Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Vision (7/5/12): Pliny's Observations on Early Christians

Last week in this column I ran an excerpt from the Roman historian Tacitus with one of the earliest references to Christianity outside of the Bible itself.  Another of these few secular references to the early Christian movement is a note sent from Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajan c. 112 A. D.  Pliny writes to ask the Emperor’s advice in dealing with the members of “a mad sect” known as “Christians.”  Pliny relays to the Emperor how he has been dealing with Christians:

In the meantime, I have taken this course about those who have been brought before me as Christians. I asked them whether they were Christians or not.   If they confessed that they were Christians, I asked them again, and a third time, intermixing threatenings with the questions. If they persevered in their confession, I ordered them to be executed.

Pliny also notes that if any denied that they were Christians under interrogation, called upon the pagan gods, made sacrifices to the image of the Emperor, or cursed Christ, then he let them go, because those who were truly Christians “could not be compelled to do so.”

Pliny muses that, all in all, the Christians do seem a bit harmless.  With all his investigation, the best he could discover about them was the following:

That they were wont, on a stated day, to meet together before it was light, and to sing a hymn to Christ, as to a god, alternately; and to oblige themselves by a sacrament [or oath], not to do anything that was ill: but that they would commit no theft, or pilfering, or adultery; that they would not break their promises, or deny what was deposited with them, when it was required back again; after which it was their custom to depart, and to meet again at a common but innocent meal….

Nevertheless, Pliny admits that his crackdown against this “extravagant superstition” has been successful.  The pagan temples “which were almost forsaken” are now filled again with worshippers.

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

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