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Publishing Epistles

How the Apostles Wrote Their Letters

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Professor, Liberty University

ABSTRACT: Letter writing during the New Testament era involved several steps and included more people than is often assumed. Before authors like Paul composed letters to Christian communities, they first needed to acquire information about the situation facing their readers. During the composition of their writings, the apostles commonly collaborated with their companions and worked directly with a secretary. Once the author was satisfied with the letter, one or more people were entrusted to deliver it to the intended recipients. Finally, in some cases, letter carriers returned with a report about the writing’s reception and recent developments in the community.

The letters contained in the New Testament are among the most studied, quoted, and discussed writings in the biblical canon, but just how much do we know about the actual process that led to the composition and circulation of these sacred texts? When the apostle Paul decided to write to believers in Thessalonica, for example, how would he have gone about the task? Did he simply retreat for a time from his typical activities and write in isolation as he waited on the Spirit to guide his pen?

While there is much that we do not know about the particular circumstances that led to the production of each letter, what can be established about the ministry of the apostles and the common literary conventions of the Greco-Roman world may provide us with a basic sense of how the letters in the New Testament were composed and delivered. In this essay, we will consider the role that letters played in the ministry of the apostles and how they were likely produced and sent. Contrary to what might be assumed, the evidence suggests that several people played a role in the production and distribution of the canonical letters.1

The Functions of New Testament Letters

While it may be difficult for some in our digital age to understand, we find indications that the apostles and their companions favored personal interaction over written communication. In his letter to “the elect lady and her children,” the apostle John states, “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12). A similar statement appears in John’s writing to Gaius and those in his local assembly (3 John 13–14). John was not alone in preferring face-to-face interaction. The apostle Paul also expressed his desire to be with his readers and to minister to them in person (see, for example, Romans 1:13; 15:22–23; 1 Thessalonians 2:18). This emphasis on personal instruction is echoed in one of Polycarp of Smyrna’s extant writings from the second century, in which he reflects upon Paul’s ministry. In his letter to the community in Philippi, Polycarp writes,

Neither I, nor anyone like me, is able to rival the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul, who, when living among you, carefully and steadfastly taught the word of truth face to face with his contemporaries and, when he was absent, wrote you letters. By the careful perusal of his letters you will be able to strengthen yourselves in the faith given to you.2

This brief description of Paul’s relationship with the Philippians underscores the fact that his preferred means of communication was personal “face to face” interaction, the same type of interaction preferred by John. Written letters certainly served an important role, but in-person ministry provided the apostles and early Christian leaders the opportunity to speak more extensively about a broader range of issues, to appeal more directly to the emotions of individuals (what the Greeks referred to as pathos), to answer and respond to questions, to clarify matters of confusion, and to personally observe how individuals responded to their teaching and exhortations.

On many occasions, however, the apostles were unable to personally visit Christian communities where believers were experiencing confusion, internal conflict, external opposition, or spiritual discouragement, or where they needed basic instruction and oversight. Paul, for example, often found himself imprisoned (2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:23) or unable to leave his area of ministry and travel to those who needed his guidance. In these situations, he could send one of his trusted companions, such as Timothy or Titus, to minister on his behalf, or he could compose a letter that addressed their concerns. As the church expanded away from Jerusalem, the increasing need for apostolic instruction in distant locations was often met with the production of letters.

The Collaborative Nature of Ancient Writing

While it is clear that the apostolic letters served an important role, what do we know about the process of composition? When someone like Paul determined to write to believers outside of his immediate vicinity, what steps would he need to take? To answer this question, we should first observe that letter writing was not always the isolated activity we might imagine. The biblical authors worked directly with a number of companions during the letter-writing process.3 This is consistent with what is known of ancient writing practices and is evidenced by clues within the New Testament letters themselves. As we examine Paul’s writings in particular, we find evidence of three specific contributions that were made by those who worked directly with the biblical writers.

