I, Tertius, Wrote This Epistle: A Musing On The Language Of The Renewed Covenant Texts

Who is Tertius, and why does he matter? For students of the Bible interested in very obscure facts, Tertius is the scribe who wrote Romans for Paul. He shows up in Romans 16:22, which reads: “I, Tertius, who wrote this epistle, greet you in the Lord.” This verse would seem ideally suited to make for a very tricky Bible trivia question that says: “According to Romans 16:22, who wrote the book of Romans?” Hint: it’s not Paul. Good luck getting the answer right without cheating (or phoning me for the answer). All kidding aside, the fact that Paul used a scribe for his writing of the Renewed Covenant scriptures (popularly known as the New Testament) adds a layer to complexity in understanding the Bible as it is written, but also provides some additional verification of its internal veracity. After all, fraudulent books tend not to fake such mundane scribal names as Tertius, a Roman name that means “third.”

Let us ask further questions, though. Who was Tertius? He has a Roman name, but what language did he transcribe for Paul? It was presumably not Latin, but was it Greek or Aramaic? Most people would automatically say Greek, but that is not necessarily the case. He had a Roman name (as did Paul), and he was a Christian. He was also trained as a scribe, wth handwriting far better than Paul’s (or mine). Other than that, we know nothing about him, except that he was an exceptionally precise scribe, since Romans is a very challenging work and it is recorded exceptionally well. For that we all owe Tertius a debt of gratitude for doing a difficult job well.

What is the effect of a different scribe on a work? For one, the more hands a text is mediated through, the trickier questions about style are to answer. For example, one scribe might transcribe words faithfuly and skillfully (as was the case with Tertius), while another scribe might lose words or phrases, making a difficult speaker/writer like Paul even more difficult to understand. Other scribes might attempt to smooth out rough phrases with their own understanding, which may or may not be correct, adding another layer of distance between the divine inspiration and our understanding. Let us not forget either the matter of translation. The more translations, the more hands and minds have sought to approximate the word of God in a different language. Additionally, let us note that even within the same language, meaning shifts over time, and so we must recapture the meaning of the original authors (and not our own imputation of that meaning) if we are to understand properly their message and apply it ourselves.

One question that cannot be definitively answered is the question of the original language of part or all of the Renewed Covenant scriptures. Was it Aramaic or Greek? Again, most people automatically think Greek, but it was not necessarily that way. For example, the Alexandrian and Byzantine texts translate Matthew 24:34 differently. The New King James, following the Byzantine Greek text, reads: “Assuredly I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” Using a wooden understanding of this word, preterists believe that Jesus Christ returned in a parousia in 70AD when the temple of the Jews was destroyed. The Alexandrian text, which is usually inferior to the Byzantine text, has “race” instead of “generation” in Matthew 24:34. However, the AENT has a word that means both race or generation, allowing for the possibility of multiple layers of meaning of the Olivet prophecy, one meaning relating to the destruction of the Jews within the generation of the original audience of Matthew, and another meaning referring to the end-time shortly before the return of Jesus Christ. Hebrew (and Aramaic) thought allows for more depth of meaning—Greek thought is too flat.

Nor is this the only sort of language barrier that makes understanding the New Testament difficult. The use of the word “Greek” itself is a barrier to understanding. For example, Romans 1:16 reads: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” But what is meant is not “Greek” who were and are a small people among the world, but rather “Gentile,” which includes all who are not Israelite, indeed all of humanity. The use of the word “Greek” for Gentile makes the Bible message less universal and more local than the language Paul is using to describe the salvation opened up to all men, regardless of their ethnic origin, as a result of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (see also Galatians 3:28, which has a similar problem). Likewise, Mark 7:26 calls a woman who cleverly responded to God a Greek, but Matthew 15:22 clearly says she was a Canaanite. What is an apparent contradiction is resolved when we understood that “Greek” was “Gentile,” and then there is no tension. The word Greek, often overused in our versions of the New Testament, allows people to think that Greek speaking in the area of the Promised land was far more common than was actually the case historically, underselling the importance of the Aramaic language in the Eastern Mediterranean region where the early Christians lived and preached, and contributing to an overinflated view of Greek primacy [1].

