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Ancient Letters and the Bible

Jimmy Akin

Is the Bible a collection of letters? To whom were the letters sent? Did the ancient world have a mail system? Listen in to hear Jimmy Akin and Cy Kellett discuss ancient letters and their importance in Scripture.


Cy Kellett: Hello, and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I’m Cy Kellett, your host, and I really have been enjoying doing these history podcasts with Jimmy Akin, so we get an opportunity to do another one today. Jimmy Akin is senior apologist here at Catholic Answers, the author of many books including two brand new 20 Answers books, one on Protestantism and one on the New Testament, but you can find all of Jimmy’s books on our website at shop.catholic.com. He’s also the podcaster behind Jimmy Akin’s Mysterious World and a man to whom, apparently, the ancient world is endlessly fascinating.

Jimmy Akin: Oh, yeah.

Cy Kellett: You haven’t got tired of it yet, have you?

Jimmy Akin: No. I want to learn lots more. It’s like, where am I going to find the time to read all the stuff I want about it?

Cy Kellett: Today I want to talk to you about writing in the ancient world because I do not know if you know this, but most of the New Testament, perhaps all of it is in writing.

Jimmy Akin: Yes. All of the New Testament is in writing.

Cy Kellett: Oh, it’s all in writing. Okay. There’s no pictures.

Jimmy Akin: Not in the original edition.

Cy Kellett: Not in the original edition. Right. So actually knowing something about ancient writing is-

Jimmy Akin: And most of it is letters, in fact, that people wrote.

Cy Kellett: Oh, yeah. That’s-

Jimmy Akin: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: Okay. So most of the books, individually, those would be letters. Yeah, a gospel is a different thing.

Jimmy Akin: Right. All but five books are letters.

Cy Kellett: Oh yeah, the Apocalypse, right? Or the-

Jimmy Akin: No, that’s a letter too.

Cy Kellett: Oh, it is?

Jimmy Akin: Yeah. It’s a letter-

Cy Kellett: I never thought about that.

Jimmy Akin: It’s a letter sent to seven churches.

Cy Kellett: Oh yeah. Okay. So the four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.

Jimmy Akin: Right.

Cy Kellett: All those are not letters.

Jimmy Akin: Right.

Cy Kellett: And we’ll talk about them in-

Jimmy Akin: And you could kind of argue about is 1 John technically a letter or not, but yeah. Also, you could kind of argue about Hebrews, but five certainly are not letters, and the others either are clearly or are arguably the letters.

Cy Kellett: So let’s talk about letters in the ancient world then.

Jimmy Akin: Okay.

Cy Kellett: If you’re going to have letters, you got to have somebody deliver them. Was there a post office?

Jimmy Akin: No, there was not.

Cy Kellett: Okay. So how are these letters getting where they’re going?

Jimmy Akin: Well, it depends on who you were. If you were in, say, the Roman military, like you’re a general or something, they had a system of military couriers, military and diplomatic couriers, that you could use to send letters back and forth with Rome to get instructions and send reports and stuff. But ordinary people did not have any access to that, so then it divides by social class. If you’re rich, you’ve got slaves.

Cy Kellett: Oh, you just send a slave with it?

Jimmy Akin: You send a slave with the letter.

Cy Kellett: That’s expensive. That’s more than a stamp.

Jimmy Akin: You’re keeping up a slave. Yeah.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, okay.

Jimmy Akin: And, and frequently you would send a literate slave who could then read the letter out loud to the person and mimic your vocal inflections because he probably took down the letter.

Cy Kellett: It’s like a voicemail kind of thing.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah, it’s like voicemail, and he can also supply in, because he was there when the letter was written, he probably was the scribe that wrote it, he will know more of the context of the letter. So, if something’s unclear in the letter, the person can ask him a question and say, “Well wait, what does that mean?” And he can explain.

Cy Kellett: Ah, okay.

Jimmy Akin: And then he can take their letter in reply and bring it back to you.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Jimmy Akin: So that’s how you could do it if you were rich. Most, vast majority of people, not rich, so how do they send a letter? Well, you might think they didn’t, they just didn’t send letters. They totally did.

