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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 54, 2006

E. RANDOLPH RICHARDS, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, Secretaries, Composition and Collection (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004). Pp. 252. $US19.00.

This book is designed to help us to see Paul in the real world and in his world. Richards is concerned with “the nuts and bolts of Paul’s letter writing” (p. 17). Many reconstructions of Paul as a letter writer are built upon a modern and western framework, but “the more we can see a flesh-and-blood Paul scribbling notes under a shade tree during an afternoon rest stop or huddled with a colleague and a secretary in the living room of a third-story apartment on a cold, blustery winter’s day, the more we have a real person whose life we can strive to emulate” (p. 230).

Richards provides us with a mass of useful information. He reminds us, for example, that modern copyright and plagiarism laws did not exist in Paul’s time. Knowledge was not “owned” by anyone but by everyone. This explains why ancient authors had no compunctions about using the words of another. Again, people of New Testament times did not share our love for speedy travel. Seasons, Sabbaths, swamps and stopovers were all perils for the foot traveller, hence, the preference of many travellers to venture on to the sea. The number of ships required to supply Rome with grain alone must have run into the thousands. Richards also argues convincingly that Paul probably kept copies of most of his letters and that the reason why “the previous letter” and “the severe letter” have not survived may well be that he didn’t make copies of them.

One of the author’s central contentions is that the people named in some of Paul’s letters as co-senders should also be regarded, to some extent, as co-authors. The “Paul” who authored 1 Corinthians, for example, was not the solitary, modern, western writer we often envisage. Furthermore, we should not think of the letters being dictated by Paul at a single sitting. We should rather think of a protracted process, in which Paul and his team were constantly preparing notes and polishing drafts of material. Friends would stop by, listen to the latest draft being read aloud and make comments and suggestions. The latest draft would be read aloud at a dinner party, and the resulting discussion would prompt revision and clarification of what had been written. Recognition of this process has an impact on our understanding of inspiration. An inspired letter is the result of Paul and his team members being divinely prepared and responding to a divinely prepared situation.

So far, so good, but Richards then uses this model of an authorial team to try to account for passages in the letters which seem so out of kilter with the main thrust of the argument as to lead many scholars to postulate interpolations by another hand. 1 Cor 14:33b–35 is perhaps the best-known example. Rather than leaping to the conclusion that such verses have been interpolated, however, Richards argues that we should allow for the possibility that they have been inserted by a co-author like Timothy or Sosthenes during the process of composition. Such material would not have been part of Paul’s original plan and could be described as non-Pauline but not as un-Pauline or post-Pauline. “The material was inserted during the letter’s composition and thus had Paul’s ultimate authorization” (p. 108; cf. pp. 120f). In the same way, he argues that many of the arguments used to support the view that some of the letters attributed to Paul were written by disciples of his after his death fail to convince, once we take into account the possibility of shared authorship. For my part, I can only regard these suggestions as desperate attempts to claim the imprimatur of Paul, at one remove, for material demonstrably at variance with his thought. The differences between 1 Cor 14:33b–35 and the rest of 1 Corinthians or between the Pastoral Epistles and the acknowledged letters of Paul are too great to be explained away in this manner. However, one does not need to agree with all of the author’s suggestions to derive considerable benefit and enjoyment from reading this book.

Review by
Nigel Watson
10 Chatham Street
Flemington VIC 3031, Australia