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Oldest letter between Christians identified in Switzerland


University of Basel

John Burger - published on 12/20/19

Written from one brother to another in Roman Egypt, it displays no concern about persecution.

One of the most exciting finds in Christian history this year was a simple letter from one brother to another. Its age and originality, the tone in which it was written, and the final salutation are what makes the document significant.

Written in 230, it is older than all previously known Christian documentary evidence from Roman Egypt. In fact, it is the oldest authentic handwriting of a Christian anywhere.

“We have, of course, the letters of the apostle Paul from the first century A.D. and other writings from Church fathers of the second century, but here we don’t have the originals, just later copies,” Sabine Huebner, professor of ancient history at the University of Basel, told Newsweek. “This Basel letter is the first handwriting of a Christian.”

The letter’s preoccupation with everyday concerns suggests it was written in a time and place—although prior to the general legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire under Constantine—that was not subject to persecution.

Known as Basel papyrus letter P.Bas. 2.43, the document has been in the possession of the University of Basel for over a century.  News that Huebner had dated the letter to the year 230 was announced this past summer.

“The document stands out from the mass of preserved letters of Greco-Roman Egypt by its concluding greeting formula,” the university said in a press release. “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 said. “It is an exclusively Christian formula that we are familiar with from New Testament manuscripts.”

It is a letter from a man named Arrianus to his brother Paulus, and Huebner says that name is also significant.

“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,” she said.

Huebner was able to trace the papyrus to the 230s, making it at least 40 to 50 years older than all other known Christian documentary letters worldwide. It also provides important details on the social background of this early Christian family: Arrianus and Paulus were young, educated sons of the local elite, landowners and public officials.

The location of the papyrus was also successfully reconstructed: It comes from the village of Theadelphia in central Egypt and belongs to the famous Heroninus archive, the largest papyrus archive from Roman times.

Huebner is author of Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament, which shows that the papyri of Greco-Roman Egypt can help to illustrate the social, political and economic life of the early Christians.

Catholic history
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