by Al Maxey

Issue #519 ------- January 31, 2012
The nobility of our calling will always be rooted in
two commitments difficult to observe: refusal to lie
about what we know, and resistance to oppression.

Albert Camus {1913-1960}

Mystery of the Large Letters
Pondering Paul's Puzzling Penmanship

Near the end of Paul's epistle to the Galatians, which many scholars date around 49 A.D., thus making it most probably the very first of his writings preserved for us in the NT canon (although some argue this distinction should go to his first epistle to the Thessalonians), he made an unusual statement that has puzzled biblical students for centuries: "See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand" (Gal. 6:11, NASB). At first glance, this might seem to be a rather self-evident statement suggesting a simple interpretation. Upon further investigation, however, it proves to be quite challenging on a number of levels, leading to some very creative speculations among biblical scholars. "There is a strange diversity of opinion concerning the apostle's meaning in this place" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 6, p. 416]. "Considerable variety has existed in regard to the interpretation of this phrase" [Albert Barnes, Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. Each of the Greek words in the statement "has been subjected to a variety of interpretations" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 20, p. 305]. "The exact significance of these words is somewhat enigmatic, and can only be a matter of conjecture" [Charles Ellicott, Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 7, p. 462]. Thus, what seems on the surface to be a simple assertion is, in reality, far more complex for those seeking to determine Paul's true intent.

The apostle Paul was a rather prolific writer, and a significant portion of our NT canon is the work of his hand. Thirteen of the 27 "books" of the NT were written by this man (14 if you believe that he wrote Hebrews, which I am personally convinced is highly unlikely; see: Reflections #128 -- The Authorship of Hebrews: In-depth Investigation into Identity). A study of his writings, as well as his style and various external matters of interest, reveals it was Paul's usual practice to employ an amanuensis when writing his epistles. This simply means that Paul dictated his letters to a person who did the actual writing of his words. For example, at the close of the epistle to the Romans we find this statement: "I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord" (Rom. 16:22). It was also Paul's custom to take the pen from his amanuensis and write a personal greeting with his own hand at the end of his epistles. "I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write" (2 Thess. 3:17). "I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand" (1 Cor. 16:21; Col. 4:18). One of the reasons Paul chose to attach his own handwritten greeting at the end of his letters is because there were those who were sending out letters under his name for the purpose of misleading the church (2 Thess. 2:2). Thus, Paul sought to authenticate his own letters by writing the final greeting in his own handwriting, which those who knew him would probably recognize.

If, however, the letter to the Galatians was Paul's first epistle, then the above practices would not yet have become his "custom" in the composition of his writings (which will prove significant in refuting some of the fanciful theories regarding our text, as will soon be seen). It will also prove helpful in our effort to understand Paul's statement in Gal. 6:11 if we have a good grasp of the purpose of this letter to the Galatian brethren. Thus, for those who may not be familiar with the background of this work, I would recommend a reading of my following two studies: Reflections #202 -- Epistle to the Galatians: Magna Charta of Christian Liberty and Reflections #215 -- Embracing Another Gospel: Analyzing Apostolic Authorial Intent in the Admonition of Galatians 1:6-9. The perspectives provided in these two studies will play a significant role in our analysis of Paul's puzzling pronouncement in Gal. 6:11. Before we get to that analysis, however, notice the diversity of translation (reflective of the diversity of understanding) found in several of our English versions:

  1. King James Version -- Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand.
  2. New King James Version -- See with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand!
  3. American Standard Version -- See with how large letters I write unto you with mine own hand.
  4. New American Standard Bible -- See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.
  5. New International Version -- See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!
  6. English Standard Version -- See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.
  7. Holman Christian Standard Bible -- Look at what large letters I have written to you in my own handwriting.
  8. Easy-to-Read Version -- I am writing this myself. See what big letters I use.
  9. The Message -- Now, in these last sentences, I want to emphasize in the bold scrawls of my personal handwriting the immense importance of what I have written to you.
  10. Lamsa's Translation from the Aramaic of the Peshitta -- You can see how long a letter I have written to you with my own hand.
  11. New American Bible, St. Joseph Edition -- See, I write to you in my own large handwriting!
  12. New English Bible -- You see these big letters? I am now writing to you in my own hand.
  13. The New Jerusalem Bible -- Notice what large letters I have used in writing to you with my own hand.
  14. Hugo McCord's NT Translation of the Everlasting Gospel -- Notice how large are the letters I have written with my hand.
  15. Charles B. Williams' NT in the Language of the People -- See what large letters I make, when I write to you with my own hand!
  16. Ken Taylor's Living Bible -- I will write these closing words in my own handwriting. See how large I have to make the letters!
  17. J. B. Phillips' NT in Modern English -- Look at these huge letters I am making in writing these words to you with my own hand!
  18. Contemporary English Version -- You can see what big letters I make when I write with my own hand.
  19. New World Translation -- See with what large letters I have written you with my own hand.
  20. Revised Standard Version -- See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.
  21. New Living Translation -- Notice what large letters I use as I write these closing words in my own handwriting.
  22. Darby Translation -- See how long a letter I have written to you with my own hand.

