STUDIES IN ANCIENT LETTER WRITING, by Uwe Rosenkranz (Semeia 22)

Semeia 22

Studies in Ancient Letter Writing

John L. White, ed.

Copyright © 1981 by Society of Biblical Literature.

Published in Chico, CA.


Contributors to This Issue



The Ancient Epistolography Group in Retrospect

John L. White

Cuneiform Letters and Social Conventions

F. Brent Knutson

Aramaic Epistolography

Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S. J.

The Aramaic “Family Letter” And Related Epistolary Forms in Other Oriental Languages and in Hellenistic Greek

Paul E. Dion

Aramaic Words for “Letter”

Paul E. Dion

The Greek Documentary Letter Tradition Third Century B.C.E. To Third Century C.E.

John L. White

Index of Greek Papyrus Letters

Chan-Hie Kim

Contributors to This Issue

Paul E. Dion

University of Toronto

Department of Near Eastern Studies

Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1A1

Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S. J.

Department of Biblical Studies

The Catholic University of America

Washington, D.C. 20064

Chan-Hie Kim

Center for Asian-American Ministries

School of Theology at Claremont

Claremont, CA 91711

F. Brent Knutson

University of Arkansas at Little Rock

33rd and University

Little Rock, AR 72204

John L. White

Loyola University

6525 N. Sheridan Road

Chicago, IL 60626


In addition to the members of the Society of Biblical Literature’s Ancient Epistolography Group and a number of members of the Paul Seminar, the editor expresses warm appreciation to George MacRae who, in his capacity as Executive Secretary of Society of Biblical Literature, aided both in the formation of the letter group and in the early stages of its development. Paul Achtemeier, who succeeded MacRae as Executive Secretary of the Society, offered similar assistance in the later stages of the group’s research. Robert W. Funk was very helpful, while he was Director of Scholars Press, in his encouragement to publish the relatively technical research of the Epistolography Group.

And, though a number of other scholars have rendered assistances to the Ancient Epistolography Group, I wish to recognize in particular the valuable advice of Hans Dieter Betz, Nils A. Dahl and John C. Hurd.


Apart from the identification of additional abbreviations within the essays, the abbreviations in Semeia follow those established for the Journal of Biblical Literature (“Instructions for Contributors,” Supplement to Journal of Biblical Literature 90, 3[1971] 70ff.).

Abbreviations Used (in Addition to Those in JBL 95 [1976] 339–46)

AC    J. Koopmans (1962)

AD    G. R. Driver (1954)

AdANdL    Atti dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei

AdonL    Adon Letter (see A. Dupont-Sommer, 1948a)

Aeg    Aegyptus

AP    A. E. Cowley (1923)

APE    A. Ungnad (1911)

APO    E. Sachau (1911)

ArDial    G. Dalman (1927)

ASAE    Annales du service des antiquités de l’Egypte

AsOst    Asshur Ostracon (see M. Lidzbarski, 1921:5–15)

BMAP    E. G. Kraeling (1953)

Bodl Aram Inscr    Bodleian Library, Aramaic Inscription(s)

Cl-G Ost    Clermont-Ganneau Ostracon

Ephemeris    M. Lidzbarski (1900–1915)

ESBNT    J. A. Fitzmyer, Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament (1971b)

HermWP    Hermopolis West Papyri (see E. Bresciani and M. Kamil, 1966)

Mur    Murabba’at Text(s) (see J. T. Milik, 1961b)

NESE    Neue Ephemeris für semitische Epigraphik

Pad    Padua Papyrus Letters (see E. Bresciani, 1960)

papMird A    Papyrus A from Khirbet Mird (see J. T. Milik, 1953)

PSBA    Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology

RevEtSem    Revue des études sémitiques

Shunnar    Papyrus text published by Z. Shunnar (1970)

WA    J. A. Fitzmyer, A Wandering Aramean (1979)

The Ancient Epistolography Group in Retrospect

John L. White

Loyola University, Chicago


The purpose of this introductory essay is to sketch, largely in sequence, the research of the Society of Biblical Literature’s Ancient Epistolography Group. Sections 0–3 recount the origin and earlier activities of the group, describing the first two years of activity (1973–1974) in which we convened as a consultation and the following year (1975) in which we were organized as a SBL research group. The later stages of research are reviewed in sections 4–5, which cover the four years of work from 1976–1979. This phase is treated more synthetically and comparatively than the earlier three years. Section 4 reflects the work from 1976–1978, in which the group attempted to define formally the epistolary genre, by means of common epistolary types and functions. However, essential differences from one epistolary tradition to another are also indicated. The final portion of the essay, section 5, is a summary of the last year of research (1979), in which the group studied how letters were modified as a result of being quoted in a narrative source or because of being appended to another letter.

0. The Ancient Epistolography Group arose because some of us who had been analyzing ancient letters had begun to suspect that our conclusions, as well as our more tentative hypotheses, were being formed in a vacuum. We knew that the disposition toward the subject was sometimes wrong-headed and that the state of the research was incomplete in enough respects that we felt uncomfortable with broader definitions of the genre. This discomfort was closely allied with a knowledge that most analyses were taking place in isolation from a vast amount of extant letters in other languages.

0.1 In the case of ancient Greek letters, C. Bradford Welles had observed in a classic study in the 1930s that the history of the Greek letter was incomplete; that literary, official and private letters all had been examined either too exclusively in terms of their contents, not their form, or too woodenly in terms of their formulae, without concern for their sociological setting (Welles: xli–xlii). Hence, he concluded that much yeoman work needed to be done before Greek letter writing could be treated on a broad basis. An equivalent kind of assessment of the study of NT letters, specifically the letters of the apostle Paul, was made a few years later by Welles’s colleague at Yale, Paul Schubert (Schubert: 365–377).

0.2 In the more immediate background, this editor became aware of continuing problems in Greek epistolary research, in spite of advances since Welles and Schubert, while he was a member of the Society of Biblical Literature’s Paul Seminar which, from 1971–1975, examined the apostle Paul’s letters from a form-critical perspective. For example, whereas I had compared Paul’s letters with the Greek non-literary letter tradition, some members of the seminar talked about the importance of the literary letter tradition for understanding Paul as a letter writer.

1.0 Suffice it to say, I came to the view that many advantages might be derived from working closely with scholars of other epistolary traditions. Consequently, the SBL Program Committee was petitioned to permit a consultation on ancient letter writing in the 1973 annual meeting in Chicago. After the request was granted, two eminent scholars were requested to read papers as a means of focusing the discussion; Alan Samuel, at the University of Toronto, agreed to read a paper on Hellenistic epistolography, “The Mechanics of Letter Writing,” and Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S. J., then at Fordham University, agreed to an examination of Aramaic letters, a study published subsequently in JBL (Fitzmyer: 201–225). A. Leo Oppenheim, long-time Professor of Assyriology at the University of Chicago and now deceased, was asked to respond to the two papers in the light of his own work on Akkadian letters, as a means of rounding out the representation of ancient letter writing. A larger panel of scholars was invited and they were requested to raise any necessary, additional issues. The proceedings of that first meeting are still timely enough to bear repeating.

1.1 Samuel examined the Greek non-literary letter tradition and, so far as the mechanics of letter writing is concerned, he focused on the postal system in Hellenistic Egypt. More particularly, he talked about how the absence of a state postal system for ordinary private correspondence affected a letter’s contents. For example, many letters show evidence of having been written less from actual need than from the opportunity of writing because someone happened to be traveling in the direction of the letter. Hence, it becomes important, in the light of the haphazard nature of the private postal system, to sift what is important in the letter, the actual message, from the more incidental features occasioned by the opportunity to write. Samuel himself concluded that the less information the writer needed to communicate, the more he used conventional phrases.

1.2 Fitzmyer surveyed the extent of, and the epistolary elements common to, extant Aramaic correspondence. His index of Aramaic letters, arranged both chronologically and by writing material, was an especially helpful tool. But, since his paper has been published, and is reproduced in revised form in the present volume, we need not say anything more about it here.

1.3 Oppenheim responded to the papers by Fitzmyer and Samuel by calling attention to a substantive difference between Akkadian letters and the Greek and Aramaic epistolary traditions. In addition to the obvious difference in writing material (Akkadian correspondence is on clay tablets), Akkadian letters, with few exceptions, were expected to be carried by messengers who knew the letters’ contents by heart so they could be delivered from memory.

In addition to stating that almost all Akkadian letters were written by scribes who relied heavily on epistolary conventions, Oppenheim observed that most communication was administrative in nature. Nonetheless, he noted that by the first millenium B.C.E., scholarly letters were being addressed to the king and that, during the same period, Assyrian and Sumerian “epistles” were being written in an elaborate, poetic style; these “epistles” being letters in form only, not in function.

1.4 The time proved too short to concretize the future direction of the consultation’s participants and it was determined that the same subject should be taken up for a second year as a consultation. Participants were in agreement, however, that letters should be studied for their own sake and not, primarily, for other worthy ends. Moreover, it seemed imperative that scholars working together on such a diverse body of texts as ancient letters should study comparable aspects within the letters. Thus, in order to facilitate comparison, it seemed advisable, even at this early stage, to commission a few inexpensive letter handbooks, each consisting of 75–100 documents, with translations on facing pages, and with a minimal number of notes. We decided, if at all possible, to compile one or two handbooks in advance of the second consultation. In fact, only one was produced, a collection of Greek papyrus letters. In addition to the decision about letter handbooks, the following goals were established for the second consultation: (1) the group would decide both the type of research unit it desired to be, either seminar or group, and the type of meeting format that it would adopt at annual meetings; (2) the group would nominate a chairperson and members of a steering committee.

2.0 The second consultation met in Washington, D.C. and the participants decided to petition the SBL Committee on Research and Publications to be allowed to organize as a “group.” Regarding its internal format, the group would meet for two sessions of one and one-half hour length at each annual meeting. At one session, three research sub-groups—determined by the three broad linguistic areas of the participants—would convene simultaneously, but separately. During a second, plenary, session, the group would convene for joint work on a subject, preferably the same one analyzed in the sub-groups. John L. White was nominated chairperson; Keith Crim, Isaac Kikawada and Chan-Hie Kim were nominated as members of the steering committee and, simultaneously, as the leaders of the three research areas, and F. Brent Knutson served as the group’s secretary.

2.1 Kim led the discussion which centered on the handbook of Greek papyrus letters which he and White had prepared; the appropriateness of the handbook as a model for handbooks of other epistolary traditions being the primary consideration. In the case of the more limited corpora of Aramaic and Hebrew letters, the group decided that all extant documents should be included. But, in the case of epistolary traditions with several hundred documents, it was determined that only representative epistolary types should be included. Alan Sparks advised, however, that in these larger corpora we should also include some examples of letters in which determination of type is difficult, as a control measure.

2.11 Regarding the epistolary traditions which have several hundred letters, John C. Hurd talked about the advantages of recording the larger body of texts in a computer readable format. Unfortunately, however, we were unable to implement this aspect of our work, partly because of financial limitations.

3.0 SBL granted our request to form into a program unit, “The Ancient Epistolography Group,” and, by the time of the 1975 annual meeting, we had completed some of the epistolary tools which had been projected a year earlier. But, the following circumstances led to the modification of the ANE (=Ancient Near Eastern) letter projects. Kikawada decided not to compile an inventory/bibliography of ANE letters, on the basis of correspondence with I. J. Gelb and in concert with Knutson and Stanley D. Walters, since it would have largely reduplicated excellent bibliographic information already available in volumes 2 and 3 of R. Borger’s Handbuch der Keilschriftliteratur. And, regarding a projected anthology of ANE letters, other responsibilities limited, and eventually foreclosed, Walters and Kikawada’s research time on such a collection. The principal factor which foreclosed the letter collection, however, was the enormous number of the ANE letters. What eventuated as a substitute, in the later research of the ANE sub-group, was the study of isolable epistolary traditions.

3.1 Nonetheless, the ANE sub-group made a significant contribution to their area by formulating the major lineaments of the subject in a “Cuneiform Letters” report. Regarding chronological divisions in the study of ANE letters, for example, the following standard designations were advocated: (a) Old Akkadian; (b) Old Assyrian/Old Babylonian; (c) Middle Assyrian/Middle Babylonian; (d) Neo-Assyrian/Neo-Babylonian; (e) Late Babylonian.

3.11 Regarding the classification of ANE letters according to geography, two major categories were specified, Central Mesopotamia and The Periphery: “Central Mesopotamia” including Assyria and Babylonia; “the periphery” including the Diyala region, Anatolia, Mari, Ugarit, Amarna and other regions remaining to be specified. And, on the basis of William Moran’s work on the Amarna letters, it was suggested that, in some cases, these areas would need to be subdivided to reflect local scribal differences.

3.12 In consultation with I. J. Gelb and A. L. Oppenheim, the ANE sub-group proposed the following preliminary epistolary divisions, according to type:

a.    Letters to God(s)

b.    Edicts and Proclamations

c.    Historical Letters

d.    Military Correspondence

e.    Administrative Correspondence

f.    Scholarly Letters: divination reports, astrological observations, etc.

g.    Letter Prayers

h.    Letters to the Dead

i.    Business Letters

j.    Feminine Correspondence

3.2 Two letter collections were prepared for the 1975 meeting, J. David Whitehead’s “Aramaic Letters Handbook” and Sally Ahl’s collection of Ras Shamra letters. Whitehead’s collection included the extant Aramaic letters written on papyrus and skin; a supplemental collection was added in 1976 to include letters written on ostraca. Akin to Whitehead’s handbook, and a further contribution to the same Aramaic-Hebrew subgroup, was Dennis C. Pardee’s collection of extant Hebrew letters; completed in preliminary form for the 1976 meeting, with the title, “A Catalogue and Working Collection of Hebrew Letters.” This collection, in revised form, co-authored with S. David Sperling, and with the collaboration of J. David Whitehead and Paul E. Dion, has been accepted for publication under SBL auspices. When Keith Crim was no longer able to continue as leader of this sub-group Whitehead and Pardee became its co-leaders.

The second letter collection of the 1975 meeting, Ahl’s study of Akkadian and Ugaritic letters from Ras Shamra, arose out of her 1973 Ph.D. dissertation. Knutson prepared an analysis of the same body of texts for the meeting, noting the similarity of structural patterns in biblical letters.

3.3 Owing to the persuasive ability of Saul Levin, Luther Stirewalt and, by means of their “epistolary presence,” Harry Attridge and Wilhelm Wuellner, the members of the Greek/Latin/Coptic sub-group decided that literary letters must be examined as part of the group’s research. Consequently, a representative corpus of literary letters was projected as a means of facilitating the comparative study of this tradition. Unfortunately, for reasons which I can no longer fully reconstruct, even after consulting the sub-group’s correspondence, the literary letter collection was never made and the literary letter tradition was not actively pursued as a research area. Hence, a rather full account of the issues which were discussed in connection with this tradition is given here as a partial payment on the debt still owed to this area of research.

3.31 A primary problem in the study of the literary letter is the ambiguity of the category. Whereas some documents by literary authors are situational in intent and written on practical affairs, others by the same authors are intended for publication and a public audience. Thus, some more discerning definition, such as Stirewalt’s “letter essay,” seems required as a differentiating designation for the letters intended for publication.

3.32 The treatise type letters which were, apparently, intended for publication frequently exhibit hybrid characteristics, mixing genres and employing a variety of stylistic/rhetorical devices. Thus, the group considered it a worthy project to map which genres are used in these letter essays and to establish, if possible, the contours of their use, including some account of the variation.

3.33 The pseudepigraphic epistles comprise an especially interesting and puzzling class of letters because the function(s) of this type of literature is not at all clear. Is much of this literature the result of school exercises, composed for practice in rhetoric, as Stirewalt advocated? Or, are many of the letters propagandistic, a prospect which Attridge suggested that the group consider? A knowledge of the time, places, and circumstances in which these pseudo-letters were cultivated, as rhetorical exercises and as an art form, would probably enhance even our understanding of NT epistolary literature, since several NT letters are pseudepigraphic.

3.4 As a result of the activities of the 1975 meeting, the following sequence of comparative projects eventuated as the research goals of the epistolography group.


The classification of epistolary types and sub-types, with special consideration of the correlation between the type of opening address and the letter’s message (body).


The study of epistolary conventions in the letter-body, as a further index of epistolary classification. And, the identification of epistolary clichés.


The investigation of embedded/quoted letters in historical sources and the study of letters enclosed within/appended to other letters

4.0 The results of our research from 1976–1978 are reviewed in this section of the essay, underscoring the similarities and differences of the epistolary traditions that were examined. Since the research topics both of 1976–1977 (the classification of epistolary types and sub-types) and 1978 (the study of formulas) are integrally related, they are reviewed synthetically rather than sequentially. One aspect of the 1978 research goal, clichés, is not treated here, since this topic was taken up, in fact, only in the study of Greek letters. In order to simplify reference to the epistolography group’s ressearch, I have taken the liberty of listing the relevant analyses in the “Works Consulted” section at the end of this essay, even though many of these papers have not been published.

4.1 The letter opening and the letter closing may be examined together, separately from the body, not only because they are more stereotyped, but also because they share the same essential function. Whereas the body conveys the specific, situational occasion of the letter, the opening and the closing tend to convey the ongoing, and general, aspect of the correspondents’ relationship. Whereas the opening and closing enhance the maintenance of contact, the “keeping-in-touch” function of letter writing, the body expresses the specific reason(s) for writing.

4.11 In the following comments on the opening address formula, we will let “A” represent the sender and “B” the recipient. The recipient’s name almost always precedes the sender’s in ANE (=Mesopotamian/Semitic) letters. It has sometimes been assumed, too simply, that when the sender writes the recipient’s name/title before his own, he is inferior in status to the recipient. This interpretation certainly does not apply to most ANE correspondence, because the initial statement of the recipient’s name is part of the instructions to the scribe and not the sender’s own address to the recipient. Namely, “To B speak! Thus (says) A.” Thus, in the later stages of Mesopotamian letter writing, when the initial address was directed immediately to the recipient and not to the scribe, about 90 percent of the Neo- and Late Babylonian letters wrote the sender’s name before the recipient’s in the form, “Tablet of A, to B” (see Knutson, 1977: 2–3). This later form of the address suggests that the previous priority of the recipient’s name, in the instructions to the scribe, did not indicate the sender’s inferiority.

Fitzmyer and Dion found four or five major types of address formula, in their study of Aramaic letters (Fitzmyer: 211–212). The Arsames correspondence (=Persian administrative style correspondence, written by Arsames and his correspondents) and the Bar-Kokhba letters write the sender’s name prior to the recipient’s in the address (Dion: 421). By contrast, in the cordial private letters of Hermopolis, and in a broad class of letters which Dion calls the “all-purpose” letter type, the recipient’s name is written first in the address (425–432). The all-purpose type of address formula seems to derive, ultimately, from the ancient Mesopotamian practice of writing the recipient’s name first in the instructions to the scribe. In any case, there does not seem to be any necessary correlation between order of names in the address and status relations in Aramaic letters.

Pardee noted in his study of Hebrew letters that those embedded in the Hebrew Bible never include an address, the sender and recipient being identified in the narrative frame (1978: 330). Elsewhere, the extant letters divide into two broad classes, the pre-Christian written on ostraca (ca. 630–586 B.C.E.) and those from the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt (132–135 C.E.) written on papyrus. The earlier letters, on ostraca, omit the sender’s name/epithets entirely from the address and state only the recipient’s name and/or ephithets, either with or without the greetings, in the form, “To B, (greetings)” (1978: 332–333). On the other hand, the sender’s name is included in the address of the Bar Kokhba letters and always before that of the recipient, irrespective of the correspondents’ relation (1978: 333). Concerning the absence of the sender’s name in the 7th/6th century B.C.E. letters, the omission can be explained by the physical limitations of the ostraca. Here again the sequence and/or inclusion of names in the address does not seem to be an index of status.

Regarding the Greek letters on papyrus, the sender writes his/her name before the recipient in the opening address, in at least two-thirds of the extant letters, oftentimes even when he is inferior in the correspondence (White, 1978: 290). On the other hand, the recipient’s name always precedes, and in the form, “To B, greetings from A,” in letters to the Ptolemaic king. The recipient’s name is also written before the sender’s in all petitions (= epistolary requests for redress, submitted to the king and other officials). Consequently the inferiority of the writer is indicated in Greek letters when the recipient’s name is written first. But it is equally evident that inferiority of status did not usually require the sender to write the superior’s name first.

4.111 The foregoing discussion shows that the order of names in the opening address is no certain indicator of the correspondents’ comparative status. A better index of status, in most ANE traditions, is the use of modifying nouns of relation in the address. In the Amarna letters, for example, the pairing, “my lord/your servant,” and, occasionally “my father/your son,” indicates the recipient’s superiority and the sender’s inferiority, respectively (Knutson, 1976: 2). A somewhat different situation exists in Greek letters. Even though the names are usually qualified in the opening address of petitions, the modifiers do not seem to indicate status, apart from the royal epithets in letters to the king. The sender’s name is qualified only by such designations as his/her patronymic, occupation and residence and the recipient’s name modified by the specification of office/title.

4.112 The most common indication of equality in the address is a kinship noun of relation, above all the designation, “brother.” Though actual kinship may be indicated by this term, it is widely used as an expression of cordiality and comradeship. The feminine equivalent, at least in Aramaic and Greek, is the term, “sister.” “Father” and “son” are also widely used in ANE letters, but these terms are more ambiguous, since they can signal status relations as well as equality.

4.12 When one turns to the use of other conventions in the letter opening, a common feature is the initial greeting, which is usually joined directly to the address. In the Babylonian, Amarna, Aramaic and Hebrew letters, this greeting is usually more than a single word. The gods often are invoked to grant health and/or to give their blessing to the recipient (for example, see Pauling: 412). The initial greeting may also combine syntactically with a brief wish of health in Greek letters, e.g., “A to B, greetings and good health” (White, 1978: 290, 295). But the single word of greeting, without the combined wish, was the more common practice, at least in the Ptolemaic period. The Hebrew Bar Kokhba letters, and occasionally the Tannaitic letters quoted in Rabbinic literature, seem to be influenced by the Greek practice of joining the one-word greeting to the opening address. This simple greeting, though more rare, is also attested in Aramaic.

4.13 The farewell convention and other closing formulas are so rare in most Mesopotamian/Semitic letters that one must conclude that the closing is not a standard epistolary element. By contrast, a formulaic word of farewell is found in a majority of Greek letters. Consequently, when the Aramaic Bar Kokhba letters use a concluding phrase, “Be well!,” one must assume that Greek influence is the contributing factor. A comparable state of affairs exists in the Hebrew Bar Kokhba letters.

Strictly speaking, the Greek word of farewell is, like the English, “Fare well,” a health wish, though the original nuance seems to be largely forgotten in both cases. On the other hand, a fuller, more explicit, concern for the recipient’s welfare is sometimes stated in the closing of Greek letters, e.g., “For the rest, you would favor me by taking care of your health.” Some Aramaic letters close the correspondence in an analogous manner, though with a slightly different nuance, by using the phrase, “I have sent this letter for your peace (of mind).”

4.131 Another common convention in Greek and Aramaic letters is the expression of secondary greetings (i.e., greetings expressed subsequent to the initial greetings of the praescriptio) to or from a third party, namely, “Say hello to X” and “Y sends greetings.” The Greek letters employ these greetings in the closing, immediately before the farewell. The Aramaic letters, on the other hand, tend to state such greetings earlier, either in the body or following directly on the heels of the initial greetings (Fitzmyer: 217).

4.2 The body of the ancient letter is more resistant to formal analysis than the opening and the closing, often seeming to lack identifiable shape and identifiable conventions. Nonetheless, the ancient letter group made some progress in classifying the message portion of letters, largely on the basis of subject matter. The body of the Amarna letters, for example, is of two broad types: (1) commands from superiors/requests from inferiors and equals; (2) the communication of information. The same two-part classification serves equally well for Greek letters on papyrus. One minor modification of this scheme is occasionally required; imperative constructions are not employed exclusively by superiors (see Pardee, 1978: 339–340). A majority of the letters from Arad, for example, are orders requisitioning the release of supplies from a storehouse and, consequently, are written in the form of an order even when the letter-carrier and the sender are inferior to the recipient, the keeper of the storehouse. Similar authorizations abound in letters from Hellenistic Egypt, their bank drafts corresponding to our present command, “Pay to the order of X,” with its closing signature of authorization.

4.21 The transition from letter-opening to body is frequently indicated by a special construction in Hebrew and Aramaic letters, having something like the meaning, “and now”. When other conventions introduce the body of Hebrew letters, they appear to be of two types, declarative and volitive. The imperative statements, as previously indicated, are employed occasionally by inferiors.

4.22 Each of the two functions of the body (i.e., commands/requests and communication of information) was often expressed by stereotyped means. For example, letters of petition regularly introduce the letter-body by setting forth the occasion, or “background,” necessitating the request. Characteristic phrases and/or standard topics were used to express this petitionary “background.” Hence, in Greek letters, the petitioner frequently stated the day, and time of day, on which the infraction was committed and/or described the extenuating circumstances of the situation and/or identified explicitly, usually at the start, the one who had wronged him (see exx. in White, 1972: the Appendix, 72–193). Letters of commendation, another type of request, are structurally similar to petitions and equally stereotyped in the use of conventions. Hence, directly following the opening address/salutation, the sender introduces the letter carrier to the recipient (=the background to the request). Thereupon, he requests the recipient to assist the recommended person. The writer customarily closes the body by stating that he will be favored if the recipient attends to the request.

4.23 Regarding the communication of information, the second major function served by the body, a number of stereotyped phrases may introduce the reason for writing. A common convention, of course, is the one in which disclosure is stated explicitly. Thus, among the volitive statements that introduce the message of Hebrew letters, we find the phrase, “Let to be known to you …” and “Open your servant’s eye” (=the request for information). Comparable phrases are used in the Amarna letters and in Greek correspondence. It should not be assumed that the primary intent of these messages is informational, since information may be imparted as a basis for requesting something of the recipient. Consequently the essential intent of any convention must be determined with reference to the larger contours of the body.

4.231 Another class of phrases that introduces the message is that in which the sender acknowledges receipt of information. A majority of the letters which introduce the body in this manner are, at least in the Amarna and Greek correspondence, from inferiors. Frequently, the acknowledgment of the receipt of instructions is followed by a statement of compliance regarding the sender’s obedience to the directive, e.g.,”Just as you instructed me, I have …”

4.232 Letters from superiors, or between equals, will sometimes introduce the body by stating that the recipient is remiss in a duty. These phrases tend to precede a command/request that the recipient attend to the neglected matter. Stock phrases which serve this purpose are those which state “I wrote formerly,” “Just as I wrote,” etc.

4.24 When the body is sufficiently long, transitional constructions are employed. For example, a disclosure phrase may introduce additional information by adding an appropriate conjunction, “Know also that …” In letters of petition, whose message is introduced with a background statement, the transition to the request itself is signaled by such connectives as “Therefore,” “Consequently,” etc.

