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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Letters.


Paul wrote neither theological treatises nor narratives but letters, and a proper understanding of his literary legacy requires that we take seriously its epistolary character. To do this, we must look not only at the letters themselves, but also at the letter-writing conventions that were present in the Graeco-Roman world. Fortunately, we are the beneficiaries of a century of careful comparative study, with the result that the shape and texture of Paul's letters are being brought ever more clearly into focus.


It is customary in discussions of the literary features of Paul's letters to begin with Adolf Deissmann and his work on the papyri that were coming to light in the latter part of the nineteenth century (Deissmann 1910 ). And with good reason. Deissmann was the first to realize the significance of these papyri for the study of Paul's letters, and his own observations have continued to shape the discussion. In contrast to the more literary epistles that had been preserved in the classical corpus, which were generally written for a wider reading public and with a view to preservation (e.g. those of Cicero or Seneca), the letters contained among the papyri findings were truly occasional writings. That is, they were addressed to the immediate situation that had prompted their writing, and they tended to be artless, spontaneous, and personal. On the basis of such a distinction between literary ‘epistles’ (‘products of literary art’) and real ‘letters’ (‘documents of life’; ibid. 218), Deissmann argued that Paul's writings should be classed among the latter. That is, they are occasional writings, written ‘not for the public and posterity, but for the persons to whom they are addressed’ (ibid. 225), written not as the careful formulations of a systematic theologian but out of the pressing urgency of a pastoral situation.


As a first approximation, Deissmann's analysis is valid and perceptive, highlighting as it does the immediacy and situation-driven character of the letters. Even the Epistle to the Romans, containing the most sustained and systematic argumentation in the corpus and traditionally understood as a ‘compendium of Christian Doctrine’ (Melanchthon), should be understood instead as written out of specific circumstances (Paul's planned trip to Rome) and shaped in accordance with specific purposes (to win the acceptance of the Roman Christians by addressing their concerns about his Gentile mission). But Deissmann's categories are too crudely drawn and need to be significantly revised. For one thing, Paul's letters are not simply personal and private; he writes to whole congregations, even in such a ‘personal’ letter as Philemon (Philem 2 ), and addresses his readers from a self-conscious position of authority. Nor are they as brief, rough, and artless as many of the papyri letters on which Deissmann based his categories; while they may not display evidence of formal rhetorical training, they are nevertheless well-structured and carefully composed. In addition, further study of letters in antiquity has revealed a wide variety of different types of letter (Stowers 1986 ), from letters of rebuke (cf. Galatians) to letters of mediation (cf. Philemon), as well as a wider range of relationships between sender and recipient. With respect to the latter point, Aune has suggested a similarity between Paul's letters and ‘official letters’ sent from government officials to those under their authority (Aune 1987: 164–5).


Still, private letters provide the basic form on which all letters in Graeco-Roman antiquity were based, and a comparison between Paul and the epistolary papyri is very illuminating. Paul's letters are composed according to the conventional pattern of the day, although he adapted it in ways that made his letters particularly effective means of extending and reinforcing his apostolic activity.

Letters typically began with a prescript, consisting of the name of the sender, the name of the recipient, and a salutation. To use one of Deissmann's (1910: 167–72) examples, a second-century letter from a young Egyptian just arrived in Italy after having enlisted in the army begins this way: ‘Apion to Epimachus his father and lord, many greetings.’ The word ‘greetings’ (chairein) is a customary form of salutation in Hellenistic letters, though Jewish letters sometimes replace it with ‘peace’ (šālôm, eirēnē). Paul's letters follow the same format (A to B, greetings), but with several characteristic adaptations, some of them more or less the same from letter to letter, others particularly tailored to the needs of the situation. First, he usually adds a term descriptive of his own role and status, most frequently ‘apostle’ but also ‘servant’ or ‘prisoner’, completed in each case by ‘of Christ Jesus’. Then he often names a co-sender (Romans being the only exception among the certainly authentic epistles), even though the letter itself is usually couched in the first person singular (e.g. Philemon). Then, where it suits his purposes, he will considerably expand either the sender or the recipient portion of the prescript. In Romans and Galatians, for example, where his own status as an apostle is in need of defence, he uses this portion of the letter to make an aggressive (Galatians) or subtle and extended (Romans; 6 verses) declaration of his apostolic status and authority. In 1 Corinthians, it is the recipients who are described more fully ( 1:2 ). Here the emphasis on their status as saints and on their membership in a wider community of Christians is an appropriate opening note to a letter addressed to a community marked by decidedly unsaintly behaviour (e.g. 5:1 ) and smug self-sufficiency ( 4:8; cf. 11:16 ). Finally, Paul ends the prescript with a salutation distinctively his own (‘Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’; minor variations in Colossians and 1 Thessalonians), yet adapted from current patterns. ‘Grace’ (charis), while part of Paul's characteristic Christian vocabulary, is close enough to chairein to be heard as an edifying wordplay; ‘peace’ is typical of Jewish letter-writing patterns.


