Enemies’ Description of Early Christians’ Practice

Pliny’s Letter To the Roman Emperor Trajan is a letter written by Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny the younger), a governor of Bithynia (modern day Turkey) ca. 110 A.D. Pliny sought advice from Trajan whether he could legally kill Christians who live a noble life simply for their faith.

He wrote:

“It is my custom, my Lord, to refer to thee all questions concerning which I am in doubt; for who can better direct my hesitation or instruct my ignorance?

I have never been present at judicial examinations of the Christians; therefore I am ignorant how and to what extent it is customary to punish or to search for them. And I have hesitated greatly as to whether any distinction should be made on the ground of age, or whether the weak should be treated in the same way as the strong; whether pardon should be granted to the penitent, or he who has ever been a Christian gain nothing by renouncing it; whether the mere name, if unaccompanied with crimes, or crimes associated with the name, should be punished.

Meanwhile, with those who have been brought before me as Christians I have pursued the following course. I have asked them if they were Christians, and if they have confessed, I have asked them a second and third time, threatening them with punishment; if they have persisted, I have commanded them to be led away to punishment.

For I did not doubt that whatever that might be which they confessed, at any rate pertinacious and inflexible obstinacy ought to be punished. There have been others afflicted with like insanity who as Roman citizens I have decided should be sent to Rome. In the course of the proceedings, as commonly happens, the crime was extended, and many varieties of cases appeared.

An anonymous document was published, containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians I thought ought to be released, when they had followed my example in invoking the gods and offering incense and wine to thine image,—which I had for that purpose ordered brought with the images of the gods,—and when they had besides cursed Christ—things which they say that those who are truly Christians cannot be compelled to do.

Others, accused by an informer, first said that they were Christians and afterwards denied it, saying that they had indeed been Christians, but had ceased to be, some three years, some several years, and one even twenty years before. All adored thine image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

Moreover, they affirmed that this was the sum of their guilt or error; that they had been accustomed to come together on a fixed day before daylight and to sing responsively a song unto Christ as God; and to bind themselves with an oath, not with a view to the commission of some crime, but, on the contrary, that they would not commit theft, nor robbery, nor adultery, that they would not break faith, nor refuse to restore a deposit when asked for it. When they had done these things, their custom was to separate and to assemble again to partake of a meal, common yet harmless (which is not the characteristic of a nefarious superstition); but this they had ceased to do after my edict, in which according to thy demands I had prohibited fraternities.

I therefore considered it the more necessary to examine, even with the use of torture, two female slaves who were called deaconesses (ministræ), in order to ascertain the truth. But I found nothing except a superstition depraved and immoderate; and therefore, postponing further inquiry, I have turned to thee for advice. For the matter seems to me worth consulting about, especially on account of the number of persons involved. For many of every age and of every rank and of both sexes have been already, and will be brought to trial.

For the contagion of this superstition has permeated not only the cities, but also the villages and even the country districts. Yet it can apparently be arrested and corrected. At any rate, it is certainly a fact that the temples, which were almost deserted, are now beginning to be frequented, and the sacred rites, which were for a long time interrupted, to be resumed, and fodder for the victims to be sold, for which previously hardly a purchaser was to be found. From which it is easy to gather how great a multitude of men may be reformed if there is given a chance for repentance.”

The reply of Trajan—commonly called “Trajan’s Rescript”—reads as follows:

“Thou hast followed the right course, my Secundus, in treating the cases of those who have been brought before thee as Christians. For no fixed rule can be laid down which shall be applicable to all cases. They are not to be searched for; if they are accused and convicted, they are to be punished; nevertheless, with the proviso that he who denies that he is a Christian, and proves it by his act (re ipsa),—i.e. by making supplication to our gods,—although suspected in regard to the past, may by repentance obtain pardon. Anonymous accusations ought not to be admitted in any proceedings; for they are of most evil precedent, and are not in accord with our age.”

Source: Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine: Trajan forbids the Christians to be sought after Ch.33 Notes (blogofriendly paragraphs added)