4.25 Regarding the close of the body, none of the epistolary traditions examined indicates that the body had to close in a specific manner, except in specific letter types, such as petitions and letters of commendation. Indeed, the body of many letters, in all of the traditions examined, ends abruptly, without any indication of transition. On the other hand, a sufficient enough number close in an identifiable manner, that one can infer that there were characteristic means of closing the body. In these cases, the conventions tend either to serve as a means of underscoring the reason for writing or as a means of encouraging further correspondence.

4.26 One type of communication calls for special consideration, letters between family members or friends. Dion noted in his study of Aramaic letters that the Hermopolis letters communicate warm feelings and discuss everyday matters of concern to the family circle (417, 430–432). He shows letters with a similar intent, employing similar conventions, in Greek correspondence (see Koskenniemi: 110–117) and among earlier ANE traditions. These letters consist solely, or largely, of conventions and sentiments that are characteristic of the opening and closing, the “keeping-in-touch” aspect of letter writing. Though they do not take full advantage of the epistolary medium, it is probably not justified to conclude that such letters have no message (body). The maintenance of contact—more particularly, the desire for information about the recipient’s health and the assurance of the sender’s and his family’s welfare—is the information which the letter intends to communicate.

5.0 The subject of the last meeting of the letter group, embedded/quoted letters, differs enough from the examination of epistolary types and conventions that it is taken up here under a separate heading. The review here intends to reflect only the broader lineaments of the study. The purpose of this investigation, generally, was to determine whether and/or how letters were modified as a result of being quoted in a narrative or of being embedded in, or appended to, other letters. It can be stated at the start that the opening and the closing are the most vulnerable to abbreviation/omission, as a result of being quoted.

5.1 Regarding the letters quoted in the Hebrew Bible, one might conclude that the praescriptio was omitted, in every case, in order to avoid the redundancy of repeating the correspondents’ names, which had already been identified in the narrative frame. It is also conceivable that the opening address/salutation was omitted because it was the portion of the letter which, during the biblical period, continued to be delivered orally by the courier. The omission of the letter opening in Greek letters of invitation is certainly to be explained by this means. Since the messenger hand-carried the invitation to the door, the address was stated orally.

5.2 The particular use of the Rabbinic letters quoted in Tannaitic sources largely accounts for the omissions and abbreviations that occur. By contrast, the omissions and abbreviations in the appended letters among the Greek non-literary correspondence, frequently of an administrative nature, are best explained with reference to the practical need of eliminating unnecessary/redundant elements. Namely, the covering letter rendered the full specification of names in the address, and the greetings, unnecessary in the appended letters. This correspondence, often of a chain-letter variety, illustrates the bureaucratic layers of command through which directives passed.

5.3 The Jewish letters, written in Greek and quoted in Jewish/Christian narrative sources, are quoted more fully than any of the aforementioned letters. This in itself would seem to indicate their epistolary pretense, their fullness serving as a deliberate attempt to appear genuine.

Works Consulted

Ahl, Sally

1973    Epistolary Texts from Ugarit: Structural and Lexical Correspondences in Akkadian and Ugaritic. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.

Dion, Paul E.

1977    “A Tentative Classification of Aramaic Letter Types.” SBL 1977 Seminar Papers 11: 415–441.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A.

1974    “Some Notes on Aramaic Epistolography.” JBL 93:201–225.

Kensinger, Keith and White, John L.

1976    “Categories of Greek Papyrus Letters.” SBL 1976 Seminar Papers 10:79–91.

Kim, Chan-Hie and White, John L.

1974    Letters from the Papyri. A Study Collection. Copied by SBL for the 1974 annual meeting.

Knutson, F. Brent

1975    Ras Shamra Letters. An unpublished paper copied by SBL for the annual meeting (28 pp.).

Knutson, F. Brent

1976    El Amarna Letters. Unpublished paper copied by SBL for the annual meeting (36 pp.).

Knutson, F. Brent

1977    Neo- and Late Babylonian Letters. Unpublished paper copied for the annual meeting (17 pp.).

Koskenniemi, Heikki

1956    Studien zur Idee und Phraseologie des griechischen Briefes bis 400 n. Chr. Helsinki: Akateeminen Kirjakauppa.

Oppenheim, A. Leo

1967    Letters from Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pardee, Dennis C.

1976    A Catalogue and Working Collection of Hebrew Letters. 7th century BC to 2d century AD. Copied by SBL for the annual meeting.

Pardee, Dennis C.

1978    “An Overview of Ancient Hebrew Epistolography.” JBL 97: 321–346.

Pardee, D. C. and Sperling, S. David

(forthcoming)    Handbook of Ancient Hebrew Letters. With the collaboration of Paul E. Dion and J. David Whitehead. Chico, CA: Scholars Press.

Pauling, Randall D.

1977    “Old Babylonian Letters: A Preliminary Survey.” SBL 1977 Seminar Papers 11: 405–414.

Schubert, Paul

1939    “Form and Function of the Pauline Letters.” JR 19: 365–377.

Welles, C. Bradford

1934    Royal Corrspondence in the Hellenistic Period. New Haven: Yale University Press.

White, John L.

1972    The Form and Structure of the Official Petition. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press.

White, John L.

1978    “Epistolary Formulas and Clichés in Greek Papyrus Letters.” SBL 1978 Seminar Papers 14, vol. 2: 289–319.

Whitehead, J. David

1975    Handbook of Early Aramaic Letters: Preliminary Presentation. Copied by SBL for the 1975 annual meeting.

Whitehead, J. David

1976    Handbook of Early Aramaic Letters: Preliminary Presentation—Supplement: Aramaic Letters on Ostraca. Copied by SBL for the 1976 annual meeting.

Cuneiform Letters and Social Conventions

F. Brent Knutson

University of Arkansas at Little Rock


A comparison of the structure of Ras Shamra Akkadian letters with the El-Amarna letters and a collection of Neo-Babylonian private letters suggests that the analysis of the structure of cuneiform letters is best limited to the address and salutation. Whereas the Ras Shamra letters, in contrast to Mesopotamian letters, exhibit a rigid protocol based on the relative rank of the correspondents, and include slavish salutations, the El-Amarna letters exhibit a Mesopotamian address pattern, yet are even more generous in their use of salutations. By comparison, the Neo-Babylonian letters employ the later typical Mesopotamian address pattern, but by contrast, they have a wide variety of salutations, which are used without regard for rank.

0. When the SBL Ancient Epistolography Group began its work a few years ago, those of us studying cuneiform letters had few illusions about what could be accomplished. There are vast numbers of cuneiform letters, spanning a period of over 1500 years, and coming from all parts of the ancient Near East2. Since the whole was unmanageable, we would attempt to study a representative sample. Each researcher would be limited to a certain corpus of letters, and would prepare a sample collection based on that corpus. Such collections for letters from Ras Shamra, El-Amarna, (i.e., Middle Babylonian), Old Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian periods were produced.

0.1 I produced a sample collection of the El-Amarna and Neo-Babylonian letters. I worked on the former because I had previously studied Ras Shamra letters (Knutson, 1970) and thought I would find affinities with those at El-Amarna, since the latter are contemporary with, and geographically “close” to Ras Shamra (e.g., El-Amarna letters from Palestine and Byblos). I chose the Neo-Babylonian letters because they were chronologically and geographically distinct from the El-Amarna letters (i.e., c. 800 years later, and from Mesopotamia). Furthermore, the Neo-Babylonian letters were “private,” i.e, not official, as contrasted to the El-Amarna letters.

1. Characteristics of the Cuneiform Letter

1.0 Research in cuneiform letters holds few aesthetic rewards, and fewer theological insights. However, these texts do have some characteristics which warrant notice. Some of these aspects are shared by other ancient letters, others may not be. I will discuss these aspects, and then attempt to show the implications of my analysis of two letter collections.

1.1 One characteristic of the letter which distinguishes it from other ancient Near East genres is of course its distinctive structure: in the simplest form, an address and a body. The letter genre may of course be sub-divided into categories, e.g.: “private” letter, “royal” letter, “epistles,” edicts, proclamations, military letters, administrative letters, divination reports, astrological observation letters, prayers, business letters, letters to the dead, etc. Most of such categorizing is done on the basis of the letter content, not the structure.

1.2 Another aspect of the letter which distinguishes it from other genres is its close relationship to oral communication. It has long been known that the cuneiform letter is the descendent of the oral message, and that even after the message was reduced to writing, the messenger still delivered the message orally to the addressee (Schroeder 62). Thus we have to do with formulae of speech, at least at the beginnings of the written genre. There are some indications that at least eventually, “written” formulae appear, such as the address of the Neo-Assyrian letter: “Tablet of A to B.” While it is not impossible that other “written” formulae may find their way into speech, I think that is less likely than the former assumption, that the predominant development is from speech formulae to letter formulae.

1.3 If the letter reflects speech, at least to some extent, then an understanding of the role of the scribe is essential. Does the scribe simply take dictation, is he the editor or co-author of the letter, or does he compose the letter, turning the inarticulately expressed wishes of his client into a polished petition? (Oppenheim, 65). Does the scribe’s work completely mask the sender’s speech, or is it sometimes transparent? It is likely that the more articulate the sender, the smaller the contribution of the scribe. The ultimate source of many of the eloquent epistolary clichés are undoubtedly speech. The humble petitioner who writes to the king quite often probably uses the same formulae which were customary at court, which he would employ if given an audience. The question as to the scribe’s contribution to the letter is a problematic one, which may never be definitively answered.

1.4 One aspect of the social world of the ancient Near East that is frequently reflected in letters is socio-political rank or status. This reflection is only a partial one, however, as we are unable to correlate exactly the ranks or strata in society with those in letters, for in letters there are only two relationships: that between a superior and an inferior, and that between equals. If the letter is that genre closest to the life-situation of the writer, one might expect that it would reflect at least the expected or required courtesies governing the communication between persons. One might theorize that, e.g., the greater the difference in rank or status between two correspondents the more slavish the salutation by the inferior, and the less likely any salutations by the superior, also, the more likely the inferior’s name will be given, but only the title of the superior. In letters between equals, one might assume that the warmth of the relationship might be gauged by the type, if any, of salutations employed. It is true, of course, that equals do not employ the most slavish salutation. Some letters support these theories, others do not.

2. Structure of the Letter Body

2.0 The “mundane,” or everyday letter is used to convey a variety of intentions: to petition, to command, to acknowledge orders, to report on a situation, to protest one’s loyalty, etc.. This means, of course, that the body of the letter will be structured according to the letter’s intention. While some attempts have been made to classify the letter on the basis of the body; e.g. situation report, command, inquiry, etc. (. Ahl 120ff.), such classification is unworkable, except for the briefest letters. This is because the classifications must be either made so broad as to be unwieldy, or if they are maintained more narrowly, then in a long letter, three or more “classes” are found. For example, in the El-Amarna letters we could classify several “types”: situation report, request, response to a command (assurance that a command will be executed), etc. We find brief letters that could be so classified, but we also find letters in which there are several of the “classes,” e.g., 239:

All the commands of the king, my lord,

(response to command)

I will execute, until the official


comes and takes everything which the king,


my lord, ordered.


Behold, we are servants of the king.

(loyalty declaration)

Let the official come forth, and let him


know our crimes!


Then, of the evil deeds of your servants


toward you may he speak!


When we move beyond the simplest letters, classification of the basis of structure becomes fruitless. Therefore, an analysis of the structure of letters must necessarily concentrate on the address and salutation.

3. The Ras Shamra Letters

3.0 The letters found at Ras Shamra include copies of those sent by the king, as well as letters from kings in Asia Minor, Syria and Cyprus, and also letters by numerous other officials. An analysis of the address and salutation of the Akkadian letters (the alphabetic cuneiform letters seem to follow the same pattern) yields satisfying results. There is evidence for a rigid protocol based on the relative rank of the correspondents. Such protocol is shown in both the structure of the address and the kind and number of salutations.

3.1 In letters between an inferior amd a superior, the superior’s name/title always comes first, whether he is the sender or addressee. This is in marked contrast to the Mesopotamian patterns, according to which normally the addressee’s name/title comes first. In Old Akkadian, Old Assyrian, Old Babylonian, Middle Assyrian and Middle Babylonian (with which both Ras Shamra and El-Amarna are contemporary) letters, the most common address is: “To B say: thus (says) A.” Thus, in the Mesopotamian letters, the sequence of names is determined according to whom is addressee, whom is sender, whereas at Ras Shamra, it is determined by the relative rank of the correspondents. This judgement is validated because at Ras Shamra there are a sufficient number of letters from superior to inferior, with the superior’s name/title first. If we had only letters from inferior to superior, the address would be explained on the basis of the Mesopotamian pattern, i.e., the superior’s name/title is first, because he is the addressee, not because of his rank.

3.2 A superior may include a salutation, an inferior always does, and usually an equal does. The superior’s salutation is a simple wish for the other’s welfare (“may all be well with you”), while the inferior’s usually includes a blessing (“may the gods watch over your well-being”), and/or, most frequently, a prostration formula (“at the feet of my lord from afar I fall”). Inferiors tend to use their own name but the superior’s title, and superiors tend to follow the same pattern. Inferiors address superiors as “my lord/father,” and refer to themselves as “your servant/son.” The converse use of these “nouns of relation” is employed by superiors. Letters between equals may have either party’s name/title first and often employ the term “my brother.” Where a salutation is used it is one of the less slavish types.

4.0 The El-Amarna Letters

4.1 It might be expected that because of their chronological, geographical and linguistic affinities with the Ras Shamra letters, the El-Amarna letters might also exhibit structural similarities, i.e., constitute one more example of an “East Mediterranean” epistolary pattern, as opposed to the “Mesopotamian.” This is not the case. Of course, in contrast to the Ras Shamra corpus, among the El-Amarna letters there are very few superior to inferior examples. But these follow the Mesopotamian, rather than the Ras Shamra pattern, i.e., the addressee’s name/title comes first. In the inferior to superior letters, the superior’s name/title comes first (except for one group of letters, those from Rib-Addi of Byblos), but this is true of Mesopotamia as well as Ras Shamra. However, even though the letters from Pharaoh to his inferiors do not reflect the “superior first” protocol of the Ras Shamra address, this should not be taken as indicating the lack of a protocol in court language. For if the salutations employed by the inferiors writing to Pharoah are any example, he was showered with praise, epithets and eloquent statements of loyalty. Whereas in Ras Shamra the address proper is brief, listing only the names/titles of the correspondents, and the nouns of relation, e.g., “my lord/father-your servant/son” or “my/your brother,” many of the letters to Pharaoh include epithets: e.g. “To the king, my lord, my Shamash, my god, the breath of my life, speak; …” Thus, the address of the inferior-superior letter tends to be longer and more elaborate, as well as more eloquent in praise of the superior. The salutations when contrasted to those in the Ras Shamra letters show the same patterns.

4.2 In the Ras Shamra letters there are three types of salutation: wish for well-being, blessing, and prostration formula. To these the El-Amarna letters add a “subordination formula” e.g.: “(I am) the dust of the feet of the king my lord” in several variations. Also, where the Ras Shamra letters have three versions of the prostration formula, the El-Amarna letters have fourteen. In sum, when the vassals of Pharaoh write their lord, a significant amount of the tablet is taken up by the address and salutation. Limiting the examples of such servility to one will minimize the risk of the reader gagging:

To the king, my lord, speak: Thus (says) Namiraza your servant, the dust beneath your feet and the mud beneath your tread, the chair where upon you sit and the stool for your feet; at the feet of the king, my lord, the “message” of the morning and the evening, 7 times and further, 7 times I fall.

4.21 Here, and in other similarly florid examples, the scribe has drawn on a list of stock epithets and formulae, to create an impression of absolute humility and obedience. In so doing, he has cast the “subordination formula” in poetic form.

4.3 The frustrations in analyzing the structure come from being lead to expect a pattern, and then seeing it shattered. For example, the prostration formula, characteristic only of Ras Shamra and El-Amarna letters, is the typical salutation of the inferior to superior. Among equals we see the less slavish formula (wish for well being and blessing). Rib-Addi, the king of Byblos, obviously an inferior to Pharaoh, includes the prostration formula in his letters, but he also employs the blessing. Furthermore, he includes several royal epithets in the address. The impression is clearly that here we have a servile inferior. And yet, he fails to put the superior’s name first, which is required either because the superior is the address (Mesopotamian pattern) or because the addressee is the superior (Ras Shamra).

4.4 In a genre as formulaic as a letter, one might expect consistency in address and salutation from one sender. When he writes several letters to the same addressee, consistency would normally be expected. This is attested at Ras Shamra: the letters from the Hittite king are consistent (same address, no salutation), and so are those of the king of the city of Carehemish (same address, same salutation). In the El-Amarna letters, we have some groups of letters (with the same sender and addressee) which do have consistent address and salutations, and other groups which do not. Among the senders of consistent letters are the kings of Mittani, Assyria, Cyprus, and Babylon. Apparently consistency was the mark of well-qualified scribes, the kind to be found in the largest or most important cities. And yet, sometimes the lack of consistency may reflect alterations in the relations between the correspondents. The inferior who finds himself in disfavor with his lord heaps up epithets and salutations, or the equal or superior who is miffed omits his usual salutation.

4.5 While the Ras Shamra letters are generally more consistent and follow a protocol based on relative rank or status, whereas this is lacking in the El-Amarna letters, both differ from Mesopotamian letters in some of the salutations employed, especially the prostration formula. Here we see a Syro-Palestinian formula of servile obeisance unattested in Mesopotamia. It would be tempting to see a pattern in the El-Amarna letters: The more loose the reins of empire, the more servile the correspondence from the vassals to the sovereign. The more likely the petty kings are to break with Pharaoh, the more they protest their loyalty, indeed, vie with each other in so proclaiming.

5. Neo-Babylonian Letters

5.1 For purposes of comparison and contrast to the El-Amarna letters, as mentioned above, I attempted an analysis of a collection of Neo-Babylonian letters published by Ebeling. There was much more contrast than comparison. Not only do the addresses and salutations differ considerably from those in the El-Amarna letters, they also differ from the early Mesopotamian letters. For example, the early Mesopotamian normal address is “To B, speak: thus (says) A,” and we see this also in the El-Amarna letters, and in inferior-to-superior letters at Ras Shamra. The Neo-Babylonian (and also Neo-Assyrian) address is: “Letter (lit. ‘tablet’) of A to B,” which is used either by inferiors or equals. With the exception of letters from the king, which are addressed: “Word/letter of the king, to B,” we have no letters that are clearly identified as a superior-to-inferior. This means: (a) excavations simply have not yet yielded such letters, (b) non-royal superiors didn’t write to inferiors, (c) superior-to-inferior letters resemble those of equals, or inferior-to-superior, but with the nouns of relation and sometimes also the salutation omitted. The latter is the most likely choice, although it is also probable that superiors didn’t correspond as frequently with inferiors as vice-versa.

5.2 Since the address structure for most letters is the same, the nouns of relation are in some cases the only means of determining the relative rank of the correspondents. The nouns of relation become even more important when we note that inferiors and equals use the same salutations.

5.21 Of a total of 304 letters with legible salutations, there are 93 different salutations. Most can be accounted for on the basis of a much smaller number of shorter salutations, which are then modified in various ways. For example:


May DN and DN’ assure (lit. “command”) the welfare of my father—21 letters


May DN and DN’ assure the welfare and life of my father—95 letters


May DN and DN’ assure the welfare and life, and length of days of my father—3 letters


May DN and DN’ assure the welfare, joy and health of my father—1 letter


May DN and DN’ assure the welfare, joy and health, and length of days of my father—3 letters (4 other examples).

5.22 In the large majority of letters, the same salutations are found in letters from inferior to superior and those between equals, the latter simply replacing “my father/lord” with “my brother.” This suggests that with the exception of the use of the noun of relation, relative rank had no influence on the letter structure (except for letters from the king). Neither was consistency seen as a necessity. Of 18 groups of letters, each group consisting of letters from the same sender to the same addressee, only six groups have the same address and salutation within the group. Six more groups have the same address within the group, but different salutations, and six groups have consistency neither of address nor salutation. Scribes of the quality that private citizens could afford may be the cause of this lack of uniformity.

6. Conclusions

6.0 What this analysis suggests is that to the extent that letters reflect actual social conditions, several things become apparent. First, while the king is obviously superior to anyone else in his realm, this is indicated in the address structure of his letters only in Ras Shamra and post-Cassite Mesopotamia. Second, letters from inferiors to superiors exhibit dramatic servility only at Ras Shamra and El-Amarna, and it seems that Pharaoh was regarded as deserving of, or he required, being addressed in a more servile manner than other kings. Third, by the Neo-Babylonian period the salutations had spawned dozens of variations, and since the same salutations could be used either by an inferior or an equal, we must conclude either that: (1) relative rank or status had little significance, or (2) the letter no longer reflected social conventions. Fourth, consistency of address and salutation seems to have been indicative of scribal ability in the Middle Babylonian period: the scribes in the service of the most important rulers are consistent, scribes employed by lesser rulers or officials are not.

Works Consulted

Ahl, S.

1973    Epistolary Texts from Ugarit: Structural and Lexical Correspondences in Epistles in Akkadian and Ugaritic. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.

Borger, R.

1975    Handbuch der Keilschriftliteratur, Band III. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Ebeling, E.

1949    Neubabylonische Briefe. Adhandlungen der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, Neue Folge, 30. Munich: D. H. Beck’schen Verlagsbuchhandlung.

Eisfeldt, O.

1965    The Old Testament, An Introduction. Trans. P. Ackroyd. New York and Evanston: Harper and Row.

Knutson, B.

1970    Literary Parallels Between the Texts of Palais Royal d’Ugarit IV and the Hebrew Bible. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.

Knudtzon, J. A.

1915    Die El-Amarna Tafeln. Vorderasiatische Bibliothek 2. Leipzig.

Oppenheim, A. L.

1967    Letters from Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rainey, A. F.

1970    El-Amarna Tablets 359–379. Alter Orient und Alter Testament, 8. Kevelaer und Neukirchen-Vluyn. Verlag Butzon and Bercker.

Salonen, E.

1967    Die Gruss-und Höflichkeitsformeln in Babylonisch-Assyrischen Briefen. Studia Orientalia XXXVIII. Helsinki.

Schroeder, O.

1938    “Briefe.” Reallexikon fur Assyriologie II. Berlin and Leipzig: Walter de Gruyter, 62–68.

Aramaic Epistolography

Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S. J.

The Catholic University of America


The purpose of this essay is a survey of Aramaic letter-writing from the beginning of its emergence into the first few centuries A.D. It discusses the types, provenience, and contents of Aramaic letters, and then goes into a summary analysis of the obvious elements or features in these letters: (a) the names for Aramaic letters; (b) the praescriptio; (c) the initial greeting; (d) the secondary greetings; (e) the concluding formulae; (f) the mention of a scribe or secretary; (g) the date of letters; and (h) the final or exterior address on the letters. Appended to the essay are two charts, which list (1) Aramaic letters on skin or papyrus (and where they can be found); and (2) Aramaic messages on ostraca or potsherds (and where they can be found).

Though other areas of Aramaic studies have had a more or less adequate treatment, that of Aramaic epistolography has not yet been so blessed. The number of letters and messages preserved in ancient Aramaic is not negligible, but it cannot compare with that in other ancient languages such as Sumerian, Akkadian, Greek, or Latin. Hebrew epistolography is not much better off than Aramaic, and a survey of it might be as useful as this one. In any case, but little interest in this form of Aramaic composition has hitherto been manifested2. Even in the present survey the starting-point has been Greek or Hellenistic epistolography, or more specifically NT epistolography; and thus the incentive to look at Aramaic letter-writing has come from an extrinsic concern.

In a sense this inquiry forms but another aspect of the generic problem of the Aramaic background of NT writings, or more properly of Aramaic interference in NT Greek. This may indeed stimulate the comparative study of the two bodies of correspondence; but Aramaic epistolography deserves a full study in and of itself. It should be obvious at the outset, however, that the contribution of Aramaic epistolography to the study of the NT letters cannot be as significant as the Aramaic background of other areas of NT study (e.g., the Aramaic substratum of the sayings of Jesus, or the possible Aramaic sources of various NT writings)4. For most of the NT letters or epistles come from areas outside of Palestine or Syria, where Aramaic was not spoken. True, we are faced with the anomaly that Paul has preserved for us two clearly Aramaic words, ‘abbā (Gal 4:6) and māránā’ tā’ (1 Cor 16:22), and commentators have discussed at times other possible Aramaisms in his writings or Aramaic sources that he may have used. But the Greek of his letters does not reveal Aramaic interference, or even Semitic interference in general, to the same extent as that of the Gospels and Acts. Furthermore, J. N. Sevenster (1968) has raised a question about the Palestinian origin of James and 1 Peter in a new way, and in the light of it one could further ask about the influence of Aramaic epistolography on such letters. It might also be the proper question to ask if one were to consider seriously the proposal that the Captivity Letters in the Pauline corpus were composed in Caeserea Maritima6. While there may be initial doubts, therefore, about the validity of the inquiry into the Aramaic background of such NT writings as the epistles, still the inquiry may have a legitimacy, at least in a limited way. Even aside from such considerations there is still the likelihood that the study of the corpus of Aramaic letters and messages would cast some light on the NT epistles, at least from the comparative standpoint, since they represent a form of ancient epistolography from the eastern Mediterranean area.

Obviously a study of Aramaic letter-writing bears also, and more immediately, on certain OT passages, because some examples of ancient Aramaic epistolography have been preserved in the OT itself. Passages in Ezra have often been treated in the light of Aramaic letters discovered only toward the beginning of this century. Save for these biblical examples, an isolated fragment (such as AP 77), and letters preserved in rabbinic writings (e.g., of the Gaonic period), the rest of ancient Aramaic letters known today have come to light only since about 1902. About a dozen or so of them have been discovered only in the last quarter of a century.

The earliest phase of the Aramaic language, so-called Old Aramaic, dating roughly from 925 to 700 B.C., is represented entirely by inscriptions; no letters come to us from this period of the language. In the subsequent phase, so-called Official or Imperial Aramaic, dating roughly from 700 to 200 B.C., one finds a considerable number of letters and messages which begin a long list of texts that continues down into the phases of Middle Aramaic, roughly 200 B.C. to A.D. 200, and Late Aramaic, roughly A.D. 200 to 700.

Epistolary correspondence in Aramaic has turned up in texts written on skin, papyrus, and potsherds or ostraca; some of it is also preserved in the Bible and in rabbinic literature. The correspondence which was written on skin or papyrus is, by and large, better known; but the number of messages written on ostraca is not small, and they have their own contributions to make to the study of Aramaic epistolography because of the mundane, everyday character of the messages transmitted in them. Since they were written on ostraca they are usually brief, and the message is more like a note, often cryptic and difficult to decipher or interpret. Consequently, I shall concentrate for the most part on the letters proper and bring in evidence from the ostraca when it is pertinent for comparison or contrast. My purpose here is to survey in a general way the corpus of Aramaic letters, highlighting those elements that may be of interest to the study of the NT and OT letters; the study of specific details will have to be left to others9.