The prescript in Graeco-Roman letters was frequently followed by a section in which the writer expressed wishes for the good health of the recipient, often couched in the form of a prayer, and/or offered thanksgiving to the gods for some benefit received. To illustrate, the letter cited above continues: ‘First of all, I pray that you are in good health, and that you continue to prosper and fare well, with my sister and her daughter and my brother. I give thanks to the Lord Serapis that when I was in danger in the sea he saved me immediately.’ Again this has its counterpart in Paul, though where in conventional letters it tended to be formulaic and perfunctory, in Paul each prayer/thanksgiving section is freshly composed for each letter, complimentary to the readers, and tailored in evident ways to the concerns of the letter. In 1 Corinthians, to take a particularly striking example, Paul gives thanks for characteristics in his readers that he will later scold them for not displaying: their richness (cf. 4:8 ) in speech (cf. ch. 14 ), in knowledge (cf. ch. 8 ), and in spiritual gifts (cf. chs. 12, 14 ). In Philemon, before pressing his request that Philemon receive Onesimus back with love (v. 16 ) and so refresh Paul's heart (v. 20 ), he gives thanks for Philemon's demonstrated ‘love for all the saints’ (v. 5 ) and for the way in which ‘the hearts of the saints have been refreshed’ already through Philemon. In less capable hands, this section would have been crudely manipulative. In Paul's more subtle and even elegant phrasing, however, this section functions as a kind of overture, introducing the themes to follow and predisposing the recipients to a receptive reading of the letter as a whole. The one exception is Galatians, where Paul moves straight from the prescript (concluded, unusually, with a doxology) to an expression of astonishment at the culpable folly of the readers. Here the prayer/thanksgiving section is omitted for effect, or one could even argue that it has been replaced with a curse section (Gal 1:6–9 ).


At this point in both Graeco-Roman letters and in Paul we move into the body of the letter, where the sender sets out to accomplish the purpose for which the letter was being written. Here, the sheer variety of purposes and forms means that it is not as easy to identify epistolary patterns at work in letter bodies as a whole. Still, comparative work has by no means been fruitless (White 1972 ). For one thing, many of the formulae by which Paul introduces his subject-matter or takes up new themes are frequently found elsewhere: e.g. ‘I am astonished that’; ‘I want you to know that’; ‘I beseech/appeal to you’; ‘I rejoice that’; ‘I am confident that’—all are frequent in Paul and richly documented in Graeco-Roman sources (Aune 1987: 188; Longenecker 1990: pp. cv–cviii). As observed already, letter bodies can be further categorized according to the particular function intended for the letter (Stowers 1986 ). Also, as will be picked up in more detail below, considerable new light has been shed on the letters, particularly on the letter bodies, by analysing them in terms of the conventions of ancient rhetoric. Finally, it is possible in at least some of the letters to identify a section of parenaesis at the end of the body proper (Rom 12:1–15:13; Gal 5:1–6:10; 1 Thess 4:1–5:22 ), i.e., a combination of instruction and encouragement, no doubt related to the particular circumstances prompting the letter, but in ways that are not always readily discerned.


Letter closings display less of a fixed form and have not been nearly as well studied, at least until recently (Weima 1994 ). Instead of essential elements, there appear to have been a number of conventions from which letter writers could make a selection according to preference or need: ‘a farewell wish, a health wish, secondary greetings, an autograph, an illiteracy formula [i.e. indicating that the note had of necessity been written by a secretary], the date, and a postscript’ (ibid. 55). Again Paul's usage both reflects current conventions and displays a Christian adaptation of them. His letters contain the following closing elements (ibid. 77–155): (1) a peace benediction, often a variation on the form ‘may the God of peace be with you’ (e.g. Rom 15:33; 2 Cor 13:11; Phil 4:9 ); (2) a final exhortation (e.g. 1 Cor 16:13–16; Phil 4:8–9 ); (3) greetings (first-, second-, and third-person), together with an injunction to ‘greet one another with a holy kiss’ (Rom 16:16 ; also 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12, 1 Thess 5:26 ); (4) an autograph (explicit in 1 Cor 16:21; Gal 6:11; 2 Thess 3:17; Philem 19; Col 4:18 ); (5) a grace benediction, in the form ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you’. The one fixed element, found in all the letters, is the closing grace benediction, which taken in combination with the prescript means that each letter is framed with the wish for grace. In addition, each closing contains a selection of the other elements, with a tendency towards the order in which they were listed above.


