Pliny's Testimony on Jesus
[Background Data] [Forged?] [Pliny: A Reliable Source] [The Matter of Martyrs] [Serapis and Apollo] [Responses] [Conclusions]

Pliny the Younger (62?-c.113) was Governor of Bithynia. His correspondence in 106 AD with the emperor Trajan included a report on proceedings against Christians. In an extended explanation to his supervisor, Pliny explained that he forced Christians to "curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do." He also described their actions and practices thusly:

They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up.

Pliny then records how Christians received their punishment.

Is this a genuine reference, or are there doubts about its veracity?

Although a few critics in the previous centuries claimed otherwise, there is really no doubt about the genuineness of this reference. Van Voorst notes that the "style matches that of the other letters" in the same book, and the letters "were known already by the time of Tertullian (fl. 196-212)." [VanV.JONT, 27] That the letter is some kind of Christian creation is a position that is not taken seriously today.

Is this historian/writer a reliable source? Is there good reason to trust what they say?

Pliny had certain unique qualifications that make this reference more valuable than we might suppose. Wilken, although saying that Pliny's knowledge of Christianity was "largely second-hand," also points out [Wilk.ChrRom, 6] that Pliny, prior to being a governor, held a position as a state priest - the same position held somewhat earlier by Cicero. His job as state priest included acting as an overseer in the state religion.

As Wilken further notes in a quote from Cicero (ibid.), those who aspired to this position ought to be distinguished citizens who would "safeguard religion by the good administration of the state and safeguard the wise conduct of religion." A member of the priesthood, in order to "safeguard the wise conduct of religion," should be expected to be "in the know" about religion.

In light of the fact that Christianity was recognized as a threat to public order, Pliny certainly had to know something about it in order to fulfill his duties. It is therefore likely that, while his knowledge of Christianity itself was largely second-hand, he also had firsthand knowledge of basic facts such as Jesus' existence.

More important here, however, is the testimony by Pliny that Christians died for their faith. This was extremely unlikely to have happened if Jesus had not existed.

The martyrdoms of second-century Christians does not support the historicity of Jesus. Pliny also wrote that many people had renounced Christianity years before his interrogations.

This may be granted to an extent. Wilken [ibid.] also writes:

Even in this early period of Christian history, not everyone who become a Christian remained a Christian for the rest of his or her life. Some people initially joined the Christian sect because they found the figure of Jesus attractive, others because they were persuaded of the superiority of the Christian way of life by the behavior of a friend, others because they had married Christians. But in an age when religious distinctions were often blurred, people changed allegiances often and sometimes belonged to more than one religious group in the course of a lifetime. Consequently, there was much movement in and out of religious associations and across organizational lines...

But ultimately, this objection misses the point. Even though some people left Christianity, there were also many who did not, and died because of it - and if there was any hint that Jesus was a mythical figure (and such arguments would certainly have been passed on by the Jewish and pagan enemies of Christianity) it is extremely unlikely that anyone at all would have suffered persecution or martyrdom for His sake.

That some did deny Jesus is quite irrelevant, as is the movement between religious associations common in that time: As Wilken explains, those who found that Christianity did not meet their needs or expectations simply lost interest and left - such is the fickle side of human nature. And as Momigliano indicates [Momig.PagJC, 164], in that time period, "to know to what religious group you belong to is not identical with knowing what you believe." In the syncretistic world of the Roman Empire, a "buffet table" approach to religion was not uncommon.

There were undoubtedly those who, as happens today, walked into a church, liked the company, ate the delicious food, and settled in - until the going got rough; then the untough got going. But when a Christian professed Christ and would not recant, even in the face of persecution and execution, that indicated that a final choice had been made.

A mythical Jesus and a historical Jesus would be indistinguishable to those living in the second century. Arguments about the number of second-century believers and martyrs is therefore beside the point. Furthermore, Origen admits that there weren't that many martyrs in the first place.

This objection is rather an unfair one, and gives short shrift to the historical context of the martyrdom issue (as well as ignoring the fact that Tacitus and Josephus indicate that mid-first-century Christians ALSO died for their faith!).

