Thursday, December 06, 2012

Lutz Doering's new book

Ancient Jewish Letters and the Beginnings of Christian Epistolography

Ancient Jewish letter writing is a neglected topic of research. Lutz Doering’s new monograph seeks to redress this situation. The author pursues two major tasks: first, to provide a comprehensive discussion of Jewish letter writing in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman periods and, second, to assess the importance of ancient Jewish letter writing for the emergence and early development of Christian epistolography. Although individual groups of Jewish letters have been studied before, the present monograph is the first one to look at Jewish letters comprehensively across the languages in which they were written and/or handed down (chiefly Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek). It operates with a broad concept of "letter” and deals with documentary as well as literary and embedded letters. The author highlights cross-linguistic developments, such as the influence of the Greek epistolary form on Aramaic and Hebrew letters or the non-idiomatic retention of Semitic "peace” greetings in some letters translated into Greek, which allowed for these greetings to be charged with new meaning. Doering argues that such processes were also important for early Christian epistolography. Thus, Paul engaged creatively with Jewish epistolary formulae. Frequent address of communities rather than individuals and the quasi-official setting of many Jewish letters would have provided relevant models when Paul developed his own epistolary praxis. In addition, the author shows that the concept of communication with the "Diaspora”, in both halakhic-administrative and prophetic-apocalyptic Jewish letters, is adapted by a number of early Christian letters, such as 1 Peter, James, Acts 15:23-29, and 1 Clement . Ancient Jewish and early Christian letters also share a concern with group identity and cohesion that is often supported by salvation-historical motifs. In sum, Lutz Doering addresses the previously under-researched text-pragmatic similarities between Jewish and Christian letters.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

More on Phoebe from my SBL paper

Ian Paul (over at Psephizo) summarises some aspects of my SBL presentation on Phoebe and Romans 16.1-2:
 Peter Head, of Tyndale House in Cambridge, takes issue with some of the claims Wright makes here. Peter is something of the ‘go to’ man on the question of letter carriers, and his critique arises from the paper he gave at the annual Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference two weeks ago in Chicago. (Peter is also a very entertaining conference room-mate, but that is another story.)
Peter makes a number of important points in his paper, a copy of which he kindly sent me. Firstly, he points out that it is now assumed that the language of commendation means Phoebe was both carrier and lector (reader) of Romans, and therefore a key interpreter of it (he cites Wagner and Campbell)—but without real evidence to back this up. So, secondly, he looks at the role of letter-carriers in the ancient world, drawing on 836 letters of Cicero, around 400 letters from Oxyrhynchus, and a collection of around 90 Jewish letters. These collections are diverse, controlled (in that they have not been selected out for this purpose), and yield a consistent picture.
Around 10% of the letters name a letter carrier, and the language used parallels Paul’s language about Phoebe. It is also clear that the letter carrier has some sort of key role in communication of the letter contents, and this is often in a situation where there has been or is some danger of miscommunication. But there is no evidence that the carrier was the lector, which is surprising. Peter does, however, emphasise that the carrier did have an important role in communication, in that they had been in the presence of the writer, and understood the context, thought the exact details of this are not specified.
Peter also makes some other facscinating observations about Phoebe’s role. The language of Rom 16.1–2 has the ‘clearest cluster of recommendatory language in any of Paul’s letters.’ In turn, we can see that the ‘welcome’ and ‘reception’ of Phoebe resonates with a key theme in the body of the letter—the need for the Christians in Rome to welcome one another. So Phoebe, by her presence, in effect embodies the message of the letter. In addressing the Christians in Rome as one, Paul is by a speech act constituting them as church, and in their response to Phoebe giving them the chance to act out his invitation to live in unity in Christ.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

N.T. Wright on Phoebe

I was interested to see Tom Wright's piece in the Times (of London) concerned with the Church of England's vote on Women Bishops: Women Bishops: It’s about the Bible, not fake ideas of progress (here from Fulcrum since the Times is behind a paywall). Even my kids were at least mildy impressed that letter carriers could be mentioned in the Times and perhaps be relevant to a contemporary debate. Here is what he said there about Phoebe:
He [i.e. Paul] entrusted that letter [i.e. Romans] to a “deacon” called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.
I think this gets some things right and others not.

Firstly on the "right" side: I agree that Phoebe carried Romans; I agree that she was a "deacon" (I could almost envisage this as arising from some sort of "ordination", as it does look like an office of some sort - although not perhaps as formal as this sounds today); I agree that this shows an exceptional level of trust on Paul's part (both practically and pastorally); and I agree that she would have had a role in explaining the contents of Romans (although I'm not sure that "expositor" is a good word for this).
On the negative side it is not the case that letter carriers read letters to recipients. There is no evidence for this in antiquity and there is a load of evidence against it. I think that is plain wrong and argued so in Chicago at SBL last week. (I know it is repeated a lot by NT scholars, but that doesn't mean there is any evidence for it). Further the notion of Phoebe as a "travelling businesswoman" who is going to Rome for her work has only the slenderest basis in the text of Rom 16.1f, which has the typical and deliberate vagueness characteristic of letters of recommendation.

