu, “Grace to You” 172-73; J. L. White, “Saint Paul” 444.
     See K. L. Moore, “Epistolography and the Writings of Paul,” in A Critical Introduction to the NT 100-114; also J. H. Greenlee,  Introduction to NT Textual Criticism 8-23; B. M. Metzger and B. D. Ehrman, The Text of the NT (4th ed.) 3-33, 206; J. Murphy-O’Connor, Paul the Letter-Writer 1-41.  
     G. J. Bahr suggests that the noticeable difference between Paul’s unimpressive oratory and his impressive letters (2 Cor. 10:10) may be attributable to the writing ability of his secretary (“Letter Writing” 476). W. G. Kümmel notes that the specific references to Paul’s own handwriting were likely included because the letters were read aloud and this was the only way for the listening audience to be made aware of the fact (Introduction 251). In one of the most comprehensive studies on Paul’s use of secretarial services, E. R. Richards concludes that the following letters were probably written by or with the help of an amanuensis: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon (Secretary201).

Image credit

No comments:

Post a Comment