Yes, Origen "admits" that there were very few Christian martyrs; and this objection uses this "admission" to give the impression that few Christians of the time took a principled stand, and therefore, the Christian faith is in doubt, for it was probably only adhered to by a few masochistic nuts! But this objection fails on a number of accounts.

First, sheer numbers of martyrs lose their meaning, however, when we realize that Christians composed a small minority (as little as 2% as late as 250 AD; lower percentages prior to that!) of the Roman Empire's population of 60 million in the first two centuries after Christ.

Second, persecution did not automatically equal martyrdom. As Fox writes, "By reducing the history of Christian persecution to a history of legal hearings, we miss a large part of the victimization." [Fox.PagChr, 424] Some Christians, we may acknowledge, had their freedom bought by wealthy benefactors. But even then, Christians could expect social ostracization if they stuck by their faith, and that is where much of the persecution Fox refers to came from - rejection by family and society, relegation to outcast status.

In the legal arena, the number of possible martyrs was reduced by Roman magistrates with softer hearts who would pass on executing Christians and instead sentence them to banishment, or to "work in mines and quarries, where they served, their heads half shaven, under constant threat of the lash." (ibid., 434)

In all, it was not an easy time to be a Christian; and without surety of the existence of the Founder they followed, it is quite unlikely that anyone would have gone the distance suffering for the Christian faith. This objection simply ignores too many realities of human nature and of the historical moment.

Many people have died for a lie they thought was the truth. Sincerity of belief does not constitute evidence for that belief.

This objection, too, misses the point. We are, indeed, talking about people, as it is said, who think that what they are dying for is the truth and although it is fashionable in skeptical circles to assume the complete stupidity of ancient peoples (i.e., commit "chronological snobbery"), the fact is that the early Christians most assuredly would have been in a position to know - with the same moral certitude that we have - whether Jesus actually existed or not.

Just as much as we living in modern times, ancient people kept records, wrote things down, and tracked information faithfully . They had libraries, which contained histories from earlier times. The governments of that time kept records. So did religious authorities. This objection is simply prejudicial.

Many of these Christians wanted to be martyred. It was seen as a way to get on the road to glory. Why should what they did matter?

True, as testimonies from that time show, some of the martyrs concerned did rejoice in their portended deaths for the sake of Christ. However, "on closer inspection, the majority of known 'voluntary martyrs' turn out to be more understandable." [ibid., 442] As Fox puts it:

Almost all of then were secondary martyrdoms, sparked off by the sight of news of fellow Christians who were being tried, abused or sentenced...Elsewhere, the urge was more immediate. In the heat of the moment friends and spectators declared their common loyalty with the poor victims of injustice...Whole groups gave themselves away, in surges of indignation at unjust decisions...
In the heat of the moment, martyrdom proved infectious...

In short, these martyrdoms were similar in nature to the public protests of the modern civil rights movement. As with that movement, there were those who did seek persecution for their own glory and ego; but the majority were principled people standing up for their belief.

In any event, the practice of voluntary martyrdom was warned against by some church leaders, including Origen, and Clement of Alexandria. It was not the standard practice that some critics would imply. Indeed, Jesus had Himself given the general theme of "when they persecute you in this city, flee to another," as Paul did, and as the Jerusalem church did. It just got more difficult as the Church began to put down roots, and as urban merchants became outspoken for the faith.

In closing, we may acknowledge that the charge that martyrdom doesn't count as evidence is technically true - under the same assumption that scholarly consensus does not count as evidence. But, by the same token, it counts as historical data (not evidence) that also has to be explained by whatever theory we adopt. The wholesale endorsement of the Christian faith by intellectuals and intelligent merchants (indeed, as shown by Stark and Meeks, a greater percentage of these than is in accord with the population as a whole) gives a prima facie credibility to their testimony.

There are radical differences, too, between the Koresh-type martyrs and the apostles (e.g., constant interaction with the culture vs. exclusion; the considerable content-continuity with the Jewish mainstream; the radical growth thru conversion of a wide range of personality-profiles; the lack of heavy authority structures and punitive systems of hierarchy; etc.). The Jesus-mythicists, as we have demonstrated, would have an exceedingly difficult time accounting for this problem of martyrdoms on behalf of an allegedly non-existent personage.

