June 17, 2008

Annual Writing Gains

No, I'm not posting about our essay test scores at the High School this year. I'm thinking about Paul's 13 letters, written between 50 and 63 AD. He averaged almost a letter a year. My question is: did his writing improve? I'm thinking... yes!

Actually, I've been working on this idea since this post about storytelling and literacy. Ruby Payne's workshop showed me that oral storytelling can be especially choppy (full of flashbacks and rabbit trails) when the storyteller comes from poverty. Evidently, oral storytelling in primitive cultures was about the same. Homer's Illiad is entirely "choppy". What's interesting to realize is that - for Homer - the flashbacks and rabbit trails were a natural way of thinking. Authors today almost always carry one linear narrative through from a start to a finish, but Homer's story structure displays Homer's way of thinking.

So poverty AND primitive oral culture BOTH make "choppy" storytelling.

So I'm thinking that underdeveloped literacy, in general, can make someone a "choppy" writer.

I'm sure someone could (and hopefully, someday, will) spend many years analyzing Paul's letters with the following questions in mind. How quickly did Paul's compositions become more sophisticated? How consistently? What can the overall content-organization of Paul's letters, in each case, tell us about the circumstances of each writing event? Were there factors (such as content decisions, self-imposed deadlines or low quality secretarial help (anamuensis) that affected Paul's ability to write "up to his ability" on some occasions in later years? Could the analysis of Paul's writing structure contribute any evidence to support the overall authenticity of the entire Pauline Corpus? Would differences in any of these - grammatical structure, syntax, style or word choice - possibly be considered more or less more significant (ie, perhaps due to the anamuensis) if evidence shows the Pauline organizational style was authentic? Or could considerations that assume a natural, gradual improvement in compositional skill over time help us to add weight to the chronological arrangement of Paul's letters, either in sequence alone or in their temporal proximity to one another, as well?

Who knows! But today - I'm just gonna play out this hunch! ;)

Galatians is choppy. Romans is smooth. (Galatians was Paul's first letter, and Romans his sixth. Romans is especially well constructed if we accept the plausibility that chapters 12-15 were originally placed between the current chapters 8 and 9.) These are the most seemingly evident examples that come to mind.

More general impressions, in chronological order:

The Thessalonian letters (Paul's 2nd & 3rd letters) were short, but still a bit patchwork, in general. The first Corinthian letter is choppy, partly because of their list of questions and their litany of problems. It's long because Paul couldn't get there himself. But 1st Cor. is still a bit choppy in parts where Paul makes digressions all on his own. Still, it shows a stronger sense of overall structure in the way he does build through sections - intro, concerns, Q&A, build to a conclusion. The second Corinthian letter is very personal, so there are digressions, but overall it seems to have a stronger sense of compositional purpose when taken as a whole, then previous letters. (Remember, I mean "compositional purpose" in terms of his overall writing structure and his organization of content - certainly all Paul's letters had a purpose for having been composed!)

Now then, Romans, coming sixth, is a masterpiece. Paul delievers only one real digression, chapters 9-11 (which almost certainly should be placed after 15:32, joining 8:39 and 12:1) but with each side point interjected, Paul tacks back to the central route of his argument and his plea. In fact, Romans is so well constructed, as a letter, that it's hard to avoid saying it's even more advanced, compositionally, than Paul's later works.

The only response after this thought may be to imagine that Paul's literary powers peaked here, but did not diminish afterwards. Rather, Paul began to diversify his own use of the literary skills now in his reperatoire. But we should continue to examine them in order...

First Timothy was handed to its recipient in Troas, a week before those brand new Ephesian elders came to Paul on the beach. (Timothy had returned from Macedonia to Ephesus, mid-55 AD, when Paul went walking toward Illyricum, and Timothy had fled Ephesus, timidly, when he could not make progress against the men who were opposing him there. Timothy waited for Paul in Thessalonica and then got his name on the 2nd Cor. letter, which was sent down to Corinth in late 56 AD. But that's another post for another day.) Paul's letter here is not choppy at all except in it's own nature as being an assortment of instructions from an old apostle to a young one. In many other ways, the coherence is actually very strong.

Paul now writes no letters for a few years. Please note, 2nd Cor, Romans and 1st Tim were all written within about a six month period of time. But 2nd Cor came about two years after 1st Cor (which must have been late Summer of 54, before the Emperor Claudius died, because it doesn't mention Paul's plans to see Rome). And 1st Cor came three years after the Thessalonian letters.

