Monday, January 22, 2007

What we learn from Paul's acknowledgments

My vision is extremely blurry today (more on that later), so I'm not in good shape to write much, so let me just excerpt an article I wrote that just went live over at Mark Goodyear is my editor over there, and if you haven't visited his blog yet, check it out to find out how he and his wife met as Ahab and Jezebel and got their first kiss captured on video. Anyway, here's part of my article:

I like reading the acknowledgments page in a book. I enjoy seeing the names of friends, family members, mentors, and others who comprise the community surrounding the author. There's a romantic myth of the author as solitary genius, the hermit who goes into a cave and throws out a masterpiece. Not so. Every book is the product of collaboration, and the acknowledgments are a window into each author's community.

We see this in Scripture as well, especially at the end of Paul's letters. Romans 16 is an example of his "acknowledgments." There Paul greets twenty-nine individuals by name, from Priscilla and Aquila to Tryphena and Tryphosa, as well as many others included in general terms like "the church," "the household," "the other brothers and sisters," and "all the believers with them." He describes the recipients as his "coworkers" and "dear friends" who "work hard in the Lord."

Paul also mentions his immediate companions and coworkers—Tertius, who wrote the letter down. Phoebe, who delivered the letter to the Romans. Gaius, who hosted Paul. And other coworkers like Timothy and Sosipater. In other words, Paul is no lone ranger in his work. He is not an isolated individual. He is part of a particular community (probably in Corinth at the time of the writing), and he writes to another like-minded community (in Rome).

As E. Randolph Richards has pointed out in his book Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, ancient letter writing was not a solitary activity. Paul did not write letters in isolation, like we send off e-mails from our laptops or Blackberries today. Nor was he merely dictating letters to a secretary. In the first century, letters such as Paul's were often written in a communal setting, such as a patron's living room or workshop. Several people probably worked in the room together, interacting with the material as it was composed. Because of the expense of writing supplies, Paul and his coworkers would have bounced ideas off each other, honing and clarifying the concepts before carefully setting pen to paper.

For the rest, click here.


Anonymous said...

Al, you make me smile.

As always thanks for the post here. This article is so powerful—and it has a great title.

I love the implication you make at the end that Romans may have been a group effort. I guess it could be frightening to some Christians to spread authorship around like that, but it shouldn't be.

Why wouldn't God work literally through communities to create his Word? Jesus Christ is the Logos. Now the church is the body of Christ, the body of the Logos.

Could it be the Word is a community as much as it is a written text?

Anonymous said...

In college, whenever a professor would assign a group project, I always groaned. Working collaborativly never seemed very efficient, and negotiating the interpersonal relationships often got in the way of the task at hand. Plus, I usually ended up carrying the bulk of the work load because it was easier than critiquing someone else's work.

Looking back, I see that the group interaction was as much the assignment as whatever project we were working on. Collaboration is a good, necessary part of all meaningful work. Thanks for the reminder, Al.

Anonymous said...

Charity, that reminds me of all the times I assigned group projects and heard similar complaints from my students.

Usually I just listened to them and said, "You can make it work. Make it work." For me, nearly all of school is about teaching people the process of learning and working together.

Which makes me wonder about work. Could it be the purpose of work isn't much different? We are just out here being productive for the larger (higher?) purpose of learning more and working together. And through both, we give glory to God.

Anonymous said...

Mark -- Are you saying life is just one big group project? :)

Al Hsu said...

Charity and Mark - your comments remind me of the fact that Agatha Christie refused to work with coauthors becuase she said that you still do all the work and only get half the royalties. I think western individualism plays into this a lot - we think that it's easier to do everything by ourselves and whatnot. But life is meant to be lived collaboratively, even though it's messier sometimes. And it's another example of everything we need to know being learned in kindergarten - play nicely with others.

L.L. Barkat said...

So, are you saying Paul would have been a blogger?

Al Hsu said...

I bet he would have been a blogger. He certainly made use of the communication technologies of his day and would likely have blogged today. Though it's an interesting question to think about how his writing, say, Colossians, would have been different had he been blogging rather than writing.

Something quite interesting to me is the fact that the cost of papyrus and writing materials was such that even a short letter like Philemon would have cost maybe $200 to compose, and to write a longer epistle like Romans or 1 Corinthians would have cost thousands of dollars. So you can bet that every word was chosen with care. Would he have been as theologically deep were he e-mailing or texting? Perhaps not.

Actually, you know who really would have been bloggers? The patristic church fathers who wrote all those commentaries and treatises. They never had an unpublished thought.

L.L. Barkat said...

Now there's an interesting thought... that Paul might have written less carefully in a different medium. (Do I hear cries of "heretic"?) I guess this would start all kinds of musing on the inerrancy of blogging.