Letter of Lentulus

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Letter of Lentulus, printed in London, 1680.

The Letter of Lentulus is an allegedly apocyrphal or pseudepigraphal letter purporting to have been written to the Roman Senate during the reign of Tiberius Caesar by a certain "Publius Lentulus",[note 1] concerning the physical appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ.[note 2]

The earliest manuscript copies of the Letter of Lentulus all date from the 15th century, from which time it became widely dispersed in Italy and throughout Western Europe. There are no complete statistics, however in 1899 the German scholar Ernst von Dobschűtz listed seventy-five manuscripts, chiefly in Germany and France.[1]

The Letter

An English translation of the purported letter as given by Dr. Cora E. Lutz, who used the 15th century manuscript found in the Beinecke Rare Book Library known as "Marston 49", is as follows:[note 3]

"Lentulus, to the Senate and the Roman People, greetings.

There has appeared in these times, and, indeed, is still living, a man of great power named Christ Jesus, who is said by the Gentiles to be the prophet of truth, but his disciples call him the Son of God.
He raises the dead and heals all diseases. He is a man of average size and pleasing appearance, having a countenance that commands respect, which those who behold may love or fear. He has hair the color of an unripe hazelnut, smooth almost to the ears, but below his ears curling and rather darker and more shining, hanging over his shoulders, and having a parting in the middle of his head according to the fashion of the Nazarenes. His brow is smooth and quite serene; his face is without wrinkle or blemish, and a slight ruddiness makes it handsome. No fault can be found with his nose and mouth; he has a full beard of the color of his hair, not long but divided in two at the chin. His facial expression is guileless and mature; his eyes are greyish and clear. In his rebukes he is terrible, but in his admonitions he is gentle and kind; he is cheerful, but always maintains his dignity. At times he has wept, but he has never laughed.

In stature he is tall and erect and his hands and arms are fine to behold. His speech is grave, reserved, and temperate, so that he is rightly called by the prophet, "Fairer than the sons of men." "(Psalm 45:2).[2]

The Latin text of the Letter of Lentulus that was printed in 1886 by Dr. Gotthold Gundermann, using "Codex Harleianus 2729" as his source, is as follows:


"Pub. Lentulus in Judea preses (tempore Cesaris) senatui populoque Romano hanc epistolam misit.

Apparuit temporibus istis nostris, et adhuc est, homo magnae uirtutis, cui nomen Jhesus Christus, qui a gente dicitur propheta ueritatis; et a suis discipulis filius Dei. Suscitans mortuos et sanans omnes langores. Homo quidem statura procerus et spectabilis. Uultum habens uenerabilem quam intuentes facile possunt diligere et formidare. Capillos habens coloris nucis auellane praematura et planos usque ad aures; ab auribus uero crispos aliquantulum coeruliores et fulgentiores; ab humeris uentilantes. Discrimen habens in medio capite iuxta morem Nazareorum. Frontem planam serenissimam cum facie sine ruga aliqua quam rubor moderatus uenustat. Nasi et oris nulla prorsus reprehensio. Barbam habens copiosam et capillis concolorem, non langam, sed in medio bifurcatam. Aspectum simplicem et maturum, oculis glaucis uariis et claris. In increpatione terribilis, in admonitione blandus et amabilis. Hilaris quidem seruata grauitate. Numquam uisus ridere, flere autem sepe. In statura corporis propagatus et rectus. Manus habens et brachia uisu desertabilia. In colloquio grauis, rarus et modestus. Forma certe speciosus prae filiis hominum."

Note that the different manuscript copies vary from the foregoing texts in several details. Ernst von Dobschűtz who enumerated the manuscripts, also gave an "apparatus criticus" in his "Christusbilder" (Leipzig, 1899).[1]


Letter of Lentulus, on an old Church postcard, in French.

The Letter of Lentulus has been judged to be apocryphal for a number of reasons. Modern scholars raise three main points where the letter seems to violate historicity:[2][note 4]

  1. there was no Publius Lentulus, governor of Judea, preceding Pontius Pilate; history gives the appointment from A.D. 15-26 to Valerius Gratus.[3]
  2. if there had been a procurator of Syria, he would have written to the Emperor, not to the Senate, because the province was an imperial one; and
  3. the title "Jesus Christus" was not used as early as this; while the expressions "prophet of truth" and "sons of men" are Hebrew idioms.

