Review by Peter Koenig
The ancients loved to send and receive letters. We have 14,000 letters from the first century rescued from the sands of Egypt and elsewhere and not including letter collections of famous people like Cicero, Seneca and Pliny. So we are dealing with something typically human.
Randolph Richards' book takes us into that world familiar to St Paul and deals with all aspects of the letter writer's situation. He wants us to step into the shoes of someone living in a world which does not have the same conveniences with which we are familiar. For example, in what kind of surrounding would a scribe write? Did he have a quiet room to himself and a nice desk to sit at? In the case of Paul did he write every word by himself? Did he make a rough draft first and did he keep a copy of the letter himself as other writers did at that time? Did he use a secretary? Did he know someone who could take down speech in short hand i.e. a stenographer.
Wandering around the Roman Forum and Coliseum or walking along the streets of Pompeii we soon realise that we are in another world, a sophisticated world none-the-less. So this book answers some of the above questions; we can start by saying that St Paul did not work alone. Richards says that "no one really has his or her own opinion" nor was it expected. There is an inherent "we" in the New Testament. Paul is not preaching Paul, Paul is preaching Christ. So he appeals to the tradition to show he is consistent with the collective (Richards' word) the Church (my word) and does not merely use it to support his argument. So Richards makes a good case for some of the letters being co-authored by people like Timothy, Silvanus and Sosthenes. That should not really worry any Christian, because Paul was always the leader! He was the apostle.
Included in the book are valuable chapters on the production of the letters of Paul while at the same time keeping an eye on how and what Paul's contemporaries did. The author writes about the physical process and the materials for production of letters. For example where in a house would letters have been written? Indeed what kind of house was it? Was it nice and quiet? Did anyone else have an input? Was someone present from the community to which the letter was going to be sent? He goes into some depth about the cost of the actual letter and its drafts. He compares the letter to the Romans with the longest letter by Cicero. The longest letter by Cicero contained 4,134 words. Paul's letter to the Romans was a whopping 7,114. When the Church in Rome received it they were probably stunned by its' length rather than its' content. And the little matter of the time required to write the final copy? Richards says that a scribe could write 85 lines per hour and for five hours a day. So eleven hours, two to three days to complete one copy of Romans and at a cost (2004) $2,275 per copy? So it seems that it was quite an expensive affair. How did he finance it? Richards has his answer to that too.
And getting the letter to its destination, i.e. the postal service? Whatever the contemporaries did as far as Paul was concerned he used people whom he knew and probably were citizens of the town to which they were sent. The imperial postal would not have been used so there was a danger that a letter might not get through. So someone had to walk on the 50,000 miles of Roman roads or go by boat if that was more convenient to deliver the mail. And the dangers? There were plenty!
Returning to the content of the letters we can ask how much came from Paul. It is generally accepted that Paul quotes from sources, for example the hymn in Colossians. "He is the image of the unseen God" and elsewhere in Philippians "His state was divine yet he did not cling to his equality with God". They were not personal compositions. They were articles of faith, statements of faith hence they were not accredited to any individual. Much the same reason applies to the Gospels even though people must have known who the scribe was which the tradition claims to know. We believe they were humble enough not to foolishly place their names on a Gospel as if it was all their own work. Indeed they believed it was due to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Then finally Richards has something to say about treasuring Paul's letters. When Paul came to Rome we can safely trust that he had his own collection of his letters. Richards goes on to tell us "There are two early references that seem to indicate a very early collection of Paul's letters. An historical reconstruction needs to be able to explain 2 Peter 3:16 and also the multiple allusions to Paul's letters in 1 Clement. The troubling passages in 2 Peter concerning stylistic variations between it and 1 Peter as well as the vocabulary can all be explained by secretarial mediation or lack of in one or both of the letters". As it is the letters were treasured and faithfully copied and so have come down to us minus one or two.
This is a most interesting book and should be read in conjunction with Alan Millard's "Reading
and Writing in the Time of Jesus". These books should help to clear up many misconceptions about the first
century and the character of the disciples who followed Christ the whole way. As one who believes that Matthew's
Gospel was the first written document of the Church, I naturally miss the fact that Richards does not touch the
subject of allusions to Matthew's Gospel in the letters of St Paul especially in Thessalonians. Apart from that
it is a highly recommendable book.
Copyright © Peter Koenig 2016
Version: 22nd February 2016