tertius

The Scribal Process: From God, to an author, to a scribe, to the page

In Romans 16:22 Tertius “who wrote this letter” greets the readers. Paul is the author of the letter, but Tertius is the scribe or amanuensis who did the actual writing. The name means “third” in Latin and was a common name for slaves (Jewett, 978). This fact alone does not tell us anything about his social status since some slaves were trained as scribes. Jewett suggests Phoebe provided Paul with Tertius’s services as a scribe as part of her patronage toward Paul and her support for a Spanish mission.

Since Tertius greets the readers of Romans, it is at least possible he was known to Christians in Rome. It is at least possible he was one of the Jews expelled from Rome who found their way to Corinth, like Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:1-4). Jewett builds too much from the mention of Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2, but at the very least we can say Tertius was a skilled scribe, a slave or perhaps former slave and (probably) a Christian.

For Paul to use a scribe to write Romans reflects the normal method for writing a long document, or even a personal letter. An author could dictate to a scribe who would write out the dictation and work with the author to create the final form of the document. For a shorter letter, the author might just provide his personal details and a scribe could create the letter according to the typical letter writing formulas. For example, a younger son writing home to his father asking for more money might pay an amanuensis to create a proper sounding letter in order to gain his fathers favor.

Perhaps it is surprising to learn a book of the Bible was created using typical Greco-Roman methods like this. Christians tend to think biblical books were written in a more mystical fashion. The real problem is this: How much freedom would Tertius have had in the composition of the letter?  Cranfield (Romans, 1:2-5) offers three possibilities (see this post for a collection of views on Tertius):

  1. Tertius took down the letter in longhand from Paul’s dictation. This is least likely, since it is not the common practice in the Roman world, but it also preserves the words as Paul’s alone.
  2. Tertius wrote in shorthand as Paul dictated. The second century writer Origin used this method, according to Eusebius (HE 6.23.2). As Origin lectured, a scribe took down notes and a final copy was made with Origin’s approval.
  3. He more independently composed the letter following directions from Paul or perhaps using notes from Paul. This would be analogous to a ghostwriter used by modern authors.

In most English translations, Tertius greets the Roman believers in 16:22 “in the Lord,” the standard greeting among members of the early church. The phrase may modify the greeting, although it does not immediately follow the greeting.  The Greek phrase follows the word “letter” and the word “Lord” can mean either God or master. If he means master, then it is possible the line should read: “I Tertius, the writer of the master’s letter, greet you.” The master would be Paul. If this is the case, he might not even be a Christian scribe, although my inclination is that he was a Christian and possibly part of Paul’s ministry team. I am intrigued by Jewett’s suggestion he was Phoebe’s slave, but it is hard to see that as anything more than a suggestion.

Regardless of the method he used to create the original document, there is little doubt that Paul wrote the letter to the Romans.