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Letters and the Topography of Early Christianity*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 February 2016

Judith M. Lieu*
Faculty of Divinity, West Road, Cambridge CB3 9BS, United Kingdom. Email:


While embedded in contemporary letter-writing conventions, early Christian letters were also instrumental in the creation of a distinctive Christian world-view. Fundamental to letters of all types, ‘real’ and fictional, is that they respond to, and hence negotiate and seek to overcome, actual and imagined spatial and temporal distance between author and recipient(s). In practice and as cultural symbols, letters, sent and transmitted in new contexts, as well as letter collections, produced in the Christian imagination new trans-locational and cross-temporal dynamics of relationality that can be mapped onto the standard epistolary topoi – ‘absent as if present’, half a conversation, a mirror of the soul.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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Presidential address given on 29 July 2015 at the 70th General Meeting of the SNTS in Amsterdam.


1 The first meeting was held in 1947, but two meetings were held in 1952, in Bern in April (the 6th) and in Durham in September (the 7th). However, the SNTS traces its foundation to a meeting of scholars called in 1938 by Johannes de Zwaan, whose plans for a General Meeting under his presidency for September 1939 were interrupted by the outbreak of war. See Boobyer, G. H., ‘The Early History of Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas’, Bulletin of Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas 1 (1950) 710 Google Scholar; Bormann, L., ‘“Auch unter politischen Gesichtspunkten sehr sorgfältig ausgewählt”: Die ersten deutschen Mitglieder der Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (SNTS) 1937–1946’, NTS 58 (2012) 416–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 See L. Doering, Ancient Jewish Letters and the Beginnings of Christian Epistolography (WUNT 298; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck) 104–8, 154–60, 190–4, 241–62.

3 See F. Vouga, ‘Der Brief als Form der apostolischen Autorität’, Studien und Texte zur Form-geschichte (ed. K. Berger, F. Vouga, M. Wolter, D. Zeller; Tübingen: Francke, 1992) 7–50.

4 See in particular H.-J. Klauck, Ancient Letters and the New Testament: A Guide to Context and Exegesis (trans. and ed. D. P. Bailey; Waco, TX: Baylor, 2006); A. J. Malherbe, Ancient Epistolary Theorists (Atlanta, GA: Scholars, 1988); S. K. Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1986).

5 See P. A. Rosenmeyer, Ancient Epistolary Fictions: The Letter in Greek Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

6 There is a vigorous bibliography; for the issues, see A. Lindemann, ‘Die Sammlung der Paulusbriefe im 1. und 2. Jahrhundert’, The Biblical Canons (ed. J. M. Auwers and H. J. de Jonge; BETL 163; Leuven: Peeters/Leuven University Press, 2003) 321–51.

7 See H. Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) 58–65.

8 For the importance of letters in third-century episcopal politics, see E. Baumkamp, Kommunikation in der Kirche des 3. Jahrhunderts: Bischöfe und Gemeinden zwischen Konflikt und Konsens im Imperium Romanum (STAC 92; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), especially 1–10, 36–46. For the later period, see the relevant contributions in B. Neil and P. Allen, eds., Collecting Early Christian Letters: From the Apostle Paul to Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). There is a growing bibliography of individual studies that also address the function of these letters as published collections: e.g. A. Cain, The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); C. Conybeare, Paulinus Noster: Self and Symbol in the Letters of Paulinus of Nola (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

9 See also J. V. Ebbeler, Disciplining Christians: Correction and Community in Augustine's Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) 20–5, 43–56, on Augustine.

10 ὁμιλία τις ἐγγράμματος ἀπόντος πρὸς ἀπόντα … ἐρεῖ δέ τις ἐν αὐτῇ ὥσπερ παρών τις πρὸς παρόντα. Conveniently available in Malherbe, Epistolary Theorists, 66–81.

11 R. W. Funk, ‘The Apostolic Parousia: Form and Significance’, Christian History and Interpretation: Studies Presented to John Knox (ed. W. R. Farmer, C. F. D. Moule, R. R. Niebuhr; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967) 249–68; also Mitchell, M. M., ‘New Testament Envoys in the Context of Greco-Roman Diplomatic and Epistolary Conventions: The Examples of Timothy and Titus’, JBL 111 (1992) 641–62Google Scholar.

12 For this in relation to contemporary norms, see Larson, J., ‘Paul's Masculinity’, JBL 123 (2004) 8597 Google Scholar.

13 Thus Ps.-Libanius uses the term ὁμιλία; see Demetrius, De eloc. 223–5 and below, p. 8.

14 In Ephesians through the repeated distancing of the recipients from Paul and from the first generation: see N. A. Dahl, ‘The Particularity of the Pauline Epistles as a Problem in the Ancient Church’, Studies in Ephesians: Introductory Questions, Text- and Edition-critical Issues, Interpretation of Texts and Themes (ed. D. Hellholm, V. Blomkvist, T. Fornberg; WUNT 131; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000) 165–78, 170.

