Sunday, October 28, 2012

Paul and His Letter Carriers

It can be difficult to imagine the writings of Paul as individual letters, unbound and separate from the contents pages of our modern Bibles. Each of Paul's letters had their own unique reason for being written, and each had a specific intended audience. Each unique circumstance required intimate knowledge and communication with the recipient Churches. At first glance, this may appear easy enough, in our modern age of social media, email and public mail services. It was not so easy in the first century Roman world of Paul's time. Our knowledge of how the ancient world communicated would be sparse at best if not for the vast amounts of papyrus documents found in the garbage dumps of antiquity (The largest quantity of papyri were found in the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus). These papyrus documents are mainly personal letters, receipts of sale, contracts, daily correspondence, inventories, left over remnants of daily life from several hundred years before and after the time of Paul in the first century. Studying these papyri gives access to a wealth of information on how people lived their lives thousands of years ago. Particularly, they give us insight into how people corresponded and communicated during Paul's time.

The Letter Carrier
If someone wanted to write a letter in antiquity, to ensure that it made its way to the intended recipients, one had to obtain the services of a letter carrier. As can be seen in the many examples of papyrus letters, finding someone to act as courier (especially a trustworthy person) could prove difficult (Head, 283). Thus finding a reliable letter carrier often times occasioned the need to write (Epp, 45).  Peter Head quotes this papyrus letter from the early first century (the name of the letter carrier is missing); going up stream, I judged it necessary to salute to you by letter and in invite you to write to me about what ever you may want. (Head, 284; P. Oxy 3806)
In a similar fashion, it appears that Paul took advantage of Epaphroditus' recovery from poor health to write to the Philippians;
But I thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier; who is also your messenger and minister to my need; because he was longing for you all and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. (Phil 2:25-26).
Though not mentioned specifically in the verse, Epaphroditus undoubtedly carried Paul's epistle to the Philippian believers, and Paul took the opportunity of Epaphroditus' trip back to Philippi to send the letter (Llewelyn, 338).
The papyri also illustrate that the letter carrier often functioned as a purveyor of goods from the writer to the recipients of the letter (Head, 287). This is illustrated by a letter from the second or third century C. E. (Head, 288);
Unopened ancient papyrus letter with seal (BAR, 48)
Chaereas to his brother Dionysius, greeting. I have already urged you in person to have the horoscope (?) in the archives prepared and also the sale of the slaves' children, and to sell the wine that comes from both the near and the far vineyard, keeping the money in a safe place until I come. I send you some good melon seeds through Diogenes the friend of Chaereas the citizen, and two strips of cloth sealed with my seal, one of which please give to your children. Salute your sister and Cyrilla, Rhosope and Arsinous salute you. I pray for your health. (P. Oxy 117; Vol. 1, pg. 183)
Epaphroditus had acted as a "messenger" for the Philippian Church, and doubly functioned as a purveyor of their financial gifts, which were carried to Paul in his imprisonment (4:18).
Stephanus and Fortunatus and Achaicus came to Paul for service from Corinth, and probably brought provisions and money for Paul from the Church (1 Cor 16:17). Also, they are most likely the ones who brought the letter from the Corinthians asking Paul questions concerning doctrine and Christian living (7:1). Also, Paul asked Corinth for letter carriers to carry letters from him as well as money;
And when I arrive, whomever you may approve, I shall send  them with letters to carry your gift to Jerusalem. (1 Cor 16:3)
The papyri also give examples of requests for information and for the recipient to give word or to visit. Consider this very old third century B.C. letter;
Polycrates to his father, greeting. I am glad if you are in good health, and everything else is to your mind. We ourselves are in good health. I have often written to you to come and introduce me, in order that I may be relieved of my present occupation. And now if it is possible, and none of your work hinders you, do try and come to the Arisinoe festival; for if you come, I am sure that I shall easily be introduced to the King. Know that I have received 70 drachmas from Philonides. Half of this I have kept by me for necessaries, but the rest I have paid as an installment of interest. This happens because we do not get our money in a lump sum, but in small installments. Write to us yourself that we may know you are circumstanced, and not be anxious. Take care of yourself that you may be well, and come to us in good health. Farewell. (Milligan, 7-8; P. Petr II)
Compare the above exchange with Paul's elaborate instructions, greetings and requests given to Timothy;
Make every effort to come to me soon; for Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service. But Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Be on guard against him yourself, for he vigorously opposed our teaching. At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me; may it not be counted against them....Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus. Erastus remained at Corinth, but Trophimus I left sick at Miletus. Make every effort to come before winter. Eubulus greets you, also Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brethren. The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you. (2 Tim 4:9-22)
Digging up ancient papyrus at Oxyrhynchus (
The papyri bring a real cultural and historical perspective on the epistles of Paul. What now comprises most of the New Testament were real letters, written in particular circumstances, for specific people and places, and carried by real people. Paul felt the need to find trustworthy couriers to bring his letters faithfully to their recipients, and to carry money and gifts (such as to the Jerusalem church). Paul also benefited from Churches sending their own messengers to carry letters, money and provisions to care for him in his ministry and imprisonment.


BAR Magazine. “Biblical Archaeology Review.” Vol 35 No 3.

Epp, Eldon. “New Testament Papyrus Manuscripts and Letter Carrying in Greco-Roman Times.” The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester (ed. B. A. Pearson, in collaboration with A. T. Kraabel, G. W. E. Nickelsburg, and N. R. Petersen; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1991) 35–56.

Head, Peter M. "Named letter-carriers among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri." Journal For The Study Of The New Testament 31, no. 3 (March 1, 2009): 279-299.

Llewelyn, Stephen. "Sending Letters in the Ancient World : Paul and the Philippians." Tyndale Bulletin 46, no. 2 (November 1, 1995): 337-356.

Milligan, George. Selections from the Greek Papyri. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912.