Do gods exist? 42 Jesus by Pliny

A third independent record of Jesus was written in about 110 ad. Pliny the Younger was a Roman politician who published ten books of his Letters.

One was written around 110 ad, when Pliny, in his late forties, was Governor of a Roman Province in what today is Turkey.

Pliny was seeking the advice of the Roman Emperor Trajan on how to deal with people brought before him accused of the ‘contagious superstition’ of Christianity. He wrote that:

“They affirmed the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal.

From this custom, however, they desisted after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your commands, I forbade the meeting of any assemblies. After receiving this account, I judged it so much the more necessary to endeavour to extort the real truth, by putting two female slaves to the torture, who were said to officiate in their religious rites: but all I could discover was evidence of an absurd and extravagant superstition. I deemed it expedient, therefore, to adjourn all further proceedings, in order to consult you.”

There are two points to note about this record:

  • The letter refers to the spread of Christianity eighty years after the supposed death of Jesus, not to the historical accuracy of Jesus as a person. As an aside, it is interesting that women officiated at the Christian rites.
  • Also, this is not a major issue for Pliny: it is among a series of letters to the Emperor raising minor administrative queries, like prize moneys for athletes and freedoms of the city.

Trajan’s reply certainly showed no major concern about the spread of Christianity:

“You have adopted the right course in investigating the charges against the Christians who were brought before you. It is not possible to lay down any general rule for all such cases. Do not go out of your way to look for them.

If indeed they should be brought before you, and the crime is proved, they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that where the party denies he is a Christian, and shall make it evident that he is not, by invoking our gods, let him (notwithstanding any former suspicion) be pardoned upon his repentance.

Anonymous informations ought not to he received in any sort of prosecution. It is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and is quite foreign to the spirit of our age.”

In my next post I will look at the records of Jesus by Gaius Suetonius and Thallus.

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Do gods exist? 42 Jesus by Pliny

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