Ancient Epistolary Fictions / Patricia A. Rosenmeyer (2001). Review

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by Neil Godfrey

I’ve written this “review” essentially as a commentary on what we can know about the genuineness of the New Testament epistles. The commentary bits are in eyesore bold italics.

I read Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions (Cambridge University Press, 2001) to inform myself of the literary culture behind the New Testament epistles as part of my interest in understanding the nature of the historical evidence for Christian origins. So my review comments here are in that context. Letters, Rosenmeyer informs us, were a popular form of entertainment (and instruction) whether under the real name of their composer or a pseudonym. Letters were a popular composition both within novels and as collections of fictional or didactic correspondence. The most interesting discussion for me was the training authors received in how to add touches of realism in fictional or didactic letter compositions.

I was reminded of how often the strongest arguments for the authenticity of the Pauline epistles rely on seemingly incidental realistic touches such as requests to bring a cloak for winter, remarks on his health, etc. After reading Rosenmeyer personal details like these are ripped away from any case for authenticity: they are the very things authors were trained to throw in, even across collections of letters, not just in singular epistles. It is naive to interpret these personal asides from the main theme as marks of genuineness. As the magic wand of the trained author they are designed to distract the reader’s attention from the otherwise artificiality of the exercise and to draw the reader into the “reality” being artfully created.

Ditto for the argument of “emotional sincerity and passion”. Again, this is the very thing one would expect to be conveyed by trained authors in such didactic compositions. None of this means of course that the Pauline letters are not genuine, but it does mean that arguments for their genuineness need to be based on external controls, not their internal content or style. From this perspective it is not irrelevant that the earliest such external pointers are securely established no earlier than the second century, when the Pauline epistles emerge for the first time as a collection and in the midst of controversy and dialogue over the history and role of Paul in early christianity. Continue reading “Ancient Epistolary Fictions / Patricia A. Rosenmeyer (2001). Review”