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Why Did Paul Mention His Large Handwriting In Galatians? Exclusive Interview with Steve Reece

We are thrilled this week to present an interview recently conducted with Steve Reece, Professor of Classical Languages at Saint Olaf College, on his recent book, Paul’s Large Letters: Paul’s Autographic Subscription in the Light of Ancient Epistolary Conventions.

This interview is the latest in our series of talks with a number of authors and editors from the exceptional collection from T&T Clark, the 29-volume Library of New Testament Studies: 2016 (LNTS). The collection is currently in pre-publication, which means you can acquire these resources at a much reduced price before they are released digitally. Be sure to check out the previous interviews here.

Hi Steve, thanks for taking some time to get into the nuts and bolts of your excellent book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I suspect my understanding of Paul, and even empathy for him, has increased as a result.

You articulate four questions at the outset of your book that you attempt to answer through an investigation of ancient letter writing practices. Can you tell us what those questions were and how you went about addressing them?

It’s a pleasure to speak with you, Tavis, and with your readers on the Logos Academic Blog. This project began when a student in my New Testament Greek class at Saint Olaf College asked me what Paul intended when toward the end of his letter to the Galatians he remarks, “observe with what large letters I write to you with my own hand” (Ἴδετε πηλίκοις ὑμῖν γράμμασιν ἔγραψα τῇ ἐμῇ χειρί).

At first I thought that my student’s question could be resolved simply by examining the use of autographic subscriptions (i.e., signatures) in ancient letter writing: those letters in which the sender of the letter takes over the duties of the scribe to whom he had been dictating and pens a summary and farewell greeting in his own hand. As I began to examine the manuscripts of letters that actually survive from Paul’s period, however, I realized that there were really four questions at play here: 1) Why did Paul add an autographic subscription to his letter to the Galatians? 2) Why did Paul mention explicitly that he was writing the autographic subscription with his own hand? 3) Why did Paul write with large letters? 4) Why did Paul observe explicitly that his letters were large?

After examining the manuscripts of thousands of letters that have survived from around the time of Paul, from as far south as the trash heaps and cemeteries in the deserts of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, to as far east as the caves in the wilderness of Roman Judaea, to as far north and west as the military outposts of Roman England, I discovered that there is nothing at all unusual about Paul taking over from a professional scribe and writing an autographic subscription. He was simply following the epistolary conventions of the time.

Further, there is very little unusual in the fact that the writing of Paul’s autographic subscription is larger than that of the professional scribe. Larger handwriting occurs in about fifteen percent of all autographic subscriptions. Only somewhat unusual is Paul’s assertion that he is writing the autograph in his own hand. Such assertions occur in a few dozen other surviving letters from this period. The only truly unusual feature here is that Paul explicitly draws his readers’ attention to the particular style of his handwriting, a feature that appears to be unprecedented in the entire ancient epistolary tradition.

Writing is something that we seem to take for granted today, especially hand-writing. What was the ancient view of writing, and how was it tied into a person’s social, political, and religious status?

I don’t take legible hand-writing for granted today, even among highly educated college students, or, perhaps I should say, especially among highly educated college students, for, with the advent of the typographic culture, there now actually seems to be an inverse relationship between level of education and good hand-writing. Ironically, this seems to have been the case in antiquity too.

In Hellenistic society – Greek, Roman, and Jewish – social status was attained by one’s lineage, wealth (especially landed wealth), citizenship, associations, and offices, not by one’s writing skill. While advanced literacy – the ability to read and write complex documents – was a mark of high education and prestige, shared by just a small percentage of the population (and I would put Paul in this group), in practice those who could afford the expense preferred to dictate their words to a hired scribe rather than put reed to papyrus themselves.