By 57 AD, when he gets imprisoned in Israel, Paul has definitely improved in his writing abilities. This is fortunate, as Luke and possibly even Matthew will now be greatly helped by Paul's practical knowledge as an experienced letter writer!

POINT 1: Effective, Skilled, Active Literacy develops gradually.
POINT 2: We need more chronlogical considerations of these topics.

Back to the corpus. Paul's 7th, 8th & 9th letters all come in a bunch. Philemon, Colossians and "Ephesians" (actually sent to Laodicea and Hieropolis, near Colosse, but intended to eventually become a general circut letter) are all written from Rome in 60 or 61 AD. Tychicus carried all three at once, to Asia Minor. Now, it would be hard to compare any of these letters to Romans "apples to apples" and declare that Romans was a less advanced compositional achievement than these three. On the other hand, each of these letters is actually a surprisingly sophisticated construction, showing depth of organizational thought and compositional strategy. Paul's awareness of Publishing has also advanced - partly due to advising Luke and (if so) Matthew on their Gospels, which had different audiences. Philemon is sly and subtly ironic. Colossians blends practical concerns of the moment into a larger structure of general encouragement, flowing from spiritual concerns to the practical, with no significant digressions. Ephesians is the most advanced from a Publication Awareness standpoint, given that Paul clearly intended the letter to be written generally for any church who got to read it. And Ephesians is very well constructed, on the order of the same sophisticated content-organization that went into Romans, if not on the same magnitude. (In a sense, Paul's task in Ephesians is like a double-lutz jump in skating, just as impressive as the triple-lutz of Romans, but with a smaller degree of difficulty!!)

Philippians, coming some months after the previous three, is a very personal letter. In fact, it's Paul's most personal letter since 2nd Corinthians. Anything seen as a digression here might be understood best in this light. Paul had not major obstacles to overcome, no ecclesiastial tasks to accomplish. First and formost, it was a thank you letter. And then Paul took the opportunity to encourage them. But woven into all that was Paul's effort to introduce them to Epaphroditus, who he inteneded them to claim as their new (extra-local, itenerant, occasionally returning) apostle. Talk about "taking opportunity"! But overall, Philippians still shows a command of organizational skills in writing, even if it does not seem to be the masterpiece of execution that Romans and, to a lesser degree, Ephesians had been. (Sometimes, Dorothy Hamil just goes out for a skate! But you can still tell she's reeally good!!)

I'm going to skip Titus and 2nd Timothy because it would take far longer to sum up their context of situation than it would to examine their writing. I'll only suggest we remember Paul's stress level during 2nd Timothy. And Titus is a lot like 1st Timothy, except it's collegial. Titus was not Paul's trainee.

But Galatians was sloppy! Choppy! This should be considered as further evidence that Galatians was in fact Paul's first ever effort. (And Paul allowed himself to get angry in that letter - in a way that he never allowed himself to do again.)

By this general overview, Paul's letter writing skills appear to get more advanced as he goes, in many ways. So Paul was growing in literacy and literary awareness...

Just as we should imagine that anyone in the ancient world - rich, poor, illiterate, barely literate, functionally literate, fully literate or sophisticatedly literate - would have naturally improved over time in their relative command of literacy awareness and skill.

Fini Fornow.


Jeanette Vaughn Waddell said...

Oral storytelling transmits information from one person to another, one generation to another. However "primitive cultures" told their stories, the stories survived and accomplished their task.

I think non-linear stories require a greater degree of concentration for both the teller and listener.

There are many ways to tell a story, these ways are different, one isn't superior to the other.

My experience is that too often we are willing to impose our standards on another culture, deciding that our way is superior.

"poverty AND primitive oral culture BOTH make "choppy" storytelling."

I wonder what they have to say about linear storytelling? Would they find it boring and unimagitive?

Just food for thought.

Jeanette Vaughn Waddell
Professional Storyteller

Bill said...


Fascinating thoughts. I'll have to keep considering them.

I don't think "sophisticated" automatically means "better", but for purposes of effective communication, I do think that mostly-linear progressions of thought do a more efficient job of conveying points and relating information. Besides, Paul's letter's aren't really storytelling, for the most part.

But I really will be thinking about your words more in time. I wonder how else we might apply those thoughts to the NT world...

Fascinating. Thanks.

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