A General Introduction to the Letters of Paul

A General Introduction to the Letters of Paul

What can we say about Paul’s letters? To what should be compare his letters? What is the function of the ancient letter? How did Paul use the conventional letter genre of his day? How did he expand upon it? These are some of the questions with which we should concern ourselves so that we can better understand both the form, function, and content of Paul’s letters.

In the Greco-Roman world the letter functioned primarily as a means of maintaining contact between two individuals for private correspondence whether commercial, pedagogical, or military relationship. Hired letter writers and carriers were used. Christian letters are derivative from Hellenistic letters. Paul adapted Greco-Roman letter models for Christian purposes, combining non-Jewish Hellenistic customs with Hellenistic Jewish customs (e.g., “Grace and peace to you”). Paul’s letters reflect “the epistolary, sermonic, and religious-literary traditions of his Hellenistic and Jewish background.”

Paul’s letters were written to communicate with Christian communities for the use in the common life of believers. Like Epicurus he “exhorted, encouraged, gave advice, settled disputes, taught his doctrines, and maintained fellowship through his letters.” They were written to be read before the congregation to whom they were addressed. His letters were more than private personal letters. Paul wrote every letter with a specific situation and case of social interaction in mind. Paul is frequently on the defensive and engaged in debate with his opponents. He had a clear sense of what he wanted to write evidenced by a clear progression and outline of his letters. His letters were briefer and less stereotyped than Hellenistic letters, but Paul used favorite epistolary phrases. The body of his letters were rich in content through which he wanted to more his readers to new experiences of their religion. He wrote as an empowered leader of the church. His letters were a substitute for his presence and implied an open future until he could be with his audience. Paul uses rhetorical structure along with imagery, quotations, analogies, and exclamations. Scholars distinguish between undisputed and disputed letters of Paul. Scholars agree that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon were written by Paul. Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. The dating for Paul’s letters rest on few fixed points which include Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews from Rome (49 CE?) and Gallio’s appointment to proconsul over Achaia (51–52 CE).

Letters in the ancient world were the next best thing to face-to-face conversations. All conversations have a structure; Paul’s letters have a structure, particularly a Hellenistic pattern of introductory section, main body, and concluding section. Paul altered the traditional epistolary forms to fit his purposes. The key elements of the ancient letter are: 1) Saluation (sender, recipient (X to Y), greeting), 2) Thanksgiving (often with an intercession or eschatological climax), 3) Body (introductory formula, disclosure formula, request formula, confidence formula, benedictions, rhetorical questions, transition techniques, autobiographical statements, travel plans/travelogue, comparison, self-praise, and irony; often with eschatological conclusion), and 4) Closing commands, 4) Conclusion (peace wish, greetings, kiss, close—grace and formulaic benediction). In Romans Paul exhibits his most original adaptation of the conventional letter opening. In the body of his letters, Paul will employ thanksgivings and travel plans (the travelogue) to enter into his conversation with his readers. Paul will also use autobiographical sections to impact the situation of his readers. Paul provides three types of ethical instruction and exhortation, called Paraenesis: 1) clusters of moral maxims strung together; 2) lists of virtues and vices from Jewish and Hellenistic traditions; and 3) prolonged exhortation or homily on particular topics. Both the opening and closing of Paul’s letters are stable elements in the epistolary structure. The closing is composed of a peace wish, greetings, and a benediction or grace. He will provide last-minute instructions, a prayer request, and kiss.

Paul wrote his letters in Greek and used the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament for Christians). He uses midrash, Jewish legend, and Scripture as his method of Scripture interpretation. Paul reads Scripture, particularly the prophets, as forecasting his imminent future. Behind his letters lie the kerygma (the primitive gospel), eucharistic and baptismal formulas, the language of prayer, hymns, the words of the Lord, and paraenetic tradition (wisdom sayings, vice and virtue lists, imperative clusters, exhortations). He contributes more to the NT than any other writer. Some of his letters are the oldest extant NT documents.

Paul did not put his letters to paper. He used an amanuensis (a professional secretary) which was common in antiquity (2 Thess 3:17; Gal 6:11; 1 Cor 16:11; Phlm 19). Tertius was the writer of Romans (16:23). His handwriting in the concluding paragraph showed he had checked the letter. Secretaries functioned as recorders, editors (not merely copyists), and substitute authors. Speech dictation was widespread. Paul mentions collaborators as coauthors in his letters (1 & 2 Thess, 1 & 2 Cor, Phil, Phlm, Gal, Col). Most likely Paul used a network of Christians which developed out of his communities to deliver his letters.

Bibliography

  • Doty, William G. Letters in Primitive Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973.
  • Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome. Paul the Letter-Writer: His World, His Options, His Skills. Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1995.
  • Roetzel, Calvin J. The Letters of Paul: Conversations in Context. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
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