Writing in the ancient world was a very laborious process, so it was generally performed by highly trained slaves, servants, and hired hands. The production of a manuscript even as short as a personal letter was not only a laborious process but also a highly technical one. The duties of a scribe required specialized training: the skill to follow dictation quickly and accurately, probably in a form of shorthand, by incising a wax tablet with a metal stylus, or by writing on a sheet of papyrus with a reed pen and carbon-based ink, and then the skill and patience to transform the shorthand version into two clear, even elegant, transcriptions with reed and ink on a papyrus sheet or roll, one for the author of the letter and the other for the recipient.

For those of us who are not Classicists, can you help us to understand the amount of evidence we have of ancient letter writing outside of the NT writings? What are some of the differences, from the standpoint of extant manuscripts?

We have two main sources of letters from Greco-Roman antiquity. First are those writers who, rather like a George Bush senior, thought that their letters were worthy of preservation for posterity and therefore had them copied, collected, and stored in a safe place. We do not have the autographs of these letters but rather copies of copies of copies. These letters had their own manuscript tradition, just like other types of literature from antiquity. There survive well over a thousand of these letters in Greek, attributed, often falsely, to famous philosophers, historians, orators, and politicians. A similar number survive in Latin: the corpora of the three most famous letter writers – Cicero, Seneca, and Pliny the Younger – add up to more than a thousand. These letters can tell us quite a lot about the formal conventions of letter-writing: address, greeting, body, farewell, etc. And on the rare occasions that the letters refer explicitly to the activities of letter-writing by the sender and scribe, they can inform us about some of the more technical processes of dictation, the act of writing, and the use of papyrus, pen, and ink.

Second are those writers who, like most of us today, dictated or wrote letters fully expecting that once the contents of the letters had been communicated to the recipients they would be recycled or thrown into the trash. And they were. Where climatic conditions allowed these letters to survive in their original state, in the arid caves of Judaea, the sandy trash heaps of Egypt, and the oxygen-free mud of northern England, they lay undisturbed until the archaeological excavations of the 19th and 20th centuries brought them to light. From around the time of Paul there survive several dozen letters from the caves and refuges in the desert of eastern Judaea (in Hebrew, Aramaic, Nabataean, Greek, and Latin), several hundred from the remains of a Roman military fort in Vindolanda in northern England (in Latin), and several thousand from the sands of Middle and Upper Egypt (in Greek, Latin, and Egyptian Demotic). Though these letters tend to be rather perfunctory in nature – personal greetings, invitations, and condolences, recommendations, petitions, business transactions, and so forth – they are able to bring Paul’s epistolary practices into sharp focus, since we can observe and study these documents in their original forms rather than as copies of copies of copies.

Paul’s letters, while in some cases achieving great length and rising stylistically to an ambitious literary level, like some in the first group, remained in essence functional letters addressed and sent to historical recipients and framed by the epistolary conventions more commonly found in the situational letters of the second group.

How much influence did scribes have on the final product in written letters? Was Tertius writing verbatim what came out of Paul’s mouth, and in one sitting? Or might this have been a longer effort, with the scribe contributing theological insight or even rebuttal at points? How should we envision the process?

My examination of ancient epistolary conventions revealed a broad range of involvement by scribes. Authors/senders of letters relied on their scribes to varying degrees. Some dictated word for word, or even syllable by syllable. In such cases the outcome was essentially the same as if the author/sender had written the entire letter in his own hand. Some dictated to a scribe who took notes, perhaps in shorthand, and then edited the letter and re-crafted it in longhand in a subsequent stage of composition. In such cases the scribe’s style, diction, and other linguistic traits blended somewhat with those of the author/sender. Some simply instructed their scribes or deputized their friends to compose a letter on a particular topic and send it to someone in the author/sender’s name. In such cases the author/sender’s style, diction, and other linguistic traits were largely obfuscated.

