On one of his latest excavations into Early Christian literature, Alistair Stewart aka Indiana Jones dug out an extraordinary text: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.55123 (Hall 1893). He asked me whether this could be a Church Order. I identified the piece as the so-called Letter from Heaven (Himmelsbrief) – a text that I indicated as a possible Church Order more than a year ago in my response to Alistairs pioneering Church Order conspectus (https://ancientchurchorders.wordpress.com/2016/01/06/a-conspectus-of-the-church-orders/#comments).
The letter, supposedly fallen from Heaven onto the grave of St. Peter in Rome (in other versions onto Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Constantinople…), supposedly written by Jesus Christ himself, has one principal claim: to observance Sunday (i.e. not to work but to attend the Church). Most fascinating about this text is not so much its obvious and daring forgery, but its immense success and spread. “Die älteste Überlieferung liegt in lateinischer Sprache vor; es sind außerdem griechische, syrische, koptische, arabische (einschließlich karschunische), äthiopische, armenische, russische, tschechische, polnische, ukrainische, südslavische, ungarische, rumänische, altirische, altenglische, walisische, mittelenglische, mittelhochdeutsche, mittelniederländische, altfranzösische, provenzalische, spanische, katalanische, italienische, isländische, dänische, norwegische und schwedische Fassungen bekannt.” (Palmer 1986).
These different recensions were developed between the 6th and the 20th century, obviously not without success. It is still not possible to make out its origins. The earliest references are found in the 6th century with Bishop Vincentius of Ibiza. On this basis Delehaye and others claimed a Spanish origin, whereas Van Esbroeck proposed a 5th century origin in Jerusalem.
In 1901, Carl Schmidt published a Coptic letter by Peter of Alexandria (3rd-4th century). Among narrative passages we find the same claim to observe Sundays rest and to attend the Church. Schmidt believed in its authenticity, whereas Delehaye, in his review, stated that in the early 4th century, there was no such thing as “legislation” on Sunday observance. He therefore claimed that the Coptic letter was another forgery, related to the above Sunday letter.
I remain skeptical. Not that the Coptic letter is necessarily written by Peter. But the “legislation” on Sunday observance is really strong in the 4th century. In Laodicea (around 360), can. 29, we read: “Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.” In the Church Order literature, we have a strong case in the Apostolic Constitutions (around 380), VIII.33: even slaves were not allowed to work on Sunday! In addition, we have the can. 11 of the Canons of Clement, although they are even more difficult to date.
In my opinion, a 4th or 5th century origin (Van Esbroeck) is very probable for both the Sunday Letter and the Coptic Letter by (Ps.-)Peter.
Finally, I tend to agree with Stewart that the text fails the principal criteria for being a Church Order: although it is an anonymous piece with normative elements, there are no pseudonymous or pseudapostolic tactics to strengthen the case. Also its content is too narrow, only regulating Sunday practices. With Van Esbroeck: “Il relève de plusieurs genres littéraires à la fois: l’apocalyptique, l’apocryphe, la prophétie, la lettre, le sermon sur l’obligation dominicale, et le code législatif antique lesté de bénédictions et de malédictions.”
Principal Literature (chronologically):
I.H. Hall, The Letter of Holy Sunday. Syriac Text and Translation, in: Journal Of The American Oriental Society 15 (1893), 121-137.
H. Delehaye, Note sur la légende de la lettre du Christ tombée du ciel, in: Bulletins de l’Academie royale de Belgique, Classe des Lettres, 1899, 171-213.
C. Schmidt, Fragment einer Schrift des Märtyrer-Bischofs Petrus von Alexandrien, Leipzig 1901.
Reviewed by H. Delehaye, in Analecta Bollandiana 20 (1901), 101-103.
M. Bittner, Der vom Himmel gefallen Brief in seinen morgenländischen Versionen und Rezensionen, in: Denkschriften der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften: philosophisch-historische Klasse, 51 (1906) 1-240.
R. Stübe, Der Himmelsbrief. Ein Beitrag zur allgemeinen Religionsgeschichte, Tübingen 1918.
R. Priebsch, Letter from Heaven on the Observance of the Lord’s Day, Oxford 1936.
N.F. Palmer, Himmelsbrief, in: TRE 15 (1986), 344-346.
M. Van Esbroeck, La lettre sur le Dimanche, descendue du ciel, in: Analecta Bollandiana 107 (1989), 267-284.
3 responses to “Sunday Letter”
Thank-you Dani. I am sorry I did not fully pick up the significance of your earlier comment on this particular apocryphon.
I tend to agree with you that the letter is 4th-5th century, and tend to think Hagiopolite. Certainly not Spanish, as Delehaye had suggested, as Spain was adopting Roman fasting practice in this period (thus fasting on sabbath), whereas this letter makes no provision for this.
What is extraordinary, by way of telling a tale, is that this particular foray into the obscurioria of early Christian literature was undertaken not as an academic enquiry, but in my capacity as parish priest. On a visit, a parishioner had shown me her favourite spiritual reading. I only had a chance to glance at it, and was trying to determine the identity of the booklet that I had been shown, so being led to this Syriac recension of the Sunday letter. Delehaye refers to a recension of the letter being sold to Greek pilgrims in Jerusalem late in the nineteenth century. I now recognize the booklet I was shown as a recent Greek reprint of this recension. It is cited in the introduction to Athanasius Vassiliev, Anecdota Graeco-Byzantina (Moscow, 1893). As a parish priest I did not question the authenticity of the document. Not because I had altogether dropped my critical guard, but since it seemed that the letter was saying what I wanted to say… namely that one should not fast regularly beyond Wednesday and Friday, and in particular that it was not necessary to fast on sabbath to receive the Lord’s Body on the Lord’s day. It’s nice to find that Jesus agrees with me!
Still fascinating! Thank you for reminding me of these “obscurioria” – I hope we find more.
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