"This letter to be read by all": a strategy for Christian unity

The oral presentation of the prophets' letters to the churches benefited the hearers in three ways.

Bernhard Oestreich, Ph.D., is lecturer of New Testament at Friedensau Adventist University, Friedensau, Germany.

In the closing section of Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians, we find a solemn instruction: “I adjure you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the brethren” (5:27, RSV). The apostle’s main emphasis is not just that the letter be read, but that it be read to all the brethren. This instruction reflects the usual practice that letters to the churches were read aloud in the church assembly (cf. Col. 4:16; Rev. 1:3). There were perhaps some reasons for this. First, literacy in Paul’s day was quite limited—among male urban population literacy rate was less than 15 percent, and the figure was much less in rural areas and among women.1 Second, the written text would have its full impact through audible communication. However, if this was normal,2 why would Paul include this instruction and why in unusually severe words: “I adjure you by the Lord”.

To whom is this request directed? At first glance, it would seem to be addressed to those who would first get the letter in their hands, probably a group of leaders with enough education to be able to read.3 Why were the leaders directed to read the letter to all the believers? And why does this instruction appear not in the beginning but in the closing part of the letter?

Interpretation from the perspective of performance

In order to understand this instruction it is not enough to explain why Paul gives the leaders these instructions. Suggestions are that Paul writes these instructions because the church is still inexperienced as to how to deal with an apostolic letter,4 or because many could not read, or some were not always present in the assembly.5

We must not fail to note that the instructions for those responsible for reading the letter aloud is part of the letter that is intended for the whole church. In antiquity, the author of a letter wrote from the perspective of the addressee at the time of receipt.6 Consequently, Paul had before his eyes the assembly sitting, in circles or half circles with the reader performing in the center.7Everyone could not only see the speaker but also observe the reactions of the others. Since Paul expresses the explicit wish that the letter be read to all believers in Thessalonica, he must have already anticipated the dynamics that would develop between various individuals and groups in the church due to the reading of his letter.

Imagine the session when the letter is read aloud. Those who are hearing it suddenly perk up when the reader reads the apostle’s instruction that it be read to all the brethren. What impact that would have had on the hearers—not just the message of the letter but also the concern of the apostle for all the members of the church. Paul certainly could imagine the ordinary church members looking at their leaders while overhearing what is said to them. And what’s more, the various groups among the listeners, i.e., leaders and ordinary members, will influence each other with their reactions.8

Emerging scholarship in New Testament interpretation increasingly assumes that an apostolic letter was intended to be read aloud before an audience so that, on the one hand, the audience would respond to the one who presented the words, and, on the other, participate in the whole event by their interaction. Generally, the biblical texts were not composed for isolated silent readers. Our modern print culture has made us blind for the dynamics of texts which were designed for public performance and are reminders of a primarily oral society.9

Given such an interpretation to the apostolic urging that his letter be read to all, what would that mean to the fellowship of the church?

Promotion of unity

First, it would promote unity. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians recognizes two groups in the church: those who physically receive the letter, and those to whom the letter is to be read. At the outset, the direct recipients of the letter are better informed and therefore in a better position than the others. But with his instruction that the letter be read to all, the author makes it clear that he does not want such a difference to persist. The direct recipients are not the only ones who are made aware of this concern. By including his wish as a part of the letter itself, the writer reveals even to those who learn of the letter’s content only when it is read to them just how important it is for him that all are equally informed. As a result, their position is publicly improved and they are made equal with the direct recipients. By demonstrating his great interest that all receive the same information, the author promotes unity among them.

This does not mean that conflicts existed in the church in Thessalonica. The letter gives no hints of divisions or struggle in the Christian community. With his strategy, Paul seems to address latent tensions between the church leaders and the rest of the believers and provides preventive help.

Second, the reading instruction has also the function of determining the role of the apostle. As the reader of the letter stands in the center of the audience, the apostle takes a position which is distinct from all the different groups of the addressees. He has something to say to everyone. It is a position of authority and at the same time a mediatory role.