On the other hand there are important arguments to be considered in favour of authenticity as well. The first criticism above, which has been stressed by scholars in every English language text on the topic, is that the letter must be apocryphal because we know that the Prefect before Pontius Pilate was not Publius Lentulus. And yet in the 15th century manuscript "Marston 49" (translated into English above), as well as in the Latin text of "Codex Harleianus 2729", both of these manuscripts make no mention at all of the title of Publius Lentulus as being the so-called "governor of Judea"; which therefore appears to be a variation that was introduced from other manuscripts, or else became a mistranslation into English and was carried forward in that variant or erroneous form. In other words, the first criticism above is virtually nullified, and Publius Lentulus could have been any individual or Roman official who was visiting Jerusalem or Judea at the time.

Further to this, Roman History gives us the names of several Lentuli in the period in question who were Consuls and were active around the time of the Lord's ministry. And it was certainly possible for a Consul to address a letter to the Senate, contrary to the second criticism above. Therefore a consideration for authenticity bears greater attention.

Friedrich Münter in his "Die Sinnbilder und Kunstvorstellungen der alten Christen" (Altona 1825), believed that he could trace the letter down to the time of Diocletian, but this was not generally accepted.[4]

An alternative perspective is given by Monk Pierre (Blais) ThD, elder of The Hesychastic Society of the Most Holy Mary (OCA) and former Lecturer in Religion at the University of Toronto, UTM, OCAD U and St. John Fisher College, who has written the following in a private email dated Dec. 17, 2011:

"Scholars and believers might better understand the purpose of the text if both consider the significance of the nomenclature Publius Lentulus more in an allegorical sense, as intended by either the author (in a self-effacing manner) or by a later editor or redactor (as commentary), and less as necessarily validating an apocryphal value or judgment. Publius Lentulus in both classical and ecclesiastical Latin glosses into English as "A Dullard Public Official;" and literally translates as, "[An official] of the people [who was] rather slow [to understand/respond]."[note 5]


Roman Prosopography

There were several officials with the name of “Lentulus”, around the time that the “Letter of Lentulus” was supposedly authored. Sir Ronald Syme, widely regarded as the 20th century's greatest historian of ancient Rome, has identified four consular Lentuli during the reign of Tiberius Caesar:[5]

  • Servius Cornelius Lentulus Cethegus, Consul in 24 AD.
  • Publius Cornelius Lentulus Scipio, Consul suffectus in 24 AD, and later a senator.
  • Cossus Cornelius Lentulus (the younger), Consul in 25 AD, and
  • Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus, Consul in 26 AD, and executed in 39 AD. According to Syme, this man had a taste for polite letters. Nine poems in the Greek Anthology carry his name; he also wrote in Latin, on erotic themes; and composed a prose work, perhaps memoirs.
  • In addition, Cossus Cornelius Lentulus (the elder), the father of Cossus (the younger) and Gaetulicus (both listed above), held high office as Prefect of Rome from 33-36 AD.

Fifteenth Century Discovery and Dispersal in the West

According to a manuscript of the University of Jena, a certain Giacomo (Jacopo) Colonna found the letter in 1421 inserted into a very old volume of the Annals of Rome, having been originally sent to Rome from the Patriarch of Constantinople, according to the following colophon in the text:[2]

"Explicit epistola Iacobi de Columpna, anno domini 1421, reperta in annalibus Romae, in libro antiquissimo in Capitolio, doct. domino Patriarchae Constantinopolitano." 

Thus it must have been of Greek origin, and translated into Latin during the thirteenth or fourteenth century, though it received its present form in the 15th or 16th century.

Just about the time that the letter was being dispersed widely in Italy, the humanist Lorenzo Valla denounced it as a fraud in his famous treatise correctly exposing the Donation of Constantine as fraudulent (ca. 1440 AD). That said, one cannot infer the one from the other (i.e. fraudulency).[6]

Even so after that, the letter was given greater prestige by being incorporated into the prologue of Ludolph of Saxony's Meditationes in vitam Christi (Nuremberg 1483). In a similar way it was printed in the collection of writings of the 11th century Anselm of Canterbury (Nuremberg, 1491). However neither Ludolph nor Anselm had any knowledge of the letter.[2]

Later, in the 16th century, it was printed as authentic by the Protestant theologian Matthias Flacius, in his Centuries of Magdeburg. It continued to appear as late as the end of the 19th century, and became included among the texts of the Apocryphal New Testament.

