By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
The first recorded persecution against Christians for being Christian occurred in 112 CE. It was undertaken at the initiative of the Roman governor, Pliny the Younger. Pliny wrote to the Emperor Trajan, asking for advice regarding a problem that involved a local group of Christians. He was not certain that he had handled them according to established protocols.
Pliny’s Letter to Emperor Trajan
In his letter, Pliny the Younger writes to the emperor to make sure that what he was doing was acceptable procedure. Pliny indicates that he knows the Christians need to be punished. Indeed, that they need to be forced to recant their Christian religion and adopt Roman practices of religion, pagan practices, but he’s unsure about the precise procedures.
Does the age of a person matter, that is, should children be punished as well as adults? If a person had once been a Christian but is no longer a Christian, was that a punishable offense? And most important, what exactly is being punished? Is it known that Christians always commit crimes and they’re to be punished for the crimes, or do they need to be punished simply for being Christian?
Trial of the Christians
Pliny then goes on to explain how he had proceeded in the trials he conducted to make sure it was appropriate. He indicates that when someone was brought forward and accused of being a Christian, Pliny would ask the person if the charges were true. If the person admitted to being a Christian, Pliny would give them two opportunities to renounce their faith. If they refused, he would have them executed if they were not a Roman citizen. If they were one, he sent them to Rome for trial.
In case a person denied being a Christian, Pliny would make them prove it. He would bring in a cult statue of the emperor and of other gods, and would require the person to do obeisance to the statues, offer a sacrifice, and curse the name of Christ. The emperor was seen as a divine being; worshiping him in particular was a kind of loyalty oath to the state. The other gods were the state gods. And so, this practice was to see to whom were the accused loyal? If a person refused to worship the emperor and to curse Christ, Pliny knew he or she was indeed a Christian, and he would punish them accordingly.
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Crime Being a Christian
This was a very clever test, and it shows why simply claiming the name Christian was punishable. By refusing to worship the state gods and the emperor himself, the Christians were refusing to follow the cultic practices of the state. That was dangerous in a world protected by the gods who insisted on being worshipped. Pagans did not care which of the traditional gods were worshipped, but some of them had to be worshipped, and Christians refused.
What’s equally interesting is that Pliny discovered some who had once been Christian but were no longer. Some of these people said they had been a Christian for a year or two. Others said they became Christian 20 years before, but they left the faith. It’s surprising how Pliny dealt with such people. He let them off the hook. This shows that having been a Christian was not a crime; being one was.
Moreover, the charge against Christians was not for what they did, but what they refused to do, to worship the gods. Ultimately, for Romans, the punishable crime was being and remaining a Christian. That’s because the gods wanted to be worshipped, and if anyone returned to their worship, they were once again pleased, and so, no communal consequences ensued. And so, the person could be set free.
Pliny goes on to show that to his knowledge, Christians were not guilty of other crimes. This confirms that simply taking the name Christian was the problem.
Christians not a Threat
Trajan’s response in Letter 97 is direct and to the point: he indicates that there is no general rule of law to follow. This is the emperor saying there’s no rule of law to follow, but he approves of Pliny’s procedure. In particular, anyone who has recanted their Christian faith to worship the gods was to be acquitted.
However, Trajan does insist that Christians are not to be sought out for punishment; one is not supposed to go hunting for them. They were simply to be tried if there was a plausible charge of being a Christian, but anonymous charges were not to be accepted; they had to be public and above board.
Christians were not to be hunted out shows that Trajan was not worried about worldwide disasters occurring if Christians continued in their midst. Christians made up a very small percentage of the Roman population, and they were not seen as any kind of threat.
Attacks against Christians
Pliny’s ad hoc procedure was to consider Christians punishable simply for being Christian, and executing them if they refused to recant but acquitting them if they did and could prove it.
This appears to have set a precedent for other governors from that time onward. Later officials acted in similar ways. We have actual transcripts of court trials where governors tried desperately to get recalcitrant Christians to recant their faith and return to pagan ways. In these cases, the Christians regularly refused, to the real consternation and puzzlement of the ruling authority. However, the ruling authorities invariably carried out the duty, and even against their will, ordered the particular Christians executed.
This kind of persecution did not happen everywhere or frequently, but it did happen. It’s not until the middle of the 3rd century that the attacks against Christians became more focused, sustained, and empire-wide. That’s because, by that time, Christianity really was starting to grow in alarming ways.
Common Questions about Persecution of Christians by Pliny the Younger
If the person admitted to being a Christian, Pliny would give them two opportunities to renounce their faith. If they refused, he would have them executed if they were not a Roman citizen. If they were one, he sent them to Rome for trial.
Pliny would bring in a cult statue of the emperor and of other gods and would require the person to do obeisance to the statues, offer a sacrifice, and curse the name of Christ.
The people who had converted back from Christianity were let off by Pliny.