Here are some comments and excerpts from the book by E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) from NT602 New Testament class at Erskine Seminary, February 23, 2011. I'm posting this here because we are currently reading these letters in our Journey Through the New Testament. If you would like to dig into this more, Richards book is available on Amazon and from many other sources.
Chapter 1Two modern models used to read Paul’s letters:
The optimistic model says that Paul dictated his letters to an amanuensis in one sitting without stopping. Any other people present were merely observers, or make minimal comments. The pessimistic model says that we can’t know anything about how Paul wrote. Richards commends the pessimistic model’s cautiousness, but says that we can know some of the process.
How the modern Western concept of individualism makes it difficult for us to understand Paul’s use of helpers:
We assume Paul had privacy and wrote in isolation because that’s how we would write, but Richards says that the eastern world is “group-oriented” (26), so it’s unlikely that Paul worked alone. Richards points out that there was little or no privacy, and Eastern people wouldn’t understand why we value it so much (27). He says we tend to ignore the “we” in Paul’s letters because for us writing is a solitary endeavor, but in Paul’s culture there would at least have been the addition of a secretary because most people couldn’t write, and most people Paul’s age couldn’t see well enough to write.
Chapter 2The “courtesy” argument regarding people mentioned by Paul in the salutations of his letters:
This argument assumes that Paul is the sole author and the other people listed in the opening greeting are just listed out of courtesy, and “merely consulted and endorsed the letter” (34). According to this argument, it’s not possible that more than one person could give input and have there be the degree of consistency that is found in Paul’s letters.
Why Richards sees this argument as weak:
Richards uses the evidence of typical letters of Paul’s time to show that it wasn’t common practice to include co-authors in the greeting as a matter of courtesy, and that using co-authors was generally rare. Paul’s letters also list greetings at the end from other people who were present, so if the people at the beginning of the letter were not coauthors, it seems more likely that they would simply have been listed at the end as well. Also, if Paul is the only author, then we have to ignore his use of the word “we” in the letters.
Chapter 3The first-century practice of keeping notebooks and what they were used for:
First-century notebooks were a collection of wax tablets or parchments that were tied together in a codex. They were used similar to the way we use notebooks today, except that these were reusable. People used them to take notes while someone was speaking, or to make notes about something they were reading. The notebooks were also used to write rough drafts of letters, and to keep copies of the final drafts of letters.
How Richards interprets Paul’s command to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:13:
Richards says that two different words were used in Paul’s command, telling Timothy to bring the “books,” which were probably Old Testament scrolls, and “membranae” or “parchments,” which were probably notebooks. Paul emphasizes the notebooks because Timothy might have been likely to disregard them as unimportant, but they may have contained notes about letters Paul was preparing, as well as Paul’s copies of previous letters he had written (57).
Chapter 4The distinction some NT scholars have made between letters and epistles:
“Letters” are private correspondence that are similar to our personal letters. They are short, written in a standard style and format, and use common, everyday language. “Epistles” are letters that seem private but use more educated language and are “rhetorically structured.” They are somewhat similar to the form of a “letter to the editor” (59).
The wide range of privilege that secretaries had in the writing of first-century letters and their 3 roles:
The secretary could function as transcriber, contributor or composer. As transcriber, the secretary had little input or control over the content, and simply wrote down exactly what was dictated. As contributor, the secretary might make editorial changes or corrections, and the author might ask the secretary to insert a line of standardized text that was not dictated. The secretary could also function as composer, creating a letter using the standard forms and text that were common to Greco-Roman letters. In all cases, the author was fully responsible for the final content.
Chapter 5Why Richards concludes that Paul probably did not use secretaries as composers of his letters:
Richards demonstrates that this was not common practice. Also, when a secretary did function as the composer they would use standardized text for a letter in which the author probably didn’t need to worry about the precise content. Richards points out the Paul was not writing standard letters, so he needed to tell the secretary what to write. One example Richards gives is that Ephesians 6:12 uses a form of rhetorical device that a typical secretary would not be trained enough to use. This kind of rhetoric is typical of Paul’s letters, and since he wouldn’t have used the same secretary for each letter, we can assume that the common style between them is Paul’s.
