Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Paul's Form of Letter Writing

The Apostle Paul inherited—and modified—the practice and style of Hellenistic letter writing common to the Roman world of the first century.

I. Common Greek letters in the first-century CE were structured in three sections.

Introduction (prescript or salutation) including sender, addressee, greetings, and often additional greetings or wishes for good health.

Text or Body introduced with a characteristic introductory formula.

Conclusion including greetings, wishes, especially for persons other than the addressee, final greeting or prayer sentence, and sometimes dating.

Consider this typical example:

Irenaeus to Apollinarius his dearest brother many greetings. I pray continually for your health. And I myself am well. I wish you to know that I reached land on the sixth of the month and we unloaded our cargo on the eighteenth of the same month. The place welcomed us as the god willed, and we are daily expecting our discharge, it so being that up till today that nobody in the corn fleet has been released. Many salutations to your wife, and to Serenus and to all who love you, each by name. Goodbye.

Divergences from this style are few, but may include (1) more ornamented language, (2) more extensive expressions of relationship, and (3) multiplication of greetings.

The Greek letter was built around a previous relationship. Friendship or family relation was presumed by most private correspondence. Private letters presumed a reply in action or letter.

II. Paul's letters build on these standard letter-writing conventions.

Paul's letters fell well within these basic standard forms.

Remember: (1) Paul's letters were not simply private letters, but were written to communities of believers—to be read aloud—for their common life, and (2) Paul's letters must be understood by the "life situation" to which or about which he was writing. Each letter speaks to a specific sociological and historical situation.

Paul was rarely the sole author listed in his letters. Note the multiple authors:  I Corinthians with Sosthenes; II Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, and Colossians with Timothy; and I and II Thessalonians with Timothy and Silvanus (probably Silas) .

The letters of Paul were the earliest Christian literature dating from approximately the middle of the first century. Paul's use of the letter-form was so effective that many other Christian leaders also began expressing themselves in this way. Also many copied Paul's specific style and vocabulary. (This imitation of Paul's style continued well beyond the apostolic age. Compare the letters of Ignatius and Clement in the second century.)

Paul's Modified Letter Form
  1. Opening - Sender, addressee, and greeting—most often with multiple authors.
  2. Thanksgiving or Blessing - Often with intercession and/or eschatological climax.
  3. Body - Introductory formula, often with an eschatological conclusion and/or an indication of future plans.
  4. Paraenesis - Ethical, edifying material often associated with moral instruction or preaching.
  5. Closing - Benedictory formula and greetings. Sometimes mention of the writing process.
For more information, consult Stanley Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity (Westminster, 1986) and William Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity (Fortress, 1973).


  1. Excellent summary, Joe, of 1st century letter-writing protocols and how Paul used them. It might seem surprising to us in the modern world, but handbooks on letter-writing style were actually available in the 1st century, assisting the writer in business, official, public and discursive letters. One fascinating feature of the typical letter was the standard greeting, which is the Greek expression chairein, idiomatically meaning “greeting” (though quite literally it is the infinitive “to joy”). One finds it, for instance, in the letter composed by James and the Jerusalem church when writing to Paul’s new churches (Ac. 15:23) as well as in the letter composed by Claudius Lysias to Felix (Ac. 23:26). The letter of James has it as well (Ja. 1:1). This introductory formula was so common as to be comparable to our own “Dear….” Paul, however, changes this word in his letters for one that sounds similar but which has a distinctively Christian meaning. Instead of chairein, Paul invariably uses the word charis, which means “grace”. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but it opens a window to a subtle touch.

  2. Dan: When I reviewed the introductory greetings of the various Pauline letters, I was very surprised to find that 5 of the 7 undisputed Pauline letters where attributed to multiple writers. Only Romans and Galatians were attributed to Paul alone.

    Among the disputed letters, both II Thessalonians and Colossians are attributed to multiple authors. (It seems reasonable to me that given the nature of the Pastorals, these should only be attributed to a sole rather than multiple authors.)

    Of the combined undisputed and disputed letters of Paul - not counting the Pastorals - only Galatians, Romans, and Ephesians are attributed to Paul alone.

    This is a simple observation that I had missed in all of my study of these letters.

    [Let me also say that in my advanced years I have abandoned all my skepticism about the Pauline authorship of the disputed letters. If you see I Thessalonians as Pauline, there is nothing to keep you from reaching the same conclusion about II Thessalonians. If you can accept Philippians as authentic, then the close theology of Colossians seems Pauline as well. Admittedly, Ephesians is unique among the Pauline letters and the Pastorals are hard to place in the various reconstructed chronologies of Paul's life. But with Luke Timothy Johnson, I am persuaded that all 13 letters - the undisputed and disputed - are authentically Pauline.]

    1. It is a little tricky, I suppose, to know whether the attribution of multiple authorship indicates a truly joint effort or was more-or-less a courtesy on Paul's part to include his colleagues. I confess I don't know the answer, but I would offer an observation about Philippians, for instance. This letter is ostensibly from Paul and Timothy, but once one passes the introduction, first person singular pronouns are consistently used throughout, suggesting that Timothy's role may have been more of an honorary or advisory one.

      Like you (and Luke Johnson, whose work on the pastorals is magisterial in my view), I have no hesitation in attributing the pastorals to Paul, and indeed never have, the sparseness of data about Paul's closing years notwithstanding. Maybe he was released after appearing before Nero and may he wasn't, but either way, I can't see any compelling reason why he could not have written these works. While I have followed all the arguments from Bultmann, Wayne Meeks, Kummel, etc. and etc., their reasoning was less than convincing. This is not to say there are not some problems to be solved, but such problems are present in any historical endeavor. I do find it a bit surprising that Luke says nothing about Paul's letters in the Book of Acts, even though certainly Paul was writing during his missionary travels. Given that Luke himself was a writer (or would be), it's the sort of thing one might have expected him to comment about. In any case, he didn't.