"This is How I Write"

What was the function of the secretaries Paul used when he wrote his letters?

Scholars have been studying the art of letter-writing around the time of the New Testament, comparing it with what we find in the apostolic letters. I will share with you some of this information to see how it helps us understand Paul’s practice.

1. Paul and Secretaries: Paul points to his use of secretaries when he says, “See what large letters I use as I write you with my own hand” (Gal. 6:11; see also Philemon 19),* or “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand” (1 Cor. 16:21; Col. 4:18). The practice of adding a greeting at the end of the letter functioned as a signature, demonstrating that the letter was genuine. This is also suggested when he writes, “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write” (2 Thess. 3:17). Such a practice was important at a time when some may have been sending out false letters under Paul’s name (2 Thess. 2:2). In one case Paul explicitly mentions the name of the Christian secretary he used (Rom. 16:22). Although he was himself literate, Paul used secretaries quite often.

2. Writing Letters: Writing letters was an acquired skill that required, among other things, schooling in reading, handwriting, and the art of structuring and preparing different types of letters (for instance, letters of introduction, petition, personal, official letters related to matters of the state, and public and private letters). In the Greco-Roman world, epistolary handbooks were used for training scribes, who were expected to have the proper tools and who charged for their services. Their primary responsibility was to produce a letter that contained the message its author intended to communicate.

According to information available, authors could ask their secretaries to do one of at least three things: He could give the secretary a brief description of the purpose of the letter, and the secretary would write it. In some cases the author could dictate the letter word by word. This may not have been a time-consuming task, because there was shorthand technic for both Greek and Latin that a good secretary was expected to possess. But since the system was not uniform, the secretary had to transcribe the letter immediately to avoid errors of content.

In other cases, authors would sit with their secretaries and delineate the main content to be used to prepare the letter. The secretary would take notes on a wooden table covered by wax, thus facilitating the taking of notes. The author would read the letter, and, if necessary, correct its content, add to it, and finally approve it.

3. Paul as Letter Writer: Although Paul could have written some of his letters, his use of secretaries suggests that he was aware of the importance of the technical skills of secretaries. First, since his letters were an exposition of the gospel and its impact on the life of the believer, we can conclude that his secretaries may have hardly had any influence on their content. Paul could have dictated the letters to the secretary.

Second, since the letters were of such religious importance, Paul would have used secretaries who were believers. Some of them may have traveled with him and were well acquainted with his theology. His letters are in many cases similar to oral speeches. In that case he would have provided a detailed content of it, allowing the secretary to write the full letter. This would explain some of the literary differences we find when comparing some of Paul’s letters.

Third, Paul would have revised the letters, perhaps adding, rearranging the content, deleting sections, etc., until he felt that the content was what he intended to say.

Fourth, in some cases a final rewriting of the letter may have been necessary, giving Paul the opportunity to give to the letter its final literary structure.

What is important for us is that at the end of the process we have Paul’s message to the church under the inspiration of the Spirit.


* Bible texts are from the New International Version.