There is a gap in the archival records of Rome from the time of the Great Fire, July 19, 64AD, until the reign of Trajan, concerning the legal status and governmental treatment of Romans who were Christians, although there was some persecution of the Christians during the reign of Domitian.
Around 112 AD, Pliny the Younger (for more information concerning Pliny the Younger, see this Blog, A Brief Review of The Historicity of Jesus, Part IV, published July 7, 2014) was the Governor of Bithynia-Pontus. The local Greek population brought numerous charges against people they claimed were Christians. Pliny wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan detailing these complaints, what he had done to date, and seeking guidance as to how he should try Christians. Pliny wrote in Epistulae X.96:
“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.”
Pliny then detailed the practices of Christians:
“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.”
In order to determine whether the accused was a Christian, assuming that they denied being a Christian, Pliny required them to pray, offer incense, and wine to images of Trajan and the gods. In addition, they had to, and curse Christ, which Pliny said true Christians are unable to do. If they did this, then they were free to go. In addition, accused who were at one point Christians but had quit the religion, who also followed this procedure and were then free to go.
There is no precedent, in the surviving archival records of Rome, for the actions which Pliny the Younger took. That is there is no law, rescript, or senatus consultum that makes Christianity a criminal offence. Prior to this, Christians had been tried under the general laws of criminal behavior and were convicted only when they had committed a proscribed crime. Christianity, at this time, was not a proscribed cult in Rome.
Pliny the Younger’s procedure became the ‘gold standard’ as to the determination the determination of the guilt or innocence of a person being accused of being a Christian. Thus, it was Pliny the Younger, who, in essence, codified the persecution of Christians for being Christians.
This practice, which Trajan sanctioned, literally made being a Christian the offense. What was the real underlying offense? It was refusal to honor the gods, because a true Christian would not pray to the gods or offer up sacrifice to the gods. The penalty for offense to the gods was death. It did not matter who the Christian was, how he or she fit into the society, nor did it matter what specific act, if any he or she had committed. Refusal to worship the gods was the crucial offense; death was the penalty. Thus a person who renounced Christianity, but who had committed a crime, by renouncing Christianity was spared the death penalty and was set free. A Christian, who had not committed a crime, but who refused to renounce Christianity, was put to death.
In our next post, we will review why the Romans feared and persecuted the Christians.