Paul’s crafting of the book of Romans – the $2275 letter!

In the past, some scholars made much of the difference between “letters” and “epistles:” placing Paul’s in the former category to show their proximity to most surviving ancient letters (from Egyptian papyri) rather than literary letters.

While Paul did not belong to the elite circles of leisured letter writers like Cicero or Pliny, he did not simply compose his major letters, like Romans, off the top of his head. Given the time necessary to take normal dictation in antiquity (shorthand being unavailable), Paul may have taken over eleven hours to dictate this letter to Tertius, its scribe (Rom 16:22).

Since such a major undertaking probably involved more than one draft (and Paul could draw on his preaching experience), the final draft may have taken less than this estimate, but the total time invested in the letter was probably greater. Given the cost of papyrus and of the labor required (though Tertius, a believer, might have donated his services), one scholar estimates the cost of Romans at 20.68 denarii, which he calculates as roughly $2275 in recent US currency. In other words, Paul did not simply offer this project as an afterthought; Romans is a carefully premeditated work.

As we shall note below, Romans is no ordinary letter; it is a sophisticated argument. The average ancient papyrus letter was 87 words; the orator Cicero was more long-winded, averaging 295 words (with as many as 2530 words); and the philosopher Seneca averaged 995 words (with as many as 4134). The extant letters attributed to Paul average 2495 words, while Romans, his longest, has 7114 words.

One characteristic of letters that is surely relevant here is that authors expected the specified audience of their letters to understand them. Whether authors always communicated adequately or readers always understood adequately is another question, but most authors at least tried to communicate so as to be clearly understood. Paul thus writes to his audience in Greek. (Greek was the first language of many non-Italians in Rome, including the majority of Jews and of Christian ministers who had come from the east; only in the second century is it clear that many lower-class, Latin-speaking Romans joined the church.)

Paul also apparently writes with what he assumes will be shared cultural assumptions regarding language and concepts that he uses without detailed explanation. Informing ourselves about these shared cultural assumptions helps us understand his language.

(Adapted from Romans: A New Covenant Commentary, published by Cascade Books. Buy the book here.)


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