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From 2 Corinthians 2:

3 And I wrote this same unto you, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow from them of whom I ought to rejoice; having confidence in you all, that my joy is the joy of you all.

4 For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears; not that ye should be grieved, but that ye might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you.

Here Paul writes to the Corinthians and refers to previous correspondence. Would Paul have had a copy of the prior letter?


I have read and heard a couple of times that when Ancient authors wrote a letter, they usually produced two copies, sent out one and retained the other.

This would make sense, because in case the letter were lost during shipping, it may be recreated and re-sent. It also would make sense as a way to check later what was said.

On the other hand, the cost of production would double, which would speak against such a practice.

I tried to research this topic, but could not find anything useful. (Only a few articles where the author claimed that it was done without any references.)

If this practice was done, the originals of most books of the Bible would be located in both Rome and the "Byzantine" area (the Greek speaking areas of Greece and Asia Minor) - thus giving more weight to the "Western" text type.

If it was not done, most originals are squarely in the Byzantine area alone.

Are there any ressources to clear up whether this was a common practice among Ancient authors?

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  • This is a wild imagination. Imagine the same possibility of losing the sent letter, did any of us used to keep a copy of it before mailing our letters? No.
    – Michael16
    Commented Aug 13, 2022 at 9:00
  • The reliability of the postal service is different so I don't think we can assume that modern practices are the same as Ancient ones. In any case if Ancient authors usually retained a copy for themselves, at least for important letters, then we should be able to find some evidence for it, which is why I asked this question. Commented Aug 13, 2022 at 9:49
  • no we shouldn't find their evidence, bec the likelihood of their preservation is same as the preservation of sent letters. The draft copy would not be any less likely to be lost.
    – Michael16
    Commented Aug 13, 2022 at 10:05
  • 1
    This is not what I meant. What I think may be available is a general description of how to correctly send letters, maybe something like "son, keep in mind to retain a copy of your answer in case the letter is lost", or "my scribe gave the letter to XY to copy and send out" etc. Commented Aug 13, 2022 at 10:10
  • Or even more likely something like: "After he died, we went through all the letters he has sent and received" Commented Aug 13, 2022 at 10:13

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It was not uncommon for a letter writer to make a personal copy of a letter before sending (see here)—in the first century there was no Google [citation needed] to maintain a sent folder. Reasons this would be helpful include:

  1. They could resend if the original was lost

  2. They could reference it in reading a response

  3. They could quote it later if they liked the way they said something (I’m actually doing that right here right now)

  4. They could call out a forgery sent in their name

The letters of Cicero occasionally reference the practice of the sender making a personal copy of a letter before sending it.

There are several good reasons to believe Paul had a "sent" folder containing at least some of his letters. These arguments would be less applicable to those Biblical texts that did not originate as letters.


Evidence of a "sent folder" from Paul's letters


Paul’s letters—from as early as the manuscript evidence can be traced—always circulated as a set

The manuscript evidence shows that Paul’s letters tended to circulate as a group. Important examples include P46, Codex Boernerianus, Codex Augiensis, and Codex Claromontanus (see here)

The incredible consistency of the contents of the Pauline corpus (there are 13 letters that are *always there, almost always in the same order) suggests to me that these letters were compiled very early, and the only serious attempt to later add to the set (Hebrews) was never entirely successful because the set of 13 was already known, established, and distributed (fun aside—could this be the origin of the codex? Not sure but it sounds interesting). The significant and increasing influence of the church in Rome over the next few decades would see to it that this set of documents obtained a wide distribution in the empire.

Jack Finegan pointed out that the tremendous familiarity of the Apostolic Fathers with Paul’s letters suggests they must have been circulating as a group within the first century (see here). Based on the fact that there weren’t multiple competing sets, one with say 5 of Paul’s letters, another with 3, and so on, I conclude that we should push the date forward a few decades further still. Some of these churches were relatively close to each other. Why didn’t they create mini-sets of Paul’s letters? Apparently somebody with the whole surviving set pre-empted them.

*Note on P46, the earliest surviving manuscript of a set of Paul’s letters. The outer few leaves of the manuscript have been lost (see here pp. 15-16). Some have suggested the Pastorals (1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus) weren’t part of this set. The fact that the scribe starts writing more and more cramped and concisely as the manuscript progresses shows that he realized his mistake in not leaving himself enough space and was trying to compensate. If you take out the Pastorals he had more than enough space. So it appears he did intend to include the Pastorals.

