Friday, March 25, 2022

How Paul Wrote His Epistles

Artist depiction of
Paul writing at a desk

What do you picture when thinking about the Apostle Paul writing a letter to one of the NT churches? Various artists have painted the scene like this: A solitary man sitting at a desk, quill pen in hand, maybe candles burning nearby, and maybe scrolls on his desk. In some paintings, he is hunched over busily writing, in others, Paul is looking up, I’m guessing he’s looking for inspiration or giving thanks. Depictions of Paul writing an epistle from prison show him sitting on a bed.

But according to recent scholarship, this isn’t an accurate picture.

 Paul’s writings show clear evidence of careful composition. They were not dashed off one evening in the flurry of mission activity. p31 - [1]

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Greeks and Romans liked writing letters, even the illiterate, though they had help from professional secretaries. In fact, the literate, wealthy people employed secretaries too. There are some 14000 Greek and Roman letters that have survived from that era, so letter writing of the time can be studied, and more importantly, shed some light on how Paul wrote his letters. Combining the knowledge of the culture with clues right in Paul’s letters leads to a different picture.

Most of the information I’m giving here is from the book “Paul and First Century Letter Writing” [1] by E. Randolph Richards. The bibliography alone is 12 pages long. I was led to the book by a podcast called “The BibleProject” [2]. 

Cost, Part 1

With today's technology, words are cheap, even written words are cheap. Have you hand written a letter, not just a greeting card, but an actual letter? When was the last time? The materials needed to write a letter are paper, an envelope, a pen, and a stamp, probably less than a dollar total. 

Papyrus containing 
2 Corinthians 11:33–12:9
Wikipedia(P46) [3]
Richards estimates the cost of a letter in ancient Rome, the cost being proportional to length. An unskilled laborer earned about a half a denar per day. Papyri are estimated at 5 denar per scroll, one scroll would be just enough for Romans or 1 Corinthians, that means about 10 days wages. Richards estimated in 2004 that the cost of 1 Corinthians would be about $2000, make that $3000 today. Paul writing those letters was a big deal. 

“The medium [and cost] of the old days forced people to be careful about their words, unlike today's world.” – Mike Pischke. 

If you were going to spend a month’s wages writing a letter to a church, how would you go about it? 


 Let’s start with authorship, specifically coauthors. 

Paul did not work alone. As a first century Mediterranean Jew it would not even have occurred to him to do so. Neither his letters nor [the book of] Acts describe Paul working alone - p33 [1]

Richards prefers the term cosenders, because coauthor implies they were equals, yet Paul was clearly the one in charge - p34 [1]. You can see the evidence of cosenders in Paul's letters easily enough by looking at chapter 1, verse 1 of most of his epistles. 

1Co 1:1  Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, 

1Co 1:2  Unto the church of God which is at Corinth,

2Co 1:1  Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, unto the church of God which is at Corinth

Paul, and Silvanus,
and Timotheus
1Th 1:1  Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians

2Th 1:1  Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: 

Php 1:1  Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: 

Col 1:1  Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timotheus our brother, 

Col 1:2  To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse

Phm 1:1  Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer 

Some letters do not list cosenders, like Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and most of the pastoral epistles. I don’t think that means there weren’t coauthors involved.


Paul wasn’t the one to put pen to paper, quill to papyrus actually. He did write some short passages in his own hand to authenticate the letter was from him, because he was battling fraudulent letters, "I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand" (1 Cor. 16:21; Col. 4:18). Some think that Paul dictated his letters. 

A study of his writings, as well as his style and various external matters of interest, reveals it was Paul's usual practice to employ an amanuensis (stenographer) when writing his epistles. This simply means that Paul dictated his letters to a person who did the actual writing of his words. For example, at the close of the epistle to the Romans we find this statement: "I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord" (Rom. 16:22) - Reflections by Al Maxey [4].


Dictation (Amanuensis) is how I think God used Moses, Jeremiah, and others to write PARTS of the Old Testament. God spoke, they wrote. For example, Exo_34:27  Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words…” And how often does the Torah record “Speak unto the children of Israel…”? We’ll come back to the subject of Inspiration later. A couple more examples where the authors were told to write something down. Note that writing down a vision isn't exactly dictation.

Jer_30:2  Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Write all the words which I have spoken to you in a book.

Hab_2:2  Then the LORD answered me and said, “Write down the vision.


However, Richards shows that dictation couldn’t have worked for Paul’s letters. It requires that Paul speak every word slow enough for the secretary to write it down. There were forms of shorthand at the time, but not many secretaries skilled in it.

It is incorrect to assume Paul regularly had the services of a shorthand writer - p31 [1].

