Texts and Their Reading Communities
In an interesting recent essay on Roman-era literary texts and the “reading communities” in which they were read, William Johnson comments about how certain literary texts can exercise an interesting role: “The text, that is, does not merely reflect or serve its readers, but projects and thereby actively seeks to create the ‘ideal’ reading community to which the writing aspires.” William A. Johnson, “Constructing Elite Reading Communities in the High Empire,” in Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome, ed. William A. Johnson and Holt N. Parker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 320-30, quotation from p. 329.
My immediate thought was whether we should consider a similar role exercised by Paul’s letters to his churches, and perhaps in Paul’s case, indeed, such an explicit intention. It is interesting to think of Paul’s letters as directed to, and as intended to shape, the early Christian “reading communities” to which they were directed, and then subsequently those other groups among which these letters circulated. We study Paul’s letters as reflections of him, his thought, his rhetoric and beliefs, and as reflections also of the Christian circles to which the letters were sent (often in response to reports of issues in these circles). But Johnson’s observation gives us another way to consider Paul’s letters (for, though formally letters, they are in content also “literary” texts), as texts that also had a role in creating and shaping those circles. Johnson shows that in pagan elite circles certain texts functioned in a dialectical manner with the groups that read them, and I think that we can posit something similar in the case of Paul’s letters.