Paul's unexpected words : A register and semantic study of selected epistolary formulae in Paul's letter openings in light of documentary papyri

PhD Thesis

Asquith, Gillian. (2023). Paul's unexpected words : A register and semantic study of selected epistolary formulae in Paul's letter openings in light of documentary papyri [PhD Thesis]. Australian Catholic University
AuthorsAsquith, Gillian
TypePhD Thesis
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosophy

Prior scholarship has established that Pauline modifications of the conventional Koine epistolary prescript contribute to Paul’s self-positioning with his recipients and the persuasive force of his letters. This study furthers an understanding of Paul’s epistolary practice by exploring contributions of the remembrance motif (an expression of assurance that the sender remembers the letter’s recipients) and the distinctive Pauline litotic form of the disclosure formula (οὐ θέλω ὑμᾶς ἀγνοεῖν, variously translated in English versions as “I do not want you to be uninformed, unaware, ignorant”) to Paul’s communicative strategy in light of documentary papyri.

The study undertakes synthesised sociolinguistic and semantic analyses of μνεία, ἀδιαλείπτως, and the litotic disclosure formula in documentary papyri. Applying Michael Halliday’s Systemic Functional Linguistics Theory of Register to documentary papyri demonstrates that μνεία, ἀδιαλείπτως, and the litotic disclosure formula belong to a formal register. Documentary papyri indicate that μνεία carries a nuance of remembrance with responsive action (i.e., prayer) in the remembrance motif rather than the sense “mention” provided by major lexica. Documentary papyri also indicate that ἀδιαλείπτως is polysemous.

Eighty per cent of papyrological attestations of ἀδιαλείπτως occur in legal documents where the lexeme reinforces the certainty of a promisor’s commitment to terms of a contract: “without fail” captures the illocutionary force of this sense that is additional to the customarily understood frequentative sense typically rendered “constantly.”

Letter writers used the remembrance motif to establish or maintain friendly relations with their recipients (philophronesis). The study argues that letter writers used the litotic disclosure formula similarly. Epistolary papyri facilitate the identification of baselines for the wording of the formulae and indicate that the Pauline forms depart from them. Using an interpretive lens of the Theory of Norms and Exploitations (developed by the lexicographer Patrick Hanks), the study shows how polite, formal language in epistolary formulae further contributed to philophronesis. Paul’s use of unexpected, polite, formal language in the remembrance motif and litotic disclosure formula suggests the carefully crafted modification of the formulae to intensify their philophronetic function and persuasive force. Nuances of μνεία and ἀδιαλείπτως complement the modified remembrance motif’s emphatic philophronesis. “I remember you without fail in my prayers” evokes the sociotheological significance of remembrance and functions as an emphatic reassurance of Paul’s pastoral concern for his recipients. The distinctive Pauline form of the litotic disclosure formula contributes to Paul’s communicative strategy by anchoring the presentation of subsequent information in the positive relationship that exists or that Paul wants to exist between himself and his recipients.

The new elements of communicative strategy revealed by the register and semantic analyses of this study inform exegesis of the NT and demonstrate promise for research into the language of the NT and beyond into later antiquity.

Keywordsdocumentary papyri; New Testament; Paul; epistolary formula; letter opening; remembrance motif; disclosure formula; litotes; sociolinguistics; register; semantics; lexicography; 1 Thessalonians; Romans
PublisherAustralian Catholic University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Page range1-353
Final version
File Access Level
Supplementary Files (Layperson Summary)
File Access Level
Output statusPublished
Publication dates
Online13 Jul 2023
Publication process dates
Completed05 Apr 2023
Deposited09 Jul 2023
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