World’s Oldest Christian Letter Found On 3rd Century Egyptian Papyrus
Egypt played a very significant role in the history of early Christianity. A researcher has announced that she has found the earliest known Christian letter, that was written in Roman Egypt in the 3rd century AD. The contents of this letter are challenging assumptions about the early followers of Jesus Christ and their world.
The rare autographed letter which is written on papyrus is part of the famous University of Basel collection. This institution has one of the oldest and most extensive papyrus collections in the German-speaking world. According to Phys.org “Most of the Basel papyri have not been published and remained largely ignored by research until now”. Professor Sabine Huebner of the University of Basel began to study some of the papyri collection and made a remarkable discovery.
New Testament Phrase
She was struck by one document, in particular, a letter, with the reference number P. Bas. 2.43. “This has been in the possession of the University of Basel for over 100 years” reports Phys.org. Yet it appears that it was not studied by any academic or researcher in the past.
Curiosmos reports that the letter was written by a “man called Arrianus to his brother”. The letter refers to some family business and Arrianus informs his sibling that their parents are well. He also asks for some fish liver sauce. There is nothing remarkable in this document apart from the last line, where the writer states that he hoped that his brother will “prosper in the Lord” according to Curiosmos.
The last line of the papyrus is where the author uses the abbreviated form of the Christian phrase. (University of Basel / Fair Use)
This phrase was one that was widely used in the Christian community and was called the nomen sacrum. It was an abbreviation of the phrase “I pray that you fare well in the Lord”, reports Phys.org. This phrase appears in many early manuscripts of the Gospels. This was a significant discovery by Huebner because it seemed to indicate that the letter writer was a Christian.
A Christian Family
The professor became convinced that the writer and his family were Christians based on Arrianus’ brother’s name. His name Paulus was extremely rare, in the 3rd century AD and he appeared to have been named after the apostle St. Paul. Phys.org quoting Prof. Huebner “the parents mentioned in the letter were Christians and had named their son after the apostle as early as 200 AD”.
Huebner studied the characteristics of the document and was able to date the letter to the 230’s AD. This makes it approximately 40 or 50 years older than any known letter written by a Christian. This means that it is probably also the oldest autographed Christian document yet found.
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The transcription of the Christian letter - papyrus P.Bas. 2.43. (University of Basel / Fair Use)
The professor was also able to establish that the writer and his family came from a rural community in central Egypt, known as Theadelphia. She also established that it originally came from the Heroninus archive. This is a huge collection of papyrus that was found in Egypt in the late nineteenth century.
New Insights into Early Christians
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.
Christians in the Rome era. (Trzęsacz / Public Domain)
Professor Huebner has written a book “ Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament” based on her studies. This argues that ancient papyri can illustrate the world of Egypt in the Roman era and also the development of Christianity.
The Basel collection of papyri has been digitized and is now available on the Papyri.info. It is expected that the discovery of the world’s oldest Christian letter will encourage more researchers to examine other papyri collections for new insights into the classical era.
Top image: The Christian letter - papyrus P.Bas. 2.43 has been in the possession of the University of Basel for over 100 years. Source: University of Basel / Fair Use.
By Ed Whelan