“I would rather be a scribe in the house of the Lord than...” Only about 10-12% of pagan society in the Roman Empire was literate and could read and write. The percentage would have been slightly higher in the Jewish world due to the necessity of knowing the law. Not everyone who could read could write. And those who could write in the neat book hand used for public reading were even fewer.
There is clear evidence that the Apostle Paul was included in the small group of those who could both read and write—see Galatians 6:11; 1 Corinthians 16:21; Colossians 4:18; Philemon 19; 2 Thessalonians 3:17.A quick perusal of these verses indicate that the letter preceding these verses was written by what is called an amanuensis, a secretary. The verse from Galatians may well indicate something about the poor quality of Paul’s handwriting. This may well be why he employed an amanuensis. In only one of the Pauline letters do we learn the name of the Christian who penned Paul’s spoken word, and that is in Romans 16:22, Tertius.
In the book business of the ancient world, professional scribes operated at different levels. As Harry Y. Gamble notes in his authoritative work, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1995): “Some were calligraphers capable of writing a fine bookhand, others…were engaged mainly in documentary work, yet others were skilled at shorthand” (90).
Tertius was definitely a calligrapher. He may also have been gifted in shorthand, for Paul would probably have dictated the letter to Tertius who would have copied it down first in shorthand and then written it out in a fine bookhand. Finally, Paul would have checked it over before mailing it (Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, 95-96). So Tertius was a professional.
The importance of Tertius’ role looms even larger when we recognize how important were Paul’s letters to his mission. The Pauline mission was deeply tied to his letters. The letters were a means by which he could be present with the congregations he had founded—cp. 2 Corinthians 10:9-11.In this Paul went against much of the ancient world’s wisdom about the value of the written word. For Greek thinkers like Socrates and Plato, the spoken word was far greater in value than the written word, for the former was deemed a living word. The word on papyrus or parchment, on the other hand, was a dead word, lifeless, unable to respond to questions, capable of misinterpretation. But this was not Paul’s view. For him, the written word was “living and active,” as the writer to the Hebrews says.
And Tertius got to put these life-giving words on papyrus! These words that converted the North African Augustine and later transformed him into the Doctor of Sovereign Grace. These words that wrought the Reformation in the conversion of the German biblical scholar Martin Luther. These words that flamed in the heart of English minister John Wesley and brought him to the new birth.
No, Tertius did not speak them. But he did the “lowly” task of putting them into the print-form of his day. And better to have been Paul’s amanuensis, inscribing text in the house of the Lord, than the Emperor ruling in the city which first heard the words Tertius wrote.