The instruction in 1 Thessalonians 5:27 therefore shows that it is important for Paul that all believers in Thessalonica receive the same information and have equally direct access to the apostle. This interpretation does not only explain the unusually strong wording of the instructions, but is also supported by the emphasis of all in verses 26 and 27. The leading individuals in the church, who apparently first received the letter, are publicly admonished not to take advantage of their increased knowledge. In no case should anyone get the impression that something is being withheld from some. The will of the apostle is clear: openness and unity.10

To my knowledge, Adolf Schlatter remained lonely with his assumption that Paul’s instructions were intended to strengthen the unity of the church: “So, with the reading of his letter out loud, he also articulates that the church is not segregated into the immature and the privileged, but is rather an integrated whole, in which each individual is precious to the apostle and called to full knowledge of the divine will.”11With his solemn charge, Paul therefore shapes the relationships between the believers in Thessalonica.

That letter-reading instructions could be understood this way by an ancient audience is illustrated by nonbiblical letters. One example is the sixth letter of Plato around 350 B.C.12 It is addressed to two parties. The first is two pupils of Plato, Erastos and Koriskos, who have left the academy at Athens and returned home. The second is Hermeias, the ruler in Assós, the pupils’ hometown in Asia Minor. Plato’s goal is to unite the ruler and his pupils in friendship.

At the end of his letter, Plato urges the receivers that they write to him, should problems arise. Then he in turn could heal the friendship in an answering letter (6.323b). Hence Plato assumes in this letter the role of the third party who is vis à vis both addressees and has the necessary objectivity to mediate in conflict situations.

Plato also wrote (6.323c): “All three of you should read this letter, ideally all together or at least two of you, as often as you can and it is possible, and you should consider it to be a valid agreement and contract.” It is important that it be read together. This requires that it be read aloud, so that Plato is, so to speak, present in the voice of the reader. Plato is in a position facing both parties and can therefore reestablish and strengthen the friendship again and again. None of the parties should monopolize the letter and thus derive an advantage for himself.

Fostering good relationships between churches

A reading instruction of a different kind is found in Colossians 4:16. It takes the form of a request to exchange letters. According to the will of its author, the Epistle to the Colossians is also to be read in the assembly of the church in Laodicea. Conversely, the believers in Colossae are to read the letter that has been sent to Laodicea. This instruction is also found at the end of the letter and is part of the text that is to be read to all. Consequently, it is also not merely a technical direction, but an effort to influence all addressees. Of what purpose is the instruction to exchange letters?

This leads to a third purpose of reading the letters: Through the exchange of the letters all are to be equally informed. The writer instructs all his hearers in Colossae and Laodicea that he does not wish to create a difference in knowledge between these churches. It is made clear to all that he wishes to have the same relationship to all. No one is to feel that he or she is better informed, nobody is to feel disadvantaged. The instruction at the end of the letter facilitates unity among the Christians and was a signal for the listeners just how important it was for the writer that there are good relations between these neighboring churches.

The exchange of letters is also mentioned in the closing section of a letter that Polycarp of Smyrna sent to the church at Philippi (13.2). He mentions that he is including letters from Ignatius, which the Philippians have explicitly requested. The Philippians themselves therefore wish to read certain letters and thereby compensate for a lack of information. For his part, Polycarp requests: “What reliable information of Ignatius and the ones with him you obtain that make [us] known.”13 He is also interested in hearing what the Philippians know. So we also find in this later evidence (from the time of the emperor Trajan) an interest in a uniform state of information among believers and churches. In this letter, the exchange of information seems to be more extensive and practiced over a greater distance than in Colossae. Polycarp has a whole collection of letters from Ignatius, and there are churches from Macedonia to Asia Minor, and apparently Syria as well (13.1), that take part in the exchange of letters. We can presume that the relationships between these churches also played a role (cf. 10.1). Equal information establishes equal status.

