Ancient Letters and Ancient Christian Letters
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 : 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!