This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2006 vol. 163 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Paul the Letter WriterWm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids February 1, 2003
In this book Stirewalt explains the practice of ancient letter writing, describes different types of letters, and demonstrates how Paul used the letter form(s) for his own purposes.
In the first of four chapters Stirewalt describes the letter-writing process in detail: from the author’s pen to the recipients’ ears. It is easy today to fail to appreciate what was involved then in delivering a letter over some distance. Some used trusted slaves; Paul had trusted companions. Once a letter arrived, it was probably read by either the carrier, the one presiding at the meeting, or a designated reader. Stirewalt focuses on and describes two types of correspondence, personal and official. He suggests that although Paul made use of the entire field of letter writing, including aspects of a personal letter style, his letters are best classified as examples of the official letter style. Among other characteristics, this letter type often includes an authoritative aspect. The writer in some way has authority over the recipients.
BSac 163:649 (January-March 2006) p. 122
The second chapter describes the official letter form and Paul’s letters in detail. Stirewalt suggests that there were three types of official letters: (a) a substitute for a speech (especially common in the Greek city states prior to the Roman period), (b) letters dealing with administrative matters (this arose during the time Hellenistic kings began to rule large empires), and (c) letters from citizens to officials. Letters of the second type are Stirewalt’s priority, since these most closely resemble Paul’s letters. It is noted that Paul’s use of salutations makes clear the official nature of his letters.
In chapter 3 Stirewalt discusses the seven undisputed Pauline epistles—Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon—and compares most of them with a specific example of a secular “official” letter. Stirewalt follows Jürgen Becker, who suggests that 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians were Paul’s first letters. It is unclear if the remaining letters are treated as being in any type of chronological order. In 1 Thessalonians, Stirewalt sees a writer who is not yet fully comfortable with the letter form to communicate to his recipients. This is interesting and can contribute to the ongoing discussion of the chronology of Paul’s letters (which Stirewalt is not concerned with here). First Corinthians demonstrates significant progress in the letter-writing process. Here the letter is contrasted with a letter from the emperor Claudius to the city of Alexandria. Among the interesting conclusions Stirewalt makes is that the occasion for the letter arises from a single delegation from Corinth. Stirewalt only briefly deals with 2 Corinthians because he follows many who maintain that the present state of the letter is actually a collection of a number of other letters (or portions of letters).
Despite the strongly personal tone and the existence of a friendship letter type, Stirewalt argues that Philippians is also an example of an official letter. He finds some parallels with a letter from Antiochus to the people of Erythrae, which also has a personal tone. In the personal letter to Philemon, Paul still used much from the official letter genre. Galatians exhibits the work of a competent letter writer and it draws from several letter writing styles. Stirewalt identifies the “brothers” in Galatians 1:2 as a delegation from the churches of Galatia itself. Among other things their inclusion as cosenders in this letter suggests that Paul was reinforcing their status as an official delegation from the churches. Stirewalt discusses Romans as an example of a letter-essay. Its main recipient is the church at Rome; however, it is also intended to be helpful for all who come in contact with it. In Romans there are no cosenders; Paul took full responsibility for the contents. This is characteristic of the letter-essay form.
Stirewalt discusses a question often taken for granted: Why did Paul write letters? Stirewalt suggests that by choosing the official letter form Paul saw himself as an intermediary between Christ and the churches. This is further illustrated in the final section, which discusses Paul’s paradigm for ministry in light of a letter of recommendation. For this he draws principally from 2 Corinthians 1–7.
Paul clearly saw himself as having a role among the churches, which involved authority, instruction, and admonition. Paul’s chosen mode of communication generally followed official correspondence, which reinforced his position with the churches.
The book is well researched and packed with footnotes (many quite technical). It concludes with an appendix that includes the text of sixteen letters mentioned in the book. They are divided into the various sections as previously described. These are helpful examples of ancient letters to which Paul’s works may be compared. One minor drawback to the book is that it considers only the undisputed letters of Paul; however, what is described here can be applied to all New Testament letters. This book will help students of Paul appreciate the form in which the apostle chose to communicate and minister to a number of churches.
—Joseph D. Fantin