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.

Chapter 8 discusses the genre at the time of the Roman imperial period of pseudonymous letters and letter collections written in the name of fictional, mythical or well-known historical persons such as Plato, Themistocles, Euripides, and that were rarely commented on in antiquity. [Thinks: NT scholars generally believe some NT letters are pseudonymous and part of problem for dating them is that there are too few if any comments on them until they had been in circulation for some time.]

“. . . the letters will give the impression of having been really written by that person by imitating the dialect and reflecting historical setting, but this same attention to detail will create opportunities for inadvertent anachronisms . . . The most obvious shared trait of all the pseudonymous collections is their supposed historicity.” (pp.196-197) [Thinks: so are anachronisms the only clue to identifying forged from genuine letters of Paul? Come to think of it that way, Does not Philippians speak of a truly enlightened person as adopting a “view from above”, a concept elsewhere not noted till the time of Marcus Aurelius well into the second century (Engberg-Pedersen); and do not commentators struggle to demonstrate that Paul’s gnostic phraseology is really “proto” gnostic since everyone knows gnosticism is a second century development?]

“By the Roman imperial period, the imaginative composition of letters to and from famous men had become a standard component of the rhetoric syllabus, . . .” ( p.197) [Thinks: so whoever wrote the NT letters, in their own name or anothers, would quite likely have had training in writing pseudonymous letters.]

Why were the written? Demand created supply. Rosenmeyer points to the popular interest in the historical past and in the personal lives and thoughts of the famous, and strong desires to fill out gaps in the popular knowledge of the events or persons. [Thinks: Well the NT epistles certainly appear to be more than pleasant curiosities for popular taste.]

Were they really passed off as ‘the real thing’? Rosenmeyer discusses the care authors took to maintain consistency of characterization, historical plausibility, the use of well known names, places and precise dates, all to make the final product “ring true”. (pp.199-200) [Thinks: How often do I read NT critics saying a narrative or an epistle “rings true” as an argument in favour of its historicity?] But wait, there’s more! Pseudonymous letter collections of philosophers also “offer opportunities for invective against the rival group as well as propaganda for their own ‘correct’ lifestyle. A treatise on the subject could be rejected as just another (mis)interpretatoin of the philosopher; but a letter in the voice of the great man himself, or in that of his most highly regarded disciple, would be hard to refute. . . . Letters may even permit a more polemical tone than a dialogue is likely to encourage, making for fascinating reading.” (p.202) [Thinks: So how do we tell a genuine Pauline letter again?]

Any other tricks of the trade? “Self-referentiality” is one. As real letter writers do, the author frequently comments on his own act of writing the letter, of his audience reading it, or of how he will send it. Sometimes references will be made to other letters we are meant only to imagine must have existed.

In her conclusion Rosenmeyer returns to the literary tricks of the trade summarizing how the authors “. . . [confronted] issues of epistolary verisimilitude and the sometimes conflicting demands of internal and external reader. He responds to the challenges of the genre in various ways: by having his character write to an uninvolved party, . . . . ; by leaving gaps in information for the external reader, thus satisfying the requirements of verisimilitude but often frustrating the audience . . . . ; or by listing a litany of complaints directed by the writing character against the internal reader, summarizing their past interactions and indirectly also bringing the external reader up to date . . . . . ” (p. 307)

The earliest example we think we have of a pseudonymous collection of letters is that of Scythian sage, Anacharsis, in whose name are ten letters written to different audiences across the Greek world. Their common theme is to challenge the notion of Greek cultural superiority. [Thinks: Where have I heard of a ten letter collection to various Greek speaking audiences before? And further, which challenge the view of Jewish religious superiority?]

Another interesting example Rosenmeyer gives and discusses in detail is the collection of Chion of Heraclea. The letters begin in midstream of a situation, as it were, so that the author appears to assume his ‘real’ audience knew the full details while leaving his true audience, his contemporaries and us, intrigued. Obscure details can only be clarified by casual references scattered across different letters, if at all. Often the reader can only rely on her imagination to fill in the details. (In another collection Rosenmeyer references an epistolary “minor passing” incident in which the author returns a cloak sent by his wife. [Thinks: I’ve read before how such details like “send me my cloak” are supposed to be indicators of authenticity in NT letters.] ) The last letter in this collection, one in which the narrative author writes that he is plotting an assassination, ends abruptly – leaving the reader hanging with suspense. This is nothing less than rhetorical intent. [Thinks: What other NT books appear to end abruptly, leaving the reader wondering wtf?]

Then there’s the collection itself and how it’s put together. Rosenmeyer argues that Chion’s letter collection is “deliberately arranged in chronological disorder. The arrangement may reflect an attempt at historical verisimilitude: the disorder is meant to suggest the absence of editorial intervention, and thereader is encouraged to accept the collection as a random assortment from the hand of the author himself. We are asked to believe not that the author wrote out of chronological sequence, but that the letters, retrieved from their respective addresses, were bound together as they came in, without regard for date or subject matter. In other words, this is like a jumble of ‘real’ letters in Pharlaris’ attic, not a sophisticated literary anthology.” (p.225) [Thinks: How much ink and trees have been spent trying to work out the original order of the Pauline canon in relation to subsequent sequencings?]

By now one may wonder how we know that any of these letters are not genuine. Rosenmeyer cites the external evidence that verifies the pseudonymous character of the letters.[Thinks: Without similar external evidence for the epistles of the NT how the hell can we establish the genuineness of any of them? Especially since the first knowledge of Paul’s letters emerges around the same time as awareness of his canon – in the second century — and at a time when the appearance of Acts of the Apostles, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, and the Marcionite challenge, all testify to a life-and-death interest in and vying for ownership of the real Paul.]

Neil Godfrey

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Ancient Epistolary Fictions / Patricia A. Rosenmeyer (2001). Review”

  1. I have looked at the relationship between Acts of the Apostles and the epistles, and arrived at a argument for the best explanation as to the motive behind Acts of the Apostles.
    I believe I can prove that Acts was based on, and was a response to, the “genuine” epistles (Galations, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans), by a Christian community that was becoming concerned about the reverence in which Paul was being held.
    In context, this becomes a very compelling case for those epistles (and possibly Philemon) to be genuine and to have been written well before Acts of the Apostles.


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