By Abby Lyman
Thanks to one Tulane professor, BYU faculty and students were taught Thursday about the many different ways to identify early Christian letters written in Egypt.
Lincoln Blumell, a visiting assistant professor, plans to defend his dissertation, “Lettered Christians: Christians, Letters, and Late Antique Oxyrhynchus” in June at the University of Toronto.
Blumell, a graduate of classics from the University of Calgary, comes to BYU as part of the Kennedy Center Lecture Series.
In order to visually understand his discoveries, Blumell distributed a handout for all attendees. With the audience, he proceeded to explain and explore an Egyptian letter written on papyrus from a man to his wife.
Blumell analyzed different wording in the text of the letter to discover the religious stance of the writer. Words such as “divine” and “pray” were used throughout the letter, along with Biblical names such as Joseph, Mary, and Judas.
Many times the ancient Egyptian letters will simply come out and say that a person is Christian, Blumell said. Yet, the letters don”t always come out and explain what the religious stance of the person is. For a time, Christian writers would signify by putting a small cross at the top of the page.
“A cross is put in the margins to signify that a Christian is writing,” Blumell said. “For a time it was the way to identify Christians in the beginning of the 4th century.”
Writers will occasionally end with “Amen” in order to close the letter, which is a known Christian practice. And although Christians can frequently be identified, it can be very hard to tell what type of Christian the writer is.
Blumell showed specific examples in which letters cited scriptures from Luke in the New Testament.
“It”s amazing to think that they have to analyze every single aspect of the letter,” said sophomore Liz McGuire, a pre-communications major from Orem, Utah. “The smallest thing can mean so much.”
During a question and answer portion of the lecture, Blumell explained the purposes of analyzing the letters. He explained that more than anything, these letters were great travel documents to understand where Christians were living during the 3rd and 4th century in order to better understand the Christian community.
“Basically, we can understand the scriptural literacy of these people, along with the social and historical issues that they were going through at the time,” Blumell said.