I also agree that the figure of Phoebe, her (imagined) role as "deacon" and her (anticipated) role as letter carrier, are of importance (among a load of other evidence) for considering Paul's view of female Christian leaders (although I don't agree that one can so easily side-step the more negative passages).

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

BGU 1079

Σαραπίων Ἡρακλείδῃ τῷ
ἡμετέρῳ χα(ίρειν). ἔπεμψά σοι
ἄλλας δύο ἐπιστολάς,
διὰ Νηδύμου μίαν , διὰ
Κρονίου μαχαιροφόρου
μίαν · λοιπὸν οὖν ἔλα-
βον παρὰ το(ῦ) Ἄραβος τὴν
ἐπιστολὴν καὶ ἀνέ-
γνων καὶ ἐλυπήθην.

 This is a much discussed letter BGU IV. 1079 (= CPJ II 152; White, LAL, No. 87; Sel. Pap. I 107; W.Chr. 60) because of the later reference to 'the Jews'. But the opening is interesting for a number of reasons:
  1. reference to earlier correspondence often (as here) identifies the letters by their respective carriers: 'I sent two other letters to you, one through Nedymos, one through Kronios the swordsman'.
  2. here we find explicit, what I think is implicit in the use of  ἔπεμψά σοι ... διὰ, that is that it refers to the letter carrier.
  3. παρὰ is used for receipt of a letter by the agency of a letter carrier: 'Finally, then, I received your letter from the Arab ...' 
  4. the received letter is read by the recipient (not by the letter carrier, this never happens!)
  5. the author uses  λοιπὸν very early in a much longer letter (cf. 1 Cor 1.16; 7.29; Phil 3.1 - also late in letters: 2 Cor 13.11; Phil 4.8; 2 Thess 3.1; 2 Tim 4.8).

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Epistolary security problem.

In Suetonius' life of Augustus he describes how Augustus could be on occasion forgiving, and on other occasions severe. Among the examples of severity we read the following:
he broke the legs of his secretary Thallus for having betrayed the contents of a letter for 500 denarii
(Suetonius, Augustus, 67)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Interesting comment on interpreting potentially ambiguous expressions in written documents:

In the first place it should be shown, if possible, that there is no ambiguity in the statement, because in ordinary conversation everyone is accustomed to use this single word or phrase in the sense in which the speaker will prove that it should be taken. In the second place it must be shown that from what precedes or follows in the document the doubtful point becomes plain. Therefore if words are to be considered separately by themselves, every word, or at least many words, would seem ambiguous; but it is not right to regard as ambiguous what becomes plain on consideration of the whole context. In the next place, one ought to estimate what the writer meant from his other writings, acts, words, disposition and in fact his whole life, and to examine the whole document which contains the ambiguity in question in all its parts, to see if any thing is apposite to our interpretation or opposed to the sense in which our opponent understands it. For it is easy to estimate what it is likely that the writer intended from the complete context and from the character of the writer, and from the qualities which are associated with certain characters. Cicero, De Inventione, II.116-117 (ET: H.M. Hubbell, Loeb, 1949).
Very sensible advice for the interpretation of written texts: ordinary usage, documentary context, authorial setting. I am interested in this last aspect especially, that the interpretation of a text (or a difficulty in a text) ought to take account of "what the writer meant from his other writings, acts, words, disposition and in fact his whole life", since this is precisely what a letter carrier could contribute to the reception and interpretation of a Pauline letter (cf. esp. Col 4.7-9).

Thursday, April 05, 2012

SBL 2012 Phoebe the Letter Carrier

Looks like I'm going to be busy in Chicago:

Dear Peter,

Congratulations, your paper, Phoebe the letter carrier and the delivery and initial reception of Romans, was accepted for the 2012 Annual Meeting program unit Pauline Epistles. The meeting will be held in Chicago, IL from 11/17/2012 to 11/20/2012.

Please note that, by submitting a paper proposal or accepting a role in any affiliate organization or program unit session at the Annual or International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, you agree to participate in an open academic discussion guided by a common standard of scholarly discourse that engages your subject through critical inquiry and investigation.

Should your proposal be accepted, please also note that all meeting participants must be registered by June 1.

