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The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia
W. M. Ramsay
1904

Chapter 3: The Christian Letters and Their Transmission


In the preceding chapter we have described the circumstances amid which the Christian letter-writing was developed; and it was pointed out in conclusion that in the pressure of those circumstances, or rather in the energetic use of the opportunities which the circumstances of the Roman Empire offered, there came into existence a kind of letter, hitherto unknown in the world. The Christians developed the older class of letter into new forms, applied it to new purposes, and placed it on a much higher plane than it had ever before stood upon. In their hands communication by letter became one of the most important, if not the most important, of the agencies for consolidating and maintaining the sense of unity among the scattered members of the one universal Church. By means of letters the congregations expressed their mutual affection and sympathy and sense of brotherhood, asked counsel of one another, gave advice with loving freedom and plain speaking to one another, imparted mutual comfort and encouragement, and generally expressed their sense of their common life. Thus arose a new category of epistles.

Dr. Deissmann in Bible Studies, p. 1ff, following older scholars, has rightly and clearly distinguished two previously existing categories, the true letter-written by friend to friend or to friends, springing from the momentary occasion, intended only for the eye of the person or persons to whom it is addressed--and the literary epistle--written with an eye to the public, and studied with literary art. The literary epistle is obviously later in origin than the true letter. It implies the previous existence of the true letter as a well-recognised type of composition, and the deliberate choice of this type for imitation. Soon after the death of Aristotle in 322 BC a fictitious collection of letters purporting to have been written by him was published. Such forged letters are composed for a literary purpose with an eye to the opinion of the world. The forger deliberately writes them after a certain type and with certain characteristics, which may cause them to be taken for something which they are not really. A fabrication like this proves at least that the letter was already an established form of composition; and the forger believed that he could calculate on rousing public interest by falsely assuming this guise.

But it is impossible to follow Dr. Deissmann, it seems to me, when he goes on to reduce all the letters of the New Testament to one or other of those categories. He shows, it is true, some consciousness that the two older categories are insufficient, but the fact is that in the new conditions a new category had been developed--the general letter addressed to a whole congregation or to the entire Church of Christ.

These are true letters, in the sense that they spring from the heart of the writer and speak direct to the heart of the readers; that they were often written in answer to a question, or called forth by some special crisis in the history of the persons addressed, so that they rise out of the actual situation in which the writer conceives the readers to be placed; that they express the writer's keen and living sympathy with and participation in the fortunes of the whole class addressed; that they are not affected by any thought of a wider public than the persons whom he directly addresses; in short, he empties out his heart in them. On the other hand, the letters of this class express general principles of life and conduct, religion and ethics, applicable to a wider range of circumstances than those which have called forth the special letter; and they appeal as emphatically and intimately to all Christians in all time as they did to those addressed in the first instance.

It was not long before this wider appeal was perceived. It is evident that when St. Paul bade the Colossians send his letter to be read in the Laodicean Church, and read themselves the Laodicean letter, he saw that each was applicable to a wider circle than it directly addressed. But it is equally evident that the Colossian letter was composed not with an eye to that wider circle, but directly to suit the critical situation in Colossae. The wider application arises out of the essential similarity of human nature in both congregations and in all mankind. The crisis that has occurred in one congregation is likely at some period to occur in other similar bodies; and the letter which speaks direct to the heart of one man or one body of men will speak direct to the heart of all men in virtue of their common human nature. Here lies the essential character of this new category of letters. In the individual case they discover the universal principle, and state it in such a way as to reach the heart of every man similarly situated; and yet they state this, not in the way of formal exposition, but in the way of direct personal converse, written in place of spoken.

Some of those Christian letters are more diverse from the true letter than others; and Dr. Deissmann tries to force them into his too narrow classification by calling some of them true letters and others literary epistles. But none of the letters in the New Testament can be restricted within the narrow range of his definition of the true letter: even the letter to Philemon, intimate and personal as it is, rebels in some parts against this strictness, and rises into a far higher and broader region of thought: it is addressed not only to Philemon and Apphia and Archippus, but also "to the Church in thy house."

Such letters show a certain analogy to the Imperial rescripts. The rescript was strictly a mere reply to a request for guidance in some special case, addressed by an official to the Emperor; yet it came to be regarded as one of the chief means of improving and developing Roman public law. A rescript arose out of special circumstances and stated the Emperor's opinion on them in much the same way as if the official had consulted him face to face; the rescript was written for the eye of one official, without any thought of others; but it set forth the general principle of policy which applied to the special case. The rescripts show how inadequate Dr. Deissmann's classification is. It would be a singularly incomplete account of them to class them either as true letters or as literary epistles. They have many of the characteristics of the true letter; in them the whole mind and spirit of the Imperial writer was expressed for the benefit of one single reader; but they lack entirely the spontaneity and freshness of the true letter. As expressing general truths and universal principles, they must have been the result of long experience and careful thought, though the final expression was often hasty and roused by some special occasion. This more studied character differentiates them from the mere unstudied expression of personal affection and interest.

