Pliny's Correspondence With Emperor Trajan

Emperor Trajan commends Pliny for his proper course of action in dealing with the Christians, seemingly conceding the tough situation he is facing. Pliny’s letter evidence that Christians were facing persecution under Roman authority, although this was certainly justified in his view. Pliny is a hostile witness to the burgeoning Christian movement which he refers to as “contagious,” and as a “depraved and excessive superstition.” Those ascribing to the faith are all possessed with the “same madness” considered worthy of Rome’s punishment. The process of punishment, says Pliny, was that those suspected of being Christians were questioned and then ordered to recant their faith should they admit to being believers in Christ. Responses from Christians on trial with the threat of torture and even execution are what one would expect: some recanted their faith denying that they were ever Christian, subsequently cursed Christ, paid reverence to the gods of Rome, and offered wine and incense to Trajan’s statue. These Christians were then discharged without further condemnation. Other Christians stuck to their faith but were then sent for execution. It is evident in these circumstances that Pliny was unsure of how to respond. Christianity within his province and the Empire was seen as a plague, but was he punishing the guilty in an appropriate way? Pliny’s letter also provides one of the earlier extra/non-biblical attestations to the historical Jesus, likely writing eighty years later (2).

Pliny indicates that there was a large number of Christians, many of whom were known by name and constituted a range of ages, ranks, and sexes, marked out to face trial. The letter reveals that already in the first century CE the Christian movement had grown significantly extending beyond its place of origin in Jerusalem. The Christians were not only found within large cities of the Empire but also in rural areas and villages. It was also the case that temples, presumably dedicated to the Roman gods, were becoming deserted and that sellers of sacrificial meat were struggling to find buyers, evidently because more people were converting to Christianity. Although Pliny’s letter here reflects historical reality in the wake of Christian expansion, he does make use of hyperbole and rhetorical flourish to communicate to Trajan the gravity of the situation. Pliny would also not have wanted to risk giving Trajan the impression that he was reporting untruthfully on his province.

We further learn from this letter that Christians were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day (Sunday) before it was light (3). That the Christians met before it was light (i.e. in the morning) is interesting in this context. According to scholar of early Christianity Valeriy A. Alikin,

“At the beginning of the second century at the latest, Christians began to hold services of prayer and singing on Sunday morning before work. These morning services took place next to the eucharistic gatherings on Sunday evening. The morning gathering formed the Christian counterpart of the meetings for prayer and worship which were held by many other religious groups in the Graeco-Roman world, including pagan and Jewish worshippers” (4).

Writers such as Philo and Josephus Flavius state that in the Greco-Roman world religious meetings were held by various pagan and Jewish groups at dawn. According to Flavius, the Essenes in Judea and elsewhere in Palestine met before dawn on every day of the week and then again for supper (5). Philo says that the Therapeutae, a Jewish sect near Alexandria, celebrated a festival at dawn when, upon seeing the rising sun, they would “stretch their hands up to heaven and pray for bright days and knowledge of the truth and the power of keen sighted thinking” (6). Greek inscriptions and the writings of Lucian, Apuleius, Tertullian, and Epiphanius suggest this to have been a common practice in this part of the world. Given this common practice, Christians in Asia Minor around 100 CE followed these examples. According to Pliny, at these meetings the Christians would worship Christ through song and they had a moral code to avoid evils such as fraud, theft, and adultery. We further learn that there were deaconesses in the church, two of whom Pliny had tortured.

Excerpts taken from James Bishop, "Pliny the Younger’s Letter on the Early Christians in the Roman Empire"


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