Were the early Christians really persecuted? How many Christians were there in the Roman Empire in the early 2nd century A.D.?
In a previous post I commented on the importance of Pliny’s (Roman governor of Pontus and Bithynia) description of early Christians. In his letters to the Roman Emperor Trajan (ca. A.D. 112) he asks what he should do with these people known as “Christians.” This letter (see below) tells us at least two important things.
First of all regarding persecution(s):
- It does not seem that Christianity was outlawed by the Romans, yet it was considered subversive.
- The best “charge” that he could come up with was that they were “stubborn and obstinate”—i.e., they would not worship the gods nor burn incense to the Emperor.
- Pliny was not seeking out Christians to persecute them, but others were making accusations against them.
- Pliny came up with a “test” to see if they really were Christians.
- They needed to invoke the gods (with a formula dictated by Pliny)
- They needed to offer a prayer with incense and wine to the image of the Emperor.
- If they didn’t pass the test and were not Roman citizens they were to be executed.
The Romans seemed perplexed with what to do with these people. They were not like traditional rebels for they did not take up arms against the state.
Secondly, the letters can be interpreted to indicate that there may have been many Christians in the province that he governed. Pliny writes:
For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it.
He seems to indicate that because of the Christians, the traditional gods were being neglected (cf. the situation at Ephesus: Acts 19:23–41), but because of his efforts the worship of the gods was increasing again:
It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found.
This can lead to the conclusion that Christianity was rapidly expanding, at least in the area governed by Pliny, but the extrapolated numbers do not agree with the general scholarly opinion that only about 1 or 2% of the total Roman population was “Christian” in the second century A.D. (see Reed p. 141).
Reed, Jonathan L. The HarperCollins Visual Guide to the New Testament — What Archaeology Reveals About the First Christians. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.
– – – – – The Relevant Text from Pliny the Younger Follows – – – – –
Pliny, Letters 10.96-97
Pliny to the Emperor Trajan
It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.
Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.
Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
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.
I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.
Trajan to Pliny
You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–that is, by worshiping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.
To the Emperor Trajan
The free and confederate city of the Amiseni1 enjoys, by your indulgence, the privilege of its own laws. A memorial being presented to me there, concerning a charitable institution, I have subjoined it to this letter, that you may consider, Sir, whether, and how far, this society ought to be licensed or prohibited.
[Footnote 1: A colony of Athenians in the province of Pontus. Their town, Amisus, [on the coast, was one of the residences of Mithridates.]