The majority of the New Testament is made up of letters to infant churches, called epistles. But just how common were letters at this time? Could everyone read? Could everyone write? Did Paul and the other authors dictate to someone else or write them themselves? There are so many interesting details to uncover!

To learn more about epistles, we will be using the Baker Illustrated Bible Background Commentary.

Ancient Letter Writing

E. Randolph Richards

From the bogs of England, to the ravines of Judea, to the sands of Egypt, in every location where material was capable of surviving, archaeologists have uncovered lots of letters. The Roman Empire was a letter-circulating culture. Much like phone calls or text messages today, letters caught family up on news, such as the new navy recruit in a letter to his mother: “I have been assigned to Misenum”. Others wrote to keep a relationship warm and maybe handle a bit of business. Here is a typical letter, dated around AD 120:

Julius Clemens, centurion, to his most esteemed Socration, greeting. I thank you for your kindness about the olive oil, as Ptolemaeus wrote to me that he had received it. And do write to me about what you may need, knowing I will gladly do everything for you. [2nd hand] I pray for your good health, my most esteemed friend.

The vast majority of ancient letters averaged about 87 words, much shorter than even 3 John. The famed writers of that age wrote long letters, averaging 295 words (Cicero) and 995 words (Seneca). And then there was Paul, averaging 2,495 words, with Romans at a hefty 7,114. Paul’s opponents ridiculed his letters as “weighty” (2 Cor. 10:10), highlighting their length as well as complexity—a pun that works in English as well as Greek.

Who penned these letters?

The letter from Clemens, presented above, demonstrates another feature. Scholars noted that the handwriting changed at the end of his letter. This was common. A secretary wrote out the letter, and the sender appended a closing greeting in his or her own handwriting, a practice often used to guarantee the letter’s authenticity. So Paul: “I, Paul, am writing this greeting with my own hand, which is an authenticating mark in every letter; this is how I write” (2 Thess. 3:17).

Scholars debate ancient literacy rates, some estimates as low as 10 percent or as high (in Christian congregations) as 50 percent. Probably the vast majority of ancients were functionally illiterate. Modern literacy is the ability to read and write, but ancient literacy was primarily the ability to read. Handwriting is a matter of practice. For instance, how well do we write with our non-dominant hand?

The secretary

But even the literate used secretaries. They knew the proper titles and phrases, and the appropriate rhetorical style for the occasion. Shorthand writers existed at the time but were not widely available. Generally, secretaries took notes (or slow dictation) on a wax tablet or a washable sheet of parchment. They had other skills as well. Papyrus usually sold by the roll. Secretaries were skilled at cutting off the necessary amount, pricking and lining the sheets, mixing the ink, and writing legibly. Appearances mattered in antiquity. What would a recipient think if you sent some letter scratched messily across a sheet, especially if it was shared (cf. Col. 4:16)?

Ancient letter writing was not as easy, cheap, or convenient as today. Longer letters likely went through several rough drafts on tablets. New Testament epistles show signs of thoughtful composition, likely worked and reworked before being committed to papyrus for dispatch. Since most letters were brief, the cost was not excessive. The letter of the sailor to his mother probably cost, in today’s dollars, about $50 for the secretary and the materials. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, though, probably cost over $2,000, including the cost of several drafts, the preparation of a nice copy for dispatch, and a copy for Paul to retain.

Keep Learning

The Baker Illustrated Bible Background Commentary letter

The Baker Illustrated Bible Background Commentary is full of interesting cultural info, diagrams and archaeological images, and helpful articles (like the one above). So get your copy in the Olive Tree Store today!

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