Friday, March 24, 2023

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri and The Titles to Paul's Letters

I have been reading through a new book by Benjamin Laird, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Liberty University. This new monograph covers the formation of the Pauline letter collection; "The Pauline Corpus in Early Christianity: Its Formation, Publication, and Circulation."

I was planning on giving a concise review of the book (I was given a copy for review), but haven't yet finished reading it. I found the topic so intriguing and thought provoking, however, that I wanted to give a few of my thoughts before I was completely finished reading through the book. In the monograph, Laird discusses such topics as the early Christian use of the codex, the manner in which Greco-Roman authors circulated "editions" of their letter collections, etc. I hope to comment on these topics in further posts, for now, what has caught my interest was Laird's observations and arguments on the titles to Paul's letter collection. To briefly summarise, Laird highlights the uniformity of the titles to the Pauline letter collection in the earliest extant manuscripts, reviewing such early witnesses as P46 and Codex Sinaiticus among other witnesses (pages 74-82). He notes that the titles throughout all the collections remain consistent (page 82). Laird argues that because Paul's letters were carried by trusted letter carriers that knew the author and the recipients, "it may not have been necessary at the time the writings were originally dispatched for subscriptions or letter titles to be included" (pages 74). Because the Pauline letters were named after the recipients of the letters, Laird argues, it was unlikely that they circulated as part of other letter collections (page 83). He uses Philemon as an example, in this case, the letter was actually addressed to several individuals, Philemon being only one of them (Phlm 1; page 84). Because of this, Laird surmises,

"Because the address includes the names of several individuals, it is not a foregone conclusion that the title ΠΡΟΣ [Φ]ΙΛΗΜΟΝΑ would have been universally recognized had it not been created by a particular individual or a small team on a specific location." (page 84)

Supporting this notion, Laird points to the letter to the Ephesians (page 87). The earliest manuscripts (P46, 01, and 03) all testify to the title ΠΡΟΣ ΕΦΕΣΙΟΥΣ. Yet in these earliest witnesses the letter is uniformly written as ΠΡΟΣ ΕΦΕΣΙΟΥΣ. According to Laird, this points to the early circulation of an influential edition of Paul's letters.

These assertions had me thinking about the many examples of personal letters that have survived from Oxyrhynchus. There are a plethora of letters preserved that have the recipient written on the reverse side and have a named letter carrier known and trusted by the sender of the letter. Of course, I cannot be exhaustive, but here are a few examples.

P.Oxy 3.530. This second century letter is one from a son to his mother concerning money matters. The letter carrier is named, a certain Chaeremon, and is obviously known and trusted by the sender of the letter because Chaeremen holds money to give to the sender's mother. Even though the letter carrier is known and trusted by the sender of the letter, the name of the one to receive the letter is still written on the back of the document.

"Dionysius to Tetheus his mother, greeting. I have received all the letters concerning which you write, and with regard to the wheat which the collectors have demanded from you it is admitted (?), but I had forgotten to make any order for payment; I have however paid in full the naubion and other taxes. Do not be concerned that the matter about which I wrote to Theon has not been carried out and that I have so long been engaged with Pausirion’s business to no purpose ... Please receive from Chaeremon the bearer of this letter 112 drachmae of silver of which you will give to my friend Sarapion son of Apei 100 drachmae and redeem my clothes, with 8 drachmae on account of interest, and keep 4 drachmae for yourself for the expenses of the festival. If I had had more I would have forwarded a further sum; I have borrowed to send even this. So pay him the money and get my clothes back safe, and put them in a secure place. Do not be anxious about us, for there is nothing the matter with us and we are at harmony with each other. Theonas salutes you. Salute the boys Apion and his brother Hermatois, Dionutas, those with Nice and the little Thaisous, all those with..., Heras and his household, Leontas the proud and his household, those with Taamois, and Thermoutharion. Good-bye. The 20th of the month Caesareus. (P.S.) Send me word about this immediately after the festival, whether you received the money and whether you recovered my clothes. Salute Dionutas and Theon. (Addressed) To my mother Tetheus." (translation taken from;3;530)