If you examine the above readings carefully, you will notice some major differences between them, and these various renderings can very easily impact how one understands the passage (or misunderstands it, as the case may be). For example, some phrase the first Greek word as though it were in the indicative mood ("You see" or "You can see"), while others word it as if it were in the imperative mood ("See" or "Look" -- carrying the force of "Behold"). In some versions Paul says, "I am writing" (which is worded in the present tense), whereas other versions declare: "I have written" (which is worded in the aorist tense). Some translate the sentence as though Paul is referring to the length of the epistle ("See how long a letter I have written to you"), while others feel it refers to the size of his written characters ("Notice what large letters I use as I write"). As one can quickly perceive, there is great disagreement over what Paul actually wrote, and what he actually meant by what he wrote. All of which affects how one understands this verse in light of the immediate and greater context of his epistle to the Galatians.

With regard to the first issue, John Gill (1690-1771), in his Exposition of the Entire Bible, wrote, "Whether it be read as imperative or as indicative is of no great consequence" [via e-Sword]. Albert Barnes (1798-1870), in his Notes on the Bible, even stated, "The sense is not materially different whichever translation is adopted" [via e-Sword]. It's true that nobody's salvation hinges on this choice, but I would not suggest that the matter is of no consequence, or that one choice is not materially different from the other, for one's choice will indeed affect how one perceives Paul's intent in this passage. For example, is Paul merely stating in passing that he is aware that his readers will notice his use of "large letters" (that use being obvious to the eyes of the readers), or is Paul emphatically directing their attention to his use of "large letters" so as to convey some important truth? If Paul is using the imperative, then he is suggesting thereby that what he is saying is of vital importance, and they need to take note of it. If he is using the indicative, then he is simply making a passing comment that has no real spiritual or theological significance. Again, I would hardly characterize this as being a matter of indifference. Tyndale, in his translation, used the word "Behold," understanding it to be an imperative. The Pulpit Commentary concurs, declaring, "There can be hardly any doubt that the rendering 'ye see' of the Authorized Version, supposing, as it seems to do, that this is meant as an indicative, must be wrong" [vol. 20, p. 305]. The actual Greek word used here is identified as a 2nd Aorist Imperative, 2nd Person Plural [The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the NT, p. 199], therefore we know that Paul is commanding his readers to take special note of something that he considers to be of vital importance. To translate the word as an indicative deprives it of its forcefulness, and thus diminishes the impact of what Paul sought to convey as he summarized the major points of this epistle.

As to the phrase "I am writing to you" (NASB) vs. "I have written to you" (KJV), you will find about as many versions advocating one as the other. The same is true with biblical scholars and commentators. In the Greek of the text here, the word for "write" is grapho, and it appears as a 1st Aorist Active Indicative, 1st person singular. Thus, the present tense is clearly not used. However, there are aspects of the aorist tense that may have elements of the present in view. The "Epistolary Aorist" is an example of this, and many scholars believe this is the usage Paul was employing in our text. "This is the use of the aorist indicative in the epistles in which the author self-consciously describes his letter from the time frame of the audience" [Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, p. 562]. On the next page of his work, Wallace lists Gal. 6:11 as an example of the epistolary aorist. In other words, as Paul wrote the letter he would be thinking, "I am writing this to you," but by placing himself alongside his readers, he would understand that, as they read these words he was writing, those words would already have been written from their time-perspective. Thus, he wrote it from their viewpoint, not his. Wallace admits, however, that "some dispute that this is an epistolary aorist" [ibid, p. 563], while also stating that if it is an epistolary aorist, then such a usage "does have some exegetical significance" [ibid, p. 562]. Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest also comments on this usage: "It was a courtesy extended by the writer to the reader in closing his letter, to look upon it as the reader would ... and he used the epistolary aorist for this purpose ... thus placing himself at the perspective of the reader when the latter would receive it" [Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 1, Galatians, p. 175-176]. Dr. A. T. Robertson, in his "Word Pictures in the New Testament," and also Dr. Marvin Vincent, agree that this "is probably an instance of the epistolary aorist, by which the writer puts himself at the time when his correspondent is reading his letter. To the correspondent, I write has changed itself into I wrote" [Vincent's Word Studies, e-Sword]. "Thus, the aorist is epistolary, and refers to what follows" [ibid].

