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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

On this day, 1,944 years ago, the Great Fire of Rome began.

The fire was devastating. It burned for six days and seven nights, utterly destroying four of fourteen districts in Rome and severely damaging most of the rest. The palace of Emperor Nero and some prominent pagan temples were destroyed in the blaze.

Some accounts claim Nero "fiddled while Rome burned," but it is more likely that he was not in the city at the time. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, however, in response to rumors that Nero himself started the fire, Nero blamed the Christians in Rome.

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Annals XV.44.

It is interesting how this disaster lead to one of the earliest non-Christian accounts of Jesus and the early Christian movement.

11 comments:

I'm wondering what you make of Pliny the Younger's (c. 61-113 AD) knowledge of Christians. He was a friend of Tacitus, a member of the Roman senate in the 80s, Praetor of Rome (equivalent of the Head of Police and Attorney General) and a lawyer in Roman courts, yet strangely he did not know anything about Christians when he encountered them around 112 AD (His letter to the Emperor Trajan in 112 AD). It is surprising that a man of his caliber did not know that that Christians were blamed for the 64 AD fire or did not know anything about Nero's persecution of the Christians. Some people have suggested that Tacitus' passage could be a later addition by Christian scribes as no early Christian writers refer to Tacitus even when discussing the subject of Nero. Did Nero persecute Jews or another sect as in 64 AD there were not that many Christians in Rome?

Pliny’s Letter


Sir,

It is my constant method to apply myself to you for the resolution of all my doubts; for who can better govern my dilatory way of proceeding or instruct my ignorance? I have never been present at the examination of the Christians [by others], on which account I am unacquainted with what uses to be inquired into, and what, and how far they used to be punished; nor are my doubts small, whether there be not a distinction to be made between the ages [of the accused]? and whether tender youth ought to have the same punishment with strong men? Whether there be not room for pardon upon repentance?" or whether it may not be an advantage to one that had been a Christian, that he has forsaken Christianity? Whether the bare name, without any crimes besides, or the crimes adhering to that name, be to be punished? In the meantime, I have taken this course about those who have been brought before me as Christians. I asked them whether they were Christians or not? If they confessed that they were Christians, I asked them again, and a third time, intermixing threatenings with the questions. If they persevered in their confession, I ordered them to be executed; for I did not doubt but, let their confession be of any sort whatsoever, this positiveness and inflexible obstinacy deserved to be punished. There have been some of this mad sect whom I took notice of in particular as Roman citizens, that they might be sent to that city. After some time, as is usual in such examinations, the crime spread itself and many more cases came before me. A libel was sent to me, though without an author, containing many names [of persons accused]. These denied that they were Christians now, or ever had been. They called upon the gods, and supplicated to your image, which I caused to be brought to me for that purpose, with frankincense and wine; they also cursed Christ; none of which things, it is said, can any of those that are ready Christians be compelled to do; so I thought fit to let them go. Others of them that were named in the libel, said they were Christians, but presently denied it again; that indeed they had been Christians, but had ceased to be so, some three years, some many more; and one there was that said he had not been so these twenty years. All these worshipped your image, and the images of our gods; these also cursed Christ. However, they assured me that the main of their fault, or of their mistake was this:-That they were wont, on a stated day, to meet together before it was light, and to sing a hymn to Christ, as to a god, alternately; and to oblige themselves by a sacrament [or oath], not to do anything that was ill: but that they would commit no theft, or pilfering, or adultery; that they would not break their promises, or deny what was deposited with them, when it was required back again; after which it was their custom to depart, and to meet again at a common but innocent meal, which they had left off upon that edict which I published at your command, and wherein I had forbidden any such conventicles. These examinations made me think it necessary to inquire by torments what the truth was; which I did of two servant maids, who were called Deaconesses: but still I discovered no more than that they were addicted to a bad and to an extravagant superstition. Hereupon I have put off any further examinations, and have recourse to you, for the affair seems to be well worth consultation, especially on account of the number of those that are in danger; for there are many of every age, of every rank, and of both sexes, who are now and hereafter likely to be called to account, and to be in danger; for this superstition is spread like a contagion, not only into cities and towns, but into country villages also, which yet there is reason to hope may be stopped and corrected. To be sure, the temples, which were almost forsaken, begin already to be frequented; and the holy solemnities, which were long intermitted, begin to be revived. The sacrifices begin to sell well everywhere, of which very few purchasers had of late appeared; whereby it is easy to suppose how great a multitude of men may be amended, if place for repentance be admitted.


where doe he say he never heard of them?

Line four would seem to indicate he had heard of them before. Why did he want to execute them if they didn't recant their faith? It never says, since he finds them harmless why should they recant? It seems as though there is already a pall on being a Christian.

