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Ancient Letters and Ancient Christian Letters

November 15, 2013

In comments on another posting, Geoff Hudson inquired about some of the physical features of ancient letters of the Roman period.  This calls for a renewed recommendation of David Aune’s book, The New Testament in its Literary Environment (1987), esp. chapt 5 (“Letters in the Ancient World”), and chap 6 (“Early Christian Letters and Homilies”).

One of Geoff’s questions was about length of letters.  One analysis of many surviving Greek letters yielded these data:  Papyri letters average 87 words, and hardly ever exceed 200 words.  The 796 letters by Cicero range from 22 to 2530 words, with an average of 295 words.  The 124 extant letters of Seneca range from 149 to 4134 words, averaging 955 words.  By comparison, e.g., Romans (Paul’s longest) has 7101 words, and Philemon is Paul’s shortest with 355 words.  (Martin R. P. McGuire, “Letters and Letter Carriers in Christian Antiquity,” The Classical World 53 [1960]: 148-53, 184-85, 199-200, citing p. 148.)

As Aune shows, though the overwhelming mass of extant ancient letters served rather simple communication purposes and were very brief, we also have letters used for much more ambitious purposes (literary, diplomatic, philosophical, etc.), and so much longer.  Paul’s letters are definitely tending in the direction of much more serious and so extended purposes!

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  1. Geoff Hudson permalink


    Thanks for this. I presume that none of the extant letters of Cicero and Seneca are documentary?

    Paul’s letter to the Romans (7101 words) would seem to be an outlier compared to Cicero’s maximum of 2530 words and Seneca’s of 4134 words. These long letters would either have been on a roll, or they would have been several sheets of parchment. Which do you think?

    • Geoff: By “documentary” do you mean . . . simply what, routine communication as distinguished from letters containing more discoursive material? If so, the answer is that the contents of these letters vary considerably from simpler communication to content of a much more “literary2 nature. Letters of the length of the longer ones would have been sent on a roll/scroll.

      • Geoff Hudson permalink


        I believe documentary can mean original, a literary autograph, that gives bona fide historical data. It is a term I learned when I read Golb’s book; Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, see pages 54 to 57. The lack of documents found at Qumran (the scrolls were all smooth copies produced by scribes, according to Golb) was the main reason for Golb saying that the DSS could not have been originated there. The residents of Qumran would surely have kept some originals as precious. He says that originals are always characterized by rough, cursive, and irregular writing, as well as by numerous erasures and marginal additions. He also says that the only document found at Qumran was the copper scroll which is very irregular.

      • Geoff: In the study of ancient texts, “documentary” texts are such things as letters, shipping manifests, tax rolls, land deeds, marriage contracts, et al., i.e., texts indicative of some transaction in life. And these are typically “autographs”, i.e., people rarely made copies of them. The other main category is “literary” texts, e.g., historical, philosophical, religious, poetic, fiction, etc. And among these we scarcely ever have an “autograph”. The authors made their working copies, but then a “fair copy” that was used to make copies, from which subsequent copies were made, and so on. We do not have autograph for any literary text from Roman/Greek era antiquity, to my knowledge. So, the absence of an “autograph” of a literary text is totally unremarkable.

    • Geoff Hudson permalink


      But the absence of an autograph at Qumran is remarkable. Assuming that manuscripts were written at the factory of Qumran, surely some scrap of a discarded original would have been discovered. According to Golb, all the Qumran manuscripts were at least two stages away from an original. Thus I find it difficult to accept quite such a sharp distinction that you describe for literary texts and non literary texts, especially with regard to Qumran.

      The Copper Scroll (one of two copies) is documentary. “Paul’s letters” would presumably have once been documentary. May be ‘Romans’ was originally written with a normal range of words for a letter. Golb says that the Bar Kohkba letters showed rough, cursive, and irregular writing, numerous erasures and marginal additions (See page 52 of his book). The point is that any original written text, literary or otherwise, was characterised by such. The first writing was usually rough.

      • Well, Geoff, whatever your difficulty in accepting the categories that I described, they are the accepted categories that we who work with ancient manuscripts use. As to you final comments, yes, initial drafts of literary texts would show such things, but so do subsequent copies, indeed often. But this site isn’t about Qumran, so let’s not get off into that.

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