The Festal Letters of the Patriarchs of Alexandria. Evidence for Social History in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries

Pauline Allen, DPhil, FAHA. Director of the Centre for Early Christian Studies, Australian Catholic University.

Abstract: From the third century onwards it became customary for the patriarchs of Alexandria to announce by letter the date of Easter, together with that of the beginning of the Lenten fast and of Pentecost. These annual letters were written by the patriarch in Greek and translated where necessary into Coptic for monks and laity. We have three significant collections of these letters, called Festal or Paschal: those of Athanasius, Theophilus, and Cyril. This body of material, especially the Cyrillian corpus which is preserved almost intact, gives us a window onto the life of ordinary Egyptian Christians and their attitudes to Jews, pagans, heretics, and other topics. Here I give first an overview of the genre of the Festal Letter, important for assessing its impact on ordinary Egyptians, before considering the following: information on polytheism, paganism, astrology, and oracles; fasting; heresy; and other miscellaneous topics to do with everyday life.