The letter-carrier of Acts
There is only one occasion within the New Testament when we can observe something of the role of the letter-carrier. In Acts 15 the leaders of the church met in Jerusalem and, under the leadership of James, they resolved that Gentile converts did not require circumcision. They sent a letter (recorded in Acts 15:23-29) which actually spends almost as much time on the letter-carriers as the actual resolution: Judas and Silas, along with Barnabas and Paul are sent with the letter, and they “will tell you the same things by word of mouth” (Acts 15:27b) — reflecting a very widespread convention for named letter-carriers.
The account in Acts records that they delivered the letter to the believers in Antioch, who read the letter and rejoiced (Acts 15:30- 31). Then Judas and Silas added their own words of encouragement to supplement the written letter (“through many words” — Acts 15:32), and later Paul is recorded as doing something similar (Acts 16:4). Incidentally, this account, where the letter-carrier delivers the letter, the recipient reads it, and the letter-carrier helps the reception of the letter with additional oral encouragement, is entirely congruent with the evidence from antiquity that never depicts the letter carrier as actually reading the letter out (despite the popularity of this view among some students of the New Testament).
The letter-carrier of Philippians
The Philippians had sent aid to Paul in prison through Epaphroditus (Philippians 4:18). He had come with money and time — money to support Paul’s missionary activities and time to support Paul personally in prison. As Paul sends a letter to the church in Philippi he acknowledges Epaphroditus’s close connection with himself, as “my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier” (Philippians 2:25). He re-introduces Epaphroditus to them as someone who had risked his own life for the sake of others, even “to the point of death”. He had been extremely ill, but God had had mercy on him and restored him to health and service (Philippians 2:27, 30). In the context of the letter to the Philippians, Epaphroditus models the same self-giving love that Paul saw in the Lord Jesus (Philippians 2:5-8) and sought in the Philippian Christians (Philippians 2:1-5; 4:2-3); and he also had had a similar experience of God’s merciful rescue from being near death as Paul had experienced (Philippians 1:12-26). Paul hopes that as Epaphroditus arrives with this letter of joy, the church will rejoice in his arrival (Philippians 2.28f); and as they consider the appeal contained within the letter, they will honour Epaphroditus in his attempts to help them respond to that appeal, because by character, faith and experience, God had qualified him for that particular ministry.
The letter-carrier of Romans
Paul writes to the Romans to introduce himself and his Gospel message, to appeal for their unity in Christ (which is threatened by distrust and suspicion), and to urge them to support his planned mission to Spain. After explaining some of his plans (Romans 15:14- 29), and appealing for their prayers (15:30-33), he introduces Phoebe (16:1-2) before instructing them to greet one another (listing 24 individuals by name alongside several other groups of believers).
It looks like she may have some personal reason for travelling to Rome (“help her in whatever she may require from you”, 16:2), but she is also introduced as a believer and Christian worker who has a close connection with Paul. She is “a deacon of the church at Cenchreae” (16:1). Cenchreae was the port city close to Corinth and it is likely that the church there was established from, and shared substantially with, the church at Corinth (from where Paul writes this letter, Romans 16:23). She will have been taught the traditions of the words and deeds of Jesus known in the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 7:10; 9:14; 11:23-26), and seen, perhaps at a slight distance, the struggles that the fellowship experienced over the authority of Paul and the unity of the church. As a “benefactor of many” she will be used to handling the competing demands placed upon her by a variety of relationships. We can see that she is the perfect person to represent Paul in Rome, to help the church in Rome receive Paul’s call to unity in Jesus the Risen Messiah, and to facilitate the “greet one another” which Paul commands as the first concrete expression of the welcome to which he calls the church — especially given the large number of women involved in Gospel work in Rome (Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, and others mentioned in 16:3-16).
The New Testament letter-carriers were undoubtedly key figures in the early Church, who performed an important role. Sending the Epistles with trusted envoys allowed the apostles’ great confidence in their written communications. The couriers represented the author and reinforced the message of the letter. Any verbal message, the couriers carried in their hearts, exclusively for the recipients in that place and at that time. The written message they carried in their hands, not only for the congregations of the ancient world but for all Christians in all places, down the millennia.