Cy Kellett: This was a big thing?

Jimmy Akin: Poor people loved letters.

Cy Kellett: Huh.

Jimmy Akin: They just absolutely loved them even though they couldn’t read because this is the only way. I mean, there’s no Facebook, there is no telephone. Letters are the only way you have to keep in touch with your loved ones who are on a business trip or moved or in the army or something like that. And so ordinary people loved, loved, loved letters. The way they would send them is they would find someone who just happened to be going where the letter needed to go.

Cy Kellett: Oh.

Jimmy Akin: And so if you knew your a friend is going to, let’s say, Thermopylae, and, “Oh, I’ve got a son in Thermopylae, bring him this letter, please. ”

Cy Kellett: Yeah. Right.

Jimmy Akin: Or even if it’s not Thermopylae, maybe he’s going to Alexandria. Well, that’s kind of near Thermopylae. “Please take this letter to Alexandria and give it to someone who can take it to Thermopylae.”

Cy Kellett: Wow.

Jimmy Akin: And so there was this informal network of where it might not even be the person who give the letter to that delivers it. It just finds its way through packet routing where it needs to go. And packet routing is actually the way information gets routed on the internet. When you send an email, it’s divided into packets that are then routed to convenient nodes and then reassembled at its destination, but it doesn’t have to take a direct route. That’s the point of the Internet because it was developed by DARPA, during the Cold War, as a way to have a communications grid in the event of cold war, in the event of a nuclear war. So if, let’s say, you’ve got a big communications hub in New York, but New York gets taken out by a nuke, well, then the orders can route around the New York hub through packet routing and get where they need to go.

Cy Kellett: I didn’t know. That’s fascinating.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah, that’s how we got the internet, and so they had packet routing–a form of it–to get letters where they needed to go in the ancient world. This system is actually still used today in underdeveloped … it’s much less common because now people have the internet and even in developing parts of the world, people have their phones and can communicate, but it’s still in use in areas that are economically underdeveloped. In some of the South Sea Islands and things like that and in parts of Southeast Asia, if you want to send a letter, you may just give it to someone who happens to be traveling in the right direction.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so, this was a means of communication then that is actually available to most people?

Jimmy Akin: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: Or to many people in any case, but people couldn’t read and write, though.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah. So, so you had to … what was typically done is you would hire a scribe. A scribe is a person who makes his money by living … makes his living by writing, and frequently they would serve as what’s called a scrivener. So you may not be, I mean, you could be Cicero and be so good at dictating letters that they have a high literary quality that will be remembered for centuries, in which case you just dictate the letter. But you may be a totally uneducated rural farmer who, you know, is on towards one unfashionable end of the bell curve in terms of, you know, IQ. And so you still want to tell your loved one that you love them and you’re doing okay, and you want to know how they are. But you’re kind of tongue tied.

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Jimmy Akin: And so the scribe will function as a scrivener and put your message in good words for you. So there’s kind of a spectrum in terms of how much an individual sending a letter determined the word, the exact words. He could insist, say, “Write this exactly,” but you also had scribes functioning as scriveners or amanuensis, that’s another term for this kind of function, where they would basically edit or even ghostwrite your letter for you. You could tell him, “I want to say this stuff,” and then he would say it in a nice way.

Cy Kellett: So it’s a different idea then of authorship than we have.

Jimmy Akin: Right.

Cy Kellett: Like today, if you say, “I’m the author,” and if somebody wrote a few sentences of it, you’d say, “Well, you’re not really the author, I think somebody else.”

Jimmy Akin: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: But this is a much more fluid concept of authorship.

Jimmy Akin: Correct. And we actually have things like this today. I mean, we do have ghost writers today, I mean, not for letters, typically, but for books. And we have copy editors, who even though they’re not ghosting for you, they will polish your writing. That’s actually a standard practice in the publishing industry. Everybody gets copy written before a book goes out.