What Richards means when he says: “Most likely Paul’s secretary fell in that middle area between the extremes of transcriber and composer” (93):
It is unlikely that Paul had access to a secretary that took shorthand, and his letters don’t sound like they were dictated slowly so that the secretary could write each word precisely as he said it. Instead the secretary would have had to take notes, and then transcribe them into a draft that was then brought back to Paul for review and edit.
Chapter 6The modern understanding of plagiarism versus the first-century practice of using already existing materials:
We expect that whenever a writer uses any idea or phrase that was written by someone else this will be acknowledged and the original author given credit and sometimes even paid for its use. In Paul’s time, they didn’t consider existing material to be owned by anyone and they borrowed others’ ideas and phrases freely.
“Preformed material” and “interpolations” defined:
“Preformed material” was anything used in Paul’s writing that existed prior to the time of writing. This included scripture quotations, hymns, poetry, etc. These insertions could have been written by Paul at an earlier time or written by someone else (95). “Interpolations” are phrases or sections that have been inserted by someone else into the letter. One way to tell when there has been an interpolation is that the text was not in earlier versions of the document, as demonstrated by the phrase in Romans 8:1 that doesn’t appear until fifth century manuscripts. Some scholars say that there are non-Pauline insertions that occurred during the drafting of the original letter. These interpolations are harder to spot but could be the voice of the co-author and would explain areas where the theology or character of a passage seems different from what Paul typically wrote.
Chapter 7What Richards means when he says that Paul weaves preformed materials and interpolations into his letters:
We know that Paul used hymns and scriptures in his letters. Richards says some of these were probably memorized and part of his dictation, so they were woven into the letter as he spoke. There were probably other materials that Paul had in his notebooks that he might have handed to the secretary to insert at a specified point in the letter. Where Paul included these in his dictation, the text would flow together well, but where the secretary inserted the prewritten material there would be less smoothing to make the text flow.
What Richards means when he says: “As individualistic Westerners we often operate under the presupposition that ‘Paul alone’ is better than ‘Paul + others” (120):
This goes back to the idea discussed in earlier chapters that there were no coauthors, just people listed in the greeting as a courtesy. This presupposition assumes that inspired writing can only be done by a person writing in solitude and not by a group of people collaborating together. We assume that only Paul was inspired and that anything added to Paul’s words reduces their impact.
What Richards says is wrong with this view:
Richards has demonstrated in previous chapters that Paul did not write alone. We know that Timothy and Sosthenes were coauthors, and that a secretary was a part of the process. Ultimately Paul was responsible for approving the final content, but other voices are incorporated.
Chapter 8The distinction between public and private letters in the Greco-Roman age:
Public letters were essays written in formal language and intended for wide distribution. Private letters were shorter and simpler. There were standard sentences and phrases used in every letter and there was a standard structure that each author followed, so the letters were fairly impersonal. Very private or personal subjects weren’t usually addressed in letters because they were dictated to a secretary.
How Paul’s letters fit into these 2 categories, according to Richards:
Paul used the standard structure for Greco-Roman private letters, but he did not stick to the standard predetermined phrases or the usual short length. He intended his letters to be read to a community of believers like a public letter, but he did not write formal essays. Paul’s letters did not fit nicely into either category, but instead fell somewhere in the middle.
Chapter 9The two weaknesses of the approach of some NT scholars in establishing a typical style of writing for Paul:
The first weakness is that the outcome changes depending on which letters are chosen as the basis for determining Paul’s typical style. The second weakness is that even the four letters that are often chosen as the “authentic letters” are quite different from each other. These four were chosen because they include “justification by faith,” but the absence of this theme from the other letters may just mean that it didn’t need to be addressed with the church to which the other letters were written.
What Richards means when he concludes that Paul’s writing style was “diluted” (155):
Paul was not writing alone. He had coauthors and a secretary, so it is difficult to know exactly what in his letters is his style. Statistical analysis is not a valid measurement of authenticity when multiple people are contributing to the letter. Also, preformed material is included, such as Old Testament scriptures and hymns, and this further dilutes the style and invalidates the statistical analysis.
