Oldest Christian document from Roman Egypt identified in Basel

A researcher at the University of Basel has identified the oldest Christian document from Roman Egypt in the papyrus collection of the University of Basel. Accounts of Christian life from this early period are sparse and tend to lean towards extreme situations like ascetics renouncing the wiles of society or bursts of persecution. This letter paints a far more quotidian picture of a Christian family living in the small urbs along the Nile in the desert of central Egypt, and it turns out they lived a lot like their non-Christian neighbors did.

The papyrus P.Bas. 2.43 has been in the possession of the University of Basel for over 100 years. It is a letter from a man named Arrianus to his brother Paulus. The document stands out from the mass of preserved letters of Greco-Roman Egypt by its concluding greeting formula: 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,” says 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 of the brother is also revealing, Huebner goes on to explain: “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 has narrowed down the letter’s date to around 230 A.D., making it 40-50 years older than the previous earliest-known Christian letter, and traced its origin to Theadelphia in the Faiyum area of Egypt. It was part of the Heroninus archive, a collection of more than 1,000 papyri from the 3rd century pertaining to the administration of an agricultural estate in the area. The largest single papyrus archive from Roman times, it was split up and sold in the early 20th century and is now scattered through several institutions.

Here is the translation of the full letter:

“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 gymnasiarchy1, 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 [–] arouras2.

But send me the fish liver sauce3 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.”

1 A gymnasiarch was the supervisor overseeing the gymnasium, a position of great significance particularly in the training of athletes for prestigious competitions, and developing into a wider role in municipal affairs of the metropolis of Roman Egypt. Prominent individuals vied to serve a term of one year or more during which they would have to give freely of their time and money. It was like the urban praetor role in Rome; the more sumptuous their contributions, the greater the title and the greater the honor.  If a gymnasiarch died before the term was up, his son would take over and serve it out. A court case (its records survive in papyrus fragments) in 155-6 A.D. attests to the importance of the office, how it conferred life-long, inheritable status, and how people could buy their place in the gymnasiarch rota from the heirs of a deceased one.

That was in the halcyon days of the Antonine dynasty, however. Things took a sharp 180 come the economic and military doldrums of the late Severan emperors. At the beginning of the 3rd century, trade slowed and money was so tight even among the city’s elite that people qualified for the role started working assiduously to avoid it. When he couldn’t dodge the expensive bullet, the new gymnasiarch served only one year and the expenses were shared by other incumbents to the office.

Against that backdrop of economic uncertainty and looming Crisis of the Third Century, I’m wondering if Arrianus is tossing his brother a bit of a hot potato when he tells him that side of the family can’t deal with this gymnasiarchy situation at the mo.  They seem to have been a locally notable family, incidentally, with two important offices (gymnasiarchy and city council) ongoing concurrently.

2 An aroura was a measure of arable land equal to a square of 100 Egyptian cubits.

3 I think this is the first time I’ve written about a letter in which somebody actually asks for garum to be sent! So many shipwrecks and residue-tested amphorae later, we get a glimpse of the demand behind the inexhaustible supply of brine-fermented mashed fish guts in the Roman world.

Huebner has published the letter in a monograph, Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament, now available for pre-order from Cambridge University Press.


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Comment by P. King Duck
2019-07-14 02:09:03

As far as their handwriting is concerned, I pray in the Lord that those Arianists wont ever be rehabilitated!

Garum, from Anc. Greek γάρον (“the fish whose intestines were originally used in the condiment’s production”).

M4thBWY – (May the Force be with you!) :hattip:

Comment by Mungo Napier
2019-07-14 04:21:13


One line I find intriguing: ” . . . as well as your wives . . .” It implies that Paulus has more than one. I wonder how common this was among early Christians.

Yours Aye,

Mungo Napier, Laird of Mallard Lodge (SCA) 🦆

Comment by P. King Duck
2019-07-14 06:31:28

What I actually was able to read successfully, was “ὁλόκληρον..” (from ὁλοκληρέω = to be in good health, presumably referring to the mentioned ‘lady mother’).

Therefore, mainly my lousy Greek is to be blamed, when we will probably never know (and Madame Hübner apparently wont tell us for free), if that Paulus had a carefully selected bunch of female, well, “disciples”.

Obviously, though, they had a large stash of fish liver sauce. The original text, if Hübner had published it, might reveal more.

At this point we do not even have proof that the addressed Paulus was a Christian, or do we?

Comment by clio
2019-07-14 11:43:23

RE: garum. Somewhere I read or heard that the closest we may have to this in our world is Worcestershire sauce which has an anchovy base. Also read in the book about the history of salt that this was how Romans salted their food, via garum rather than using salt itself. As some Asian cuisines use soy sauce.

Comment by Scott Glen Young
2019-07-14 15:38:44

Much of south east Asia uses fish sauce. The ingredients vary a bit. Chinese Oyster sauce is a recent invention. I knew recent emigrants from Cambodia and Lao that made it there garage. The kids complained about the smell. There are also crab and shrimp paste produces. Anchovy sauce in southern Italy is Colatura de Alici d Cetara. This popular ingredient is still around and doing well.