Antecedents in Greek Sources

No Greek original for the letter is known to exist, but there are at least three passages in Greek writings earlier than the 15th century Lentulus manuscripts, which give similar descriptions concerning the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ.[2]

Closest in time to the Lentulus letter is the description found in the 14th century Ecclesiastical History of Nicephorus Callistus, in a section entitled: "On the divine and human features of our Saviour, Jesus Christ."[7] With the prefatory "As we have learned from the ancients," the author notes a number of significant details: blond hair, thick, and falling into waves over the shoulders; dark eyebrows; short blond beard; eyes dark and remarkably kindly, but sharp; light complexion, slightly ruddy; face showing gravity, prudence, and gentleness, very like his Mother.[2]

Another description, probably first set down in the 11th century, was edited in the 18th century by the monk Dionysius of Fourna in a Handbook of Painting,[note 6] a guide to Christian iconography that treats of the methods and materials of painting and the works of art from Mount Athos. It occurs in a section entitled: "On the countenance and form of our Lord as we have learned it from those who have seen Him with their own eyes." Here the author mentions gentleness as the salient characteristic of the face. He also notes: beautiful eyebrows that meet; lovely eyes; beautiful white nose; complexion like ripe grain; curly golden hair; dark beard; fingers long and slender; gentle bearing, very like his Mother.[2]

An 8th century description of Christ is found in the works of St. John of Damascus, in his Epistola ad Theophilum. Here the details include: beautiful eyes, with eyebrows that meet; straight nose; curly hair; pleasant voice; gentle, serene, and patient manner. In spite of the differences, the repetition and similarities suggest that all three accounts, along with the Letter of Lentulus, may stem from a common source.[note 7] What the ultimate origin of such a likeness may have been is suggested in another work of St. John of Damascus, the De Imaginibus oratio.[8] Here John reports the existence of a miraculous impression of the face of Christ, sent by Christ Himself, just before his death, to Abgarus, King of Edessa.[2]

Acheiropoieta - Historians accounts

Image Not made by hands.

Furthermore, there are several other witnesses to the existence of the miraculous icon.

  • Evagrius Scholasticus, for one, in the 7th century, in his Ecclesiastical History,[9] cites Procopius of Caesarea for evidence of the "God-made image" which successfully protected Edessa against the Persian King Chosroes.[2]
  • In the record of the Second Council of Nicaea (Seventh Ecumenical Council), held in 787, there is a letter purporting to have been written in 726 by Pope Gregory II to the Emperor Leo III the Isaurian, on the subject of the iconoclastic movement headed by Leo. The Pope, reminding Leo of the Abgarus-Jesus letters and the miraculous icon, bids him to go to Edessa and behold the venerable image of Christ "that was not made by human hands, worshipped and adored by multitudes of the people in the East."[2]
  • A third witness to the portrait is a long naarative attributed to Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (908-959), of the whole history of the letters and the sacred image to the time that they were taken from Edessa to Constantinople in 844.[note 8] Described in detail are the solemn ceremonies, the religious procession, the numerous stops at holy places en route, and the emotional reception of the marvelous relic in Constantinople by the clergy, the Emperor, and the people. The account states specifically that the icon was placed briefly upon the imperial throne, where the Emperor viewed it and reverenced it, before its enshrinement in a church for the eternal protection of the realm.[2]
  • As a final witness there is the 12th century Annales of chronicler John Zonaras.[10] In speaking of Emperor Nicephorus Phocas (963-969) in his campaign to recover Cyprus and Syria, he says that in Hierapolis his soldiers found the duplicate of the miraculous icon of Christ and brought it back to Constantinople.[2]


According to both tradition and in historical accounts, there was an early icon of Christ that men of the East believed was created in a miraculous manner during Christ's lifetime and which they guarded and reverenced. Furthermore, the three descriptions of an early icon as given by St John of Damascus in the 8th century, in the 11th century text edited by Dionysius of Fourna, and in the 14th century text of Nicephorus Callistus, agree in many details and must all derive from a common source. If the Letter of Lentulus that was discovered in the 15th century is apocryphal as some scholars allege, nevertheless it also belongs to and carries forward this same iconographic tradition that was held by examples of prime Byzantine historians as authentic.[note 9][note 10]

