Question: Every one of our parish Masses features a lector reading or quoting “letters” that typically begin with, “A reading from the Second Letter of St. Paul to …,” or “a reading from the First Letter of St. John …,” etc. My question is whether these were actual hand-written letters that were delivered to those intended, or is “letter” simply a metaphor?
— K.F., Phoenix, Arizona
Answer: They are true letters and use the epistolary form of the ancient world wherein the author identifies himself in the opening line and then greets his recipient(s) in a common way such as “grace and peace.” The letters usually end as well with brief salutations.
Though they are true letters from Paul, John, Peter and others, we ought not imagine they personally sat down and wrote them by hand. This is because writing in the ancient world was a rare skill. Hence people who sought to send letters or other communiques to others would work with a scribe, who was trained in writing. For letter writing, a scribe could be a recorder and/or an editor. In the first case, the author of the letter would dictate the letter to the scribe, who was essentially a stenographer. Some authors might provide the scribe with a rough draft of a letter to be recopied in a neat or clearer hand. Having approved its contents, extra copies might also be produced by scribes and the letters would be sent. None of this indicates a lack of education by those who needed scribes. Writing (and even reading to a lesser extent) was a specialized skill like typing and shorthand once were in our culture. Many today also need “webmasters” and other experts to maintain their internet sites.
In his own hand
That St. Paul used scribes is clear. In one case, the scribe, Tertius, is mentioned by name (Rom 16:22). In other cases, they are implied but not named. In the letter to the Galatians 6:11, St. Paul says, “See with what large letters I am writing to you in my own hand!”, explaining why a shift in handwriting has occurred. He does something similar in First Corinthians: “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. … The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love to all of you in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 16:21, 23-24). Similar notations are made in Colossians 4:18, Philemon 1:19 and 2 Thessalonians 3:17.
So, St. Paul, while surely the author of these letters, did use scribes (sometimes called an “amanuensis“) at least on numerous occasions. As for St. John, St. Peter and St. James, we cannot be sure, but it seems unlikely that ordinary men from Galilee would be skilled scribes. Hence, we can presume they, too, employed scribes to write out their letters.