Similarly, those general letters of the Christians express and embody the growth in the law of the Church and in its common life and constitution. They originated in the circumstances of the Church. The letter of the Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15:23ff) arose out of a special occasion, and was the reply to a question addressed from Syria to the central Church and its leaders; the reply was addressed to the Churches of the province of Syria and Cilicia, and specially the Church of the capital of that province; but it was forthwith treated as applicable equally to other Christians, and was communicated as authoritative by Paul and Silas to the Churches of Galatia (Acts 16:4).

The peculiar relation of fatherhood and authority in which Paul stood to his own Churches developed still further this category of letters. Mr. V. Bartlet has some good remarks on it in Dr. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible, i., p. 730, from which we may be allowed to quote two sentences. "Of a temper too ardent for the more studied forms of writing, St. Paul could yet by letter, and so on the spur of occasion, concentrate all his wealth of thought, feeling and maturing experience upon some particular religious situation, and sweep away the difficulty or danger...The true cause of" all his letters "lay deep in the same spirit as breathes in First Thessalonians, the essentially 'pastoral' instinct."

A still further development towards general philosophicolegal statement of religious dogma is apparent on the one hand in Romans, addressed to a Church which he had not founded, and on the other hand in the Pastoral Epistles. The latter have a double character, being addressed by Paul to friends and pupils of his own, partly in their capacity of personal friends--such portions of the letters being of the most intimate, incidental, and unstudied character--but far more in their official capacity as heads and overseers of a group of Churches--such parts of the letters being really intended more for the guidance of the congregations than of the nominal addressees, and being, undoubtedly, to a considerable extent merely confirmatory of the teaching already given to the congregations by Timothy and Titus. The double character of these Epistles is a strong proof of their authenticity. Such a mixture of character could only spring from the intimate friend and leader, whose interest in the work which his two subordinates were doing was at times lost in the personal relation.

The Catholic Epistles represent a further stage of this development. First Peter is addressed to a very wide yet carefully defined body of Churches in view of a serious trial to which they are about to be exposed. Second Peter, James, and First John are quite indefinite in their address to all Christians. But all of them are separated by a broad and deep division from the literary epistle written for the public eye. They are informed and inspired with the intense personal affection which the writers felt for every individual of the thousands whom they addressed. They are entirely devoid of the artificiality which is inseparable from the literary epistle; they come straight from the heart and speak straight to the heart; whereas the literary epistle is always and necessarily written with a view to its effect on the public, and the style is affected and to a certain degree forced and even unnatural. It was left for the Christian letter to prove that the heart of man is wide enough and deep enough to entertain the same love for thousands as for one. The Catholic Epistles are therefore quite as far removed from the class of "literary epistles" as the typical letters of Paul are from the class of "true letters," as those classes have been defined; and the resemblance in essentials between the Catholic and the typical Pauline Epistles is sufficient to overpower the points of difference, and to justify us in regarding them as forming a class by themselves.

This remarkable development, in which law, statesmanship, ethics, and religion meet in and transform the simple letter, was the work of St. Paul more than of any other. But it was not due to him alone, nor initiated by him. It began before him and continued after him. It sprang from the nature of the Church and the circumstances of the time. The Church was Imperial, the visible Kingdom of God. Its leaders felt that their letters expressed the will of God; and they issued their truly Imperial rescripts. "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" is the bold and regal exordium of the first Christian letter.

Christian letters in the next two or three centuries were often inspired by something of the same spirit. Congregation spoke boldly and authoritatively to congregation, as each was moved by the Spirit to write: the letter partook of the nature of an Imperial rescript, yet it was merely the expression of the intense interest taken by equal in equal, and brother in brother. The whole series of such letters is indicative of the strong interest of all individuals in the government of the entire body; and they form one of the loftiest and noblest embodiments of a high tone of feeling common to a very large number of ordinary, commonplace, undistinguished human beings.

Such a development of the letter was possible in that widely scattered body of the Church only through the greatly increased facilities for travel and intercourse. The Church showed its marvellous intuition and governing capacity by seizing this opportunity. In this, as in many other ways, it was the creature of its time, suiting itself to the needs of the time, which was ripe for it, and using the conditions and opportunities of the time with true creative statesmanship.

As has been said, correspondence is impossible without some safe means of conveyance. A confidential letter, the real outpouring of one's feelings, is impossible unless the writer feels reasonably sure that the letter will reach the proper hands, and still more that it will not fall into the wrong hands. Further, it has been pointed out that there was no public post, and that any individual or any trading company which maintained a large correspondence was forced to maintain an adequate number of private letter-carriers. The great financial associations of publicani in the last century BC had bodies of slave messengers, called tabellarii, to carry their letters between the central administration in Rome and the agents scattered over every province where they conducted business. Wealthy private persons employed some of their own slaves as tabellarii. But if such messengers were to be useful, they must be experienced, and they must be familiar with roads and methods of travel: in short, any great company which maintained a large correspondence must necessarily organise a postal service of its own. The best routes and halts were marked out, the tabellarii travelled along fixed roads, and the administration could say approximately where any messenger was likely to be at any moment, when a letter would arrive and the orders which it contained be put in execution, when each messenger would return and be available for a new mission. All this lies at the basis of good organisation and successful conduct of business. As to the details we know nothing; no account of such things has been preserved. But the existence of such a system must be presupposed as a condition, before great business operations like the Roman could be carried on. A large correspondence implies a special postal system.