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The titles on Paul’s epistles are too uniform to reasonably attribute to coincidence

The 13 epistles which begin with the word "Paul" are remarkable in that their titles are incredibly uniform.

If James sends a letter, what do you call it? The epistle of James.

If Peter sends 2 letters, what do you call them? 1 & 2 Peter.

Same basic idea for John. And Jude.

So where are 1st and 2nd Paul??

The letters attributed to Paul are the only letters in the New Testament (and among the very few in all early Christian documents) that are identified by the audience rather than the author.

If you traveled to Thessalonica in the late 50s and asked the local Christian congregation for 1st and 2nd Thessalonians they’d probably be puzzled for a moment, and then take you to visit the graves of the city founders at the local cemetery. If you asked them for the 1st & 2nd letters of Paul they’d know what you were talking about. If the churches called these letters by the name of the author (it would be rather silly if they did not), how do we explain the incredible consistency of the titles referring to the recipients?

My view is that somebody (we don’t know who but Luke & Timothy are likely suspects) compiled Paul’s papers after his death and distributed them around Rome as a set. This set consisted of 13 letters (not Hebrews), and they were labeled by the church/person to whom they were addressed. (David Trobisch & E. Randolph Richards have written extensively on these matters; see a particularly helpful piece by Trobisch here). If this didn’t happen, then we should expect multiple smaller, distinct sets of Paul’s letters floating around rather than one uniform set, as discussed above.

The other major early Christian example of letters titled by audience rather than author would be the writings of Ignatius (circa 107)—and the reason his letters are titled this way is explained in Polycarp’s epistle to the Philippians chapter 13—the were collected as a set right around the time of Ignatius’ death and then distributed as a set.

My argument then suggests the solution to our questions about Paul’s letters is the same as the solution to the letters of Ignatius. These two sets of letters are titled based upon the recipient, not the author, because from very early on they were distributed as a set.

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Some of Paul’s letters are missing

The principal competing hypothesis to the view that Paul’s letters were compiled from a “sent folder” is that someone traveled around the empire seeking out Paul’s letters and making copies of them. Not only is this a far less parsimonious solution (and such a trip would be long, dangerous, and expensive), but it suffers from a fatal flaw: where are the missing letters to the Corinthians?

If the traveling letter-gatherer stopped in Corinth (could you really make a serious attempt at collecting Paul’s letters without stopping in Corinth?) why did they only get two of the letters? See this post on this site discussing how many letters Paul wrote to the Corinthians. To make the traveling letter-gatherer hypothesis work we would probably have to assume that the Corinthian church lost 1 or 2 of Paul’s precious letters. While not impossible, I find this difficult to believe.

How does the “sent folder” hypothesis handle the missing letters? There’s no reason to claim that every letter sent by Paul had a copy made and filed among his papers; only that this was a customary practice. The letters that made it into the sent folder survived by securing a place in the original Roman set of 13 Pauline letters, the other letters were lost.


Conclusion

It was not uncommon for a letter writer to keep a personal copy of his correspondence. The evidence from Paul's letters suggests that this was a customary practice by Paul himself.

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  • Very interesting, but doesn't P46 undermine your arguemnt because it includes Hebrews? Commented Aug 14, 2022 at 6:38
  • Also, it was very common to sort works from longest to shortest - which we also see in P46, where Hebrews is put after Romans, seemingly because it is the second-longest - therefore it is to be expected that the Pauline letters will be put in a very similar order independently. Commented Aug 14, 2022 at 6:42
  • This is getting off-topic, I have created a new question here: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/78003/… Commented Aug 14, 2022 at 8:05
  • Feel free to edit the question to elaborate your arguments in favor of a Western origin Commented Aug 14, 2022 at 8:25
  • @RolandSeuhs Interesting questions. I don't see any major objections to the possibility that Hebrews was based on Paul's work...I'm just not inclined to believe that Paul himself wrote it. All of the sets of Paul's letters include the standard 13, and some of them also include Hebrews. So my conclusion is the original compilation was of 13 letters, and then later on somebody worked Hebrews into the mix. Since Ephesians is longer than Galatians, it appears that whoever picked the "sort by length" method made an error, but most future compilations followed that original ordering. Commented Aug 14, 2022 at 21:42
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I found an article that deals with correspondence in the ancient middle east. Certainly a merchant would keep a copy of a business letter in case of lost shipments or disputes. The only New Testament letter that might be included in that category is Paul's letter to Philemon, which discusses the return of a runaway slave.