See also



  1. "Lentulus" was the name of a Roman patrician family of the Cornelian gens.
  2. Neither the Gospels nor the Epistles make any mention of the physical characteristics of Christ; although there is a tradition that the Apostle and Evangelist Luke, who wrote the first icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, also painted an icon of Jesus.
  3. Yale purchased the bulk of the Thomas E. Marston manuscript collection in 1962.
  4. See: M.R. James. The Apocryphal New Testament. Oxford, 1924. pp.477-478.
  5. Dr. Blais' thesis is referenced in Orthodox Psychotherapy: Further Reading, and The Hesychastic Society of the Most Holy Mary (OCA) in Metochion.
  6. For the French translation by P. Durand, see: N. Didron. Manuel d'iconographie chretienne. Paris, 1845. p.452.
  7. Fr. F. Vigouroux, in Dictionnaire de la Bible (Paris, 1908), IV.171, says without reservation that the Lentulus letter must come from the same source as the three other descriptions. Fr. F. X. Kraus, in Real-Encyclopadie der christlichen Altertums (Freiburg, 1882), II.15-16, expresses complete agreement.
  8. See François Combefis, Originum rerumque Constantinopolitanarum manipulus (Paris, 1664), pp.75-101, "Constantini Porphyrogennetae: Narratio de divina Christi Dei nostri imagine non manufacta."
  9. In a discussion of the Letter of Lentulus on a Greek weblog (Publius Lentulus και το υποτιθέμενο γράμμα στον Καίσαρα), one contributor has conjectured that both Mount Athos and Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (in his Unseen Warfare) regard the letter as authentic.
  10. Note that a 15th century medieval manuscript from Germany by an unknown author, contains a Sermon for Holy Thursday, together with the Letter of Lentulus. The inclusion of the Letter of Lentulus on the “form and stature” of Christ would make sense to accompany a treatise on the Eucharist. In addition, during the services for Holy Thursday evening in 2021, at the St. Isidore Orthodox Church, on the Lycabettus Hill, in Athens, Greece, the Letter of Lentulus was read in Greek amongst the twelve Passion Gospels.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Ernst von Dobschűtz. Christusbilder. Untersuchungen zur christlichen Legende. In: Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur. Leipzig, XVIII (1899).
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 Cora Lutz. "The Letter of Lentulus Describing Christ." The Yale University Gazette. Vol. 50, Issue 2, 1975. pp. 91-97.
  3. The Expository Times. January, 1931. Vol.42 No.11, pp.501.
  4. Anthony Maas. "Publius Lentulus." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. (Retrieved December 12, 2011 from New Advent)
  5. Ronald Syme. The Augustan Aristocracy. 2nd Ed. Oxford University Press, 1989. pp.297-298.
  6. Laurentius Valla. De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio. Ed. W. Schwahn. Leipzig, 1928. p.62.
  7. Nicephorus Callistus. Ecclesiastica Historia. I.40 (P.G., CXLV. 748-750).
  8. P.G., XCIV.1262.
  9. IV.26-27 (P.G., LXXXVI.2716).
  10. XVI. cap.25 (P.G., CXXXV.118-119).


  • Cora Lutz. "The Letter of Lentulus Describing Christ." The Yale University Gazette. Vol. 50, Issue 2, 1975. pp. 91-97.
  • Ronald Syme. The Augustan Aristocracy. 2nd Ed. Oxford University Press, 1989. 504pp. ISBN 9780198147312
  • R.H. Bowers. "The Letter of Lentulus in Middle English." Notes and Queries. 1958: Vol.203, Iss.10, pp.423-424.
  • Anthony Maas. "Publius Lentulus." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. (Retrieved December 12, 2011 from New Advent)
  • John Oliver Hand. "Some Thoughts on the Iconography of the "Head of Christ" by Petrus Christus." Metropolitan Museum Journal. Vol.27 (1992), pp.7-18.
  • The Expository Times. January, 1931. Vol.42 No.11, pp.501.
  • The Catholic Layman. May, 1854. Vol.3, No.29, pp.61-62.


  • British Library - Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Detailed record for Harley 2472. 1st quarter of the 15th century, Italy, N. E. (?Veneto).
  • Lorenzo Di Tommaso (Dept. of Theology, Concordia Univ.). "Pseudepigrapha Notes II: 3. The Contribution of the Manuscript Catalogues of M.R. James." Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha. Vol 18.2 (2008), pp.83-160.

Other Languages

  • (German)
Dr. Gotthold Gundermann. "Der Brief des P. Lentulus über Jesum." Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Theologie. Vol.29, (1886), p.241.
  • (German)
Dr. Ernst von Dobschűtz. Christusbilder. Untersuchungen zur christlichen Legende. Texte u. Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur. Leipzig 1899.
  • (Italian)
Lettera Inedita Del Presto Giovanni All'Imperatore Carlo IV, Ed Altra Di Lentulo Ai Senatori Romani Sopra Gesu' Cristo. Lucca, 1857. 64pp.
  • (Greek)
Publius Lentulus και το υποτιθέμενο γράμμα στον Καίσαρα. Η Αληθεια που μας κρυβουν Επιμελως. 26 Dec 2010 - 05 Sep 2011. (weblog)
  • (Greek)
Πούβλιος Λέντουλος. Βικιπαίδεια.

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