The Real Writer of Romans
A QUICK LOOK at the closing verses of Paul’s letter to Rome makes it clear that Paul did not pen the epistle: “Timothy, my co-worker, greets you; so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my relatives. I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord” (NRSV). Of course, Romans 1:1 indicates that Paul was the author. So who was this “Tertius,” and what was his role in the producing this letter?
In Paul’s day most letters were written by a professional scribe called an amanuensis. Sometimes the sender was illiterate, but generally an amanuensis was used to guarantee letters would be grammatically sound and legible. Tertius was Paul’s scribe, and he inserted his own greeting at the close of the letter.
As a professional, Tertius collected the necessary materials for writing. This was not always easy since bulk paper production was unknown. Although vellum or parchment (processed polished animal skins) were available, they were expensive.
Papyrus from Egypt, however, worked best. The cut plant was pressed in layers and became as tough as today’s paper. It was produced in scrolls by gluing together sheets and rolling them end-to-end on a stick. One roll was called a volume (from the Latin volumen, “something rolled up”) and was generally 35 feet long.
Ancient authors wrote to fit volumes, and like Luke, sometimes produced two-volume works (the Gospel and Acts). Obviously, length was a problem. Callimachus, a famous cataloguer at the great library of Alexandria, liked to say “A big book is a big nuisance.”
When Tertius began working on Romans, he had in hand a fresh scroll and a pen with brown or black ink. Scribes wrote on the side of the papyrus where the fibers ran horizontally, the fiber lines serving as a guide. Tertius would then organize the roll into three-inch wide columns for text.
As he worked, he likely wrote entirely in capital letters, giving the text a splendid dignity. And, remarkably, he never left spaces between words, letting one word spill into the next. The final effect gave a block text with straight margins on both right and left sides.
Who Wrote That?
Trusted scribes were given great freedom to shape the form, style, and even the content of the author’s letter. This broad role for an amanuensis must be kept in mind when scholars compare the vocabulary and stylistic differences among Paul’s letters to determine questions of authorship. Sometimes a minor word choice belonged to Paul. Sometimes it may have belonged to someone like Tertius.
In any event, occasionally Paul liked to take the pen and close the letter in his own handwriting. For example, at the end of 1 Corinthians, he writes, “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand.” He probably used his handwriting as a signature since forgeries of letters using Paul’s name were known. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul concludes, “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write.”
By Gary Burge
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #47 in 1995]Gary Burge is associate professor of New Testament, Wheaton College (IL).
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