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.