What was Paul’s practice? Where ought his scribes be placed within this range of involvement? An answer to this question would be much easier if we knew more about the identity of his scribes. Other than Tertius, about whom we know very little – that he had a Roman name, that he was probably a recent convert to Christianity and a follower of Paul, and that he felt free to insert his own greeting into Paul’s letter to the Romans – we do not even know who Paul’s scribes were. Did he hire unknown professionals on a case-by-case basis, or did he rely on the skills of some of his regular companions, such as Timothy, Silvanus, and Sosthenes, whom he mentions by name as fellow authors/senders in the introductions to several of his letters?

My impression is that Paul may have sometimes dictated syllable by syllable (e.g., Philemon), but that at other times he may have dictated the words and phrases to his scribe but given him the freedom to use his own diction and style (e.g., some of the Pastorals). The composition of a letter may have been a team effort, as Paul, his companions, and the scribe(s) bounced ideas off one another and read and re-read drafts of the letter. Obviously, if it were determined that Paul used his scribes to varying degrees in the composition of his letters, this would offer another angle from which to contemplate the ongoing debate about the Pauline authorship of some of the letters that have been traditionally attributed to him, particularly with respect to judgments that have been made about the authenticity or inauthenticity of some of the letters based on their stylistic and linguistic traits. Differences in the style and diction of letters may have arisen from the influence of scribes working at various levels of participation with the author/sender, for in such different compositional circumstances we should not expect stylistic and linguistic uniformity.

Incidentally, we appear to have a vestige of Paul’s interaction with a comrade and a scribe at the beginning of his first letter to the Corinthians, which he is dictating to a scribe, perhaps his companion Sosthenes (1.1). An irate Paul declares to the Corinthians (1.14-15): “I give thanks that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that none of you may say that you have been baptized in my name.” Then, perhaps having been reminded by the Corinthian Stephanas – who appears to have delivered a letter to Paul from the Corinthians, was expecting to deliver Paul’s letter in return to the Corinthians, and therefore was a witness to the dictation process (16.15- 18) – that his memory has failed him here, Paul offers an addendum (1.16): “And I also baptized the household of Stephanas, but as for the rest I do not know if I baptized any other.” We seem to be witnessing here a glimpse of the actual process of composition: having misspoken during his dictation, Paul simply had his scribe insert a parenthetical correction, perhaps interlinearly or marginally, rather than requiring him to go back and rewrite the entire section. Later copyists inserted the parenthetical addition into the body of the text, where it has resided, though somewhat uncomfortably, to this day.

What were some of the reasons for appending signatures to the end of ancient letters?

For the recipients of ancient letters a signature added a real personal touch, the sender’s own handwriting compensating in a tangible way for his physical absence. There are some very touching episodes recorded from antiquity of the recipient of a letter caressing the writing of the sender as though touching his face and hands. The sender’s signature also authorized and legitimized the letter by assuring its audience that he had made the effort to check the final draft of a letter that had been dictated by him but written, and perhaps rewritten, by his scribe. Perhaps most importantly a signature served as a witness to the letter’s authenticity, offering visible proof that it was from the sender himself.

Paul writes in Galatians 6:11, “See with what large letters I write with my own hand.” Can you restate some of the more creative interpretive solutions have been concerning this verse? For example, is Paul’s clumsy handwriting an indication of stunted intellectual ability?

A very wide range of explanations has been offered over the centuries. Some commentators have imaginatively relied on this verse to fill out various details of Paul’s biography: that he suffered some physical, mental, or psychological affliction; that he did not enjoy the privilege of a formal education; that he came from a social class somewhere between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Others have drawn from this verse certain theological implications: that Paul was emphasizing the importance of the crucifixion in contrast to the rite of circumcision, and that he was endorsing the replacement of the law by the new creation. Often commentators on this verse have come to precisely opposite conclusions about what it signifies: that Paul was bold and confident in his teaching, or that he was compensating for his lack of confidence in his teaching; that Paul was asserting his role as a school master, or that he was trying to avoid addressing his audience as a school master; that Paul was demonstrating his special affection toward his congregation, or that he was going out of his way to express his displeasure with his congregation.