But we do have at least one business letter preserved in 2 Chron. 2 from Hiram/Huram of Tyre to Solomon that fits well with the above-described practice:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, who made heaven and earth, who has given King David a wise son endowed with discretion and understanding who will build a temple for the Lord and a royal palace for himself. I have dispatched Huram-abi, a skilled artisan endowed with understanding, 14 the son of one of the Danite women, his father a Tyrian. He is trained to work in gold, silver, bronze, iron, stone, and wood and in purple, blue, and crimson fabrics and fine linen and to do all sorts of engraving and execute any design that may be assigned him, with your artisans, the artisans of my lord, your father David. 15 Now, as for the wheat, barley, oil, and wine of which my lord has spoken, let him send them to his servants. 16 We will cut whatever timber you need from Lebanon and bring it to you as rafts by sea to Joppa; you will take it up to Jerusalem.”

In a more theological vein, 2 Chron. 21 has a supposed copy of a letter from the prophet Elijah to King Jehoram of Israel:

  • A letter came to him from the prophet Elijah, saying, “Thus says the Lord, the God of your father David: Because you have not walked in the ways of your father Jehoshaphat or in the ways of King Asa of Judah 13 but have walked in the way of the kings of Israel and have led Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem into unfaithfulness, as the house of Ahab led Israel into unfaithfulness, and because you also have killed your brothers, members of your father’s house, who were better than you, 14 see, the Lord will bring a great plague on your people, your children, your wives, and all your possessions, 15 and you yourself will have a severe sickness with a disease of your bowels until your bowels come out, day after day, because of the disease.”

It unlikely that this letter was kept by its recipient who would soon be killed by the future king Jehu [2 Kings 9] together with his entire extended family. So if it is not the product of invention, we can presume that a copy kept by Elijah's disciples.

A clearer example of an ancient author keeping a copy for himself is the remarkable copy of a letter from the prophet Jeremiah, written from Jerusalem and addressed the exiles in Babylon, found in Jer. 29. The copy may have been kept by Jeremiah's secretary, Baruch, who is traditionally believed have assisted in writing the Book of Jeremiah:

  • These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: 4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to your dreams that you dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord...

There are several other letters preserved in various biblical texts. Their authenticity is debated, of course. The correspondence between Ezra and King Ataxerxes in Ezra 4 is quite convincing. David's letter ordering the death of Uriah in 2 Samuel 11, is suspect because of its incriminating nature. The same may be said of Jezebel's letter ordering the murder of Naboth in 1 Kings 21:8.

In any case we have definitely benefited from the fact that important letters may have been preserved for posterity and included in biblical texts. The copy of Jeremiah's letter to the exiles is perhaps the clearest example involving an author or his scribe keeping a copy of a letter sent elsewhere.

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Inspired by the article from the answer by Dan Fefferman, I have checked out the Amarna letters.

Those are clay tablets which contain mostly the correspondence of the Egyptian pharaohs within a 30 year time-span in the Middle kingdom.

I have made a rough calculation from the Wikipedia page:

In the list there are 323 letters, of those:

  • 252 are letters from somebody to the pharaoh
  • 13 are letters from the pharaoh to somebody else
  • 58 are letters between third parties, other works or unclear

If we look at the relevant letters, we have a relation of 252 to 13 or 19.4 letters received for each letter sent.

The Egyptian pharaoh was certainly more important than most of the other writers from the Amarna letters, so it is to be expected that he would receive more letters than he would send out, especially if we look at some smaller kings from Lebanon who spammed the pharaoh, begging for military help.

So it seems that at least in the Egyptian Middle Kingdom and at least for royal correspondence, the pharaohs kept a copy of letters that were sent out, however maybe only for the more important letters.

It would be great to know whether something similar is known about the habits in the Hellenic period or the Roman Empire.

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