University professor finds oldest Christian letter ever discovered in collection of ignored documents

A document that has been ignored for over a hundred years despite being part of the university collection of papyri scrolls is now the oldest surviving Christian letter ever discovered after a professor came across it by chance.

The letter originally came for the Heroninus archive, a collection of papyrus uncovered in Egypt in the 1800s that contributed to a boom in studying ancient papyri, which is work that University of Basel Professor of Ancient History Sabine Huebner continues today.

While conducting research, she came across a letter known as P.Bas. 2.43 and realized that she had just found something special that no one had apparently ever noticed before.

The letter is written by a man named Arrianus in Roman Egypt to his brother Paulus informing him of an acquaintance being named to a local political position and sends regards from their family and community.

The transcribed letter states:

“Greetings, my lord, my incomparable brother Paulus.

I, Arrianus, salute you, praying that all is well as possible in your life.

[Since] Menibios was going to you, I thought it necessary to salute you as well as our lord father. Now, I remind you about the gynasiarchy, so that we are not troubled here. For Heracleides would be unable to take care of it: he has been named to the city council. Find thus an opportunity that you buy the two [–] arouras. But send me the fish liver sauce too, which ever you think is good. Our lady mother is well and salutes you as well as your wives and sweetest children and our brothers and all our people. Salute our brother [–] genes and Xydes. All our people salute you. I pray that you fare well in the Lord.”

Image via University of Basel

Interestingly, it appears Paulus had multiple wives, with whom he had several children. Of course, the times were different in the 230s AD, which is the time period the letter has been dated after “extensive prosopographical research” by Huebner.

The University of Oxford defines prosopography thusly:

Prosopography examines the whole of a past society, its structure and the individuals who made it up, in order to trace the evolution of the social and cultural perception of nationhood embraced by persons lived within defined regions, perhaps separated from others by language and law and perhaps not, but whose chief claim to distinctiveness reposed in the recognition of the legitimacy of their ruler, who was not necessarily born in the region and who usually married outside it.

In other words, it took a while to place the letter in the proper historical context to find out when it had been written and just how significant it is.

You see, we have no other letters from this time in Christian history under Roman rule. So this letter offers a fascinating look. And we know it’s a Christian letter because of the phrase used at the conclusion.

According to

The document stands out from the mass of preserved letters of Greco-Roman Egypt by its concluding greeting formula: After reporting on day-to-day family matters and asking for the best fish sauce as a souvenir, the letter writer uses the last line to express his wish that his brother will prosper “in the Lord.” The author uses the abbreviated form of the Christian phrase “I pray that you fare well ‘in the Lord’.”

“The use of this abbreviation—known as a nomen sacrum in this context—leaves no doubt about the Christian beliefs of the letter writer,” Huebner reports. “It is an exclusively Christian formula that we are familiar with from New Testament manuscripts.”

Furthermore, the name Paulus also gives their religious beliefs away because he appears to be named after St. Paul, an apostle of Jesus.

“Paulus was an extremely rare name at that time, and we may deduce that the parents mentioned in the letter were Christians and had named their son after the apostle as early as 200 AD,” Huebner said.

Huebner even deduced the location where the letter was written to be in Central Egypt in a rural community known as Theodelphia.

As explained by Ancient Origins, the letter also shows that early Christians participated in society and had no problem living among pagans.

The document throws a great deal of light on early Christians. It appears from the letter that Arrianus and Paulus were public officials . They were educated and they came from an affluent land-owning family. It is widely believed that Christians in the early years of the religion were eccentrics and fanatics who turned their backs on Graeco-Roman society.

The papyrus shows that this was not the case and that they were very much part of mainstream society. It also shows that Christians could adapt to the largely pagan environment of the day in the third century. Moreover, these early Christians were not only urban dwellers as is commonly assumed but they also lived in rural districts.

To think that this letter sat ignored for over 100 years in the University of Basel and predates all other Christian letters by at least 40 years is astounding and makes one wonder how many more such ancient documents are waiting to be dusted off to rewrite history.

This letter contradicts the prevailing view of early Christians during the Roman empire and is an extraordinary find and may spark another boom in the study of papyri. Because if there’s one history-changing letter that has been ignored all this time, there must be more.

Featured Image: University of Basel

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