Early Christian Letter Collections

In recent weeks the Ancient Letter Collections Project has been examining the collections of letters (in Greek) attributed to various famous figures of the early Christian church, as we near the end of our work on the surviving collections in Greek (Latin collections will be next!). These collections include the letters of John Chrysostom, who became archbishop of Constantinople in AD 397, the letters of Basil of Caesarea, bishop of Caesarea after Eusebius from AD 370, his brother Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, and the ascetic Isidore of Pelusium (350-440). Their importance in the early church is underlined by the fact that all four are regarded as saints.

Many of these collections represent a challenge in terms of their scale. The letters of John Chrysostom, for instance, number 243 letters in the collection’s largest form in the manuscripts, while the letters of Basil are more substantial still, totalling some 366 letters, though no single manuscript preserves all of these letters. But the biggest collection of all in terms of the number of letters is that of Isidore, which numbers a staggering 2,000 letters (and some ancient authorities, such as the Suda, report that there were once some 3,000!). Working with such large collections is difficult, since it becomes particularly awkward to get a sense of the overall organisation and arrangement of a collection of such a size.

Nevertheless, there are some aspects of the collection of Isidore which are clear. The entire collection of the 2,000 letters of Isidore is transmitted in two late manuscripts, Vaticani gr. 649+650 (16th c.) and Ottoboniani gr. 341+383 (16th c.). The contents and order of these manuscripts are corroborated by earlier manuscripts which preserve substantial parts of the collection. The oldest ms transmitting the collection is Grottaferrata B.a.1 (10th c.), which is divided into two books bound together into a single volume: book i contains letters 1-600 and book ii contains letters 1001-1998 (i.e. a total of 1,598 letters). The 400 letters missing from Grottaferrata B.a.1 can be supplemented from the second oldest ms, Parisinus gr. 832 (13th c.), which contains letters 1-1213, divided into three books. It is from this original collection of the 2,000 letters that smaller collections of different types derive: a general feature of the smaller collections of Isidore is that they retain or reflect the arrangement of the letters in the 2,000-letter collection. This suggests that they derive from that larger collection. The challenge that remains is examining and explaining why certain letters have been selected in these smaller collections and what that tells us about why and how the letters were being read.

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