Interview with Peter Head on Ancient Letter-Carriers

Today I have the pleasure of sharing with you an interview I conducted with Dr. Peter Head who is the Sir Kirby Laing Senior Lecturer in New Testament (Tyndale House, Cambridge).  One of his current areas of research regards ancient letter-carriers.  He runs a blog on this subject: see HERE.  He has also done some publishing on this topic bit by bit (see bibliography on his blog). I am particularly interested in Paul and what his letter carriers did (i.e. did they help to interpret the letter?), so that led me to bring his work to the attention of all of you.  So, without further ado, thanks Pete and best wishes on your ongoing research – we eagerly anticipate the next bit of wisdom from your pen (or printer?)!

From my understanding, you are in the midst of a large project on letter-carriers in the ancient world and their function in the process of the communication, performance, and/or interpretation of the letter.  How did you develop an interest in this topic?

Firstly, you are right and the project has a focus on Paul within a very broad context (since I see him as functioning in a very broad context). My interest in the question of the role of the letter-carrier in Paul’s communication strategy came about as I was mulling over in my mind four or five areas that I was thinking about or teaching on. In my Cambridge teaching I had done Greek exegesis classes on Colossians and Romans – two letters written to churches not founded by Paul, without the initial basis for communication in shared experiences like his other letters, and with very strong introductions/recommendations of people traditionally understood to have been the letter carrier (Phoebe in Rom 16 and Tychichus in Col 4). So the question as to how Paul thought these letters would be received (and how they may actually have been received) was connected in my mind with the prominence of the presumed letter carrier. It struck me that all the other letters would have been received (and interpreted) within the framework of a pre-existing appreciation (if not total commitment) to a broader understanding of Pauline theology. Perhaps the letter carrier enabled this in the case of Colossians and Romans (although to be fair there is evidence that both these churches also have a pre-understanding of Pauline theology).

Anyway, these ideas were percolating in my mind while I was also asked to teach a summer school course at Tyndale House in Papyrology and the Greek NT (http://www.tyndalehouse.com/SummerSchool/index.htm). In a short course we introduced a range of issues but the underlying unity of the course and practically all of the set texts were letters. Here I was struck both by how the letters of recommendation actually worked, but also by other letters which use (in parallel with Paul) recommendatory language in connection with the letter carrier (often actually specified unlike Paul); and by some notable examples of letters where the letter carrier has an important role (P. Oxy 3313 which I discuss in my JSNT paper was crucial in this).


In your research on the topic so far, what kinds of things surprised you?  What kinds of evidence and findings were you not expecting?


I’m not sure that I have had a lot of surprises. I guess it is sometimes surprising that scholars can make firm pronouncements on the basis of at best anecdotal evidence. I’ve still got a fair way to go with the research, but although there is an overall theory in my mind, I am trying not to expect the evidence to confirm my theories.


I have noticed that you are doing a lot of your own translation of papyri and other primary material.  Have poor English translations been a serious problem for your research?

I don’t think poor ETs have been a problem, but I obviously wanted to construct a project which would need work on Greek, Hebrew and Latin texts. And ETs (if available) are a good start for reading letters, although as with the NT, slowing yourself down to read the Greek can help all sorts of issues emerge more clearly.

Have you had to do much traveling for your research?

No. Not for scholarly materials. I am in a triply fortunate position. Firstly I have an office above the library at Tyndale House – which has a fantastic library for NT studies generally and a very co-operative librarian. Secondly within a couple of hundred metres is the University Library with over seven million books (not to mention even closer is the Classics Faculty Library which is also excellent and has a nice quiet back room for palaeography and papyrology). Thirdly, papyrology has particularly excellent and important web sites, e.g. the Heidelberger Gesamtverzeichnis: http://www.rzuser.uni-heidelberg.de/~gv0/gvz.html; APIS: info here: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/projects/digital/apis/news.html, and others (try Tresmigestos for a portal: http://www.trismegistos.org/).

I am wondering whether and to what extent re-tracing the journeys of the Pauline letter-carriers would be useful. I have a feeling that it could be interesting, perhaps at the level of imagination more than anything. As a prelude to that I have a half-baked plan to mountain bike around the delivery route of 1 Peter during my next sabbatical.


How did you decide which texts to inspect?

Well I am still deciding that question. The basic answer is: anything that is relevant to the question, with special attention to actual letters. The broad parameters are by date (200 – 200) [although I am prepared to take in earlier and later evidence on particular points], and in three/four categories: documentary letters; elite/literary letters; royal/ambassadorial letters (the fourth category is/was ‘jewish letters’, but I am not sure about this as a separate category).


I know that E.R. Richards has also written about letter-carriers.  How does your current work compare and contrast to his?

Yes, Randy has written an excellent book in many respects (Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition and Collection) which is written in a relatively popular and confessionally Christian style (which certainly annoyed one RBL reviewer who could apparently not believe that anybody intelligent enough to write the first fourteen chapters could possibly add a fifteenth which discusses the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture in relation to the composition of Paul’s letters – http://www.bookreviews.org/pdf/4550_4629.pdf). (I don’t know whether Christian readers were also shocked that an evangelical scholar would actually attempt to integrate his academic research with his doctrine of Scripture.) I see this book as a very welcome contribution to the field, based on original research and building on his earlier important monograph on Secretaries in the Letters of Paul (he also wrote an interesting paper on 1 Peter). “Compare and contrast” – well he has written two books on the subject and I have not; he has addressed a whole range of issues – including especially the role of secretaries and his theories, which owe something to Earle Ellis, about the composition of the letters and the use of pre-formed traditional material (which I do not follow) – whereas my focus is ostensibly more narrow; and I think in relation to the letter carriers he asks some crucial questions: to what extent did they bring additional information? Did they function as apostolic envoys or representatives? Were they involved in the rhetorical performance of a letter? Did Paul’s practice change over time or with new circumstances? How did the whole process of co-authors, secretaries/scribes and couriers inter-relate? These are all important questions. I suppose I wouldn’t be writing on this subject if I didn’t think I could make some additional contributions (obviously not all NT scholars think like this), but it would be premature to declare them all now, especially as a lot of the really important thinking has only just begun.


What will be some of the implications of your study for NT research more broadly? (This is the ‘so what’ factor!)

Well I hope I will have gathered together a lot of material that other people will be able to use and think about. I hope that my treatment of various Pauline letters and particular passages will be interesting and persuasive. The theory that the earliest reception of specific Pauline letters would have been accompanied by a Pauline representative who could relate the specifics of the letter to the general Pauline tradition known to him (or her), offers important historical legitimation for informing contemporary interpretation of the Pauline letters and draws the historical study of the reception of Paul’s letters into closer proximity and dialogue with canonical methods of interpretation (stylistic analysis suggests that this sentence incorporates an earlier tradition). There are also issues that arise in relation to Paul’s understanding of his apostolic ministry; his relations with his co-workers, the use of the OT in Paul, the role of women in the Pauline circle, the authenticity of some of the Pauline letters etc. It connects with broader questions about the nature of Scripture and the relationship between Scripture and tradition, so there is no shortage of general interest!

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4 thoughts on “Interview with Peter Head on Ancient Letter-Carriers

  1. Having read “Named Letter Carries among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri” this area of research is very exciting indeed. I was wondering if someone had a reference to the article mentioned above about 1 Peter? All I got was the “compare and contrast” and google can’t seem to find it for me. Thanks!

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