Christianity Through Roman Eyes: What Does a Pagan Roman Letter from 111 A.D. Tell Us About Early Christians?

Alexamenos Graffiti

The earliest known mention of Christians by a Roman appears in a letter by Pliny, a Roman governor of Asia Minor – what is now part of modern Turkey.  The letter is actually the second earliest writing about Christianity by a non-Christian, the first being from about 90-95 AD by Josephus, a Jewish writer.

Pliny’s letter was written in 111 AD, which puts it immediately after the New Testament era. At this point in history, the last “books” of the New Testament were written and the last of the Apostles would’ve died off not long before this.

Pliny is writing to Emperor Trajan for advice about dealing with this strange new group of people called Christians. The letter gives us some interesting insights into the earliest Christians.

THE SITUATION 

Pliny writes in the letter:

“For the moment, this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and a third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.

“Now that I have begun to deal with this problem, as so often happens, the charges are becoming more widespread and increasing in variety. An anonymous pamphlet has been circulated which contains the names of a number of accused persons. Among these I felt that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they had repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had ordered to be brought into court for this purpose along with the images of the gods), and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ—none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do.

“Others, whose names were given to me by an informer, first admitted the charge and then denied it; they said that they had ceased to be Christians two or more years previously, and some of them even twenty years ago. They all did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled the name of Christ.”

So, people are being accused of being Christians and Pliny is having them brought before him.  Obviously, something about these Christians is causing the pagan Romans concern, even to the point of having pamphlets published naming names of supposed Christians.

Those accused of being Christians were ordered by Pliny to worship and pray to pagan idols of Roman gods (likely Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, etc.) and a statue of the Emperor Trajan and to curse the name of Christ, things no “genuine Christian” would do. Some of these accused Christians obey Pliny and other do not. Those that refused, Pliny states plainly, were led off to execution.

EARLY CHRISTIAN PRACTICES DESCRIBED

Pliny receives (and, thus, so do we) some interesting insights into early Christianity from the questioning of those who claimed they had once been Christians but no longer.

Pliny continues:

“They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god,”

This is interesting because many skeptics try to claim that the idea that Jesus Christ is God developed long after – even centuries after – Christianity originated. In other words, they claim the first Christians didn’t believe Jesus was God, but as time passed and legends grew, Jesus Christ became God. Yet, here we have a non-Christian witness telling us Christians worshipped Jesus as God at the very beginning of the second century. And, clearly, this was a practice that had to be going on before the letter was written, which places this practice of worshipping Jesus as God even earlier.

Pliny continues:

“and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called on to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind;”

Several things are interesting to note here.

First, when Christians would gather, they worshipped Christ and made oaths to follow biblical morality (which included being honest with money [“to not deny a deposit when called on to restore it”]). Then, they would gather again at a later time for a shared meal. We read in the Book of Acts that sharing meals was a regular part of living as the local church for the first Christians (Acts 2:46).

It’s a bit humorous in hindsight that Pliny describes the food of the Christians as “ordinary” and “harmless.” There were rumors back then that this strange new cult of Christians were cannibals. That may sound crazy to many of us today, but when you take into account the Christian ordinance of communion (The Lord’s Supper), where Christians symbolically eat the “flesh” (bread) and drink the “blood” (wine) of Christ, one can understand how such a rumor could begin. Communion is a ritual implemented by Christ himself to be done to remember his self-sacrifice upon the cross for the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:26-28; 1 Cor 11:23-26). Such a rumor starting among those unfamiliar with Christian practices and beliefs makes perfect sense.

“but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all political societies.”

These Christians had met for shared meals, but they ceased meeting like this because Pliny outlawed similar meetings for political reasons. The Roman authority didn’t want any competition, so “political societies” were outlawed. Though the Christians were not getting together for political reasons, their gatherings for meals shared enough characteristics with these political clubs for them to be in violation of the law, so the Christians ceased to meet in this way.

The point we should note: with the exception of worshipping the Roman gods and emperor, the Christians were law-abiding.

“This made me decide that it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they call deaconesses.”

Here, we see that both slaves and women held the position of deacon in the early church.

WHEN DOWN IS UP AND UP IS DOWN

Pliny ends this section of his letter by concluding:

“I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.”

To close, we must note the irony. After laying out that the Christians are an honest, moral, harmless, law-abiding people, this Roman, who doesn’t hesitate to execute or torture them, describes them as a “degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths”!

Keep in mind, “cult” for most of history is a neutral term without the largely negative connotation that it holds today. “Cult” simply means a religious group devoted to a certain deity or person. Thus, Christians are quite literally members of the cult of Jesus Christ.