I. The Types, Provenience, and Contents of Aramaic Letters

Among the many texts that have been preserved in the corpus of Aramaic epistolography, there is none that could really be called an “epistle” in the sense in which A. Deissmann (1927:229) once defined it: “… an artistic literary form, a species of literature, just like the dialogue, the oration, or the drama. It has nothing in common with the letter except its form; apart from that one might venture the paradox that the epistle is the opposite of a real letter. The contents of an epistle are intended for publicity—they aim at interesting ‘the public.’ ” By contrast, Deissmann (1927:228) described a “letter” as “a means of communication between persons who are separated from each other.” While there are all sorts of difficulties which modern students of epistolography have with Deissmann’s definitions—and especially with the application of them to NT writings—his definitions are being used here merely to indicate that the Aramaic corpus is made up solely of “letters” in Deissmann’s broad category. Even though they may deal with official or business matters and be reports sent to or by persons in authority, they can only be described as “letters,” for they deal with concrete, ad hoc problems, request aid, propose solutions, seek advice, express concern, and so on; and they were hardly intended for publication. The sole departures—and this is problematic—are found in Dan 3:31–33, depending on how one relates that quasi-epistolary introduction to the rest of the story in chap. 4, and Dan 6:25–27, which is a decree in epistolary form. It is, of course, significant that the only possible exceptions are in biblical writings. Aside from these instances there are in the limited Aramaic corpus no examples of epistles or literary letters (either of the philosophical, hortatory, or imaginative types); nor do we know of any spurious or pseudepigraphical letters. Those that have survived are all either private letters or official letters, treating matters either of concern, news, or business.

For the most part the Aramaic letters come from Egypt. The main source of them has been the excavations on the island of Yeb or Elephantine in the Nile opposite the town of Aswan; but a number of them has also come from elsewhere in Egypt, especially from Lower Egypt (Memphis, Saqqarah, and Hermopolis West). The letters preserved in the Book of Ezra, which now have striking parallels in extrabiblical examples, have always been known as instances of Aramaic correspondence between Palestine and the Persian king. A small batch of letters, often referred to as the Arsames correspondence, was found in Egypt but came originally from either Mesopotamia or Persia; it was published by G. R. Driver (1954; rev. ed., 1965). A further small group of letters, from either Sûim’on bar Kosibah or his colleagues, reveals the use of Aramaic for correspondence within Palestine of the early second century A.D.; they were published in part by Y. Yadin (1961a, b). This diverse geographical provenience of the letters merely reflects the status of the language itself, which for a considerable period served as a lingua franca in the ancient Near East.

Among the Aramaic letters found in Egypt, some have brought to light interesting international affairs. For instance, one was a papyrus letter, unfortunately not completely preserved, found at Saqqarah in Lower Egypt, that has been dated ca. 604 B.C. and has been published by A. Dupont-Sommer (1948a). Written by Adon, the ruler of a Philistine (?) town in Palestine (?), and addressed “to the Lord of Kings, the Pharaoh,” it informs the Egyptian ruler of the advance of the troops of the Babylonian king and asks for military support against them. Though the date of the letter is not certain, it seems to be related to the advance of Nebuchadrezzar ca. 600 B.C. It is clear testimony to the use of Aramaic for official correspondence on an international level between rulers.

Another example of international correspondence in Aramaic is the letter of the leaders of the Jewish community at Elephantine, Yedaniah and his associates, priests in the fortress Yeb (AP 30). It was addressed to Bagohi, the governor of Judah in 408 B.C. (dated precisely: 20 Marḥešwan, 17th year of Darius [II]). It complains about the problems that have faced the Jewish community in Yeb since the departure of Arsames on a visit to the Persian king. Egyptian priests of the god Khnub have plotted with Widarang, the Persian satrap, to bring about the destruction of the sanctuary of Yahu which has been in Yeb and which had been built by the Jews “in the days of the Kings of Egypt,” well before “Cambyses entered Egypt.” The letter tells how the Jews have sat in sackcloth, prayed, and fasted that Widarang might be requited—which eventually happened. The Jewish leaders recall that they have written previously to Bagohi to enlist his aid, and also to Yoh\anan, the high priest, and his colleagues, the priests in Jerusalem. Now they seek from Bagohi the permission to rebuild the sanctuary in Yeb, in which they promise to offer sacrifices and to pray to Yahu on his behalf. They mention that they have also written about this matter to Delaiah and Shelemiah, sons of Sanballat, the governor of Samaria (probably Sanballat I, known from Neh 2:10, 19; 3:33; 4:1; 6:1, 2, 5, 12, 14; 13:28, grandfather of the Sanballat of the Samaria papyri found in the cave of the Wadi edDaliyeh. This is obviously a first-class example of an official letter concerning a matter of moment and importance to the Jews of Elephantine. What is noteworthy about it is that the letter was found at Elephantine itself; it probably represents a copy of the letter that was sent to Bagohi and, what is more, a duplicate of it (AP 31) was also found with a version of the letter that is slightly different. Was it an alternate version prepared by a scribe and eventually rejected in favor of the other? Was it a preliminary draft that was emended? Which version was actually sent? Or were both versions slightly different from the letter that Bagohi actually received? We have no way of answering such questions. In any case, it is certain that at least a similar letter was sent, since there is a reply, or better a “memorandum” (zkrn), sent about the matter (AP 32), and still further correspondence on the subject (AP 27, AP 33). This gives a brief idea of the most important letters from Elephantine. There are many others that deal with other subjects: the celebration of the Passover (AP 21), an appeal to a higher court (AP 16), an order to repair a government boat (AP 26), etc.

From Egypt, but outside of Elephantine, comes another group of papyri known today as the letters from Hermopolis West. In seven of the eight letters the place of origin seems to have been Memphis, for the addressees are blessed by the sender(s) in the name of the god Ptah, who had a temple in Memphis. They deal with family matters, handle business transactions, or simply express concern for persons who are absent. The place of destination in four of the letters is Swn, Syene (modern Aswan), and in three of them ‘py, Luxor. One of the editors of these letters, E. Bresciani, insists on the pagan character of them because of the destination and of the gods whose temples are mentioned in them. Yahu does not appear; the proper names are sometimes Semitic, sometimes Egyptian, sometimes as yet unanalyzed. If their destination was Syene and Luxor, the puzzle is why they were found, folded up, sealed, and for the most part preserved intact in a jar stored in an underground gallery of an Ibieion, dedicated to Thot, at Hermopolis West in the Delta region.

The letters of Bar Cochba from the Cave of Letters in the Wadi Habra (Naḥal Hever) are for the most part as yet unpublished. What is presently available is often fragmentary; but the letters reveal the diverse matters of concern to Simon bar Kosibah and his officers at the time of the Second Revolt against Rome (A.D. 132–35). Perhaps the most striking one expresses his concern to have the “palm-branches and citrons,” the “myrtle and willow twigs” delivered for the feast of Succoth or Tabernacles. The topic of the letter is of interest because it is the subject not only of an Aramaic letter, but also of a Greek one written about the same time by one who calls himself Σουμαῖος. He writes about the same individuals, Yehonathan bar Ba’yan and Masabbalah (Yhwntn br B’yn, Msblh), to whom the Greek letter is addressed: Ἰωναθῆι Βαιανοῦ καὶ Μα[σ‌]άβαλα (in the dative case). In the Greek letter, instructions are given for the furnishing of σ‌[τε]λεοὺς καὶ κίτρια … ίς [κ]ιτρειαβολὴν Ἰουδαίων, “beams and citrons for the Citron-celebration of the Jews.” These two letters come from the same general Palestinian situation, and aside from attesting to the use of the two languages to send messages about rather ordinary affairs and needs, they reveal that Aramaic was not simply a literary language of the period.

Finally, from what has been said it should be obvious that some of the Aramaic correspondence comes from other than Jewish writers. Here one touches on the problem of the identification of the “Jews” and the “Arameans” in the Elephantine texts, a problem that is larger than that of the letters alone. But it is also related to the international character of the language to which we have already alluded.

II. Some Features of Aramaic Epistolography

What follows is an attempt to organize briefly under various headings some of the obvious formal elements in Aramaic letters. As I have already indicated, most of the data is drawn from the letters proper, those preserved on skin or papyrus; occasionally formal elements from the ostraca are also used. In a sense, some of these elements may prove to be distinctive of Aramaic epistolography, but a judgment about their distinctive character would imply a comparative study which has not yet been undertaken. Attention is rather being centered here on the features themselves in a descriptive way, without any attempt to compare them or to explain their origin or what might have influenced them. No attempt is being made to analyze all of the features, e.g., the stock phrases that one often finds in letters in other languages expressing rebuke, surprise, etc. My remarks will fall rather under eight headings: (a) the names for the Aramaic letters; (b) the praescriptio; (c) the initial greeting; (d) the secondary greetings; (e) the concluding formulae; (f) the mention of a scribe or secretary; (g) the date; and (h) the final or exterior address. Such features, which are found in many of the letters, are easily detected; but it will still remain a question of how many of them actually structure the Aramaic letter. The answer to that question must await a further discussion.

The Names for the Aramaic Letter. At least three different terms are found in this type of writing for the “letter”:
(אגרתא) אגרה, (ספרא) ספר and (נשתונא) נשתון. The most common term is אגרה, a borrowed Akkadian word, egertu, which is also found in biblical Aramaic (Ezra 4:8, 11; 5:6). It is often used with the verb שלח, “send.” Thus, e.g., אגרה חדה בשלמד לא שלחת עלי “You did not send me a letter about your wellbeing” (AP 41:5). Similarly: AP 30:7, 18, 19, 24, 29; 31:6, 17, 18, 28; 38:10; 40:3; AD 10:2. Indeed, the frequency of this idiom eventually seems to have given the verb שלח the nuance of “sending a message” (AD 12:1; 4:1; 7:5; HermWP 3:6; 5:7; AP 16:8; 38:9; etc.), whereas a verb whose meaning was long misunderstood, הושר, became the more normal term for sending other objects (see BMAP 13:4; AD 13:2, 3), though it too was occasionally used with a message as its object. Other verbs too, of course, were used with אגרה; thus יהבת, “was delivered” (AD 12:1); תמתא, “will arrive” (AP 42:6); כתבו, “they wrote” (Ezra 4:8). In one instance, the document itself is explicitly labelled as אגרת שמעון בר כוסבה, “a letter of Simon bar Kosibah” (5/6 Hev 4:1).

The second, term is ספר and strictly means a “writing” (often a “book”); but in this type of literature it is used explicitly of the letter. Thus, לשלמכי שלחת ספרה זנה, “I am sending this letter to greet you” (literally, “for your peace [of mind?]”), HermWP 1:12–13; 6:[10]; cf. 2:17; 3:13; 4:12–13; 13; 5:9; 7:4; Pad II v 4–5. Cf. HermWP 1:5; 5:4 (with הושר!).

The third term, נשתון, is derived from the Persian ̊ništāvana, and probably still carries the nuance of a “written document, decree” (see AP 17:3), even in such biblical passages as Ezra 4:18, 23; 5:5.

One further term should be mentioned here, for it is the “label,” as it were, given to a document: זכרן, “a memorandum” (AP 32:1: זברן זי בגוהי ודליה, “a memorandum of Bagohi and Delaiah”. It is an interesting parallel to Ezra 6:2 (דכרונה).

(b) The Praescriptio. The term praescriptio is often taken to mean a phrase in a letter like Ἰάκωβος … ταῖς δώδεκα φυλαῖς ταῖς ἐν τῇ διασπορᾷ χαίρειν (Jas 1:1), expressing the name of the sender, that of the addressee, and the greeting. But I am limiting the sense of it to indicate solely the names of the sender and the addressee, because the greeting is sometimes absent in the extant Aramaic letters or else is formulated in various elaborate ways that call for a distinct discussion of the initial greeting. However, when the initial greeting is used, it is closely related to the praescriptio and this must be recognized, even though they are separated here for the convenience of discussion.

The praescriptio, when it is not simply implied, is usually expressed in one of five ways: (i) “To X, your servant/brother/son, Y, (greeting)”; (ii) “To X, from Y, (greeting)”; (iii) “From X, to y, (greeting)”; (iv) “X to Y, (greeting)”; (v) “To X, (greeting)”.

As examples of (i), the following may be singled out: פרור אחוך בלטר … [אל א]חי, “[To] my [br]other Pirawur, your brother Beleṭir …” (AsOst 1). Similarly (with some form of אח): AP 21:1–2; 40:1; 41:[1]; 42:1; Shunnar 1; Cl-G Ost 277:1–2; Bodl Aram Inscr 3 A 1; Strasbourg Ost 1–2; possibly Pad III. Or אל מרא מלכן פרעה עבדך אדן מלך [אשקלון] “To the Lord of Kings, the Pharaoh, your servant ‘Adon, King of [Ashkelon] …” (donL 1). Similarly (with some form of עבד): AP 17:1; 30:1; 31:1; 37:1; 38:1–2; 39:1; 70:1; HermWP 3:1; BMAP 13:1;; Ezra 4:11; Cl-G Ost 70 A-2. Or again, אל אמ[י] יה[ו]י[ש]מע ברך שלום בר פטם[ון], “To [my] mother, Yah[u]yi[sh]ma’, your son, Shallum bar Petiam[on]” (Pad II v 1)28. Similarly (with a form of בר): Cambr Ost 131–133:1.

As examples of form (ii) the following may be cited: אל אחתי רעיה מן אחכי מכבנת, “To my sister Ra’yah, from your brother Makkabanit” (HermWP 1:1). Similarly: HermWP 2:1; 3:5; 4:1–2; 5:1; 6:1; 7:1; Pad I v 1.

As examples of form (iii) we may cite: מן ארשם על וחפרעמחי, “From Arsames, to Waḥpri’maḥi” (AP 26:1). In this case no greeting follows. Similarly (with a greeting): AD 1:1; 2:1; 3:1; 5:1; (without a greeting): AD 4:1; 8:1; 9:1; 10:1; 11:1; 12:1; Letter of R. Judah the Prince; papMird A 1–429.

As examples of form (iv) we cite the following: ארתחשסתא מלך מלכיא לעזרא כהנא ספר דתא די שלה שמיא נמיר … “Artaxerxes, the King of Kings, to Ezra the priest, scribe of the religion of the God of Heaven, …” (Ezra 7:12). Similarly: Dan 3:31; 5/6Hev 1:1; 5/6Hev 8:1–3; 5/6Hev 10:1; 5/6Hev 11:1; 5/6Hev 14:1–2; 5/6Hev 15:1.

As examples of form (v) the following may be mentioned: לאחנא בני דרומא …, “To our brothers, inhabitants of the South, …” (Gamaliel, 1). Similarly: Bodl Libr Ost 1 (with אל); Cairo Ost 35468a 1 (with על); Gamaliel 2 and 3 (both with ל).

Such are the various forms of the praescriptio in the Aramaic letters. The difference is at times characteristic of a certain group of letters; thus the form “From X to Y” is preferred in the texts of the so-called Arsames correspondence (letters found in Egypt but written in Mesopotamia or Persia). Yet that form also turns up elsewhere too; and it is not easy to say to what extent local variations or chancery practices are operative.

Three further remarks should be made about the Praescriptio in an Aramaic letter. First of all, in some of the Hermopolis letters and in one of the Padua papyri there is a peculiar greeting which precedes the praescriptio, and it is not to be confused with the “initial greeting,” which is also present. It is a greeting addressed to a temple before the mention of the sender and the addressee; it begins the letter. Thus, שלם בית נבו “Greetings to the Temple of Nabu” (HermWP 1.1), or שלם בים בנת בסון “Greetings to the Temple of Banit in Syene” (HermWP 2:1; HermWP 3:1), or שלם בית ביתאל ובית מלכת שטין, “reetings to the Temple of Bethel and the Temple of the Queen of Heaven” (HermWP 4:1). The fragmentary text of HermWP 8:1 may have had a similar formula. This greeting, however, is not solely addressed to the temples of pagan gods, for one instance salutes the “Temple of Yahu in Elephantine” [שלם ב]ית יהו ביב (Pad I v 1). These letters seem to begin with an invocation of the deity honored in the place where the addressee is found. The greeting is peculiar, and its implications have not yet been fully explored, as far as I know31. As far as epistolographic style is concerned, it is a salutation distinct from the initial greeting expressed to the addressee and indicative of the piety of the writer of the letter.

Secondly, one should note the preposition used for “to” in these praescriptiones. Though אל was used as an ordinary preposition in Old Aramaic to express motion toward or direction (Sefire I B [29]; IIB 13?; III 1 ter, [8], 8, 19, 20), it gradually disappeared in Aramaic and was supplanted by על. However, the preposition אל did persist as a stereotype in the praescriptiones of letters long after it was supplanted elsewhere. Thus אל פרעה מרא מלכן
AdonL 1; cf. HermWP 1:1; 2:1; 3:5; 4:1; 5:1; 16:1; 7:1; AP 17:[1]; 21:[1]; 30:1; 31:1; 37:1; 38:1; 39:1; 40:1; 41:1; 42:[1]; 70:1; Shunnar 1; PadI v 1; Pad II v 1; Pad III; l-G Ost 277:1; Cl-G Ost 70:1; BMAP 13:[1]32. But the preposition
על began to invade the praescriptio as well, especially in the Arsames correspondence. Thus, על מראי פסמי, HermWP 3:1; cf. AP 26:1; AD 1:[1]; 2:1; 3:1; 4:1; 5:1; 6:1; 7:1; 8:1; 9:1; 10:1; 11:1; 12:1; 13:1; Ezra 4:11, 17. Yet even this preposition in time gave way to the simple ל. Thus, לדריוש מלכא “to Darius, the King” (Ezra 5:7b); cf. Ezra 7:12; Dan 3:31; 5/6Hev 1:1; 5/6Hev 4:1; 5/6Hev 8:2–3; 5/6Hev 10:1 5/6Hev 11:1; 5/6Hev 14:1–2; 5/6Hev 15:1; Gamaliel 1, 2, 3; R. Judah the Prince; papMird A 1–3.

Thirdly, note should be made of the titles used in the praescriptio to designate the addressee and the sender. The contrast of מרא and עבד causes no problem, since they designate a difference of social rank or persons of varying authority; “servant” and “lord” obviously do not imply slavery, but are used as polite customary expressions among persons of differing rank or status. Among persons of equal rank it seems that the term אח, “brother,” was used. That it may sometimes designate a blood-brother is clear; but what is striking is the use of it as a title with a more generic connotation. Thus a father, Osea bar Pet[ ], writes to his son, Shelomam, who is away on a caravan, and twice refers to himself as “brother”: “To my son, Shelomam; from your ‘brother,’ Osea.” In the exterior address of the letter: “To my ‘brother,’ Shelomam bar Osea, your ‘brother,’ Osea bar Pet[ ]” Pad I v 1; 1 r 7). In the course of the letter the father refers to אמך, “your mother” (I v 2; I r 5). Such a use of אח was at one time misunderstood, but it is now clear. Moreover, it is confirmed by the related use of אחת, “sister,” in what must be a similar polite form of address among men and women of equal standing. In HermWP 7:1 the addressee is given as אל אחתי תבי, “to my sister, TBY,” but in the exterior address one reads: אל אמי [ ], “To my mother [ ].” Similarly in HermWP 7:1 the letter is addressed: אל אמי עתררמרי, “To my mother, ‘Attar-RMRY,” but the exterior address rather has אל אחתי עתררי, “To my sister, ‘Attar-RY” (with a different [erroneous?] spelling of the name, HermWP 7:5). And to complicate the usage, HermWP 3:1, which is addressed, “My lord PSMY, your servant Makkabanit,” has the exterior address, “To my father PSMY, from Makkabanit bar PSMY” (HermWP 3:14). If further examples of such letters were to be discovered, it is possible that this usage would be further clarified.

On the ostraca one finds, undoubtedly because of the brevity of the messages, an opening that mixes greeting and praescriptio (שלם אוריה); we shall comment on this below.

The Initial Greeting. Though the initial greeting of an addressee was sometimes omitted in Aramaic letters, especially in those which had an official or quasi-official character (e.g., AD 4:2; 7:1; 8:1; 9:1; 10:1; 11:1 [the so-called Arsames correspondence]; AP 26:1; Ezra 4:11–12, in the vast majority of instances some expression involving
שלם, “peace, wellbeing,” or the verb ברך, “bless,” has been used. In a few cases שלם was used alone and probably had only the stereotyped meaning of “greetings,” functioning like the Greek χαίρειν. Thus, על רחום בעל טעם ושמשי ספרא … שלם, “To Rehum, the governor, Shimshai, the scribe, … greetings” (Ezra 4:17); see further AsûOst 1 (?); 5/6Hev 4:1; 5/6Hev 10:2. In Ezra 5:7b one finds שלמא כלא. To this brief, formulaic usage one should probably relate the short greeting, mentioned above, that is often found on ostraca: שלם אוריה, “Greetings, Uriah” (APE 76/1:1); see further AP 77:1 (?); APE 78/2:1; Bodl Aram Inscr 2:1; Cl-G 69 A 1; Munich 898 A 1; Cl-G Ost 44 A 1; Cl-G 70 A 1. Likewise the short formula such as שלם אחי בכל עדן, “Peace (or greetings), my brother, at all times” (Strasbourg Ost 3).

Such brief formulae, including the name of a person, are undoubtedly stereotyped abridgements of longer greetings. But it is not easy to say from which of the several longer formulae, to be cited below, they would have been abbreviated. In the use of longer formulae one can detect a pattern with variants; I shall list about nine different forms, but one should remember that it may be questionable to regard them as distinct varieties. They fall into two main classes; those using a שלם formula, and those using a ברך formula.

(i) The most commonly attested greeting makes use of this formula: שלם מראי אלהיא כלא [ישאלו] שגיא בכל עדן, “May all the gods be much [concerned] for the well-being of my lord at all times” (BMAP 13:1; AP 41:1; Shunnar 1)35. Sometimes the adjective “all” may be omitted (e.g., AP 56:1), and sometimes the deity may be specifically named (“the God of Heaven,” AP 30:2; 31:2; 38:[1]; 40:[1]; “Yahu Ṣebaoth,” Cl-G Ost 167:1–2; Cl-G Ost 186 A 1; “Bel and Nabu, Shamash and Nergal,” Cl-G Ost 277:1–2). The mention of the gods seems to characterize this formula as a religious wish; in one form or another it can be found in AP 17:1–2; 21:2; 37:1–2; 39:1; 40:1; 41:1; 56:1; BMAP 13:1; Shunnar 1.

(ii) An extended form of the preceding formula is found in a few instances: שלם מראן אלה שמיא ישאל שגיא בכל עדן ולרחמן ישימנך קדם דריוהוש מלכא ובני ביתא יתיר מן חד אלף וחין אריכין ינתן לך וחדה ושריר הוי בכל עדן, “May the God of Heaven be much concerned for the well-being of our lord (Bagohi) at all times, and may he show you favor before Darius the King and the princes of the palace a thousand times more than now, and may he grant you a long life, and may you be37 happy and prosperous at all times” (AP 30:1–3). Compare AP 31:1–3; AP 38:2–3 (expansion: “And may you have favor before the God of Heaven”).

(iii) A less pious form of greeting is found in the following formula: שלם וחין שלחת לד, “Peace and life I send you” (HermWP 3:5; 7:1; Bodl Aram Inscr 3 A 1–2; Cambr Ost 131–133 A 1–2). In one instance this formula is expanded with a בדך formula: שלם וחין שלחת לך ברכתך ליהה ולחני “Peace and life I send you; I bless you by Yahu and by Khnub” (Cl-G Ost 70 A 2–3). Not only is this formula a mixture of the secular and the religious, but it is syncretistic to boot.

(iv) Another form of a secular greeting is found in the following שלם ושררת [שגיא הושרת לך] “[I send you] greetings and prosperity [in abundance]” (Pad I v 1). See further AD 2:1; 3:1; 5:1; 13:1. In one instance this is expanded by the addition of [אף] שלם תמה קדמיך [יהוי], “[moreover may there be] peace there in your presence” (AD 1:1). The fragmentary nature of AP 70:1–2 makes it difficult to determine whether the greeting used there belongs in this category or not; possibly it does.

(v) The last form of a שלם greeting is found in biblical and rabbinical texts (in the latter probably in imitation of the biblical formula): שלמכון ישגא, “and may your well-being be increased” (Dan 3:31; 6:26; Gamaliel 2; Gamaliel 3).

In all of these שלם formulae one may wonder whether the word means simply “greetings” or whether it is at times pregnant with further nuances, such as I have tried to bring out in some of the above translations. It is not easy for the twentieth-century reader of these texts to discern accurately the nuance intended in what seem to be stereotyped formulae.

There are two forms of the ברך formula. In the first the verb is used in a finite form: ברכתכי לפתח זי יחזני אפיכי בשלם “I bless you by Ptaḥ, who may grant me to see your face (again) in peace” (HermWP 2:2). Similarly: HermWP 3:1–2; 4:2; 5:1–2; 6:1–2; 8:1–2. The other form is only found once, in a sort of secondary greeting; but it is related to the first, even though the verb-form is participial: / ברך אנת [ליהו אלהא] [זי יח]וני אנפיך בשלם, “(May) you (be) blessed [by Yahu, the God, who may sh]ow me your face (again) in peace” (Pad I v 2–3)41.

Such are the main features of the initial greetings in the extant Aramaic letters. One last comment should be made about them. The initial greeting is often followed by כען, כעת, וכען, וכעת, כענת, “and now,” a word that either introduces the body of the message or is repeated in the course of it as a sort of message divider; it marks logical breaks in the letter and has often been compared to English “stop” in telegrams. The word was often misunderstood in the past, being taken to mean “et cetera”, and was wrongly linked to the preceding greeting (see Ezra 4:10, 11b, 17; 7:12 [following גמיר!]). Now, however, its usage is clear from extrabiblical evidence (see AP 30:4; AD 4:1; 5:1; 7:1, 3, 5; HermWP 1:6–11).

The Secondary Greetings. In some letters after the initial greeting that is closely linked to the praescriptio there follows a series of secondary greetings, either of the type, “Say hello to …,” or “X sends greetings.” In these formulae
שלם is again used, but it is found in a cryptic expression which is not always clear; the Aramaic construct chain, which literally means “the peace of X,” is used to convey the sense of both “greetings to” and “greetings from.” I shall try to sort them out, but opinions may differ about them. Sometimes other words in the phrase or the immediate context help to determine the sense of the construct chain. Thus, שלם בנתסרל וארג ואסרשת ושרדר חרוץ שאל שלמהן וכעת שלם [ל]לחרץ תנה “Greetings to Banit-SRL and ‘RG and ‘SRŠT and Śadur; Ḥorwaṣ asks about their well-being. Now Ḥorwaṣ is well here.…” Or, שלם אמי ממה שלם אחי בתי ואנשתה ובגוהי שלם רעיה, “Greetings to my mother MMH, greetings to my brother BTY and his wife and children, greetings to Ra’yah” Similarly: HermWP 4:3, 10–12, 13–14; 7:2, 3–4; AP 39:1–3; 40:1; 57:1 (?). Two other cases are relatively clear: [אנה ומך]בנת שאלן שלמכי ושלם תרו [ ], “[I and Makka] banit inquire about your well-being and the well-being of TRW[ ]” (HermWP 6:7–8). וכעת בזנה קדמי שלם אף תמה קדם[י]ך שלם יהוי, “Now all goes well with me here; and (hopefully) it goes well with you too there” (AD 5:1–2).

