Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection is a valuable contribution to any study of Paul the apostle. Because so much of what we know about Paul we learn from his letters, understanding the practice of letter writing in his culture is vital to understanding Paul. This is not only true for understanding the meaning of his letters, but also for the issues that bother some academics – did Paul write Ephesians; is 2 Corinthians one letter, or two or three combined into one?
Though commentaries on Pauline letters or biographies of Paul may discuss aspects of these issues, full treatments of the issue of ancient letter writing and its implications for the study of Paul’s letters are harder to find. Here, Richards offers just such a book. He describes the materials involved in drafting letters, how ancient letter writers used sources, the procedure of letter writing, the time involved, the use of secretaries, the detection of interpolations, the use of letter carriers, and the distances and means of travel of those carriers.
Richards then draws out the practical effect of this knowledge. For example, he explains why letter writing was so expensive and does a convincing job of determining the cost in present-value dollars. He also explains the significance of co-authorship on Paul’s letters. Though many of Paul’s letters were co-authored, many scholars seem to all but ignore this fact in their study of the theology and language of Paul’s letters. This is a mistake. A co-author of a letter would have had a substantial impact on the content and theme of “Paul’s” letters. The use of different secretaries and even letter carriers too may have affected the content of Paul’s letters, though to a lesser degree.
In support of his conclusions, Richards draws on a vast amount of first-century writings, including many non-Christian letters from the ancient Mediterranean. This is a welcome use of sources and counters any suspicion that Richards is simply striving to reach a particular result. He also gives a good account of prior efforts to gauge the impact of ancient letter writing.
Finally, the book is well written. Richards writes clearly and simply. He also does a surprisingly good job of placing the reader back in Paul’s time, on the streets of ancient Greek cities, or in courtyard of a middle-class apartment. Furthermore, the book is well organised. He builds his case in each section and makes his argument. He then ends each section with a clear statement of his conclusion. You may not agree with his conclusions, but you can see how he reached them.
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in better understanding Paul and his letters.