Conclusion

Thus the apostolic urging in 1 Thessalonians 5:27 and Colossians 4:16 that the epistles be read in public is not simply a procedure for sending his message to a particular audience. Rather it is the apostle’s genius at work; it is his strategy to influence the relationships and build a strong church among his listeners. This strategy is placed at the end of the letter because it is concerned with the interpersonal effects of the information and personal communication contained in the body of the letter. Paul recognized the power of information and communication. He did not want to have an elite group that received the letter and perhaps less of an elite or illiterate group. He wanted the letter to be read in full, in the public hearing of the congregation, so that the entire church will know that what he received through inspiration belonged to the entire church. The apostle also wanted the entire church to recognize that the authority of his letters came not from any human source but divine inspiration.

Paul was also aware of the dividing force between church members or local churches, that differences in information could develop—a problem of equal importance in present day churches. He wanted to make sure that all have the same amount of information, and thus an equal closeness to the apostle. Meanwhile, the apostle also hoped that equal information will also produce equal status and that a common close relationship will develop among all the believers.

What a noble objective the apostle had in mind—and it can work even today—when he urged the recipients of his letter to read it aloud to the entire community of believers. Here is a powerful strategy for today’s pastors to learn and practice to maintain congregational unity, mission, and fellowship.

1 W. V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989), 272–82, 329.
2 P. Achtemeier, “Omne verbum sonat: The New Testament and the Oral Environment of Late Western Antiquity,” Journal of Biblical Literature 109 (1990): 3–27.
3 J. Dewey, “Textuality in an Oral Culture: a Survey of the Pauline Traditions,” Semeia 65 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995), 48, 50.
4 E. V. Dobschütz, Die Thessalonicher-Briefe (KEK 10; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1909), 233; R. F. Collins, “ ‘I Command That This Letter Be Read’: Writing as a Manner of Speaking,” The Thessalonians Debate: Methodological Discord or Methodological Synthesis? ed. K. P. Donfried and J. Beutler (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 328.
5 F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Word Biblical Commentary 45 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982), 135.
6 H. Koskenniemi, Studien zur Idee und Phraseologie des griechischen Briefes bis 400 n.Chr., AASF.B 102.2 (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1956), 186–9; J. L. White, Light from Ancient Letters (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 191.
7 This was the arrangement of seats in the open theatres, roofed performance halls (odeion), town halls (bouleuterion), synagogues, and even for the symposia of associations or in private houses. We can assume the same for the Christian assembly.
8 Cf. P. J. J. Botha, “The Verbal Art of the Pauline Letters: Rhetoric, Performance and Presence,” Rhetoric and the New Testament: Essays from the 1992 Heidelberg Conference, ed. S. E. Porter and T. H. Olbricht, JSNTSup 90 (Sheffi eld: Academic Press, 1993), 412, 413.
9 D. Rhoads, “Performance Criticism: An Emerging Methodology on Biblical Studies,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 36 (2006), 118–33, 164–84.
10 There are many elements in 1 Thessalonians that promote the unity of the church. In the letter ending 5:25–27 three times the word brethren is used, two times connected with the word all. In 5:13 Paul admonishes explicitly to have peace among each other and returns to the “God of peace” in his prayer (5:23).
11 A. Schlatter, Die Briefe an die Thessalonicher, Philipper, Timotheus und Titus (Berlin: Evangelische Verlags-Anstalt, 1953), 35.
12 laton, Werke in 8 Bänden, Bd. 5: Phaidros, Parmenides, Epistolai (Briefe), ed. Gunther Eigler (Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1990).
13 K. Bihlmeyer, Die apostolischen Väter (Tübingen: Mohr, 1970), 120.

 


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Bernhard Oestreich, Ph.D., is lecturer of New Testament at Friedensau Adventist University, Friedensau, Germany.

June 2007

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