How Ancient Jewish Letter-writing Shaped the New Testament – By M. Eugene Boring

M. Eugene Boring on  Lutz Doering’s Ancient Jewish Letters and the Beginnings of Christian Epistolography

Epistolography, Christian Origins, Lutz Doering, Letter Writing, Jewish LettersEven readers conversant with the Bible are sometimes a bit disconcerted to be reminded that the New Testament is primarily a collection of letters. The seven undisputed letters of Paul — Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon — set a pattern followed not only by his own disciples but also by other early Christian teachers who adopted the epistolary genre for instructing the churches. The result: of twenty-seven New Testament “books,” twenty-two belong to the epistolary genre.

This was not news to me when, more than fifty years ago, I began serious study of the Bible in seminary. I still recall, however, what seemed like a flash of revelatory insight when I learned how the discovery of hundreds of ancient letters among the papyri recovered from the trash heaps of the Nile valley had impacted our understanding of the New Testament. These were informal, private letters, written by everyday people in everyday language. They had many similarities, especially in vocabulary, with New Testament letters. Features previously thought to be distinctively biblical were now seen to belong to typical informal letter writing. Like many others, I had become accustomed to reading Paul’s (and other New Testament) letters as theological treatises, essays on Christian doctrine cast more-or-less incidentally in the form of letters addressed to particular churches. The New Testament letters seemed to stand out from both classical Greek and ordinary conversation of our own times. The contrast seemed appropriate—after all, they were in the Bible and were supposed to sound biblical and religious, different from ordinary letters and conversation.

On the basis of these new discoveries, scholars such as Adolf Deissmann argued for a sharp distinction between formal epistles and real letters. Formal epistles were literary texts, treatises for a general readership, analogous to the epistles of Cicero, Seneca, or Pliny. Real letters were informal, occasional, addressed to particular individuals or groups, and written neither in the stilted classical style nor in a special biblical Greek but in the ordinary koine represented by the papyri. Deissmann provided hundreds of examples, presented his case with clarity, erudition, and passion, and convinced two generations of New Testament scholars to read early Christian letters against the background of ordinary Greco-Roman letters. No one doubts that this was a great contribution to New Testament studies.

It was also an overreaction from which biblical research has not yet recovered. In the last twenty-five years, it has become clear to many that the distinction between formal epistle and informal letter was oversimplified. It neglected the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures used in early Christianity, and mistakenly caused Paul’s letters to be classified among the informal, private, non-literary letters found in the papyri. Paul’s letters have a quasi-official character not found in the informal letters. He writes as an apostle. He addresses communities, not individuals, and expects his letters to be read aloud to assembled congregations. His letters (with the exception of Philemon) are far longer than the papyrus examples. Their content includes argumentative and expository development, including rhetorical features not found in private correspondence. A number of vigorous studies in the latter half of the twentieth century contributed to a new and more informed reading of New Testament letters (e.g., Robert Funk, Abraham Malherbe, Hans Dieter Betz, and their students). But New Testament letters continued to be evaluated almost entirely within the context of Greco-Roman epistolography. Jewish letters were mostly given minimal attention.

Enter Lutz Doering. A native of Germany, Doering studied theology and Jewish Studies at Erlangen, Jerusalem, and Heidelberg, and then continued his research at Göttingen (Dr. theol. 1998). He taught at Göttingen, Jena, and King’s College London before assuming his present post at Durham in 2009. Doering has researched and published on ancient Jewish epistolography since his years at Jena (1999-2003). The present volume integrates his previous work, while comprehensively extending it to become the most thorough treatment of the topic available. To be sure, Doering had predecessors, whose work he builds upon and with whom he regularly enters into constructive dialogue. But this monograph is at present the definitive work, and it gives promise of remaining such for some time to come.