Sources of Information

To one degree or another, each of the New Testament letters is occasional in nature. Rather than writing about matters of personal interest for a general audience, the biblical authors tended to write to address specific circumstances and the concerns of those in particular communities. In a world in which information flows instantly and conveniently, we can easily overlook the fact that writers such as Paul did not have an up-to-the-minute awareness of the challenges and situations facing believers throughout the Roman world. Although Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit, he did not possess full knowledge of the state of each community and would have therefore found himself in constant need of recent and reliable information about the circumstances facing believers throughout the Roman world.

We might ask, therefore, how Paul came to learn about situations such as the false teaching that had made its way to Galatia, the many problems that needed to be addressed in Corinth, or the internal divisions that had formed in Philippi. The answer is that individuals occasionally traveled from these locations to where Paul was located, bringing with them reports about recent developments and the current state of the local churches. On some occasions, individuals were sent from a local community to update Paul about the situation they faced, inquire about specific concerns and issues, or assist him in practical ways. We find, for example, that Paul learned about the situation in Corinth from members of Chloe’s household (1 Corinthians 1:11) and from others such as Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, who had made their way to Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:17). We also find that Epaphroditus was sent by the church in Philippi to minister to Paul during one of his imprisonments (Philippians 2:25–30; 4:18).

“Letter writing was not always the isolated activity we might imagine.”

In addition to those who brought news from distant locations, writers such as Paul often received information about the circumstances of those in Christian communities from their own companions. On many occasions, Paul appears to have sent certain individuals to minister in areas with a newly formed church or where there may have been a particular need for guidance and instruction. We find, for example, that Timothy was instructed by Paul to minister in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3) and that Titus was sent to Crete (Titus 1:5). From these locations, they could have written to Paul with updates about the state of affairs in their immediate vicinity.

On other occasions, Paul’s companions may have traveled for only a brief time before returning to him or departing to a new location. Upon their return, they could provide Paul with updates about the issues facing believers where they had recently traveled and offer a report about the reception of his previous instruction. These insights would often prove vital to Paul as he weighed the possibility of penning a new or follow-up letter to those he could not personally visit. We find, for example, that he relied in part on information supplied by Titus when he composed 2 Corinthians (2 Corinthians 7:5–16) and on the report of Timothy when he penned 1 Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 3:1–6).

The role that these insights and reports played in the composition of the New Testament letters is part of the process of divine inspiration. While God inspired the human writers of Scripture, we may also affirm that the writing process involved human thought, reflection, creativity, and various literary practices of the time. In short, we may affirm that the divine origin of Scripture does not preclude the possibility that the authors employed common literary practices during the compositional process. Conversely, we may also recognize that various people playing a role in the production and distribution of the writings does not preclude the Spirit’s guidance throughout the compositional process.


After receiving reports about the circumstances facing believers in a particular area, Paul often decided to compose a letter that addressed the issues that were of concern to them. In addition to collaborating with his companions and those who had firsthand knowledge of the circumstances facing his readers, Paul’s apparent custom was to work directly with a secretary when composing his letters. In addition to a number of statements at the end of his letters, a clear indication that Paul used a secretary appears in Romans 16:22, where a secretary named Tertius offers a personal greeting.

Much is known of the responsibilities of secretaries in the Greco-Roman world from the extant writings of ancient figures and the discovery of a large body of manuscripts in locations such as Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. These discoveries reveal that those from all walks of life made frequent use of secretaries. They were not used merely by the wealthy, who could afford such a luxury, or by those who were illiterate and had no choice but to hire a professional to compose important documents for them. Rather, the evidence suggests that it was common for people of all backgrounds to enlist the services of a trained secretary, though the reasons for doing so often differed. One should not assume, therefore, that Paul and other writers of Scripture would have had little use for a secretary simply because they could compose a written text for themselves.