The other major view, of course, is that the aorist indicative "I wrote" has reference to what Paul has already written in this epistle. In other words, it is believed that he is referring to the entire epistle. Thus, those who hold to this view believe Paul wrote all of Galatians in his own hand, and some translations reflect this: "See how long a letter I have written to you with my own hand" [Darby Translation]. Even the KJV suggests this: "Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand." The Pulpit Commentary, however, refutes this, saying, "The rendering of the Authorized Version cannot be defended as a literal translation" [vol. 20, p. 306]. Nevertheless, such noted theologians as Martin Luther and John Calvin both took the view that Paul was referring to the length of this epistle, and yet "grammar and comparative brevity of the letter argue against this" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 505]. Part of that grammatical argument is that the Greek word Paul uses here for "letters" is plural, thus the KJV is incorrect in translating it as a singular ("letter"), which leaves the impression that Paul may be speaking of the letter to the Galatians. The word Paul uses is gramma, which primarily means "a letter or character of the alphabet" [The Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 82]. Further, when the NT writers speak of such communications to others as Paul has written to the Galatians, they almost always refer to them by the Greek term epistole (from which we get the transliteration "epistle"). Therefore, "the majority of scholars correctly see a reference to the size of the letters Paul was inscribing" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 506], although they can't agree on the significance of Paul making his characters so large. Another grammatical consideration is that "the use of the instrumental dative precludes the rendering 'See how large a letter I write,' so the verse obviously calls attention to the large letters employed by the writer from this point onward" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 3, p. 190]. Again, the view of most scholars, as well as most biblical translators, is that this view (that Paul is referring to the size of the characters he is writing) is the correct one. I would concur with that, and believe Paul personally wrote this final section (and only this final section) of the epistle in large, bold characters.

The question that cries out for a logical answer, of course, is -- Why?! There are a number of theories, ranging from the astute to the absurd. As an example of the latter, some have actually suggested that most "brilliant" people have poor penmanship, and thus Paul was simply apologizing to the Galatian brethren for his "crude scrawling." Perhaps they might think poorly of him since his writing appeared to be the large scrawls a child might make. Jerome (who gave us the Latin Vulgate) "says that Paul was a Hebrew, and that he was unacquainted with the mode of writing Greek letters, and thus formed his characters in this crude manner" [Albert Barnes, Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. Some have suggested Paul had a "nervous condition" that caused his hands to shake terribly, thus necessitating a large, crude scrawl. Few embrace any of these views. A far more popular theory is that Paul typically used an amanuensis, and only wrote a final greeting with difficulty, because he suffered from some debilitating eye condition. "The size of the letters attested the difficulty which he found in writing with his imperfect sight" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 3, p. 190]. The noted Greek scholar Dr. Kenneth Wuest agrees -- "Paul had contracted an oriental eye disease called ophthalmia, which not only gave him a repulsive appearance, but rendered him almost totally blind. It was therefore necessary for him to write in letters large enough so that with his darkened vision he could see what he was doing" [Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek NT, vol. 1, Galatians, p. 176]. Paul's statements about his physical condition in Gal. 4:13-15 seem to lend support to this view, especially the part where he states, "if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me" (vs. 15). Some also regard this as his "thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor. 12:7-10 ... See my discussion of this in Reflections #254 -- A Thorn in the Flesh: Ascertaining Apostolic Affliction). Another popular view is that Paul intentionally wrote in "large, bold characters" because he "wished to call particular attention to this closing paragraph," and he did so "by placarding it in big letters," which Dr. A. T. Robertson suggests "is the most likely reason" [Word Pictures in the NT, e-Sword].

Whatever the underlying cause may have been, we can say with some confidence that Paul calls the readers to take note of his handwriting. It stood out from the rest of the epistle, being significantly larger. It got their attention, which I believe was his intention. He wanted to make sure they did not miss the message he sought to convey in this final section of his epistle. "It is quite probable that Paul may have wished to call special attention to these verses" [Dr. Marvin Vincent, Vincent's Word Studies, e-Sword]. Some scholars think he may also have sought to emphasize to his readers just how deeply he loved them, and was concerned for them, and that his painful effort in penning this final section himself would not be lost on them! "Paul wished to give his letter the highest possible personal character. We cannot know with what pain and difficulty, with his own hand, and in the large letters his impaired vision compelled him to use, Paul wrote this letter" [Dr. Kenneth Wuest, p. 176-177].