Cy Kellett: Yeah. Okay. But there is in the ancient world-

Jimmy Akin: Or copyedited.

Cy Kellett: .. a very-

Jimmy Akin: Very fluid.

Cy Kellett: … very fluid sense of authorship.

Jimmy Akin: And this explains, in part, why some of the New Testament letters by the same author, it’s not the whole reason, but it’s part of the reason why, say, Paul’s letters don’t all sound exactly the same because he’s using different scribes. So the scribe has some degree of input depending on what the letter author is willing to give him, and we know Paul used different scribes during the course of his career, and that has … each one colors a letter he wrote a little bit.

Cy Kellett: And so, but Paul’s, my notion of Paul, has always been that he’s a very highly educated man-

Jimmy Akin: Mm-hmm. He is.

Cy Kellett: … and probably quite literate. That he could’ve written himself.

Jimmy Akin: He could have, and he did write what are called the postscripts.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Jimmy Akin: You know how when we’re finishing a letter, we’ll write PS at the bottom of it and put on a little added thing that maybe we forgot?

Cy Kellett: Yeah. Right.

Jimmy Akin: Well, the PS stands for postscript, which in Latin means after the writing, so you wrote the letter and now, oh, here’s this little bit from after the writing was done. And, and it was customary in the ancient world to include a postscript in the hand of the author. They didn’t sign letters the way we do. You put your name at the bottom. I would sign a letter “Jimmy Akin.” And they didn’t do that, but they would have the author write a short postscript, which does a couple of things. The first thing it does is it signifies that it authenticates the letter, which is the purpose of putting a signature at the bottom. I mean, it’s not to tell the person who wrote the letter. They could see that on the outside of the envelope today. You wouldn’t want to read this whole letter. “Oh, that’s who wrote this down at the bottom.”

Cy Kellett: Oh, yeah, right.

Jimmy Akin: But it’s to authenticate the letter, that this is my signature. This is not a forgery. No one wrote this letter and sent it on my behalf without my consent.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Jimmy Akin: And so the postscript did that, and so Paul will say … we can tell where his postscripts begin, and frequently he’ll say something that tells us that like, “See with what big letters I write with my own hand.”

Cy Kellett: I love that part. Yeah.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah. And it’s partly because he may have had vision difficulties. We have other reasons to suppose he had vision difficulties. It may also be because he wasn’t trained as a scribe, so he didn’t write small the way a professional scribe would to save paper, but he would write those. But it was customary for everybody to use a scribe, even if you were capable of writing. I mean, maybe a scribe himself wouldn’t, but ordinary people were not, even if they could read, reading and writing are two different skills. You know how lots of people, let’s say, your doctor can read, but then you look at what he writes on a prescription pad and it’s like, “I’m not sure he’s got the writing part down.”

Cy Kellett: No. Right. Yeah.

Jimmy Akin: And so even though Paul absolutely could read, he wasn’t trained professionally to be a careful scribe and have neat, good penmanship and small letters to save paper for your client and stuff like that.

Cy Kellett: Okay. So the letters, let’s take Paul’s letters then.

Jimmy Akin: All right.

Cy Kellett: Are they pretty typical of the mail of the day?

Jimmy Akin: Well, in some ways, yes. They follow the standard letter format. They’ll have the typical opening for a letter at the time, which is “Sender to Recipient.” So, like how we have it at the top-

Cy Kellett: At the top.

Jimmy Akin: … of the way, right?

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Jimmy Akin: At the top of an email, we’ll have sender and your name and then to, and whoever you’re sending it to.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Jimmy Akin: And they had something similar. They would say “Sender to Recipient,” so it’d be “Paul to the Churches of Corinth” or something like that. And then there would be a greeting and frequently a benediction. You’d wish the blessing of God or the gods on whoever you’re writing to, and then there would be a postscript at the end. But other than that, Paul’s letters are really, really, really different. I mean, just amazingly different. People do not realize this unless you’ve studied how ancient letters worked. Paul’s letters are freaks of nature by ancient letter standards.