"If Pliny had been interviewing the worshipers of Serapis or Apollo they might reasonably have confessed that they sang hymns to Serapis or Apollo, but surely this does not prove that these pagan gods existed as men." [Cutn.JGMM, 111]

True, but nor would Pliny say that Serapis and Apollo were sung to "as (or, as if) a god." Obviously, there would be no need for this distinction, since Serapis and Apollo were known as gods. The phrase here would indicate that someone who would not ordinarily be perceived as a god (in Roman eyes) was here being accorded the status of deity, and this points to someone who was (again, in Roman eyes) a known, supposedly mortal person. (For more on this point, see our response to G. A. Wells.)

And so, we have some valuable testimony from the hand of Pliny the Younger. He knew that Christianity was a "cult," and refers to investigations in which "several forms of the mischief came to light" - and since he refers to it as such, he was already aware of its nature to a degree. He also knows that it is religious in nature because he takes the tactic of having the persons suspected of Christianity offer libations and worship to the statue of the emperor and the gods, and then curse Christ.

Clearly Pliny shows that he knows how to distinguish who is a Christian and who is not [Benk.PagRo, 10] - which would be impossible unless he had some previous idea what it was that they believed!

There is a limitation to this, of course: We are not told when or where Pliny learned all of this; he COULD have just found out about all of this from his underlings a week before writing to Trajan. But a very plausible suggestion is that he had learned about Jesus and the Christians at an earlier time in his position as a state priest.

Priests were never involved in investigating Christians and would have had no interest in someone else's cult. Only magistrates are involved. Pliny says himself that he has never been involved in trials or investigations of Christians, and explains where he learned about the cult: the ex-Christian witnesses explained it, and the tortured deaconesses completed his source of information.

It is presumptuous to say that priests were "NEVER" involved in such things. Where is the justification for this sort of absolutism? What of the need for expert witnesses -- did magistrates have religious training also? And what of the need to safeguard religion, combined with Pliny's evidently conscientious nature?

I do not think it is too much to say that Pliny would conduct his own research (or use what he already knew) in order to do his job to the best of his abilities. He did not get into the Emperor's good graces or into high positions by being lazy or unprepared. Nor would getting firsthand knowledge of Jesus' existence have required a full-scale "investigation" of the sort done by magistrates. Personal research would have been sufficient, and perfectly in line with the sort of conscientious and concerned person we know Pliny to have been.

We can see that priests didn't do such investigations. Plutarch, a prominent priest and elder contemporary of Pliny, whose voluminous writings almost entirely survive, never once does Plutarch ever mention Christians, even though he went out of his way to write on many religious subjects, even to attack popular superstitions and foreign cults.

What does Plutrach have to do with anything? As far as we know, Plutarch never had a situation like Pliny's to handle, where he had to make judgments upon Christians. Beyond that, since the historicity of Christians is itself not open to question, Plutarch's silence about them is as meaningful as his silence about Jesus -- which is to say, it carries no meaning.

Beyond that, I would like to see some direct proof that Plutarch went "out of his way" -- whatever that means in this context -- to attack such things. I wonder which work in particular [The Age of Alexander? One of his biographical works? The one on Sparta?] would have offered an appropriate venue to mention Christianity.

The point is that Pliny's double career as priest and governor is what occassioned the letter to Trajan in the first place. Plutarch didn't become governor of a province, and so there was no call for him to have to make the same sort of legal decision about Christians. An appeal to Plutarch here is no more than an argument from silence, and of no relevance.

No priests are shown presenting evidence for Pliny's prosecutions, even though Pliny mentions the decline of attention to local temples because of Christians.

It is hard to see why this is significant or relevant to this issue. Why were priests specifially needed to present evidence in this particular case? The point here is that Pliny, as a former priest, would have information helpful to him in his new job as an investigator. He would not have needed help from other priests to make a determination; he was an "expert witness" already, knowledgeable enough to handle the cases on his own in terms of the religious aspects.