Please ensure that you familiarize yourself with the Requirements for Participation.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Opening Paul's Letters

Over at Crux Sola Nigay Gupta has a review of Patrick Gray's new book, Opening Paul's Letters, which he quite likes except for the fact that he has "very little discussion of letter-carriers and their roles (see only short discussion ~p. 136)".
Gray's comment was:
‘Paul’s coworkers who delivered his letters did not drop them in the mailbox and then go on their way but, rather, would likely have read them aloud to the recipients and been available to explain the significance of the references they contained.’ Opening Paul’s Letters: A Reader’s Guide to Genre and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 136.
This comes in the context of a discussion about Paul's use of the Old Testament in his letters (hence 'explain the significance of the references', i.e. to the Old Testament).

Three main ideas here, and I would score this at 1.5 out of 3.

The idea that letter carriers don't drop the letter and move right on is a good idea. Hence the introduction and request for help in relation to Phoebe. The introduction helps to initiate a relationship. Not necessary to think of a long stay in Rome of course.

The idea that the letter carrier is the reader/performer of a Pauline letter is becoming more widespread even as it becomes clearer (to me anyway) that there is no evidence for such a practice in antiquity. Nor does Gray offer any evidence. Of course, the fact that none of the advocates of such a theory do offer any evidence in its support ought to be enough of a warning to careful readers. And it hardly fits with waiting until chapter 16 before actually introducing Phoebe.

The idea that the letter carrier is on hand to be available to aid the reception and understanding of a letter is a good one. The further idea that someone like Phoebe (or any of the other Pauline letter carriers) would have been equipped to explain all the details of Paul's use of the Old Testament is probably, in my view, taking a reasonable idea a bit too far.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

SBL 2012 Paper accepted

Dear Peter,
Congratulations, your paper, The Role of Tychicus in Col 4.7-9 (with an old approach to the text of 4.8), was accepted for the 2012 Annual Meeting program unit Disputed Paulines. The meeting will be held in Chicago, IL from 11/17/2012 to 11/20/2012.
Please note that, by submitting a paper proposal or accepting a role in any affiliate organization or program unit session at the Annual or International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, you agree to participate in an open academic discussion guided by a common standard of scholarly discourse that engages your subject through critical inquiry and investigation.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Paul to Seneca (II)
I was happy to receive your letter yesterday. I could have answered it at once if I had had the young man at hand whom I intended to send to you. You well know when and through whom, at what time and to whom something ought to be given for transmission. I beg you therefore not to think yourself neglected, while I have regard to the trustworthiness of the person. ...
So I was wondering whether I could use this as one aspect of the reception historical evidence for Paul as a user of letter carriers. My caution would be that these letters (4th cent. AD pseudonymous collection) exhibit several other epistolary commonplaces, so it might not offer evidence of anything other than an author sprinkling his compositions with authentic sounding epistolary themes.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Mike Bird posted a comment on Cicero and Letter Carriers, reflecting (a little too superficially) on a single quote from Atticus 1.13:
In these letters, indeed, I am urgently pressed by you to send answers, but what renders me rather dilatory in this respect the difficulty of finding a trustworthy carrier. How few of these gentry are able to convey a letter rather weightier than usual without lightening it by skimming its contents! (Letter XVIII).
Mike said:
This would suggest that some letter carriers were not just Roman fedex delivery boys, but were responsible for reading the letters on delivery. Interesting implications for the role of Phoebe in Romans and Tychicus in Colossae!
My comments (from his blog - where there are obviously intervening comments which I haven't posted here):
  1. Mike, nothing in that comment suggests your conclusion that Ciceronian letter carriers "were responsible for reading the letters on delivery". That does not follow.
  2. Ah. No that is not what Cicero meant. His primary issue is confidentiality, not skim reading at the destination. 'Convey a letter' means simply deliver the letter to its recipient. The reference to lightening the letter is a humorous figure of speech referring to reading the letter. Later in this same letter (Att. I 13) he refers to the risk that a letter might be lost, opened or intercepted. He adds, 'I dare not intrust a letter on such weighty matters to such a casual nobody’s son as this messenger.'
  3. I don't recall any incident where Cicero refers to including money inside a letter. I don't think that is relevant here. He is worried that the letter carrier might read a fullsome and confidential letter. In fact he is so concerned by this possibility that he won't actually write the letter he would like to write (which would have included full answers to Atticus' questions). So it is an interesting situation where the presence/absence of a letter carrier impacts the composition and the contents of the letter. Lacking a trust-worthy letter carrier Cicero has to write a shorter, less detailed letter. The implication, in this situation, would be that Cicero did not want such a letter carrier to do any more than simply deliver the letter.

    Cicero has another delivery problem which he mentions here and in some other letters of the period, that he is not sure where Atticus is, so can't give detailed instructions to a letter carrier.