A Short Review of E. Randolph Richards’ “Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition, and Collection”

Richards, E. Randolph. Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection. Downers Grove, IL; Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press; Apollos, 2004. 

E. Randolph Richards earned his PhD at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and has written extensively in the field of biblical studies, often focusing on the work and theology of the Apostle Paul. Richards is currently provost and professor of biblical studies at the School of Ministry at Palm Beach Atlantic University (IVP author website).

Drawing examples from a large pool of ancient letters and other literature, Richards argues for a more thoroughgoing view of Pauline letter writing than has been previously addressed in biblical scholarship. He seeks to “bridge the gap” between the presuppositions surrounding Pauline letter writing and what he believes to be a more accurate representation of the apostle’s formation, editing, and dispatching of letters (17). Alongside the Pauline epistles (both disputed and undisputed) Richards compares a large body of ancient sources in order to establish Paul’s most likely writing situation. He depends largely on Cicero’s letters for his descriptions of the “mundane” details relating to the mechanics, composition, and delivery of ancient letters (15). Richards draws from other ancient letters as well that evince similarities or background information for interpreting Paul’s letters, including the Oxrhynchus and Tebtunis Papyri.

Richards carefully deconstructs some conscious and subconscious presuppositions, addressing joint authorship, dictation, secretarial input and editing, and the first-century writing environments in which Paul would have most likely found himself (23-26). Drawing from archeological data from Pompeii, Richards critiques the stereotypical picture of Paul sitting at an isolated writing desk and instead places Paul in the living rooms of friends’ homes, in workshops, and even in the open air while traveling (chapter 2). Richards has some peculiarities along the way, such as his odd claim that Isa 29:11-12 is the “only biblical text that defines literacy” (28). Perhaps his definition of “define” is more nuanced than most interpreters’, but the manifold biblical texts (and contexts) that reference reading seem ample enough to derive a working concept of literacy from each or all of them (cf. Jer 36:15, Mt 12:5, Col 4:16, et al).

A great part of Richards’ arguments throughout the book rest on the prevalent employment of secretaries in both the upper and lower classes of the Greco-Roman world and Paul’s almost certain usage of them (60-63). Richards argues that the extent to which these secretaries influenced the content, structure, and style of Paul’s letters is more substantial than current scholarship has acknowledged (chapter 5). Tertius is the most explicit example of a secretary (81; cf. Rom 16:22), but Paul’s insertions “by his own hand” in other closing passages also display secretarial involvement (1 Cor 16:21, Gal 6:11, Col 4:18, etc.). Richards rules out strict dictation as the mode of writing and opts for a “middle road” somewhere between dictation and composition (93), which challenges the common view of sole Pauline authorship (118).

In chapter 6 Richards offers some helpful insights on Paul’s use of inserted and preformed material, especially on the rhetorical thrust of preformed hymnic excerpts (95). Richards outlines some criteria for detecting inserted preformed material (multiple attestations, initial relative pronoun for hymns [e.g., Col 1:15, ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου], OT citations, etc.; 97). He sharply disagrees with most scholarly perspectives on the nature of interpolations (i.e., post- and non-Pauline insertions of material) without manuscript support (100, 107). He also claims that Paul’s use of secretaries and their post-Pauline/pre-dispatch editing of the letters could explain the foreign material rather than textual variations in the manuscript tradition (102). This challenges the popular view of deutero-Pauline authorship, as what often looks like non-Pauline insertions (or complete letters) could very likely exhibit secretarial co-authorship. This comes to play in the “weaving together” of a letter, as “there can be authorized non-Pauline insertions (119).

Richards’ insights on the dispatching (chapters 10 and 11) and sending of letters (chapter 12 and 13) are helpful, but his criteria for estimating the cost of labor and writing supplies are conjectural (though probably necessarily so [168-169]). Paul’s carriers probably explained the content of the letters they were carrying to the recipients when necessary, the logistics of which Paul most likely developed over time (208). Richards’ chapter on letter collection compares different collection theories, but he arrives ultimately at “an unintentional adoption of the codex,” wherein the very collection of Paul’s letters necessitated the codex format (214). This view challenges Skeat, Gamble, Roberts, and Hurtado on their view that the early Christian preference for the codex was instrumental in its widespread adoption after the NT books were being collected in the post-apostolic era (211-214). Much of Richards’ argument rests on his assumption that Paul retained copies of his own letters that he then collected as a unit (221). Richards’ closing chapter on inspiration is filled with many insightful conclusions as he offers a “less robotic view of inspiration” (224), i.e., a view broad enough to accommodate all the aspects of letter writing. He posits the view that the entire letter writing process—including writer(s), situational conflicts, etc.—was divinely inspired which then produced the divinely-inspired epistles (229). Richards’ concluding chapter includes a final and cogent stab at pseudonymity as a viable option for any of the letters bearing Paul’s name (232).

Richards accomplishes his vision, providing ample data and sound interpretation. He presumes a bit much at times, especially in his oft-perceived analogy between modern cultural and social situations and those of the ancient world (27). However, Richards’ research bears on many issues—including pseudonymity, textual criticism, and book formation—and his conclusions on these matters are both challenging and important for current scholarship. Richards makes missteps along the way, such as his claim that Isa 29:11-12 is the “only biblical text that defines literacy” (28) and his argument against practicality as an impetus for the codex format (214). However, his work on secretarial involvement, co-authorship, and the dispatching of letters is perceptive and thought-provoking. His defense (“beating the drum,” really) of Pauline authorship in the disputed epistles is refreshing but oftentimes simply conjectural. One might wish that Richards had devoted less time to defending Paul in the disputed epistles and saved his ammunition for another book on the topic. Critiques notwithstanding, Richards has produced a book on first-century letter writing that will be a “peg in the ground” for years to come in the field of NT studies.

One thought on “A Short Review of E. Randolph Richards’ “Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition, and Collection”

  1. Pingback: The Carmignac Challenge, Part I of III: Yes, a Hebrew Gospel of Mark | The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text

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