Pliny the Younger’s Letter on the Early Christians in the Roman Empire

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Emporer Trajan

Pliny the Younger (born 61/62 CE in Novum Comum (modern-day Como) in northern Italy; died after 111 CE) was an important Roman witness to events of early Christianity. Pliny was a successful administrator who attained the highest administrative posts of praetor and consul. Scholars have acknowledged the broad range of topics and personalities Pliny engaged in his day, notably through the medium of writing,

“Pliny the Younger carried on a voluminous correspondence with the people of his acquaintance. These letters deal with such technical topics as senatorial debates and questions of style, such common subjects as illness and death or the Tiber floods, and, oddly enough, ghost stories. They reveal a personality as versatile and varied as the topics their author treats” (1).

Pliny’s writings evidence a deep, rooted respect for the magistracies in the reigns of emperors Nerva and Trajan. He was fair in his dealing with others and apparently looked out for the welfare of the sick, poor, and the elderly. We learn that he founded a school, established a fund for poor children, and spent some of his own finances to help others, as in the case of getting his friend Romatius Firmus into the equestrian rank and in providing a dowry for Quintilian’s daughter. A particular passion of Pliny’s was writing and literature. He would read widely, including materials across the genres of history, comedy, poetry, and oratory, and spent much of his time preparing court cases. He corresponded with other reputable writers of his time, including historians Suetonius and Tacitus. By all accounts, Pliny was a man of repute.

Correspondence with Emperor Trajan on the Christians

Towards the end of his career as governor of Bithynia and Pontus (northwest Turkey), Pliny wrote letters to the emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 CE) on a number of occasions. Perhaps the most famous of these is the letter he wrote asking for advice on how to deal with Christians (Epist. 10.96). It is a lengthy extract but one worth quoting in full, which we will then follow up with Trajan’s response:

“It is my rule, sir, to refer to you all matters of which I am unsure. For who is more capable of guiding my uncertainty or informing my ignorance? Having never been present at any trials of the Christians, I am unacquainted with the method and limits to be observed either in examining or punishing them. I have also been in great doubt whether any difference is to be made on account of age, or any distinction allowed between the youngest and the adult; whether recanting allows a pardon, or whether if a man has been once a Christian it does not help him to recant; whether the mere profession of Christianity, albeit without crimes, or only the crimes associated with it are punishable. In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians. If they confessed it I repeated the question a second and a third time, adding the threat of capital punishment. If they still persevered, I ordered them to be led off to execution. For whatever the nature of their belief might be, I could at least feel no doubt that stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy deserved punishment. There were others also possessed with the same madness, but being citizens of Rome I directed them to be sent there. These accusations spread (as is usually the case) from the mere fact of the matter being investigated and several forms of the mischief came to light. A placard was put up, without any signature, accusing a large number of persons by name. Those who denied that they were, or ever had been, Christians, who repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered adoration, with wine and incense, to your statue, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose, together with the images of the gods, and who finally cursed Christ—all things it is said that no real Christian can be forced to do—I thought they should be discharged. Others who were named by that informer at first confessed themselves Christians, but soon after denied it, saying that they had been, but they had ceased, some three years ago, others many years ago, and a few as much as twenty years ago. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, and cursed Christ. They affirmed, however, the whole of their guilt or error was that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, and of singing in alternate verses a hymn to Christ as to a god, and of binding themselves by a solemn oath, not to wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor to deny a pledge when they were called upon to deliver it up. After this it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food—but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. Even this practice, however, they had abandoned after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your orders, I had forbidden political associations. I therefore thought it the more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were called deaconesses: but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition. I have therefore adjourned the proceedings and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me well worth referring to you—especially considering the numbers endangered. Many persons of all ages and ranks and of both sexes are being and will be called to trial. For this contagious superstition is not confined only to the cities, but has also spread through the villages and rural districts. It seems possible, however, to check and correct this. It is certain at least that the temples, which had almost become deserted, are now beginning to be visited again; and the sacred rites, after a long interlude, are again being revived. There is a general demand for sacrificial animals, for which up to now only rarely were purchasers found. From this it is easy to imagine that a multitude of people may be reclaimed from this error, if a door is left open for them to change their minds.”

Emperor Trajan then replied briefly to Pliny (whom he called Secundus; Epist. 10.97):

“The method you have pursued, my Secundus, in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians is proper. It is not possible to lay down any general rule which can be applied as the fixed standard in all cases of this nature. No search should be made for these people. When they are denounced and found guilty they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that when an individual denies that he is a Christian, and gives proof of it, i.e. by adoring our gods, he shall be pardoned on the ground of repentance, even though he may have formerly incurred suspicion. Anonymous accusations must not be admitted in evidence against anyone, as it is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and by no means agreeable to our times.”

What do we Learn From These Letters?

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.

Pliny the Younger In Light of the Christian New Testament Sources

Although there are limitations, a number of details in Pliny’s letter correspond with what we learn from the New Testament texts. From the book of Acts, written around 80 CE and chronicles the emergence of the early church, a huge riot broke out just south of Ephesus (19:23-41). A large number of people in the area were converting to Christianity which led to the silversmiths going out of business as they were finding themselves unable to sell their images of the gods. The most natural reading of Acts and Pliny’s letters is that people were converting to Christianity and that this had a negative impact on local businesses connected to temples and Roman religion.

As noted, Pliny attests to the presence of deaconesses within the early Christian movement. Deaconesses are mentioned decades earlier by the Apostle Paul, our earliest Christian author. From Paul’s letter Romans, we learn of a deaconess by the name Phoebe, of whom Paul entrusted with the task of delivering the letter to the church in Rome (16:1-2). Paul penned this letter in the mid to later 50s CE, suggesting women to have played a role during the earliest stages of Christianity’s formation. This is interesting to the religion’s makeup as we know of some other traditions in the empire, such as the cult of Mithras, that excluded women from membership.

Trajan’s response is informative. Although Christians experienced persecution during this early period, Pliny is instructed not to pursue them as if on a witch-hunt. Indeed Christians were to be punished but only if they should be found guilty on sufficient evidential grounds. Trajan seems concerned with cases of anonymous accusation that might have been impugning this judicial process, hence his instruction to Pliny to keep this in mind.

One of the limitations is the lack of information Pliny provides on the historical Jesus. According to Ehrman, “The name “Jesus” itself is not given here, but it’s pretty clear whom Pliny had in mind. Unfortunately, he doesn’t give us any information about Jesus — for example, who he was, what he said or did, or how he died — only that he was worshiped as divine by his followers” (7). Although it attests to the historical figure of Christ, it helps little in learning about the details of his ministry. But as a source for early Christianity in the Roman Empire, Pliny’s letter and Trajan’s response are invaluable sources of information on what it was like to be a follower of Christ at the time.

References

1. De Cesare, Robert. 1967. “Pliny the Younger.” The Classical Outlook 45(4):37-38. p. 37.

2. Ehrman, Bart. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 57.

3. Alikin, Valeriy. 2010. The Earliest History of the Christian Gathering: Origin, Development and Content of the Christian Gathering in the First to Third Centuries. Leiden: BRILL. p. 80

4. Alikin. P. 2010. Ibid. p. 101.

5. Josephus Flavius. Jewish Wars 2.132

6. Alikin. P. 2010. Ibid. p. 84.

7. Ehrman, Bart. 1999. p. 57.

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