The problematic greeting is the following: לך שלם גלגל תנם שלם ינקיה [ ], which I once translated as “To you greetings from Galgul TNM, greetings from the children! [ ].” The letters TNM should be read as תנה; compare שלם נבושה תנה, “Nabusheh is well here” (HermWP 2:2–3)44. But then what is to become of לך at the beginning of the line? Moreover, the following phrase also becomes problematic, because שלם must be singular and the following word is plural. Could it mean rather “to you (comes) the greeting of Galgul here, (and) the greeting of the children”? In this case Galgul would be with the writer and would be sending his greetings; hence “greetings from …” would be the force of שלם. See further Pad I r 5 (שלם אמך וינקיא, “greetings from your mother and the children”).

These secondary greetings do not always follow on the heels of the initial greeting; in one instance or other they are found further along in the body of the letter (see HermWP 4:10–12, 13–14). In one case the greeting is expressed toward the end of the letter, and one hesitates to include it here because it may rather be part of a concluding formula. There is so far only one example of it and no way of being sure that it is actually formulaic. Hence I include it here: שלם ביתך ובניך עד אלהיא יחוונן [א בהן], “Peace be to your house and your children till the gods let us see (our desire) upon them” (Cowley’s translation, AP 34:7).

The Concluding Formulae. Only two phrases have appeared so far in a formulaic way that permits them to be described as conclusions to a message. Both of them again make use of
שלם, but in different ways. The more common is of this sort: לשלמכי שלחת ספרא זנה, “I have sent this letter for your peace (of mind)” (HermWP 1:12–13; 6:[10]). Similarly HermWP 2:17; 3:13; 4:12–13; 5:9; 7:4; Pad II v 4–5; Cl-G Ost 70 B 2. The other formula is shorter and somewhat harder to explain: הוא שלם, “Be (at) peace!” (5/6Hev 4:5; 5/6Hev 15:5) or in the plural, הרר שלם, “Be (at) peace!” (5/6Hev 11:3).

The Mention of a Scribe or Secretary. Toward the end of a letter one finds at times the mention of a secretary who seems to have drafted the letter and of a scribe who copied it or took the dictation for it. This is found in more or less official letters, usually in the so-called Arsames correspondence. Thus,
ענני ספרא בעל [טע]ם נבועקב כתב “Anani, the secretary, drafted the order; Nabu’akab wrote (it)” (AP 26:23, 23, Cowley’s translation). And on the exterior, just before the date one reads: נבועקב ספרא, “Nabu’aqab (was) the scribe”. Again, another official is sometimes introduced: בגסרו ידע טעמא זנה אחפפי ספרא, “Bagasraw is cognizant of this order; ‘Ahpipi (was) the scribe” (AD 4:4). Similarly: AD 6:6; 7:10; 8:6; 9:3; 10:5. A slightly different formula is found in one of the letters of Simon bar Kosibah: שמעון בר יהודה כתבה, “Šim̀on bar Yehudah wrote it” (5/6Hev 8:7).

The Date. In a few instances the letter is dated. This is usually done toward the end, but once it follows the initial greeting (AP 21:3). In this case the date is more or less part of the message:
וכעת שנתא זא שנת 5 דריוהוש מלכא, “Now this year is the 5th year of Darius, the King.” Aside from that instance the date normally occurs in a prepositional phrase: ב19 למרחשון שנת 37 ארתחשס[ש] “on the 19th of Marḥešwan, the 37th year of Artaxerxes” (AP 17:7). Or again, ב20 למרחשון שנת 17 דריהוש מלכא, “On the 20th of Marḥešwan, the 17th year of Darius, the King” (AP 30:30; 31:[29]). Similarly AP 26:28. In one instance the name of the month is given with both Egyptian and Babylonian names: ב27 תעבי ה[ו ניס]ן [ש]נת, “On the 27th of Tybi, th[at is Nis]an, [the?th] year of [ ]” (AP 42:14). A fuller form is sometimes used: [ב?] למחיר כתבת אגרתא זא, “[on the?th] of Meḥir I have written this letter” (Pad I r 6)51.

The Final or Exterior Address. When the papyrus or skin letter was completed, it was usually folded up carefully and sealed. On the outside a line was written which indicated the name of the sender and the addressee. In many instances this address was similar to the praescriptio, or abbreviated it, or simply repeated it. Two basic forms can be detected: those that begin with the preposition “to” and those that begin with “from.”

The “To” Form. Usually the same preposition that was employed in the praescriptio is found in the exterior address. Thus,
[אל] אחי ידניה וכנותה חילא יהודיא אחוכם חנני[ה], “[To] my brothers, Yedaniah and his colleagues, the Jewish garrison, your brother, Hanani[ah]” (AP 21:11). In this instance the exterior address is identical with the praescriptio. Similarly, to the extent that the address is preserved: AP 37:17; 39:5; Pad II r 1. Occasionally, the difference is simply a case of the titles (אחת, אח) being omitted in the exterior address (HermWP 2:18) or of full names being used in it (AP 40:5; 41:[9?]; 42:[15?]; Shunnar 9). But often enough it is a little more complicated. Thus, the titles are changed, as we have noted above: HermWP 3:15; 6:11; 7:5. Or the titles are omitted, and the full name of the sender alone is given (HermWP 4:15). Or the letter is addressed to only one person, though two are named in the praescriptio, and the full name of the sender is given (HermWP 5:10). Or the titles are changed and full names are used (Pad I v 7); or some names and titles used in the praescriptio are omitted, but the full name of the sender is given (AP 38:12). In one instance the letter is addressed to a different person in the exterior address: אל אבי פסמי בר נבונתן מן מכבנת, “To my father, PSMY bar Nabunathan, from Makkabanit”; but the praescriptio reads: אל אחתי רעיה מן אחכי מכבנת, “To my sister, Ra`yah, from your brother, Makkabanit” (HermWP 1:1)52.

In the letters from Hermopolis West a further element appears, a directive for the carrier indicating the destination of the letter, usually given at the end of the line and separated a bit from the address proper. Thus, סון יבל, “(To) be carried (to) Syene” (HermWP 1:14; 2:18; 3:14); אפי יבל, “(To) be carried (to) Luxor” (HermWP 5:10; 6:11; 7:5); or simply סון, “(To) Syene” (HermWP 4:15)53.

The “From” Form. The exterior address that begins with
מן instead of “to” is almost exclusively confined to the so-called Arsames correspondence, and it is not easy to say whether it represents the style of a locality or of an official letter. In many instances there is a little fuller identification of the sender or of the addressee(s), sometimes including the directive, “who are in Egypt.” Thus, [מן] אר[שם בר ביתא ע]ל אר[תונת זי במץ]רי [ן], “[From] Ar[sames, the palace prince, t]o Ar[tawont who is in Eg]yp[t]” (AD 1)54. In this case the address adds the identification of Arsames as “the palace prince” and the directive, “who are in Egypt.” Similarly: AD 2, 3, 5. The simple addition of the directive is found in AD 4. In AD 7 the address identified the addressee as “the office who is in Lower Egypt,” an addition to the praescriptio-formula; similarly: AD 8, 9, 10, 12, 13. Note the form in AD 11: מן ורוהי על נחתחור וחן[ד]סירם ו[כנותה המרכריא זי במערין], “From Warohi to Neḥtiḥhur and the comptroller (?) and his col[leagues, the accountants, who are in Egypt].” Here there are an additional title and an indication of the destination. To this group belongs AP 26:27, which is fragmentary.

The Arsames correspondence in AD is also distinctive in having a docket written on the outside along with the address; it explains in brief the contents of the letter. For example, על דשנא זי אחחפי פקידא זי[במץ]רין “Concerning the grant of ‘Aḥḥapi, the officer who is in Egypt” (AD 2). This item is often very difficult to read. Traces of it can be found in AD 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12.

There is one letter in the Arsames correspondence that completely lacks an address, but the nature of the letter explains the reason for the absence of it. It is a sort of passport, a letter to be carried and showed to various subordinate officials along the way to Egypt, who are instructed by it to provide rations and (presumably) lodging for the bearer and his traveling companions (AD 6). It is obviously an official letter, addressed to several persons in different places.

III. Conclusion

Having come to the end of the enumeration of the items that are formulaic or somewhat stereotyped in Aramaic letters, we may ask now to what extent one can detect a structure in them. This is not easy to answer, but the majority of the letters normally have the following scheme: (1) the praescriptio, (2) the initial greeting, either religious or secular, (3) the secondary greetings, (4) the body of the letter, and (5) a concluding statement. Whether one should include the exterior address is debatable. Many of these features have a similarity with counterparts in other corpora of letters from the ancient eastern Mediterranean world, which a comparative study would illustrate in abundance. As for the biblical letters, those in Ezra supply the closest parallels to the extrabiblical material; those in Daniel less so—and there is a real question whether the latter should even be considered. Certain items in NT epistolography find illustration in some elements of the Aramaic letters descussed above, but a more detailed study of the bearing of Aramaic letters on them remains to be done.

Lastly, it should be noted that because Aramaic was used as a sort of international language over a wide area and for several centuries, some of the different formulae and features may have to be accounted for in this way. There is no certainty that the various features which we have sorted out were all being used simultaneously. At times some of the features were obviously confined to one group of letters or other; hence one has to be careful about extrapolating and predicating such features of Aramaic epistolography as a whole.

IV. Postscript (1980)

A few years ago J. B. Segal (1977:1) communicated to the readers of the Newsletter for Targumic & Cognate Studies some numbers from the Museum Journal for Elephantine papyri now preserved in the Cairo Museum, which once bore Berlin numbers in the publication of E. Sachau (1911). In the charts that follow I have continued to retain the Berlin numbers. The numbers that Segal has made known do not replace all those of Berlin and refer to some texts of Sachau’s edition which are not in these charts. Hence I think it best to retain the Berlin numbers, which can be controlled in Sachau’s publication, and list here the correspondences made known for eleven of them by Segal, since I have not been able to check them personally and have to depend on the numbers in the Newsletter. I list them here in the order of the letters in chart 1.

Sachau Number

Cairo Museum Number

Sachau Number

Cairo Museum Number

P 13478


P 13494


P 13480


P 13462


P 13492


P 13473


P 13496


P 13463


P 13472


P 13490


P 13468




D. Pardee (1978:323) has listed a few further items that may well be considered beyond the letters listed in my charts. Since I am skeptical about the pertinence of some of them, I have not incorporated them into the revised lists in the charts. But the reader may well want to consult them.




Name and Provenience

Museum No.

Easy Access

Editio Princeps


‘Adon Letter (Saqqarah)

Cairo 86984

KAI 266

A. Dupont-Sommer, Sem 1 (1948) 43–68


Hermopolis West Papyrus I



E. Bresciani and M. Kamil, Le lettere aramaiche di Hermopoli (AdANdL, Memorie VIII/xii/5; Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1966) 372–82


Herm WP II



Ibid., 384–90





Ibid., 392–96


Herm WP IV



Ibid., 398–403


Herm WP V



Ibid., 404–7


Herm WP VI



Ibid., 408–10





Ibid., 412–15





Ibid., 416–18


Barley (?) Letter (Elephantine, 484 B.C.)

Berlin 13455

AP 4

E. Sachau, Aramäische Papyrus und Ostraka (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1911), pl. 36, pap. 41, p. 136


Letter to Higher Court (Elephantine, 435 B.C.)

Berlin 13478

AP 16

APO, pl. 7, pap. 7, pp. 41–43


Letter to Arsames (Elephantine, 428 B.C.)

Berlin 13480

AP 17

APO, pl. 5, pap. 4, pp. 34–35


Passover Letter (Elephantine, 419 B.C.)

Berlin 13464

AP 21

APO, pl. 6, pap. 6, pp. 36–40


Letter of Boat Repairs (Elephantine, 412 B.C.)

Berlin 13492

AP 26

APO, pls. 8–9, pap. 8, pp. 44–49


Petition to Satrap (Elephantine, 410 B.C.)


AP 27

J. Euting, MPAIBL 11/2 (1903) 279–311 297–311


Petition to Bagohi (Elephantine, 408 B.C.)

Berlin 13495

AP 30

APO, pls. 1–2, pap. 1, pp. 3–22


Duplicate of §16 (Elephantine, 408 B.C.)

Berlin 13496

AP 31

APO, pl. 3, pap. 2, pp. 23–26


Memo from Bagohi to Jews (Elephantine, 408 B.C.)

Berlin 13497

AP 32

APO, pl. 4, pap. 3, pp. 28–30


Letter to Satrap (Elephantine, 407 B.C.)

Berlin 13472

AP 33

APO, pl. 4, pap. 5, pp. 31–33


Letter to Satrap (Elephantine, 407 B.C.)

Berlin 13471

AP 34

APO, pl. 15, pap. 15, pp. 63–65


Letter from Shewa b. Z. (Elephantine, 399 B.C.)

Brooklyn 47.218.151


E. G. Kraeling, BMAP, pp. 281–90


Letter to Yedaniah (Elephantine, 5th c.)

Berlin 14368

AP 37

APO, pl. 11, pap. 10, pp. 51–54


Letter to Yedaniah (Elephantine, 5th c.)

Berlin 13494

AP 38

APO, pl. 12, pap. 11, pp. 55–57


Letter to Lady Shelwah (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 13462

AP 39

APO, pl.13, pap. 12, pp. 58–59


Letter of Hosea to Palṭi (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 13473

AP 40

APO, pl. 13, pap. 14, pp. 59–60


L. to Seḥo, my brother (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin, 13463

AP 41

APO, pl. 14, pap. 13, pp. 60–61


Business Letter (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 13490

AP 42

APO, pl. 16, pap. 16, pp. 66–68


Fragmentary Letters (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 13457

AP 54

APO, pl. 36, pap. 39, p. 133–34


Letter Fragment (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 13460

AP 55

APO, pl. 36, pap. 40, p. 135


Letter Fragment (Elephantine, 4th c.)

Berlin 13456

AP 56

APO, pl. 37, pap. 43, p. 138


Letter Fragment (Elephantine, 4th c.)

Berlin 13450

AP 57

APO, pl. 38, pap. 45, p. 140


Address of Letter (Elephantine, 4th c.)

Berlin 13454

AP 58

APO, pl. 37, pap. 42, pp. 137–38


L. to Mithravahisht (Egypt,?)


AP 70

CIS 2.144 + pl, XV


Garrison Letter (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)


AP 80

M. de Vogüé, CRAIBL 1902, p. 49


Letter Fragments (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)


RES 248

M. de Vogüé, CRAIBL 1902, p. 49


Letter about a Boat (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 23000


Z. Shunnar, in Geschichte Mittelasiens im Altertum (eds. P. Altheim an d R. Stiehl; Berlin, 1970) 111–17 (+pls. 1–2)


Mariette Fragment (Memphis, 4th c.)


AP 77

J. Euting, SPAW 23 (1887) 670; CIS 2. 152, pl. XX


Padua Pap. Letter I (Egypt, 5th c.)



E. Bresciani, RSO 35 (1960) 11–24 (+pls. 1–5), esp. pp. 18–22


Padua Pap. Letter II



Ibid., 22–24


Padua Pap. Letter III



Ibid., 24


El Hibeh Letter



E. Bresciani, Aeg 39 (1959) 3–8 (+pl. opp. p. 4)


Saqqarah Letter Fragment1


RES 1808

M. Sznycer, Hommages à André Dupont-Sommer (Paris, 1971) 163–65


Saqqarah Letter Frg. 2


RES 1809

Ibid., 165–66


Saqqarah Letter Frg. 3


RES 1810

Ibid., 166–76


Saqqarah Letter Frg.



Aimé-Giron, N., ASAE 39 (1939) 339–41


Arsames Letter I (found in Egypt; 5th c.)

Bodleian Library, pellis aramaica VI

AD 1

G. R. Driver, AD, pp. 10–12


Arsames Letter II

Bodl. L. p. a. XII

AD 2

Ibid., 12–13


Arsames Letter III

Bodl. L p. a. VII

AD 3

Ibid., 13–15


Arsames LetterIV

Bodl. L. p. a. II

AD 4

Ibid., 16–17


Arsames Letter V

Bodl. L. p. a. IV

AD 5

Ibid., 17–20


Arsames Letter VI

Bodl. L. p. a. VIII

AD 6

Ibid., 20–23


Arsames Letter VII

Bodl. L. p. a. I

AD 7

Ibid., 23–25


Arsames Letter VIII

Bodl. L. p. a. XIII

AD 8

Ibid., 25–28


Arsames Letter IX

Bodl. L. p. a. III

AD 9

Ibid., 28–29


Arsames Letter X

Bodl. L. p. a. IX

AD 10

Ibid., 29–31


Warohi Letter (found in Egypt, 5th c.)

Bodl. L. p. a. V

AD 11

Ibid., 31–33


Warphish Letter (found in Egypt, 5th c.)

Bodl. L. p. a. XIV

AD 12

Ibid., 33–35


Artahay Letter (found in Egypt, 5th c.)

Bodl. L. p. a. X

AD 13

Ibid., 35–36


Letter to King Artaxerxes (5th c.)


Ezra 4:11–16



Letter to Rehum and Shimshai (5th c.)


Ezra 4:17–22



Letter to King Darius


Ezra 5:7b–17



Letter (?) to Tattenai


Ezra 6:2–12



Letter to Ezra


Ezra 7:12–26



Nebuchadrezzar’s Encyclical (?)


Dan 3:31–33 (98–100)

Cf. LXX 4:37b


Darius’ Letter to All Peoples


Dan 6:26–28



Enoch Giants Letter



J. T. Milik, Books of Enoch (Oxford, 1976) 315–16


Letter of Sûim ‘on bar Kosibah I


5/6Hev 1

E. Y. Kutscher, Leš 25 (1961) 119–21


L. of Sû. b. Kosibah II


5/6Hev 2

Y. Yadin, IEJ 11 (1961) 42


L. of Sû. b. Kosibah III


5/6Hev 4

Ibid., 43


L. of Sû. b. Kosibah IV


5/6Hev 8

Ibid., 44–45


L. of Sû. b. Kosibah V


5/6Hev 10

Ibid., 45–46


L. of Sû. b. Kosibah VI


5/6Hev 11

Ibid., 46; cf. E. Y. Kutscher, Leš 25 (1961) 126–27


L. of Sû. b. Kosibah VII


5/6Hev 14

Y. Yadin, IEJ 11 (1961) 47–48; E. Y. Kutscher, Leš 25 (1961) 127–29


L. of Sû. b. Kosibah VIII


5/6Hev 15

Y. Yadin, IEJ 11 (1961) 48–50


Letter of R. Gamaliel I


ArDial p. 3

jSanhedrin 18d


Letter of R. Gamaliel II


ArDial p. 3

jSanhedrin 18d


Letter of R. Gamaliel III


ArDial p. 3

jSanhedrin 18d


L. of R. Judah the Prince to Emperor Antoninus


AAH I/1, p. 64

Běrēsı̂t Rabbāh 75


Christian Palestinian Aramaic Letter (8th–10th c. A.D.)


papMird A

J. T. Milik, RB 60 (1953) 533–39; Bib 42 (1961) 21–27




Name and Provenience

Museum No.

Easy Access

Editio Princeps


Asshur Ostracon

Berlin 8384

KAI 233

M. Lidzbarski, ZA 31 (1917–18) 193–202


Murabba’at Letter (?) (100–50 B.C.)

Ecole Biblique

Mur 72

J. T. Milik, Les grottes de Murabba’at (DJD 2; Oxford: Clarendon, 1961) 172–74


Yarḥaw Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Cl-G Ost 277


A. Dupont-Sommer, RHR 128 (1944) 28–39


Double Message to Uriah and Aḥiṭab (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 11383

APE 76/1

Sachau, APO, no. 76/1, pl. 63/1, pp. 233–34


Ostracon to ḤWNY (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 11364

APE 76/2

APO, 76/2, p. 63/2, pp. 234–35


Fragmentary Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 11369

APE 76/3

APO, 76/3, pl, 63/3 p. 235


Fragmentary Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 11384

APE 76/4

APO, 76/4, pl. 63/4, pp. 235–36


Fragmentary Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 11377

APE 76/5

APO, 76/5, pl. 63/5, p. 236


Fragmentary Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 8763

RES 496 1804

A. Cowley, PSBA 25 (1903) 314


Passover Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 10679

APE 77/2

M. Lidzbarski, Ephemeris, 2.229–34


Hosha’yah Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Bodleian Libr. Ost.

RES 1793

A. H. Sayce, PSBA 33 (1911) 183–84


Fragmentary Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 11380

APE 78/1

APO, 78/1, pl. 65/1, pp. 238–39


Aḥuṭab Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 10680

APE 78/2

M. Lidzbarski, Ephemeris, 2.234–36; 3.257, n. 1


Dream Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 1137

KAI 270

A. Dupont-Sommer, ASAE 48 (1948) 117–30 (+pl. II)


Salt Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Cl-G Ost 16


A. Dupont-Sommer, ASAE 48 (1948) 109–16 (+pl. II)


Fragmentary Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 11367


APO, 80/6, pl. 67/6, p. 242


Uriah Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Ashmolean Mus. (lost)

APE 91

A. Cowley, PSBA 25 (1903) 259–66


Cucumber Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Bodleian, Aram Inscr 2

RES 493, 1801

A. Cowley, PSBA 25 (1903) 311–12


Fragmentary Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Bodleian, Aram Inscr 3

RES 494, 1802

A. Cowley, PSBA 25 (1903) 312


Fragmentary Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

British Mus. 14220

APE 95

CIS 2.139 (+pl. XII)


Haggai Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Cairo Ost 35468a

RES 1295

A. H. Sayce, PSBA 31 (1909) 154–55


Earley Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Cairo Ost 35468b

RES 1296

M. Lidzbarski, Ephemeris, 3.121–22; N. Aimé-Giron, Textes araméens d’Egypte (Cairo: Institut français, 1931), No. 3


Nabudalah Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Cairo Ost 49635


N. Aimé-Giron, ASAE 26 (1926) 23–27


Shallu’ah Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Cairo Ost 49624


N. Aimé-Giron, ASAE 26 (1926) 27–29


Fragmentary Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Cairo Ost 49625


N. Aimé-Giron, ASAE 26 (1926) 29–31


Yirpeyah Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Munich 898

RES 1298

M. Lidzbarski, Ephemeris, 3.21–22


Fragmentary Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Munich 899

RES 1299

M. Lidzbarski, Ephemeris, 3.20–21


Yedaniah Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Cl-G Ost 44


A. Dupont-Sommer, Hebrew and Semitic Studies: Presented to G. R. Driver (eds. D. W. Thomas and W. D. McHardy; Oxford: Clarendon, (1963) 53–58


Micaiah Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Cl-G Ost 70

ANET 491

A. Dupont-Sommer, RHR 130 (1945) 17–28


Yislaḥ Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Cl-G Ost 152

AC 33A

A. Dupont-Sommer, Sem 2 (1949) 29–39


Yahu-Ṣeba’oth Ostracon I (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Cl-G Ost 167


A. Dupont-Sommer, CRAIBL 1947, pp. 179–81


Aḥuṭab Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Cl-G Ost 169


A. Dupont-Sommer, RevEtSém 1941–45, pp. 65–75


Fragmentary Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Cl-G Ost 186

AC 33B

A. Dupont-Sommer, Scritti in onore di Giuseppe Furlani (=RSO 32 [1957]; Rome: Bardi, 1957) 403–9


Parasceve Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Cl-G Ost 204


A. Dupont-Sommer, MPAIBL 15 (1950) 67–88


Qawwiliah Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Cambridge 131–33


A. Cowley, JRAS 61 (1929) 107–11


Meshullak Ostracon (Elephantine, 5/4 c.)

Berlin 11379


APO, 84/7, pl. 71/7, p. 250


Yashib Ostracon (bought at Edfu; probably from 2d C. B C.)

Berlin 10964

APE 81/1

APO, 81/1, pl. 68/1, p. 243


Leptines Ostracon (found in Egypt; Hellenistic period)

Strasbourg Libr.

RES 1300

M. Lidzbarski, Ephemeris, 3.23–25


Yahu-Seba’oth Ostracon II

Cl-G Ost 175


A. Dupont-Sommer, CRAIBL 1947, pp. 181–85


Cl-G Ost 228


H. Lozachmeur, Sem 21 (1971) 81–93


Ost BM 133028


J. B. Segal, Iraq 31 (1969) 173–74


Ṣeḥo Ostracon (Elephantine, 5 c.)

CIS 2.138

RES 495

R. Degan, NESE (1972) 23–37


Masada Ostracon (Masada, 1 c. A.D.)



Y. Yadin, IEJ 15 (1965) 111


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The Aramaic “Family Letter” and Related Epistolary Forms in Other Oriental Languages and in Hellenistic Greek

Paul E. Dion

University of Toronto


The Aramaic papyri discovered at Hermopolis in 1945 display a wealth of affectionate epistolary formulae, which identify them as family letters. A handful of earlier letters, written in Aramaic, Hebrew, or Phoenician, fall into roughly the same pattern. Most of the internal formulae characterizing this small corpus of West Semitic family correspondence have close counterparts in Egyptian (hieratic letters of the late Ramesside period; demotic letters, mostly Ptolemaic and Roman ostraca), in Akkadian (above all, tablets from Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenian times), and, quite remarkably, in Greek (hellenistic papyri from the Roman period). The affinities of both the Aramaic initial blessing (ברכתכי לפתח) and the Greek προσχύνημα to the demotic sm r formula and its pharaonic antecedents suggest that Aramaic and Greek family letters written in Egypt were influenced by the native epistolary tradition; and actually, wherever Aramaic and Greek formulae agree, an Egyptian equivalent is at hand. Nevertheless, all three types of family letters are kept apart by the diverging address formulae they use, and the Aramaic and Greek letters retain noticeable marks of autonomy even where the Egyptian influence seems to be at work.

1.1 Of the undoubtedly innumerable letters written in Aramaic from the seventh century B.C. down to the time of Bar Kokhbah, very few have been preserved; apart from letters quoted in the Bible and the Rabbinical writings, one could hardly list more than a hundred reasonably well preserved items.. Within this small corpus, the only sizable and homogeneous group which can readily be recognized as “family letters”2 consists of the eight papyri from around 500 B.C. (see Naveh, 1970: 16, 18; 1971) found at Hermopolis West in 1945 (original edition: Bresciani and Kamil; most recent ed.: Gibson, No. 27).

1.2 In their address formulae and elsewhere, the Hermopolis letters use the vocabulary of blood relationships very generously. No doubt, terms like “mother” and “sister” are often applied rather broadly in these letters; Makkibanit, for instance, calls Tashay “my sister” (pap II, 1. 1), although Tashay is certainly his wife (see pap I, 11. 11–12). In pap VII, the same person is called “mother” on 1. 1 and “sister” on 1. 5, while pap VI is addressed to “my sister” on 1. 1, and to “my mother” on 1. 11. It is obvious, nonetheless, that writers and recipients are related among themselves. In fact, the same people are mentioned again and again in the first six letters, which thus present us with a unique outlook on the feelings and workings of an Aramaean family. Material concerns are often discussed in this group of letters, but only private interests are involved, and their scope is restricted to small-scale sales, purchases and transports, and worries about wages; personal news and inquiries about relatives are never missing, and often prevalent.

