Epistle of Christ from Heaven

Epistula e caelo missa de seruanda dominica

Standard abbreviation: Ep. Chr. Heav.

Other titles: Letter(s) from Heaven, Leaflets from Heaven, Letter on the Observance of the Lord’s Day, Sunday Letter(s), Scrolls from Heaven, Himmelsbrief

Clavis numbers: CANT 311

Category: Epistles

Related Literature: Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea; Epistle of the Apostles

Compiled by: Calogero A. Miceli, Concordia University (calogero.miceli@concordia.ca)

Citing this resource (using Chicago Manual of Style): Miceli, Calogero A. “Epistle of Christ from Heaven.” E-Clavis: Christian Apocrypha. Accessed DAY MONTH YEAR. http://www.nasscal.com/e-clavis-christian-apocrypha/epistle-of-christ-from-heaven/.

Posted April 2017.

1. SUMMARY

This apocryphal work claims to have been written by Jesus Christ and to have come down to earth from heaven. The letter is unique in that it instructs readers to observe the holy Day of the Lord (Sunday) and warns that those who do not own a copy of the letter will face terrible punishments. The instructions to make copies of the letter mean that this work is likely the oldest known form of a chain letter (a message that attempts to convince recipients to make copies of the letter and pass them on to others). As a result, this letter has been uncountably copied and recopied throughout the centuries. Today, it can be found in a plethora of ancient and modern languages including Ancient (Koine) Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopic, Latin, Russian, Modern Greek, French, English, German, Italian, Polish, Spanish, etc. The great number of copies of this letter and its wide transmission mean that a critical edition of the work is out of reach. One of the oldest versions is a Koine Greek text—likely the original language of the epistle—found in Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France,  gr. 929.

The content of the letter features a framing narrative that describes its delivery from heaven. The archbishop of Rome is visited by the apostle Peter in a dream and then witnesses the epistle suspended in the air in the middle of the sanctuary. The letter comes down into the hands of the bishop who proceeds to read the contents of the letter to his congregation. The letter, purportedly written in the first person by Jesus/God, begins by admonishing those who have failed to honor or celebrate the holy Day of the Lord and to curse those who do not continue to observe it. Included among the narrator’s many menaces is the threat that he “will send venomous wild beasts, so that they devour women’s breasts (who then will be unable to breastfeed babies that do not have their mothers’ milk), and savage wolves to snatch away your children” (1:18). A number of heinous extortions are offered for those who fail to follow the instructions and observe the holy day. The epistle concludes by returning to the framing narrative where the archbishop is addressing the congregation. He implores those listening to honor the holy Sunday that they may avoid harsh punishments and instead be rewarded at the time of judgment.

Named historical figures and characters: Abraham (patriarch), Adam (patriarch), Eve (matriarch), Gabriel (angel), Jesus Christ, John (the Baptist), Mary (Virgin), Moses, Peter (apostle), Satan.

Geographical locations: Gomorrah, Mount Sinai, Rome, Sodom.

2. RESOURCES

2.1 Online Resources

Miceli, Calogero A. “A Story about Jesus Outside the New Testament.” Inquisitive Minds Podcast (Posted 27 February 2016).

VanArsdale, Daniel W. Chain Letter Evolution. (Most recently posted 2016). No pages. (Includes an archive of Ep. Chr. Heav. texts).

3. BIBLIOGRAPHY

3.1 Manuscripts and Editions

London, Highgate School, II.29, fols. 120v–124v (15th cent.)

London, Lambeth Palace Library, 1197, fols. 5r–10v (15th/16th cent.)

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France,  gr. 929, pp. 548–561 (15th cent.)

Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Barberinus gr. 284 (olim III 3), fols. 55–65 (1497)

Bittner, Maximilian. “Der vom Himmel gefallene Brief in seinen morgenländischen Versionen und Rezensionen.” Denkschriften der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften: Philosophisch-historische Klasse 51.1 (1906): 1–240 (comprehensive study of the tradition with versions published in numerous ancient languages, including the text of Paris gr. 929, pp. 16–21).

Delehaye, Hippolyte. “Note sur la légende de la lettre du Christ tombée du ciel.” Pages 171–213 in Bulletin de l’Académie royale de Belgique: Classe de lettres. Brussels: Hayez, 1899. [Repr. as pages 150–78 in Hippolyte Delehaye. Mélanges d’hagiographie grecque et latine. Subsidia Hagiographica 42. Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1966.] (Latin texts and a French version).

Vassiliev, Athanasius. Anecdota graeco-byzantina, pars prior. Moscow: Imperial University, 1893 (Greek text of Vatican, Barberinus gr. 284 and Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, VII 38, pp. 23–32; discussion pp. xii–xx).

3.2 Modern Translations

3.2.1 English

Miceli, Calogero A. “The Epistle of Christ from Heaven: A New Translation and Introduction.” Pages 455–63 in volume 1 of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures. Edited by Tony Burke and Brent Landau. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

3.2.2 French

Backus, Irena. “Lettre de Jésus-Christ sur le dimanche.” Pages 1101–19 in vol. 2 of Écrits apocryphes chrétiens. Edited by P. Geoltrain and J.-D. Kaestli. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade 516. Paris: Gallimard, 2005.

3.2.3 Italian

Erbetta, Mario. Gli Apocrifi del Nuovo Testamento. 3 vols. in 4. Turin: Marietti, 1966–1981 (the epistle is translated in vol. 3, pp. 113–18).

3.2.4 Spanish

Santos Otero, Aurelio de. Los Evangelios Apócrifos. 2nd ed. Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1963 (the epistle is translated on pp. 670–82).

3.3 General Works

Beskow, Per. Strange Tales about Jesus: A Survey of Unfamiliar Gospels. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983 (pp. 25–30).

Borsje, Jacqueline. “The Bruch in the Irish Version of the Sunday Letter.” Ériu 45 (1994): 83–98.

Delehaye, Hippolyte. “Un exemplaire de la lettre tombée du ciel.” RSR 18 (1928): 164–68.

Esbroeck, Michel van. “La Lettre sur le dimanche descendue du ciel.” AnBoll 107 (1989): 267–84.

Fogel, Edwin M. “The Himmelsbrief.” German American Annals, vol. 10 (1908): 286–311.

Goodspeed, Edgar J. Strange New Gospels. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1931 (pp. 96–107).

Haines, Dorothy, ed. Sunday Observance and the Sunday Letter in Anglo-Saxon England. Anglo-Saxon Texts 8. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2010.

Hall, Isaac H. “The Letter of Holy Sunday: Syriac Text and Translation.” JAOS 15 (1893): 121–137.

Priebsch, Robert. Letter from Heaven on the Observance of the Lord’s Day. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1936.

Stern, Jean. “La Salette et la légende des lettres tombées du ciel.” Pages 375–92 in vol. 1 of La Salette: Documents authentiques: Dossier chronologique intégral. Collection Sanctuaires, Pèlerinages, Apparitions. 3 vols. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1980–1991.

Stübe, Rudolf. Der Himmelsbrief: Ein Beitrag zur allgemeinen Religionsgeschichte. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1918.

Yoder, Don, “Heaven Sent: When Homeowners’ Insurance Came Straight from the Top.” Fine Books Magazine (posted June 2009). No pages. Online: https://www.finebooksmagazine.com/issue/200906/himmelsbrief-1.phtml.