A Lesson in Church History: What Pliny the Younger Learned When He Interrogated Christians
Here’s a quick idea for a lesson in church history: For many years I have been curious about a Roman governor known to us from history as Pliny the Younger. My interest initially arose because I resided for four years in one of the principal cities he governed—not to mention that one of my four daughters was born in that city. Moreover, since I have expended significant effort studying the writings of the earliest Christian authors after the period of the apostles (those authors known as the “Apostolic Fathers”), I continue to be intensely interested in learning anything I possibly can about the lives of Christians who lived during the first half of the second century.
What if someone like Pliny had come in contact with Christians? What if a Roman governor had wanted to know what Christians believed and how they lived? It turns out that Pliny did—and he wrote about what he learned in a letter to the emperor Trajan. Pliny had received some complaints about Christian activities and so started rounding up Christians, interrogating them, and attempting to learn as much as he could about them.
About the Church
Following is a list of what Pliny learned about Christians from his interrogations (the full text of his letter to the emperor Trajan is below):
- Pliny learned that Christians met together on one particular day of the week before dawn.
- He learned that when Christians gathered, they would sing hymns to Christ as to a god.
- He learned that Christians promised not to steal or commit adultery, and vowed to pay back money when they owed it.
- He learned of a role in the Christian community called a deaconess, and furthermore learned that slave women could become deaconesses.
- He learned that Christian associations were comprised of males and females, older and younger, and people of various social classes.
- He learned that Christians were not just found in towns, but were spread out in villages and rural areas as well.
- He learned that many Christians believed that a true Christian would never recant one’s faith even under duress.
For a Lesson in Church History
For an quick lesson in Church History, ask your students to read through the primary source letter, attached below, that Pliny the Younger wrote to the Roman emperor Trajan (written around A.D. 110). Then, ask them to write out a list of what Pliny the Younger knows about the early church, and compare it to the list above!
Pliny the Younger, to Roman Emperor Trajan, circa 110 A.D.
It is my custom, Majesty, to refer to you everything about which I have doubts. For who can better check my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never attended examinations of Christians, and therefore I do not know what and how far it is customary to investigate or to punish. And I felt considerable hesitation as to whether age should be taken into consideration or whether the weak should be differentiated from the stronger, whether pardon should follow repentance or whether the one who had completely abandoned Christianity should benefit, and whether the name itself, absent crimes, or the crimes inherent in the name should be punished.
Meanwhile I have followed this procedure in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians. I asked them if they were Christians. If they confessed, I asked a second and third time, threatening with punishment: I ordered those who persevered to be led away. For I did not doubt that whatever it might be that they confessed, certainly their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought to be punished. There were others of a like madness who were Roman citizens, and I took note of their names for sending to the city [for trial].
Presently because of the existence of the investigation, as often happens, the accusation became widespread and more cases came up. An anonymous pamphlet was handed in with the names of many persons. I thought I should release those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when following my lead they first invoked the gods and offered incense and wine to your image, which for this purpose I had ordered brought in with the images of the gods, and afterwards cursed Christ. It is said that those who are really Christians cannot be forced to do any of these things. Others named in the indictment said they were Christians but presently denied it; they had been Christians but had stopped, some two years, others many years ago, a few twenty years past. All of them reverenced your image and the images of the gods and cursed Christ. They testified that this was the whole of their crime or error, that they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day and recited an antiphonal ode to Christ as to a god, and took an oath not for committing any crime but instead for not committing thefts, robberies, or adulteries, nor to refuse to repay a deposit. They had even stopped doing this after my edict, by which in accordance with your commission I had forbidden associations to exist.
I believe it all the more necessary to find out the truth from two slave women, whom they call deaconesses, even by torture. I found nothing but depraved and immoderate superstition. Therefore suspending the investigation I hastened to consult you. It seems to me a matter worthy of consultation, especially because of the number endangered. For many of every age and every rank and even of both sexes are called into danger and will be called. The contagion of this superstition was spread not only through towns but also villages and even rural areas. Certainly it is clear enough that temples long deserted are beginning to be filled and sacred rites long lapsed are resuming, along with the sale of sacrificial victims, for which rather recently there were only occasional buyers. From this it is easy to conclude that the mass of mankind can be reformed if an opportunity is given to repent.
[Translation by Robert M. Grant, Second-Century Christianity: A Collection of Fragments, 2d. ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 4-5.]
This post originally appeared on The Good Book Blog, June 15, 2017.