God has made Himself known through Jesus of Nazareth, and, as Paul declared to Agrippa, the things which God accomplished through Jesus and His people did not take place in a corner (Acts 26:26; cf. Hebrews 1:1-3). The Apostles relied upon the people’s first-hand knowledge of what God did through Jesus (Acts 2:22, 10:36-43). Thus we do well to explore the various forms of evidence which exist for Jesus and Christianity.
One such piece of evidence does not come from a Christian but a pagan Roman named Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (popularly known as Pliny the Younger). Pliny was elevated to the role of governor of the province of Bithynia and Pontus (the northeast section of what is today Turkey). His correspondence has been preserved throughout time and has proven of great value to historians. Among his correspondence is a letter which he wrote to the Emperor Trajan regarding Christians in his province, as well as Trajan’s response (ca. 112 CE; Epistulae X, 96-97). These letters represent the earliest documented reaction to Christianity from the pen of a Roman.
These letters can be accessed, in Latin and in English translations, here and here. In Epistulae X.96 Pliny began by establishing the purpose of his letter: he wanted advice from Trajan in regards to how to handle situations in which a person is accused of being a Christian. What should happen if they prove penitent and offer sacrifices to the gods? If they remain impertinent, should they all be punished alike?
Pliny then spoke of recent circumstances: some had been brought before him and accused to be Christians. They confessed they were, and were punished for their obstinacy. Soon afterward all sorts of charges began to be brought against many people. Many of those charged were actually lapsed Christians, and proved willing to worship the image of Trajan and to curse Christ (and Pliny noted that true Christians do not speak curses against Christ).
From these lapsed Christians Pliny said he learned the following:
They affirmed how the sum of their error or guilt was this: they used to convene on a stated day before dawn and sang together a song to Christ as a god and swore with an oath not to commit sin, or fraud, or theft, or adultery, or to break a pledge, or to deny funds placed in trust. Having performed these things it was their habit to leave and then return later to take a meal, mixed together although innocently; which they desisted doing after my decree which forbids societies, which follows your edict (Author’s Translation).
Pliny would not trust their testimony alone; he also found out the truth by torturing two women called ministrae (servants or deaconesses), but only discovered an “intemperate and depraved superstition.” He stopped his investigation to seek counsel from Trajan since a great number of the people in the cities, towns, and countryside had fallen prey to Christianity, and a many more might fall under its spell. Pliny was confident the superstition could be curbed, and spoke glowingly of how once-deserted temples were again filled and the food offered to sacrifices once again had buyers.
Trajan’s reply to Pliny is preserved in Epistulae X.97. Trajan assured Pliny regarding how he conducted himself in terms of Christians: there cannot be one hard and fast rule. Christians must not be searched out, but if accusations are made and confirmed, they must be punished. Anyone who changed their minds and prayed to the pagan gods should be pardoned. Anonymous lists, however, must not be permitted; they represented a bad example, especially in their day.
Pliny’s Epistulae X.96-97 represent powerful testimony regarding many elements of Christian practice in the early second century, and all the more because the sources are not sympathetic to their cause. Perhaps some of the details are confused because of the perspective of the apostates as well as the attempt to make Christianity comprehensible to a pagan ruler; nevertheless, we can see important continuity between many of the things we see in the New Testament period and how things are done in Bithynia and Pontus in 112. Christians are meeting on a specific day (Sunday; cf. Revelation 1:10, Justin Martyr First Apology 67); on that day they sing together songs praising Christ as a god (cf. Ephesians 5:19, Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 3:16); they would share a common meal independent of their assemblies until it was decreed otherwise, indicating that such meals went beyond the Lord’s Supper, able to be forsaken without difficulty (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34); they also proved willing to obey the decrees of earthly authorities (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-18). They agreed to avoid sinfulness, evil behavior, and fornication, consistent with Ephesians 4:25-28 and 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6; whether the binding by oath was an innovation contrary to the spirit of Matthew 5:33-37 and James 5:12 or merely an accommodative explanation to Pliny about Christian commitment in exhortation cannot be satisfactorily decided with present evidence. Christians held firm against participation in pagan temple rites and avoided eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Revelation 2:14); their message spread with sufficient strength so as to alarm Roman officials!
The text does mention two women serving in the role of ministrae, or deaconesses. One might try to suggest that such terminology could refer to their roles as servants of Christ, but the phraseology in the letter strongly suggests that these women did indeed serve as deaconesses in a church in Bithynia or Pontus in 112. The question is whether such is consistent with New Testament practice or was part of the innovations in leadership being introduced into the church at this time; it is worth noting that Ignatius of Antioch is a contemporary of both Pliny the Younger and Trajan, eventually finding martyrdom at the hands of the latter, and Ignatius is one of the most influential agitators toward having one bishop preside over the elders and a local church, contrary to what is seen in Acts 14:23, Philippians 1:1, and 1 Peter 5:1-4.
In the early second century Christianity was well established in many parts of the Roman world and had attracted sufficient numbers of adherents to cause distress to local pagan religion and local governors. We can say such things with confidence on account of the witness of Pliny the Younger in his correspondence with the Emperor Trajan. May we hold firm to the faith of God in Christ and be saved!
Ethan R. Longhenry
“Pliny the Younger,” Early Christian Writings (accessed 25/07/2017)
“Pliny’s Letter to Emperor Trajan,” (accessed 25/07/2017).