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.