BMCR 2017.04.30

Paul’s Large Letters: Paul’s Autographic Subscriptions in the Light of Ancient Epistolary Conventions. Library of New Testament studies, 561

, Paul's Large Letters: Paul's Autographic Subscriptions in the Light of Ancient Epistolary Conventions. Library of New Testament studies, 561. London; New York: T Clark, 2017. x, 317. ISBN 9780567669063. $108.00.


The field of Pauline studies has long desired a book that situates Paul’s autobiographic subscriptions in their wider manuscript context. Steve Reece’s work does just that, and it does not disappoint. It is learned but approachable, technical but readable, and combines a careful examination of the Pauline data with a wide variety of other ancient pieces of literary evidence. Reece, a classicist who has worked on Homer, also links his conclusions to relevant issues in Pauline studies, commendably touching on several centuries of commentary with differing levels of certainty and support.

The book is laid out in two major sections, each detailing one notable feature in Paul’s letters. The first section investigates Paul’s autobiographic subscriptions, specifically in 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philemon, as well as Colossians and 2 Thessalonians. This first section details the broader context for autographic subscriptions in ancient writing, proceeding from the process of letter writing (Ch. 2) to comparative evidence from Greek (Ch. 3), Latin (Ch. 4), and Jewish (Ch. 5) sources, to Paul’s letters by comparison (Ch. 6), with conclusions (Ch. 7).

The second section investigates Paul’s so-called ‘large letters’ in Galatians 6:11. This part takes the opposite form of the first, starting from the specific Pauline data (Galatians 6:11 in Ch. 8) and moving to the wider comparanda (Eastern Judaea, Northern England, Egypt, and conclusions in Chs. 9-12). Five useful appendices are also included: translations of Galatians 6:11, commentaries on Galatians 6:11, basic statistics concerning published ancient letters, necessarily limited demographics of those writing subscriptions in large script, and evidence for shorthand writing.

Reece’s core argument is that Paul’s use of autobiographic subscriptions and large letters is typical in light of the ancient evidence, and that we should therefore interpret these two literary features as unremarkable. More specifically on the first feature, Paul writes autobiographic subscriptions for several reasons that are widely attested in other ancient subscriptions: to add weight to his message, to boost the formality and official status of the document, to verify that it is in fact Paul writing (contra forgery, implying the phenomenon was widespread and a point of concern to Paul), and to introduce a personal touch to his letters, which could function as a proxy for individual presence.

On the second feature, Paul’s large letters in his own hand are even more simply explained. Like many ancient authors, Reece concludes that Paul used a scribe, and in the extant evidence there is usually a difference in size between the hand of the scribe and that of the author(izer). There is no special significance attached to this difference in letter size, which can be larger or smaller.

Reece’s evidence, argument, and conclusions are compelling for both of these Pauline features. His organization and clarity of prose are well matched by his lucid and fair handling of the evidence. His comparanda come from a wide range of places, times, and types of authors, and his careful comparison between Paul’s letters and other ancient literary evidence not only comprises the vast majority of the book but is also its chief strength.

These careful and seemingly humdrum conclusions of Pauline typicality stand apart from decades, and even centuries, of biblical commentaries, which have suggested a host of different explanations for these two features in Paul, ranging from the theological to the sociological and beyond. Such explanations are, in Reece’s words, eisegetical, which is to say they import the commentator’s own ideological and lived experiences into conclusions about Paul and lack internal evidential support from ancient literary comparanda. Indeed, this is one place where Reece, typically even-handed and sometimes equivocal about different proposed explanations, comes down strongly on an interpretive issue: Paul suffered from no physical or psychological malady, nor did his choice of lettering reflect any of the theological or social issues inhering in the letter. It was all simply standard practice in Paul’s world.

Notable, though, is Paul’s explicit mention of his large letters, which Reece concludes is essentially unique in the extant evidence. In other words, while Reece’s ancient evidence provides clear parallels for the form of writing subscriptions in large letters, the same evidence cannot explain the content of Paul’s comment in Galatians 6:11. Reece’s conclusion is thus no less suppositional than some of the commentators he critiques, as he concludes that Paul’s words arise from “a very human act of self-deprecation” which also “served to authenticate the document” (215). The same goes for explaining Paul’s “thorn in the side” comment in 2 Corinthians 12:17: Reece persuasively rejects previous explanations but offers no new interpretation on the apostle’s statement.

Reece also runs into something of a conundrum as he follows his data and evidence to their logical conclusion. The comparative evidence shows that autobiographic subscriptions served to authenticate and verify a letter’s author and its content. This is all well and good for 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philemon. However, it raises a question as to its function in Colosssians and 2 Thessalonians, whose authenticity many scholars question. Much to his credit, Reece follows his evidence with consistency and suggests that perhaps Colossians and 2 Thessalonians deserve another look as potentially authentic.

