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January 4, 2009

He penned a darn good letter

By Sister Anne Flanagan, FSP


“Paul, Silvanus and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ — grace and peace be with you!” (1 Thes. 1:1).

This letter of St. Paul to the church in Thessalonica is probably the first of many other letters that he was to pen throughout his life. It is also considered to be one of the earliest Christian writings, coming at a time when the early church felt the need to set down its beliefs and its early story.

“According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the church’s heart rather than in documents and records” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 113). What does this tell us about Paul the scriptural author? He was so in tune with the Body of Christ, that he was able to articulate the church’s faith in a definitive way while writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Spirit shines through

The Bible is fully human and fully divine, written under divine inspiration, but allowing the author’s personality to shine through. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Pauline letters. Whether it is Paul’s upbringing, his education, his overactive intellect or his personality, in the letters, these all become part of the enfleshing of the Word of God. We cannot avoid being struck by his delight in irony and paradox, his frustrations, his affection — and even his hurt feelings when his love is betrayed.

St. Paul was bilingual, fluent in Greek and Hebrew. His Greek was not just good, but cultured. But he was so intensely focused on presenting the Gospel that he sometimes made mistakes in grammar, or wove impossibly elaborate sentences, with one image or argument after another. The Bible admits that the letters may be a bit hard to understand: “Our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him in all his letters. ... Some things in them are hard to understand and the foolish distort them to their own destruction ... just as they do the other scriptures” (2 Pt 3:15).

More than just letters

By the year 100, there was a collection of Pauline letters in circulation, not just among the Thessalonians, Corinthians and Philippians, but all the way to Egypt and France.

So St. Paul wrote “letters,” but at the same time, they weren’t only letters. They were a kind of real presence of Paul made available through the written word. Today we would call it a “virtual presence.” Paul was expecting his letters to be read or “performed” in the assembly that was gathered for worship, in the same setting that the Christians joined to hear the Word of God in the Scriptures of Israel — since the early Christians adopted the synagogue prayer service with readings, instruction and intercessions.

In Colossians we read: “And when you’ve read this letter, have it read to the Laodicean church as well, and you should also read the letter from Laodicea” (4:16). Recent scholarship suggests that a few of the Pauline letters were written not directly by Paul but possibly by his disciples or by another generation of Christians who spoke in Paul’s name to address issues they were facing.

Regardless of who exactly penned a letter, we recall what the Second Vatican Council II document on divine revelation explicitly said: “To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the time while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that ... it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written and no more” (Dei Verbum, No. 11).