15 See Doering, Ancient Jewish Letters, 430–4 and above, n. 2.

16 On the effect of the collection of Cicero's letters of recommendation in Ad fam. 13, perhaps by an editor, see P. White, Cicero in Letters: Epistolary Relations in the Late Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 46–51; on Pliny, see Norena, C. F., ‘The Social Economy of Pliny's Correspondence with Trajan’, AJPhil 128 (2007) 239–77Google Scholar; R. K. Gibson and R. Morello, Reading the Letters of Pliny the Younger: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) 251–64.

17 On Ignatius' self-presentation in terms of a procession, see A. Brent, Ignatius of Antioch and the Second Sophistic (STAC 36; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006); on how this redefines space, see K. Waldner, ‘Ignatius’ Reise von Antiochia nach Rom: Zentralität und lokale Vernetzung im christlichen Diskurs des 2. Jahrhunderts', Zentralität und Religion (ed. H. Cancik, A. Schäfer, W. Spickermann; STAC 39; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006) 92–121.

18 It is assumed here that the Middle Recension is the earliest recoverable form of the letters. The separate history of the transmission of Romans in association with the Martyrdom of Ignatius, however that arose, might produce alternative readings of the Collection.

19 See Schmithals, Walter, ‘Zu Ignatius von Antiochien’, ZAC 13 (2009) 181203 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and the earlier discussion in the same journal 1997–1999.

20 See Gibson, R., ‘On the Nature of Ancient Letter Collections’, JRS 102 (2012) 5678 Google Scholar; Rosenmeyer, Ancient Epistolary Fictions, 193–233, on collections of pseudonymous letters; Neil and Allen, Collecting.

21 See M. Trapp, ‘Biography in Letters: Biography and Letters’, The Limits of Ancient Biography (ed. B. McGing and J. Mossman; Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2006) 335–50.

22 This is an imagined, textually constructed, community, and not one formed around the reading of texts as in Brian Stock's influential use of the term.

23 On Marcion's reading of Paul, see J. M. Lieu, Marcion and the Making of the Heretic: God and Scripture in the Second Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) 234–69. On the Latin Prologues see Nils Alstrup Dahl, ‘The Origin of the Earliest Prologues of the Pauline Letters’, in Studies in Ephesians, 179–209; Eric W. Scherbenske, Canonizing Paul: Ancient Editorial Practice and the Corpus Paulinum (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) 85–93: whether or not they are Marcionite in origin is not pertinent for these purposes.

24 See also Devore, D. J., ‘Character and Convention in the Letters of Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History’, Journal of Late Antiquity 7 (2014) 223–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar, who demonstrates how Eusebius uses letters to paint the good character of Christians. I am grateful to James Corke-Webster for discussion of this point.

25 … ὅτι δεῖ ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ τρόπῳ διάλογον τε γράφειν καὶ ἐπιστολάς· εἶναι γὰρ τὴν ἐπιστολὴν οἷον τὸ ἕτερον μἐρος τοῦ διαλόγου; Malherbe, Epistolary Theorists, 16–19.

26 39–38 bce; also available at (accessed 14 October 2015).

27 Demetrius, De eloc. 225; this is much repeated by letter writers, e.g. Plutarch, De tranq. anim. 464 (see below, n. 45).

28 This is not to ignore that both sides of the correspondence in 3 Corinthians are fictional: see White, B., ‘Reclaiming Paul? Reconfiguration as Reclamation in 3 Corinthians ’, JECS 17 (2009) 497523 Google Scholar.

29 See Lieu, J. M., ‘Us or You? Persuasion and Identity in 1 John’, JBL 127 (2008) 805–19Google Scholar.

30 ‘It is my custom to share with you all my thoughts and to warn you with those directives and examples with which I warn myself’, Pliny, Epist. 4.24; cf. Cicero, De amicit. 25.91, ‘to warn and be warned is a mark of true friendship’. Ebbeler, Disciplining Christians, 7–9, argues that where Augustine was innovative was in ‘his expectation that a letter of rebuke would be reciprocated’.

31 S. Rubenson, ‘Argument and Authority in Early Monastic Correspondence’, Foundations of Power and Conflicts of Authority in Late Antique Monasticism (ed. A. Camplani and G. Filoramo; OLA 157; Leuven: Peeters, 2007) 75–87.

32 The third person and infinitive is rooted in the messenger formula, ‘Thus says …’. Ignatius regularly undermines the pattern by introducing the first person ‘I pray’ as governing the infinitive ‘greetings’ (εὔχομαι χαίρειν).

33 On Seneca and Lucilius as characters in Seneca's letters, see B. Inwood, Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005) 322–52. Letters between communities, while more complex, can also be understood under this rubric.

34 Hence the need for templates both in ancient tradition (typoi epistolikoi) and as now available on the internet.

35 So also already Origen; the tradition that Ignatius was second (or third) bishop of Antioch does not reflect any independent tradition.