Those trained as secretaries came from different backgrounds and worked in a variety of settings. Some were professionals who offered their services for a fee, while others were educated slaves who assisted their masters with written correspondence, the production of business and legal documents, and even literary works. A famous example of the latter is Tiro, the slave of Cicero, who was praised by his master for his advanced literary abilities. One of the main differences between Paul and individuals such as Cicero was their financial situation. In light of what we know about Paul’s background, it is unlikely that he would have had the means to hire a professional scribe each time he composed one of his letters, and he certainly did not have any slaves who could serve in this role. We might infer, therefore, that individuals with specialized literary skills and training often served as Paul’s secretaries pro bono, regarding the time they spent assisting Paul as an important contribution to the work of the Lord. Interestingly, there may even be a hint in the words of Paul’s secretary Tertius, who wrote that his work on the letter was “in the Lord” (Romans 16:22) — perhaps suggesting that he offered it as an act of Christian service.4

The production of letters was expensive and time-consuming. Longer writings such as Romans or the Corinthian letters would have required many hours of labor for a secretary to complete, not to mention the significant expense of the supplies. In his illuminating study of secretaries in the Greco-Roman world, E. Randolph Richards estimated about twenty years ago that it may have cost over $2,000 in modern currency to hire a secretary to assist with a writing the length of Romans or 1 Corinthians.5 While it is difficult to determine the precise cost of producing ancient writings, hiring a secretary would have been a considerable expense. This would explain why most first-century letters tended to be much shorter than a typical Pauline writing. Like someone making a long-distance phone call in previous decades, one had to keep his or her words to a minimum in order to avoid an expensive bill. The generosity of several Christian secretaries appears to have enabled Paul both to address a wide range of issues at length in his writings and to write frequently.


The benefits of collaborating with a secretary were many. For one, they made the task of writing more convenient and efficient. Writing in the ancient world was not nearly as easy as typing out one’s thoughts on a computer and sending them off with the press of a button. Even if one had the ability to compose a letter, he would first need to acquire the necessary writing materials. Ink had to be mixed from various ingredients, and one would need unused papyrus or some type of alternative writing material as well. Secretaries often maintained all of the needed supplies to compose the letter, removing one step of the letter-writing process for their clients. The handwriting of secretaries also tended to be more attractive and tidier than the writing of most people.

In addition to the convenience they offered, secretaries could assist their clients with the composition of a writing. If a person had limited literary abilities, he could simply share with the secretary the basic information he wished to convey. The secretary would then draft a letter that covered each of the requested items. In situations in which a secretary worked with a more educated client or one who was writing for a public audience, a greater degree of collaboration might be expected. However, even in situations in which an author dictated the content of the letter to a secretary — which seems to have been the case when Paul composed his works — the secretary could offer guidance throughout the writing process on the style and structure of the letter and the best ways to introduce and address certain subjects.6 Once the original draft was complete, the author would personally examine the document and make any desired changes before authenticating the final work by adding a short handwritten greeting, signature, or some other type of personal touch (see 1 Corinthians 16:21; Galatians 6:11; Colossians 4:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:17; Philemon 19).7

Secretaries could also produce duplicates of the finished work for their clients. For the New Testament authors, duplicate letters would have often been highly desired and even considered necessary. We should not assume, for example, that Paul sent off his only copy of Romans to believers in Rome without first ensuring that he had at least one copy in his own possession. After the time and effort that went into the production of his letters, it is highly unlikely that he simply took a chance that a letter would arrive safely and be preserved. Because of this, Paul’s secretaries probably produced copies of his letters throughout his missionary career. As I have suggested elsewhere, the original collection of Paul’s letters likely derived from the duplicate copies in his possession or the possession of his companions.8 This would seem much more plausible than the theory that the collection emerged from an exchange of writings between churches or from the acquisition of letters by one or more individuals who traveled throughout the Roman world in search of Paul’s writings.

Letter Carriers

We might also consider how the canonical letters made their way to the intended readers once they were composed. With no postal service available to the general public, what method did writers such as Paul use to deliver their writings? Once again, we find that he relied on the assistance of his companions. Throughout his letters are hints that certain companions were charged with the task of delivering his writings.9 This list would include Phoebe (Romans 16:1–2), who seems to have been charged with delivering the letter to the Romans; Titus, who appears to have delivered 2 Corinthians (2 Corinthians 8:16–24); Epaphroditus, who likely returned to Philippi with the letter from Paul (Philippians 2:25–30); and Tychicus, who appears to have delivered Ephesians (Ephesians 6:21–22), Colossians (Colossians 4:7–9), Philemon (Philemon 12),10 2 Timothy (2 Timothy 4:12), and possibly others.11