But it should also be noted that “cult” may not be the best translation here. The Greek word used is actually superstitio, which can be translated “superstition.” All three Roman writers who mention Christianity in the beginning of the second century (Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius) describe the group as superstitio. Superstitio “referred to beliefs and practices that were foreign and strange to the Romans” [1] and was a term with a negative connotation.

Where we may think pagans would be open to other forms of religious faith, the Romans considered themselves extremely pious according to their religion and looked at foreign faiths with suspicion. Yet, as long as those foreign faiths also honored the Roman gods, they were tolerated. In the eyes of the Romans, the exclusivity of the Christians’ beliefs put their very society and culture at risk by offending their gods.

Despite this, early Christianity grew and spread in this environment, ultimately changing the culture around it.

So, in a way, the Romans were right to fear the Christians as a threat to their way of life.

 

Read Part 1: Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – What Does a Piece of Ancient Graffiti Tell Us About Christianity?

Read Part 2: Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – Would Ancient Jews or Romans Invent a Crucified God?

[1] The Christians As the Romans Saw Them by Robert Louis Wilken – Second Edition, Yale university Press, 2003 P.49-50

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Does Mark, the Earliest Gospel, Have a Divine Jesus? (Responding to Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus)

Mark

Muslim writer Mustafa Akyol in his 2017 book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims makes a common claim of those who want to challenge the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus. Akyol claims that the belief that Jesus is God was a later development that was not held by the first Christians.

According to Akyol, as Christianity spread from the Jews to the pagan Romans, Jesus’ status was raised to divine. He writes, “…the more Christianity moved away from its Jewish roots and planted itself on Hellenistic soil, the more it perceived Jesus as divine. This was no preplanned scheme, but the natural result of transferring monotheistic Jewish concepts to a polytheistic Gentile setting” (P.47).

Since the Gospel of John is understood to be the last gospel written and the gospel that most explicitly teaches that Jesus is divine, Akyol argues that Jesus’ divinity was a later development. He writes, “Among the four gospels, the one that has the least allusions to Jesus’ divinity, if any, is Mark [the first gospel to be written]… Yet when we come to Matthew and Luke… the emphasis on Jesus as a suprahuman being increases,” finally evolving into the more obvious teaching of Jesus’ divinity in John’s gospel (P.48).

Akyol is right that Mark is considered by most scholars to be the earliest gospel (though some make good arguments that Matthew is the earliest), and the majority of scholars agrees that John was written last, as well as John focuses the most on the divinity of Christ.

But is Jesus’ divinity NOT found in Mark, the earliest gospel? 

In our last article, we already saw how Akyol is wrong about the Epistle of James not holding to the divinity of Jesus, and James is one of the earliest – and likely thee earliest – work in the New Testament, a fact Akyol himself emphasizes.

So, how about the earliest historical narrative of Jesus’ ministry, the Gospel of Mark? Let’s look at Mark’s gospel and see what it has to say for itself.

 

Jesus’ Divinity in Mark? You Don’t Have to Look Long

If we look at Mark, we don’t have to look far to find Jesus’ divinity. In fact, we only need to look at the first three verses:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” (Mark 1:1-3)

Right off the bat in 1:1 we have an expression to describe Jesus that Muslims do not like: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Yet, even Christians may understand this not as a divine title but as a title that can be applied to the Jewish, strictly human Messiah. So, let’s put that phrase “Son of God” aside for now and look at the rest of 1:1-3.

It’s interesting that Mark chose to begin his account of the ministry of “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” by quoting the Old Testament (OT). Mark conflates two OT passages: Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. As you read on, it’s clear that Mark is applying these OT passages to John the Baptist. Thus, John the Baptist is “the messenger… who will prepare your way.”

So, we have to ask: who is “your” a reference to?

Let’s continue on to 1:3 to find out: John is the one to “prepare the way of the Lord.” Now, no one can read any of the four gospels and come to any conclusion other than that John the Baptist is preparing the way for Jesus. Thus, Jesus is the Lord.

Further, when we turn to Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 in the OT and read them in context, who is the messenger of these passages preparing the way for? God. The LORD. Yahweh – the “I AM” of Exodus 3:14. The God of Abraham and Moses. There is no controversy about this; it’s a plain as day. In Malachi 3:1, the Lord Yahweh is speaking: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” Isaiah writes in 40:3: “…prepare the way of the LORD [literally: Yahweh]; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

So we see, not even four verses into Mark’s gospel, Akyol’s argument is already destroyed. Mark begins his gospel by telling his audience that John the Baptist is preparing the way for God, Jesus Christ. 

