The Historicity of Pontius Pilate-Part V

One writer of antiquity, Pliny the Younger, who wrote about Christianity, did not mention Pontius Pilate. I include him in this article, because some have argued that the absence of commentary by Pliny the Younger is damaging to the case of historicity of Pontius Pilate.

Pliny the Younger was born Gaius Caecilius Cilo in 61 AD in Novum Comum (Como). His mother, Plinia Marcella, was the sister of Pliny the Elder. He was a lawyer, author, and magistrate. Pliny’s uncle, Pliny the Elder, helped raise and educate him. He revered his uncle, who at this time was extremely famous, and provides sketches of how his uncle worked on the Naturalis Historia. Both were witnesses to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 AD, during which the Pliny the Elder died, while Pliny the Younger escaped by boat.

Pliny the Elder made Pliny his adopted son and heir under his will.  Under Roman law, when a person was adopted, their clan name was changed to the clan name of the adopting family and their clan name became a “nickname”.  Hence, Gaius Caecilius Cilo became Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, with Secundus, being an additional nickname.

After being first tutored at home, Pliny went to Rome for further education, where he was taught rhetoric by Quintilian, a great teacher and author, and by Nicetes Sacerdos of Smyrna. Although born an equestrian, he achieved entry into the upper class by being elected Quaestor in his late twenties. Pliny was active in the Roman legal system. He was a well-known prosecutor and defender at the trials of a series of provincial governors, including two governors of Bithynia-Pontus.   This may be ironic in that he later became Governor of Bithynia.  He was a friend of the historian, Tacitus, and employed the biographer, Suetonius, on his staff.  Pliny the Younger was known as a connoisseur of writing and collected a number of authors as friends and colleagues.

Why is Pliny important? He wrote hundreds of letters, many of which still survive, that are of great historical value for the time period.

In one letter, Pliny the Younger wrote to the Emperor Trajan as to whether the “crime” of being a Christian was sufficient justification for a capital prosecution of a Christian:

“The method I have observed towards those who have been 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 no doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved chastisement. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.”

Trajan assured Pliny the Younger that being a Christian was sufficient for a capital prosecution.

Pliny detailed the practices of a Christian as being:

“They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively 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. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of a meal—but ordinary and innocent food.”

Unfortunately, while all of this is very interesting and gives us a great deal of information about early Christians, it does not bear upon the question of the historicity of Pontius Pilate. Thus, although Pliny is a great source for information about this age, he does not assist us in the quest to determine the historicity of Pilate.  The lack of a mention, however, of Pontius Pilate does not equate to a conclusion that Pontius Pilate did not exist.  The letter contents do not lend themselves to a discussion of Pontius Pilate.  Nor would a mention of Pontius Pilate have been appropriate.  The letter is an official letter from a Governor of a province to the Emperor asking for guidance on the law.  It would have been very out of place for such an official to mention the infamous governor in such a context, as well as of being of no import to the question being raised.  Further, it would have impolite as well as being apolitical.  Pliny the Younger demonstrated throughout his life the ability to thread the political needle and it would have been out of character for him to make a misstep here.



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