Thursday, June 13, 2013

Letter 1096: Insight on Early Christianity From Pliny the Younger

There has been an increased interest in the study of Patristics in recent years and this is certainly not a bad things. Many are interested in understanding what the early Christians believed and how they practiced their faith as a means of informing our own doctrines and to perhaps gain some insights into our understanding the New Testament.

I recently returned to an interesting letter from Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of Bithynia-Pontus, written between 110-112 AD, regarding how he ought to deal with the rise of Christianity. Knowing there was little precedent with this new "superstition," Pliny the Younger sought out advice from Emperor Trajan.

The letter details Pliny's current policy. However, what interests us here is the second part of the letter. Pliny wrote:

However, they assured me that the main of their fault, or of their mistake was this:-That they were wont, on a stated day, to meet together before it was light, and to sing a hymn to Christ, as to a god, alternately; and to oblige themselves by a sacrament [or oath], not to do anything that was ill: but that they would commit no theft, or pilfering, or adultery; that they would not break their promises, or deny what was deposited with them, when it was required back again; after which it was their custom to depart, and to meet again at a common but innocent meal, which they had left off upon that edict which I published at your command, and wherein I had forbidden any such conventicles. These examinations made me think it necessary to inquire by torments what the truth was; which I did of two servant maids, who were called Deaconesses: but still I discovered no more than that they were addicted to a bad and to an extravagant superstition.

This stands as one of the first, if not the first, secular mention of Christianity outside the New Testament and in this letter Pliny informs his Emperor, and now us, what worship looked like among the first generation of Christians. Here are a few of the important highlights.

1.  Christians worshiped on a stated day

This is undoubtedly Sunday. This practice began during the time of the New Testament (see Acts 20:7, Rev. 1:10, 1 Cor. 16:1-4). Worship on the first day of the week was instituted from the beginning of the church because it was the day that Christ was raised from the dead. We should note here this gives powerful testimony to the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing can explain why faithful Jews would suddenly move worship from Saturday (the Sabbath) to Sunday unless they had seen Christ alive.

Note also that, according to Pliny, they met before it was light, that is, before dawn. This was necessary because Sunday was not a day of worship for the pagans around them. Rather, it was a typical work day - the first work day. The Christians, too, had to work, and thus rose early to worship as a community of believers before starting their week.

2.  Christian worshiped Christ as God 

Clearly Pliny understood that to these Christians, they revered Christ as God and not Caesar or the Roman pantheon of gods. This was considered a type of sedition by the culture and led to their persecution. The fact that the early church worshiped Christ as God should not be a surprise to us, but it should once and for all debunk the myth that Jesus was deified at Nicea. Clearly the first Christians believed Christ was a living God who walked among them. Remember this the next time modern Arians (Jehovah's Witnesses) come knocking on your door.

3. They followed the Decalogue

Thirdly the sacrament that they oblige themselves is eerily similar to the 10 Commandments. Pliny mentions specifically stealing, adultery, bearing false witness, and covetousness. Clearly the early Christians followed the Ten Commandments as a basic guide to life and this alone made them good citizens. What is strange about the persecution of these Christians is that they were the perfect citizens. Justin Martyr would later highlight this. Why would the Romans want to eliminate citizens that do not commit any serious crime outside of believing in the exclusivity of Jesus Christ? Here Pliny acknowledges the Christians as just citizens, but still, in the end, refuses to let them be.

4. Christians aren't canniblas

There were three common accusations made against the Christians were they were atheist (they didn't worship the gods), incestuous (they referred to each other as brother and sister), and they were cannibals (they ate the body and blood of a man named Jesus [a common Jewish name at this time]). Pliny confesses here, essentially, that such a conspiracy is wrong. If he had believed they were actually cannibals, he would not need advice on what to do with the Christians. He describes this meal as an innocent one. Beyond that, this shows us that the early Christians regularly gathered to worship and part of that worship was the sharing of a meal (an Agape Feast) and the "breaking of bread" (the Lord's Supper).

More could be said here, but this short letter provides historians and Christians some real insight into the lives of early Christians and how they worshipped. One of the things I raised with my church as I shared this letter with them was the transcendence of the gospel. The same gospel preached by Peter in Acts 2 is the same gospel we still preach today. This is hinted at in this short letter from a pagan governor. Some things never change. There is good news in that.


Read the entire letter here.
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