In my discussions with colleagues in Biblical Studies while working on this project I learned the term “eisegesis,” which was not a concept with which I was familiar. The term describes the almost universal tendency among those who contemplate antiquity to retroject their own beliefs, values, and biases onto the ancient context. Scholars of the historical Jesus use the term to describe the penchant of commentators to create a Jesus in their own image: academic, liberal, secular, liberation-theological, pacifistic, etc. The same appears true for scholars of the historical Paul, if commentaries and articles on this passage in Galatians are any indication.

Socialists have attributed Paul’s large letters to the fact that he was a manual laborer from a social class below that of the literary elite. Schoolmasters have understood Paul’s large letters as an attempt to exploit his status as a teacher – whether asserting or effacing it. Graphotherapists have identified Paul’s large letters as an attempt to “(over)compensate” for his internal timidity and shyness, and they suggest that writing in large letters had the effect of strengthening Paul’s actual behavior. Many modern academics, for whom typewriters and word processors have become indispensable tools, have regarded Paul’s large handwriting as his method of emphasizing what he was writing, much as they use large capital letters or bold-faced fonts. Some commentators, with visions of a modern Catholic deacon holding high the large Book of the Gospels during the entrance procession through a church, have suggested that Paul wrote in large letters because he realized that there would be a large audience for his letter and that his text would be held up for them to view from afar.

What do you conclude concerning Gal 6:11 that contributes to our understanding of Paul’s epistolary practice, especially as compared to other ancient authors?

Paul’s practices here, and indeed even his self-reflection about his practices, largely comport with the epistolary conventions of his time. Paul’s delegation to a scribe of the task of writing the lion’s share of his letters was a normal practice among letter-writers of antiquity. Likewise, Paul’s regular habit of appending a subscription in his own hand was a widespread custom of his time, intended primarily to authenticate a document. Paul’s explicit reference to his own handwriting in his letter to the Galatians is less usual, to be sure, but it is by no means unprecedented. Perhaps the explicit reference added further authentication to the letter, or gave it greater authority or value, emphasizing that it was from the author himself, being in his own hand. Finally, regarding Paul’s “large letters” specifically, they are a common outcome among the autographic subscriptions of ancient letter-writers for whom writing was not a primary occupation. Paul’s large letters are simply a reflection of his basic, though functional, level of handwriting ability in comparison to that of his scribe – but a level of ability shared by many, even well educated, people of antiquity. In short, the only really remarkable feature of Paul’s subscription lies in his explicit observation that his letters are large. This is utterly unique, both in Paul’s letters, and, so far as I can tell, in ancient epistolary traditions generally.

In the absence of comparative evidence, any explanation for Paul’s explicit reference to the size of his handwriting must be very hypothetical. Perhaps it is simply a reflection of a self-deprecating sense of humor: as Paul closes his letter he is struck by the disjunction between his weighty words and the clumsiness of their delivery. Perhaps something more ambitious is going on here: Paul is drawing special attention to the physical features of his handwriting in order that he may build on this motif of physicality in the rest of his subscription. In contrast to his opponents, who wish “to make a good show in the flesh,” Paul “bears the marks of Jesus on his body.” As an imitator of the crucified Christ, Paul’s hands, both metaphorically and literally, bear the marks of Jesus’s hands. However, I am inclined to see Paul’s explicit reference to the size of his handwriting as a serious and earnest attempt to assert very strongly the authenticity and authority of his letter: that is, by pointing out clearly that this subscription was written in his idiosyncratic handwriting. It is possible that Paul was aware that letters were already being circulated by others in his name. His autographic writing, and his explicit statement of its idiosyncrasy, served as an official “seal” of sorts to what we have already identified as a letter that both in form and in content had adopted the conventions of an official, legally binding contract rather than those of a personal letter.

How might a pastor or church leader benefit from the insights you provide in Paul’s Large Letters in terms of teaching laypeople?

