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.