What Does Pliny the Younger Really Tell us About Early Christianity?

In the early second century, Pliny the Younger – Roman governor of Bithynia – wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan regarding the treatment of Christians. The Emperor wrote a brief response.

Online discussions of Pliny’s correspondence tend to focus on what this non-Christian reference to Christ tells us about the existence of Jesus. (see here and here). Though I also engage in the Jesus Myth game as time permits, I was reading a book by Paul Barnett, Is The New Testament Reliable?, which took a broader look at the interaction between Pliny and early Christianity. That got me to thinking about the broader contact between Pliny and our early Christian sources.

To begin with, Pliny was writing about Bithynia, which was also a destination of the First Epistle of Peter. It seems likely therefore, that Pliny was persecuting some of the very Christians who had read that epistle. It was interesting to go back and read 1 Peter and then read Pliny’s letter in light of it. It really brings home the alienness of what they believed to the broader pagan culture.

Regarding specific passages, I will quote select passages and discuss their points of contact with early Christianity.

“I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent.”

Pliny is obviously aware of trials that had been going on either in other parts of the Empire or in his own province prior to his assuming the governorship. So the persecution of Christians is not a recent event.

“There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.”

Pliny’s handling of Roman citizens accused of practicing Christianity is similar to the procedure reported in Acts 25, where the Roman governor tells Paul, "You have appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you shall go." Paul’s status as a Roman citizen entitled him to avoid prosecution by the local officials, even Roman ones. Pliny confirms this practice not only generally, but in the case of charges of religious disturbance.

“Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, . . . and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.”

Pliny notes that some people had been practicing Christianity as much as 25 years prior to his interrogation of them. Skeptic Jeff Lowder’s speculation that some of those who recanted under threat of torture or torture itself might have had first hand knowledge of the historicity of Jesus is rather silly. Most of the people interrogated by Pliny had not been practicing for 25 years (which gets you back to around 80 AD at the earliest). Moreover, Bithynia was a Roman province in north west Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). It hardly seems a likely place for Jewish Christian refugees to seek shelter from the war and destruction of Jerusalem. It is impressive, though, that so many early Christians were willing to die for their belief in Jesus. Whatever their source of information about Jesus, they obviously had much faith in it.

Pliny also notes the exclusivity of the Christian worship of Jesus. Unlike other religions, Christians were known for not tolerating the worship of the Emperor.

Finally, the reference to Christians not being able to curse Christ is similar to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians that “no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed’; and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” 1 Cor. 12:3.

“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food.”

As Barnett notes, these comments are “the earliest surviving non-Christian description of what Christians believed and how they lived. What is of greatest interest is that these people regarded Christ as a god (or as God). They did not venerate him as a deceased martyr but agreed together by a form of words that he was a divine figure, in some way their living contemporary.” Barnett, op. cit., pages 23-24.

Also of interest is the litany of prohibited activities, which is similar to Paul’s in Romans (no stealing, adultery, murder or coveting, and to love your neighbor as yourself). Rom. 13:8-9. And to Paul’s statement about who would not enter the Kingdom of God (thieves, adulterers, the covetous, idolaters, or swindlers). 1 Cor. 6:9-10. The prohibition against oath taking is also found in James 5:12 (“But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath.”) and Matthew 5:34-35 (“But I say to you, make no oath at all.”). There is also a negative portrayal of oath taking in other New Testament passages. (Matt. 14:7-9; 26:72; Acts 23:12-14; Mark 6:26).

The singing of hymns to Christ as to a god is interesting in that it assumes that the Christians were worshiping a human being as if a god, not just a “false” god. Moreover, the presence of hymns regarding Christ in Paul’s letters indicates how widespread and early this practice was.

Pliny notes that Christians met on a fixed day of the week to worship Christ. This is similar to Acts reference to early Christians “meeting on the first day of the week” in order to “break bread” in Troas. Acts 20:7.

Finally, Pliny’s reference to Christians eating “food—but ordinary and innocent food” seems to be our earliest reference to the pagan attack against Christians as cannibals. This charge, arising from the Last Supper’s emphasis on partaking of the blood and flesh of Christ, provided such fodder for the pagan opponents of Christianity. Here, Pliny indicates he is aware of this charge, has looked into it, and found it wanting. Christians eat bread and wine like the rest of us, they are not eating literal flesh or drinking literal blood. This is further evidence of just how widespread the remembrance of the Last Supper was in early Christianity.

“For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms.”

Christianity apparently had broad appeal. It seems that Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:26-29 found fulfillment:

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to promise…

It also seems anticipated by Luke in Acts, reporting a speech by Peter, quoting Joel:

And it shall be in the last days, God says, that I will pour forth my spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters shall prophecy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams, even on my bondslaves, both men and women, I will pour forth my spirit....

Thus, Pliny confirms Christianity’s appeal to a broad demographic base, irrespective of age, station, and even gender.

“I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses.”

Paul’s letters make it clear that women played prominent roles in the early Church. And the term “deaconess” appears related to the “deacons” referred to in Philippians and 1 Timothy.

“But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found.”

Pliny attests to the negative economic impact Christianity could have on the broader pagan culture. Pagan temples were not just sites of religious piety, but important centers and causes of commerce. As Barnett notes:

He confirms that early Christianity sometimes destroyed the business die of the older religions. Like the shrine makers in Ephesus (Acts 19:24-41), the suppliers of good for sacrificial animals in Bithynia were put out of business by the impact of the Christian movement.

Barnett, op. cit., page 24.

On a whole, Pliny – as the first pagan writer to describe early Christianity – provides much useful information that confirms much of what we find in early Christian sources. He is also valuable in that he provides this information and confirmation from a distinctly pagan perspective. That is, we get an early glimplse into how some opponents of Christianity viewed its practices and beliefs.


Peter Kirby said…
Thank you for this thoughtful entry. I did not see your interpretation of the first line quoted borne out, however. I do not see an implication that Pliny is aware that there had been trials of Christians prior to his own; it's not ruled out, but it's not there either.

best wishes,
Peter Kirby
Layman said…

Always good to hear from you.

I actually thought it was pretty clear that Pliny assumes the existence of other trials for Christians:

"I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent.”

I had thought that it was commonly accepted that Pliny was aware of other legal proceedings involving Christians. WHC Frend in The Rise of Christianity states that Pliny already "knew that profession of Christianity was illegal" but "had never been at a trial of Christians, senator and lawyer though he was." Page 150.

In any event, I think that is what is suggested by how Pliny opens the letter. He does not bother to even tell Trajan who Christians are or why he is putting them on trial, he jumps straight into the issue:

"It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. "

He assumes Trajan knows who Christians are and assumes that there is a "practice" regarding their punishment and investigation.

Further, his statement about not having "participated" in the trial of Christians is odd if there were no other trials of Christians. This implies there actually had been trials of Christians that he had not participated in. Why else mention them? Would not some statement like "There are these new troublemakers that concern me. They do x and y and z, what should I do to them?"

I remember reading a more in-depth discussion of Pliny and the ongoing trials of Christians, but have not yet located it. If I track it down I'll bring it up.

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