A 1,700-year-old letter written by one Christian to another has been unveiled by researchers from the University of Basil, which is calling it the oldest Christian letter outside of copies of the New Testament.
The letter from a man named Arrianus to someone named Paulus says Arrianus is “praying” for his brother. Arrianus discusses everyday matters, including local politics (“city council” business) and food (“fish liver sauce”).
The letter, known as papyrus P.Bas. 2.43, originated in Egypt, according to a news release from the University of Basil. It was dated to the 230s AD.
It ends with the unique closing, “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,” said Sabine Huebner, professor of ancient history at the University of Basel. “It is an exclusively Christian formula that we are familiar with from New Testament manuscripts.”
The name “Paulus” also is significant, Huebner said.
“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.
The letter is part of Huebner’s new monograph, Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament.
The University of Basil’s news release notes that the “earliest Christians in the Roman Empire are usually portrayed as eccentrics who withdrew from the world and were threatened by persecution.” The letter, though, “contains indications that in the early third century, Christians were living outside the cities in the Egyptian hinterland,” where “they held political leadership positions.”
Read the translated letter below:
“Greetings, my lord, my incomparable brother Paulus. I, Arrianus, salute you, praying that all is as 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 gymnasiarchy, 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, whichever 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 brothers [-]genes and Xydes. All our people salute you.
“I pray that you fare well in the Lord.”
Michael Foust is a freelance writer. Visit his blog, MichaelFoust.com.
Photo courtesy: University of Basel
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, The Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.