When we think of Ancient Egypt, our minds often conjure images of majestic pyramids, enigmatic mummies, and ancient secrets buried beneath the golden sands. However, Egypt’s rich history goes beyond these well-known symbols. Throughout its extensive past, the land of the Pharaohs has gifted the world with a multitude of precious artifacts, and among them, we find the intriguing ancient papyri.
Unearthing the Oldest Christian Letter
In a remarkable discovery, researchers have identified the oldest Christian letter ever found on an ancient Egyptian papyrus. This autographed letter, dealing with everyday matters, predates all other Christian documentary evidence from Roman Egypt and the entire Christian world of the third century. Dating back to 230 CE, this historical gem is part of the papyrus collection of the University of Basel.
A Glimpse into the World of Early Christians
The ancient papyrus provides invaluable insights into the lives of the first Christians living in the Roman Empire, shedding light on aspects not recorded in any other historical source. Contrary to the common depiction of early Christians as eccentrics who isolated themselves from the world and endured persecution, the Basel papyrus letter, P.Bas. 2.43, presents a different reality.
Christians Living Outside the Cities
The letter suggests that in the early third century, Christians resided outside the bustling cities in the interior of Egypt. Surprisingly, they held positions of political leadership and actively integrated with their pagan surroundings in their daily lives, a fact that challenges the prevailing narrative.
Unveiling the Papyrus’ Contents
The papyrus P.Bas. 2.43 has been under the possession of the University of Basel for over a century. Penned by a man named Arrianus, the letter was addressed to his brother Paulus. What sets this ancient text apart is its final greeting formula, where the author, after discussing family affairs and requesting the best fish sauce as a souvenir, expresses his desire for his brother’s prosperity “in the Lord.”
A Christian Abbreviation Reveals the Author’s Faith
The researcher, Sabine Huebner, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Basel, explains that the author uses the abbreviated form of the Christian phrase “I pray that you farewell in the Lord,” known as a nomen sacrum. This leaves no doubt about the Christian beliefs of the letter writer. Furthermore, the name “Paulus” hints at the Christian background of the family, with the possibility that he was named after the apostle as early as 200 AD.
Unraveling the Papyrus’ Age
Extensive prosopographic research has allowed scholars to date the papyrus to 230 AD, making it at least 40 to 50 years older than any other known Christian documentary letters. This age gap adds significance to the document, solidifying its place as an extraordinary artifact from the past.
Insights into the Social Background
The ancient papyrus also offers essential details about the social context of this Christian family. Arrianus and his brother Paulus belonged to the young and educated elite of the local community, serving as landlords and public officials. Such information provides a rare glimpse into the lives of early Christian elites in Egypt.
Originating from Theadelphia
The researcher, Sabine Huebner, has traced the origin of the ancient papyrus to the village of Theadelphia, a settlement situated in the heart of Egypt. It is part of the renowned Heroninus archive, one of the largest papyrus archives from Roman times.
Unlocking History with Papyri
The papyrus letter, P.Bas. 2.43, plays a pivotal role in Sabine Huebner’s new monograph, “Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament.” This fascinating book caters to a broad audience, showcasing how Greco-Roman Egyptian papyri can vividly illustrate the social, political, and economic lives of early Christians.
Beyond pyramids, mummies, and hidden secrets, Ancient Egypt offers an intricate tapestry of history waiting to be unveiled. The oldest Christian letter found on an ancient Egyptian papyrus, with its intriguing origin and captivating contents, opens a window into the lives of early Christians. Sabine Huebner’s work breathes life into the past, demonstrating the importance of papyri in understanding our shared human heritage.
The letter dates back to 230 CE, making it at least 40 to 50 years older than any other known Christian documentary letters.
The papyrus stands out due to its final greeting formula, where the author expresses his desire for his brother’s prosperity “in the Lord.”
The papyrus originated from the village of Theadelphia, located in the center of Egypt, and is part of the Heroninus archive.
Arrianus and his brother Paulus were young and educated elite members of the local community, serving as landlords and public officials.
The letter challenges the common perception of early Christians as isolated eccentrics, revealing their integration with the pagan world and political leadership in Egypt.