Chapter 10How Paul’s letters compare with typical Greco-Roman letters with regard to length:
A typical letter was only one papyrus sheet long, and an average of 87 words. Letters by Cicero and Seneca were longer than average, 295 and 995 words, respectively, but they still didn’t come close to Paul, because Paul’s average letter was 2,495 words. As Richards says, “Paul’s letters were inordinately long” (163).
What this tells us about the likely expense which Paul incurred in writing his letters:
Richards calculates the amount of papyrus and the cost of hiring a secretary, converting ancient currency into U.S. dollars, and comes up with a cost of $101 for Paul’s shortest letter, and $2,275 for Romans, the longest letter, demonstrating that the cost of these letters was significant (169).
Chapter 11The 3 ways that first-century letter writers authenticated their letters instead of signing them:
One way was to seal the letter with clay and press a seal into it. This was the most secure way, but also the least used. Another was for the author to write a summary at the end in their own handwriting. The third was for the author to write a personal note at the end. In these last two forms of authentication, the change from the secretary’s handwriting to the author’s was obvious and showed that the author had approved its contents.
The 3 kinds of letter carriers that existed in the Roman Empire in the first century:
There were imperial letter carriers, but these were only available for official correspondence. Private citizens couldn’t use the imperial carriers, so they sent letters via happenstance carriers or private carriers. Happenstance carriers were people who happened to be going in the same direction or to the same place the letter needed to go. These might be friends or family, or total strangers. Private carriers were usually personal slaves, or someone who was sent somewhere specifically for the purpose of delivering the letter.
Chapter 12Two dangers that letter carriers had to contend with:
One danger was weather, which could be unpredictable and which caused obstacles like swollen rivers or snowed-in mountain passes. Another danger was thieves. Travelers had to be wary and often sought out others to travel with so that they would be less likely to be attacked.
Chapter 13What is meant by saying that the carriers of Paul’s letters sometimes functioned as his “envoys”:
Paul at first sent his letters via happenstance carriers, but then switched to using private carriers because they were more reliable, and because they could serve as Paul’s envoys. This meant that they could speak for Paul, and serve as his delegates. When there was a question about something in a letter, the envoy could explain and help the church to understand Paul’s meaning.
Chapter 14The new scholarly interest in the likely process by which Paul’s letters were collected:
Interest was renewed by a book by Harry Gamble that theorized that Paul’s letters were assembled into codices because of a desire to show their “catholicity” (213). To make the theological statement, the letters needed to be together in one document and this was best accomplished in a codex.
Richards’ theory of how Paul’s letters were collected:
Richards says it was common practice for authors to retain copies of their letters, so Paul himself is the most likely source for a collection of his letters. These may have been in the notebooks he asks Timothy to bring (2 Tim. 4:13). Paul probably had no thought of publishing them, but kept them for reference or in case a letter didn’t reach its destination. When Paul died, one of his team probably kept the notebooks. Richards speculates that when Acts was published, people may have started asking for copies of Paul’s letters, so that was possibly when they were first published as a collection.
Chapter 15Richards’ understanding of inspiration as it applies to Paul’s letters:
Richards suggests that inspiration is not focused on the writer, but instead on the document. He shows that considering the process and the fact that Paul’s letters were not a product of Paul working alone, we must consider that God “divinely prepared” the team members and the situation (226-7). All of these elements were “divinely supervised” so that they produced the inspired letters (229).
One new insight this book has given me about Paul’s letters and how it helps me in understanding them:
My understanding of the process by which they were written has changed, and I will read them differently now. I had never paid much attention to the people listed in the greeting, or considered that there might be any voices present in the letter except Paul’s. The description of how 1 Corinthians might reflect both Paul and Sosthenes perspectives on food sacrificed to idols (116-7) makes those passages make sense in a different way, and points out the importance of understanding the context not just for Paul but also for whoever else is listed as coauthor.