 

Did Jesus Claim to Be God?

Another claim Muslims like Akyol like to make is that Jesus himself never claimed to be God. Thus, Mark – the author – may have claimed Jesus is God, but Jesus never did. Yet, when we read Mark’s account carefully, we see Jesus claimed divinity by both his actions and words. Let’s look at three examples of this:

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:5-7)

Akyol may not understand the significance of what Jesus is doing, but Jesus’ fellow Jews certainly did because God is the only savior (Isaiah 43:11, 25). For a man to claim to forgive sins, something only God can do, is blasphemy – as Jesus’ 1st Century audience clearly understands. By claiming he has the authority to forgive sins, Jesus is claiming divinity.

But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64)

In 14:62, Jesus claims to be the Son of Man (Jesus’ favorite way to refer to himself) of Daniel 7:13-14. This Son of Man is described as a being who comes into the presence of God without being destroyed; yet, no sinful human can come into God’s perfect presence without being destroyed. Further, this being is also given glory in God’s presence. Can anyone be given glory other than God is God’s presence? God shares his glory with no one! (See Isaiah 42:8; 48:11; also see John 17:1-5.)  Again, Jesus’ fellow Jews understand that he is making a claim of divinity, as we see by their strong reactions and accusations of blasphemy.

And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:36–41)

Now, ask yourself, when the men in the boat witnessed Jesus calm the storm with a verbal command, how would they – all first century Jews, let me remind you – answer the question Mark ends this episode with: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Jesus was showing these men something, and these men where NOT Roman pagans or twenty-first century Westerners, but Scripture-reading and -believing Jews; thus, they would understand this “something” as first century Jews.

So, how would they understand this?

First, in the very first words written in the Jewish Scriptures (which we call the Old Testament) God creates all things by simply speaking them into existence. Take note that Jesus does not pray to God to calm the storm; he simply speaks.

Furthermore, Psalm 107:23-32 tells of God controlling a storm at sea. Verse 29 reads, “He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.”

Finally, one cannot read the details of this account and not think of the Book of Jonah. Jonah unwisely attempts to escape God’s commission by fleeing by boat to a faraway land. Because of this, God sends a storm, which Jonah sleep through, only to be awoken by the crew of the ship in a panic. Jonah knows the storm was sent by God because of his disobedience and, thus, tells the pagans to throw him overboard to save their lives. Once Jonah is overboard, the storm immediately stops. The pagans, in turn, worship Jonah’s God.

So, again, I ask: how would a 1st Century Jew answer: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

The answer is clear: God.

Akyol’s Big Mistake

As we discussed in an earlier article on Akyol’s understanding of the NT letter of James, Akyol makes the mistake of assuming every work in the NT was written to convey the same message to the same audience, and every NT writing should cover the entirety of Christian theology. This is not the case.

For instance, Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels, so it appears his primary audience were Jews, so he focuses primarily on Jesus being the Jewish Messiah. Yet, even Matthew portrays Jesus as God in the same ways Mark and Luke do, and at the end of Matthew we have the unignorable Trinitarian proclamation by the resurrected Jesus to baptize in the singular name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

To be fair, Akyol does quote historian Larry Hurtado, who writes “a remarkable level of devotion to Jesus erupted in the earliest years of the Christian movement,” and Cambridge professor Richard Bauckham, who states, “the earliest christology was already the highest.” But other than these cursory mentions, Akyol ignores any historical scholarship contrary to his theory and quickly moves on.

Yet, let me point out that Akyol himself says that the Gospel of Mark has “the least allusions to Jesus’ divinity, if any.” Thus, even Akyol seems to begrudgingly admit that Mark may contain a divine Jesus.

Finally, isn’t even just ONE reference to Jesus’ divinity in a gospel enough to establish it? If I, for instance, only mentioned once in a story that a woman is pregnant, wouldn’t that be sufficient to establish for the whole of the story that the woman is pregnant? As we saw, Mark begins his gospel by making it clear that John the Baptist is preparing the way for God.

To try to invalidate the witness of the gospels to Jesus’ divinity by arguing that earlier gospels contain less about Jesus’ divinity is like arguing that you’re “kind of” pregnant. You’re either pregnant or you’re not, and you are either God or you’re not. All four Gospels witness to Jesus’ divinity. The amount of space each gives to it is irrelevant to the discussion.

Read: James Vs. Paul: Did James Not Believe in Jesus’ Divinity? (Responding to Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus)

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