Although those having secondary education had some basic training in letter writing, taking down a letter required skills beyond that of a typical literate member of society. Being literate did not qualify someone to be a secretary - P89 [1]


Wax tablet and a Roman stylus
Wikipedia(wax_tablet) [5]
So the role of the secretary was more than a stenographer, according to Richards, much more. The secretary was probably hired in the market, Tertius (remember he wrote down Romans) may have been an exception. He brought the papyri, the ink (which he mixed himself), and the quills. He knew the components of a customary letter, greetings, body, closing. He took notes during meetings, incorporated “preformed” material that Paul and others contributed. Ancient letter writers used notebooks just like we do today, to jot down ideas or copy things they heard or read. These notebooks were either thin wood sheets covered in wax written with a stylus, or parchment written with ink, which could be washed off. Paul’s reference to the parchments in 2 Tm 4 probably means his notebook. When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments.” (II Timothy 4:13) The secretary would then create a draft to be reviewed at the next meeting. And when the final draft was approved, he wrote a copy on good papyrus in his best hand, much like calligraphy. Writing the final copy of just ONE of the longer letters like Corinthians would take days. 



Sealed Letter
While we think nothing of buying a roll of postage stamps that will enable our letters to go anywhere in the country, or anywhere in the world, it was not so in ancient Rome. The only ones who had access to postal delivery were government employees. Everyone else, even the wealthy, had to fend for themselves. They could choose happenstance carriers or private carriers. Happenstance means if you found out someone was going near where you wanted to send a letter, you gave it to them, and they went to that city and began to inquire the whereabouts of the addressee. This was an accepted part of the culture then, and still exists in certain parts of the world today. A private carrier could be a slave or someone hired to deliver the letter. A private carrier would be faster, more reliable, and accountable. And they may deliver sensitive messages orally. Often the carrier would read the letter aloud to the recipient, almost like performing the letter. 


Correspondence was scarce and valuable then, so people made copies of the letters they sent, as well as saving letters they received. Also, mail delivery wasn’t as reliable, so having a copy just made sense. Making a copy was yet another duty of the secretary. It seems likely that we have Paul’s letters because he kept copies of them. 

Cost, Part 2


World History [6]

Let’s return to the subject of cost. Remember the papyri alone for the major letters would cost about ten days wages. The secretary would cost about half the cost of the papyrus. Add more for the good papyrus used in the final copy, and more yet for any additional copies. I wouldn’t trust that to a happenstance carrier. The major letters could have taken a month to write and make copies, then weeks to deliver. It makes sense that these letters were passed around and read in multiple churches. 

So What?

I think we all would agree that knowing the culture and context of the Bible helps us to understand it better. Without that, we will interpret the Bible through the lens of our own culture. 

“We are not able to fully extract the meaning the author intends without understanding the culture the text was written for” - Biker Bible Institute  [7].

 “A text means what its author meant” - Evangel Magazine [8] 

Sometimes that takes research on our part. There is a caution too

 “Study your Bible: it will throw a lot of light on the commentaries.” - Biblecom Bibleman [9] 


Let’s return to the subject of inspiration of the Scriptures in light of how Paul wrote his letters. We read that, “All scripture is God breathed” (II Timothy 3:16,17). The OT authors often received a word directly from God, sometimes in dreams or visions. And they were told to write down what they had heard or seen. Contrast this with the Muslim belief that the Koran was dictated to Mohammed, or the LDS belief that Joseph Smith discovered the book of Mormon fully written. 

Normally he [God] neither dictated to them as if they were secretaries, nor into them as if they were machines. He seems to have revealed his truth to them and through them in such a way that they were not conscious of divine inspiration, so fully were their own minds involved in the process - ISM InterVarsity [10]. 

The Bible was not written by channeling or verbal dictation. Instead, the Holy Spirit superintended the process of God-breathed words being given to the biblical authors. The authors' own writing styles and personal traits are not obliterated. It was a process we cannot fully comprehend but God, who created man, is more than able to communicate with man as He chooses - Christian Answers [11]. 

In other words, God never takes over a person’s mind and body and causes them to speak or write (the tongues of fire episode may be an exception). If someone claims trance writing, aka automatic writing, coming from the spirit world, it is not from God.


I will close with a quote from Clint Porter, United Church of God [12] Home Office, who referred me to the Bible Project podcast: 

I believe God's desire from Genesis 1 has been to work in partnership with humans, and that the Bible represents a miraculous body of work that God can put His stamp of approval on as fully divinely true, but which also speaks fully and beautifully to the human experience by choosing to breathe much of it through the unique voices and memories of human individuals.


I like that idea of partnership.