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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: June 2014

INTRODUCTION: IN PRAISE OF VIRTUAL LETTERS

Summary

The title ‘Yours Faithfully’ might be a rather misleading one for this collection. Just as ‘virtual’, which used to mean something like ‘virtuous’, ‘possessing effective power’, now means ‘artificial’, ‘synthetic’ or ersatz (as in ‘virtual reality’), so these ‘virtual letters’ are of course confections. They are certainly not always faithful to historical reality or plausibility, though some do indeed try to represent the implied views of their supposed writers, most of whom have not had the opportunity of expressing these before. Nor are they all ‘faith-ful’, expressing religious values that many readers of the Bible espouse (and perhaps impute to the biblical characters, or at least the virtuous ones). Some, on the contrary, are defiant, and some subversive. But all, I hope, worth reading.

What do we define as a ‘letter’? In his edition of ancient Hebrew letters, Dennis Pardee defines a letter as ‘a written document effecting communication between two or more persons who cannot communicate orally’ (Pardee 1982: 2), but this defines the genre, not the function of each and every letter. Ancient letters serve a variety of writers, addressees and communicative contexts. The letter is not, and never was, always a real communication between two living persons. There are collections of both ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian model letters, provided for the training of scribes and, as Edward Wente says of the Egyptian examples (Wente 1990: 2), ‘it is not always easy to determine which of these letters are copies of real letters and which ones are entirely fictitious’.