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Meeting with the Early Church – Pliny’s Letter

Posted by on Mar 10, 2008 in church history, gathering | 6 comments

Around 110 AD, about fifty years after Paul was executed in Rome and perhaps only 20 years after John penned the Revelation, Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny the Younger) was appointed governor of the Roman province of Bithynia. During his travels through the region, Pliny often wrote letters to the Emperor Trajan. Many of these letters and the emperor’s responses have survived to the present day.

In one letter and response, Pliny and Trajan discuss the problem of Christians who were gathering in illegal “political associations”. (Note: The “persecution” listed below did not occur because the Christians worshiped Christ. In fact, other groups who associated together illegally were also arrested, tortured, and killed.) If you have never read this correspondence between Pliny and Trajan concerning Christians, please take the time to read the complete letter in a post called “Pliny, Trajan, and the Christians“.

Pliny became aware of an anonymous list of Christians who were unlawfully associated together. Some of the people on the list claimed that they were not Christians, and immediately demonstrated this by invoking the gods, offering prayers with incense and wine to an image of the emperor, and cursing Christ. Interestingly, in regards to the things that these people agreed to do, Pliny says, “None of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do”.

Other people whose names were found on the list declared that they were Christians at first, but then denied Christ. Pliny does not say that this denial came about after torture, but it can probably be assumed from his treatment of two “deaconesses” later in the later. These who professed then denied Christ also invoked the gods, worshipped the image of the emperor, and cursed Christ. However, it is from this group and the two “deaconesses” who apparently refused to renounce Christ that Pliny learns something about the gathering of the church in the area of Bithynia. He writes:

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.

In this short passage, we learn many things about these early church meetings. First, they included the singing of songs that proclaimed Christ to be a god (in the words of the Roman Pliny). Thus, the recognition of the deity of Jesus was important to these early Christians.

Second, these early Christians helped each other live ethical lives. The words that Pliny uses (“to bind themselves by oath”) indicates that they took their manner of life to be very important. Thus they encouraged and exhorted one another not to defraud, commit adultery, lie, etc. In Pliny’s understanding, this was a mutual exhortation.

Finally, these early Christians ate together. Now, this could simply signify that they shared the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper together, but it could also indicate that they ate a meal together. Apparently, at this time, there were already rumors that Christians were cannibals, because Pliny specifies that they ate only “ordinary and innocent food”. There was nothing special about their food.

Interestingly, it seems that there were two separate gatherings held the same day (a fixed day). One gathering included the singing and some type of mutual exhortation which was held very early – before dawn. The other gathering included the meal, and was probably held during the time for the main meal of the day, probably mid-afternoon.

To me, the most interesting aspect of this letter is the source. This letter was not written by Christians trying to explain what they did during their meetings. Instead, it was written by a Roman pagan who was simply reporting the facts as he discovered them to his emperor. I would think that he would want to get his facts straight before he made this report.

By the way, in his reply, Emperor Trajan told Pliny that he had acted correctly in punishing these Christians (and others) for forming illegal associations. However, he tells Pliny to no longer accept anonymous accusations, nor should Pliny look for Christians. Instead, he should only interrogate Christians who are brought to him.

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Meeting with the Early Church Series
1. Introduction
2. Pliny’s Letter
3. The Didache
4. Ignatius’ Letters
5. Clement of Rome
6. Epistle of Barnabas
7. Justin Martyr
8. Conclusion


6 Comments

  1. 3-11-2008

    I find it interesting that he sought information by torturing two women, who were deaconesses. It could have been simply because he thought it would be more easy to obtain the information from women, perhaps an assumption about their fortitude for torture, or it could have been because these were two leaders in the group, or it could have been a mixture of both. It would seem that he would want to question ones who appeared to be leaders, and both of the ones he chose happened to be women.

  2. 3-11-2008

    Bryan,

    Its difficult to know from just this text whether or not this two slave girls (literally, “handmaidens”) were leaders in the church or not. Pliny used the word that eventually came to refer to an official position within the church, but it may not have had (and probably didn’t have) this technical meaning so early in the life of the church.

    -Alan

  3. 10-11-2012

    What is absent here speaks as loud as what is present. The ekklesia of this era joined together, they were simple, and in this simplicity deemed a threat. Not a threat to the community, or to one another, but a threat to the political rule of a pagan system.

    Thanks Alan for re-posting this.

  4. 10-12-2012

    Jim,

    I’ve studied most (all that I know about anyone) of the earliest descriptions of Christian gatherings. They all different from one another. But, when compared to today’s gatherings, there is much that is “absent.”

    -Alan

  5. 1-7-2013

    “(the Christians bound) themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.”

    In “The Road to Missional,” Michael Frost talks about how each of us believers should be a walking, talking “trailer” or preview of the coming Kingdom. This shows that the people in 110 AD were striving to be Kingdom People, or Shalom People, in their community, giving others a foretaste of grace, justice, peace and love that Christ will bring with him.

  6. 1-7-2013

    Dan,

    I think that’s a good point. Historically, Pliny was probably talking more about the purpose of the Christians gathering together from the perspective of the empire. While Pliny tortured some of the Christians to investigate their meetings, he did not do it specifically because of their faith in Christ. Instead, the Roman empire had outlawed any kind of illegal gathering because of several groups who were meeting together to rise up against the emperor. In another city, he wrote something similar about a group of firefighters (if I remember correctly). Thus, his description of the Christians binding themselves “by oath, not to some crime” probably refers to the illegal and criminal activities that he was looking for. Nevertheless, it is good that he found examples of Christ when he questioned and tortured some of the Christians.

    -Alan

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