Letter Fifteen — Philemon Fridays, Letters to Phil

Dear Phil,

It’s easy to forget, sometimes, just how different it was for you to receive your little letter from Paul than it would be for me to get a letter from one of my friends who lives elsewhere. That rarely happens in our time of almost instantaneous electronic communication, but the image still works.

A letter from my hypothetical friend (I do actually have real friends, by the way – not so many, but a few), would be written by my friend alone. It would be addressed solely to me, or at most to me and my spouse. The letter would be delivered impersonally by our postal service. I don’t mean that as a critique but rather as a description.

I would read the letter silently and by myself with little ritual or ceremony. If I had questions about the contents of the letter, I would have no one to ask directly. I could write or call my friend for further communication, but the letter itself would not come with an interpreter to provide clarification or additional comments.

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Our letter-writing as an institution is really a one-on-one transaction. We live in a highly individualistic culture, so the conventions around our letters are not surprising. I simply never considered any other way of doing things, until we began our correspondence about your correspondence. Of course, now I have questions.

It’s clear that the composition of Paul’s letter to you was a communal rather than an individual effort. A fellow in our time named Martin Luther Stirewalt really advanced our understanding of things that you would have taken for granted. He suggests, “Paul wrote from within a community. He surrounded himself with helpers: co-senders named in the salutation, scribes, greeters from the local congregation, commissioners and visitors from other churches. This group of people provided a kind of voluntary ad hoc secretariat.”[i]

Clearly, then, this “secretariat” involved Timothy as one of the co-senders. I assume it also involved Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, since they are mentioned in the concluding greetings of your letter. I imagine that Onesimus was also intimately involved in the composition of the letter.

I can’t help but wonder how the realization of that involvement impacted you in the moment and then later. I think I would have resented that fact, at least initially. I would have been irritated that Onesimus had an “unfair” advantage in helping to shape not only Paul’s evaluation of me but perhaps the very words – uncomfortable words at that – that would be addressed to me. Perhaps I’m projecting myself in ways that aren’t appropriate. I’d be glad to be corrected in that regard.

This is an immediate contrast to the kind of informal letter exchange I mentioned at the beginning of this note. Letters from Paul, even to individuals such as yourself, had the character of official administrative documents rather than friendship letters. Not that Paul and his colleagues were somehow unfriendly, hostile, or adversarial to you. Paul was certainly capable of such a letter. We need only read his epistle to the Galatian churches for that.

What I mean is that his letter to you was “official” – on the model of typical administrative letters in your time. After the letter’s composition, editing, vetting, revising, and finalizing by the “team” supporting Paul in his imprisonment, I imagine they followed the standard procedure for presenting such a letter to the recipient.

Stirewalt outlines the process. The letter was transported by hand from Paul to you by an appointed representative or representatives. That representative also had the status of a delegate or ambassador, empowered to speak on Paul’s behalf, expand on the content of the letter, and answer any questions you might have had. That delegate – Tychicus, if I am not mistaken – was also charged with bringing your reply to Paul, if there was to be one.

Next, the letter was delivered to you, by hand and personally. It’s interesting that we have the report of a similar kind of composition, transport, and delivery in Luke’s second volume which we call the Book of the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 15). In that account, Judas and Silas brought word to the Jerusalem council regarding the baptism of Gentiles.

They were also charged with bringing the letter of reply back to Paul and Barnabas in Antioch. I’m sure you’re aware of all this history, but I’m trying to get it straight for myself.

What is most striking to me is that the letter was handed over to the leaders of the Antioch community before it was read aloud to the community. Is that what happened in your case? If I have this right, Tychicus and associates brought the letter from Paul to you. They perhaps briefly explained the contents. You had the chance to read, and perhaps re-read several times, the letter before it was read out to the assembly of believers in your house.

Is that how it worked for you? Did you know the nature of Paul’s communication before it was shared with the assembly? It would seem so. And it would seem that you might have had the chance to interfere with or to manipulate the public reading of the letter to your advantage if you had chosen to do so.

We have a couple of Paul’s letters to the church at Thessaloniki. At the end of the first of those letters, Paul solemnly charges the recipients with the obligation to read the letter “to all the brothers.” That says to me that Paul had some concern that the recipients might choose to do otherwise. If Paul was concerned that it might happen, that means (of course) that it could happen.

I notice that Paul felt no need to place you under such a solemn obligation. That is, of course, to your credit.

So, you received and accepted the letter with a full awareness of its contents. You either called together the Christian assembly in your house immediately or waited until the regular meeting of the group that next Sunday evening. It was up to you (or was it?) to appoint the public reader of the letter. I’m under the impression that the reader of the letter was Tychicus. But some of our scholars are pretty sure that the reader would have been the regular, trained, and skilled reader in your local assembly.

I have some trouble crediting that assertion. On the one hand, I wonder if Paul and his colleagues would have entrusted that task to someone they hadn’t coached in advance on the oral delivery of the letter. I don’t think so.

On the other hand, I personally would have hesitated to be the local person to perform that letter in the assembly. I’m assuming it was a difficult experience for you. You could have ordered someone to do it, but I think the choice of Tychicus would have made this easier for all involved. If Tychicus or one of the other delegates had been coached in advance, then that reader was prepared to make the presentation without having to guess anything about Paul’s intentions, emphases, and goals.

So, the assembly gathered. The “official” reading was a public event. Just as the letter was composed by committee, so it was received in community. Of course, that’s acknowledged in the salutation of Paul’s letter. It is addressed not only to you but also to Lady Apphia, Master Archippus, and (most importantly, I think) to the assembly gathered in your household.

Were you the only local person who knew the contents of the letter in advance?

In any event, I imagine you all took your appointed places around the room. If the setting was typical, the benches or couches were set in a “three-quarters round” configuration. You, the good Lady, and the honored Master were against the far wall. Others were seated according to their status and relationships along the side walls. The reader and his colleagues were at the near wall, facing you.

The set-up insured that all of the participants could interact with one another. “That means that the listeners could all see one another,” Oestreich observes, “and that they mutually exerted influence and control over one another.”[ii] The point I had not considered fully until now is that the response to the letter was not yours alone to make. The letter was directed to the assembly, and Paul knew quite well that you would have to deal with his request in the midst of that assembly.

I imagine the meal was a bit tense as you waited for the reading. Tychicus and his colleagues were called to stand, and you gave them a formal welcome. Then you invited them to share Paul’s words. While Tychicus likely had the scroll in his left hand, I imagine he had practiced enough that he recited it from memory – complete with Paul’s preferred gestures, emphases, pauses, and expressions. In a real sense, the reader embodied Paul and made him present to the assembly.

“By being read publicly,” Oestreich suggests, “the letter was brought to the attention of the actual recipients, which for Paul’s letters are the members of a church or a group of churches. The spoken reading made the authority of the sender audible,” he concludes, “the reader embodied the presence of the sender.”[iii] It must have been a moment that could take one’s breath away.

Was there discussion immediately after the letter was presented? Perhaps Tychicus and his colleagues answered some questions, but I must wonder if the community perhaps took some time for deliberation and discernment. Of course, you had had some time to consider your response, I think. But, as I’ve come to see, it wasn’t only your decision, was it?

I’m grateful for your partnership in this conversation.

Yours in Christ,

Low


[i] Quoted in Oestreich, Bernhard. Performance Criticism of the Pauline Letters (Biblical Performance Criticism Series Book 14) . Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition, Location 525.

[ii] Ibid., Kindle Location 1525.

[iii] Ibid, Kindle Location 1541.

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