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Paul’s Use of Scribes, Scriptural Interpretation and Scribes Today

A scribe

A scribe.

Many people might not have noticed that Paul, quite clearly, employed the use of scribes in his letter writing. Rom 16:22, for example, shows that Tertius wrote the letter (on paper) but the letter is authored and sent by Paul. There are other references and clues to this all over his letters. Just go to the end of each of them and see if you can find them (for example, Paul highlighting how he is writing a certain part of the letter in ‘his own hand’.)

But now why is this important? I’m going to come at this from three angles:

1) It has something to say about the inspiration and the authority of the Scriptures, I think.
2) It has something to say about how scribes can be (and perhaps should be) used in the church and apostolic teams today.
3) It has something to say about certain letters where Paul’s authorship is disputed.

I’m a writer myself and something of what I do each day fits into what scribes used to do in Paul’s time (and even before, as we see Jeremiah also dictated his prophecies). Scribes used to either write a letter on behalf of someone else word-for-word (dictated); edit the letters of their client, getting sign-off once they were done; take down notes to get a general idea of what their client wanted written and compose the letter themselves, getting sign-off from the client; or, in extreme cases, write something they know their client would say and send it off without even getting sign off as there was a trusted relationship between them.

In the world of PR and communications this happens in various levels and many people, when they get into this world, are shocked to find out that the CEO of whatever company didn’t actually say what a newspaper article says he said, but rather the PR company wrote what the CEO would (or probably should) have said and he just rubber stamped it. He doesn’t have the time to think of all the right words to say, he pays someone to do that for him. Well, in the old days, kings and queens and Caesars and even the common person (who couldn’t write) would hire scribes to do pretty much the same thing, to various degrees, and Paul himself either hired a scribe or had scribes on his apostolic team. In fact, I think the latter is more probable, given the fact that Tertius feels at liberty to butt in and send his own greetings at the end of Romans.

Now, what does this say about scriptural authority and interpretation?

I’m coming off the back of a very interesting article written by Andrew Wilson from King’s Church Eastborne who thinks that the biggest theological debate for the next 20 years will be about how we read, understand and apply the Bible. It’s a very good article and point, and I have an inkling that the debate might be made a lot easier if we can understand how scribes would have worked with Paul in composing those letters.

The idea of a scribe ‘working with’ Paul has a number of implications for this topic that might not be immediately clear.

Firstly, it means Paul might not have dictated all this ‘word for word’, which means we can’t be too technical when it comes to his use of certain words across all of his letters. Secondly, it may also mean that it was not only Paul who was inspired by the Holy Spirit in writing those parts of the Bible, but also his scribe. Now that says a great deal about Paul’s own scriptural authority and inspiration, apostolic authority today, and a great deal about writers today, but we don’t have space to unpack all the implications in this one post (I might unpack it as I do more research).

That also perhaps wouldn’t be seen as much of an issue within Jewish culture, given the authority scribes seemed to have (many were seen as Rabbis). Now I’ll even take it one step further because, given what I see written at the end of some of Paul’s letters, and the style of the book of Hebrews and some of Paul’s letters, letters may have not just been composed by Paul and his scribe but letters could have been a collaborative effort by Paul and his apostolic team. I’m thinking of Paul in prison here, mostly, where we see a lot of greetings at the end of the letters.

Paul was the leader of an apostolic movement but he had many people on his team. Letters sent “from” Paul are sent carrying his authority as the leader of an apostolic movement, but what if they were composed collaboratively? Paul was there to OK the letter but he didn’t come up with the whole thing, rather doctrine was discussed, how things were to be communicated was agreed upon, the scribe wrote down what the team wanted, did some editing to make it more clear, less confusing, and a letter was sent? This means that Paul, although the leader, was not the only one inspired by the Holy Spirit to write scripture. This throws some interesting light on how scriptural inspiration could have happened, which greatly increases the authority of Scripture in my mind (it’s not just coming from one guy but from a team of guys who all have the Holy Spirit).

This also throws light on the role of scribes today. As a scribe myself it helps me understand the seriousness of what I write and how I write and it shows me how my gifting can be used apostolically and in the Church today. Many pastors and apostolic guys today aren’t good at writing well, and it’s not as if I think they should be, I’m not very good at half the things they do. They also don’t have the time. But a scribe can take the heart of these guys and, also being inspired by the Holy Spirit and carrying a certain authority, convey it in written words for them, which is necessary in an information driven world that is being dominated by the Internet.

That makes me excited. I’m also here to perform my function in the church and this function is a serious one. We leave it up to the pastors to lead, envision, and even write books. Why? Why aren’t we seeing more scribes do that? This is perhaps a lost art form that I think is much needed in the church today. Writing is not just about selling millions of books (and generally it’s only the big name pastors who sell lots of books anyway) but about helping leaders in the church to communicate effectively. No one really knows the name Tertius but he was perhaps an incredibly important cog in the scripture writing process. It’s not about having a big name but about being effective.

As to number (3) above, this article at the Religious Study Centre answers that, and I think pretty well. It also clears up a lot of how scribes used to work and I recommend it for further research.

I realise I haven’t unpacked everything I could in this post, but I probably will as time goes by and I give this all a think and more research.

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One thought on “Paul’s Use of Scribes, Scriptural Interpretation and Scribes Today

  1. Pingback: Inspiration for Scripture May Have Rested on a Larger Number of Contributors « Christianity 201

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