Two Classic Letters of Great Importance
TRAJAN, ruler of the sprawling Roman empire, needed a governor for the province of Bithynia-Pontus in Asia Minor. He therefore appointed his trusted friend Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, otherwise called Pliny the Younger. Arriving in Bithynia A.D. 111, Pliny died two years later, but during that time he wrote many letters to Trajan on a variety of subjects. One of these, together with Trajan’s reply, deals with early Christians and is highly regarded as a monumental document of antiquity. It reveals the attitude, conduct and disposition of God’s consecrated servants as viewed through non-Christian eyes. Of such historical importance (they were written only a very short time after the last of the apostles died) are these letters that they are herewith reproduced, as translated and published in the Harvard Classics, 1909, vol. 9, pp. 425-428.
“It is my invariable rule, Sir, to refer to you in all matters where I feel doubtful; for who is more capable of removing my scruples or informing my ignorance? Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them. Whether, therefore, any difference is usually made with respect to ages, or no distinction is to be observed between the young and the adult; whether repentance entitles them to a pardon; or if a man has been once a Christian, it avails nothing to desist from his error; whether the very profession of Christianity, unattended with any criminal act, or only the crimes themselves inherent in the profession are punishable; on all these points I am in great doubt. In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have been brought before me as Christians is this: I asked them whether they were Christians; if they admitted it, I repeated the question twice, and threatened them with punishment; if they persisted, I ordered them to be at once punished: for I was persuaded, whatever the nature of their opinions might be, a contumacious and inflexible obstinacy certainly deserved correction. There were others also brought before me possessed with the same infatuation, but, being Roman citizens, I directed them to be sent to Rome. But this crime spreading (as is usually the case) while it was actually under prosecution, several instances of the same nature occurred. An anonymous information was laid before me containing a charge against several persons, who upon examination denied they were Christians, or had ever been so. They repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered religious rites with wine and incense before your statue (which for that purpose I had ordered to be brought, together with those of the gods), and even reviled the name of Christ: whereas there is no forcing, it is said, those who are really Christians into any of these compliances: I thought it proper, therefore, to discharge them. Some among those who were accused by a witness in person at first confessed themselves Christians, but immediately after denied it; the rest owned indeed that they had been of that number formerly, but had now (some above three, others more, and a few above twenty years ago) renounced that error. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, uttering imprecations at the same time against the name of Christ. 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 endeavor 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. For it appears to be a matter highly deserving your consideration, more especially as great numbers must be involved in the danger of these prosecutions, which have already extended, and are still likely to extend, to persons of all ranks and ages, and even of both sexes. In fact, this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the neighbouring villages and country. Nevertheless, it still seems possible to restrain its progress. The temples, at least, which were once almost deserted, begin now to be frequented; and the sacred rites, after a long intermission, are again revived; while there is a general demand for the victims, which till lately found very few purchasers. From all this it is easy to conjecture what numbers might be reclaimed if a general pardon were granted to those who shall repent of their error.”
Answering this letter from Pliny, Emperor Trajan wrote: “You have adopted the right course, my dearest Secundus, 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 be received in any sort of prosecution. It is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and is quite foreign to the spirit of our age.”
WHAT COMMENDABLE TESTIMONY!
An analysis of these letters tells us a great deal about the early Christians. A small minority of both “the young and the adults”, yet no amount of “third degree” brutality seemed to bend or break those true footstep followers of Christ. “Inflexible obstinacy,” Pliny called it. But really it was a godly example of unselfish devotion, complete faithfulness and unbreakable determination to do what Jehovah commanded, to do what was right, and not a selfish display of stubbornness.
And what terrible crimes did those Christians commit? Pliny says that they prayed to God in the name of Christ, “binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design,” but rather, they vowed “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”, and, in addition, it was their practice to “eat in common a harmless meal”. Truly the empire had no better, more upright or more desirable citizens, and yet these were the ones Pliny was out to slaughter and destroy!
Not all those brought before Pliny, however, proved to be such faithful Christians. Some denied they were ever such, and to prove it they gladly worshiped the pagan gods and “offered religious rites with wine and incense” before Trajan’s statue, “and even reviled the name of Christ.” Even Pliny was satisfied these were not Christians, for “there is no forcing, it is said, those who are really Christians into any of these compliances”.
A third group brought to trial before Pliny were like the ones Jesus mentioned, individuals who had hard, stony hearts in which the truth found such shallow root it withered away under the heat of persecution. (Matt. 13:20, 21) Unfaithful ones, lacking integrity to Jehovah God, they compromised with the rulers of this satanic old world, “deserted” their sacred covenant, abandoned their godly way of life, and forsook the Lord’s assembly, all because puny men like Pliny and Trajan “forbade the meeting of any assemblies”. (Heb. 10:25) To this unfaithful and worthless class Pliny extended mercy and forgiveness, and in this action Trajan concurred and the Devil gloated. However, in Jehovah’s sight those covenant breakers were only worthy of death.—Eccl. 5:4, 5; Rom. 1:31, 32.
Nevertheless, persecution and the falling away of some did not stop this “contagious superstition”, as Pliny called it. In fact, Christianity spread “while it was actually under prosecution”, and “persons of all ranks and ages, and even of both sexes” accepted the truth. Wailed Pliny, it is “not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the neighboring villages and country”.