Letter carriers were often given more responsibilities than simply delivering the letter to the intended recipients. In addition to this major task, letter carriers were known to deliver materials or supplies and to provide the readers with supplementary information and clarity about matters discussed in the writing. In the case of Paul’s writings, we might imagine letter carriers such as Tychicus expounding on certain points or offering clarity about various matters addressed by Paul. On certain occasions, the letter carrier may have also read the letter to the assembled gathering of the believers, though this also could have been done by the local elders or other believers in the community. Once their task was complete, letter carriers often returned to the author with a response letter from the recipients and a personal report on how the letter was received. This update would allow Paul to remain informed about recent developments in the community and to discern which subjects may need to be addressed in the future.

Enduring Epistles

That Paul and others had a wide network of friends and associates who worked alongside them is well-known.12 What is often overlooked, however, is that many of these companions assisted the apostles in one way or another with their writing ministry. As we have observed, the composition of the canonical letters involved multiple steps and collaboration between the author and a number of others. After receiving reports about the circumstances facing his readers, writers such as Paul typically consulted with their companions and a secretary who in many cases may have been a fellow believer graciously volunteering his time and expertise. Once a letter was completed and copies of the text had been produced, one or more letter carriers would have been entrusted to deliver the work to the intended recipients. Often, the letter carrier would return with a report about the reception of the letter. On some occasions, these reports may have prompted further correspondence from the author or led him to arrange a future visit.

While the circumstances that led to the composition of each of the New Testament writings were unique and are not fully known to us, we can be grateful that certain developments prompted the New Testament writers to compose works that continue to instruct and encourage believers today. Unlike their oral teaching, much of the apostles’ written instruction has been preserved and has benefited the church for nearly two millennia. As we read and study the canonical letters today, we are thus able to join the first generation of believers in Jerusalem who, among other things, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42).

  1. For a more thorough treatment of the subjects explored in this essay, readers are encouraged to consult the following resources: Benjamin P. Laird, Creating the Canon: Composition, Controversy, and the Authority of the New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 2023); Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995); M. Luther Stirewalt, Paul, the Letter Writer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003). 

  2. Polycarp, “The Letter of St. Polycarp To the Philippians,” in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Francis X. Glimm, Joeseph M.-F. Marique, and Gerald G. Walsh (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 136–37. 

  3. See Laird, Creating the Canon, 11–41. 

  4. This would depend, of course, on whether one understands the prepositional phrase en kyriō as modifying the verb aspazomai or the direct object epistolēn

  5. E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition, and Collection (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 2004), 165–69. 

  6. For an introduction to the various features of epistolary literature from the Greco-Roman world, see Jeffrey A.D. Weima, Paul the Ancient Letter Writer: An Introduction to Epistolary Analysis (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016). 

  7. For more information about how works were authenticated, see Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, 171–79; Steve Reece, Paul’s Large Letters: Paul’s Autographic Subscriptions in the Light of Ancient Epistolary Conventions, Library of New Testament Studies 561 (London: T&T Clark, 2017). 

  8. See Benjamin P. Laird, The Pauline Corpus in Early Christianity: Its Formation, Publication, and Circulation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Academic, 2022). 

  9. For additional information about the role of letter carriers, see Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, 171–209; Stirewalt, Paul, the Letter Writer, 9–19; Peter M. Head, “Named Letter-Carriers Among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 31, no. 3 (2009): 279–99; Matthew S. Harmon, “Letter Carriers and Paul’s Use of Scripture,” Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters 4, no. 2 (2014): 129–48; Stephen Robert Llewelyn, “Sending Letters in the Ancient World: Paul and the Philippians,” Tyndale Bulletin 46, no. 2 (1995): 337–56. 

  10. While Paul refers only to Onesimus in this passage, the parallel text in Colossians 4:7–9 indicates that Tychicus was part of the envoy sent by Paul to Colossae. 

  11. In addition to these individuals, it is also possible that either Timothy or the delegation that included Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus delivered 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10–11; 16:17–18). Titus 3:12–13 might also suggest that either Artemas, Tychicus, or Zenas and Apollos delivered the letter to Titus. 

  12. For background on Paul’s apostolic circle, see F.F. Bruce, The Pauline Circle (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006).