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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Collection and Enduring Significance of the Letters.


It was observed above that we have been able to arrive at a better understanding of Paul's letters by comparing them with ordinary letters of his own day, noting not only the similarities but also the differences. In addition to the differences already discussed, there is one further difference between Philemon, say, and Apion's letter to his father Epimachus (discussed above) that deserves reflection. The issue is that of preservation. That we are able to read the papyri letters at all is purely due to happenstances of survival and discovery—the favourable Egyptian climate and the chancy circumstances of archaeological investigation. Paul's letters, by contrast, have been deliberately preserved by generations of reading communities that have continued to find them meaningful and have each taken great care to preserve them and hand them on to the next. Consequently the ‘meaning’ of these texts cannot be restricted to the limited confines of the original reading event. These texts have had a significant afterlife, continuing to speak in fresh ways to new situations, and this afterlife has added its own successive layers of meaning that hover like an aura around the texts as we read them today.


The actual process by which Paul's letters were collected in the first place can be only dimly discerned (Gamble 1975; 1985 ). That they have survived at all seems to indicate that they were preserved by their original recipients; the only other option—that Paul and his associates preserved a ‘master file’ of letters—is ruled out both by the absence of some letters (e.g. the one mentioned in 1 Cor 5:9 ) and by evidence that suggests the gradual emergence of a standard collection rather than the existence of a fixed corpus of letters from the outset (Gamble 1975 ). The reference in 2 Pet 3:16 , along with the writings of Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp, indicate that by the late first and early second centuries most of Paul's letters were known and were being cited as authoritative texts, though there is no indication of the shape or extent of the collection. The first extant list of Pauline writings is that of the ‘heretic’ Marcion in the mid-second century, a list containing all but the Pastorals. The Pastorals are included, however, in lists drawn up later in the century by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria. These three authors also contributed significantly to the concept of a Christian canon of scripture, consisting of a set of ‘apostolic’ writings existing alongside the Scriptures originating with Israel; the terms ‘Old’ and ‘New Testament’ (the Latin equivalent of ‘covenant’) were contributed by the Latin writer Tertullian. By the end of the second century, then, the thirteen letters contained in our New Testament had been collected into a single Pauline corpus that formed part of a larger (though still somewhat fluid) collection of authoritative Christian Scripture.


This process of canonization represents a dramatic shift in the context within which these letters were read. At the outset, neither Paul nor his intended readers saw the letters as ‘Scripture’, even though Paul wrote both out of the conviction that God had ‘spoken’ in a new way in Christ (revelation being one component in the concept of ‘Scripture’), and with a sense of divinely granted authority (a second component). No doubt these were factors in the initial preservation of the letters. But what happened next? In the absence of any hard data between the 50s and the 90s of the first century, there is room for a variety of possibilities. Some argue for a Pauline school—associates and later followers of Paul, who made collections of the letters in order to study the thought of the master, producing new letters to synthesize his thought (e.g. Ephesians) or to bring his voice to bear on new situations (the Pastorals). Others suggest that it was the publication of the Acts of the Apostles that produced a renewed interest in Paul and led churches to dig the letters out of the archives and copy them for circulation. Edgar Goodspeed and his followers (e.g. Knox 1959 ) link this with the imaginative idea that the one primarily responsible for the collection was none other than Onesimus, the slave for whose benefit the letter to Philemon was written. This theory rests on two (not completely implausible) suppositions: that the Onesimus of Philemon is the same person referred to by Ignatius (c.110CE) as bishop of Ephesus; and that the inclusion of the short, semi-personal letter to Philemon in the Pauline corpus requires some explanation. It is more probable, however, that the process of collection was both a more continuous and a more haphazard affair, with different collections emerging in different local settings through the latter part of the first century.


In any case, the basic fact is clear that the letters survived not because the early church was interested in preserving an archival record of its origins, but because those who first read the letters over the shoulders, as it were, of the original recipients felt that the letters transcended their original settings and had continuing meaning for readers and situations beyond the original context. While our understanding of the letters has been richly enhanced by careful scholarly reconstruction of their original contexts, it should not therefore be supposed (though a perusal of much scholarly literature suggests that it often has been supposed) that the question of the meaning of these texts is exhausted when a full recovery of this ‘original meaning’ is attained. At least three additional layers or dimensions of meaning need to be recognized.


