Paul's Letters as Artifacts: The Value of the Written Text among Non-Literate People

An open question in pauline studies is: Why did Paul succeed vis-à-vis his written words to predominately non-literate communities? Rhetorical critics have almost universally agreed that Paul’s use of letters placed him in a markedly inferior position to those who argued their authority in person. This paper will address this question by employing a model of non-literate communities' use of written texts which will reveal that Paul did enjoy some advantage by means of his written instructions to his communities, precisely because they were addressed to non-literate people. Three major sources of evidence from the Roman imperial period--curse tablets, amulets, and magical papyri--will be examined, particularly as to their shared attribution of power to written texts, and moreover, to mysterious written characters. The evidence will show that both literate and non-literate people believed that the written text was integral to the potency of the articles in question and that the decipherability of the lettering was inconsequential, if not preferable, to the participants in the ritual. A similar reverence developed, it will be argued, for Paul's written texts within his communities. As largely non-literate people, their understanding of the value of a written document would compel them both to respond favorably to Paul’s writing and to preserve his letters even though they contained harsh critiques of their communities.