Earliest letter from a Christian

Letter from the year 230 gives insights into the life of the early Christians in the Roman gypten

The last line of this papyrus from around 230 AD contains a Christian salutation. This makes this text the oldest Christian letter worldwide. © University of Basel
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Unique rarity: Researchers have tracked down the oldest known letter of a Christian - it dates from the time around 230 AD, as confirmed by dates. The letter written on papyrus contains portrayals of everyday events and family matters that provide exciting insights into the lives of early Christians in Roman Egypt. The scribe and addressee of the letter are two brothers who came from a Christian home.

The early Christians lived in a world of upheaval. For in the Roman Empire and its provinces, as a minority with completely new views and religious practices, they were initially exotic outsiders. Later, they were even systematically persecuted, including by the Roman Emperor Nero. But little is known about the daily lives of early Roman Christians, especially not the Christians who lived away from the big cities.

Fish sauce and a treacherous final formula

New insights into the everyday life of these people are provided by the oldest known letter of an early Christian. The manuscript written on papyrus was originally discovered in the village of Theodelphia in Middle Egypt - then part of the Roman province. In it, a man named Arrianus informs his brother Paul about the latest family affairs and everyday events. Dates indicate that this letter dates from around 230 AD.

But the decisive point: After the letter writer reports on everyday family events and asks for the best fish sauce as a souvenir, he wishes his brother in the last line that he will be well "in the Lord". The author uses the abbreviated spelling of the Christian formula "I pray that you are well, in the Lord".

Both brothers were Christians

"The use of this abbreviation - we are talking about a so-called nomen sacrum - leaves no doubt about the Christian sentiment of the letter writer, " says historian Sabine Huebner of the University of Basel. "This is an exclusively Christian formula, which has been handed down to us from New Testament transcripts." This proves that the man Arrianus living in the Roman Egypt must have already been a Christian. display

Thus, this papyrus represents the oldest known Christian document from Roman Egypt and worldwide. It is at least 40 to 50 years older than all previously known Christian-documentary letters worldwide. The name of the brother is also enlightening, explains Huebner: "Paul is a very rare name at the time, " says the historian. "We can deduce from this that the parents named in the letter were already Christians and had named their son after the apostle as early as 200 AD."

Elite despite new religion

The exciting thing about it: The letter describes everyday family matters and yet is unique in its kind. Because it offers valuable insights into the world of the first Christians in the Roman Empire, which are known from no other historical source. Thus, the text proves that in the early third century there were Christians in the Egyptian hinterland away from the cities, as Huebner explains.

The papyrus also provides interesting details about the social origins of this early Christian family: According to this, Arrianus and his brother Paul were young educated sons of the local elite, landowner and bearer of public works. As a result, early Christians in Roman Egypt did take on political leadership and otherwise did not differ from their pagan environment in their daily lives.

The letter and other papyri from the Basel collection are digitally published on the platform Papyri.info.

Source: University of Basel

- Nadja Podbregar