The first is the canonical context. While the letters were first written as individual items of communication—part of an ongoing dialogue between Paul and the community in question, to be sure, but to be read independently of any other letter from Paul—they have been preserved in a canonical collection of which they are an integral part (Childs 1984 ). At least in the context of the church, then, one cannot read Galatians, say, with its polemical and extreme language about (some aspects of) Torah-centred religion, without reference to the more tempered and generous language of Romans. Likewise, the negative view of marriage in 1 Cor 7 has to be read alongside the more positive depiction in Eph 5 ; even if Ephesians is not by Paul himself, these texts have been preserved for us by a tradition that makes no distinction whatsoever between Pauline and Deutero-Pauline or post-Pauline literature.


To say this, of course, is to say nothing about how one goes about resolving tensions among the members of the collection; there are no rules to say that Romans trumps Galatians or that Eph 5 is to be preferred over 1 Cor 7 (or vice versa in either case). Tension and interpretative difficulty come with the canonical territory, even more so when the rest of the canon is brought into play (as indeed it should be). Of course, we can read the letters in isolation from each other if we choose to do so. But they have been preserved only as part of a collection where they are presented to us as ‘the epistles of Saint Paul’. This process of canonization, then, is not simply the ecclesiastical equivalent of the dry sands of Egypt—a historical happenstance that has effected the preservation of these letters but that is extrinsic to their meaning. Intrinsic to the process of preservation is the development of a framework of meaning within which the letters have been handed on to subsequent generations.


This leads to a second ‘value-added’ stage in the process. Subsequent generations have not simply handed on the texts in their canonical framework of meaning. Each generation of Christian readers has engaged in the process of scriptural interpretation—of reading these letters within this framework in order both to enter more deeply into the text and to bring it to bear on the situations and circumstances of their own day. Scriptural interpretation is of necessity a collaborative and corporate exercise, but one that is impoverished when the voices of previous generations of interpreters are left out of the discussion. Recently there has been a revival of interest in the history of interpretation, evidenced for example by the series Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Inter Varsity Press) and Pilgrim Classic Commentaries (Pilgrim Press), and this is helping to bring these voices back to the interpretative table.


But this is not the only way in which the transmission of Paul's letters through the years has generated levels of meaning that accompany them into the present. The Bible has existed not simply as an interpretative object; it has been a kind of subject or agent as well, impacting—indeed, shaping in fundamental ways—the culture in which it has been transmitted to us. One cannot come to a full understanding of Paul's letters without recognizing the social and cultural effects they have had. This type of study is still in its infancy (see Bockmuehl 1995 ), but examples spring readily to mind. We have already observed at the outset of this essay the role played by the Epistle to the Romans in the conversions of Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Wesley. These conversions are significant not only for their own sake, but also for their far-reaching social and historical consequences—Augustine and the ‘introspective conscience of the West’ (Stendahl 1976 ), Luther and the Reformation, Wesley and the evangelical revivals in Great Britain and the New World. It would take whole volumes of books to trace the historical consequences of Paul and his letters in these events alone.


To take another, quite different, example: during archaeological excavation of the city of Caesarea Maritima, a mosaic floor was discovered in a building dating from the Byzantine period (6th cent. CE) that originally served some public and bureaucratic function. The mosaic contained the text of Rom 13:3 : ‘Do you wish to have no reason to fear the authority? Then do what is good, and you will received its approval.’ Here, probably not for the first time and certainly not the last, statements from Paul's letter to the church in Rome were used by ruling powers to encourage submission to the state. The role of this text in eliciting and reinforcing the church's acquiescence to the policies of the Nazi regime in Germany is a more extreme example of the same power of texts to shape social realities, for good or ill. The fact that the text was being misinterpreted in the process—what he said to the Roman Christians notwithstanding, Paul was quite prepared to engage in activity that the state considered disruptive enough to justify his arrest and imprisonment (2 Cor 11:23 )—in no way diminishes the point.


The point could be elaborated at great length, and there is much interesting work waiting to be done on the epistles of Paul as factors in social history. But the most important thing to be said about the letters as subjects, as agents accomplishing effects, is that the potential for their functioning in this way is present every time they are read anew. In any fresh encounter with these texts they bring to the event the evocative power of their rhetorical voice, along with the reverberating echoes of the processes of meaning-production that have preserved them and brought them to us. We bring to the event our own personal subjectivities, along with whatever we have come to know about the texts themselves, the circumstances lying behind them, the structures of thought and conviction lying beneath them, and the history of preservation, interpretation, and effective agency opening up in front of them. What comes out of the encounter, happily, has often been unpredictable and full of rich surprise. Paul would call it grace.

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