Now we must apply this to the Christian letters. Many such letters were sent: those which have been preserved must be immensely multiplied to give any idea of the number really despatched. The importance of this correspondence for the welfare and growth of the Church was, as has been shown, very great. Some provision for the safe transmission of that large body of letters, official and private, was obviously necessary. Here is a great subject, as to which no information has been preserved.

It must be supposed as was stated above, that the bishops had the control of this department of Church work. In the first place the bishop wrote in the name of the congregation of which he was an official: this is known from the case of the Roman Clement, whose letter to the Corinthians is expressed in the name of the Roman Church. The reference to him in the Shepherd of Hermas, Vision, ii., 4, 3, as entrusted with the duty of communicating with other Churches, confirms the obvious inference from his letter, and the form of the reference shows that the case was not an exceptional, but a regular and typical one. This one case, therefore, proves sufficiently what was the practice in the Church.

In the second place the bishop was charged with the duty of hospitality, i.e. of receiving and providing for the comfort of the envoys and messengers from other Churches: this is distinctly stated in 1 Timothy 3:1ff and Titus 1:5ff. To understand what is implied in this duty, it is necessary to conceive clearly the situation. As has been already pointed out, the Christian letter-writers had to find their own messengers. It cannot be doubted that, as an almost invariable rule, those messengers were Christians. Especially, all official letters from one congregation to another must be assumed to have been borne by Christian envoys. Epaphroditus, Tychicus, Silas and others, who occur as bearers of letters in the New Testament, must be taken as examples of a large class. St. Paul himself carried and delivered the first known Christian letter. That class of travelling Christians could not be suffered to lodge in pagan inns, which were commonly places of the worst character in respect of morality and comfort and cleanliness. They were entertained by their Christian brethren; that was a duty incumbent on the congregation; and the bishops had to superintend and be responsible for the proper discharge of this duty. It must therefore be understood that such envoys would address themselves first to the bishop, when they came to any city where there was an organised body of Christians resident, and that all Christian travellers would in like manner look to the bishop for guidance to suitable quarters. Considering that the number of Christian travellers must have been large, it is entirely impossible to interpret the duty of hospitality, with which the bishop was charged, as implying that he ought to entertain them in his own house.

In the third place, it seems to follow as a necessary corollary from the two preceding duties, that the letters addressed to any congregation were received by the bishop in its name and as its representative.

From the fact that the letter-carriers were usually Christian, we must infer that they were not likely as a rule to be, like the tabellarii of the great Roman companies, slaves trained to the duty and doing nothing else. In many cases, certainly, the letters were carried by persons who had other reasons for travelling. But in a great province like Asia, it was necessary to have more regular messengers within the province, and not to depend entirely on accidental opportunities. Undoubtedly, messengers had often to be sent with letters round the congregations of the province. In the earlier stages of Church development, probably, those messengers were volunteers, discharging a duty which among the pagans was almost entirely performed by slaves: just as Luke and Aristarchus, when they travelled with St. Paul to Rome, must have voluntarily passed as his servants, i.e. as slaves, in order to be admitted to the convoy. In such cases, it is apparent how much this sense of duty ennobled labour and raised the social standing of the labourer, who was not a volunteer, making himself like a slave in the service of the Church. In this there is already involved the germ of a general emancipation of slaves and the substitution of free for slave labour.

As time passed, and the work grew heavier, the organisation must have become more complex, and professional carriers of letters were probably required. But as to the details we know nothing, though the general outlines of the system were dictated by the circumstances of the period, and can be restored accordingly. Thus, as soon as we begin to work out the idea of the preparations and equipment required in practice for this great system, we find ourselves obliged to admit the existence of a large organisation. The Church stands before those who rightly conceive its practical character, as a real antagonist in the fullest sense to the Imperial government, creating and managing its own rival administration. We thus understand better the hatred which the Imperial government could not but feel for it, a hatred which is altogether misapprehended by those who regard it as springing from religious ground. We understand too how Constantine at last recognised in the Church the one bond which could hold together the disintegrating Empire. Whether or not he was a Christian, he at least possessed a statesman's insight. And his statesmanlike insight in estimating the practical strength of rival religions stands out as all the more wonderful, if he were not a Christian at heart; for (though many years of his youth and earlier manhood had been spent in irksome detention in the East, where Christianity was the popular and widely accepted religion), yet his choice was made in the West, the country of his birth and of his hopes, where Mithraism was the popular and most influential religion: it was made amid the soldiery, which was almost entirely devoted to the religion of Mithras.


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