Cy Kellett: So how are they different?

Jimmy Akin: Well, in a couple of ways. One way you’re going to find, as soon as you get the letter in your hands, it’s massive. The typical letter back then filled a page.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Jimmy Akin: These are not big pages, so it’s just a few dozen words is all a typical letter is. Even Cicero’s average letter is … and this is true, actually, of all of the letters in the New Testament, even the short ones like 2 John and 3 John and Jude and Philemon. Those are the four shortest. Even Cicero’s average letter is shorter than Paul’s shortest letter. All of Paul’s letters are longer than average by ancient standards, even for a literary figure who wasn’t just saying, “Hi, how are you? I’m fine. I hope you’re well.”

Cy Kellett: “Oh, this is Cicero”. Yeah.

Jimmy Akin: This is Cicero. Yeah. And even so, Paul’s letters are just massive. I did a calculation once, and I forget the exact number, but Romans is like 82 times the size of an ordinary letter.

Cy Kellett: Oh, wow.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah. So you can just imagine Paul has never visited Rome, and then the Romans get this monster kaiju letter in the mail.

Cy Kellett: Kaiju.

Jimmy Akin: And it’s like, “Wow.”

Cy Kellett: Yeah. Right. Okay.

Jimmy Akin: So just by physically feeling the letter, you were going to know this is something different.
Also when you open it up and you start reading it, you’re going to find differences, too, like he’s got co-authors. He’ll say things like, “Paul and Silvanus and Timothy to the church of Thessalonica.” When was the last time you got a letter, Cy Kellett, with co-authors?

Cy Kellett: No, never.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: I can’t think of that. Yeah, right.

Jimmy Akin: That does not happen. It didn’t happen today. It doesn’t happen today, and it didn’t happen then. So, this having coauthors in letters is totally unheard of. Now, the coauthors were definitely in the backseat. These are Paul’s letters, but he is allowing his co-ministers to serve some kind of role in them to validate their role as his co-ministers, if nothing else, but also to get input from them as the letter was being written. That’s something else that’s different in … another difference from the ancient world and today is they didn’t understand privacy back then, and so you had people around you basically all the time, including when you were writing your letters. So these pictures you see of Paul at a writing desk by himself writing a letter by himself?

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Jimmy Akin: No.

Cy Kellett: No.

Jimmy Akin: He would have had a scribe, and there would be lots of other Christian standing in the background listening, and there wouldn’t have been a writing table because they didn’t write on tables. What you’d do is you’d either stretch out your garment between your knees, or you just write on your knee.

Cy Kellett: Oh, okay.

Jimmy Akin: So we’d have a scribe with no table writing on his knee or his lap.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Jimmy Akin: But there would always be people around, and this happens even in some cultures today. I was reading a story about a missionary family. I think they were maybe in Indonesia or something. I think it was Indonesia. They had household servants. They employed locals, and the wife of the … The missionaries were from a Western country where we have high privacy expectations.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Jimmy Akin: And so she would just, at certain points, she would want to just go be alone. She’d go into the back room, so she could write her own letters to people, and correspond, or whatever. The servants would follow her so she wouldn’t have to be alone. It’s like being alone is a bad thing. And so that’s that same kind of ethic they had in Paul’s world. We can even see … we can even tell when in one point in 1 Corinthians, Paul is talking about how he didn’t baptize very many members of the Corinthian church, and he’s listing, “Well, I baptized this person and this person.”

Cy Kellett: “Oh, wait a minute…”

Jimmy Akin: “Oh, and I also baptized the house of this guy, and I don’t know if I baptized anyone else.” And the person he mentions is mentioned elsewhere in the letter as being with him at the time.

Cy Kellett: Okay, so it’s like, “Excuse me.”

Jimmy Akin: So it’s like as Paul’s dictating-

Cy Kellett: “Hey, you also …

Jimmy Akin: “You did me, too!”

Cy Kellett: Yeah, right. Don’t forget.

