Tertius—Paul’s Faithful Secretary
TERTIUS faced a challenge. The apostle Paul wanted to use him as his secretary when writing a long letter to fellow Christians in Rome. This would be hard work.
Why was it so hard to be a secretary in the first century C.E.? How was such work done? What writing materials were then in use?
Secretaries in Antiquity
In ancient Greco-Roman society, there were various kinds of secretaries. Some men served as state secretaries—public functionaries who worked in the chancelleries. There were also public secretaries offering their services to citizens in the marketplace. Private secretaries (often slaves) were retained by the wealthy. Then, too, there were willing friends who were happy to write letters for others. According to scholar E. Randolph Richards, the skills of these unofficial secretaries “could range from a minimal competency with the language and/or the mechanics of writing to the highest proficiency at rapidly producing an accurate, proper, and charming letter.”
Who would use secretaries? First of all, those who did not know how to read and write. Many ancient contracts and business letters were completed with notes in which the secretary attested that he had written the document because of the inability of the person who had entrusted the job to him. A second reason for employing a secretary is illustrated by an ancient letter from Thebes, Egypt. Penned for a certain Asklepiades, it said in conclusion: “Eumelus, son of Herma, has written for him . . . for he writes somewhat slowly.”
Yet, knowing how to read and write does not seem to have been the determining factor in the use of a secretary. According to Bible expositor John L. McKenzie, “it was probably not even a concern for legibility, but rather a concern for beauty, or at least for neatness” that induced people to resort to the services of a secretary. Even for the educated, writing was wearisome, especially where long and elaborate texts were concerned. Scholar J. A. Eschlimann says that any who could do so “gladly avoided this chore, entrusting it to the care of slaves, professional scribes.” Moreover, it is easy to understand why people were not fond of writing their own letters when the materials used and the working conditions are considered.
The writing material commonly used in the first century C.E. was papyrus. Thin strips were obtained from this plant by cutting the pithy core of its stems lengthwise. A layer of strips was laid out. Another layer was placed at right angles on the first layer. The two were bonded by pressure, producing a sheet of “paper.”
It was not easy to write on this surface. It was rough and fibrous. According to scholar Angelo Penna, “the spongy fibers of the papyrus contributed to the spread of the ink, particularly along the tiny channels that remained between the thin strips.” The secretary might work sitting cross-legged on the ground and holding the sheet on a board with one hand. If he was inexperienced or the materials were not of the best quality, his calamus, or reed pen, could snag in the papyrus, the sheet could tear, or the writing could be illegible.
The ink was made from a mixture of soot and gum. Sold in the form of bars, it had to be diluted with water in an inkwell before it could be used to write. Among the other instruments that a secretary like Tertius would probably have had with him were a knife to sharpen the reed pen and a damp sponge to erase his errors. Every character had to be written with care. Writing therefore proceeded slowly and with some difficulty.
‘I, Tertius, Greet You’
Among the greetings included at the end of the letter to the Romans is that of Paul’s secretary, who wrote: “I, Tertius, who have done the writing of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” (Romans 16:22) This is the only occasion in the writings of Paul where explicit reference is made to one of his secretaries.
We know little about Tertius. From his greeting “in the Lord,” we may conclude that he was a faithful Christian. He was probably a member of the congregation in Corinth and may have known many Christians in Rome. Bible scholar Giuseppe Barbaglio suggests that Tertius was a slave or a freedman. Why? First, because “scribes generally belonged to this class; then, because his Latin name . . . was extremely common among slaves and freedmen.” “Therefore,” says Barbaglio, “he was not a ‘neutral’ professional writer, he was a fellow worker who in this way helped Paul to compile his longest and most articulate piece of writing: a precious service, enabling Paul to save time and fatigue.”
Writing to the Romans
The letter to the Romans was written while Paul was a guest of Gaius, probably in Corinth. That was about 56 C.E., during the apostle’s third missionary journey. (Romans 16:23) Although we know for a certainty that Paul used Tertius as his secretary to write this letter, we do not know exactly how he used him. Whatever the method used, the work could not have been done easily. But of this we can be certain: Like the rest of the Bible, Paul’s letter to the Romans was “inspired of God.”—2 Timothy 3:16, 17.
When this letter was finished, Tertius and Paul had written thousands of words, using several sheets of papyrus. After being glued to one another along the margin, these sheets formed a scroll, probably some 10 to 15 feet [3-4 m] long. The letter was carefully rolled and sealed. Then Paul seems to have entrusted it to Phoebe, a sister from Cenchreae, who was about to embark on a journey to Rome.—Romans 16:1, 2.
Since the first century, the methods used to produce written material have changed enormously. But throughout the centuries, the letter to the Roman Christians has been preserved by God. How grateful we can be for this part of Jehovah’s Word, penned with the help of Paul’s faithful and hardworking secretary Tertius!