Papyri Letters and New Testament Letters

Recently, my work on my MPhil thesis has made me think a little bit about the letter-form of Pauline letters. It occurred to me that this is a very good illustration of how knowledge about the ancient world helps us to read Scripture better. I am thinking in particular about non-literary letters that are known from papyri and their ability to inform our understanding of New Testament letters. 

Papyri from Oxyrynchus

Egypt came under British rule in 1882, and this allowed for large-scale archaeological exploration of the country. (A great number of artefacts were taken out of the country, which would be, of course, considered unethical today.) In 1896 two archeologists begun excavating rubbish mounds near the city Oxyrhynchus where they found a true treasure: a huge amount of ancient papyri documents. The number of documents found was so large that many of them are still unpublished to this day. Only about 10% of Oxyrychus papyri are literary texts and some of the literary manuscripts found there are of no small importance. But other, non-literary documents are no less important. We can discover a lot about the ancient world from business and private letters, contracts, bills, etc.

New Testament Letters and Non-Literary Letters

German scholar Adolf Deissmann was so impressed by Greek non-literary letters that in his book Light from the Ancient East, first published in 1908, he argued that all Pauline letters are in fact non-literary and should be distinguished from literary documents (epistles):

(…) I have no hesitation in maintaining the thesis that all the letters of Paul are real, non-literary letters. St. Paul was not a writer of epistles but of letters; he was not a literary man. His letters were raised to the dignity of literature afterwards (…)1

Deissmann’s claim was overstated, and it was subsequently corrected in several ways. There are various literary forms in Pauline letters (and there are literary forms in genuine private letters). Pauline letters cannot be taken as ‘private’ letters being addressed to the communities. But the basic observation that Pauline letters are situation-specific and that non-literary letters can provide us with some analogies is still true.2

Some Examples of Letter Formulae

One possible way in which ancient letters inform our reading of New Testament letters is their use of similar formulae to indicate various transition points in them. Just as today we often use certain formulaic phrases to indicate new thoughts in our texts, these documents have their formulaic transition-markers.3 Here are some examples:

Petition/Request

In his paper Mullins identifies four different types of petitions in Greek letters: routine, formal, familiar and personal.4 Petitions using forms of δέομαι are formal. Hence we can probably read requests in 2 Cor 5:20, 8:4 or Gal 4:12 as less personal but conveying a certain sense of urgency. On the other hand, petitions using παρακαλέω can be read as more personal and warm in tone (2 Cor 2:8, Rom 12:1, 15:30, 1 Cor 4:16 etc.).

Rebuke

In Galatians 1:6 Paul uses a formula of rebuke: I am astonished that… The same formula is used in non-literary documents to indicate a complaint, for example: I marvel that you have not written back to me. In many cases it may be even ironic (the author does not marvel at all) though this is not always the case and it does not have to be so in Galatians.

Disclosure

A thought-transition is often expressed by various disclosure formulae (e.g. Gal 1:11, Rom 1:13, 1 Thess 2:1). Similar formulae are also used in letters known from papyri. Paying attention to them can help us to recognise minor transition-points in New Testament letters.

Thanksgiving

Most of Pauline letters begin with a section where apostle gives thanks to God for his recipients. Although thanksgivings are relatively rare feature of Greek letters they are not unheard of. For example, certain Roman soldier Apion wrote in 2nd century AD a letter to his father in Philadelphia (in today’s Faiyum). After initial greetings, he goes on with a thanksgiving addressed to Serapis for protection in danger on the sea. This sentence of thanksgiving allows him to make a transition from the greetings to the main subject matter.5

These are of course only a few examples of various letter forms. There are formulae of opening and closing, and expressions of joy, and formulaic use of verbs of hearing. But I think this is a good illustration of how knowledge about rather mundane things in the ancient world, like the  form of private letters, can be helpful for readers of Holy Scripture.


Cover image is the photo of P.Oxy. 4 744 taken from Papyri.info. It is a letter written by certain Hilarion to his wife Alis on 17th June 1 BC. The full image, transcription and English translation can be found on aforementioned website.

  1. A. Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Greaco-Roman World (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1927), 240.
  2. Cf. Richard Longenecker, Galatians (Dallas, Tx.: Word Books, 1990), ci-ciii.
  3. See following articles for examples and discussion: John L. White, ‘Introductory Formulae in the Body of the Pauline Letter’, Journal of Biblical Literature 90, no. 1 (1971): 91-97; Terence Y. Mullins, ‘Formulas in New Testament Epistles’, Journal of Biblical Literature 91, no. 3 (1972): 380–90.
  4. Mullins, 380.
  5. Berliner griechische Urkunden 2:423. The papyrus and its transcription can be found on BerlinerPapyrusdatenbank website.

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