When the silversmiths in Acts raise their charges, the priestesses of Artemis are again conspicuously absent, and even they make no effort to "investigate" Christians but simply seek to trump up charges against them.

It is hard to see a point here either. The priestesses of Artemis were hardly in any position to complain; as Christianity at this time had not been pronounced illegal (for it was still considered by the Romans to be part of Judaism and protected by their exception clauses), they could hardly complain about a recognized religion gaining converts.

The silversmiths, though, were losing money (although they also may have been exaggerating!), and when one's pocketbook is hurt, rational investigation tends to go out the window...and beyond that, what need, power or knowledge did silversmiths have (as opposed to Pliny) to conduct investigations, especially since they were not in official positions answerable to the Emperor?

What were they going to do once their investigation was complete? Did the KKK perform "investigations" of any sort before lynching innocent victims?

Pliny directly says he knew nothing UNTIL he was compelled to torture the two deaconesses. This solidly refutes any conjecture that Pliny had prior information.

This reading is incorrect. After listing those rites that the Christians in question adhered to - meeting on a certain day before light, binding themselves by moral oaths, what looks to be taking the Eucharist - Pliny explains:

Even this practice, however, they had abandoned after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your orders, I had forbidden political associations. I therefore judged it so much more the necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were styled deaconesses: but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition.

It is clear, however, that rather than being "wholly ignorant" of Christianity, Pliny knew a good deal about it. He previously (that is, prior to torturing the deaconesses) knew that Christianity was a "cult," for he refers to investigations in which "several forms of the mischief came to light" - and since he refers to it as such, he was already aware of its nature to a degree. He also knows that it is religious in nature because he takes the tactic of having the persons suspected of Christianity offer libations and worship to the statue of the emperor and the gods, and then curse Christ.

Clearly Pliny shows that he knows HOW TO DISTINGUISH who is a Christian and who is not - which would be impossible unless he had some previous idea what it was that they believed. What he is unfamiliar with is the legal limits to be observed in interrogating and punishing them - not their beliefs.

Yes, there is a limitation to this, as noted: We are not told when or where Pliny learned all of this; he COULD have just found out about all of this from his underlings a week before writing to Trajan! But he is far from being "wholly ignorant" of Christianity.

And what of the political edge? Pliny became suspicious of political activity ONLY when the edict against political associations connected with the apostatizing Christians abandoning their practices! He therefore attempted to determine if there was some political factor at work - and in Roman society, where the emperor himself, the lead political figure, was worshipped, any group that disdained this practice would have to have had (to Roman eyes) SOME political overtones - refusing to worship the emperor (unless you had a special dispensation, like the Jews) amounted to high treason.

The apostatizing church members, upon publication of the edict, evidently realized the political implications of Christianity in the context of Roman society might cause them some problems, and so when the time came decided in favor of saving their own skin. This caused Pliny to suspect, apparently, some further political ramifications, but he found nothing of the sort; only nothing more than "superstition" - i.e., religious/cultic practice.

It ought to be noted that Pliny's words are not the words of a man with no prior knowledge of Christianity, but rather, the words of a man who is covering himself in case he made a mistake. Let's look at this quote again:

In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel not doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved chastisement. There were others also possessed with the same infatuation, but being citizens of Rome, I directed them to be carried thither.

Note that Pliny immediately follows our key words with a point that the "bad attitude" the Christians had towards his authority was such that he argues that they deserved a smack or two -- in other words, he is saying, "Trajan, just in case the creed these people hold to doesn't deserve punishment to the extent I punished them, i.e., just in case I fouled up, I want you to know that they did something that deserved a smack anyway!" This is no "off-hand" reference indicating ignorance, but a bureaucrat covering his ample posterior!

What do we learn about Jesus and/or Christianity from this historian/writer?

  1. We learn that Jesus was worshipped, and that believers died for belief in Him, in the early second sentury. This must receive a plausible explanation that the Jesus-myth circle cannot provide.
  2. We learn of several aspects of worship that correspond with the NT: Worshipping on a fixed day, practice of the Eucharist (?), and the ethical grounding of Jesus' teachings.