In the last installment of this series I examined Margaret Mitchell’s excellent article “New Testament Envoys in the Context of Greco-Roman Diplomatic and Epistolary Conventions: The Example of Timothy and Titus,” in which she concluded that Paul’s envoys served a dual purpose, both transmitting information from sender to receiver and then carrying information from the receiver back to the sender. Today I will examine Peter Head’s new JSNT article, “Named Letter Carries among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.” (JSNT 2009) Head focuses his examination on the 450 letters found in the 68 volumes of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Head concludes that the role of letter-carriers often extended far beyond merely carrying letters. The Oxyrhnychus letters demonstrate that carriers could act as representatives of the sender (Mitchell’s envoys), provide additional oral information, and bring other goods. However, Head emphasizes that contrary to the claims of many scholars, these letters provide no evidence that the carrier read the letter to the recipient.
Head then extrapolates from the Oxyrhynchus letters to those of Paul and concludes that Paul’s letter carriers had important roles. He states that Paul did not use happenstance carriers but rather his letter carriers functioned as “substitutes for the apostolic presence.” (298) Additionally, they were “the earliest interpreters of the individual letters.” Paul’s letter carriers were also able to supplement the letters with additional oral material from Paul and that “They related the specific material in their letter to what they knew of Pauline teaching more generally.” (298)
Thus, Head in his thorough examination of letters from Oxyrhynchus agrees with Mitchell concerning the role of Paul’s letter carriers or envoys. They played an important role as figures who were able to stand in for Paul and supplement his letters with additional oral material.
In the next installment of this series I will examine the possibility that Paul’s letter carriers did indeed read his letters to the communities to which they were sent.