In more recent years, epistolary analysis has been supplemented—or even rivalled—by a second type of analysis to which the letters have been subjected, that of rhetorical criticism. The pejorative overtones associated with the term ‘rhetoric’ in popular parlance (e.g. mere or empty rhetoric) is a measure of how far this once highly prized declamatory skill has fallen in esteem. In antiquity, however, rhetoric was one of the two possible capstones of an education (philosophy being the other) and the basic prerequisite for a public career. Shorn of its negative connotations, ‘rhetoric’ simply denotes the ‘art of persuasion’, and more recent study has recovered a sense of its place in antiquity and its potential for New Testament interpretation (Kennedy 1984 ).


Rhetorical criticism looks at argument in the NT from several angles (see Mack 1990 ), each of which can be fruitfully applied to the body of Paul's letters. One has to do with classification of argument types. Ancient rhetoricians divided argument into three categories—judicial (rendering verdicts on past actions), deliberative (making decisions about future courses of action), and epideictic (bestowing praise or blame)—and these have been brought to bear on Paul's letters. A second approach has to do with the classification of different elements within an argument. Aristotle distinguished between ethos (the establishment of the speaker's relationship with the audience and the basis of the speaker's authority), logos (the substance, structure and arrangement of the argument itself), and pathos (the ways in which the emotions of the audience are elicited and engaged in the service of the argument). These three categories can readily be applied to each of Paul's letters, with immediate and fruitful results. A third aspect of rhetorical criticism is concerned with the logos itself, especially with structures of ancient rhetoric as prescribed in the handbooks of Quintilian and others. In his work on Galatians, for example, Betz (1979 ) attempts to demonstrate that the argument in this epistle unfolds according to the prescribed sequence of the exordium (introductory section), the narratio (recitation of the facts of the case), the propositio (thesis to be demonstrated), the probatio (specific arguments or proofs), and the concluding exhortatio.


Occasionally one gets the sense in reading rhetorical criticism that text is being eclipsed by pattern; that is, that the text is being squeezed to fit a prescribed rhetorical pattern, or at least that demonstrating the pattern has taken precedence over revealing the text. Further, it is doubtful that Paul himself would have been exposed in an explicit way to the type of rhetorical training prescribed by the handbooks. Still, since rhetoric itself permeated the cultural air he breathed, he would have been deeply affected by rhetorical patterns and conventions at least in a secondary way. Moreover, any approach that encourages readers to attend carefully to the actual functioning of a text as it works its persuasive power on a reader is to be warmly welcomed.

11. Any discussion of the actual functioning of the individual letters themselves or of the ends to which their particular persuasive powers are turned is best left to the individual commentaries to follow. More generally, however, one can say that what Paul intends to accomplish by means of his letters is what he himself would do if he were there. As he says towards the end of his troubled correspondence with the Corinthians: ‘So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down’ (2 Cor 13:10 ). Or a little earlier in the same letter: ‘Let such people understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present’ (2 Cor 10:11 ). Further, the promise (threat?) of a visit in many of the letters (1 Cor 4:18–21; 16:5–9; 2 Cor 9:4; 13:1, 10; Phil 2:24; Philem 22 ) serves to reinforce the connection between action by letter and action in person (Funk 1967 ).


Of course the Corinthians themselves felt that, at least as far as the exercise of forceful discipline was concerned, Paul's letters were more effective than his presence! ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible’ (2 Cor 10:10 ). But discipline was only one arrow in his epistolary quiver. What Paul was attempting to do in his letters—to continue the archery metaphor by borrowing a phrase from Beker (1980 )—was to direct a ‘word on target’ to the situation of his readers, to bring the ‘coherent core’ of his gospel to bear on the ‘contingent circumstances’ to which the letter was addressed. Paul's ultimate aim, in person or by letter, was to create and maintain for his converts a new world in which they might live and find meaning, a world grounded on the death and resurrection of Christ and the victory over the forces of evil and death that these had signalled.