Reece also uses his comparative conclusions to wade into a few other interpretive matters that will be of interest, and likely dispute, among New Testament scholars. Galatians, for example, is deemed a legalistic document due to an analysis of its form (lacking typical epistolary features we see in other data) and content which Reece dubs “legal challenges that had arisen between the emerging Christian movement and Judaism” (214). The evidence based on the letter’s form is here more compelling than this understanding of its content. While Reece does not delve extensively into the interpretive morass of Galatians, his comments here and elsewhere seem to have in mind a sort of ‘legalistic Judaism’ in Paul’s letters, a traditional position that has been increasingly rejected by historians and theologians alike. 1

In a plausible if not definitive account, Reece also speaks to the probable composition and transmission of Paul’s letters: the apostle dictated his letters to a scribe who may also have been a faithful companion; the scribe took down his words syllable-by-syllable, or was given a basic overview of the content and was entrusted with the bulk of the composition, or something in between; then Paul reviewed the letter and possibly made corrections or additions; finally, he wrote a post-script and autobiographic subscription. Additionally, the fact that the extant Pauline letter copies do retain their epistolary features (greetings, conclusions, etc.) suggests that it wasn’t Paul and his inner circle who collected them (such internal collections typically lacked epistolary trappings) but rather that the apostle’s sent and received letters were the ones collected and copied by others as time progressed.

The role of the scribe raises two other issues that create opportunities for me to expand and, with due gratitude, apply Reece’s work. First, the author’s agnosticism on the exact details of Paul’s compositional process does not do much to address the extent to which the ideas in the letters are those of the apostle himself. Admittedly, this is outside of the book’s purview, and probably impossible to answer. But Reece’s hints throughout of a strong role for the scribe in composition, together with scholarly work done on other authors, to try to separate the voice of the scribe from the voice of the author(izer),2 point to the potential further to pry open Paul’s conceptual world. Did his scribe/companion understand the apostle’s view of pneuma such that it did not merit much comment, or was the scribe simply relaying this complex concept without gloss, trusting with Paul that his audience would understand it? The formal issues raised in this book thus provide some tools for thinking about related conceptual matters. Indeed, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians (to pick up from above) are often judged non-authentic on conceptual grounds, e.g., eschatology, rather than stylistic and formal ones.3 However one assesses such criteria for authenticity, the point remains that the formal and the conceptual are often inseparable.

Second, the role of the scribe can also speak to Paul’s social status, wealth, and education. It must be noted that the points in this paragraph are not Reece’s explicit argument, but rather my own inferences derived from his conclusions, which he may or may not hold. Reece notes that ancient authors with means rarely performed the physical task of writing due to its tediousness and unpleasantness. Rather, those with sufficient status, wealth, and education had others write for them. This seems to imply that Paul’s status was quite high: he had a fairly advanced education, he had the means to hire one or more scribes and to pay them to deliver his letters, he probably had what were essentially clients in different cities, and so forth.4 In short, Paul was no lower-class, sparingly educated labourer. It is a general view I am inclined to accept, but Paul’s status, wealth, and education are widely disputed.

These issues aside, and despite Reece’s own self-deprecation as a classicist outsider writing on New Testament literature, the book is a major and definitive step forward. Indeed, Reece’s specialties in palaeographical and comparative issues have here contributed greatly to Pauline and New Testament studies. It is a necessary read for Pauline scholars and even readers at the advanced undergraduate level will find it both accessible and beneficial.

Finally, commendable editing has resulted in a volume free from errors of spelling, grammar, or punctuation. The images are smartly displayed and of appropriate size for easy reference, and while their captions are repetitive, such a layout will be useful to scholars who later skim the main literary comparanda images.


1. An incomplete list of different types of scholars could include the theologically interested ‘New Perspective’ on Paul (J.G. Dunn, E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright) as well as the more historically inclined (K. Stendahl, S.K. Stowers).

2. See discussion on 205, e.g. J.A. Eschlimann (1946) for Paul; Reece also discusses intriguing scholarship on Trajan, Cicero, and some of the documentary papyri attempting this very separation of scribe and author.

3. A useful summary of the arguments can be found in Philip F. Esler, “2 Thessalonians”, in J. Muddiman and J. Barton, eds. The Pauline Epistles, The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2010), 235-37.

4. An important caveat: Reece discusses examples of even (only relatively?) poor people employing scribes for business deals such as clearing land, taking out a loan, or employment. And we could easily suggest that someone else gave a scribe to Paul or the means to hire one; perhaps too scribes might have offered their services as they accompanied Paul in his travels.