The Apostle Paul’s Postal Service

The Apostle Paul’s Postal Service

Ancient Papyrus Letter

For good reason, Christians focus most of their  attention on the content of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. But, considering how important this letter was to further Paul’s mission, he no doubt spent as much effort on ensuring its delivery as he did writing it.

So exactly how did Paul’s letter get from Greece to Rome? We can’t be certain about the details, but we can make some plausible conjectures.

During this era there were three ways to send a letter: 1) official material was transmitted through the postal service, known as the cursus publicus; 2) wealthy people often used a tabellarius, a slave acting as a courier, to carry their mail; and 3) the majority of mail was carried by anyone–even a stranger–headed to the same destination as the letter. You can imagine that in this case it was never a sure thing that the letter would actually be delivered safely.

Our first supposition, which is clearly supported by Paul’s own writings, is that he put his letters in the hands of people he knew and trusted. In the case of the letter to the Romans, Paul indicates he chose Phoebe to carry his letter.

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. Welcome her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her with anything she may need from you.” Acts 16:1-2

What were Phoebe’s responsibilities?

Most importantly, Phoebe had to get Paul’s letter to the Romans from Corinth, Greece to Rome, Italy safely. By sea the trip was about 700 miles and could take 5-10 days in good weather. With a combination sea/land route following the Adriatic Sea, the distance was about 800 miles. There were paved roads and travelers often rode donkeys and stayed in inns along the way. This route took considerably more time–3 to 4 weeks–but in the winter months it was the only open route for travelers.

Phoebe was also most likely responsible for paying her travel expenses, including sea passage for her and any travel companions, food and wine for her journey, etc.

Importantly, Phoebe needed to physically protect Paul’s letter. The biggest threat was from moisture from the sea and from rain.  The letter could have been wrapped in a parchment wrapper, then stored in a box. Was Phoebe able to book an enclosed cabin for the sea portion of her voyage? We have no way of knowing, but if she did, Paul’s letter would have even been safer.

Once Phoebe arrived safely in Rome, her next responsibility was to deliver the letter to the Christian community on Paul’s behalf.


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