Paul the Letter Writer

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor







•  Short, allowing for use in any course related to Paul.

•  Interacts with many primary sources.

•  Adequate introduction to many topics concerning Paul and ancient letter writing.


•  Too short.  Many topics lack depth.

•  Although expected to some degree for this topic, there is extensive unsupported speculation.

•  Important topics are missing, such as the environment in which one wrote letters in antiquity and the possibility that Paul employed a revision process which included multiple drafts for many of his letters.

Full Review

Paul the Letter Writer, by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor.  Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 1995.  Pp. viii + 152. $24.95.

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor has provided a useful and concise look into how Paul wrote letters.  Murphy-O’Connor covers many important topics such as secretaries, co-authorship, epistolary theory, rhetoric, the organization of a letter, and how the collection of Paul’s letters came together.  Murphy-O’Connor covers a wide variety of topics and does so in a scant 130 pages.  This is both a positive and a negative.  As a positive this work can be used in most any Paul class as supplementary reading material.  However, if one is truly interested in this material Murphy-O’Connor has provided a starting point for one’s study rather than the final word on the matter.  For more material one can consult works by E. Randolph Richards, Hans Josef Klauck, Stanley Stowers, and many others.

Murphy-O’Connor divides the book into three chapters.  The first covers the process of writing a letter.  The author begins with an examination of ancient writing utensils and papyrus, even including ancient accounts of how each were created and used.  Next Murphy-O’Connor addresses the use of secretaries in the ancient world.  He notes that secretaries could function as recorders, editors, or even substitute authors.  However, while he concludes that Paul did in fact use a secretary, “which system he used is impossible to determine with any certitude.” (34)

Within the first chapter Murphy-O’Connor also examines the possibility that Paul wrote with co-authors.  This section is one of the largest in the book covering eighteen pages.  While most scholars simply dismiss the reference to individuals such as Timothy, Silvanus and Sosthenes as mere courtesy, Murphy-O’Connor pursues the possibility that these references are to Paul’s co-authors.  Murphy-O’Connor examines each of Paul’s letters individually and concludes that Paul did in fact use co-authors in a number of letters.  However, due to the lack of evidence his conclusions are often built upon wild speculation.  For instance, he constructs an entire relationship between Paul and Sosthenes for the writing of 1 Corinthians in which Paul is the “pragmatic” who became irritated with Sosthenes and his “complicated and overly subtle” (33) method of writing.  In fact, Murphy-O’Connor isolates two passages in which Sosthenes included his input but concludes that Paul chose to shut him out of the process later.

Finally, Murphy-O’Connor turns to the process of sending a letter.  After examining the options available to Paul he concludes that Paul sent his early letters with strangers.  However, as he made more contacts he was able to send his letters with Christians and often his assistants.  This section is an excellent example of the brevity of this work.  While the five pages Murphy-O’Connor devotes to this topic are plenty for a course on Paul, there are many other issues that could be addressed.  For instance, one should consult Margaret Mitchell’s work “New Testament Envoys in the Context of Greco-Roman Diplomatic and Epistolary Conventions: The Example of Timothy and Titus” for information regarding the roles that the letter carriers played in delivering letters.  Furthermore, Murphy-O’Connor could address the importance of having someone deliver the letter who could elaborate on the letter or even read the letter to the community.  This seems especially important for Murphy-O’Connor who conceives of Paul as one who was well trained in rhetoric.

Chapter two focuses on the different parts of a letter.  However, imbedded within this information is useful information concerning epistolary theory and rhetoric.  In fact, Murphy-O’Connor dedicates thirty pages to rhetoric, a massive amount in such a short work.  Within this section he introduces the different types of rhetoric, parts of a rhetorical speech, and scholars who interact with rhetoric.

The final chapter is an examination of how Paul’s letters were collected.  Murphy-O’Connor discusses the three major theories, the big bang, the snowball, and Paul’s notebooks.  In short the theories are as follows.  The big bang theory is that one collector decided at some point to collect all of Paul’s letters.  The snowball theory assumes that multiple smaller collections were made before they were put together into a bigger collection.  The most attractive, yet least plausible, theory is that Paul made copies of his letters and his notebooks were then given to his disciples who then possessed a collection of Paul’s letters.  Murphy-O’Connor recognizes that this is an especially difficult topic as there is not much evidence.  However, he proposes that there were actually three smaller collections of Paul’s letters.  His proposal is built upon the varying location of Hebrews in our extant manuscripts.  Additionally, he proposes different scenarios for the location of the assembly of these three collections.  Unfortunately, Murphy-O’Connor’s conclusion is as unsatisfying as those that have come before, however, it is an interesting possibility to add to the list.

Paul the Letter-Writer is both useful and limited.  It is frankly far too brief to be an essential work on the topic of Paul and ancient letter writing.  Murphy-O’Connor does not provide enough detail on the topics he covers and leaves out many other important issues such as Paul’s potential use of drafts.  However, because the work is so short it is useful in a classroom setting or as an introduction to Paul and letter writing.  For instance, I will use this work in any general course I teach on Paul or his letters.  However, for a course focusing on Paul the ancient letter writer, other books such as E. Randolph Richards’ Paul and First-Century Letter Writing would be more useful.  Thus, my final recommendation is that everyone needs to be aware of the issues raised by Murphy-O’Connor and that his contribution is a worthy introduction to the material but it is by no means the final or definitive work on the subject.