1.3 Introductory formulae and concluding formulae are most decisive in distinguishing this type of correspondence from more or less similar letters written during the same period. Ill preserved as it is, papyrus AP 41 provides an easy test of this rule. This letter from the second half of the fifth century is addressed to “brothers,” who are probably true relatives of the sender. Whatever actual business is discussed seems to revolve around common interests private to these parties. The body of the letter expresses the same kind of sentiments and uses the same kind of formulae as the Hermopolis letters. But the introductory formulae link AP 41 to a letter type of wider application, best exemplified by AP 30–31 and pap Berol 23000, which was not prevalently used to keep in touch with relatives. For comparable cases, see also AP 56 + 34; 37; 39; 40; 57; BMAP 13 (cf. Porten, 272–74).

1.4 The Hermopolis letters are tightly knit together by many more ever recurring epistolary formulae; above all, by a choice of mostly soothing, affectionate phrases, which appear mainly within the body of the message. Most of the following discussion will hinge on these formulae.

1.5.0 Here is a simplified synopsis of the Hermopolis letter type, based on the fairly regular succession of its formulae. For the sake of readability, concrete examples will be used instead of abstract symbols. Continuous numbering is used, for easy reference through the rest of this paper.

Temple greeting:

שלם בית נבו “Greetings (to the) house of Nabu!” (pap I; cf. pap II–IV; VIII).

Interior address:

אל אחתי רעיה מן אחכי מכבנת “To my sister Ra’yah, from your brother Makkibanit” (pap I; cf. pap II and the special message inserted in pap III, 11.5ff.; pap IV–VII).

Initial greeting (also called: “initial blessing”):

ברכתכי לפתח זי יחזני אפיך בשלם “I bless you to Ptah, that he may cause me to see your face in well-being” (pap I; cf. pap II–VI; VIII).

Alternative initial greeting:

שלם וחין שלחת לך “I send you well-being and life” (pap IIIB; cf. pap VII).

Secondary greetings:

שלם אמי ממה “Greetings (to) my mother Mamah” (many times in pap I–IV; VII; VIII? Often enough, this is found within the body of the letter).

ברי שאל שלכי “My son inquires about your well-being” (pap VI, verso, 1.2; cf. I, verso, 1. 3; VI, verso, 1.7, restored; VIII, verso, 11. 7–8, restored).

The body of the letter: its arrangement:

Short, disconnected sections, often headed by the particle וכעת (וכען in pap VII), “And now.” In the middle of pap III, there is a secondary message (“IIIB”), addressed to a brother of the sender’s.

Internal formulae:

שלם נבושה תנה “Nabushah is well here” (pap II; cf. also pap I, where a lamed is used before the proper name; VI; VIII, restored).

אל תצפו לי “Do not worry about me” (pap III, recto, 1. 4; cf. also I; II; III, verso, 1. 3; VIII, twice; and probably VI. In pap I; II; VI, this formula follows 1.5.8 and both phrases have the same object).

לכן אנה יצף “It is about you I am concerned” (pap III; cf. IV and probably VIII. In pap III and IV, this formula follows 1.5.9).

שלם יקיה הוי שלחת לה “Do send her news of Yaqiah” (pap I, recto, 4).

מה הי דה זי ספר לה הושרתן “What is this, that you have not sent any letter?” (pap V, verso, 7, cf. 3–4; I, verso, 5–6).

הוי חזית על ינקיא אלכי “Do look after those babies” (pap VII, verso, 2–3; cf. pap I, recto, 4).

אזדהרי בה “Take care of her” (pap II, 1.17; cf. IV, verso, 8–9).

כל זי תצבה שלח לי “Whatever you desire, ‘send’ to me (about it)” (pap III, verso, 7).

Final greeting:

לשלמכי שלחת ספרה זנה “I send this letter to inquire about your well-being” (pap I; cf. II–III; V–VII; verification on pap VIII is impossible).

אל אבי פסמי בר ובונתן מן מכבנת סון יבל “To my father Psami bar Nabunatan, from Makkibanit; (to) Assuan let it be carried”.

2.1.1 By applying this kind of analysis to the whole corpus, definite links can be established between the Hermopolis papyri and a few other ancient Aramaic letters. A common pattern emerges, which, as we shall see, was widely used for family correspondence among the Western Semites around the middle of the first millennium (see Dion, 1977; 1979 RB article). Closest in type to the texts from Hermopolis are the Clermont-Ganneau ostracon No. 70 (ed. by Dupont-Sommer, 1945), perhaps a couple more ostraca, and the Padua papyri (ed. by Bresciani, 1960; see also Gibson, No. 28). Padua pap I is slightly contaminated by another letter type10, but the other features it contributes (two internal formulae) do not disturb at all the pattern we found in the Hermopolis papyri. One of these formulae is a blessing, which only departs from 1.5.3 by using the passive participle instead of the perfect of ברך (verso, 2–3). The other formula is a noun phrase:

מחבל לא איתי “There is nothing wrong” (verso, 7).

2.2.1 Some of the Hebrew letters from Tel Arad (ed: by Aharoni), which were written at least a century earlier than the Hermopolis papyri, are family letters of a quite similar type. In their heading, the names of Sender and Addressee are inserted in a variant form of the Hermopolis final greeting (1.5.16):

אחך חנניהו שלח לשלם אלישב ולשלם ביתך “Your brother Hananyahu inquires about Elyashib’s well-being and that of your household” (No. 16).

2.3 A Phoenician letter, a Saqqarah papyrus from the VIth (?) century (KAI 50), is more isolated, but must certainly be classified as a family letter related to the Hermopolis papyri. It is characterized above all by its retention of a second millennium heading, the so-called “messenger formula”, and by variations in the other phrases, which betray separate contacts with the Egyptian models we are now to discuss.

3.1 For various reasons, my knowledge of Egyptian family letters is very incomplete. To achieve better results, all letters written to relatives in hieratic and demotic should be identified, and classified according to choice and sequence of formulae. Moreover, the small demotic corpus to which I had access does not contain any elaborate family letter, comparable, for instance, to LEM No. 67, 11. 11ff. from the XIXth Dynasty (tr. by Caminos, 258–60; see also Erman, 201–2). To the best of my knowledge, the most directly relevant demotic letters, such as Leiden ost. No. 339 (ed. by Nur el-Din) are written on ostraca, and as such, they cannot be expected to match the Aramaic papyri very well. It seems possible, however, to show that most of the formulae used in the Aramaic and Hebrew family letters had an Egyptian background17:

3.2.1 From the VIth century B.C. onward, one finds in demotic letters many examples of a phrase (the sm r formula) which corresponds to Aramaic formula 1.5.3: “So-and-so blesses (lit.: praises) So-and-so here, before the god So-and-so, that he may …” The last element can end in various fashions; in one of its forms, it reads: “that he may cause me to see your face in well-being” (So, e.g., Theban ost. No. 14; cf. pap Erbach, recto, col. I). There are good precedents to such a combination of blessing and reunion wish in letters in hieratic, from the XIXth Dynasty onward (see Bakir, 63; Couroyer, 578–81)19.

3.2.2 At the end of several demotic letters, one finds a secondary greeting which runs: “May they (indefinite plural) inquire about the well-being of So-and-so” (see Lichtheim, No. 153; Nur el-Din, No. 337). By its wording, this formula is quite similar to Aram. form. 1.5.6 but it resembles 1.5.5 in that it is used by the writer to send his own best regards to some companion of the recipient’s.

3.2.3 Such banalities as the Aramaic formulae 1.5.8 through 1.5.15 are bound to turn up, occasionally at least, in private letters from quite unrelated traditions. The matter may stand a little differently, however, when identical groupings of formulae are documented in cultural traditions which other indications as well point out as historically related. Maybe it is no random occurrence, for instance, that “I am well” (1.5.8) and “don’t worry about me” (1.5.9) appear in this same order both in the Egyptian letters from the XXth and from the XXIst Dynasties (see Bakir, 78–79; 91) and in the Hermopolis papyri. In letters from this same period, e.g., Late Ramesside Letter No. 6, note also: “Don’t worry about me—you are the ones about whose condition I wish to hear daily,” a double formula equivalent to 1.5.9 + 1.5.10. The same reasoning would apply to the sequence “Are you well? I, myself, am well,” in the Phoenician letter KAI 50 and in the Egyptian letter BM 10103 from the XVIIIth Dynasty (see Bakir, 76–77).

3.2.4 Other contacts could be more superficial: “There is nothing wrong with me” (see 2.1.2, above) is documented in demotic as: mnd t n im-j. “Do send news of So-and-so” (1.5.11) has close counterparts both in hieratic and in demotic; for examples in demotic, see pap Heidelberg 746, recto, 7, with Spiegelberg’s comments (1905: 49, 60). For the hieratic background, see Bakir, 76, 112. The Egyptian verb is hb, “to send,” that is, “to send a letter,” cf. שלח in Aramaic and in Hebrew. The sender’s complaint that his letters remain unanswered (cf. 1.5.12) is also paralleled in Egyptian: Bakir (p. 77) quotes Leiden pap I, 365, verso, 3–4: “What is your not answering my letter to me? Are you prosperous or dead?” (Note the initial interrogative.) The Late Ramesside Letters have good equivalents for the Aramaic formulae 1.5.13 and 1.5.14, such as: “You shall look after the children” (No. 50); “Give your attention to Shedemdua and her children” (No. 3). Finally, the sender’s inquiry about whatever the addressee might wish to obtain from him (1.5.15) is documented in demotic also (Medinet Habu ost. No. 153, ed. Lichtheim; pap Heidelberg 746, recto, 10, see Spiegelberg 1905).

4.1.0 The Aramaic family letters have many points in common with the Akkadian epistolary tradition. Before comparing whole letters, let us consider some of the formulae.

4.1.1 The final greeting of the Hermopolispapyri (1.5.6) and the heading of Arad ost. Nos. 16, 21 and 40 (cf. 2.2.2) are strongly reminiscent of an Akkadian phrase consisting of ana shulum + a name or suffixed pronoun + the verb shapâru, well documented in Old Babylonian letters. See, for instance, Dalley, No. 47, 11. 6–7: ana shulmiki ashpuram, “I have ‘sent’ (to inquire) about your well-being.” See also Kraus, No. 100, 1. 9: ana shulum abîja ashpuram, “I have ‘sent’ (to inquire) about my father’s well-being”; see also, ibid., 17:9; 38:10; 72:9; 131:9. Such inquiries are often concerned with other relations than one’s “father”: see Kraus, Nos. 5;6; 7; 9; 11; etc. In all these examples from CT 43 and 44, this formula comes as last but one in a stable cluster of initial greetings. Moreover, many late Babylonian family letters, similar in content to Arad ost. 16, 21 and 40, use a heading “So-and-so inquires about the well-being of So-and-so his brother (or: father, etc.).” See Ebeling, Nos. 157; 247; 249; 251; 253; 256; 257; 261; 262; 263; 264; 274; 287; 298; 299; 306; 319; 326. Ebeling, No. 249 11. 1–4, offers a good example: “Shamash-damâqu inquires (ishâlu) about the well-being of Nabutukulti and Nabu-ahu-iddina, his brothers.”

4.1.2 One of the Aramaic and Hebrew secondary greetings, 1.5.6, is the exact translation of the Late Babylonian phrase we have just discussed (4.1.1). In fact, this phrase often plays the part of a secondary greeting in Akkadian as well as in Aramaic; so does it do, e.g., in Ebeling, No. 6, which will be the object of §4.3, below; see also, among others, Ebeling, Nos. 300 and 301.

4.1.3 Beside Ugaritic and Middle Babylonian parallels from Ras Shamra, the Aramaic formula 1.5.8 has close counterparts in both OB and LB letters. On the Ras Shamra formulae, see Kaiser, 19f.; Kristensen, 153ff. OB letters use the stative of shalâmu; so, e.g., Dalley, No. 48, 1.6: awîlum shalim, “the ruler is well.” LB uses verbless clauses of the type shulum anâku, “I am well,” preceded by ina ṣilli ilâni, “in the (protective) shade of the gods”; so Ebeling, No. 293, 11. 4–7, and frequently; ina ṣilli ilâni is missing from No. 193, 1.5, a letter whose writer, apparently, was an Aramaean. See also No. 297, 11. 5–6.

4:1.4 For “do not worry” (1.5.9), the older Akkadian texts use purely verbal forms, from nazâqu, or from nahâdu / na’âdu; LB prefers the noun naquttu / niqittu (“trouble”) + the verb rashû (“to acquire”). For examples with nazâqu, see Dalley, Nos. 97:4; 149:6. For nahâdu, see, ibid., No. 101:5. For naquttu with rashû, see Ebeling, No. 184, 11. 21–22. For niqittu with rashû see, ibid., 314:6–7. Examples with a further complement, “do not worry about So-and-so,” seem to be rare; in Ebeling’s corpus, I could find only one: naqutta lâ tarashâ, “do not worry about me” (No. 6, 1. 7). The sequence “I am well (shalmâku), do not worry,” comparable to 1.5.8 + 1.5.9, is common in OB letters; see Dalley, Nos. 97:4; 99:5; 101:5; 138:6–9; 149:5–6.

4.1.5 Expressions of concern for one’s correspondents and absent friends are frequent in Akkadian letters, but I could not find any example similar to Aramaic “it is about you that I am concerned” (1.5.10). In LB letters, the usual way to express one’s concern is kî naquttum altapparka, “with concern I ‘sent’ to you” (Ebeling, Nos. 142:19–20; cf. 155:19–20; 237:24–25). Only once did I find lû-mâdu naquttum ashtashi, “very much concern have I got” (Ebeling, No. 130, 11. 8–9); this phrase is not grammatically linked to its context, but the writer is obviously worried about not receiving news from his father.

4.1.6 “Do send news of So-and-so” (1.5.11) is very well represented in OB letters. See, for instance, Dalley, No. 43, 11. 15–16: shulumki shitapparim, “news of yourself send me regularly”; No. 50, 11. 10–12: shulum Aqbahammu u shulumki shuprim, “Send me news of Aqba-hammu’s and of yourself.” In LB letters, ṭêm u shulum sha bêlija lushme, “let me hear about my lord’s desire and his well-being,” is very common (see, e.g., Ebeling, No. 2, 11. 31–32); but its only fair parallel in Aramaic is not in a letter of the Hermopolis type; it is in AP 41:7.

4.1.7 Complaints about the addressee’s neglectfulness in keeping in touch (cf. 1.5.12) are ubiquitous and forceful, but they are coined in other terms than in the Aramaic correspondence; see Ebeling, Nos. 6:18–20, 26–29 32, 41; 32:5–8; 40:4–6, 23–24.

4.1.8 Invitations to ask for whatever one may desire (1.5.15) are attested in private letters of the LB period as well as in older times, but I have not yet been able to find any example in family letters. In Late Babylonian, expressions centering on the verb ṣebû come closest to the phrase we found in Hermopolis pap III, verso, 7: minû ṣbûtu sha bêlija bêlu lishpuru, “Whatever my lord’s wish (might be), let him ‘send’ (about it)” (Ebeling, No. 184, 11.23–24); minû kî bêlu ṣibû ana bêlija lûshebbila, “Whatever my lord desires, I shall dispatch to my lord” (ibid., 208:18–20). Other examples use the noun hishihtu (“need, want”); see Ebeling, Nos. 4:24–26; 46:28–29. In earlier times, examples abound in letters exchanged between kings of equal status (“brothers”). See, e.g., RS 15.24 + 50, 11. 12–21 (PRU III, p. 18); RS 17.116, 11. 25–30 (PRU IV, pp. 132–33), and several other letters in Akkadian at the beginning of PRU VI (similar expressions are documented in comparable letters preserved in Ugaritic, e.g., RS 18.75, in PRU V, p. 93, and in Hebrew, e.g., 1 Kgs. 5:22–24).

4.2 With regard to whole letters, comparison with the Aramaic and Hebrew family letters is difficult. On the one hand, there is a well-defined class of short messages, parallel to the arad ostraca in form as well as in content (see above, 4.1.1). There are also more elaborate family letters, comparable to the Hermopolis papyri (see Ebeling, Nos. 6; 39; 40; 130; 151; 155; 194; 225; 254; 283). But, neither in the word order in their address, nor in the vocabulary of their initial greetings, do they bear a close resemblance to their Aramaic parallels; nor do they conform to a single homogeneous pattern of their own. Nevertheless, the nature of the content of these letters, and many delicate features of their style and phraseology, do call to mind the Aramaic family correspondence.

4.3 Most typical in this respect is Ebeling, No. 6. As the Egyptian Aramaeans, Nadnâ, the sender, uses the vocabulary of family relationships both lavishly and loosely; he has, for instance, two “fathers” and two “mothers.” More space is dedicated to greetings than to business. Nadnâ tells of his own condition in phrases typical of Late Babylonian epistolography, but somewhat reminiscent, at the same time, of Aramaic formulae we have met: “In the (protective) shade of the gods, I am well, and all those with me are well. Do not worry about me, that you do not hear any news” (11. 5–8). As Makkibanit in pap Hermopolis III, Nadnâ inserts secondary messages, the first two of which are introduced by: “So-and-so inquires about the wellbeing of So-and-so” (11. 18ff. and 26ff.); in fact, this phrase, which has a word-for-word counterpart in the Aramaic family correspondence (see 1.5.6), appears no less than six times in Nadnâ’s letter.

5.1 Secondary messages are frequently inserted within the body of Greco-Egyptian letters from the Roman period, just as in the other classes we have already surveyed (see, e.g., PLond Inv 2102, 11. 11–14; POxy 1679, 11. 21–26). Moreover, these letters abound in parallels to most of the formulae we found in the Hermopolis papyri and related documents.

5.2.1 The most significant contact lies between the Aramaic blessing formula (1.5.3) and the Greek προσχύνημα formula, “I make obeisance for you before the Lord Sarapis”. The second half of the Aramaic formula, “that he may cause me to see your face in good health,” is not currently represented in Greek. There are, however, a few examples; see e.g., PLond Inv 1575, where “I make obeisance for you everyday” is continued by “and I pray that I may find you thriving, and all our folk too” (11. 3–5); see also BGU 332 and PMerton 82, 11. 5–7. Both the Aramaic and the Greek formulae call to mind pilgrims’ graffiti such as, in Greek, OGI 184, and, in Aramaic, many of the Abydos inscriptions studied by Lidzbarski (93–116). When visiting a famous shrine, Aramaean and Greek travelers alike would take care to make obeisance (προσχυνέω) to the local deities on behalf of their folk, and to “bless” (ברך) their relatives and friends “to” the local god; hence the habit of mentioning this act of devotion among the initial greetings of private letters (see Koskenniemi, 141).

5.2.2 The reassuring formulae “Do not worry about me (or: about So-and-so)” (1.5.9) and “It is about you I am concerned” (1.5.10) appear just as frequently in Greek as in Aramaic. The verbs μεριμνάω and ἀγωνιάω are most commonly used in such connections. For μεριμνάω, see, e.g., POxy 1296:5–7; PJand 13:11. For ἀγωνιάω, see above all a letter from the reign of Augustus, SB 10799, 11. 2 and 6–7, which compare very well with Hermopolis pap III, recto, 4. An interesting early example in Greek is PYale 42, 11. 7 and 22–23 (229 B.C.); the sender is an Egyptian, and his letter has many affinities to the subject of the present study, even though it cannot be classified as a “family letter” proper. The Peshitta rendering of μεριμνάω by the root yṣp in Phil. 2:20 and 1 Cor. 7:32 is an interesting confirmation of the equivalence of the Greek and Aramaic formulae expressing concern.

5.2.3 Other Aramaic formulae with particularly close Greek equivalents are: “There is nothing wrong (with us)” (2.1.2); cf. POxy 530, 11.21–22: μὴ ἀγωνία δὲ περὶ ἡμῶν οὐθεν γὰρ φαῦλον περὶ ἡμάς ἐστ[ι]ν, “Don’t worry about us, there is nothing wrong with us”; (see also, in a broken context, … καὶ ἄνευ βλάβους, “… and without harm” (PJand 13:8). To the Aramaic phrase for “Do send news of So-and-so” (1.5.11), a passage from BGU 423 can be compared: ἐρωτῶ σε … γράψον μοι ἐπιστόλιον πρῶτον μὲν περὶ τῆς σωτηριάς σου δεύτερον περὶ τῆς τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου, “I ask you … write me a letter, first about your own well-being, secondly, about my brothers’ ” (11. 10–12). To the Aramaic formula 1.5.13, “Do look after these babies,” and other expressions of loving care, cf., e.g, POxy 744:6–7; ἐπιμελήθ ητ ι τῷ παιδίῳ, “Look after the baby” (written year 1 B.C.); in any case, the more general formula, “take care of So-and-so” (1.5.14), is common in Greek (see Mitteis, No. 10, 11. 12–14).

5.2.4 Other formulae of the Aramaic letters have good counterparts in Greek, but with lower degrees of lexical or grammatical parallelism. Such is the sender’s protest that the recipient never takes the trouble to write back (1.5.12); cf. PLond Inv 2102:6–8: “I sent you so many letters, but you did not write me back even one, with so many people sailing down.” For the sender’s invitation to ask for something he might bring or dispatch to the recipient (1.5.15), cf. POxy 1678, 11. 15–18: “and write what you would like me to bring, whether purple, write to me what sort you wish me to bring, or oil, write to me how much to bring, or if there is anything else you desire, write to me” (Grenfell & Hunt’s tr.). One must note, above all, the secondary greetings. To 1.5.5 above, corresponds Ἀσπάζομαι τὸν δεῖνα, “A great hug to So-and-so” (lit.: “I embrace So-and-so”). See, e.g., POxy 1296, 11. 8ff. Imperatives can play the same part, as, e.g., in BGU 632:14 (for more examples, see Exler, 111; see his comments, 116). To the Aramaic secondary greeting 1.5.6, the Greek equivalent is: ὁ δεῖνα ἀσπάζεται τὸν δεῖνα See, e.g., BGU 601 11.21–22.

5.2.5 Reassurance about the sender’s and his companions’ welfare is also phrased differently. Aramaic uses a nominal phrase with שלם (1.5.5), but in Greek one uses a verb: (καὶ) ἐγὼ αὐτὸς ὑγιαίνω, “I, myself, am in good health”; so, after protesting that “before anything else, I pray that you may be in good health”; see, e.g., BGU 632:3–5; more examples in Exler, 107–8. This formula is common at the beginnings of letters, after the Address. In Greek, one can also find various other expressions, often in combination with “don’t worry”; see, e.g., POxy 1296:5–8; 1679:16–17 (at both places, the sequence is the opposite of that found in the Hermopolis papyri: in Greek, “don’t worry” comes first, but in Aramaic “So-and-so is well” takes precedence over the other phrase, see pap Hermopolis I; VI).

5.3 As a whole, the parallelism between Greek and Aramaic family letters is striking. All the motifs ascribed by Koskenniemi (109–10) to the Familienbriefe from Roman Egypt are equally typical of the Hermopolis correspondence: “A wish for a letter, with its motivation (a feature exemplified above, in the preceding chapter); similarly, a complaint over the unilateral fashion in which correspondence is maintained, sometimes with an additional assurance of one’s own sincere attachment (e.g., POxy 1216, PMert 28, PMich 209 and SB 8091); concern for the recipient’s welfare (PBrun 61; PGiss 19; PLips 110); an exhortation to take care of the children or of other close relations (PMich 207; POxy 1070; SB 6263:20ff.), or, reciprocally, not to worry about the writer himself (POxy 1296); hope for a happy reunion (PGiss 22; SB 8091).” (My translation). Of course, people with comparable stations in life are bound to resort to more or less similar expressions, when writing for the same purposes. But the facts we have surveyed call for a more specific explanation; otherwise, why should not the Hermopolis papyri agree even more closely with the Late Babylonian family letters? Here, indeed, are documents written not only for identical purposes, but in cognate languages and by contemporaries. Yet, the bonds uniting the Aramaic family correspondence to its Greek counterpart are just as strong!

6.1 Direct borrowing will not easily account for this situation, as a gap of more than four hundred years separates our latest Aramaic example from the emergence of a similar category of Greek letters. Padua pap II, indeed, was written around 400 B.C., and it does not seem to contain the most important initial blessing (1.5.3). POxy 744 and SB 10799, quoted above (5.2.2 and 5.2.3) for their fine examples of internal formulae, are from the reign of Augustus, but they do not yet contain the προσχύνημα greeting. In fact, this crucial formula does not appear in letters until the second, or perhaps the first, century A.D. (see Gerhard, apud Spiegelberg, 1905: 54; Koskenniemi, 143–44).

6.2 The common Egyptian background of both the Aramaic and the Greek family correspondence offers a more adequate explanation. Even a priori, some degree of Egyptian influence on these other groups of letters is likely to have taken place. To say nothing of the Egyptian loan-words in the Hermopolis papyri, did not the Aramaeans who stood behind them often bear Egyptian names (Psami, Petekhnum, Wahipre, Harwos, Tapimut, Tashay, Tarow, Tabey, etc.), just as the Phoenicians who appear in the related Saqqarah papyrus (KAI 50)? Did not their scribes stamp their letters with seals decorated with Egyptian motifs? (See Bresciani and Kamil, 363.) As for the Greek Familienbriefe, they were written while demotic was still being used in daily correspondence (see, e.g., the Leiden ostraca ed. by Nur el-Din), and they are replete with Egyptian names. Among other traces of their environment, their senders use familial titles as loosely as if they were writing Egyptian or a Semitic language; POxy 1296, for example, is written by an Aurelius Dius, who sends greetings to two “fathers” and two “mothers.” In POxy 744, Hilarion’s “sister” Alis appears as the mother of his children and this special usage of “sister” was undoubtedly widespread in Roman Egypt, even if individual cases are hard to assess.

6.3.1 More to the point, however, are two facts concerning the epistolary formulae themselves. First of all, the Greek προσχύνημα formula, as well as the corresponding Aramaic initial greeting (1.5.3; see also 3.2.1), is derived from the Egyptian sm r formula. This Greco-Egyptian contact, first recognized by Spiegelberg (1905: 53–54), has been accepted by many more papyrologists (see Koskenniemi, 143 n.1; Ghedini, 52, 55–56), and exaggerated by some (so, Préaux, 155: full conformity with the Pharaonic tradition!).

6.3.2 No less important than this specific contact is the fact that wherever Aramaic and Greek letters agree on a formula, an Egyptian equivalent is at hand. This wide-ranging triple agreement is certainly significant, even though some of the Egyptian formulae quoted above (viz., the counterparts of 1.5.8 through 1.5.10, and 1.5.12 through 1.5.14) had to be culled from letters six or seven centuries earlier than the Hermopolis papyri; no doubt, this recourse was made necessary, partly at least, by the paucity of the demotic letters available. Some of the apparent discrepancies, on the other hand, may be due in part to the small number of the Aramaic and Hebrew family letters that we possess. Thus, joy caused by a message found expression in formulae well documented in Greek (λίαν, or μεγάλως ἐχάρην, see BGU 632:7–9, and J. L. White, in JBL 90/1:94–95) as well as in hieratic (“… I was glad exceedingly”; see Bakir, 80 n. 2). Such a formula is missing in the Hermopolis papyri and in the other Aramaic and Hebrew letters of the same type; but as it is found in another private letter in Aramaic, AP 41:2 (שגי חדיה), it seems likely to turn up in letters of the Hermopolis type still to be discovered.

