Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
Some folks have the idea that the authors of the New Testament did not know that they were writing Scripture.
According to this view, they just thought they were writing Christian literature, and the Church gradually—even a century or more later—recognized that it was Scripture.
Some time ago, I wrote about this issue, and I argued that the authors of several books in the New Testament clearly knew that they were writing Scripture, right from the get-go.
These books were Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, and Revelation.
That’s everything in the New Testament except the letters.
So what about them?
The Case Against
If any authors of the New Testament weren’t aware or weren’t clear that they were writing Scripture, it would be the authors of the letters.
There are several things you might appeal to if you wanted to argue for this view:
- There isn’t a prior precedent for letters as Scripture. None of the books of the Old Testament are letters. Some have historical accounts that contain letters, but none are letters. As a result, the New Testament authors of letters would have been striking out in new conceptual territory to think of their works as Scripture. Letters in their day weren’t thought of as Scripture any more than letters in our day typically are. What’s more, in their day there was no precedent for thinking of letters as Scripture (whereas, at least in our day, we can look back on the letters of the New Testament).
- Many of the letters may have been written before the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation. If so, they were written before the Christian works whose authors have clear scriptural intent. Consequently, they may have been written before it was clear that there would be any Christian Scriptures, which would be another conceptual hurdle for the early letter writers to jump.
- The letters often contain material that is local and situational—e.g., Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians about how to discipline a particular man (1 Cor. 5:1-5) or his offer to pay Philemon to compensate him for money or goods that Onesimus may have stolen (Philemon 18-19). Such passages are more specific than the more general matters we find discussed in clearly-recognizable books of Scripture.
Still, this doesn’t mean that the authors of the New Testament letters didn’t recognize that they were writing Scripture.
Here I’d like to suggest one reason which supports the idea that Paul, in particular, did recognize it.
First Century Letters
Most of us don’t have any exposure to first century letters other than those found in the New Testament.
As a result, it’s easy for us to have misconceptions about them and how they were written.
For example, the picture above is the product of later artistic imagination. Paul did not write his letters personally, alone, or at a table!
We can also miss how unique Paul’s letters are. They are not typical of the letters in the ancient world.
One way they are different is very simple: their size.
In his excellent book Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition, and Collection, Randolph Richards writes:
The typical papyrus letter consisted of one or two sheets. Paul’s letters were not typical length. We think of Philemon as a very short letter, but in actuality, it was a fairly typical letter in length, perhaps even a trifle long. Imagine the church’s surprise when Paul’s letter to the Romans arrived! (p. 52)
How long, specifically, were ancient letters?
Writing out a dispatched copy of a letter of Paul was complicated by the fact that Paul’s letters were inordinately long. The typical papyrus letter was one papyrus sheet. In the approximately 14,000 private letters from Greco-Roman antiquity, the average length was about 87 words, ranging in length from 18 to 209 words. The letters of the literary masters, like Cicero and Seneca, were considerably longer. Nonetheless, Paul stands apart from them all. (p. 163)
Let’s take Cicero as an example. He was one of the most famous letter-writers of the ancient world, and his letters have remained in print to this day.
Here’s an example of a letter from Cicero—the kind he (and his audience) thought worth preserving and publishing in his volumes of collected letters. This one was sent to his friend Atticus in Athens in December of 68 B.C.:
All's well at your mother's, and I keep an eye on her.
I have undertaken to pay L. Cincius 20,400 sesterces to your credit on the Ides of February.
Pray see that I receive at the earliest possible opportunity what you say in your letters that you have bought and secured for me.
I should also be very much obliged if you would, as you promised, think over the means of securing the library for me.
My hope of getting the one enjoyment which I care for, when I come to retire, depends entirely on your kindness (The Letters of Cicero, vol. 1, III [A 1, 7]).
This letter is only 97 words long in English (minus the greeting, etc., which isn’t included here). That makes it a bit longer than the average ancient letter (87 words).
It’s a bit short for Cicero, though. His average was 295 words in Latin. But that’s Cicero’s average.
Now let’s compare it to Paul’s shortest letter: Philemon.
Philemon is 335 words long in Greek, which means that Paul’s shortest letter is longer than Cicero’s average one.
By contrast, Paul’s average letter is 2,495 words, which is more than 8 times Cicero’s average and almost 30 times the average ancient letter.
Paul’s letters are huge by ancient standards.
They’re epistolary monsters, and Paul’s longest letter—Romans—runs to 7,114 words in Greek.
That makes it 82 times the length of the average ancient letter, so Romans is the city-stomping kaiju of Paul’s literary corpus.
Richards is right: The Romans would have been shocked when Paul’s letter courier showed up with his letter to them!
(In fact, there’s reason to think that they may have gotten something even bigger and more shocking than Romans alone in the mail, but that’s a story for another time.)
How Much This Cost
Writing letters of Pauline length was not cheap. Paper (papyrus or parchment) was hand-made and expensive.
So were the secretaries who prepared the drafts and final copy for mailing (as well as the copy literary figures like Paul tended to retain for their records).
While it’s difficult to make cross-cultural cost comparisons, by one way of estimating it, Romans would have cost Paul $2,275 to produce (Richardson, p. 169).
This would have been no small amount for an itinerant preacher who eked out a living making tents on the side.
In fact, Paul was almost certainly dependent on the donations of wealthy patrons to be able to produce letters like this.
Between the impressive length and investment that Paul sank in writing his letters, one conclusion is clear: Paul knew he was doing something extraordinary.
The fact that he so dramatically breaks the literary customs of his day and spends large amounts of money doing so indicates how important his letters were to him.
This, coupled with their theological content, indicates that—at a minimum—Paul thought he was producing highly important works of Christian literature.
Important enough to rank as Scripture?
It’s a distinct possibility, and the length and cost of his works aren’t the only reason for thinking so.
We’ll go into additional reasons in another post, but for now it’s worth noting the implications of the sheer size and cost of his letters.
If you’re interested in learning more about the subject, I’d recommend Randolph Richards’ book Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition, and Collection.
It covers not only the length and cost issues but also many other aspects of first-century letter writing that most of us have no idea about—as well as the implications for our understanding of Paul.
I was delighted when this book recently came out on the Logos Bible software platform.
Personally, I use the Catholic version of Logos—Verbum—every day as part of my research, and I highly recommend it, too.
If you’re interested in checking it out, you can click here (affiliate link), and I can save you 15% on their base packages if you use the code JIMMY1 at checkout.
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