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How Did Paul Write His Letters (Or Why His Letters Don’t Have Emotional Flourishes That Get Away With Him)


How did Paul write his letters?

Sometimes we read Paul and think, “Wow, his emotional intensity here really tells me how he feels” or “wow, he got lost in his argument due to his zealousness.” In fact, neither of these observations can be true.

We cannot psychoanalyze Paul nor gain insight into his emotional life in such a direct way. We cannot do so partly because of the nature of letter writing and because of Paul’s own testimony. These preclude us from making such judgments when we read him.

Paul could not have written letters with emotional flourish (at least not in a modern sense) for the following reasons:


  1. Letter writing was a slow and laborious process. No one could write a fast email or a fast letter. It cost lots of money, took considerable physical exertion, and took time.
  2. Paul in 8 of his 13 letters explicitly names co-sponsors writings letters with him (Timothy, Silvanus, the brethren with me, etc.). He wrote letters as part of a team.
  3. Paul used a secretary (amanuensis) who would have considerable freedom. For example, Tertius physically wrote the book of Romans: “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Rom 16:22).
  4. The diatribe and school-like Q&As in Paul as well as his midrashic exegesis imply his arguments spawned from conversation (perhaps among his coworkers?).
  5. Reading modern letter writing into the past anachronistically makes Paul feel like a romantic poet of the 19th century, laying it all out; or a modern blogger who writes speedily and makes mistakes.
  6. Ancient letters would have been delivered by someone who could explain the letter; and the letter would often be read out loud. Hence, letters were somewhat public. They were not the private affair of today.

All of this leads to the conclusion, as Luke Timothy Johnson notes, that Paul’s letters amount to persuasive rhetoric, thought-out, carefully crafted, and spawned from a community.

So what?

I agree. And I think this historical reality should in some ways change how we read Paul.

First, we likely should not see a rhetorical flourish and think: “Boy, that got away from him!” It did not. He planned it. It may come from his heart as even written sermons can today. But it was intentional. Writing was too cost-, time-, and effort-intensive to make the mistakes a blogger might today.

Second, we should step back and ask: what is Paul trying to persuade his audience of? What sort of things does his crafted argument aim to convey?

Third, we can appreciate the more communal writing style of Paul that conflicts with modern, western notions of the lone ranger writer. Paul wrote with friends, coworkers, and his secretary.

More could be said, but here are some thoughts!

This article originally appeared here.

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Wyatt is the Executive Director of The Gospel Coalition Canada. He enjoys his family and writing. You'll generally find him hiding away somewhere with his nose in a book. Twitter: wagraham; Instagram: wyattagraham. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.