from jesus to christ - the first christians

Pliny's Policy: Execution

Marking the beginning of the Roman Empire's legal prosecution of Christians.

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


Describe the scene for me if you will in the courtroom of Pliny the Younger. What happened?

About the year 112 an important event takes place that bring us on the stage in a new way in the history of earliest Christianity. The scene is in the Roman Province of Bithynia in modern day Turkey, and at that time there is a relatively new governor sent to take over. His name is Pliny the Younger. Pliny is one of the most important aristocrats of his generation. He's from a very old Roman family. His uncle is a very well known naturalist of a generation earlier who actually died going on a rescue mission at the time of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the inundation of Pompeii. Pliny himself was there. He had seen a lot in his lifetime. Later on he would be sent by the Emperor Trajan to take over this province of Bithynia at a time when it was having a number of administrative difficulties. It seems there was mismanagement of the funds and some other problems that had cropped up and so Pliny goes there. While he's there, amongst his other problems, he encounters a new legal case that apparently catches his attention because he had never heard of it before. Before him are brought a ragged band or what seems to be a fairly ragged band of Christians.

So we have to imagine Pliny seated [as] a Roman magistrate all decked out in his finery, enthroned in the tribunal with his guards and his bailiffs and his courtiers around him, and before him stand these Christians and Pliny can't figure out who they are or why they're there and he has to ask. Now what he's told is that apparently they've done something that gets their neighbors mad at them. The neighbors have complained that the temples are empty and no one's buying certain things for the gods... and they're Christians, and so somehow or another, Pliny is forced to deal with this as a criminal matter, as a legal issue in a way that he could not have anticipated earlier. Now what he does is he begins to interrogate them. He says he asks questions of them and then he even tortures some members of the Christian group, some slave women whom he titles "deaconesses" and under torture tries to get them to admit to some of the crimes that he thinks must be associated with this group. In the process he finds that in fact it's a fairly innocuous group.... He says, "I discovered nothing more than an innocuous superstition. They don't really do all that much. They meet before daybreak. They sing hymns antiphonally and they worship Christ as if he were a god," and then he says, "They take an oath, but not an oath to do anything bad, rather an oath only to be good. Not to defraud people. Not to do anything evil," and so on, and so clearly Pliny is baffled a bit about what it is that constitutes their crime, but ultimately he still comes to the conclusion that he must execute some of them.

Now this is an important case for a variety of reasons. One reason is that it's the first time that we have a Roman public official recognizing Christians as a distinct religious group in the empire. Prior to the year 112, no Roman official has ever done that and apparently up until this time the Christian movement is still perceived, at least from the perspective of the Roman emperors and the Roman public officials, as just a part of Judaism. Also, because it was considered a part of Judaism, Christianity was considered to be protected by the legal status of Jewish tradition within the Roman Empire. So when we see Pliny taking note of Christians as a separate group, it really marks a departure... a change in the status of Christianity. Both in its relationship to Judaism and in its relationship to the Roman Empire. This is a very important moment in the legal development of early Christianity in the Roman Empire....

Now we know about this situation precisely because Pliny has to write a letter about it. You see Pliny has never heard of Christians before and he's never had to deal with the case of Christians, legal or otherwise... Still, Pliny's a little nervous about this situation even though he has taken legal action [in executing the Christians], he feels compelled to write to his friend the emperor and tell him what he's done because it's an unusual case. We actually have preserved from Pliny's own accounts and his own collection of letters his letter to the Emperor Trajan and then Trajan's reply back to him. Pliny describes the situation. He says what he's done and [asks] the emperor, "Do you think I handled it correctly?" The emperor then writes back and says, "Sounds okay to me, but don't go out looking for these Christians, and if you get some anonymous charges against people don't take that too seriously. We don't want to set any bad precedents here." So it seems that in fact, Pliny had the right to do just what he had done. Namely, to execute people because they're Christians. On the other hand it also sets an important legal precedent in that they don't really go out looking for Christians yet to try to persecute them. Now while this is a case of the beginnings of the legal prosecution of Christians by the Roman Empire, it must be noted that it is not a general proscription of Christianity as if it were an illegal religion.

So what seems to be the legal basis for the charge against these Christians when they come before Pliny? There really are two possibilities here. One is that there are some implicit crimes that are associated with the name Christian in the minds of some people and so when Pliny investigates he keeps asking as if there were some scurrilous deeds that they may be performing when they meet in the dark. The other possibility is that it's the Christians' obstinacy in the face of the imperial judgment that is really what gets them in trouble. It's their refusal to sacrifice before the emperor or even to offer a little incense on behalf of the emperor. Because they won't, they are then treated as if they were treasonous and these two things seem to work in concert although neither of them really establishes a legal precedent against all Christians everywhere. It seems to be an isolated, singular case but one that becomes very important later on as we go through the second and third centuries.

Read Pliny's correspondence with the emperor Trajan about the criminal status of Christians.

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published april 1998

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