Tag Archives: Christians

What Were the Early Christians Like?

One of the earliest sources describing Christians is

Amisus-01that of Pliny the Younger who was the Roman “governor” of Pontus and Bithyna from A.D. 111–113 — very possibly describing the Christian community in Amisus.  He does this writing to the Roman Emperor Trajan (A.D. 98–117) asking him how to deal with the relatively new group.

Pliny writes this fascinating description of Christian (ca. A.D. 112):

that they [called Christians in the preceding paragraph] 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.  —  (Pliny Letters 10.96–97)

This text does not say from where he was writing but in the paragraphs before those asking about Christian he mentions the people of Amisus (see map above) and in a paragraph after (99) he mentions Amastris.  Thus, many have concluded that he penned these words describing Christians in Amisus.

The modern Turkish city of Samsun is partially built over the ruins of Amisus.  At Amisus there is an ancient citadel (acropolis) and several large tumuli that contain burials from the Hellenistic/Roman Periods.

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The modern port of Samsun — Ancient Amisus — where Christians were persecuted by the Roman governor Pliny
Click on Image to Enlarge

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Two Tumuli (burial mounds) at Samsun (ancient Amisus)
They date roughly from 300 B.C. to 30 B.C. and were thus one hundred years old by the time Pliny wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan

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The marvelous head of a bronze statue from the first century A.D.
Click on Image to Enlarge

This finely crafted bronze statue, dating to the first century A.D., probably graced a villa of one of the elite residents of ancient Amisus.  Bronze statues from antiquity are very rare—for usually they were melted down and recycled.  Marble copies of bronze statues are much more common.  To view the complete statue Click Here.

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A well-preserved mosaic from the acropolis of Amisus. In the four corners are depictions of the four seasons. In the center (upside down) are Achilles and Thetis.

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Where Have All the Christians Gone?

As usual, the airwaves and cable connections were filled with stories about Christmas in Bethlehem.  ”

In birthplace of Jesus, Christian population has dropped from 86% to 12% in the past 60 years, following trend across Middle East, except in Israel.
The Times of Israel

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Manger Square summer 2009. Note the “Peace Center” on the right (north) side of the image and the minaret of the Mosque on the west that towers over the square

Different people explain this phenomenon differently—not only for Bethlehem but for the whole Middle East and North Africa:

  1. Oppression from the Muslim majority.
  2. Oppression from the Israeli “occupation” [today, Bethlehem is under total Palestinian control]
  3. Christians have the economic means to emigrate.
  4. Some young adult Christians emigrate for better living conditions.
  5. Christians more easily integrate into western civilization.

The Times of Israel has a very interesting article entitled: “Christians worry ‘Silent Night’ may soon refer to their community in Bethlehem.”

  The article presents the statistical evidence of this phenomenon and cites a number of sources that offer explanations as to why this is: including quotes from Vera Baboun (the Catholic female mayor of Bethlehem), a shopkeeper, etc.

I also found some of the external links interesting:

A 2014 article citing a Pew Foundation Study.
The 2011 BBC’s Guide: Christians in the Middle East.

The article ends with an interesting quote:

“This issue of Christian emigration has become a political tool,” said Ramon, the researcher at the Jerusalem Institute. “There are right-wing groups, like Evangelists[sic], who are always saying ‘Christians are in such a bad situation with the Muslims and that’s why they’re leaving!’ Then there’s liberal Protestants who emphasize that the relations between Christians and Muslims are good, and it’s just the Israeli occupation that is responsible for all this.”

“The real situation is somewhere in the middle,” he said. “The question about whether to stay or go is really dependent on one single thing: the question, where my children will have a better future?”

Pliny Persecutes Christians – A.D. 112

Were the early Christians really persecuted?  How many Christians were there in the Roman Empire in the early 2nd century A.D.?

Bithynia

Click on Map to Enlarge

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):

  1. It does not seem that Christianity was outlawed by the Romans, yet it was considered subversive.
  2. 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.
  3. Pliny was not seeking out Christians to persecute them, but others were making accusations against them.
  4. Pliny came up with a “test” to see if they really were Christians.
    1. They needed to invoke the gods (with a formula dictated by Pliny)
    2. The needed to offer a prayer with incense and wine to the image of the Emperor.
  5. 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.  On the Amazon link above see the bargain price for $9.89.  This is a total “steal!”

–   –   –   –   –   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.

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