7 startling historical facts we learn about early Christianity from a Roman governor who persecuted Christians
Christians wrote the gospels, so for some skeptics, that’s enough to assume they are too biased to be taken seriously. While I think the “biased testimony” objection is a terrible argument, we do have some hostile sources outside of the Bible that tell us a lot about the beliefs of early Christians. These sources obviously can’t be accused of the same prejudice and provide us with some powerful info that confirms what we read in the New Testament.
In an earlier post, I wrote about what the Roman historian Tacitus tells us about Jesus and early Christianity. Now let’s turn to our second hostile Roman witness, Pliny the Younger.
WHO WAS PLINY?
Pliny lived from around 61–113 AD. Towards the end of his life, he was the governor of Bithynia and Pontus, which is in northwest Turkey. We have several letters that he wrote to Emperor Trajan.
During Pliny’s rulership, there were these pesky Christians that were hurting local business by abandoning idolatry. So in one of these letters, Pliny asked Emperor Trajan how to deal with them. It’s noteworthy that Peter’s first epistle written in around 62 AD addressed the believers in five regions, which includes Pontus and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1).
Here’s Pliny’s letter to Trajan in full:
“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. 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.
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. 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, 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.” –Pliny, Letters 10.96–97
7 historical facts we learn about early Christianity from Pliny:
From reading this brief letter, there’s a lot of historical goodies that support what we read in the New Testament. Let’s take a look:
I. Persecution was part of the Christian life.
The first thing we learn from reading Pliny is that it wasn’t easy being a Christian. As Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20) The Romans despised Christian beliefs. Why was that the case? Well, we learn from Pliny there was at least one reason…
II. Christianity was bad for business.
Before the persecution, Pliny said that the temples were losing traffic. Vendors selling animals for sacrifices to the Roman gods weren’t doing so hot from a business standpoint. The mass conversion of his province was putting the idol worshipping biz in a bind, so there was a need for some government intervention in the form of persecution.
We read in Acts that Paul ran into a similar problem in Ephesus. Demetrius, the silversmith, said, “hey, no one is buying the idols I’m making any more!” So he rounded up the local goon-squad and started a riot against Paul. (Acts 19:23–41)
III. No true Christian would curse Christ.
Pliny gave them a few opportunities to sacrifice to the emperor and idols and denounce Christ before the worst would happen. He knew of the belief that no true Christian would blaspheme Jesus. This is in line with what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 12:3 “no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed…”
What Pliny’s saying here confirms that Christian belief was monotheistic. Jesus wasn’t just another god to add to the pantheon. He wouldn’t be worshiped alongside Zeus, Athena and the like. Only Jesus was worthy of worship, and that also excluded Caesar. For the early church, “there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” (1 Cor. 8:6)
IV. Christians worshiped Jesus as God.
Pliny said that the early believers would meet together and sing “a hymn to Christ as to a god.” So the popular notion that Jesus slowly was elevated to God status by the time of later church councils doesn’t fly. We have early Christian hymns recorded in the Bible that are directed to Jesus. (See: Philippians 2:6–11, Colossians 1:15–20, Revelation 5:13). The Christians in Pliny’s district were carrying out the same tradition.
V. The corporate worship of Jesus happened on a fixed day.
Pliny doesn’t tell us which day, but we know from history that the Christians worshipped on Sunday. Why?
That’s the day they believed Jesus rose. We see clear indicators of this practice in 1 Corinthians 16:2, Acts 20:7 and Revelation 1:10. We also see the celebration of Sunday as “the Lord’s day” in the writings of the early church fathers:
“But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they are reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.” (Didache Chapter 14)
“We have seen how former adherents of the ancient customs have since attained to a new hope; so that they have given up keeping the Sabbath, and now order their lives by the Lord’s day instead (the Day when life first dawned for us, thanks to Him and His death. That death, though some deny it, is the very mystery which has moved us to become believers, and endure tribulation to prove ourselves pupils of Jesus Christ, our sole Teacher).” (Ignatius 35 -110 AD, Magnesians Chapter 9)
“And we too rejoice in celebrating the eighth day; because that was when Jesus rose from the dead, and showed Himself again, and ascended into heaven.” (Epistle of Barnabas 15, Dated before 135 AD)
Examples from the early Christian writings can be multiplied, but I think you get the drift. The gospels say Jesus rose on a Sunday, and that this day was celebrated as “the Lord’s day” from the earliest times of the church. (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1–2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1–2)
VI. The church shared a meal together.
Paul writes about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23–27: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
This was a tradition that he received from the Lord, and it’s also recorded in all the synoptic gospels. How do we know that?
Acts 8:1 records that after the stoning of Stephen there was great persecution against the church. This led the Christians to be “scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria”. They took their customs with them, and those customs included celebrating the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week.
The Eucharist and Sunday worship had to have preceded the scattering. Otherwise, we would have heard disputes about when to celebrate and instructions given from the church leaders to settle the disputes like we read about in Acts 15 over circumcision and eating meat sacrificed to idols.
And now here we see a clear indicator this tradition was carried out where Pliny was governor.
Critics often say that the Jesus story is like the telephone game — over time the original message became distorted and exaggerated. But in Pliny’s letter, we see that the death, resurrection, and deity of Christ were carefully memorialized and celebrated every week. The traditions that spread from Jerusalem went unchanged.
VII. Christianity prized moral living.
Pliny says the Christians “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.”
This confirms what we read in Jesus’ ethical teachings recorded in the gospels and in all the epistles. I think that it’s an amazing testimony that Pliny couldn’t really find a moral fault with the Christians, he just said it was depraved superstition.
We learn plenty about the early church from Pliny’s short letter.
In summary, we find out from Pliny that Christianity had spread all the way to modern-day Turkey, and that it was wreaking havoc on the idol-worshiping business.
We learned that the Christians were considered to be superstitious. This is probably because they believed in a human being who was worshiped as God. We discover that these Christians met on a fixed day as part of their “superstition.” The New Testament documents and the early church fathers say that this day was Sunday, the very day the Gospels say Jesus rose from the dead.
Pliny tells us that they celebrated a meal, and it’s a reasonable inference to say that the meal was the Eucharist. And Pliny also tells us that many of these Christians would be willing to die before worshipping Caesar or other gods.
It also seems clear that Pliny thinks Christ isn’t some other pagan deity. That they sang to Christ as unto a god means that the God that Christians worship was once a human being. Pliny thought Jesus was a historical person, and we know that Tacitus said Jesus was a human being — one that Pilate had executed.
When we put these two hostile Roman sources together, the information they provide dovetails well into we already read in our New Testament, which should boost our confidence in the reliability of the friendly sources.
Originally published at isjesusalive.com on April 12, 2019.