My latest article has just been published in the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists. I have uploaded a PDF to the "Publications" section of this website. It is an edition of an unpublished documentary papyrus, a private letter from the 2nd-3rd century CE housed at Yale University. It is a letter from Harpalos and Sarapion to Harpalos and Ellious (the latter name being very uncommon). The papyrus features a couple interesting grammatical issues, which are discussed in the notes section of the edition, but I thought I would draw attention to one feature in the text, namely, a phrase that is found verbatim in Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians. In lines 6-10 of our papyrus the text reads:
In 1 Thess. 4:1, Paul writes:
Thus, in both our papyrus and Paul's letter to the Thessalonians we find the identical phrase ἐρωτῶμεν ὑμᾶς καὶ παρακαλοῦμεν. This does not mean that the writer of our papyrus letter was a Christian and knew Paul's writings. For all we know, the writer was not Christian. Moreover, the phrase ἐρωτῶμεν ὑμᾶς καὶ παρακαλοῦμεν is not unique to Paul. It is found in many letters from antiquity (e.g., O.Ber. 2.129.14, O.Did. 410.3, P.Col. 8.215.21, P.Oxy. 4.744.7, SB 24.16293.3). But what this does tell us is that Paul was drawing on epistolary formulae that were commonly employed in documents of the time. It demonstrates the influence that such practices and usages had on one of the most influential Christian writers of all time. Adolf Deissmann was really the first to show the significance of the papyri for the study of the New Testament and his Bible Studies (1903, 2nd ed.) is exemplary in this regard. Of course Deissmann's comparative analyses led him to believe that the New Testament writings were "popular" and "non-literary," a claim that would later be challenged in New Testament scholarship (see Harry Gamble's discussion of this in the first chapter of his Books and Readers in the Early Church [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995]). In recent times, New Testament scholars have begun to approach Paul's letters from a rhetorical perspective in an attempt to understand Paul's use of specific rhetorical categories and how they function within his letters. The utility of such an approach has been aptly demonstrated, but one of the drawbacks is that the shift to rhetorical analysis has meant, for some, a jettisoning of epistolary analysis. There is a recent volume of essays that attempts to re-highlight the significance of epistolary theory and formulae for Paul's letters and it does so by purposefully not engaging with the rhetorical methodological perspective: Stanley E. Porter and Sean A. Adams (eds.), Paul and the Ancient Letter Form (PAST 6; Leiden: Brill, 2010).
In any case, the new papyrus demonstrates that we need not ignore the epistolary qualities of Paul's writings. It also means that we would do well to study documentary papyri, knowing that they can help us understand Paul's world in more ways than one. Deissmann may have been ultimately wrong in his conclusions about the literary character of the New Testament writings, but he was most certainly right about the significance of the papyri for our understanding of Paul's literary framework.