Hinman,

Good points.

Peter,

On what basis do you assert that Pliny knew nothing about Christians until 112 AD? On what basis do you claim he had no knowledge that Nero had persecuted Christians for the fire of Rome? You seem to be pulling these ideas either 1) out of thin air, or 2) from your own preconceptions not to be found in the text.

It seems to me Pliny is aware that there had been trials of Christians, but states that he had not participated in those trials:

“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.”

This suggests that he is aware that trials of Christians have occurred elsewhere or in different times, though Pliny did not participate in them. There were likely such show trials during the Neronian persecution for example. Since the persecution of Christians had occurred 50 years earlier, when Pliny was at most 2 years old, it is hardly surprising that he did not participate in those trials.

Further, Pliny by all accounts was a moderate figure known for his honesty. He, like Tacitus, likely thought that Christians were framed by Nero to redirect blame for the fires.

As for Tacitus, please identify the early Christian writers you know of who 1) otherwise relied on Tacitus' Annals, and 2) would have had sufficient reason to quote him for this passage.

J.L. Hinman said...
where doe he say he never heard of them?

Remember he was previously a lawyer and the Head of Police in Rome and now he he said:
"I have never been present at the examination of the Christians [by others], on which account I am unacquainted with what uses to be inquired into, and what, and how far they used to be punished.
Clearly he did not know that Christians were punished to death in the 60s. To me it sounds unlike that the Head of Police in Rome would not be aware of the events surrounding the fire of Rome


J.L. Hinman said...
Why did he want to execute them if they didn't recant their faith?

Because Christians did not want to acknowledge the divinity of the emperor.
See the letter you quoted; non-Christians "supplicated to your [Emperor's] image"


J.L. Hinman said...
he finds them harmless why should they recant?

It was the law to acknowledge the divinity of the emperor.


Layman said...
On what basis do you claim he had no knowledge that Nero had persecuted Christians for the fire of Rome?

He (a former Head of Police in Rome) wrote: "I am unacquainted ... how far they used to be punished. The job of Head of Police is to know things.


Layman said...
please identify the early Christian writers you know of who 1) otherwise relied on Tacitus' Annals, and 2) would have had sufficient reason to quote him for this passage.

Strangely no early Christian writers refer to Tacitus even when discussing the subject of Nero and Christian persecution. Tertullian, Lactantius, Sulpicius Severus, Eusebius and Augustine of Hippo make no reference to Tacitus when discussing Christian persecution by Nero. Well read Christian apologists read all possible documents to find evidence of Jesus/Christians... Other Roman historians (Suetonius, Dio Cassius, Pliny the Elder) did not associates the persecution of Christians with the burning of Rome.


Neither one of you really address my implied question; why do you think that Pliny the Younger seems to be unaware of Christian persecutions because of the fire of Rome?

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Peter,

We both answered your question. Pliny is aware that Christians had been put on trial but he did not participate in those trials himself.

I'm not sure why you think the persecution of Rome must have been mentioned by Pliny here. The fact that he doesn't mention it hardly means he isn't aware of it. In fact, Pliny nowhere mentions the fire of Rome at all. Are you going to argue there was no fire to mention too?

As for the "failure" to cite Tacitus, please do better than quoting Wikipedia almost verbatim without attribution Peter.

My questions are what Christian writers demonstrated knowledge of Tacitus and had a reason to quote him here? You may have answered the first (though that is unclear), but not the second. Claiming that Christian apologists used all writings they could is not an answer. Use those writings for what? To prove that Jesus existed? That was not in dispute. To prove that Nero persecuted Christians? That was not in dispute. To prove that Tacitus thought Christians were wicket? That's hardly something they would want to emphasize.

Remember he was previously a lawyer and the Head of Police in Rome and now he he said:
"I have never been present at the examination of the Christians [by others], on which account I am unacquainted with what uses to be inquired into, and what, and how far they used to be punished.
Clearly he did not know that Christians were punished to death in the 60s. To me it sounds unlike that the Head of Police in Rome would not be aware of the events surrounding the fire of Rome


No that statement could just as easily be taken to mean he had seen interpretations by other but had not done them himself.

he uses the phrase "how far they used to be punished." that means he knew that at one time they were to be punished. So what if he did not know they were put to death. How old was he during that time? I don't think he lived when Nero did. I may be wrong about that. He was also in Turkey, not Rome. So where he was they may not have been put to death.

I doubt Pliny would think that Nero's treatment of Christians was the precedent Trajan wanted him to follow. So I can see why he would not have referred to it even if he was familiar with it.

According to surviving accounts, Pliny was a moderate fellow known for his honesty. Not the kind of fellow eager to reproduce the Neronian persecution.

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