Jimmy Akin: “My whole family!” Yeah. So that’s-

Cy Kellett: Isn’t that funny? We can see that right in the content of the letter.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, because it is funny when you read it. It’s like, “I only baptized this one and this one …. oh yeah, I also baptized … I don’t know who else I baptized.”

Jimmy Akin: Yeah. But one of the things that the massive size of Paul’s letters show is these were, in his mind, major, major literary works. These were not letters he was just dashing off, and that’s significant because you’ll hear some people who don’t know anything about ancient letters saying like, “Oh, well Paul just wrote these letters. He didn’t intend them to be scripture or big literary productions, and nobody really cared about them at first. They only gained authority slowly over time.” No, no, no. These things were freakishly huge literary productions. They would have demanded authority right from the beginning.

Cy Kellett: Right. Right. So Paul-

Jimmy Akin: And part of the reason they would demand authority is the money that was involved because there is no cheap paper at this time. You have to have either animal skin parchment, which is expensive because you make it out of animals, or you have papyrus, which has to be handwoven from the papyrus reed in Egypt. You have this, each piece of writing material has to be handcrafted. So think about what that’s going to do to the price of writing materials, and then you have to have a scribe. The scribe, typically, he’s going to come to you. Now, he may have a reusable writing surface, like a piece of parchment he’s going to bleach later on to get the writing off of it or a wax tablet or something. But he’s going to come, he’s going to take down the notes. You’re going to have to pay him for that. Then he’s going to go off, and he’s going to make a draft of the letter. Typically he’s going to make two copies of it. One for you to send, and one for you to keep in your own archives if you’re a literary author.

Cy Kellett: Right.

Jimmy Akin: And then, if you don’t like what he’s done and you want revisions, I mean, you may be able to like hand write a few revisions in the margins, but otherwise if you need major stuff redrafted, you’re going to have to pay for all this all over again. So, letters were fantastically expensive if they were more than a page. That’s why most were only a page. And people really didn’t … They really said basically, “Hi, how are you? I’m fine.” They didn’t say a lot more than that. But Paul’s letters, these major meditations on God’s word and on morality, and it’s from an apostle, and he’s dropping the equivalent of hundreds or thousands of dollars to send this to you.

Cy Kellett: Right. He knew that he was making something of importance.

Jimmy Akin: Yeah.

Cy Kellett: And something maybe of permanence, like, “Okay, they’ll have this, and this will survive as instruction for them in the faith.”

Jimmy Akin: Right. Yeah. You’re not pitching this in the trash or just sticking it on the shelf and forgetting it.

Cy Kellett: Right. And so the interesting thing, and you mentioned this to me before, and I had never known this until I learned it from you, is that the likely collection of Paul’s letters, then, is not a matter of going around to different churches and, “Oh, hey, did you get something from Paul? We’re making a collection here.”

Jimmy Akin: Yeah. No.

Cy Kellett: That Paul himself kept a collection of his own letters.

Jimmy Akin: Right. That was standard for any author with literary pretensions. Cicero did that. The standard way that collections got formed is the author himself would do the first edition. He would select certain of his letters. He would then arrange them by some criterion, and then he also would probably revise them slightly. Then he would publish the first collected edition of his letters, and then later on he or his literary executors would produce a second expanded edition. We can often tell when the second expanded edition begins because they’ll stick the new letters at the end, following the same organizing principle the original author established. We see that in Paul’s letters.

Jimmy Akin: Paul’s letters are arranged in reverse order of size. Biggest first. Romans is the biggest. it’s the first. Well, I should say, we have kind of two sub collections. One is his letters to churches, and one is his letters to individuals. They’re both organized in this biggest-first thing, so Romans is the biggest letter to a church. It goes first. First and Second Thessalonians are the smallest letters to churches. They go last. First Timothy is the longest to an individual, so it goes first. Philemon is the shortest, so it goes last. But there’s a hiccup in the process.

