Did Paul Become a More Careful Letter Writer?

I have been reading an excellent book by E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing. The author makes a compelling opening case about the importance of learning about the process of ancient letter writing is to understanding the majority of books in the New Testament. As intended, Richards' book goes a long way towards remedying that ignorance. He describes the materials involved in drafting letters, the procedure of letter writing, the time involved, the use of secretaries, the detection of interpolations, the use of letter carriers, and the distances and means of travel of those carriers. Paul and First Century Letter Writing draws on a vast amount of first-century writings, including many non-Christian letters from the ancient Mediterranean.

One of the phenomenon’s Richards notes is the pattern of Paul’s use of letter carriers. Ancient letter writers often had options in who carried their letters to the destination. They could use people who happened to be heading in that direction. Such carriers were little more than carrier pigeons. But sometimes writers would send the letters via a more informed carrier who was expected to supplement or clarify the situation of the letter writer or the letter itself. The carrier as well as the letter was supposed to pass on information.

Paul’s earliest letters – Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians – make no mention of the letter carrier. But in his later letters – 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, and Colossians – the letter carrier is mentioned and “endorsed as a reliable source of information about Paul.” Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, page 206. Richards explain the possible significance of this shift:

Initially Paul did not consider any role for a letter carrier beyond that of transporting the letters. His early letters were sent by unnamed, presumably trusted, individuals who were traveling that way.....

Paul’s first letter to Corinth, the so-called previous letter, was probably sent the same way, by a trustworthy, happenstance carrier. I suggest, however, that Paul learned from this experience. This previous letter to Corinth had been misunderstood: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons–not at all meaning the immoral of this world" (1 Cor. 5:9-10). This is the type of misunderstanding that an informed letter carrier should have been able to immediately clarify. It should not have developed into such a problem that needed to be readdressed in a subsequent letter. For this reason, I suggest that when Paul sent the next letter, 1 Corinthians, he used an informed carrier, Timothy. Interestingly, Paul’s first four letters (Galatians, 1-2 Thessalonians and the “previous letter”) are commonly thought by scholars to have been misunderstood in some way by each receiving church.

From 1 Corinthians onward, Paul’s letters were carried by named, private letter carriers, who bore Paul’s endorsement and whom Paul said had authority to elaborate his meaning (Co. 4:7-9)....

I am suggesting that Paul, from experience, learned to use his letter carriers more wisely. Progressing from unnamed and uninformed carriers early in his ministry to named, endorsed and informed carriers in his later ministry. Paul’s later carriers were team members who could explain his meaning to avoid problems like that seen in his ‘previous letters’ to Corinth.

Ibid., page 207-08.

Richards also suggests that this phenomenon may help explain why Paul's letters became more "theologically complex" -- the presence of more informed letter carriers gave him greater liberty in writing more complex letters, knowing that the colleague delivering the letter would help explain its contents.

It has long been argued that Paul's letters, from 1 Corinthians onward, became more theologically complex and difficult. Did Paul's theology develop or did he begin to feel more comfortable writing complex letters as he developed team members capable of carrying and explaining the ideas? In other words, what developed, Paul's theology or his team? I suggest Paul's theology did not develop as dramatically as some imply. Paul did not grow more skilled at writing complex theology, but rather was able to more more complex theology as his carriers became more able to explain it.

Ibid., pages 208-09.

This latter point seems to have more completing explanations. Perhaps as these Christian communities grew so too did their theological questions and needs. Perhaps because the earlier letters faced misunderstanding, Paul felt compelled to explain his beliefs in more detail. Perhaps Paul begin to focus more on church building rather than church planting. Perhaps the true explanation draws on many factors, including these.

Although I have not yet finished Richards' book, I have learned a great deal already. I highly recommend it.


BK said…
That is fascinating. I had always noted that in some of the letters, Paul made mention of the person who he was sending, but I hadn't made the connection that he may have changed how he delivered his messages over time and the reasons for those changes. Very thought provoking.
Anonymous said…
Where does Romans say who carried the letter?

Was it Phoebe?

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