Ancient letter between Christian brothers dates to Roman Empire

‘Bro, stop by the shops on your way home, will ya?’

A recently discovered 1700-year-old letter between two Christian brothers living in the Roman Empire has ancient history buffs, early church scholars and trivia-loving Christians buzzing, providing new insights into the ancient lives of early Christians.

Dating back to the 230sAD and originating from the central Egypt village of Theadelphia, the ancient epistle is written by a man named “Arrianus” and addressed to his brother, “Paulus,” who was probably named after the Apostle Paul. The rare document was unveiled by researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland, where it’s been kept for the past 100 years. It is known as ‘P.Bas 2.43’ and is part of the Heronius archive, the largest papyrus archive from Roman times.

Dr Mark Stephens, the new resident ancient historian at the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX), tells Eternity the letter is just one of many texts written on paper made from the papyrus plant that has been uniquely preserved by the dry climate of Egypt and is now providing contemporary scholars with fresh insights into the lives of early Christians.

“Most of the texts from antiquity which sit within the imagination of the general populace are the great literary texts, like Tacitus, Thucydides, and the Bible. These are texts which were copied and preserved over many generations, meaning we don’t have the originals but copies of copies. They were preserved because of their literary value,” Mark points out.

“But in the last 100 years or so, we’ve uncovered a treasure trove of papyri. These papyri are filled with all the mundane matters of everyday life, from business receipts, through to personal letters, none of which were ever written with posterity in mind. They therefore give us unique insight into the writings of everyday folk.”

“This papyrus, along with many others, demonstrates Christians were present in the administrative circles of Egypt.” – Mark Stephens

While it’s definitely cool to be able to read a bro-to-bro memo written circa 230AD, its value to scholars isn’t immediately apparent to the average Joe Christian. After all, the note reads like an ancient version of a “Hey, can you grab some milk on your way home?” SMS message that many of us send regularly – with a few ancient-sounding, theatrical flourishes thrown in, of course.

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.

So why is this fraternal dispatch actually significant?

“This papyrus is not a biblical manuscript. Rather, it is an early letter written by a Christian administrative official in Egypt,” Mark explains. “The significance of this text is that it is part of the growing evidence for the spread of Christianity in Egypt in the 3rd century. This papyrus, along with many others, demonstrates Christians were present in the administrative circles of Egypt, and that these Christians seem to have a detailed knowledge of portions of the New Testament.”

And for all those history-loving Eternity readers who have opened up a new tab and are currently comparing the cost of flights to Switzerland, hold your chariot-pulling horses!

“Professor Huebner’s work is exciting, and so too is the larger topic on the Christianisation of Egypt,” Mark says, adding “Indeed, Australia has its own research team at Macquarie University working on the Egyptian papyri.”