Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Pliny's letter and early Christians: To meet before daybreak

JPBC will host a sunrise service this Sunday morning at 6:30 am at the Riverview Cemetery in the Woolen Mills neighborhood of Charlottesville. Last year I was pondering whether or not Easter is Biblical (see the article). I concluded that, at the least, it is always right for believers to worship the risen Christ on the first day of the week.
One of the earliest records we have of the Christian movement outside the pages of the New Testament is a letter written in 112 AD by Pliny (the Younger), Roman governor of Bithynia, to the Emperor Hadrian [quotes are from Henry Bettenson's Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford Press, 1963): 3-4)]. Pliny writes to ask his Emperor how he should handle the rising numbers of people in his territory who are being accused of being Christians.

He notes that those accused are "of all ages and classes and of both sexes" and warns that "the contagion of this superstition has spread not only in cities, but in the villages and the rural districts as well." Due to the rise of this sect, the pagan temples "have been almost deserted."
Pliny notes that the accused are forced to recant, offer worship to the statues of the gods, and curse Christ. He adds that cursing Christ is something "genuine Christians cannot be induced to do." He explains his process:

I ask them if they are Christians. If they admit it I repeat the question a second and third time, threatening capital punishment; if they persist I sentence them to death.

Even this hardened Roman, however, seems sympathetic to the plight of these Christians. He notes that they declare,

…the sum of their guilt or error had amounted only to this, that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn antiphonally to Christ, as to a god, and to bind themselves by an oath, not for the commission of any crime but to abstain from robbery, adultery, and breach of faith, and not to deny a deposit when it was claimed….

What Pliny was describing was likely the Lord’s Day gatherings of the believers to remember the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

One of the historical proofs of the reality and power of the resurrection is the fact that clusters of believers like this one in Bithynia began to appear all over the Roman world within just a few years after the earthly ministry of Jesus. What caused men and women of all backgrounds to abandon the pagan gods and worship Christ as God? The power of the resurrection!

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