Pliny’s Letter – Considering Extra-Biblical Account from History
By John Guzzetta
Our most important source of information about God’s will for the church is the New Testament, especially the book of Acts. In fact, the New Testament is really the only source that counts. The book of Acts and epistles record the practices of the early church under the direction of the apostles, and were recorded by inspiration—God’s blueprint for the church. As Christians we do not appeal to “the practices of the early church” but rather to the word of God. What Christians of the second, third, and fourth centuries did is no more helpful for ascertaining God’s will for the New Testament church, than what the Clinton administration did is helpful to ascertaining the intentions of the framers of the Constitution.
Still, it is very interesting to read extra-Biblical accounts describing the practices of early Christians. There are many letters from Christians that show us the time and manner of their worship (at least, in their specific part of the world) and show us how long they maintained the apostolic pattern and when and where they began to deviate from it.
Even more interesting is to read what some outside the church had to say about Christians. You see, for many decades, the existence of the church in the 100s and 200s was denied by skeptics. Now, these historical documents prove the existence of the church, and show the great influence of Christians in their communities.
To me, the most interesting of all these documents is a letter from the Roman official Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan. His full name was Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, and he enjoyed a lengthy and successful career (including ten volumes of correspondence). In 112AD, Pliny was sent by Emperor Trajan to a distant Roman province called Bithynia, to set in order the affairs of the local government. His full title was Proconsul of Pontus and Bithynia.
Like a dutiful servant, Pliny communicated with Trajan through a series of letters. At one point, in letter 10.96, he asks Trajan how to deal with Christians. This fascinating letter reads:
Pliny to Emperor Trajan (#96): It is my practice, my Lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt…
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 once has been a Christian it does him to 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 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 … 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 … 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.
[These former Christians] 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 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, [these former Christians] 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 superstitions.
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.
Emperor Trajan’s Response to Pliny (#97): 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… 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 really proves it—that it, by worshipping 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.
The Popular View of Christianity
Keeping in mind the source—that Pliny barely understood Christianity, and was antagonistic toward it—there are a number of conclusions we can draw safely about Christianity and the Roman world.
First of all, many in the Greco-Roman world viewed Christianity as nothing more than a stupid superstition. Paul says in 1 Cor. 1:21–24, “For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Yes, many thousands of people were saved (as we will see in the next point). But those who rejected the gospel message treated it as a silly distraction from the better things in life. They labeled Christians as foolish. Pliny ridiculed Christians as possessed of “depraved, excessive superstitions” (probably a reference to the resurrection) and was frustrated with their “inflexible obstinacy.”
Sadly, that is the attitude of many people today. Thankfully, they do not, in this particular place and time, have the power to persecute the church. But there will always be those who look at worship as a waste of time, belief as a pointless superstition, prayer as a crutch, and contribution of money as a swindle. But those who have stopped to think about their sins, and think about the cross, have come to realize that Christ is the one and only thing that makes life worthwhile.
The Successful Spread of Christianity
Second, despite this official skeptical response, Christianity was “upsetting the world” (Acts 17:6). Everywhere Paul went we see that Christianity changed hearts and lives, so much so that the status quo was turned on its head.
In Athens many philosophers were converted. In Ephesus the sorcerers’ guild was gutted and their books burned. Also in Ephesus the silversmith trade was almost shut down because people stopped buying silver idols. The economy of the whole city was endangered, because people stopped visiting the temple of Artemis. (Imagine, for comparison, the response in the Orlando Chamber of Commerce if people stopped visiting Walt Disney World!) In Rome, members of Caesar’s own household were converted to Christ. Pliny testified that the Greek temples of Bithynia were “almost deserted” and the sacrifices to the Greek pantheon “long neglected.”
We must never see the church as weak. The congregation may be small, but the gospel is powerful. It’s like a mustard seed that is tiny, but grows into the tallest plant in the yard, or a tiny pinch of leaven that permeates gallons of dough (Matthew 13:31–33). This group of 100 people right here in Lake Wales have the ability, through the power of the gospel, to influence the entire city for Christ, and even beyond. God rewards our diligent efforts. As it is said, “Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6).
The Sudden Scourge of Persecution
Third, we see that persecution of Christians was sporadic but severe. Sometimes Christians worshipped in peace in the outlying districts for years, even decades, without any official notice. But new Emperors or new local officials would suddenly become zealous for rooting out Christians, and then life would be difficult indeed.
We see from Pliny’s letter (and many other documents) that persecution, once begun, was merciless. Christians could be rounded up on the testimony of any annoyed neighbor or family member. Or, the church roll could be obtained by torturing the first Christian captured. Many would die, whole families, young and old, male and female.
The Pressure to Renounce the Faith
Fourth, we see that when persecution appeared, many Christians chose to renounce the faith rather than suffer and die for Christ.
Imagine the test that Pliny used. You and your family have been arrested and hauled before a grim procurators’ table, set up in an open square. Hundreds are gathered around, jeering. Your ears are assaulted with the moans of other Christians whom you know very well being beaten, scourged, and killed. All that you have to do to escape this bloody scene is burn a pinch of incense to Caesar and renounce Christ. It’s that easy. What will you do? Will you condemn your wife, your children, and yourself for the sake of faith in a God you cannot see?
The book of Revelation told Christians of this conflict between the government and the faith. “It was given to [the beast] … to cause as many as do not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (Rev. 13:15). God said, “Behold, the Devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). God warned, “if anyone worships the beast or his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he will also drink of the wine of the wrath of God” (Rev. 14:9). We must stay faithful, and worship only Christ, no matter what threats are made.
Similar choices are placed before us each and every day. The consequences aren’t as bloody, but the tests are just as important to pass. Will you confess Christ in the schoolyard, at work, and in your neighborhood? Will you put Jesus first?
The Simple Worship Practices of Christians
Fifth and finally, we get a glimpse of an early church service. Christians met on “a fixed day” (which we know from the Bible and from many other contemporary documents was Sunday, the first day of the week). They met before dawn (at least this particular group did). This is in keeping with what we suspect about the composition of the early church, that it consisted largely of slaves. Their masters would probably not allow them to take time off for church. Thus, these devoted Christians would have to rise earlier than others to meet for worship, and then report back to their households and farms for the day’s chores.
In the worship service, they sang a hymn, and they recognized Christ as “a god” in their prayers (of course Pliny would think of it this way, rather than as the God!). While many Roman officials suspected that the meetings of Christians featured dark rituals or cannibalism or plots to disrupt the government, Pliny’s contacts said that they merely promised to be good neighbors and righteous people, upholding the commandments of God. It’s ironic that the targets of persecution were, in this case, the very best citizens that could have existed!
I suspect that their “assembling to partake of food” is a reference to the Lord’s Supper that Pliny didn’t quite understand, or maybe refers to a common meal they later shared after the assembly.
When we consider what sacrifices these Christians made for Christ, we should be motivated to use our opportunities. —John Guzzetta