Writings on an ancient Egyptian papyrus, which may be the world’s oldest ever Christian letter dated back to the 230s A.D., gives a better understanding about the first Christians in the Roman Empire.

Researchers have described this latest finding as older than all the other Christian documentary evidence of Roman Egypt. The letter is now part of the University of Basel’s papyrus collection. According to Curiosmos, the early Christians in the Roman Empire were portrayed as eccentrics who withdrew from the world.

This is also accounted for in the Basel papyrus letter P.Bas. 2.43. It reveals that Christians in the early third century lived outside cities in the Egyptian hinterland. Phys Org said the Christians held political leadership positions and blended with their pagan environment in their everyday lives. It says the letter is from a man, 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’,” said Phys Org. It explained that the author used the abbreviated form of the Christian phrase ‘I pray that you fare well in the Lord’.

papyrus letter
The latest find is about 40 to 50 years older than all other known Christian documentary letters worldwide. Metropolitian Museum of Art

Sabine Huebner, a professor of ancient history at the University of Basel points out that the use of this abbreviation leave no doubt about the Christian beliefs of the letter writter. Huebner said it is an exclusively Christian formula that today’s Christians are familiar with from New Testament manuscripts. The professor goes onto to explain that the brother’s name, Paulus was an extremely rare name at that time. “We may deduce that the parents mentioned in the letter were Christians and had named their son after the apostle as early as 200 A.D.

Huebner used extensive prosopographical research to trace the papyrus to the 230s A.D. According to Phys Org, the letter, which comes from the village of Theadelphia in central Egypt, is about 40 to 50 years older than all other known Christian documentary letters worldwide. It gives an insight into the social background of the early Christan family - Arrianus and Paulus as young and educated from an elite, landowner or public official family.