Apologetics: How the New Testament Epistles Were Written – Timothy Paul Jones


 

Have you ever wondered exactly how the New Testament epistles were written? Did Paul sit down with a fountain pen and a piece of papyrus? Did Peter and James sketch out an outline before they wrote their letters? And what caused the apostles to write their letters in the first place?

It was in the mid-first century that the earliest writings about Jesus Christ started to circulate in the churches. The authors of these early epistles were apostles—Christ-commissioned eyewitnesses of the resurrection. The purpose of their writings wasn’t to provide information about Jesus. Their goal was to apply the message of Jesus in the lives of people who already knew about Jesus, and their words carried the same authority in the churches as Jesus himself (1 Corinthians 14:37).

Differences Between How People Wrote Then and How You Write Today

If you write an email today, you’ll probably compose and send the email without anyone else’s help. That’s because you’re completely capable of typing the words yourself, and the World Wide Web will take care of delivering your electronic epistle. It wasn’t that way with the letters that survive in the New Testament today! It took a team of trustworthy men and women to convey each of these letters from the mind of an apostolic witness to the gathered people of God.

In the first place, it’s unlikely that Peter or James or Paul ever sat down with a pen in hand to write a letter in his own handwriting. Instead, the apostles spoke God-inspired truth to secretaries who shaped the content into written letters.[1] Each letter was then reviewed and—in some cases—signed by the author (2 Thessalonians 3:17; see also 1 Corinthians 16:21; Galatians 6:11; Colossians 4:18). Most of these secretaries have remained anonymous over the centuries. A couple of them are, however, mentioned by name in the apostles’ letters. Tertius composed Paul’s letter to the Romans, for example, while Silvanus probably crafted Simon Peter’s first letter (Romans 16:22; 1 Peter 5:12).[2]

How the New Testament Epistles Were Written and Read

Secretaries like Tertius and Silvanus used reed pens, sharpened and slit at the tips. The tips of the reeds were dipped in a mixture of water, soot, and sap; words were then inked on sheets of papyrus. If the letter was lengthy, papyrus sheets were pasted together to form scrolls that might measure as many as thirty or thirty-five feet when unrolled.[3] Once a letter was finished, a trustworthy messenger carried the scroll to a local church and probably read the contents in a public assembly.[4]Messengers mentioned by name in the New Testament include Phoebe, Epaphroditus, and Tychicus (Romans 16:1–2; Ephesians 6:21–22; Philippians 2:25; Colossians 4:7–9). Once a letter reached a church, it might be copied and shared with other churches (Colossians 4:16). That’s how first-century churches began to gather and to preserve the epistles that we find in the New Testament today.

 


 

[1] Even an individual as literate as Josephus required literary assistance to compose his works in Greek: “χρησάμενός τισι πρὸς τὴν Ἑλληνίδα φωνὴν συνεργοῖς οὕτως ἐποιησάμην τῶν πράξεων τὴν παράδοσιν” (Contra Apionem, 1:50).

[2] Silvanus may have been the secretary, the courier, or both secretary and courier for the letter now known as 1 Peter; the wording in 1 Peter 5:12 is ambiguous.

[3] Richard Burridge and Graham Gould, Jesus Now and Then (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 51; George Eldon Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 56; Bruce Metzger, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 17–18

[4] On the interplay between oral performance and written content in the ancient world, see Jocelyn Penny Small, Wax Tablets of the Mind (New York: Routledge, 1997), 160–201; H. G. Snyder, Teachers and Texts in the Ancient World (London: Routledge, 2000), 191– 227; Rosalind Thomas, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 36–40, 124–125.

The post Apologetics: How the New Testament Epistles Were Written appeared first on Timothy Paul Jones.

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