7.1 While such remarkable contacts seem to warrant the assumption that some degree of Egyptian influence was active in shaping both the Aramaic and the Greek family letters, other elements in the evidence caution us against any hasty “pan-Egyptianism.”

7.2 In the first place, the virtual restriction of Arameo-Greco-Egyptian agreements to internal formulae deserves serious attention. It suggests that, however pervasive the Egyptian influence may have been, it did not radically disturb the distinctive epistolary conventions native to the Aramaic and to the Greek letters. Internal formulae indeed are more content-oriented, less rigidly controlled by form and tradition than initial and concluding formulae. In contrast, both in Aramaic and in Greek, the address remains impervious to Egyptian influence. Demotic letters with the third person form of the sm r formula, “So-and-so blesses So-and-so here, before the god So-and-so,” use this phrase as their very address, while Greek family letters usually begin by “So-and-so to So-and-so his father (or: mother, etc.), many greetings (πλεῖστα χαίρειν)” (see Exler, 25–29; 62–63). The Aramaic address (1.5.2), with its opposite order (“to Recipient from Sender”), is but a slight variant of the most common Aramaic address formula of the same period, which omits “from” before the sender’s name. Thus, as far as this important formal element is concerned, all three traditions remain separate.

7.3 Moreover, even where Egyptian models are definitely operative, or at least likely enough to be at play, their presumed Aramaic or Greek reflexes are anything but slavish. The προσχύνημα and the ברכתך formulae (1.5.3), for instance, are not exactly copied from the Egyptian. This is most obvious in the case of the Greek phrase, which does not, like the demotic formula, mean “I praise (or: bless) you”; but even the Aramaic and Hebrew formula uses a verb, ברך, and an idiomatic construction, with a long history of their own within the Northwest Semitic linguistic area. As much can be said about the expressions of concern (1.5.9 and 1.5.10); the Egyptian letters use an idiom meaning “my heart goes after you,” while both Aramaic and Greek use plain verbal forms, without anything like the “my heart” circumlocution. The sharpest discrepancy is found in the secondary greetings. The Aramaic formula 1.5.6 goes hand in hand with Akkadian, while ἀσπάζομαι (lit.: “I embrace”), recalls the hieratic formula “may I fill my embrace with you,” documented in letters from the XIXth through the XXIst Dynasties (see Bakir, 63). The considerable degree of independence thus retained by the receiving languages, and the concentration of their borrowings at the level of internal formulae, impose severe limitations on the conclusions one might be tempted to draw from the contacts we have surveyed. The Egyptian epistolary tradition undoubtedly had an impact on Aramaic and Greek letters written in Egypt, but the true extent of this influence cannot be assessed with much certainty.*

Works Consulted

Aharoni, Yohanan

1975    Ktovot ‘Arad. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute & Israel Exploration Society.

Alexander, P. S.

1978    “Remarks on Aramaic Epistolography in the Persian Period.” Journal of Semitic Studies 23:155–70.

Bakir, Abd El-Mohsen

1970    Egyptian Epistolography from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-First Dynasty. Cairo: IFAO.

Bickermann, E.

1930    “Zur Datierung des Pseudo-Aristeas.” ZNW 29:280–96. As repr. in his Studies in Jewish and Christian History, I. Leiden: Brill, 1976.

Bresciani, Edda

1960    “Papiri aramaici egiziani di epoca persiana presso il Museo Civico di Padova.” Rivista degli Studi Orientali 35:11–24.

Bresciani, E. and Kamil, M.

1966    Le Lettere aramaiche di Hermopoli. Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.

Caminos, Ricardo A.

1954    Late-Egyptian Miscellanies. London: Oxford University Press.

Couroyer, Bernard

1978    “BRK et les formules égyptiennes de salutation.” Revue Biblique 85:575–85.

Cross, Frank Moore

1979    “Early Alphabetic Scripts.” Pp. 97–123 in Symposia. Ed. F. M. Cross. Cambridge, Mass.: ASOR.

Dalley, S.-Walker, C.B.F.-Hawkins, J. D.

1976    The Old Babylonian Tablets from Tell al Rimah. London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq.

Dion, Paul E.

1977    “A Tentative Classification of Aramaic Letter Types.” SBLSP 11:415–41.

Dion, Paul E.

1979    “Les types épistolaires hébréo-araméens jusqu’au temps de BarKokhbah.” With the collaboration of D. Pardee and J. D. Whitehead. Revue Biblique, 86:544–79.

Driver, Godfrey Rolles

1954    Aramaic Documents of the Fifth Century B. C. Oxford: Clarendon.

Dupont-Sommer, André

1945    “Le syncrétisme religieux des Juifs d’Eléphantine d’après un ostracon araméen inédit.” Revue de l’Histoire des Religions 130:17–28.

Ebeling, Erich

1949    Neubabylonische Briefe. Munich: Bayerische Akad. d. Wissenschaften.

Erman, Adolf

1894    Life in Ancient Egypt. E. Tr. by A. M. Tirard. London: MacMillan.

Erman, Adolf

1927    The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians. E. Tr. by A. M. Blackman. London: Methuen.

Exler, F. X. J.

1923    The Form of the Ancient Greek Letter of the Epistolary Papyri (3d cent. B.C–3d cent. A.D). Washington: Catholic University of America.

Fitzmyer, J. A.

1974    “Some Notes on Aramaic Epistolography.” JBL 93:201–25. Reprinted in the present volume.

Gardiner, A. H.-Thompson, H.-Milne, J. G.

1973    Theban Ostraca. London: Humphrey Milford. Oxford University Press.

Ghedini, G.

1917    “Di alcuni elementi religiosi pagani nelle epistole private greche dei papiri.” Studi della Scuola Papirologica, II. Milan: Ulrico Hoepli.

Gibson, J. C. L.

1975    Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions, II. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Grelot, Pierre

1972    Documents araméens d’Egypte. Paris: Cerf.

Kaiser, Otto

1970    “Zur Formular der in Ugarit gefundenen Briefe.” ZDPV 86:10–23.

Koskenniemi, Heikki

1956    Studien zur Idee und Phraseologie des griechischen Briefes bis 400 n. Chr. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemi.

Kraus, F. R.

1964    Altbabylonische Briefe, I. Leiden: Brill.

Kristensen, A. L.

1977    “Ugaritic Epistolographic Formulas.” Ugarit-Forschungen 9:143–58.

Levine, Baruch A.

1978/1979    ‘Al ktovot ‘Arad. Shnaton 3:283–94.

Lichtheim, Miriam

1957    Demotic Ostraca from Medinet Habu. Chicago: Oriental Institute.

Lidzbarski, Mark

1909–1915    Ephemeris für Semitische Epigraphik, 3:93–116.

Meshel, Z. and Meyers, C.

1976    “The Name of God in the Wilderness of Zin.” BA 39:6–10.

Mitteis, L. and Wilcken, U.

1912    Grundzüge und Chrestomathie der Papyruskunde, 1/2. Leipzig/ Berlin: Teubner.

Naveh, Joseph

1970    The Development of the Aramaic Script. Jerusalem: Academy of Sciences of Israel.

Naveh, Joseph

1971    “The Palaeography of the Hermopolis Papyri.” Israel Oriental Studies 1:120–22.

Nur el-Din, M. A. A.

1974    The Demotic Ostraca in the National Museum of Antiquities at Leiden. Leiden: Brill.

Pardee, Dennis

1978    “An Overview of Ancient Hebrew Epistolography.” With the collaboration of J. D. Whitehead and P. E. Dion. JBL 97:321–46.

Pardee, Dennis

1978    “Letters from Tel Arad.” Ugarit-Forschungen 10:289–336.

Porten, Bezalel

1968    Archives from Elephantine. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Préaux, Claire

1928    “Quelques caractères des lettres privées grecques d’Egypte.” Chronique d’Egypte No. 7:144–55.

Spiegelberg, Wilhelm

1905    “Papyrus Erbach. Ein demotisches Brieffragment.” Zeitschrift fürägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 42:43–60.

Spiegelberg, Wilhelm

1928    “Drei demotische Schreiben aus der Korrespondenz des Pherendates, des Satrapen Darius’ I, mit den Chnumpriestern von Elephantine.” Sitzungsberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 39:604–22.

Tait, W. J.

1977    Papyri from Tebtunis in Egyptian and Greek. London: Egypt Explor. Society.

White, J. L. and Kensinger, K. A.

1976    “Categories of Greek Papyrus Letters.” SBLSP 10:79–91.

Wente, Edward F.

1964    Late Ramesside Letters. Chicago: Oriental Institute.

Zaki, A.

1971    “The Popularity of the Sarapis Cult as Depicted in Letters with Proskunema Formulae.” Etudes de Papyrologie 9:165–219.

Aramaic Words for “Letter”

Paul E. Dion

University of Toronto


This study has been prompted by the plausibility of correlations between the Aramaic words for “letter” and various types used in Imperial and Middle Aramaic. אגרה, טעם, מלאכה, נשתון, ספר, פתגם, קבילה are considered in succession. All occurrences of each word except ספר are listed, and their meaning is established in the light of their contexts in Aramaic, as well as of their foreign origin when applicable. The main questions asked are whether these words do refer to written messages, and for what letter types they stand. אגרה is the normal generic term; within the limits of our evidence, ספר is only used for “family letters;” נשתון is an official document, often styled as a letter. There are indications (as yet, insufficient) that קבילה could designate a letter of complaint to the authorities, and תעם, a letter carrying orders. זכרן (“record”), examined in an Appendix, stands apart from the true letters.

0.1 As other papers published by the Hebrew-Aramaic section of the Ancient Epistolography Group of the SBL, the present essay is concerned with a period extending from the earliest records to the defeat of Bar-Kokhbah (135 A.D.). Evidence will be drawn from letters proper, both biblical and preserved outside the Bible, and from narratives having to do with letter writing. The Names for the Aramaic Letter were expertly though briefly examined by Fitzmyer in his programatic study (1974:210); I will attempt to deal exhaustively with this subject, within the horizon of a typological classification of Aramaic and Hebrew letters I submitted elsewhere (1979: RB article).

0.2 The possibility must be envisaged that Aramaic had names not only for “a letter” of any kind whatever, but also for various specialized types of letters. Did not Hebrew, a sister language, have names for many of the Gattungen documented in Old Testament literature, such as תפלה (“supplication”), תהלה (“praise”), קינה (“dirge”), ריב (“dispute”), משל (“proverb”)? Just as the various kinds of letters, those literary genres originated from pre-literary, sub-literary, responses to the demands and suggestions of real life. With regard to letter writing, the Egyptians of the late Imperial Period distinguished between šct, “the generic term for all kinds of communication in epistolary style,” and wh, “a rescript from a king, a crown prince or a high government authority” (Bakir: 15:16). One should not be surprised, therefore, if the Arameans did not constantly use the same designation for letters differing as sharply as those of the satrap Arsames (ed. by Driver) and the family letters discovered at Hermopolis West (ed. by Bresciani and Kamil).

0.3 In the light of these brief remarks, I will give special attention to possible connections between various Aramaic words and some particular letter types, marked off by both style and content. Nevertheless, as the exact comprehension of several terms cannot yet be established beyond doubt, my discussion will simply follow the order of the Aramaic alphabet, without trying to impose on the evidence any more artificial classification; any correlation between a word for “letter” and a given letter type should stand out as a result of the lexicographical discussion, it cannot be assumed beforehand.

0.4 An Appendix will deal with זכרן, a word which does not apply to letters, but which I do not feel justified to ignore altogether.

0.5 With the only addition of Aimé-Giron (see Works Consulted), the abbreviations used for reference to the Aramaic texts are those of Fitzmyer (1974) and Fitzmyer and Harrington (1978)).

1. אגרה/אגרת

1.1 The dimorphism of אגרה/אגרת makes it advisable to list every form separately, with all its occurrences in the literature covered by this essay.

St. absol חגרה: AP 30:18, 19, 24, 29; 31:17, 18, 28; 40:3; Ezra 4:8.

St. absol. חגרה: AP 30:7; 31:6; 38:10; 41:5; AD 10:2; 12:1.

St. emphat. אגרתא: RES 1808:3 (cf. Sznycer); 1809:3 (cf. Sznycer): AP 42:7; Padua pap I recto, x + 2, x + 6; 4QEnGiantsa 8:3; Berlin ost. 10679 (RES 1792) outer side: 5; Ezra 4:11; 5:6.

St. cstr. אגרת: Aimé-Giron, 5:4; 51 (st.?); 73 (st.?); AD 12:4; 5/6 H\ev 4:1; Cun. tablet, Kuyunjik Collection, 82–5–22, 176b (Delaporte: 19); id., K.8529 (Delaporte: 20); Berlin ost. 8384 (Gibson: 20).

With 1st pers. suff. אגרתי: BMAP 13:2, 8.

St. emphat. pl אגרתא: AP 37:15.

As AP 30 and 31 represent the same letter, we must reckon with 31 occurrences of אגרה/אגרת.

1.2 On the two neo-Assyrian tablets (82–5–22, 176b, and K.8529), אגרת plays the part usually held by דנת, from Akkadian dannatu/dannitu, “valid document”; in all the other examples listed above, and throughout the later dialects, אגרה/אגרת is adequately translated by “letter.” It would seem therefore that the standard semantic value of this word in Aramaic as it is known to us, developed from a previously broader meaning, something like “writing”.

1.3 More important is the fact that אגרה/אגרת could stand for letters belonging to anyone of the main categories documented in Aramaic. This is shown by the following examples, in everyone of which אגרה/אגרת refers to the very letter in which it is found: AD 10:2, an order from Arsames; BMAP 13:8, a letter of the all-purpose type; Padua pap I recto, x + 6, a typical “family letter”; 5/6 H\ev 4:1, an official letter from Bar-Kokhbah4. Elsewhere, אגרה/אגרת refers to official letters (e.g., in AP 30–31) or to private letters (e.g., in AP 40 and 41), whose form can be guessed but not demonstrated. As š’t in Egyptian, אגרה/אגרת was undoubtedly in the Aramaic language “the generic term for all kinds of communication in epistolary style” (above, 0.2).

2. טעם

AP 26:22, 23 (bis), 25; 34:7; 41:7; Aimé-Giron, 10 recto A 1; 12 verso 3; AD 1:3; 3:6, 7, 8; 4:4; 5:8; 6:6; 7:10; 8:6; 9:3; 10:5; HermW I verso 5; 4QEng 1 v 15 (see Milik, 1976:269); Berlin ost. 10679 (RES 1792) outer side 9; ost. BM 133028 outer side 4 (see Segal: 173–74); Dan. 2:14; 3:12, 29; 5:2; 6:3; Ezra 4:8, 9, 17, 19; 5:5; 6:14; 7:23.

2.2 Of the 35 examples listed above, only one (Dan. 5:2) keeps to the basic semantic value of “tasting.” Elsewhere, derived meanings such as “attention” (e.g., in Dan. 6:14) and “matter” (e.g., in HermW I verso 5) are documented. Especially widespread is the meaning “order, decree,” which טעם shares with Akkadian ṭêmu. Note the following phrases: (פלוי) ידע טעמא זנה “So-and so is cognizant of this order.” Written orders emanating from Arsames are regularly concluded by this phrase (AD 4:4; 6:6; 7:10; 8:6; 9:3; 10:5)n005.

שם טעם “to issue an order” (AP 26:22, 23, 25; Aimé-Giron, 10 recto A 1; AD 1:3; 3:6, 7, 7–8; 5:8; Dan. 3:29; Ezra 4:19.

בעל טעם “chancellor” (AP 26:23; Ezra 4:8, 9, 17). The last two phrases are clearly influenced by Akkadian: בעל טעם corresponds to neoAssyrian šakin ṭêmi, as pointed out by Kaufman (1974: 109 n.390); שם טעם corresponds to ṭêma šakānum (Dion, 1977:438 n.39).

2.3 Does טעם in “So-and-so is cognizant of this order,” apply only to the content of the letter, or does it perhaps amount to a technical designation of this very type of letter? The latter possibility cannot be completely ruled out, but it is rather problematic. In circles presumably not very different from Arsames’ chancery, טעם could apply to reports instead of orders; thus, in Ezra 5:5, טעמא could point to a message of the type exemplified in 5:7b–17, viz., a report to Darius on the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. It must be emphasized, however, that טעם never refers unambiguously to a text. In Ezra 5:5, the st. emphat. of טעמא is best understood if this word simply means “the matter,” i.e., the current crisis as investigated by Tattenay and his colleagues. Again, on the Berlin ost., Dupont-Sommer’s (1946–1947:43 n.15) correct reading למחוה טעמא להושע can very well mean: “to brief Hosea on the matter”; טעמא would thus parallel מלתא (“word,” i.e., “matter”) of line 8, the verb חוי being used the same way as in Ahiqar, line 93: וישמע מלה ולא יהחוה “he hears something and does not make it known”; the occurrence of this verb on the Berlin ost. does not, therefore, necessarily mean that some material object, viz., a written order, was to be shown to Hosea.

3. מלאכה/מלאכת

The only occurrence is מלאכהי, Berlin ost. 8384:19 (see Gibson: 20).

With Lidzbarski, Dupont-Sommer (1944–1945), Donner (1968) and Segert (541), I consider the text as too broken to allow for a decision between “work, product” (as in Hebrew) and “message.” the latter meaning is etymologically plausible, and would match what remains of the context; but even so, there is no telling whether a written message is intended.

4. נשתון

AP 17:3; Ezra 4:18, 23; 5:5 are the only Aramaic examples from the period we are studying. Two examples in Hebrew, Ezra, 4:7; 7:11, must also be considered because of their link to Aramaic contexts; in any case, ništāvana, an Iranian loan-word (“ordinance”; Hinz: 176) can be expected to have the same meaning in two borrowing languages as closely related as Imperial Aramaic and Late Biblical Hebrew.

4.2 At three places in the book of Ezra, נשתון obviously refers to letters:

(1).    “In the days of Artaxerxes, Bishlam (?), Mithredath, Tabeel and the rest of their colleagues wrote to Artaxerxes, king of Persia; and the writing of the נשתון was written in Aramaic, and translated …” (4:7; Hebrew).

(2).    “The נשתונא which you sent us was read distinctly in my presence” (4:18). The text referred to in this sentence is 4:11–16; note that at 4:11 this same text was described as an אגרתא, and that נשתונא is translated by ἐπιστολή “letter,” at the relevant place in the apocryphal Ezra (2:22).

(3).    “Then, once the copy of the נשתונא of King Artaxerxes had been read out in the presence of Rehum …” (4:23). The text referred to in this sentence is 4:17–22.

4.3 Elsewhere, the evidence is less conclusive: Ezra 5:5 has in view a piece of writing of the same type as the one transcribed at 6:2–12; it can therefore imply once again that a נשתון is a kind of letter. Ezra 7:12–26, described in 7:11 (Hebrew) as a נשתון could also be regarded as a particular kind of letter, viz., “letters patent.” This type of document is not “sent” as letters normally are; it is “handed over” (verb נתן + prepos. ל + proper name). An equivalent phrase is used for the handing over of a נשתון in AP 17:3, with the Aramaic verb יהב instead of its synonym נתן; here there is no positive support in the context for translating נשתון by any word for “letter.”

4.4 On the whole, נשתון could refer to official letters, or to official documents couched as letters (Ezra 7:11), whether those messages were addressed to superiors (Ezra 4:7, 18) or to inferiors (4:11, 23; 5:5; 7:11); but the only meaning which suits every context is “document”. As for the application of נשתון to letters, one must further observe that this usage is only found in Ezra, above all in the narrative framework; in fact, Ezra 4:18 is the only example of נשתון being used within a letter.

4.5 It seems that נשתון did not maintain itself very long as a living lexeme in the Jewish tradition of Aramaic; soon enough its meaning became unclear. Contrary to the earlier aprocryphal Ezra, the Greek version of the canonical book (ca. 100 A.D.?) did not translate this word correctly; it substituted φορολόγος, “tax collector” (4:7, 18, 23; 5:5). No doubt the translator felt that the context pointed to the delivery of correspondence, and a φορολόγος could be expected to carry official letters.

5. ספר

5.1 It is plain from the evidence assembled in any dictionary that, in sources from the period here considered, ספר could designate all sorts of writings. ספר is used 12 times, all in Imperial Aramaic, to designate letters: HermW I verso 5, recto 5; II verso 17; III recto 5; IV recto 2; V verso 4, 7, recto, 2; VI recto 3; VII verso 4; Padua pap II verso 5; Clermont-Ganneau ost. 70 outer side 2 (Dupont-Sommer, 1945).

5.2 The interesting fact is that all the examples of ספר referring to letters are found in typical family correspondence, where they obviously point to letters of this very same category; אגרתא, on the contrary, appears on only one letter of this type, viz., Padua pap I, an example which does not belong to the core group.

5.3 The possibility cannot be ruled out that the Memphis folk who wrote the Hermopolis letters around 500 B.C. consistently called this kind of message ספר, and ספר alone; but even this would not warrant the assumption that ספר was to them a specialized lexeme. There is, for one thing, a strong presumption that such a common word could mean among them as among most Arameans other kinds of “writings” as well; and we do not know what they would call the official letters which undoubtedly impinged on their lives from time to time.

6. פתגם

AD 4:3; 7:9; 1QGenAp 22:27; 4QprNab 3:2; 11QtgJob 9:2; 29:4; 30:1; 34:3; Cairo ost. 49635 outer side 2; Dan. 3:16; 4:14; Ezra 4:17; 5:7, 11; 6:11. Fifteen examples.

6.2 It has long been recognized that Hebrew and Aramaic פתגם is an Iranian loan-word (from patigāma, “message”; Henning, as quoted by Hinz, 186). The various nuances of פתגם can be reduced to “word” as a common denominator, through the assumption of semantic developments parallel to those exemplified in Hebrew דבר (“word,” etc.).

6.3 In only four instances does פתגם refer to written communications. Three examples from Ezra are concerned with official correspondence. At Ezra 4:17, the narrative introduction which contains this word is so tightly welded to the letter proper (viz., to vv. 17–22), that the text of the letter must be construed as an expletive to פתגמא. This was seemingly perceived by the Greek translator of the apocryphal Ezra: ἀντέγραψεν ὁ βασιλεὺʼ … τὰ ὑπογεγραμμένα, “the king wrote back … what follows” (2:21). At Ezra 5:7, the wording implies even more clearly that פתגמא refers to a written report of the provincial administration: “They sent him a פתגם, and thus (was it) written within it.” At Ezra 6:11 too, פתגמא could refer to the whole text of 6:2b–12. This is more open to doubt than in the foregoing examples, but here again such is the understanding which the apocryphal book reflects: ἐὰν παραβῶσίν τι τῶν προιερημένων καὶ τῶν προγεγραμμένων, “if anyone should transgress anything said and written above …” (6:21). If פתגמא is rightly restored on Cairo ost. 49635, this is one more example of this word being applied to a written message; the text runs ושלח עלי פתג[מא] “and send me a פתגם.” This example would also preclude the limitation of פתגם to official communications such as those intended at Ezra 4:17; 5:7. The message which the writer of the ostracon had in mind was most probably of a private character, witness the inner side of the same ostracon; in any case, ostraca do not seem to have been used for official letters, the only exception being the Ashshur ostracon (Berlin 8384), which comes from a completely different background.

6.5 Some more information can be gathered from the Persepolis tablets. It appears from these texts that the Elamite reflex (battiqamash) of the same Iranian word patigāma was used ca. 500 B.C. to designate delivery orders couched down as letters; it could even be that these tablets had Aramaic originals (Cameron, 162–63; 165 n.5; Hinz, 186). פתגם could obviously refer to quite varied written messages.

7. קבילה

AD 4:312; 12:5, 11. 1Q20, 3:2 (Fitzmyer, 1971:50); 11QtgJob 25:4. Five examples.

7.2 The poorly preserved papyrus AP 16 seems basically written in I-Thou style, as a letter should be (note the imperative שאל, line 9). Concerned with some obscure legal procedure, it uses three times the remarkable expression כעשק עבידלי (11. 5, 8; cf. 9). In the LXX, the Hebrew verb עשק is translated by ἀδικέω, and Aramaic עשק עביד לי resembles Greek phrases with ἀδικοῦμαι, typical of legal complaints addressed to the Ptolemies as early as the third century, and designated by the Greek word ἔντευξις (see Rabinowitz, 375–76). Significantly, in my opinion, the verb קבל, from the same root as קבילה, is rendered in the Greek translation of Enoch by the verb ἐντυγχάνω, from which ἔντυξις is derived (see Milik, 1976:390, with J. Barr’s strictures in JSS, 23 [1978], 194–95). In Imperial Aramaic, קבל itself, in various constructions (see Fitzmyer, 1962:19), carries legal connotations and means to “lodge a complaint”. It would seem legitimate, therefore, to hypothesize that a legal complaint such as, perhaps, AP 16, was described as a קבילה in Achaemenid Egypt. However, certainty cannot be reached on this point, because AP 16 does not contain קבל nor קבילה, and because our actual examples of קבילה are not clearly enough identifiable as written complaints. No doubt AD 12:5–6 contains a quotation expletive to the word קבילה, which Whitehead correctly translates: “Nehtihor has appropriated all the Papremis wine and all the produce of the fields” (104); but this is probably a mere summary, outlining the gist of the complaint; there is no proof that Nehtihor’s original letter is being described here as a קבילה.

8. Conclusion

The only words about which we could reach firm conclusions are אגרה/אגרת, נשתון, ספר and פתגם. Most of the evidence points to אגרה/אגרת as being the normal generic term for any kind of letter, but the writers of the Hermopolis papyri and of a few related pieces simply called their own letters ספר, “writing.” It so happens in our data that, whenever this word refers to a letter, it applies to family correspondence; but this is not sufficient proof that ספר was reserved for this particular letter type. פתגם means “message,” and is used with reference to written as well as to oral messages. A נשתון is an official document, often styled as a letter. Two more terms may have designated particular letter types after their specific contents: קבילה was perhaps the name given to letters conveying complaints to authorities; In Arsames’ circle, טעם may have designated letters carrying orders, but maybe this word simply referred to the command itself, regardless of its oral or written character.

9. Appendix:

9.1 Besides its one occurrence in Early Aramaic (in the Sefîre inscription, I C 2–3), זכרן, in various spellings, appears 11 times in Imperial and Middle Aramaic outside the Bible: AP 32:1, 2; 61:1, 10; 62:1, 4; 63:10, 12, 14; 68:11 recto 2; Aimé-Giron, 15 recto b4; 11QJN ar 14:1. In Biblical Aramaic: Ezra 4:15 (bis); 6:2.