The book argues that ancient Jewish letter writing contributes to our understanding of early Christian epistolography in at least three areas. First, there are the formal elements adopted and adapted by Christian authors, primarily the introductory and final greetings, and, to a lesser extent, the transitional passages immediately following the prescript and preceding the final salutation. Another contribution to our understanding can be found in the “quasi-official” text-pragmatic use of letters in addressing communities rather than individuals. Doering finally points us to the references to group identity, cohesion, and the common sacred history that binds together readers with each other and with the writer, facilitating the letter as a means of maintaining the network of communities.

Doering presents ancient Jewish letters as a fascinating and varied object of study in their own right, of value to anyone interested in the history, culture, and religious life of antiquity. The major part of the book is an exposition of the history of ancient Jewish letter writing that covers documentary letters such as those recovered from Masada and the Bar Kokhba letters from the war of 132–136 CE, the letters embedded in the texts of Jewish Scriptures, literary letters in the Dead Sea Scrolls, letters in the non-canonical pseudepigraphical corpus such as the Letter of Aristeas, the letters found in the multivolume productions of Philo of Alexandria and Josephus, and letters belonging to the corpus of early rabbinic writings. Doering’s monograph constitutes a standalone history of the subject, valuable in itself as a contribution to the portrayal of communication in antiquity and to the history of ancient Judaism. For most of its intended readers, however, the monograph provides both data and rationale for reconsidering the influence of Jewish epistolography on the formative stages of the early Christian epistolary tradition. Reading these pages and rehearsing what one knows of the Jewish Scriptures in light of them, it begins to dawn upon the modern reader that Paul, for instance, could have had a flexible view of what a letter is as the point of departure for formulating his own letters. This view is not limited to his own experience of the Greco-Roman letter form but informed by the Bible he knew so well.

Paul’s letters are not simply a Christianized form of regulatory Jewish letters sent to synagogues, in Doering’s view. He does show that the traditional view has not sufficiently taken Jewish epistolography into account. This may be illustrated by a key sample from this comprehensive discussion, dealing with the structure of the prescript. For more than a generation, major New Testament scholars have argued or assumed that the distinctively Pauline “Paul to B, grace (charis) to you and peace,” is his variation on the standard Hellenistic “A to B, greetings (chairein).” Many have contended that Paul’s charis is his modification of the typical chairein, substituting a key term of Christian and Pauline theology for the colorless Hellenistic greeting. Doering, however, shows that the traditional view tends to disregard the Jewish letters in which “mercy and peace” were already joined in epistolary greetings. The Pauline form, he argues, is better explained in reference to the tradition of Jewish letters.

Specialists may find emphases and interpretations with which they would not agree; non-experts such as myself will find Doering’s monograph informative and horizon-expanding. Naturally, the mass of material dealt with does not allow detailed consideration of every letter. But time and again the discussion provides, almost incidentally, illustrations of the depth of engagement with primary texts and thorough, critical evaluation of secondary studies. Although I have read fairly widely and deeply in this field for decades, working through these historical chapters afforded illuminating and genre-stretching surprises. For instance, like all students of the Bible, I was aware that the both the Masoretic text and the Septuagint contained imbedded letters. I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised to learn that there are no less than seventy-nine references to letters in the Septuagint and edified by perusing the three-page chart that lists, categorizes, and describes each one. Though I knew that writing had existed in Israel from its beginnings, I had never noticed that letter writing appeared in the biblical story line only with the monarchy, the earliest biblical letter being David’s note to Joab containing Uriah’s death-warrant, carried by his own hand (2 Samuel 11:14–15). I was intrigued by the discussion of 2 Maccabees suggesting that the initial embedded letters make it possible to see the whole document as an extensive letter, and that the colophon of the Old Greek version of Esther (Additions to Esther F 11)  presents the whole book as a Purim letter.

There is much to be learned from this book; readers can only be grateful, even if the gift is not uncritically received. We can no longer ignore or minimize the influence that Jewish letters may have played on the formation of the core documents of the Christian faith.