So, what message was so critical that it would compel Paul to make such a painful effort so as to draw their attention to it? I believe it was one last memorable attempt to warn these dear brethren about the dangers of the legalistic teachers who were troubling them. Legalism has always been one of the greatest threats to the gospel of grace, and Paul was willing to use any tactic to impress upon his readers the deadly danger of succumbing to such teaching. "The apostle has said nearly everything he wishes to say, and the letter is drawing to a close. But in ending it he first takes the pen from the hand of his amanuensis and adds a summary of the letter in his own handwriting. The summary contains a fresh warning against the legalizers, a restatement of the basic principle that Christianity is internal and supernatural rather than external and human (as the legalizers were trying to make it), a final reference to his own suffering for the cause of Christ, and a benediction. The somewhat abrupt ending has the effect of leaving the great issue of the letter -- faith or works -- sharply before the Galatians" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 505]. Paul literally "took great pains" to warn the brethren against the legalists and their godless doctrines and practices. What an example he has left us; what an inspiration he is to us! The legalists are still around; they still preach their "other gospel" of seeking divine approval and acceptance by keeping commands and observing law. May we be willing to show the same spirit of self-sacrifice and indifference to personal pain that Paul showed as we too strive to free the captives from their bondage to legalism and bring them into the wondrous joys of freedom in Christ. It is a war for souls well worth waging!!

Special CD Offers
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CD offers
for readers in 2012.

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce & Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

(A 193 page book by Al Maxey)
Also Available on KINDLE

One Bread, One Body
An Examination of Eucharistic
Expectation, Evolution & Extremism

(A 230 page book by Al Maxey)
Also Available on KINDLE

Immersed By One Spirit
Rethinking the Purpose and Place of
Baptism in NT Theology and Practice

(A 304 page book by Al Maxey)

Readers' Reflections

2012 Tulsa Workshop: -- The schedule of speakers, topics, times and locations for the 2012 Tulsa Workshop is now available. To view or download a copy of this schedule Click Here. I am very excited about what is being offered this year, as well as the format (which promises to be a bit more interactive). I know many of you are planning to come this year, and I look forward to meeting you. I will have a special "Track on Ministry to the Divorced" on Thursday morning from 9 - 11, and it will be titled "Healing Grace for Broken Marriages." I believe you will find this very encouraging, as it will focus on God's grace rather than the traditions and laws of men. Saturday at 2:00 p.m. I will be speaking in the main Pavilion. My message will be titled "Bridging Our Brokenness." There will be a concert just prior to my talk, and Marvin Phillips will follow me. A good many well-known speakers, teachers and worship leaders will be present this year, including Rick Atchley, Patrick Mead, Keith Lancaster, Don McLaughlin, Randy Harris, Jeff Walling, Terry Rush, Shane Coffman, Jason Thornton, and Jay Guin, just to name a few. Believe me, you don't want to miss this year's workshop. It's only a few weeks away, so make your plans now. See you there!!

Special Reminder: Follow my Reflections in New Wineskins magazine -- If you are not familiar with the publication New Wineskins, then you are missing out on some wonderfully challenging and refreshing material by a number of leading writers and thinkers within the One Body of Christ. The online site has undergone a major renovation; I think you'll like it. As part of that renovation, the editor, Keith Brenton, has created a section on the page where he will feature and follow the writings of three "Special Correspondents" -- Rubel Shelly, Edward Fudge and Al Maxey. Each of our photos are placed in that section, and under each picture one will find a link (along with a brief excerpt) to the latest edition of either Rubel's Fax of Life or Edward's GracEmail or my own Reflections. I want to thank Keith for including me (and my writings) in the company of such men as Rubel and Edward, whose work I have admired for many years. I am honored. Also, I would urge you to follow the work of Keith on his own Blog Site. You will be greatly edified by his insights!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Brother Al, I just received your new book Immersed By One Spirit. Thank you for autographing it. So far I have made it into chapter 3. I probably should not admit I am thinking this, much less say it, but I feel that I am likely to find a good bit of what you have to say reflecting the understandings I myself have come to from my own study and reflection through the years. I say this because I have found that almost always you and I seem to be on the same page. However, you are so much more able to articulate your understanding, and thus are much more widely read. With regard to 1 Cor. 12:13, my thinking is that Paul was saying that the Spirit "immerses" or puts each individual believer into the one spiritual Body of Christ. In other words, in that passage I don't think Paul's vision was limited to the physical act of burial into and raising up out of water in the name of the Lord. As expected (I checked the table of contents and read ahead to chapter 14), you have come to the same conclusion that I have about the meaning of 1 Cor. 12:13. Thanks again, brother Al. I love you in Jesus!!