9.2 W. Schottroff correctly understands this term as applying to records which keep the memory of some event or administrative measure, so as to make future reference feasible (68, 301).

9.3 Except for the example from 11QJN ar, which takes over one of the functions of Biblical Hebrew zkrwn, AP 32 is the only piece of evidence which does not come fully under Schottroff’s description. AP 32 was indeed an “aide mémoire,” but it was intended for the private use of a messenger. The Palestinian governors Bagohi and Delayah did not write to Arsames about the Jewish temple of Elephantine, they commissioned a member of the Jewish community to convey orally their moral support of his group and their opinion of what should be done. The זכרן which Bagohi’s envoy wrote for himself cannot properly be classified with letters. It does not conform to any established epistolary pattern; and, as observed by B. Porten (1978:173; 1979:96–100), its text is not disposed on the papyrus the same way as letters, but rather after the fashion of legal documents and works of literature.

Works Consulted

Aimé-Giron, N.

1931    Textes araméens d’Egypte. Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale.

Bakir, Abd el-Mohsen

1970    Egyptian Epistolography from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-first Dynasty. Cairo: Institut Francais d’Archéologie Orientale.

Bresciani, E. and Kamil, M.

1966    Le lettere aramaiche di Hermopoli. Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.

Cameron, G. C.

1958    “Persepolis Treasury Tablets Old and New.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 17:161–76.

Delaporte, L.

1912    Epigraphes araméens. Paris: Geuthner.

Dion, Paul E.

1977    “A Tentative Classification of Aramaic Letter Types.” SBLSP 11:415–41.

Dion, Paul E.

1979    “Les types épistolaires hébréo-araméens jusqu’au temps de BarKokhbah.” With the Collaboration of D. Pardee and J. D. Whitehead. Revue Biblique. 86:544–79.

Donner, H. and Röllig, W.

1968    Kanaanäische und Aramäische Inschriften. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. 2d ed.

Driver, G. R.

1957    Aramaic Documents of the Fifth Century B.C. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Abridged and revised edition.

Dupont-Sommer, A.

1944–1945    “L’ostracon araméen d’Assour.” Syria 24:24–61.

Dupont-Sommer, A.

1945    “Le syncrétisme religieux des Juifs d’Eléphantine d’après un ostracon araméen inédit.” Revue de l’Histoire des Religions 130:17–28.

Dupont-Sommer, A.

1946–1947    “Sur la fête de la Pâque dans les documents araméens d’Eléphantine.” Revue des Etudes Juives 107:39–51.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A.

1962    “The Padua Aramaic Papyrus Letters.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 21:15–24.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A.

1971    The Genesis Aprocryphon. Rome: Biblical Institute Press. 2d ed.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A.

1974    “Some Notes on Aramaic Epistolography.” JBL 93:201–25.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. and Harrington, Daniel J.

1978    A Manual of Palestinian Aramaic Texts (Second Century B.C.-Second Century A.D.). Rome: Biblical Institute Press.

Gibson, J. C. L.

1975    Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions. II, Aramaic Inscriptions. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hallock, R. T.

1960    “A New Look at the Persepolis Treasury Tablets.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 19:90–100.

Hanhart, R.

1974    Text und Textgeschichte des 1. Esrabuches. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Hinz, Walther

1975    Altiranisches Sprachgut der Nebenüberlieferungen. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Humbach, H.

1969    Die aramäische Inschrift von Taxila. Mainz-Wiesbaden: Steiner.

In der Smitten, W. Th.

1971    “Eine aramäische Inschrift in Pakistan aus dem 3. Jhdt. v. Chr.” Bibliotheca Orientalis 28:309–11.

Kaufman, S. A.

1974    The Akkadian Influences on Aramaic. University of Chicago Press.

Kaufman, S. A.

1977    “An Assyro-Aramaic egirtu ša šulmu.” Pp. 119–27 in Essays on the Ancient Near East in Memory of J. J. Finkelstein. Ed. M. De Jong Ellis. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books.

Lidzbarski, Mark

1921    Altaramäische Urkunden aus Assur. Leipzig: Hinrichs.

Milik, J. T.

1976    The Books of Enoch: Aramaic Fragments of Qumran Cave 4. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Myers, J. M.

1974    I & II Esdras. The Anchor Bible. Garden City: Doubleday.

Porten, Bezalel and Greenfield, J. C.

1968    “The Aramaic Papyri from Hermopolis.” ZAW 80:216–31.

Porten, Bezalel

1978    “The Archive of Jedaniah ben Gemariah of Elephantine: The Structure and Style of the Letters (1).” In Hebrew. Pp. 165–77 in the H. L. Ginsberg Volume, Eretz-Israel 14.

Porten, Bezalel

1979    “Aramaic Papyri and Parchments: A New Look.” Biblical Archaeologist 42:74–104.

Rabinowitz, J. J.

1956    Jewish Law: Its Influence on the Development of Legal Institutions. New York: Bloch.

Salonen, Erkki

1967    Die Gruss- und Höflichkeitsformeln in babylonisch-assyrischen Briefen. Helsinki: Societas Orientalis Fennica.

Schottroff, Willi

1964    “Gedenken” im alten Orient und im Alten Testament. WMANT 15. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag.

Segal, J. B.

1969    “Miscellaneous Fragments in Aramaic.” Iraq 31:170–74.

Segert, Stanislav

1975    Altaramäische Grammatik, mit Bibliographie, Chrestomathie und Glossar. Leipzig: VEB Verlag Enzyklopädie.

Soden, Wolfram von

1977    “Aramäische Wörter in neuassyrischen und neu- und spätbabylonischen Texten. Ein Vorbericht. III.” Orientalia NS 46:183–97.

Sznycer, Maurice

1971    “Trois fragments de papyri araméens d’Egypte d’époque perse.” Pp. 161–76 in Hommages à André Dupont-Sommer. Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve.

Whitehead, J. D.

1974    Early Aramaic Epistolography: The Arsames Correspondence. (Unpublished) Ph.D. Diss., The University of Chicago.

Wilcken, Ulrich

1921    “Zu den Edikten.” Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung, Romanistische Abteilung 42:128–33.

The Greek Documentary Letter Tradition Third Century B.C.E. to Third Century C.E.

John L. White

Loyola University, Chicago


This essay is a study of the Greek non-literary letter tradition, primarily from the third century B.C.E. to the third century C.E., on the basis of several hundred letters written on papyrus and preserved by a dry Egyptian climate.

Initially, attention is directed to the “idea” of the letter as it has been interpreted by the Greek and Latin rhetoricians. Thereupon, the actual practice of Hellenistic letter writing is investigated. After commenting briefly on the three-fold structure of the letter (opening, body, closing) and the correlative purpose(s) of each of these three elements, characteristic phrases within each part are identified; the opening and the closing of the letter being studied in tandem owing to their similarity of function. Epistolary types are identified in connection with the study of epistolary formulas.

The third major section of the essay is a preliminary attempt to define cliché, as a type of epistolary convention which should be differentiated from more functional phrases that are classified as formulas.

The ancient postal service, and information related to the dispatch and receipt of letters, is surveyed in the final section of the paper.

0. The study of ancient Greek letters is a fertile ground to work, since there are at least a few thousand examples of the documentary letter tradition, written on papyrus and preserved by a dry Egyptian climate. Moreover, there is an extensive amount of diplomatic and royal correspondence from the Hellenistic period that is inscribed on stone, quoted in ancient narrative sources or preserved among the papyri, along with hundreds of literary letters which have been preserved through literary transmission.

0.1 Though knowledge of the literary tradition is important to understanding the fuller lineaments of the genre, most of the discussion of Greek letter writing here concerns the papyrus letters from Hellenistic Egypt. Consequently, it is the documentary, or non-literary, tradition on which we will concentrate, because even this epistolary spectrum calls for considerable investigation.

0.2 Since most of this study treats the actual practice of letter writing in the non-literary tradition, it is appropriate at the start to pay some attention to the theories about the letter espoused by the Greek and Latin rhetoricians. Thereupon, we shall move to a detailed analysis of Greek documentary letters, in which we examine the structural elements of the letter, various epistolary types and conventional phrases, as well as epistolary clichés. Finally, various aspects of the dispatch and receipt of the letter will be surveyed, including comments on the nature of the ancient postal service.

1. What is a Letter?

1.0 Abraham J. Malherbe suggested in a recent study of ancient epistolary theorists that the essential continuity in form and style of the Greek private letter over several centuries indicates a rudimentary school instruction in letter writing. More particularly, we have primary evidence that manuals with model letters were used in order to teach students the various epistolary types (Malherbe: 9–10, 12–13). At the more theoretical and advanced level, letter writing was of interest to the rhetoricians, even though extensive discussion of epistolary theory and the systematic treatment of letters seems to date only from the first century B.C.E. (Malherbe: 4–5). The rhetorical handbooks on epistolary style contain two kinds of material, theoretical definitions about the nature of the genre and collections of sample letters. The purpose of the sample letters in this instance, in contrast to the model letters employed at the rudimentary level, was to provide a selection of styles appropriate to various epistolary occasions, serving as a guide for the tone in which letters should be written, and not to teach the basic letter types. The apparent audience or market for these handbooks was the professional scribe (Malherbe: 7–9, 14–15).

1.1 Regarding the idea of the letter, Demetrius states in the section of his handbook that treats epistolary style (paragraphs 223–35) that Artemon, the editor of Aristotle’s letters, likened the letter to one-half of a dialogue and that he advocated writing in a style approaching spoken conversation (Roberts: section 223, p.173). Seneca also alleges that the letter is a surrogate for spoken conversation, by stating that in the letter the absent friend conveys his actual presence (Gummere, 263–64). Correspondingly, the subject matter of a letter should be a matter of genuine mutual concern and not a technical treatise (See sections 228–32 of Demetrius in Roberts: 175–76). In brief, though the letter may be artistically written, it should be natural and clear (For a summary of ancient epistolary theory, see Malherbe: 15–17; Koskenniemi: 18–53; Thraede: 17–77).

1.2 It is evident that this self-conscious definition of the letter by epistolary theorists is more appropriate to the letter which was written as a cultivated form of correspondence between friends than to the simple correspondence required for the mundane occasions of ordinary folk. The letter theorists themselves were aware of the distinction. Cicero, for example, distinguished between letters which were written for the more ordinary, though essential, purpose of communicating information and those which intend to convey the mood and personality of the writer (Williams: 101).

1.21 The theory that the letter of friendship, as espoused by the rhetoricians, is the most authentic type of correspondence may have originated with the Greeks. But, whether or not they were so cultivated and selfconscious, earlier epistolary traditions also employed cordial sentiments, discussing family concerns and/or issues limited to a circle of friends, as the primary occasion of the letter. Paul E. Dion indicates in his essay on the Family Letter in this volume, for example, that news about relatives and family concerns are sometimes the dominant subjects in Aramaic, Hebrew and other Ancient Near Eastern traditions.

1.3 When we combine the epistolary theorists’ comments about the letter with what we know from the actual practice, the following definition is warranted. The letter is a written message, which is sent because the corresponding parties are separated spatially. The letter is a written means of keeping oral conversation in motion. Regarding the essential purposes served by letter writing, the maintenance of contact between relatives and friends was sometimes sufficient motivation for writing. But, on most occasions, the sender had a more specific reason for writing; desiring either to disclose/seek information or needing to request/command something of the recipient.

1.4 As far as its form is concerned, the letter consists of an opening, a body and a closing. These epistolary elements connect integrally, in turn, to the aforementioned reasons for writing. Thus, the opening and closing conventions convey prayers/wishes for health, along with assurances of the sender’s own welfare, greetings and related expressions which enhance the maintenance of contact. The body, on the other hand, conveys the more specific occasion(s) of the letter. Accordingly, the relative length of the opening and closing, on the one hand, or of the body, on the other hand, is generally an accurate index of the intentionality of the letter. Namely, letters with a full opening and closing will have the maintenance of contact as their primary or sole purpose. And, in the case of many family letters, the ordinary specificity of the body is replaced by expressions of familiarity (regarding “family letters,” see Koskenniemi: 104–14; Winter, 1933:86–87). In certain other letters, by contrast, the business aspect is so dominant that the opening is minimal and the closing is altogether absent.

1.41 Removing from consideration the possibility that expressions of cordiality and of family concern constitute a specific message (i.e., family letters often have no specific body), the only epistolary element which can not be omitted from a letter is the opening. And, by “opening,” I refer, minimally, to the initial address. There are even a few letters, letters of invitation, for example, in which the opening appears to be omitted. But, in these cases, the address was not actually omitted but was conveyed orally by the messenger (Kim, 1975: 397). Lead curse tablets (buried in graves, to enlist a spirit’s aid) and Questions to Oracles, both from the Roman period, are epistolary at least in function and they, too, like invitations, omit all or part of the initial address because they were hand-carried by the sender, as it were, to the door (White, 1978: 295–96).

2. The Greek Documentary Letter: Its Form and Purpose

2.0 In his classic study of the ancient Greek letter, F. X. J. Exler divided the variety of correspondence from Graeco-Roman Egypt into four large categories: Familiar Letters, Business Letters, Petitions/Applications and Official Correspondence (Exler: 23). His most significant contribution to the study of the letter was the analysis of the opening and closing formulas, which are employed in connection with the aforementioned letter categories. Much of this stage of the present study is in conversation with his work. But, unlike Exler, we will hold together the opening and closing epistolary phrases, in order to underscore the similarity of function, previously advocated in this essay. And, the collective body of these conventions will provide an index of the various aspects of the keeping in touch function of letter writing. Following the study of the opening/closing formulas, we will examine the stock phrases in the body as a means of determining the kinds of more specific need which could occasion the sending of a letter. Specific letter types will be identified, as we go along, in connection with the identifiable formulas of the opening/closing and body and in relation to the number and sequence of the characteristic letter elements.

2.1 In addition to the initial formula of address/greeting and the closing formula of farewell, the following conventions should be included as opening and closing formulas: the wish for health, prayers of supplication and thanksgiving, and secondary greetings. Exler described the wish for health and the secondary greetings as “Conventional Phrases in the Body,” but he himself implied that these conventions belong to the opening and closing by observing that the health wish either follows the initial formula of address directly or that it immediately precedes the farewell and by noting that the secondary greetings (i.e., greetings to or from a third party), with the closing health wish, immediately precede the farewell. The various prayers of supplication and thanksgiving function, for their part, as a means of extending or nuancing the opening wish/prayer for health. This connection is assured in the case of the prayer of supplication, which became popular in the second and third centuries C.E., since the prayer is frequently joined syntactically to the health wish, e.g., “Before all I pray for your health. I myself am well and make supplication for you before the gods of this place”.

2.11 The most common form of the initial address is “A- (=the sender) to B- (=the recipient) χαίρειν (‘greetings’)” or, by the second century B.C.E. onward, the initial address combining syntactically with a shortened wish of health, i.e., “A- to B- greetings and good health.” Letters with either of these two common forms of opening formula use ἔρρωσο (“Farewell”) as their closing. And, by the first century C.E., this farewell formula, like the initial formula of address/greeting, begins combining with the health wish so that, by the third century C.E., the closing is more often expressed by an explicit wish for health than as a simple farewell.

Exler’s category of Familiar Letters (=letters between relatives and friends) almost always have “A- to B- greetings” as their initial formula and ἔρρωσο as their closing. Moreover, these letters often express the familial relation between the correspondents by the addition of appropriate words to the address and/or the greeting. Thus, the recipient may be further identified in the address in the manner illustrated below. Correspondingly, the salutation (greeting) may be qualified in the manner illustrated by the qualifying terms of the second chart.

Identification of the recipient in the address

A- to B

(brother/sister, father/mother, son/daughter)-greetings

iii B.C.E.–iii C.E.

A- to B

(dearest, most-honored, lord/lady, our/our own)- greetings

i C.E.–iii C.E.

A- to B

(sweetest)- greetings

ii C.E.–iii C.E.

Qualification of the greeting

A- to B-

πολλά (many) greetings

ii B.C.E.–iii C.E.

A- to B-

πᾶσαι (very many) greetings

ii B.C.E.–i B.C.E.

A- to B-

πλεῖστα (very many) greetings

i B.C.E.–iii C.E.

Regarding the family terms, “brother” and “sister” are often employed to express the friendship and equality of the correspondents, whether or not they are actually family members. And, somewhat by contrast, the designations of superiority, “lord” and “lady,” are often used by the writer in addressing his father and mother, respectively. The use of these, and other deferential terms, seems both to arise and to increase during the Roman rule of Egypt.

2.12 The alternative form of the initial address formula is that in which the recipient’s name is written first, either “To B- greetings- A” or “To B-from A-.” The one class of Exler’s letters which regularly employs this kind of address is petitions/applications. “Petitions” are letters addressed to an official concerning some grievance, with an accompanying request for redress. “Applications” for rental or purchase, along with other legal documents in letter form (birth and death notices, census registrations, etc.), like petitions, regularly write the recipient’s name before the writer’s in the address. The identifying designations in the opening address of these documents are of a more legal nature than those in the familiar letter; the sender being specified according to patronymic, occupation, place of residence (address), and related terms. Petitions always take εὐτύχει/διευτύχει as their closing formula. If applications and related documents have a closing, it is also εὐτύχει.

2.13 The health wish and secondary greetings are frequently employed in familiar letters. Prayers of supplication and thanksgiving are employed much less often. The health wish, as well as the secondary greetings and prayer formulas, is not used in petitions or legal documents in epistolary form, just as we might expect. When the wish for health is expressed in its fuller form, grammatically independent of the opening greetings, it frequently assures the recipient of the writer’s own health, as well as expressing concern about the recipient’s welfare.

2.131 We suggested above that a prayer formula may extend the health wish. There are other phrases, as well, which may replace one or the other aspect of the wish. Thus, though the intent of the wish is similar from letter to letter, there is considerable variety and nuance to the actual expression. The Greek formula differs considerably, then, in this respect, from the Latin formula valetudinis. The sender’s concern, occasioned by news of the recipient’s poor health, for example, is a surrogate for the customary wish for health. Again, it is appropriate to celebrate news of the addressee’s well-being, upon receipt of a letter, with the statement, “I rejoiced greatly on receiving your letter” (see White, 1978: 315, n. 24). Negatively, the writer may express aggravation at the recipient’s failure to write, and the correlative absence of news, either by means of an expression of astonishment or by referring to the number of unanswered letters (White, 1978: 315, n. 25).

2.132 The health wish and related phrases form an identifiable pattern in letters from soldiers, especially raw recruits who travel to distant ports. Almost uniformly, the young soldier informs folks at home of his safe arrival and, not infrequently, he expresses thanks to the deity for safety in the recent travel or for deliverance from other dangers and entreats his recipients to write (regarding the style of letters from young soldiers, see Winter, 1927: 237–56; and Winter, 1933: 39–42). Both the prayer of thanksgiving and the notice of safe arrival serve as a surrogate form of the writer’s assurance of health.

2.14 Regarding the letter closing, when the health wish is expressed separately from the farewell, it is often stated in something like the following words, “And take care of yourself, that you stay healthy.” Like the opening wish, however, it admits considerable variation and additional phrases may extend or nuance the wish. The accompanying phrases are frequently concerned with the broad circle of family and friends who are with the recipient (for exx., see White, 1978: 298–99). Indeed, this aspect of the wish differentiates it from the opening health wish, and the opening expressions generally (at least until well into the Roman period), which apply more narrowly to the recipient and the writer. In addition to the closing wish for health, the verb, ἀσπάζεσθαι began to be used in the reign of Augustus and following to express secondary greetings to family members and friends. It is not unusual to see an accumulation of these secondary greetings and, by the second century C.E., the same convention began to be used in the letter opening (White, 1978: 299 and n. 34).

2.141 One other formula may be discussed in connection with the closing, the “Illiteracy Formula” (See Exler: 124–27). Unlike the preceding phrases, this convention is not employed in ordinary private correspondence, but in official letters or in legal documents. The convention was written by professional scribes whenever they were employed by illiterate individuals to draft a communication on their behalf. Thus, after stating his own name, immediately preceding the farewell, the scribe would state that he had written the letter on the sender’s behalf, because the sender was unlettered. Though these professional penmen would have written ordinary correspondence for people, also, from time to time, they were not required on those occasions, of course, to declare their identity.

2.2 There are two broad kinds of message communicated by the letter, apart from the maintenance of contact, as previously suggested: (1) the imparting/seeking of information, and (2) the making of requests/commands. These epistolary functions come to expression in the body, whereas the broader maintenance of contact is characteristically conveyed by the opening and closing. A concrete means of illustrating the use of conventions in the body is afforded by the use of an actual letter.

2.21 The following kind, and sequence, of formulas are characteristic of letters of recommendation.

letter carrier/credentials

I think that you are aware about Aischylos, that he is far from indifferent to us. He has now sailed up the river to your party in order to be introduced to Kleonikos.

the request

Therefore, please make an effort to introduce him to Kleonikos; and if he does not find the latter in your company, get letters of introduction to him from his friends.

expression of appreciation

By doing this you would favor both me and the God. And write to me if you ever have need of anything, knowing that you will have it.

Though the phraseology of letters of commendation may vary, the above example is representative. Hence, directly following the conventions which open the letter (initial address/greetings), the writer introduces/recommends the letter carrier to the recipient; stating the carrier’s relation to the writer and/or his credentials. Then, the writer requests the recipient to assist the recommended person in whatever respect the situation demands. Thereupon, the writer expresses appreciation to the recipient for attending to the request, by stating that he will be “favored” by the addressee’s assistance and/or by offering to repay the favor.

2.22 The essential purpose of the letter of commendation is to make a request. We find a similar sequence of formulas, and a similar internal logic, in the body of other letters in which request is the primary or sole reason for writing. In letters of petition, for example, the plaintiff customarily introduces the body of the letter by stating that he/she has been unjustly treated by someone, or by referring to the day, and time of day, when an infraction was committed or by providing some similar account of the circumstances which occasion the petition. Following this “background,” the writer entreats the king or some lower official to rectify the situation, employing such verbs of petition as ἀξίω, δέομαι, ἱκετεύω and παρακαλῶ Finally, the body is closed by means of the petitioner’s statement that he will be benefitted, and justice accomplished, by the official’s favorable response (Guéraud: xxii–xxvi; White, 1972 B: 4–19).

Now, the petition differs in mood from the letter of commendation; the petitioner writes in the position of an inferior, whereas the author of the letter of commendation writes as an equal. This state of affairs is reflected in the different form of the initial address; the petitioner writing out of deference, writes the recipient’s name before his own, whereas the sender’s name is written in first position in the letter of introduction. Notwithstanding, the internal logic of the message is similar. In both the sender introduces the body by reciting the circumstance(s) (=the “background”) of the request. And, following the request, the writer acknowledges, on both occasions, that he will benefit from the recipient’s favorable response to the request.

2.23 Many letters which have request as their primary purpose do not deploy the full tripartite sequence, suggested above in connection with petitions and letters of commendation. Again, there are letters in which request is only one aspect of the reason for writing, and in these cases, we have letters that are mixed in function. Even in these situations, however, the letters often partake—sometimes in a more extensive manner than is first evident—of the formulary functions discussed above. Thus, though the writer does not always provide an explanation of the reason for writing in advance of the request, the circumstances are often set out subsequently, by means of ἵνά, ὅπως or γάρ clauses. Namely, the background is usually present functionally, if not sequentially. Moreover, the expression of appreciation, in the form discussed above in connection with letters of commendation, is stated in a variety of situations, following a request and closing the body. Another phrase that appears hundreds of times in private letters with requests—and this fact alone makes it noteworthy—is the polite circumlocution, καλῶς ἂν οὖν ποιήσαις (“Therefore, you would do me a favor by …” or “Please …”) (White, 1972 A: n. 51 on p. 108).

2.24 Orders are akin to letters of request, in the sense that the writer needs something from the recipient. But these curt, demanding notes, which are usually written to employees or government subordinates, seldom provide an explanation for what is commanded. On the other hand, if the writer gives some rationale for what he expresses by means of an imperative—and there are a number of such letters—then the communication should be classified as a request.

2.3 The second broad purpose of the body is to disclose/seek information. And, as we might expect, a number of “disclosure” formulas serve this end. However, one should not assume automatically that the use of such formulas indicate that the letter is primarily informational in intent. The disclosure of information may function, in fact, as a background from which the writer requests something of the recipient. Thus, rather than identifying under the same broad rubric the formulas which are employed to disclose/ seek information, it seems preferable to identify the formulas by their location within the body, namely, introductory, transitional and concluding formulas. By this means we can better limit the formula’s purpose to its immediate context and, hopefully, we can use this procedure also as a means of sorting out alternative clusters or concatenations of formulas; determining, thereby, the meaning of formulas with reference to their larger contours.

2.31 Regarding the introductory conventions, the sender often announces information with a disclosure phrase, more often the imperative, “Know that …,” in the Ptolemaic period, but the more polite, “I want you to know that …,” in the Roman period (see exx. in White, 1978: n. 39 on 317). The same phrases may be employed subsequently within the body to make a transition to a new subject, by adding the required conjunction (e.g., “Know also that …”).

2.311 The writer may introduce the body of the letter, also, by acknowledging receipt of information, in the following kinds of response (see White, 1978: 303–4):

I received your letter in which you said …

Someone came and said …

Just as you instructed me, I have …

Concerning the … (περί or ὑπὲρ δέ …)

Though the last convention listed above (i.e., “Concerning the …”) may introduce the body, it is more often used subsequently in the body.

2.312 Then, there are introductory formulas which imply that the recipient is remiss in a duty and, understandably, these phrases tend to precede a request or a demand in which the addressee is urged to attend to the neglected matter. Regarding the stock phrases of this type of formula (see White, 1978: 303–4), the following are representative:

I wrote formerly that …

Just as I wrote, …

This is now my second (third, etc.) letter, …

I am astonished (θαυμάζω) that …

The latter two of these formulas were discussed above, in connection with the conventions which are a surrogate for, or in addition to, the health wish, as expressions which convey the writer’s concern over disrupted correspondence. And, generally speaking; these two phrases are more characteristic of family letters in which the maintenance of contact is the reason for writing, though they are sometimes used to introduce a more specific purpose. When maintenance of contact is the letter’s occasion, these two phrases serve as the background to the request for return correspondence (whether or not the request is stated explicitly) and the desire for a letter is the message.

2.32 Our previous examination of the appreciation formula in letters of commendation can serve as a basis, at this point, for an investigation of closing conventions in the body. This phrase is widely employed after statements of request, as noted above. Similarly, after the writer asks the recipient to attend to something, he will, on occasion, express confidence in the recipient’s willingness to attend to the request, e.g., “I ask you, therefore, not to do otherwise; but I know that you will do everything well”.

These two examples illustrate one of the primary functions served by the conventions which close the body, namely, the attempt to further the correspondents’ good relations. Other stereotyped phrases, which very often serve the same purpose, are the writer’s announcement of a visit and his request that the recipient make a visit. There are occasions, of course, in which the projected visit is menacing rather than friendly or beneficial. In any case, and generally speaking, the formulas which close the body (when such are employed) are related to the phrases in the opening and closing, in conveying the writer’s disposition in writing.

