Thursday, January 18, 2018

Paul's "Large Letters" at Galatians 6:11

While reading through Raffaella Cribiore's "Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt," I came across a reference to Plutarch (46 CE-120 CE) writing about Marcus Cato (234 BCE- 149 BCE), the Roman historian and Senator. Plutarch wrote,

"His [Cato's] History of Rome, as he tells us himself, he wrote out with his own hand and in large characters (μεγάλοις γράμμασιν), that his son might have in his own home an aid to aquaintance with his country's ancient traditions." (Marcus Cato, 20.5)
I thought this was an interesting reference for it was mentioned by Cribiore in the context of teachers writing their models of literature excerpts in large letters so that a student can better read and follow the writing sample by copying it repeatedly (Cribiore, 99).

P.Pateus 121 Petaus, an illiterate village scribe practices copying his post script repeatedly;
"I Petaus, village scribe, have entered"

This reference reminded me of Paul's phrase found in his letter to the Galatians,

"See with what large letters (πηλίκοις γράμμασιν) I am writing to you with my own hand." (Gal. 6:11, ESV)

This phrase fits well with some of the postscripts found at the end of extant letters preserved on papyri (Richards, 172-173). A postscript was often used to authenticate a contract, letter or other such document that was prepared by a scribe by providing a statement in writing by the party involved similar to how a signature works today (Bahr, 28-29). This type of authentication is obviously occurring at Philemon 19 "I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self" (ESV).

P.Mich.inv.942 showing the authenticating postscript in a different hand

The connection between Paul and Cato here is in their use of writing in "large letters." Cato wrote with large letters apparently, in order to facilitate easier reading of his History by his son. Perhaps Paul was writing in large letters for a similar reason? Likely Paul was merely emphasizing his characteristic large-lettered handwriting in order to emphasize the postscript. But it may be that Paul was writing in large letters for emphatic reasons as well.


Bahr, Gordon J. "The Subscriptions in the Pauline Letters" Journal of Biblical Literature 87.1 (March 1968): 27-41.

Cribiore, Rafaella "Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt" (Atlanta: Scholar's Press, 1996).

Plutarch. "Plutarch's Lives. with an English Translation by. Bernadotte Perrin" (Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1914).

Richards, E. Randolph, "Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection" (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004).


  1. Thanks for this, and especially sharing the image of the Michigan papyrus.

    Are there many examples of this available, especially publicly available images that make good illustrations of the phenomenon to show students?

    The one I have used before is P. Oxy. 246, only because it's the only example I had seen until now.

  2. Eric, thanks you. I am not sure if there are many examples of this with images easily accessible. You should look at Bahr, Gordon J. "The Subscriptions in the Pauline Letters" Journal of Biblical Literature 87.1 (March 1968): 27-41.
    who lists quite a few papyrus examples in the footnotes. This particular image was brought to my attention by William Varner who discussed it on Facebook a few weeks ago. He is publishing a piece on this very subject and includes a few images of examples from the papyri. He would be the best person to point you in the right direction.
    I hesitate to see this P.Mich.inv. 942 as an example of Paul's "Large Letters" because, according to the UoM website for inv.942 "1st hand: fine small hand, with the lines crowded together toward the end, showing that the body of the contract was inserted after the subscriptions were written." Thus, contrary to the circumstance in Galatians, inv.942's postscripts were written first thus some of the smaller hand of the contract could be due to the need to compress the writing of the Release of Inheritance in a confined space.
    Thanks again for your comments Eric.

  3. Could it be that Paul had poor eyesight?

    1. Pasto, of course it is possible for Paul to have had poor eye sight. But I do not think that these comments in Galatians reveal this.