Pliny the Younger was the governor of Bithynia et Pontus
on the Black Sea
coast of Anatolia Turkey
; having arrived there around September 111 as the representative of Roman Emperor Trajan
Pliny likely wrote the letters from Amisus
before his reign ended in January 113.
The origin of Christianity in that region is not known, but it has not been associated with Apostle Paul
Given the reference to Bithynia
in the opening of the First Epistle of Peter
(which dates to the 60s) Christianity in the region may have had some Petrine associations through Sylvanus
In 111 Bithynia et Pontus was known for being in disorder, and Pliny was selected by Trajan because of his legal training and his past experience.
Pliny was familiar with the region, having defended two of their proconsuls for extortion in the Senate, one case being around AD 103.
However, Pliny had never performed a legal investigation of Christians, and thus consulted Trajan in order to be on solid ground regarding his actions, and saved his letters and Trajan's replies.
The way he expressed his lack of familiarity with the procedure may indicate that such prosecutions against Christians had taken place before (namely in Rome), but Pliny had not been involved in them.
As governor, Pliny held large influence over all of the residents of his province.
This was especially true in the legal treatment of Christians. The Roman legal construct of cognitio extra ordinem
afforded governors a large amount of discretion in deciding legal cases.
Practices of Christians
Depiction of Christian Eucharistic
bread, Catacomb of Callixtus
, 3rd century
Pliny then details the practices of Christians (sections 7-10): he says that they meet on a certain day before light where they gather and sing hymns to Christ as to a god. They all bind themselves by oath, "not to some crimes", says Pliny, as though that is what he would have expected; rather, they pledge not to commit any crimes such as fraud, theft, or adultery, and subsequently share a meal of "ordinary and innocent food".
Pliny says, however, that all of these practices were abandoned by the Christians after Pliny forbade any political associations (hetaeriai
or “fraternities”). These clubs were banned because Trajan saw them as a “natural breeding ground for grumbling” about both civic life and political affairs. One such instance of a banned club was a firemen’s association; likewise, Christianity was seen as a political association that could be potentially harmful to the empire.
However the Christians seem to have willingly complied with the edict and halted their practices.
Pliny adds that he felt it necessary to investigate further by having two female slaves called deaconesses tortured, which was standard procedure in Roman interrogation of slaves, and discovered nothing but "depraved, excessive superstition" (superstitio
). By using this word instead of religio
, religion, Pliny is "denigrating the Christians' position"
because it was outside the religious practices of Rome.
The apparent abandonment of the pagan temples by Christians was a threat to the pax deorum
(the harmony or accord between the divine and humans), and political subversion by new religious groups was feared, which was treated as a potential crime.
Pliny ends the letter by saying that Christianity is endangering people of every age and rank and has spread not only through the cities, but also through the rural villages as well (neque tantum...sed etiam
), but that it will be possible to check it. He argues for his procedure to Trajan by saying that the temples and religious festivals, which before had been deserted, are now flourishing again and that there is a rising demand for sacrificial animals once more – a dip and rise which A.N. Sherwin-White believes is an exaggeration of the toll Christianity had taken on the traditional cult.
Trajan’s short reply to Pliny overall affirms Pliny’s procedure and details four orders: (1) Do not seek out the Christians for trial. (2) If the accused are guilty of being Christian, then they must be punished. (3) If the accused deny they are Christians and show proof that they are not by worshipping the gods, then they will be pardoned. (4) Pliny should not allow anonymous accusations. Leonard L. Thompson calls the policy “double-edged,” since, “on the one hand, Christians were not hunted down. They were tried only if accusations from local provincials were brought against them. But if accused and convicted, then Christians...were killed simply for being Christians.”
Therefore, Pliny’s view of Christians was not necessarily persecution but rather Christians were only executed when they were brought before him at trial and confessed; however, pardons were also given to those who denied such charges. de Ste. Croix says the recommended course of action “was ‘accusatory’ and not ‘inquisitorial,’” so that it was never the governors themselves but instead private, local accusers (delatores
) who brought forth accusations.
Pliny's letter is the earliest pagan account to refer to early Christians and provides a key description of Roman administrative process and problems.
The correspondence between Pliny and Emperor Trajan shows that the Roman Empire, as a government entity, did not at this time “seek out” Christians for prosecution or persecution.
Although Emperor Trajan gave Pliny specific advice about disregarding anonymous accusations, for example, he was deliberate in not establishing any new rules in regards to the Christians.
In doing so, Trajan allowed Pliny to try cases according to his discretion.
The letter supports the existence of the early Christian Church and its rapid growth and speaks to its belief system. It also provides valuable evidence as to the attitudes of the Roman authorities with regard to early Christianity.
New Testament critic Hermann Detering
has questioned the authenticity of Book 10,
a position that has not found acceptance within the mainstream scholarly community.