36 Aelius Theon, Progymn. 115.11–22 The editors M. Patillon and G. Bolognesi (Aelius Theon: Progymnasmata (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1997) 70 n. 342), commenting on this passage, note that ethopoiea is used elsewhere.

37 Rosenmeyer, Ancient Epistolary Fictions.

38 See T. E. Jenkins, Intercepted Letters: Epistolarity and Narrative in Greek and Roman Literature (Lanham: Lexington, 2006).

39 Lucilius asks Seneca not to discuss his affairs with the ‘friend’ who has brought the letter (Seneca, Epist. 3), while Seneca sends Lucilius a copy of a letter of condolence he wrote to Marullus (Epist. 99). Cicero (Ad Att. 11.9.2) opened a letter addressed to someone else because he thought there might be something incriminating therein, and discussed his action with Atticus.

40 σχεδὸν γὰρ εἰκόνα ἕκαστος τῆς ἑαυτοῦ ψυχῆς γράφει τὴν ἐπιστολήν.

41 Seneca ascribes the saying to the Greeks, while Cicero (Tusc. disp. 5.16.47) attributes it to Socrates. Philo uses the epigram to describe Moses’ commitment to philosophical principles (Vita Mos. 1.29): οἷος ὁ λόγος τοιοῦτος ὁ βιὸς καὶ οἷος ὁ βιὸς τοιοῦτος ὁ λόγος. So also Demetrius, De eloc. 227: καὶ ἔστι μὲν καὶ ἐξ ἄλλου λόγου παντὸς ἰδεῖν τὸ ἦθος τοῦ γράφοντος, ἐξ οὐδενὸς δὲ οὕτως ὡς ἐπιστολῆς.

42 See above, n. 16 and also Inwood, Reading Seneca, 322–52.

43 See the brief discussion by J. Zachhuber and A. Torrance, ‘Introduction’, Individuality in Late Antiquity (ed. J. Zachhuber and A. Torrance; Farnham: Ashgate, 2014) 1–9; also P. Cox Miller, ‘Shifting Selves in Late Antiquity’, Religion and the Self in Antiquity (ed. D. Brakke, M. Satlow, S. Weitzmann; Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005) 15–39.

44 See K. Eden, ‘A Rhetoric of Intimacy in Antiquity’, The Renaissance Rediscovery of Intimacy (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2012) 11–48; A. Wilcox, The Gift of Correspondence in Classical Rome: Friendship in Cicero's Ad Familiares and Seneca's Moral Epistles (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012) 8–9, 121–3.

45 See C. K. Rothschild and T. W. Thompson, eds., Galen's De indolentia (STAC 88; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014). So, also, Plutarch's De tranquilitate animi is in the form of a letter to a certain Paccius and consciously eschews stylistic elegance in favour of practical usefulness.

46 This is missing from the version in Eusebius, perhaps because the letter has a new extended function in the context he gives it.

47 C. R. Haines, trans., Marcus Cornelius Fronto (LCL; Cambridge, MA: Heinemann, 1962 [1912]) 18–21.

48 See Cicero, Ad fam. 4.6 to Servius Sulpicius: ‘How much you could have helped me if present by comforting and equally sharing in grief I can easily understand from the degree to which I was helped by your letters when read.’

49 See H. D. Betz, ‘On the Question of Literary Genre’, Studies in Paul's Letter to the Philippians (WUNT 343; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015) 133–54. On the relationship between Philippians and the Martyrdom of Polycarp, see J. McLarty, ‘The Function of the Letter Form in Christian Martyrdom Accounts’, Epistolary Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature (ed. O. Hodkinson, P. A. Rosenmeyer, E. Bracke; Mnemosyne Supplements 359; Leiden: Brill, 2013) 371–85.

50 See R. Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians (London: Oxford University Press, 1949) 15–16.

51 For Epicurean letters as fulfilling some of these goals, see C. E. Glad, Paul and Philodemus: Adaptability in Epicurean and Early Christian Psychagogy (NovTSup 81; Leiden: Brill, 1995) 175–81.

52 C. Markschies, ‘Schreiben Christen andere Briefe als Heiden? Zur brieflichen Kommunikation in der kaiserzeitlichen Antike’, Mediengesellschaft Antike? Information und Kommunikation von alten Ägypten bis Byzanz (ed. U. Peter and S. J. Seidlmayer; Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2006) 113–30.

53 See I. H. Henderson, ‘Early Christianity, Textual Representation and Ritual Extension’, Texte als Medium und Reflexion von Religion in römischen Reich (ed. D. Elm von der Osten, J. Rüpke, K. Waldner; Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2006) 81–100.

54 See above, n. 26.

55 See D. Krueger, Writing Holiness: The Practice of Authorship in the Early Christian East (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) 149–56 on the dynamics and subsequent development of the Abgar traditions.

56 Some of the research for this paper was undertaken during three months spent at the Theologische Fakultät, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, with the support of the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung. I am grateful for the hospitality of colleagues and for the support of the Foundation.

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