Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Apostles and Archives

Historian Garry Wills includes some interesting comments on the production of Pauline epistles in his latest book, What Paul Meant (New York: Viking, 2006), ISBN-13:978-0-670-03793-3. He argues that it is “hard to find” Paul since the “letters attributed to him in the canonical New Testament seem to fall apart in our hands as we try to read them.” Wills recounts how some of the letters are no longer attributed to him and a number of the others seem to be “composites” or “amalgams” from a number of his epistles. And, to top it off, there may be “earlier letters” “written before Paul became so well known, before his network of correspondents increasingly saw the worth of what he wrote. . . and before communities took care to preserve their own archives” (p. 5). Wills himself relies on just the seven letters we can safely assume Paul wrote, and, moreover, they are the earliest accounts of the early Church we possess.

There are also some details about the production of Paul’s letters. For example, Wills considers how Paul sometimes quoted scripture from memory, especially when he was traveling, rather than doing “ad hoc unrolling of the bulky papyrus of the Bible” (pp. 26-27) Wills points out how Paul relied on a scribe: “He needed this because he no doubt wrote more letters to gatherings [and individuals] than the ones that have been preserved” (p. 110). For example, although two letters to the Corinthian church have been preserved in the Biblical canon, there is evidence that a total of five were written. Paul also used a scribe to make copies of various letters, such as his “most theologically ambitious” one to the Roman church: “He [Paul] clearly wanted copies of this letter to be seen in Jerusalem – and probably elsewhere. Some copies he would take with him, others he hoped his team in Rome would circulate there before his arrival and encourage Roman Brothers to send on to their friends and allies in Jerusalem. One of the reasons Paul needed scribes was to produce multiple copies of his letters, for his own records and to verify the copies others would make of them. Before the age of printing, an author ‘published’ only by having the same text laboriously copied out over and over” (pp. 117-118).

Given such observations by Wills, as well as other scholarship on the formation of the Biblical canon, I have wondered for a long time why there has been so little reference to the creation, preservation, and use of these ancient documents in the mainstream archival literature. There has been some writing about certain controversies regarding access to such texts, such as the furor created by the opening of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but this is an anomaly. There seems to be some wonderful opportunities here to explore the nature of ancient recordkeeping, especially what it suggests about contemporary issues in modern recordkeeping and preservation.