Comment by P. King Duck
2019-07-14 17:05:05

In case you get hold of freshly killed trushes… [this wont work at all with any kinds of Ducks!]


[2] We use juniper berries today instead of cumin.
[4] Thrush and other game birds of such small size are not emptied in the usual way: they are cooked with the entrails, or, the intestines are taken out, seasoned, sauté, and are either put back into the carcasses, or are served separately on bread croutons. In this instance, the necessary seasoning is introduced through the throat, a most ingenious idea that can only occur to Apicius.

[…Garum…] “The finest garum was made of the livers of the fish only, exposed to the sun, fermented, somehow preserved. It was an expensive article in old Rome, famed for its medicinal properties. […] What, pray, is the difference in principle between garum (the exact nature of which is unknown) and the oil of the liver of cod (or less expensive fish) exposed to the beneficial rays of ultraviolet light–artificial sunlight–to imbue the oil with an extra large and uniform dose of vitamin D?”

Taken from: gutenberg.org – “Apicius”, Roman Cooking, A Bibliography, Critical Review and Translation of the Ancient Book known as de re Coquinaria, NOW FOR THE FIRST TIME RENDERED INTO ENGLISH BY JOSEPH DOMMERS VEHLING, 29728-0.txt

Note, however, that Marcus Gavius Apicius is erroneously asserted to be the author of the book that is pseudepigraphically attributed to himself, i.e. personally 😉

Comment by Grant Barber
2019-07-14 18:22:43

Could someone provide the nomen sacrum specifically used in this letter?

Comment by Christopher Hanley
2019-07-15 00:30:21

“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”.
According to the New Testament Jesus commissioned twelve apostles and Paul was not one of them, nor was he an eye witness to any of the life of Jesus; he was a self-proclaimed ‘apostle’ and whose writings distorted the teachings of Christ according to some authorities.

Comment by P. King Duck
2019-07-15 01:15:30

If I may ask…According to which “authorities”? :confused: According to 9:1? – “Is he not an apostle”? — I mean, Good Lord, he even wrote epistles e.g. to all the Corinthians, didn’t he?

There were definitely ‘distortions’ over centuries, though. On that I would agree. However, there would be rather one or two, maybe three, of your “authorities” that I would particularly blame for that 😉

There are lists of Greek ‘nomina sacra’ (wiki/Nomina_sacra#List_of_Greek_nomina_sacra), and what we are looking for seems to be the last line, i.e. of the form “x XX XX”, i.e. ‘x’ followed by a tetragram (from Greek Τετραγράμματον, meaning “written in four letters”). The last one is clearly an ‘Ω’, i.e.: x XX Xῶ. — ΘΩ for god (theos), ΚΩ (the Lord), also there are ΟΥΝΩ (uranus/heaven), Χ(Ρ)Ω (christos), ΥΩ (son), … Of course, it could be something completely different. There are even lists of Gothic nomina sacra.

— :hattip: I pray under the sun (but it is just too hot).

Comment by P. King Duck
2019-07-15 05:15:35

Oh, …I almost forgot.. possibly the most important pentagram of them all, i.e. ΙΧΘΥΣ — “ixthys”=fish 🐟 — For “Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr” (‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior’/ Ἰησοῦς Χριστός Θεοῦ Yἱός Σωτήρ).

Possibly an important ‘trade mark’ for fish liver sauce in 3rd century AD Egypt: ..”PFFLC” — “You have 5000 rather uninvited or -expected guests? Then go and buy PAULUS’ FINEST FISH LIVER CONDIMENT ..and who is the Ronald Mc Donald Clownfish, or its liver, anyway?” 😆

P.S.: Better fish livers than thugs with hard spirits: “…Those black-garbed people who eat more than elephants and demand a large quantity of liquor from the people who send them drink for their chantings, but who hide their luxury by their pale artificial countenances,—-These men, O Emperor, even whilst your law is in force, run to the temples, bringing with them wood, and stones, and iron, and when they have not these, hands and feet. Then follows a Mysian prey, the roofs are uncovered, walls are pulled down, images are carried off, and altars are overturned..” :facepalm: (Libanios 30, “Προς Θεοδόσιον τον βασιλέα υπέρ των ιερών”)

Comment by Grant Barber
2019-07-15 10:10:54

I’d already discovered via google some lists of nomen sacra. Although the article isn’t explicit in saying so, I read into it that such usage was so common among writers then and scholars now that one could assume without it being spelled out what the nomen sacrum might be here. Wouldn’t be the first or only gap in my education. However, with the lists that seem extensive I was curious about what was used here…I’m not able to decipher the letters.

So, anyone?

Keeping Xp in Xmas….

Comment by David
2019-07-23 05:33:40

It seems they took athletics and gymnastics and the training very seriously back then. I will look for the fish sauce garum

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