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The “Investment” of Early Christians in Texts

March 15, 2019

In previous posts I’ve emphasized the importance of early Christian manuscripts as material artifacts, not only copies of texts (e.g., here).  An associated matter is the effort and expense involved in the production, copying, and dissemination and usage of these texts as manuscript copies.  This is hardly explored, and it’s therefore difficult to find scholarly works that help us to do so.

But one scholar who has focused on this matter in a couple of books now is E. Randolph Richards, perhaps more accessibly in his book, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing:  Secretaries, Composition and Collection (Inter-Varsity Press, 2004).  Although it involves a good deal of careful estimation and inferences, Richards attempts to gauge the efforts and expense involved in the composition of Paul’s letters, and the preparation of them for dispatch to the churches that he addressed.  (The publisher’s online catalog entry is here.)

Richards rightly notes that Paul was leader of a “team”, at least some of whom served as his assistants in the preparation of his epistles, and occasionally as couriers as well.  Richards also surveys the material of ancient writing, and particularly the role of secretaries.

The matter that is most directly relevant to this blog post, however, is his effort to estimate the time and effort involved in preparation of Paul’s epistles for dispatch.  The composition of a sizable text such as the epistle to the Romans may have involved weeks, and several sessions of composition.  Based on the practices reported by other Roman-era authors, Richards proposes that each epistle likely went through a four-stage process:  an initial draft prepared from notes, a revision-draft, a polished draft prepared for dispatch, and a fair copy kept by Paul (p. 164).  Richards estimates that the copying of a draft of Romans would likely have required nearly 12 hours, perhaps spread over 2-3 days.

Then, there was the necessity of sending an epistle, which required specific arrangements, as there was no public postal system.  It is likely that Christians themselves served as couriers, some of them from Paul’s entourage.  Given the distances involved, they would have required food, lodging, and transportation.

All of this indicates an impressive commitment to the production and dissemination of texts in earliest Christian circles.  It illustrates my reasons for referring to early Christianity as a particularly “bookish religion” in my recent book:  Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016), pp. 105-41.  This tells us something about the internal “culture” of early Christianity, not only Paul.  And, though needing more scholarly exploration, we see in this the profound commitment of resources to the use of texts.  On this matter, I refer again to the landmark study by Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church:  A History of Early Christian Texts (Yale University Press, 1995).

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  1. John Mitrosky permalink

    I was wondering what you or Richards might think of my impression of Philemon as an exception? It seems to be Paul’s last letter written rather quickly by his own hand, in jail around 62 C.E., just before his probable martyrdom. Is it possible that the “fellow workers” Paul cites, “Mark” and “Luke” mentioned in verse 23 were also writers, whom gave us unknown and now lost proto-gospels, the namesakes for what eventually became the gospels of Mark and Luke?

    • John, Paul’s epistle to Philemon is formally co-authored with Timothy. And the careful way that the letter contents are laid out doesn’t look like it was dashed off in a hurry. I have no idea what “unknown and lost lost proto-gospels” you’re talking about! No help there.

  2. Thanks, I’ve placed the books on my shopping list.

    Are weaved leaves, in a roll, noticeable today in any of our extant mss?

    Would someone like Paul purchase parchment and ink in the big cities as he traveled or would he hire local secretaries (or use fellow companions) for his letters when he arrived at a destination; or, perhaps he took a draft-letter with him from place to place until ready for final copy? Also, I suppose he would have traveled with a knapsack (also for his tent-making tools) which would make him a target for thieves, etc?


    • Michael, Sheets of leather/parchment were attached to one another to form a continuous roll. It’s more likely that Paul sent letters on papyrus, as are most letters from Roman antiquity. He had a team with him who served as secretaries, copyists, couriers., etc.

  3. This seems to be eminently reasonable. The only point that I would add (and it may be covered in the book) is whether the recipients of Paul’s letters made copies of the original as a matter of course. Then, if so did individuals in the collection of people to whom the letters were addressed make copies for their own use, or perhaps was the production of copies ‘centralized?’ Either way, it seems to me that multiple early copies of letters (perhaps by unskilled writers, or people only interested in copying particular sections of a letter) were much more likely to have been written than multiple early copies of larger originals like gospels.

    • It is possible that those individuals in Paul’s churches who were literate may have made private copies of Paul’s letters for their own use. But we also have evidence of private copies of the Gospels as well. E.g., P22 is a private copy of GJohn.

  4. Thank you for the repost on “the landmark study by Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (Yale University Press, 1995).”. Just got it at Amazon!

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