From a Reader in Swaziland, Africa:

Brother Maxey, Thank you so much for your continuous blessings through your great messages. Please keep my family and me in your prayers these next few years, as God has provided me with a scholarship to earn my degree in Theology and Leadership here in Swaziland. Your writings and studies have been of great help to me in my spiritual life, and an inspiration to me to achieve this degree. Thanks, and may you be blessed.

From a Minister in California:

Dear Bro. Al, I have found your perspectives to be enlightened and expressed clearly, and I have learned a lot from your debates and other writings. Thank you especially for your article "Paying the Penalty for Sin: Was the Crucifixion of Christ on the Cross Total or Token Payment for Sin?" (Reflections #152). It reaffirms all that I had believed and had accepted at face value about the atonement. I understand that many may claim to believe in the full payment of Jesus' sacrifice while still relying on their own efforts and performance to secure and ensure God's grace (though I doubt any amount of human effort can provide the confidence of salvation they seek). Thank you for all the thinking you do! God bless you!

From a Reader in Nevada:

Brother Al, As usual, I really enjoyed the latest Reflections ("Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth"). The last two paragraphs in that article, which were about the Oklahoma preacher and the Texas elder, R. M. Mickle, display incredible ignorance on the part of these two men with respect to the very purpose of the gospels, and show virtually no understanding on their part of canon, law, covenant, what was nailed to the cross, and the mission and teaching of the Lord Jesus. It is remarkable that brethren would allow these two dinosaurs to roam among our assemblies and exert influence among us!

From a Reader in California:

Brother Al, Interestingly, the word for "divide" in Japanese (wakaru) is the same as the word for "understand." So, when I read "rightly divide the word," the meaning "understand" comes readily to mind. In Japanese, to ask "Do you understand?" is "Wakarimasu ka?" And the Japanese word for the disposable chopsticks that come fastened together is "waribashi," because you need to "divide" them before you use them.

From an Elder in New Mexico:

Brother Al, My impression from the accounts in the New Testament concerning baptism is that once folks heard the gospel and repented, their attitude became "just try to stop me from getting in that water and being baptized." Not only have I repented and become right with God through Christ, I am shouting it from the roof tops (boy, I love metaphors). Peter could have said, "Repent and let each one of you dance in the streets singing praises to God." Would there have been the idea that salvation was because of, during, or after the dance? And just what kind of dance? Anyway, peace and grace to you! We love you!

From a Reader in Florida:

Brother Al, Thank you so much for your Reflections on "Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth." I truly believe that not only did Jesus come to earth some 2000 years ago to pay the price for our sins against our Father, but I believe He also came to exegete God for us. I would never want to confine the gospels to the Hebrew Scriptures. If I want to better know God, I believe I must come to know Jesus.

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Dear Brother Al, I am a longtime reader of your work from Searcy, studying at Harding University. I was perplexed that anyone had even taken 2 Tim. 2:15 to mean that the four gospels should be relegated to the Old Covenant. Aren't these gospels the foundational stories of our New Covenant, and don't they illustrate the fulfillment of the Old Covenant? Too often I find that people develop doctrine based either on mistranslation or misunderstanding of the Scriptures. This is why I find value in examining different English versions of the Bible, or examining the Bible in its original languages. Thank you for your good work, and for your inspiration.

From a Reader in Connecticut:

Brother Al, Oh, how important this issue of Reflections is!! For 25 years that's all I heard from the pulpit: "The word of truth IS the Bible!" I was shocked to learn that there are so many Christians who know so little about the origin and timeline of the Bible as we have it today. You are spot on, Al. John's writings were not even written until 30 years after Paul gave his charge to Timothy, and the whole Bible didn't exist for several hundred more years after that! When I confronted a relative, who is a minister in the Churches of Christ, with this fact, and about how he misuses 2 Tim. 2:15, he took a long, serious pause. I sent him a copy of this Reflections today!!

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