Jimmy Akin: As you’re going through the letters. Okay, Romans is the biggest. 1 Corinthians is the next biggest. 2 Corinthians also goes to that same church. Galatians is smaller. Suddenly, Ephesians is bigger, and then it starts shrinking again. What that shows us is that the first edition of Paul’s letters was Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Jimmy Akin: And then later a second edition was prepared where additional letters, again from Paul’s archives, would have been included starting with Ephesians and then progressively getting smaller. We can even show that, as was normal in the ancient world for collected letter editions, Paul would have been the one to publish the first edition. We can show that because Paul is martyred in AD 67.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Jimmy Akin: But if you correctly date the first letter of Clement of Rome, it looks like it was written in the first half of AD 70, just after the disastrous Year of Four Emperors and before the destruction of the Jewish temple in August of 70 because Clement refers to a sudden series of repeated calamities that have hit Rome. That’s the year of Four Emperors because it was constant civil war during that year or waves of successive civil wars. And then he also talks about the temple in Jerusalem as if it’s still functioning, so it looks like it’s first half of AD 70.
Well, in First Clement, he’s writing to the Corinthians because they’ve had schism in their church, where certain people have been … the correct priests had been deposed, and he’s trying to get them to put them back in office. He reminds the Corinthians of “what Paul first wrote you,” and then he quotes 1 Corinthians.
Now you might say, “Well, okay, so 1 Corinthians is the first letter to the Corinthians.” No, it’s not. If you read 1 Corinthians, Paul refers to an earlier letter that he had sent the Corinthians and that is not in the New Testament. And so there’s another, there’s actually more than one, but there’s another earlier letter to the Corinthians, at least one.

Cy Kellett: It’s gone.

Jimmy Akin: But the fact that Clement refers to 1 Corinthians as the first one indicates he was familiar with a collection of Paul’s letters where it was first.

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Jimmy Akin: And so if you have a collection of Paul’s letters already circulating by the first half of AD 70, that’s so close to 67 when Paul’s martyred, that it’s almost certain that the normal ancient practice was followed of the first edition of collected letters being issued by the author himself from his own archives.

Cy Kellett: Isn’t that fascinating? And then, of course, with the martyrdom of Paul, they would have become extremely valuable.

Jimmy Akin: Right.

Cy Kellett: People would have, because they recognized Paul as an apostle, these would have been, “There’s no more of these coming. Let’s get them-”

Jimmy Akin: And so one of his literary executors, probably either Luke or Timothy because we know that they were both around at the time of Paul’s death, went through the remaining archives and produced a new expanded edition that included the other Pauline epistles, in all likelihood, all of them.

Cy Kellett: Man, so knowing a bit about ancient letters really helps us get an understanding, a much better understanding, of what is actually happening in the composition and dispersal of these letters.

Jimmy Akin: By the way, one little thing I wanted to mention that it’s kind of like the more things change, the more they stay the same. You know how when you’re late replying to someone, you always feel bad about that and apologize and explain why you’re so late replying?

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Jimmy Akin: Sometimes you would even get inquiries like, “Hey, why haven’t you responded yet?” Well, they did that in the ancient world, too. They loved getting letters so much that they would explain why they were so late in replying, and they would also say things like, “Write me back quickly. I want to know what’s happening with you.” And in one case, we actually have a letter, it was sent by an Egyptian, where he includes blank papyrus so that the recipient will not have an excuse for not writing back quickly.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, I’m going to try that with my kids. “I have included a blank text. Please use it to send me a text back.” Jimmy Akin, thanks very, very much.

Jimmy Akin: My pleasure.

Cy Kellett: Thank you for joining us on a Catholic Answers Focus. We love it when you do. Please share it by either giving us a like or a share or a comment wherever you get your podcast, and also let your friends know they can a join radio club. Just to give us your email at CatholicAnswersLive.com. Scroll down to the bottom where it says radio club, put your email in, and then you get a weekly alert when the new Focus are out, the new Focus episodes are out.

Jimmy Akin: Foci.

Cy Kellett: Foci are out. I am Cy Kellett your host. We’ll see you next time, God willing, on Catholic Answers Focus.

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