Oldest Christian Writings Gives New Clues About Past

These images show the oldest writing from a Christian ever found and its content gives clues into the lives of the early followers of Christ, a top historian has claimed.

Professor of Ancient History at the University of Basel Sabine Huebner has dated, researched and translated the document which she says comes from around 230 AD and is therefore older than all previously known original Christian documentary evidence from Roman Egypt.

The University of Basel has owned the papyrus, a material similar to thick paper that was used in ancient times as a writing surface, numbered P.Bas. 2.43, for over a century and it has now been dated and analysed by a team of researchers.

Transcript Papyrus P.Bas 2.43 English

Historian Huebner told Central European News (CEN): “This is the oldest Christian autograph, the oldest original handwriting of a Christian that we have from the entire ancient world. We know of course the letters of the Apostle Paul from the first century, but here we don’t have the originals, just later copies survived, not his own handwriting.

“However, the Basel papyrus is not the earliest Christian document altogether. We have the copies of the gospels on papyrus for instance, which might date already to the late second century. But again, these are copies of the originals written by professional scribes, not necessarily Christians. 

“We also have other literature of Christians from the second century however these are literary texts transmitted via copying and copying through medieval times. Not the original writings.”

The letter, which is written in ancient Greek, is said to be around 40-50 years older than any other Christian letters found to date, with Huebener telling CEN: “The second oldest Christian documentary letter are the letters written by the bishop of Oxyrhynchus, Sotas, from Middle Egypt. Sotas was appointed bishop sometime between 264 and 282 AD. So his letters might come from sometime during this period or even later during his reign.”

And the content of the letter appears to go against the usual portrayal of early Christians living in the Roman Empire as withdrawn eccentrics who lived in fear of persecution.

A historian in the papyrus workshop at the Univesity of Basel

The letter suggests Christians lived outside Egyptian cities and they actually held important political positions whilst not straying far from the pagan environment around them in their daily lives.

The letter is written by a man called Arrianus for his brother, named Paulus, and experts say it differs from other preserved letters from Greco-Roman Egypt because of how Arrianus signs off.

After speaking about routing family issues and asking for fish sauce, Arrianus finishes by saying he hopes his brother will prosper “in the Lord.” he uses a shortened form of the Christian phrase “I pray that you fare well ‘in the Lord’.”

Historian Huebner said in a press release: “The use of this abbreviation – known as a nomen sacrum in this context – leaves no doubt about the Christian beliefs of the letter writer.

“It is an exclusively Christian formula that we are familiar with from New Testament manuscripts.”

The letter reportedly shows that Arrianus and Paulus’ parents were part of the local elite, public officials and landowners.

And Huebner said in a press release that Paulus’ name also revealed more about their history, saying: “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 managed to date the letter to the 230s AD using prosopographical research. This research method involves investigating the common characteristics of a historical group through a collective study of their lives as their individual biographies may be difficult to trace.

The papyrus was found to have come from the village of Theadelphia in central Egypt and it is part of the Heroninus archive, which is the largest archive of papyri from Roman times.

The Basel papyrus collection comprises 65 papers in five languages, which were purchased by the university in 1900 for the purpose of teaching classical studies – with the exception of two papyri. These arrived in Basel back in the 16th century, and likely formed part of Basilius Amerbach’s art collection.


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Story By: Kathryn QuinnSub-EditorJoseph Golder, Agency: Central European News


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