Pliny the Younger on Jesus Christ

28 Sep
[#5 in a Series on Non-Biblical References to Jesus]
Read #1, on Josephus, here

#2, on Tacitus, here
#3, on Mara Bar Serapion, here
#4, on Suetonius, here

Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, 61-113 AD) was a Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor from 111-113 AD (modern day Turkey). Pliny’s standard practice was to write the Emperor about almost everything. This habit opens up a window into early second century Christianity; even though Pliny was not a historian, his collected letters provide great historical insights. In one letter (Epistles 10.96.3-4), written to Trajan around 112 AD, Pliny asked about proper protocol for dealing with Christians in his jurisdiction. The Emperor had banned all associations (collegia), fearing they would eventually become political organizations. This ban even included fire brigades. The Christians in Asia Minor did not obey this law and got into trouble. Lists began to circulate of Christians and eventually Pliny tortured, interrogated and executed two deaconesses. He also interviewed some lapsed Christians. They explained to him what they did at their services. Pliny did not find anything but a “depraved superstition taken to extravagant lengths”.  Here is an important portion of his letter:

They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to do any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food—but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.

If you read the whole letter, you will discern a few mild criticisms of Christianity from a Roman gentleman, such as:

–          Christians have a negative impact on both local business (meat sellers) and religion (temples and sacred festivals)
–          Christians are rebellious and stubborn (“their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished”)
–          Christians need to be brought back from their error in following a depraved and excessive superstition

Pliny really did not like the Christian’s obstinacy – they would not recognize the Emperor or curse Christ. This stubbornness was unacceptable. Pliny asked Trajan if Christians were guilty just for being Christians or if they had to do something more. The Emperor replied back: these people should not be hunted out and no anonymous lists should be accepted. Trajan also said if any Christians were brought before Pliny, they should be made to offer incense, hail the emperor and curse Christ. If they do that, then they should be let go, no matter what. The Emperor’s successor followed a similar policy of relative fairness and mild protection – but still coupled with the threat of execution if the Christians would not comply.

One key phrase in this pericope from Pliny is “sung antiphonally a hymn to Christ as if to a god” (Latin: “carmenque Christo quasi deo dicere secum invicem”)Maurice Goguel argues the word quasi “seems to indicate that, in Pliny’s opinion, Christ was not a god like those which other men worshipped. May we not conclude that the fact which distinguished Christ from all other ‘gods’ was that he had lived upon the earth?” (Life of Jesus, translated by Olive Wyon. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1933, p 94). Theissen and Merz assert that Pliny may see Christ as a “quasi-god, precisely because he was a man” (The Historical Jesus, p 81).

RESOURCE: Download a sermon I preached on Philippians 2:5-11 (‘The Carmen Christi’), a passage which seems to be an early Christian hymn embedded in the text of Paul’s letter

Historians have traditionally labeled ten different periods prior to Constantine as ones of persecution. The last, under Diocletian, lasted from about 303 to 313 AD. It is seen as the only one that was Empire wide and systematic. The first period of persecution is usually seen as under Nero.

After the Great Fire in Rome, Nero needed a scapegoat because the populace (wrongly) thought Nero was responsible. Nero rightly assumed that Christians were hated enough to take the blame. Tacitus speaks of the Christians as a class of men hated for their incendiarism but even more so for their antisocial ways; their hatred of mankind. Suetonius, in a much shorter passage, speaks of Christians in a similar way, as a people following a depraved superstition. Tacitus describes how Nero lit Christians on fire in his garden, dragged them around in chariots, threw them in bags with snakes, crucified them, placed them in animal skins and threw them in arenas with wild beasts.

It is likely that both Peter (crucified) and Paul (beheaded) were martyred in Rome around 67 AD. The Neronian persecution was centered in Rome. Although it was intense, did not last long. The Roman Emperor, Domitian, pursued a policy of persecuting Christians and may have even been alluded to in the Book of Revelation, circa 96 AD.

We learn more about the persecution of Christians from court minutes, such as The Martyrdom of Polycarp or The Acts of Justin Martyr and His Companions. In the Polycarp account, the crowds had a blood lust to see the 86-year old bishop die. The Roman prosecutor asked a series of questions and was working with Polycarp to help him to see the folly of resisting. The Roman lawyer wanted Polycarp to curse Christ and live. Polycarp would not and was martyred. Persecution was often a mob action, created by popular dislike of Christians. With Justin, we read of a jealous philosopher named Crescens who turned Justin in and again, Justin and his associates would not comply with the Roman official’s wishes and were executed.IMG_9344

Another prominent Roman official involved in persecution was Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor who was also a Stoic philosopher, active in the 160’s and 170’s AD. Marcus was a pupil of Cornelius Fronto. Fronto had some nasty things to say about Christians. From one of Marcus’ works, The Meditations, we read that Marcus viewed Christian martyrs as melodramatic. Marcus helped foster persecution and did not punish injustice against Christians, such as the massacre in Gaul around 177 AD. This sweep is the one that led to the death of Irenaeus’ bishop in Lyon, among others.

Tertullian, circa 185 AD, had much to say about the persecution of Christians. The most famous: “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church”. He spoke about how the Christians were blamed for famines and floods. He said that whenever bad weather or something similar happens, the crowds shouted, “the Christians to the lion”! Some of the persecution of Christians had to do with the idea that Christians were making the gods angry and the gods were sending bad things as a result. In order to appease the gods again (and get good things from them), Christians should be killed.

Persecution was on and off again but when Diocletian took the purple, it got really bad. For ten long years he hunted down bishops, burnt copies of the Scriptures, destroyed churches, and made Christianity illegal. This was the one effort that was truly Empire wide and systematic. Diocletian’s persecution was relentless and could have succeeded were it not for the improbable ascension of a Christian emperor in Constantine in 313 AD.


Vocab Malone is an urban apologist and slam poet. Vocab holds a Master’s Degree from Phoenix Seminary and is  pursuing further education at Talbot. 

2 Responses to “Pliny the Younger on Jesus Christ”


  1. Major Work – Pliny the Younger - October 31, 2016

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  2. Bibliography – Pliny the Younger - October 31, 2016

    […] 9.   Streetapologist. “Pliny the Younger on Jesus Christ.” WordPress. Date Accessed October 30, 2016. […]

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