Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Paul’s Letter Carriers Tychicus And Onesimus

Ancient writings were largely circulated within communities through copying and distributing, with no legal copyright or formal system to control plagiarism. Once a work began to circulate the author became powerless to control the quality of the copying process or to select the audience that would read the work. The permanency of writing and the lack of control over who came into contact with a composition often led authors to exercise caution concerning the work they committed to writing. This realization was expressed well by Plato (ca. 370’s BCE), who wrote,
"Once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it does not know how to address the right people and not to address the wrong. And when it has been ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.” (Plato, Phaedrus 275 d-e; Alexander, 54-55)
The physician Galen (ca. 160’s CE) expressed a strikingly similar concern. He feared that his lectures would disseminate more broadly than those who were present at the time a lecture or demonstration was given (Mattern, 12). In one particular instance, Galen told of a public demonstration in which he was speaking about several ancient medical writers. The demonstration quickly escalated into a debate between Galen and a follower of Martialius (a rival physician). Galen’s criticism and debate with the follower of Martialius drew great praise from those present who were watching the spectacle. Because of the fame, Galen wrote that a friend
“begged me to dictate what I had said to a person he would send to me who was trained in a form of shorthand writing, so that, if he suddenly had to leave Rome for his home city, he would be able to use it against Martialius during examinations of patients. When I subsequently returned to Rome on my second visit (at the summons of the emperors), the friend who had taken this document had died; but to my amazement the book, written in the context of the rivalry of a particular moment, and while I was quite young (still in my thirty-fourth year), was now in the possession of a large number of people. (De libr. propr., 14-15; Translation taken from, Singer).
Galen regretted that this debate, meant for a specific audience in a unique context, had disseminated so widely and vowed never to give a public lecture again.

The lack of control by the author over a written work that was circulating was also felt by those who wrote and dispatched letters. During Cicero’s time (60-40’s BCE) the crumbling Roman Republic was fraught with political intrigue and Cicero had to be sure that letters to his friends did not contain any sensitive political or military information. To combat this danger he would send verbal messages along with the written epistle which were conveyed to the letter carrier, who was charged with delivering this verbal message along with the written dispatch. Following are a few of these examples.

In June 48 (BCE), Cicero wrote to his longtime friend Atticus,

“You ask me about the war news. You will be able to learn it from Isidorus [the courier of this letter]. It looks as if what remains won't be too difficult. Do please see to what you know I have most at heart [Tullia's dowry]. ... Brutus is my friend; he is zealous in the cause. That is as much as I can prudently put on paper.” (Att. 11.4a; Nicholson, 42)
In another letter he wrote to Atticus,
“You will be able to learn what is going on here [at Pompey's camp in Dyrrachium] from the bearer of this letter.” (Att. 11.3.1; June 48 (BCE); Nicholson, 42)
To Appius Claudius, Cicero wrote in July 51 (BCE),
“I arrived at Tralles on 27 July. There to meet me was L. Lucilius [otherwise unknown] with your letter and messages. You could not have sent me any friendlier or, as I suppose, better qualified or more sensible informant to tell me what I want to know. I was glad to read your letter, and I have listened carefully to Lucilius.” (Fam. 3.5.1; Nicholson, 42)
There are a few instances in the Pauline corpus that exhibit a similar practice as illustrated by the example of Cicero. Scholars have argued that the letter carrier would read out and even perform the message of Paul’s epistle, though other scholars argue against this practice (for a brief overview with examples and references, see Head, 280-282). It is true, however, that Paul sometimes incorporated a verbal message along with the written contents of the letter both of which were conveyed by the dispatch carrier. This can be seen in the role of Tychicus and Onesimus the couriers who brought Paul’s letter to the Church at Colossae. At the end of the epistle Paul wrote,
“Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts, and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you of everything that has taken place here.” (Col. 4:7-9: ESV: Head, 280)
There are many reasons that a letter writer might wish to convey a message verbally rather than in writing (for several examples from the Oxyrhynchus papyri see Head, 289-296). And Paul could have given verbal messages for those reasons. It is also equally possible that Paul wished to control the audience of this message and did not wish for the details of his circumstance to fall into the wrong hands. Paul always had intended his letter to the Church at Colossae to be circulated widely beyond the original recipients (Col. 4:16). Paul was in prison at the time of writing (Col. 4:18) and it is possible that Tychicus and Onesimus had sensitive information about his imprisonment that Paul did not want to be widely circulated. Peter noted at the end of his epistle that there were those who were twisting the words of Paul’s epistles,
“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” (2 Pet. 3:15-16; ESV)
Of course, there could be many other reasons for conveying a message orally, yet Paul might have needed to exercise control over who heard this information because of his captivity. In his letter to the Philippian Church Paul notes that his imprisonment became widely known “throughout the whole imperial guard” (Phil 1:13; ESV). He also shared that though some Christians were emboldened by his imprisonment, others were preaching the Gospel from “envy and rivalry”(Phil 1:15, 17). This “rivalry” was somehow connected with the occasion of Paul’s imprisonment, these individuals were seeking to harm Paul in some way (Phil 1:15, 17; ESV). In light of this, Paul had every reason to exercise caution in purveying news of his imprisonment. 

