Thoughts on Pliny’s Letters 10.96-97
Primary sources help us understand the power and significance of past events. This post examines Pliny the Younger’s letter to the Roman Emperor Trajan and provides us with an extra-biblical glimpse into the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
The translation below is borrowed from James J. O’Donnell, Provost of Georgetown University. For posterity’s sake, I put my personal comments in brackets.
Get yourself a cup of coffee, take a few minutes out of your busy day and do some healthy reading.
PLINY TO THE EMPEROR TRAJAN
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? [A little flattery never hurts] 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. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished. [As governor of Pontus/Bithynia, Pliny is basically asking for advice on how to punish/manage Christians within his region.]
Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. [Note to self: A commitment to your beliefs (referred to here as stubbornness) may get you into trouble.] 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.
Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. 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, [keep in mind, Roman emperors were to be worshipped as gods] which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, 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. [Even though Pliny claims ignorance at the beginning of the letter, he seems to have a fairly accurate understanding of the Christian faith. He asserts that true Christians are unable to deny Christ, which goes hand in hand with New Testament teachings. See Matthew 10:33, Luke 12:9.]
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. [Here we get a rare glimpse into the practices of the early Christian church. They met early in the morning once a week, sang together in worship, reinforced a counter-cultural code of ethics, and then ate together as a group.] Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition. [Most Roman emperors (and citizens) were extremely superstitious, so there’s some irony here.]
I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. 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. [Pliny indicates that Christianity is a significant force to be reckoned with] 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. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded. [The spread of Christianity transformed Roman culture in Pliny’s region. However, he assures Trajan this problem can be solved.]
TRAJAN’S REPLY TO PLINY
You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–that is, by worshiping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age. [Emperor Trajan gives Pliny a nice pat on the back and reinforces Roman legal procedures.]
From a historical standpoint, this primary source helps us trace Christianity’s influence in the Roman Empire, Rome’s intolerance of unauthorized belief systems, and the important relationship between the Roman emperor and provincial rulers.
From a religious standpoint, this primary source helps us understand practices of the early church and the counter-cultural implications that Christ’s message carried in a Roman context. In other words, Christians were identifiable because they lived differently. What a concept.
Now that you’ve finished reading, I hope you feel inspired. Forget “expert” opinion and conjecture. Read the primary sources.
Thanks for posting this Josh. Very interesting. So encouraging to read of the faith of our long-ago brothers and sisters.
Thanks for your comments. It’s a great text that really gives us a helpful glimpse at Christianity in the Roman Empire.
The part that I find interesting is:
For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. … 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…
I’m wondering if the number of Christians in the community has reached a tipping point where it became possible to “meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ” in the temple. Completely possible if the temple priests were also closet converts — or pragmatic.
Interesting thoughts. I’d have to do some research to determine if we have any documentation of Christians meeting in Roman temples. If I find anything, I’ll be sure to post.
I read this is college along with some other early Christian accounts. I was trying to find another account, which showed where early Christians celebrated the death of their brethren with joy (because, after all, we fall asleep in Christ, not perish). It was a beautiful glimpse at the way it should be for me, and I was just trying to get the source right. I remembered Pliny’s name, and thought it was in his letter, but it wasn’t. Do any of you know what I’m talking about?
I’m not sure about the source you’ve referenced. However, this link (http://www.deathreference.com/Ce-Da/Christian-Death-Rites-History-of.html) may be helpful.
What was Pliny actually calling this group, I don’t believe they where called Christians at that point in history.
I think this text was one of the first secular references to Christians — though they were referred to by a variety of other names early on (the Nazarenes being one option).