Epistles, Part 2: the Risks
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | June 14, 2018Hi friends, last week I wrote about writing and mailing letters as a way of getting us into the epistles of Paul. I tried to reflect on some of the symbolic meanings a mailbox might offer, and then tried to look at the bible as a kind of ‘mailbox.’ This week, I’m going to focus on what writing, sending, and receiving a letter would have been like for Paul and the communities with whom he was involved.
Last week, I said that, even for us in the 21st century USA, mailing a letter involves a bit of risk. Three risks I mentioned specifically were that the letter could be lost, the recipient might not take our meaning the right way, or the postman could deliver the letter to the wrong house. Each of these three risks was there for Paul and his churches, as well.
Before addressing these three risks individually, some general info on the composition of an ancient letter might be helpful. Writing and sending a letter in the ancient world could be expensive and tedious. Even folks like Paul, who knew how to write (1 Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11), usually dictated the letter to a scribe (Rom. 16:22). The author usually kept a copy of the letter. Writing materials like ink, papyrus, the reeds that served as ancient pens, and the services of a scribe, if a friendly one were not available, were expensive. In order to deliver the letter, the author would have to find someone who was traveling to the destination already or commission someone as the messenger. (Phoebe in Romans 16:1, for example, could be either.) Travel was usually on foot, and so it could take weeks or months for a letter to arrive.
Upon arrival, the messenger likely would have read the letter aloud to the intended recipients, depending on the relationship between the author and the messenger. This is one reason why hospitality was such an important virtue in the early Church: the constant travel of Christian missionaries was hard work, and missionary messengers relied on the church communities to which they were traveling to house and feed them. This is probably why, for example, Paul commends Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus in 1 Corinthians 16:15-18. Chances are, they were the ones who brought a message from Corinth to Paul (1 Cor. 7:1, for example), and in turn were the ones who brought Paul’s response back to Corinth. Paul commends them because they need a place to crash!
We can already see, then, some of the risks involved with sending a letter in the ancient world. First, even though when we mail a letter today there’s a chance it will get lost, the chances of that happening in Paul’s world were much higher. The Roman Emperor Augustus had established a relay system for delivering messages (think Pony Express), but it was restricted to government and military correspondence. Folks like Paul and his fellow missionaries were left to their own devices. Rome was famous for keeping its roads in good working order, but there was no protection from weather or the occasional band of outlaws for foot messengers traveling between urban hubs. Sea travel was quicker, but storms and pirates were common and could lead to disaster. Finally, injury or illness could delay a letter’s arrival or prevent it entirely.
The second risk involved in sending a letter is that the recipients might misconstrue our meaning. Unlike the chances of a letter getting lost, the chances of a letter being misunderstood by its recipients might actually have been less likely in the ancient world than it is today. Literacy was rare. Therefore, as noted above, it was common for letters to be delivered by someone acquainted with the author and for the messenger to read the letter aloud to the recipients. This means that the author’s intended tone, accent, humor, and even sarcasm could be performed accurately by the messenger in front of the gathered congregation, thereby decreasing the chances of misunderstanding.
The third and final risk is that a letter might be delivered to the wrong house. In Paul’s day, the risk wasn’t so much that the messenger would be delivered to the wrong house but that a letter might fall into the wrong hands. Paul was not always popular and was frequently persecuted; a messenger getting caught with a letter with Paul’s name on it might be in trouble depending on who discovered them. (I note this as a possibility; I am unaware of any evidence that a messenger was punished simply because the message they carried was Paul’s.) More broadly, a letter filled with Christian propaganda like references to Jesus as “Lord” (1 Cor. 8:6, 2 Cor. 1:2, et al) could run one afoul of Roman authorities, for whom phrases like “Lord” and “gospel [good news] of Christ” were used in reference to the emperor. For Romans, the emperor was the “Lord” and the coming of Caesar Augustus to the throne had brought the “good news” of peace from war. Augustus and his successors were viewed as gods; a letter claiming that Christ is “the image of God,” for example, might be seen as treason against the empire (2 Cor. 4:4).
This last is an important point: because of some of the risks involved with writing and sending letters, part of our ‘detective work’ when we study Paul’s letters has to include attention to what Paul doesn’t say. I’ll focus on this next week.