[Texts: 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians]
In the ancient world, persuasive speaking and writing were prized as a sign of accomplishment, and training in rhetoric was an indispensible part of a thorough education. So it’s no wonder that the literate men who wrote the NT Epistles employed both Hebrew and Greek rhetorical strategies (such as the so-called “string of pearls”* in Hebrews 1, or various arguments that prove a point by reasoning “from the lesser to the greater”*).
One persuasive strategy, which I’ve here dubbed “mutual autobiography,” probably arose naturally out of the relationally creative task of letter-writing and didn’t require formal instruction. I’m noticing it wherever Paul* finds it expedient or powerful to appeal to some past experience that he and his recipients had shared, in order to emphasize something that is now on his heart concerning them. Some of his letters were addressed to people he knew quite well, with whom he had spent enough time to rack up a mutual history of joys, sorrows, and everyday tasks. Referring back to these shared hours adds weight, authority, and love to the messages he wants to convey in the present.
It seems a given that strong emotions accompany close relationships, and Paul certainly felt things intensely. His words to “his” churches – those he had nurtured in the faith from the earliest days, sometimes remaining for months or years to care for their growth – especially reflect his affection and anxiety for his “children,” and even his outrage when he hears that things have gone sadly awry while he’s been gone. So Paul “yearns” for his friends in Philippi “with the affection of Christ Jesus”…he sends Timothy to inquire after the faith of the afflicted Thessalonians when he can bear the anxious suspense no longer…and he scolds his “little children” in Galatia, “for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!”
Woven in among passionate expressions like these are anecdotal snippets that reveal something of the shared experiences of Paul and these converts. This “mutual autobiography,” simply the rehearsal of moments of shared history, enables Paul to personally validate whatever he wants to say next. “You remember – you know –” becomes his refrain (count how many times he says the like in 1 Thessalonians alone!) as he walks them down memory lane awhile.
Mutual autobiography serves different purposes in the different letters. In the course of his painful epistle to the Galatians, Paul sets before the eyes of their memory the circumstances of his first encounter with them to highlight the change that has occurred in their affections: “You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” It’s precisely on the strength of this shared history of deep mutual concern that Paul can now appeal to the incongruity of their distrust of him and his message in the present time, as he wonders, “What then has become of the blessing you felt? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?”
With similar distress over good conversions gone sour, Paul reminds his friends in Corinth of his involvement in their spiritual beginnings, asserting on the strength of these details that their factional loyalty toward different leaders was misplaced: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius – oh, and the household of Stephanas – but that’s it, as far as I remember.”
Paul reminds them too that his initial work in Corinth was characterized more by personal “weakness and fear and trembling” than by “lofty speech or eloquent wisdom,” so that there would be no mistaking the source of the power that they witnessed. And he graciously alludes to Apollos’ special history with these believers, acknowledging a sequence to the influence of God’s fellow-workers on the growth of this church: “I planted, Apollos watered.” These snatches of mutual autobiography both personalize and establish Paul’s exhortation that the Corinthian Christians ought to strive to maintain unity and not be distracted by divisive earthly rivalries.
Of course, the warmest examples of mutual autobiography occur in his letters to the Thessalonians, with whom he and his team shared a particularly strong bond of affection: “We loved you so much we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” Paul’s rehearsal of their shared history seems to overflow from a heart of parental affection and anxiety for these friends, as well as pride in the steadfastness of these, some of his dearest children. As he puts it, he and his fellow missionaries were “gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children,” and they exhorted these new converts “like a father with his children” to pursue holy lives pleasing to God.
Even in these two small epistles of the heart, mutual autobiography plays a strategic role. No less sincere for being deliberately employed to underscore Paul’s commands, these reminders of a shared past confirm the missionaries’ integrity and example. As the Thessalonians know firsthand, Paul and his team did not flatter, deceive, or seek any gain or advantage while with them – so their gospel message was likewise trustworthy, something to retain always as a pure and free gift. Just as important, their demonstrated diligence to “work with their hands” gives Paul and company the right to command the Thessalonian believers now to do the same, and to hold one another to these high standards.
Paul’s embodied investment in their lives, rehearsed here in the form of mutual autobiography, frames these imperatives in the most loving way possible.
*In ancient Hebrew rhetoric, a “string of pearls” comprised a series of quotations from the Scriptures to demonstrate a point. In Hebrews 1, the Son’s superiority to the angels is illustrated by a series of verses from the Hebrew Scriptures. See if you can find a string of pearls in Romans!
*This strategy is found in passages such as Romans 5:12-21, where Christ’s accomplishments are compared with Adam’s, and Hebrews 3:1-6, where Christ exceeds Moses in faithfulness and Sonship.
*I’m focusing on Paul here, but I think you can find something similar in Hebrews and in John’s letters, if you pay attention.
Quoted verses are from the ESV, though some are paraphrased. I’m leaving it up to you to find them in context – I give you the ballpark in the “Texts” list above. I find that the flow of a piece of writing is broken up when we have to wade through a lot of references; leaving them off lets us experience the words in the straightforward manner they were originally written. (And if you’re like me, you might skim those parts if I give you warning ahead that they’re Bible verses.)