P.Oxy 3.530

P.Oxy 3.530 with the reverse showing to whom the letter is addressed:
Τεθεῦτι μητρί (Tetheus my mother)

P.Oxy 6.930. This is a letter written from a mother to her son. The first part of the letter normally containing the opening greeting is missing. Yet the receiver of the letter is preserved, written on the reverse side. Along with this, the mother is equally adressing her son's tutor who is apparently responsible for the boy. Even though the letter is addressed to her son on the reverse, she is also writing to her son's tutor Eros. 
" ... do not hesitate to write to me about anything which you require. It grieved me to learn from the daughter of our teacher Diogenes that he had sailed, for I had no anxiety about him, knowing that he intended to look after you to the best of his ability. I took care to send and ask about your health and learn what you are reading; he said that it was the sixth book and testified at length concerning your attendant. So my son, I urge both you and your attendant to take care that you go to a suitable teacher. Many salutations are sent to you by your sisters and Theonis’ children, whom the evil eye shall not harm, and by all our friends by name. Salute your esteemed attendant Eros ... (Addressed) ... to her son Ptolemaeus." (translation taken from;6;930)

P.Oxy 6.930

Both of these papyri are examples of why Laird's observations on the titles of Paul's epistles do not necessitate an early edited and released collection published in a single codex. The titles of Paul's letters most likely came from the recipient written on the back of the letter as we see from these two examples. Or, for the longer epistles, written on the outside of the folded sheets of papyrus. P.Oxy 3.530 is an example of a trusted letter carrier (Chaeremon) who is known by the sender, yet the address is stil written on the back. P.Oxy 6.930 helps to answer Laird's concerns over Ephesians. In this oxyrhynchus letter, the written recipient is not preserved at the beginning of the letter (as is the case for Ephesians in P46, etc). Yet we still know who the intended recipient of the letter was because it was preserved by being written on the back of the letter. The same could be true for the letter to the Ephesians. Assuming the theory of a circular letter is true, if the earliest copy of the letter to Ephesians had the recipients omitted in the text of the letter, but the first copy was sent to the Church at Ephesus and the recipient was written on the back, then this could account for the recipients being left blank in the body of the text, but the title being preserved as "to the Ephesians."

Considering these two letters, it is much more likely that the titles of the Pauline letters actually derived from the intended recipients being written on the outside of the original folded and dispatched letter. Especially when we consider that Colossians 4:16 actually gives evidence that individual letters were being circulated at the begining and not as part of an "official" published edition.
"And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea." (Col 4:16; ESV)
Despite this disagreement with Laird on the title origins of the Pauline letter collection, I still have found Laird's book thought provoking and suggestive. I hope to post more thoughts and reflections in the near future.


  1. Thanks for this. It explains how the title "To the Ephesians" could have quite plausibly been written on the reverse of a letter that Paul had originally written to the Laodiceans. But I'm a bit confused by this apparent tautology:
    "The earliest manuscripts . . . all testify to the title ΠΡΟΣ ΕΦΕΣΙΟΥΣ. Yet in these earliest witnesses the letter is uniformly written as ΠΡΟΣ ΕΦΕΣΙΟΥΣ."

    1. Yes, looks like some poor English for sure! Haha. That's what I get for writing it on my mobile.

  2. Timothy, some mss have the titles for Pauline letter at the end. Could this be an evidence of copying from a MSs that had a title and the back, and therefore, the last thing copied?

    1. No, I don't think that this is evidence for this as you state it. Book titles at the end of a book was the standard in bookrolls for centuries. This practice was carried over into the codex as well. Codex Sinaiticus has book titles at the end of books. And P75 has book titles at the end AND beginning of each book (see this image here