Holy Apostles College & Seminary
Ancient Communication: A Prime Reason to Appreciate Modern Communication
Fr. William Mills
SAS 471: Letters of St. Paul
14 July 2016
People have so many things today that they don’t appreciate. Modern means of communication are perfect examples. Cell phones, text messaging, Facebook, email, video chatting, even the post office—all so very convenient! Much more so than, say, letter-writing in the first century. To help one grasp how truly thankful they should be for these things, they should take a moment to see what people in times like the first century—such as St. Paul, notorious for long-distance communication—had to go through to “connect” with distant loved ones, and contrast it with what they literally have at their fingertips today.
Start by imagining this: a guy wants to communicate with his friend through writing, only he can’t write and his friend can’t read. That would likely pose a bit of a problem, especially if there were also no phones, no internet, and no public postal service. Yet, it would have been a common occurrence in the first century, where the greater majority of people—referring to about ninety-five percent of them—were illiterate.
Whereas today such an issue might be overcome by talking on the phone, in the first century it was overcome—in part—by scribes. First-century Scribes could, on average, copy around five words of dictation per minute (let that sink in for a moment), and—rather than copying the dictator word-for-word—would tend to take down the gist of what the dictator was saying. Now take a moment to compare this to what goes on in “modern” society.
First of all, of course, most “modern” people can write and read (or at least they think they can). They also have all kinds of ways to communicate with these abilities, such as through texting, emailing, and private messaging through various websites—plus the internet itself, where they can write to each other through, blogs, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, discussion forums, etc. Any one of these methods of communication allows people to write perhaps eighty words a minute—sixteen times as many as ancient scribes were capable of. Rather than one’s having to watch someone else repeatedly dip a quill into a bottle of ink and slowly scrawl out every individual letter and word, people can rapidly type or text their own words without thinking twice about it (though perhaps some of them should for various reasons).
That’s another thing worth mentioning: in all of these methods—with the exception of misunderstandings in speech-to-text writing, another blessing one shouldn’t overlook—people can say exactly what they want to say exactly how they want to say it, not just however it’s interpreted by a scribe. The same goes for those who take the time to send a letter through the mail.
Modern mail also differs drastically from the “postal service” of St. Paul’s time, in his native land of the Roman Empire. Many people today can slip a stamped envelope in their mailbox and expect it to arrive hundreds of miles away within a few days via a consistent, professional postal service which they often complain about; but in first-century Rome, people—with the exceptions of the emperor, his family, and the military—had to hire private couriers to personally bring their letters all the way to their recipients.
A good example of what such a journey could entail is St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Seeing that St. Paul sent this letter from Ephesus, it would have had to travel two hundred and fifty to three hundred miles to reach its destination (see Figure 1).
Figure 1–photograph of NABRE’s “The Journeys of St. Paul” with additional highlights, photographed and highlighted by Cameron Daly.
Generally speaking, how many people would be willing to just drop everything else in their lives and spend the time, money, and effort traveling this kind of distance to deliver someone else’s letter? Probably not many, unless they were either going to receive significant compensation for it, they happened to already be headed in that direction, or they were forced to do it.
The first option for someone trying to send a letter, then, would be to pay a private carrier to deliver it—which was the more common approach. Now, nobody in their right mind is going to make such a delivery without modern means of transportation (or perhaps even with it) for a modern stamp’s-worth of pay, regardless of the era or culture they live in. A lot of people probably couldn’t for practical reasons. If this option in itself seems impractical, it’s for good reason—which leaves the seemingly-more expedient, albeit less-used, option of finding someone already headed toward the letter’s destination. 
This, however, tended to be an “iffy way of sending mail.” A common courier of this kind would be a sailor unfamiliar to the letter’s sender who was sailing in the direction of its recipient. The sailor would be paid, not only by the person sending the letter, but also by the recipient in an effort to ensure the letter would actually get there—that is, to give the unfamiliar sailor some motivation to actually go through with delivering it. Of course, this method also has its impracticalities—which could be why it was less-used; because remember, only about five percent of the population were literate. This means that the carrier might also be required to read the letter to its recipients and even answer questions about it—which would bring one back to the other impractical option of finding a personal courier they better knew and trusted.
And to think—people today complain when the price of stamps increases! They also complain when their cell phone’s reception is “bad” or their internet connection is “slow.” In other words, they forget just how much they should be appreciating these means of communication, giving thanks that such things exist at all. Imagine the joy and amazement of someone in the first century if it took only five minutes to send a two-paragraph message to a loved one two hundred miles away! Yet, people today would not only take it for granted, but would probably go so far as to be annoyed that their text took that long to send.
Between texting, emailing, Facebook messaging, and calling, one might say that smartphones just about sum up modern means of long-distance communication. But these means and these devices are becoming so commonplace that people might not think to appreciate them, devoting much more time and energy to getting annoyed with them—not to mention with the people they’re communicating with. In such moments of annoyance, people should take a moment to consider how much they have to be thankful for—that is, the ability to communicate with people from around the world—and compare it to the limited communication available in ancient times. Some from that era might have killed to hear from their distant loved ones, even within a day’s time. Should people today, then, really be as quick as they often are to get annoyed with modern means of communication, or to use them to badger or ignore or snap at one another? Shouldn’t they spend more time being grateful to be able to hear from their family and friends at all?
 see The Apostle Paul’s Letters: Topic 2—Letter-Writing in the Ancient World, audio download, taught by Rev. Raymond F. Collins (Rockville, MD: Now You Know Media).
 see Topic 2—Letter Writing.
 Based on the self-description given in Topic 2—Letter-Writing.
 Topic 2—Letter-Writing.
 see New American Bible: St. Joseph Edition (New York, N.Y.: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1992), “The First Letter to the Corinthians: Introduction.”
 see Priest, “St Paul’s Letters.”
 see Priest, “St Paul’s Letters.”
 Priest, “St Paul’s Letters.”
 see Priest, “St Paul’s Letters.”
 cf. Priest, “St Paul’s Letters.”
 cf. Topic 2—Letter-Writing.