This brings us close to the matter of Paul's ‘theology’, to which we will turn our attention in a moment. But first, two final items concerning the letters themselves. One of these has to do with two other agents with roles to play in the process of communication carried out by a letter. As was customary in a culture where the means of letter production were not readily available to all, Paul made use of a secretary to do the actual pen and papyrus work. This is implied by the autograph section in many of the letter closings, where Paul himself takes up the pen ‘to write this greeting with [his] own hand’ (1 Cor 16:21 ). It is stated explicitly in Rom 16:22 where, in the midst of a series of third-party greetings, the secretary breaks into the conversation to add his own word of greeting: ‘I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.’

What was the role of the secretary in the production of Paul's letters? There is a range of possibilities, from simply producing a good copy from Paul's corrected first draft to actually composing the substance of the letter under Paul's general direction. The oral quality that comes through at many points, however, especially where sentences are broken off or new thoughts begun before old ones are fully completed (e.g. Rom 5:12; 8:3 ) or where verbs of speaking are used with respect to what is being said in the letter (Rom 11:13; 2 Cor 12:19 ), seems to suggest that Paul dictated his letters. This is also confirmed by a general evenness in style among the certainly authentic letters.


Perhaps more important for the process of communication was the role played by another agent—the person delivering the letter. In an era where there was organized postal service only for Roman imperial business, individual arrangements had to be made for the delivery of letters, preferably by someone known to the sender. Presumably the ‘tearful letter’ referred to in 2 Corinthians ( 2:3–4, 9; 7:8, 12 ) had the positive effect that it did ( 7:6–16 ) at least in part because Titus (who probably delivered the letter) had been present to interpret it, to ensure that it was being heard correctly, to mollify any who were upset by it, and perhaps even to negotiate a more positive response than if Paul had delivered his message in person. The role of the letter carrier also comes up in Col 4:7–9 where Paul (if Colossians is directly from Paul) commends Tychicus, again the probable letter carrier, who ‘will tell you all the news about me’. Later readers, who have to piece together information about Paul's ‘news’ like a detective in a P. D. James novel, might wish that Paul had not left so much to the letter carrier, but had put more of the actual detail of his life and circumstances into the letters.


The reference in the previous paragraph to the disputed authenticity of Colossians brings us to the final item to be touched on in this section. Fully six of the thirteen letters that bear Paul's name display characteristics that have led many scholars to conclude that some or all of the six were not written directly by Paul. While the details need to be left for the individual commentaries to follow, the characteristics are a combination of elements: differences in vocabulary and style, differences in theological outlook, reflections of contextual circumstances that probably emerged only later, and so on. These characteristics are not uniformly present in the six letters: 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians are much more Pauline in their vocabulary, style, and theology than are the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus). There are also variations within these two groups. Ephesians, with its long sentences and its piling up of synonyms and genitive constructions (e.g. ‘the working of the power of his strength’, 1:19 ), sounds less Pauline than does Colossians or 2 Thessalonians. With respect to the Pastorals, some of the features that set these writings apart from the rest of the Pauline corpus (the concern for church order; the stiff and formal tone out of keeping with letters ostensibly written to close associates) are absent from 2 Timothy.


In each case scholars have entertained a range of possibilities. Some have defended authenticity by appealing to special circumstances that might account for the observed deviations from the norm. Others have pointed to the way in which Paul included others within his sphere of apostolic authority—those mentioned as co-senders of letters, for example—in order to argue that Paul may have given a secretary or co-worker greater latitude in the actual composition of the letters in question. Still others—the majority in the case of Ephesians and the Pastoral epistles—believe that letters were written by former associates or later admirers of Paul some time after his death, written to bring the voice and authority of Paul to bear on pressing circumstances in the real author's own day.


Readers who encounter this discussion for the first time often interpret the latter suggestion as implying deliberate deception on the part of the real author. But even in our own day we are familiar with situations where it is considered quite appropriate for texts that have been written by one person to be attributed to another—political speeches, for example, or ‘as told to’ autobiographies, or unfinished manuscripts published posthumously after being edited and completed by a colleague or admirer of the deceased. Furthermore, the ancients tended to have different attitudes towards authorship than are standard in our own culture, with its notions of copyright and intellectual property. Take, for example, this statement by the late second-century Christian writer Tertullian: ‘[The Gospel] which was published by Mark may be maintained to be Peter's, whose interpreter Mark was, just as the narrative of Luke is generally ascribed to Paul. For it is allowable that that which disciples publish should be regarded as their master's work’ (Adv. Marc. 6.5). Certainly cases of deception were known in antiquity, no less than in our own day. But there is a much broader range of options to be put into play in the discussion.

One of the factors in the discussion of authenticity, however, and one of the keys to Paul's enduring significance, is the presence in the certainly authentic letters of a distinctive set of theological themes and structures. To this we will now turn our attention.

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