Therefore, the use of scribes and the question of translations makes the language of the Renewed Covenant scriptures somewhat more intriguing than is often thought to be the case. The question of different scribes or different translators can help resolve questions such as why the texts of 1 Peter and 2 Peter (which have markedly different quality in their Greek fluency as preserved) are so different, without denying the Petrine authorship of either letter. Nonetheless, to understand such matters requires that we ourselves become more familiar with the question of how many hands and minds went into mediating the sacred texts of God’s word from the mind of God to the Greek texts we base our own English (and other) translations upon.

[1] The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus remarked that it was extremely rare for Jews to speak Greek, and the Roman commander at Paul’s arrest was very surprised that Paul could speak Greek in Acts 21:37, was it was very unusuwrial among the Jews of his time.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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21 Responses to I, Tertius, Wrote This Epistle: A Musing On The Language Of The Renewed Covenant Texts

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  3. lynerre says:

    Awesome. Thanks

  4. Tony L. says:

    Hello, Nathan Albright.

    While wrestling with the realities your article covers, along with the assertions made by Dr. Bart Ehrman, I have discovered the following: The issues of original authorship, edits, translations, and contradiction are made messier when one injects, through comparative observation, political or church agendas, or pagan similarities into and around, the Judeo-Christian doctrines. All of which calls into question the authenticity of scripture.

    There is room for doubt. However, if one is willing to delve deep into this mess, you can see the veracity of scriptures should have far more holes in it than it does, especially if humans created them all out of whole cloth or scraps.

    How many holes does it take to break your faith? How many floggings?

    Nathan, your article helps put into perspective, the fact that the creator’s creation, humankind, is instrumental in crafting His story, similar to the crafting of the Arc of the Covenant, in Exodus. Here is how I see it: God gave the Hebrews abilities to create the Arc, being made to specifications, but leaving untold details out of the narration: the hows, the whys, the if-this-then-that-stuff. If you have never built anything from scratch, hands-on, you may not appreciate the details missed or needed to create a thing. Copying is easier to do, but not by much. God gave those same abilities to the compilers of His message seen in the New Testament, they built to specifications, but this time adding so much detail as, to-get-it-right, only to find the scoffers doubting.

    The specification, is Christ. I love how God works His creation.

    Thank you for sharing the information about Tertius, style, help, details and doubts.


    • I’m glad you appreciated the article; I try not to pay attention too much to critics, as doubt can be rather contagious, but we should all wrestle honestly with what is around us, given the complexity of the materials we have to work with when we examine the scriptures.

  5. Sherina says:

    Thanks for the input on Tertius, I am new at learning how to study in a deeper way and have always been told that the New Testament was in fact written originally only in Greek. Therefore, finding myself confused at one point outs another.

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  7. hanford woods says:

    Why do you assume Tertius was precise in his transcription of Paul’s difficult text? Do you happen to possess the original Vinyl recordings against which you checked the text?

    • Have you never read Romans? It is not the work of a sloppy scribe.

      • hanford woods says:

        I just finished rereading it. The argument isn’t over its sloppiness or precision, it’s over your assumption it has to be the exact transcription of Paul’s words: and we have no way of judging that, unless you can produce the vinyl or the tapes or some other sort of corroborating evidence.

      • I have not in mind technical proof, but rather proceed from a hermeneutic of generosity, taking Paul to have read over the transcript before it was sent as a reasonable person would do. If we refuse to view the ancients with such a charitable mindset, we cannot profit from the texts we have from them.

    • Zephyr says:

      @harford woods: If he had an original copy written by Paul, then we would likely be reading that document & not know anything about the scribe who replicated it for others to read. Given that Tertius injected himself into his work, we can likely assume that he either had a draft copy from Paul or that Paul dictated to him. In the case of dictation, there would be no source document to compare it to. In the case of a draft document, there wouldn’t be a need to retain it (likely because Paul probably proofread the final letter before it was sent to others–either way, the cannonized books that we read today lend more to the possibility that there is no draft or never was a draft to compare Tertilus’ work against.

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  9. Ken the bible student says:

    Thank you for explaining this.

  10. Angela Marie says:

    I’ve read the book of Romans dozens of times over the last couple decades or so and today was the first time I realized it was written by Tertius! Ha! Pretty amazing! It just reminds me that Paul mentioned when he hand wrote one of his letters, 1 Timothy 3:18, and I never really gave it much thought till now why he specifically noted when he did write himself. Maybe he had a vision impairment or other issues that caused the need for a scribe but either way, Romans was very well done and is one of my favorite books of the Bible.

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