2.321 Another class of formulas which gravitates to the close of the body, and which is similar in mood to the prospect of a threatening visit, is that in which the writer attempts to coerce the recipient into attending to something which he has requested/commanded. The following phrases are characteristic of this function:

Make it your concern to …

Therefore, do not neglect to …

Take care that … (White, 1978: 305–6).

More menacing in nuance are the closely related phrases, “Do not act otherwise” (μὴ ἄλλως ποιήσῃς) and “If you should act otherwise” (White, 1978: 306; 1972 A: 7–9).

2.322 Then, again, the sender often asks for information at the close of the message, by means of such phrases as, “Write to me that we may know” and “Inform (διασάφησον or δήλωσον) me about …” (White, 1978: 302; 1972 A: 4–5). The disclosure of information was announced more often at the close of the body, than at the opening, in the early Ptolemaic period, by means of the following phrase or some truncated form of it, “I wrote to you, therefore, that you may know” (White, 1978: 302). The function of this formula seems to be replaced in the later Ptolemaic or early Roman era by the polite form of the disclosure convention, “I want you to know that …,” a phrase which usually introduces the body.

In summary, the conventions which conclude the body appear either to serve as a bridge to further communication (whether the tone be positive or negative) or to function as a means of finalizing and/or underscoring the occasion of the letter.

2.33 We may conclude the study of epistolary phrases in the body by turning to the transitional conventions which are employed within the body. It must be admitted, at the start, that talk about a “middle” of the body is frequently precluded, because of the brevity of a large number of papyrus letters. On the other hand, grammatical connectors and transitional phrases are employed with enough frequency that their description is warranted. Hence, the conjunctions, οὖν, διό and ὅθεν are standard devices for marking the transition from the background of a request to its actual statement. The more elaborate conjunction, ἔτι οὖν καὶ νῦν (“Even now …,” or “Still …,”), carries the further nuance that the requested matter is overdue. And, the combination of conjunctions, δει καί and ὁμοίως (ὡσαύτως) δει καί is a standard means of turning to a new subject within the letter. The disclosure formula may serve the same purpose, as previously noted, when the appropriate conjunctions are added, e.g., “Know also that …” and “I want you to know, too …” (White, 1978: 307–8).

3. Epistolary ClichéS: Working Toward a Definition

3.0 Though confusion is frequently associated with the enterprise, scholars have tended to differentiate clichés from other stereotyped conventions—let us say, formulas—within the letter. Regarding this ambiguity, our purpose here is relatively modest; while intending to clarify the issues, the distinction(s) between cliché and formula is preliminary and partial, not final and exhaustive.

3.1 Henry Steen’s long article on epistolary clichés in Greek papyrus letters is, in my opinion, one of the best analyses of the subject (Steen: 119–76). Consequently, a survey of his study is in order.

3.11 After noting that the work of Ziemann and Exler on Greek papyrus letters was primarily concerned with the initial and the closing phrases, he himself calls attention to those expressions which either soften or intensify epistolary imperatives, phrases that are associated as much with the body of the letter as with the opening and the closing. He calls these phrases, which modify epistolary imperatives, clichés. And, his choice of word is more specific than the popular, dictionary definition of cliché: “a fixed/stereotyped expression which has lost its significance through repetition.” He, himself, indicates that by cliché he means those softening or intensifying phrases which either elaborate or modify a basic function. That wants to say, clichés are ornamental expressions or trappings which, strictly speaking, are not necessary to the statement of an epistolary function but which give nuance to that expression. Despite the fa\ct that he limited the study of clichés to request-type phrases, Steen was working toward a helpful distinction between cliché and formula, i.e., a cliché is more ornamental, and less essential, than an epistolary formula. Recognizing the aforesaid restriction of cliché in papyrus letters to expressions of request, we turn to the particulars of Steen’s study.

3.12 Steen notes that Attic orators had already learned that they must use periphrastic constructions, rather than simple commands, in persuading their audiences to take a certain course of action. Otherwise, they would offend the audience and forfeit the possibility of implementing the desired action. Something like the orators’ understanding of persuasion, acting with the practical necessities of ordinary life, seems to lie behind the use of certain phrases in the letters from Hellenistic Egypt. Thus, Steen notes that certain phrases soften the imperative, and they are of two types: (a) qualifying/modifying expressions, and (b) expressions of urbanity. These two classes may be further divided, in turn, so that the qualifying expressions: (1) use the ethical dative with the health wish in the closing, e.g., ἔρρωσό μοι, ἀδελφέ and ἐπιμέλου σεαυτῆς ἵνα μοι ὑγιαίνῃς; (2) use conditional phrases to soften the imperative, e.g., “if it seems good to (=pleases) you” (εἰ σοι δοκεῖ, ἐὰν φαίνηται), “if it is possible,” “if you have the leisure,” etc.; and (3) use verbs meaning “to tell” (inform), “to order,” “to write,” in connection with a polite form of qualification, which uses such adverbs as ἡδέως, προθυμως, φιλικῶς, and ἀνοικνως, as a means of encouraging the recipient to freely express needs/desires to the obliging writer. Regarding the other broad means of softening the imperative, the expressions of urbanity, this class of conventions includes such phrases as those employed to make requests in petitions, e.g., phrases introduced with the verbs, δέομαι, ἱκετεύω, ἀξιόω and παρακαλῶ. The phrase, καλῶς ἂν ποιήσαις, serves the comparable purpose of introducing the request, in private letters of request (petitionary verbs are illustrated in Steen: 131–38; various forms of the καλῶς ἂν ποιήσαις phrase are on 138–52).

3.13 The second class of stereotyped expressions which Steen illustrates from papyrus letters is that body of stock phrases which intensify the imperative. The necessity, and/or the superior status, of a writer sometimes led him to harden the request/order. On other occasions, the nature of the intensification was positive and friendly. In either case, the strengthening is handled in one of two ways, by means of adverbial expressions of intensity or through intensifying the verb. For example, πρὸ μὲν πάντων is an adverbial phrase which, in the Roman period, frequently accompanied and enhanced the opening and closing wish for health.

3.2 Despite Steen’s obvious contribution to the identification of epistolary phrases, several which he calls clichés should probably be classified as formulas. Namely, it seems unwarranted to assume that all requests are derivative forms of the imperative. Thus, in the case of petitions, the stock request phrases should be classified as formulas. On the other hand, when the petitioner qualifies the entreaty—as he often does—with a deferential phrase, such as “if it seems good to you,” we are, then, talking about ornamentation/nuance more appropriate to the term, cliché. The classification of the polite circumlocution, “You would do well to …” καλῶς ἂν πιοήσῃς in private letters of request, is more difficult. Hence, the distinction between formula and cliché is sometimes difficult to determine. Nonetheless, it does seem important to work at clarifying the distinction if, as here, in only a preliminary manner. Consequently, a few more types of epistolary phrases are offered below as candidates for the rubric, cliché.

3.21 Expressions with the meaning, “God willing,” seem to fit the definition of cliché, previously described as an ornamental expression (see the exx. in White, 1978: 311 and n. 49). Similar in nuance, it would seem, are certain uses of oath in cases other than those which are required in official documents, as well as various other phrases which seem to originate in popular religious practice (see the exx. in White, 1978: 311–12).

3.3 John Winter observed that papyrus letters, as a collective entity, are almost without exception unstudied and unliterary efforts in which the writer reveals himself simply and directly. This is the case, he alleges, except in the Byzantine Age, when grandiloquent language began not only to conceal thought but to supplant it. Perhaps, then, it is relevant in this section of the essay which treats clichés that we talk briefly about the cliché-like style of Byzantine letters. In the latter half of the fourth century, and particularly in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries, letters from Egypt evidence a mode of thought that is often as biblical in its coloring as the language of the Covenanters (Winter, 1933: 160–61. see exx. in Winter on 104–5). Unfortunately, most of these Byzantine letters borrow the fire of the altar for common uses; the simplest concerns of life being transacted with religious formulas that become increasingly numerous and increasingly futile. Hence, the contents of the letters from this period are often as florid as the script in which they are written.

4. The Postal Service and the Dispatch of Letters

4.0 Diplomatic correspondence, international communication and internal government business was accomplished in the ancient kingdoms through the use of foot-runners or, when greater speed was required, through chariot-riding messengers. W. L. Westermann suggests that the first organized postal system network, with an elaborate network of highways and relay stations, however, was that of the Persians or, conceivably, their recent precursors, the Assyrians (Westermann: 375–76). It was a pony express system, with relay stations established at intervals determined by the distance which could be covered by a running horse in one day. If necessity dictated, a night relay could be added to the day. Alexander the Great and his successors appear to have adopted the Persian postal system, along with the Persians’ elaborate highway network. For example, on the basis of a papyrus daybook, kept at an Egyptian postal station during the reign of Philadelphus (mid third century B.C.E.), it seems clear that the Hellenistic post in Egypt was organized as a highway express, employing ridden horses. This mode of operation was limited to urgent, lighter dispatches, to be sure, whereas ordinary correspondence and parcel post was forwarded by the camel-post and by a mail-boat system (Westermann: 376–80).

4.1 When Augustus Caesar established the Roman empire’s postal system (cursus publicus) it, too, seems to have been developed in a manner analogous to that employed by the Hellenistic monarchies and the Persians. The good conditions of the roads, the highway markers, and the nature/spacing of the postal stations and inns may have made the Roman system somewhat more efficient (Westermann: 380–82).

4.2 The postal systems which we have just been describing served only administrative and official business, not private correspondence. Wealthy Roman families used slaves as their couriers, and wealthy Egyptian Greeks also used special letter carriers, either servants or employees. But the average letter writer, unable to avail himself of either the government post or, as in the case of the wealthy, of a special messenger was dependent on traveling business men (e.g., camel caravans) or friends and passing strangers who happened to be going in the same direction as the letter (see Winter, 1933: 42, 82–83). And, there is abundant evidence in the papyri itself of the unreliability of this form of dispatch (See the exx. cited in White, 1978: 304–5).

4.3 An important consideration in the dispatch of the letter was the manner in which it was addressed for delivery, by the sender, and the manner in which its receipt was docketed by the recipient. Ordinarily, the material used in Hellenistic Egypt for letters and accounts was in the form of made-up rolls called χάρται, not separate sheets of papyrus. These were about 35 cm. in height and as many as fifty sheets, of about 15 cm. wide, in length πεντηκοντάκολλοι. The scribe would either cut off a sufficient strip from the end of the roll for his letter or else he would write the letter on the roll before cutting off the strip. The letter was written on the inner side of the roll, on which the fibers run horizontally (called the recto); the letter being written either in short lines along the fibers or in long lines across them. Letters from chancery offices were often written across the fibers, since the greater width of the page was more appropriate to the large, formal hands of the government scribes. When written, the letter was folded into a long, narrow strip which was, then, doubled over, tied around the middle with a thread of papyrus fiber, and sealed with clay. The name of the person to whom the letter was addressed was written in large letters on this surface which was formerly the outside of the roll, called the verso; the back side of the sheet serving as the letter’s envelope in a manner analogous to certain modern types of airmail stationery. Occasionally, a further direction was added (the recipient’s place of address) and a brief mention of the letter’s contents might be noted. The recipient, in turn, after reading the letter, and before filing it, might docket its receipt by writing on the outside the date (and occasionally the place) of its reception, the name of the sender and the subject of the letter (e.g., “Jason about the pigs”). But, these dockets vary considerably in the amount of information that is recorded and even in the side of the papyrus sheet on which the receipt was docketed, i.e., the receipt was sometimes docketed on the inside surface (See Edgar, 1931: 58–59; White, 1976: 129–31).

Works Consulted

Dahl, Nils A.

1976    “Letter.” Pp. 538–40 in IDB Supplementary Volume. Ed. Keith Crim. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Edgar, Campbell Cowan

1931    Zenon Papyri in the University of Michigan Collection. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Edgar, C. C. and Hunt, A. S.

1932    Select Papyri. Volume 1: Non-Literary Papyri Private Affairs. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Edgar, C. C. and Hunt, A. S.

1934    Select Papyri. Volume II: Non-Literary Papyri Public Documents. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Exler, Francis X. J.

1923    The Form of the Ancient Greek Letter. A Study in Greek Epistolography. Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America.

Guéraud, O.

1931    ντεύχεις Requêtes et plaintes addressées au Roi d’ Égypte au IIIe siècle avant J. C. Cairo.

Gummere, Richard M.

1917    Seneca. Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales. Volume I. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Horn, R. C.

1926    The Use of the Subjunctive and Optative Moods in the Non-Literary Papyri. Ph.D. Dissertation, Philadelphia.

Keyes, Clinton W.

1935    “The Greek Letter of Introduction.” American Journal of Philology 56: 28–44.

Kim, Chan-Hie

1972    The Familiar Letter of Recommendation. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press.

Kim, Chan-Hie

1975    “The Papyrus Invitation.” JBL 94: 391–402.

Koskenniemi, Heikki

1956    Studien zur Idee und Phraseologie des griechischen Briefes bis 400 n. Chr. Helsinki: Akateeminen Kirjakauppa.

Malherbe, Abraham J.

1977    “Ancient Epistolary Theorists.” Ohio Journal of Religious Studies 5, no. 2: 3–77.

Mullins, Terence Y.

1962    “Petition as a Literary Form.” NovT 5: 46–54.

Oates, J. F., Bagnall, R. S. and Willis, W.

1978    Checklist of Editions of Greek Papyri and Ostraca. Second Edition. BASP Supplements, no. 1. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press.

Roberts, W. Rhys

1902    Demetrius: On Style. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schubert, Paul

1939    Form and Function of the Pauline Thanksgivings. Berlin: Töpelmann.

Steen, Henry A.

1938    “Les Clichés épistolaries dans les Lettres sur Papyrus Grecques.” Classica et Mediaevalia I, no. 2: 119–76.

Thraede, Klaus

1970    Grundzüge griechisch-römischer Brieftopik. Munich: C. H. Beck.

Westermann, William L.

1928    “On Inland Transportation and Communication in Antiquity.” Political Science Quarterly 43: 364–87.

White, John L.

1972 A    The Body of the Greek Letter. Second Edition, corrected. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press.

White, John L.

1972 B    The Form and Structure of the Official Petition. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press.

White, John L.

1976    “A Note on Zenon’s Letter-Filing.” BASP 13, no. 3: 129–31.

White, John L.

1978    “Epistolary Formulas and Clichés in Greek Papyrus Letters.” SBL 1978 Seminar Papers, II: 289–319.

Williams, W. Glynn

1927    Cicero. Letters to his Friends. Volume I. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Winter, John G.

1927    “In the Service of Rome: Letters from the Michigan Collection of Papyri.” Classical Philology 22: 237–56.

Winter, John G.

1933    Life and Letters in the Papyri. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Ziemann, F

1912    De Epistularum Graecarum Formulis Sollemnibus Quaestiones Selectae. Berlin: Haas.

Index of Greek Papyrus Letters

Chan-Hie Kim

School of Theology at Claremont

This is an up-to-date list of Greek papyrus letters, published in various collections of papyrus documents, and assembled for the purpose of facilitating their location. Most entries listed in the following pages are private letters. Unpublished letters (inventories) are not listed here unless scholars have brought them to public attention by examining them in periodical publications. Papyrus collections which do not have letters are obviously not included.

The abbreviations and order of the papyrus publications followed here are taken from Checklist of Editions of Greek Papyri and Ostraca. second edition (1978), by J. F. Oates, R. S. Bagnall and W. H. Willis. The only exception is that we do not make a separate category of entries which are classified as “corpora” and “series” in the Checklist. And, where the Checklist does not identify fully the abbreviations, we have supplied the omitted publication information; all such entries are short articles in journals (for instance, see P.Heid. and P.Col.).



Vol. 1:

4, 13–15, 19, 27, 33, 37, 38, 40, 44, 73, 93, 151, 164, 248, 249, 260, 261, 276, 327, 332, 333.



380, 383–385, 412, 417, 418, 423, 435, 449–451, 523, 530, 531, 543, 544, 593–597, 601, 602, 615, 623, 624, 632, 664, 665.



700, 701, 714, 775, 794, 795, 798, 799, 801, 811, 814–817, 820–824, 826–830, 843–851, 884–886, 892, 923, 926, 927, 947, 948, 984.



1014, 1029–1031, 1040–1044, 1047, 1078–1082, 1095–1097, 1141, 1203–1209.






1295–1303, 1465–1467.



1568, 1569, 1668–1683.



1766, 1803.



2 1871–1882.

C.P.Jud. (Select collection of documents already published)


Vol. 1:

4–6, 12, 13, 15, 132, 135, 141.



153, 424, 436, 437, 440–442, 444, 446.



469, 477, 479, 505, 507.

C.P.Lat. (Collection of already published Latin documents): 246–274

P.Aberd.: 69–72, 173–197 (178 through 186 are fragments)

P.Alex: 1–3, 13, 23–30, 39, 40.





Vol. 1:




37–41, 67, 68, 130–138, 143–145, 152–154.





Vol. 1:








P.Apoll.: 2–5, 8, 54, 60–72.

P.Athen. (=P.S.A.Athen.): 1–3, 59–69.





Vol. 1:

13–17, 32–43.



47–51, 57 (Rom. 1:24–27), 70–73, 87, 100.

P.Bas.: 16–19.



P.Berl. Möller: 9–12.



P.Berl.Zill.: 9–14.



P.Bon.: 13, 14 (?), 41–44.



P.Bour.: 10–12, 23–25.



P.Brem: 3, 10–22, 48–66.



P.Cair.Goodsp.: 3, 4.



P.Cair.Isid.: 126, 132–135.







Vol. 1:

67021, 67022, 67060–67086.

P. Cair.Zen.




Vol. 1:

59002, 59011, 59015–59021, 59023–59062, 59064–59068, 59071–59078, 59080–59086, 59093–59101, 59105–59111, 59120–59126. 59127, 59128, 59133.



59140–59172, 59174–59267, 59270–59291.



59298–59301, 59303–59318, 59321–59325, 59329–59333, 59335–59354, 59357–59360, 59362–59365, 59367–59376, 59379–59383, 59385–59428, 59431–59438, 59441–59493, 59495–59531.



59537, 59538, 59540, 59541, 59543–59547, 59553–59564, 59566, 59570–59618, 59630, 59632, 59635–59658, 59664, 59691.



(=Publ.Soc.Fouad V): 59801, 59803–59808, 59811–59827, 59829–59845, 59852, 59853.

P.Col. (Greek Series)


No. 3

(=P.Col.Zen. I): 3, 6–19, 21, 29–35, 41–52, 56.


No. 4

(=P.Col.Zen. II): 61, 64–67, 69–74, 80–83, 87, 88, 91–93, 101–115w, 121, 122.

Clinton W. Keyes, “Four Private Letters from the Columbia Papyri,” Classical Philology 30 (1935): 141–51. (Sometimes identified as P.Columb.): Inv. Nos. 493, 318, 321, 320.

P.Colt (See P.Ness.)

P.Corn.: 5, 46, 47, 50–53.

P.Dura: 45, 46, 55–81 (mostly fragments).





Vol. 1:




5, 6.

P.Erl.: 109, 13, 12, 19, 113, 51, 22, 124, 21.

P.Fam.Tebt. (=Pap.Lugd.Bat. VI): 42, 43.

P.Fay.: 109–136.





Vol. 2:




303–306, 332–334, 338, 345–348, 362, 365–367, 371, 373.

P.Fouad (=P.Publ.Soc.Fouad III): 75–89.

P.Fuad Univ. (or P.Fuad Crawford, =Publ.Soc.Fouad VIII): 6–17.

P.Gen. 1: 1–7, 10, 12–19, 23–36, 38, 41–42, 45–62, 72–79.

P.Giss.: 11–27, 45, 46, 54, 55, 64–98, 103, 105.

P.Giss. Univ.




Pt. 3:


P.Goodsp. (=E. J. Goodspeed. “A Group of Greek Papyrus Texts,” Classical Philology 1 [1906]:167–75): 9.

P.Got.: 10–15.

P.Grenf. I: 13, 30, 32, 35, 40, 43, 53, 61, 63–66.

P.Grenf. II: 23, 36–38, 42, 46a, 73, 77, 82, 91–94, 108.

P.Gron.: 15–20.

P.Gur.: 6, 11, 20, 21.





Vol. 1:

37, 53, 54, 86–90, 100–115.



(=P.Ibscher): 192.

P.Haun.: 9–12.






Jutta Seyfarth, “Griechische Urkunden und Briefe aus der Heidelberger Papyrussammlung,” Archiv für Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete 16 (1957):143–168: Nos. 210–224. N.F. 3: 228, 230, 232, 234.

P.Herm.: 1–17, 19, 20, 43–53.





Vol. 1:




201–207, 233–263, 274–278.




Vol. 2:





P.Ibscher (see P.Hamb. 2)

P.Indiana Univ. (=Verne B. Schuman, “The Indiana University Papyri,” Classical Philology 43 [1948]:110–115): No. 10.

P.Jena: 1–4.

P.Jews (see P.Lond. 6)





Vol. 1 (1907): 12–17, 26.



Vol. 1 (1928): 60.


P.Lips. 104–112.







Vol. 1:

43 (p.48).



Pages 252–306 and 319–321; papyrus numbers—356, 144, 190, 157, 479, 301, 409, 235, 236, 414, 237, 405, 416, 232, 239, 410, 417, 243, 408, 418, 244, 404, 453, 454, 480.



Pages 153–157, 205–213, 241–244, and 281–284; pappyrus numbers—854, 897, 1173, 899, 848 verso, 962, 1122b, 964, 672, 973b, 951 verso, 653, 981, 982, 988, 1244, 777, 1075, 1081, 1032, 1041.



1658, 1659, 1679–1685, 1786–1792, 1834–1837, 1842–1847, 1883–1893.



(=P.Jews): 1912–1929.

P.Lond. Inv. (=H. I. Bell, “Some Private Letters of the Roman Period from the London Collection,” Revue égyptologique, n.s. 1, [1919]:200–9): 1575, 2102, 1920, 1561.





Vol. 2:






Vol. 1:

4, 12, 22, 28, 32, 38.



62, 63, 66, 79, 80–83, 85, 93, 96.

P.Meyer: 19–24.







Vol. 1

(=P.Mich.Zen.): 6–29, 32–48, 51–60, 63–65, 68, 69, 72–85, 88–107.






464–482, 490–500, 504–509, 512–514, 519–521.




Gerald M. Brown, “Two Private Letters from the Michigan Collection,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 11 (1974):39–43: Inv. 150 and Inv. 444.

P.Michael.: 7, 8, 11, 12, 15–17, 20, 26, 28–32, 38, 39.





Vol. 2:

21–24, 28, 74–87.

P.Mil.Vogl. Vol. 1:11, 24.





50, 51, 59–63, 66, 70, 76, 77.



156, 157, 201–203.





Vol. 2:




49–53, 71, 74, 75.





Vol. 2:




82–85, 88, 148–162.

P.Oxf. (=Pap.Lugd.Bat. IIIA and IIIB): 17–19.





Vol. 1:




269, 291–300.
























1479–1495, 1579–1593.



1630, 1663–1684, 1754–1777.















2253, 2678.





















3057–3070, 3082–3087.



3088, 3094, 3106, 3112, 3123, 3124, 3129, 3147–3150.



3182, 3199, 3202.






3291, 3306, 3312–3314.

P.Paris: 12, 13, 18, 30–32, 40–49, 60–65.





Vol. 1:

25 (2), 26, 29, 30.



2 (2)–2 (4), 3 (a)–3 (e), 4 (1)–4 (13), 5 (a)–5 (c), 6, 9 (1)–9 (5), 10 (1)–10 (2), 11 (1)–11 (2), 12 (1)–12 (4), 13 (1)–13 (20), 15 (1)–15 (3), 16, 19 (1a)–19 (2), 20, 23 (1)–23 (4), 38 (b), 38 (c), 40 (a), 40 (b), 42 (a)–42 (c), 45.



29 (a)–29 (i), 30, 32 (a)–32 (d), 42A–42I, 53 (a)–53(s).





Vol. 2:

19, 64–74, 97–106.




P.Ross. Georg.




Vol. 2:

4, 10, 43.











Vol. 2:




555–563, 565–570, 572–574, 576–579, 592–593, 603–609, 623–625, 652, 663–699 (fragments).

P.Ryl.Zen. (=C. C. Edgar, “A New Group of Zenon Papyri,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 18 [1934]:111–30): 1–17.

P.S.A.Athen. (see P.Athen.)

P.Sarap.: 80–103, 80–83a (letters of Sarapion), 84–91 (letters of Heliodoros), 92–103 (miscellaneous letters).





Vol. 1:

49, 50, 70, 71, 90–98.



177, 206–212, 220, 226, 236–238.



286, 297–299, 301, 305, 308, 311, 317–319, 321–323, 323, 327, 333–335, 340–387, 390–397, 400–426, 431–445.



1041, 1042, 1049–1054, 1079–1082.






1241, 1242, 1246–1248, 1259–1261, 1267.






1315, 1331–1336, 1339, 1343, 1345.



1404, 1412–1415, 1418–1420, 1423, 1425, 1427–1430.

P.Sorb.: 18–22, 33, 34, 62, 63.





Vol. 1:

26, 32, 35–38, 73.






138, 140, 145.



169–174, 178, 180, 186, 187, 193, 197, 224, 228, 233, 253, 259, 260, 270, 279, 286.





Vol. 1:

8–37 (official correspondence), 38–54 (petitions), 55–59.



284, 289, 314, 315, 407–424.


3, Pt. 1:



3, Pt. 2:

902–947 (official), 948–950.

P.Thead.: 51, 52.

P.Vars.: 20, 22–26, 28, 29.

P.Vindob. Sijp. (=Pap. Lugd. Bat. XI):26–28.

P. Warr. (=Pap. Lugd. Bat. I): 13–20.

P. Wurzb.: 7, 8, 22.

P.Yale: 29, 30, 32–36, 38–45, 47–50, 55–57, 77–84.





Vol. 1:

4291, 4293, 4294, 4304, 4305, 4308, 4317, 4323, 4420, 4630, 4635, 4650, 4867, 5218, 5282, 5298, 5308, 5309, 5314, 5315, 5747, 5807, 5951, 5952.



6011, 6096, 6097, 6222, 6260, 6262, 6263, 6265, 6267, 6297–6299, 6644, 6798–6802, 6823, 7165, 7176–7180, 7183, 7243, 7244, 7247–7253, 7258, 7262–7264, 7267–7269.



7330, 7331, 7335, 7345–7350, 7352–7357, 7378, 7402, 7436, 7438, 7459, 7479–7482.



7520, 7524, 7529, 7530, 7562, 7567, 7568, 7571, 7572, 7574–7577, 7600, 7613–7616, 7635, 7556, 7659–7662, 7737, 7743, 7872, 7983–7987, 7992–7995, 7997, 7999–8006, 8027, 8088–8092.





Vol. 1:




151, 152, 160, 170, 195–197, 199, 215, 216.

Published: December 22, 2014, 09:56 | Comments Off on STUDIES IN ANCIENT LETTER WRITING, by Uwe Rosenkranz (Semeia 22)
Category: ROSARY 4 z Bishop

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