I’m currently taking a course on worship practices in the early church, and just read this (in?)famous letter from Pliny the Younger to the emperor Trajan regarding the Roman punishment of Christians around the year 112 CE.
Pliny’s letter is striking and, at times, humorous. He suggests that the primary reason he has Christians executed (after giving multiple chances for rescission) is not that they are Christians, per se, but rather because he “had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.” Apparently Pliny believed that the earliest Christians deserved to be executed simply because they were unwilling to be persuaded, not because there was anything inherently insidious about the belief system.
He mentions that some defendants, when questioned, maintained that they had been Christians at one point, but “ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years.” I found this odd—many of us today don’t typically consider the notion that early Christians sometimes left the Church. This leads to questions about how the earliest Christians functioned as a religious society: what were some of the reasons (aside from imminent torture or execution) that might cause an ancient Christian to leave the religion? If one decided to leave and come back, how were they welcomed back into the association?
Pliny’s bewilderment at the Christians’ consumption of “ordinary and innocent food” is also curious—it appears that he can’t understand why the “potluck fellowship” is so important to the early Christians, in contrast to the sacred food consumed at pagan festivals.
The closing of Pliny’s letter is also hilariously ironic: “It is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.” Is this not exactly what the earliest Christians believed God to be doing through Christ?
Additionally, his recounting of “torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses” is shocking for at least two reasons: 1) It communicates once again to the modern church that women held positions of authority within the early church, and 2) these women deaconesses were slaves, which indicates a lack of regard for social status among ancient Christians. I’m curious about what other sources might have addressed this particular passage in the past.