I’ve spoken about some of the insights that I have gained while going through the process of this research, and I couldn’t be more pleased to find that pastor, church leaders, and laypeople share my enthusiasm for the technical and sometimes thorny details. Above all, though, I think this examination of Paul’s writing practices presents him to us as a fellow human being who, so far as writing is concerned, was much like his contemporaries, and, to be frank, much like us too. A picture is worth a thousand words in demonstrating this, so I offer two.

The first is a document (P.Mich. 5.351) from the village of Tebtunis in Egypt, written on July 24, 44 CE, a formal contract regarding some inherited properties (courtesy of the Papyrology Collection, Graduate Library, University of Michigan). The twenty-one lines of the formal contract are written in the small, linear, fluent, semi-cursive hand of a professional scribe. Two subscriptions by the parties involved are appended, written in much larger, cruder, spindly, cursive hands, authenticating the contract and reiterating its main details. This document, which dates exactly to the time of Paul, illustrates very well the likely appearance of the two styles of handwriting at the end of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and, by extension, at the end of his other letters as well.

This document was composed in a rather unusual fashion: it appears that the subscription was written before the body of the contract itself was completed, perhaps even before it was started (i.e., on the basis of an earlier draft of the contract), for the final four lines of the body are crowded together as though the scribe was forced to fit them into the available space above the already written subscription. One can readily imagine the impetuous Paul doing the same, anxious to express to the Galatians his final thoughts even before his scribe was quite finished writing out the dictated portion of the body of his letter.

The second is my own reconstruction of Paul’s letter to the Galatians itself (see image below and the header image). In the year 51 CE, while he was residing in the city of Corinth in the Roman province of Achaea, Paul decided to write a letter to those he had earlier ministered to in the Roman province of Galatia concerning some legal challenges that had arisen between the emerging Christian movement and Judaism. As was his usual practice, he did not perform the arduous task of writing himself. Rather he dictated his thoughts to a scribe, perhaps one of his companions – Luke, Timothy, Silvanus, Tertius, Sosthenes – who dutifully wrote his words as legibly and calligraphically as possible in a small professional hand.

Toward the end of the letter, however, which at 2,258 words was rather long by epistolary standards, Paul took the reed pen into his own hands and put his final thoughts, a relatively short 121-word summary of the letter, onto the papyrus roll in his own larger, rather irregular hand. As he began this task he, like many of his contemporary writers, noticed, perhaps with some amusement, perhaps with some chagrin, how large and thick and crude his letters were compared to the small, fine, proficient hand of his scribe, and in a very human act of self-deprecation, he brought this feature to the attention of his audience, who would presumably have seen the text of his letter as well as have heard it read aloud: “See with what large letters I write to you with my own hand.”

At the same time Paul realized that the idiosyncrasies of his handwriting, which his audience may well have recognized by sight, served to authenticate the document – to assure the Galatians that this letter had indeed been composed by Paul himself – and also to validate and authorize its contents. Paul then concluded his letter with a blessing: “And those who follow this rule, peace upon them and mercy . . .” This letter was read and reread by its recipients, handled, shared, passed around among different communities, and, because it was written on perishable material, it eventually wore away and disappeared altogether.

For purposes of illustration, I have crafted the above reconstruction of Paul’s original letter to the Galatians. The design of the papyrus roll itself is based on archaeological remains and ancient descriptions, and the styles of writing on the papyrus are based on several surviving 1st-century CE documents in which the task of writing is shared by a scribe and an author/sender. A reconstruction is the best we can do, for of Paul’s original letter we have today only copies of copies of copies.

Thanks, Steve!

Logos is currently offering a special pre-publication price on the 29-volume LNTS 2016 Collection, of which Steve Reece’s Paul’s Large Letters is a part.

Get these volumes now before the price increases at publication, and stay tuned for further interview in this series.

Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the editor of Word by Word's Lecture Hall and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger