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

Alexamenos Graffiti

As we explore what the ancient Romans thought of Christians, it’s worth taking a little more time to speak of the absurdity to Roman sensibilities that Christians would worship a crucified person.

Crucifixion – It Ain’t Pretty

One doesn’t have to contemplate crucifixion long to grasp the ultimate horror of it. Simply imagine being laid out naked on a rough wooden beam and spikes being driven through your wrists or forearms and feet or ankles. Some ropes may be used to prevent your flesh from ripping to prevent you from falling from the cross once it has been stood upright. As gravity pulls your bodyweight down on the stakes that have been driven through your flesh and bones, then begins the long wait for your slow death to play out – in public for all to see, in the heat of the sun and chill of the night.

A small, slanted piece of wood for your feet to sit on helps support a bit of your weight. Some studies say the weight of your body and the position of your outstretched arms may have made it hard to breath, and thus, the crucified would have to push up on the spikes piercing their feet and pull up on the spikes through their arms to raise their bodies enough to a position to take in good, deep breaths of air.

Torture usually preceded crucifixion. With the Romans, this often came in the form of being beaten by a leather whip with bits of metal and bones weaved into it to rip the flesh, exposing muscle and bone. Once hung on the cross, the cause of death could be many things: shock from loss of blood, exhaustion, suffocation, exposure, or any combination.

What Did Ancient People Think of Crucifixion?

Martin Hengel in his book Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross looks at ancient historical sources and brings to light several things about this cruelest form of execution.

Crucifixion, wide-spread in antiquity, was seen as the ultimate deterrent. A risk that may lead one to be put up on that cross was a risk not worth taking. The cruel and public (not to mention inexpensive) nature of crucifixion was an appealing tool in keeping order. After being tortured, the Romans made the victim carry his own cross to the crucifixion location. After death, the executed was left on the cross as food for wild animals and birds of prey. To ancient people, the victim going unburied would have grim religious significance. It was all a brutal, public spectacle.

In the Roman Empire, the elite inflicted crucifixion primarily on the lower classes (especially slaves), violent criminals, and rebellious upstarts. Such criminals held no rights in the Roman world, and any challenge to the Roman authority would not be tolerated.

What Hengel displays convincingly is that crucifixion was the ultimate humiliation and offense to the Romans. It was a slave’s death. It had such a stigma, the word “crucifixion” itself was not used in polite company. Even writings mentioning this horrible practice avoided using the word. Among the lower classes “crux” was considered one of the most derogatory, offensive things you could say to a person. Having a family member hung on a cross was disgraceful. In no uncertain terms, crucifixion was scandalous to the ancient Romans (and Jews) and a source of dread.

Why is this significant to Christians today?

First, if the first Christians of the first century had decided to invent a story so they could start a new religion (for whatever motivation), creating a story about a crucified God-man who rose from the dead would not be the way to do it. In fact, it would be a good way to make sure your new religion died a quick death. The idea of following the teachings of a crucified man would have been scandalous and offensive to the extreme. If a Jewish or Roman family would have been ashamed and humiliated knowing one of their own family members had been punished by crucifixion, why would anyone want to adamantly declare that they worship a crucified person?  The idea of worshiping a crucified God-man would sound more absurd to ancient Jewish and Roman ears than to modern, secular ears.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… 

21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Our second concluding point is this: when we get a clearer understanding of the terror and dehumanizing nature of crucifixion, we understand more fully the length Christ went to because of his love for us. Hengel writes, “Death on the cross was the penalty for slaves, as everyone knew; as such it symbolized extreme humiliation, shame and torture.”

“Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:6-11)

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

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

Alexamenos Graffiti

The above photo is of the earliest known visual depiction of Jesus of Nazareth. Interestingly, it doesn’t come from an ancient church or even from Christian hands. It’s a piece of ancient graffiti scratched into a wall in Rome, dated to just before 200 AD. In it, a man looks upon a naked man with a donkey’s head crucified on a cross. The Greek reads, “Alexamenos worships god.”

When studying history, what is sometimes called “enemy attestation” is considered the strongest sort of evidence. The idea is that all historical writings have the bias of the authors, so a historical record from a certain people about themselves will likely have a positive spin. On the other hand, historical writings about those same people by those who opposed them will likely have a negative spin. Thus, enemy attention is valuable when it affirms the same information as the other side. Such harmony is of high value to the historian.

The ancient graffiti above appears to have been created by a Roman mocking Christian beliefs. The graffiti artist degrades the beliefs of the Christian Alexamenos for worshipping a crucified man, going so far as to portray Alexamenos’ God with the head of an ass.

This piece of enemy attestation from just before 200 AD not only confirms the crucifixion of Jesus, but also confirms that ancient Christians worshipped Jesus as a God. (This is confirmed in the earliest Roman writings about Christians as well.)

This is significant to Christians today because many modern skeptics often explain away Christian beliefs about Jesus as legends that developed long after Christ walked the earth. A popular claim (which is not argued in the academic world but lives on thanks to the internet and the book The Da Vinci Code) is that Jesus was deified at the Council of Nicea over 300 years after Jesus’ ministry or, at least, some time after Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 AD and – as the dead theory goes – mixed pagan beliefs with Christian beliefs. This simple piece of scratched slander on a Roman wall alone disproves that theory.

Another point of interest about this piece of crude ancient art is that it gives us a glimpse into what the ancient Romans thought of this strange new cult that worshipped a crucified God-man.

In this series, we’ll look more at what the Romans thought of Christians and see how it helps us to understand our faith today.

NEXT: The folly of the Cross continued…

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