Sometimes we read Paul and think, “Wow, his emotional intensity here really tells me how he feels” or “wow, he got lost in his argument due to his zealousness.” In fact, neither of these observations can be true.
We cannot psychoanalyze Paul nor gain insight into his emotional life in such a direct way. We cannot do so partly because of the nature of letter writing and because of Paul’s own testimony. These preclude us from making such judgments when we read him.
Paul could not have written letters with emotional flourish (at least not in a modern sense) for the following reasons:
- Letter writing was a slow and laborious process. No one could write a fast email or a fast letter. It cost lots of money, took considerable physical exertion, and took time.
- Paul in 8 of his 13 letters explicitly names co-sponsors writings letters with him (Timothy, Silvanus, the brethren with me, etc.). He wrote letters as part of a team.
- Paul used a secretary (amanuensis) who would have considerable freedom. For example, Tertius physically wrote the book of Romans: “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Rom 16:22).
- The diatribe and school-like Q&As in Paul as well as his midrashic exegesis imply his arguments spawned from conversation (perhaps among his coworkers?).
- Reading modern letter writing into the past anachronistically makes Paul feel like a romantic poet of the 19th century, laying it all out; or a modern blogger who writes speedily and makes mistakes.
- Ancient letters would have been delivered by someone who could explain the letter; and the letter would often be read out loud. Hence, letters were somewhat public. They were not the private affair of today.
All of this leads to the conclusion, as Luke Timothy Johnson notes, that Paul’s letters amount to persuasive rhetoric, thought-out, carefully crafted, and spawned from a community.
I agree. And I think this historical reality should in some ways change how we read Paul.
First, we likely should not see a rhetorical flourish and think: “Boy, that got away from him!” It did not. He planned it. It may come from his heart as even written sermons can today. But it was intentional. Writing was too cost-, time-, and effort-intensive to make the mistakes a blogger might today.
Second, we should step back and ask: what is Paul trying to persuade his audience of? What sort of things does his crafted argument aim to convey?
Third, we can appreciate the more communal writing style of Paul that conflicts with modern, western notions of the lone ranger writer. Paul wrote with friends, coworkers, and his secretary.
More could be said, but here are some thoughts!
Mark Matthias says
Yes, Rabbi Saul did have did observe the midrashic protocol — knowing his pedigree.
Yet often, more often than not, when scholars speak of biblical writers it sounds like the inspiration of the Holy Spirit had nothing to do with it. After his meeting with God on the road to Damascus; and his dramatic spiritual life (cf, 2 Corinthians 12…); often academic commentary doesn’t seem to reflect his relationship with God, notwithstanding academicians also have a discipline to which to adhere. But they may ask a question such as: What does Paul see when he comes to Corinth? What does he do?
Sure, his background does play into the reason God anointed him to do what he did, but he never would have had the richness and the perception otherwise that came directly from Spiritual inspiration from the kingdom. At that point his lifetime of studies began to make more sense than they ever did; and that would include accurate gleanings from talmudic and Toratic renderings.
So, It would appear that in the cases of biblical writers there’s an additional inspiration and not only, for example, philosophical intelectualism — his letters were given a transformitive effect to other human beings who were of the same ilk and therefore could possess the same Spirit as the one who inspired Paul.
It is also clear that the primary concern of biblical writers was not to put together an MLA paper but to bring the inspired message to the world.