Alexander, Loveday. “Luke’s Preface in the Context of Greek Preface-Writing.” Novum Testamentum 28.1 (1986): 48-74.

Galen, Selected Works (P. N. Singer, trans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

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.

Mattern, Susan P. Galen and the Rhetoric of Healing (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

Nicholson, John. “The Delivery and Confidentiality of Cicero's Letters.” The Classical Journal 90.1 (1994): 33-63


  1. For a different reading of Colossians 4.8 try this: https://www.academia.edu/8615203/_Tychicus_and_the_Colossian_Christians_A_Reconsideration_of_the_text_of_Colossians_4.8_Texts_and_Traditions_Essays_in_Honour_of_J_Keith_Elliott_ed._J._Kloha_and_P._Doble_NTTSD_47_Leiden_Brill_2014_303-315

    1. Whoops! I completely forgot about this reading and your paper! Thanks Peter! Yeah, that throws the whole point of my blog post out the window! Thanks for commenting!!

    2. Timothy,
      Having read PH’s article and finding it conclusive, I am not sure that you should be so ready to abandon your argument. First, the cited article states one of its purposes as intending “to place this reading back on the map for scholarly consideration.” Second, particularly for those enamored with the CBGM, without determined genealogical coherence either reading could still end up as the reading of the ECM and NA/GNT. Certainly, in light of PH’s article and the decision by THGNT to follow him, it seems some updating or addendum seems appropriate, but discarding your article seems to me extreme.

  2. I always thought I was both/and: Tychicus would convey oral messages from Paul and updates on his situation etc. AND he would help apply the message of the letter by finding out more about the Colossians and their needs.

  3. The anonymity of those who helped organize Paul's collection(s) (2 Cor 8:18-22; 12:18) is the kind of protective silence that you illustrate, Timothy. This was an unauthorized collection for a disloyal province, so the names of the helpers could not be put in writing (and nor could Luke refer to it).

    As for Colossians, after being on the fence for many years, I now have strong evidence that Paul did not write it.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. After reading your comments several times however, I honestly fail to see how the argument in this post could possibly indicate Colossians was not written by Paul. I understand that you were merely making a blog comment, so perhaps you're argument would make more sense when fleshed out.

    2. Yes, while your post assumes that Paul wrote Colossians, the observations in your post and those in my comment do not provide evidence for or against Paul's authorship.

      Here, briefly, is why I deny that Paul wrote Colossians. Firstly, there are strong reasons (not given here) to believe that Luke, the author of Acts, was a Jew and was the Lucius of Rom 16:21. The author of Colossians seems to cast Paul's co-workers, including Luke, as Gentiles. Secondly, "Jesus called Justus" is odd for a few reasons (not discussed here). The author likely picked the names from Philemon, reading backwards, and misunderstood the name "Jesus" there. Thirdly, Paul selects the informal names of his co-workers in Philemon for rhetorical reasons (he is buddying up to Philemon), which do not apply to Colossians. It is surprising that Colossians would use those same name forms (Luke instead of Lucius or a cognomen, Mark instead of a cognomen, Epaphras instead of Epharoditus, Demas instead of Demetrius). Fourthly, the author seems to connect Epaphras with Colossae, but Epaphroditus seems to be from Philippi. Fifthly, Colossians is more sexist than the undisputed writings of Paul. Sixthly, Colossians seems to have misidentified the Mark of Philemon, as John-Mark, which is an understandable mistake.

      Does that help?

    3. Thanks Richard. It does help. Hopefully you'll be able to felsh it out nicely in a future piece.