2007-01-17

R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Pliny’s letter about the Christians — revised

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by Neil Godfrey

I have revised this 18th January to include more direct comparisons with Doherty’s treatment of the Pliny letter.

This one, like the emperor’s clothes, has too long been simply too good, too precious, to dare let anyone admit what they really see and laugh.

But before discussing the problems that Bruce bypasses or simply fails to notice, I should say now that I do conclude on a more positive note: the letter, whatever its provenance, whoever its author, does contain historical information of second century Christianity of genuine value and interest.

First, Doherty’s discussion:

I’ll begin with Doherty’s treatment of this letter of Pliny. I am sure most will find his analysis and commentary far more sober than Bruce’s discussion and my commentary.

After outlining the contents of Pliny’s letter (reason he is writing to Trajan, what he has learned about the Christians, including details of their assembly meetings, prayers, rites, oaths, and so forth, and finding them innocent of criminal activity) Doherty comments:

We might have expected Pliny to refer to the “Christ” as a man crucified in Judea as a rebel, if that were the object of Christian worship, for this would have been unusual and of some interest to the emperor. However, he does not. In any even, any information Pliny is imparting or implying in this letter he has received from Chrsitians. (p.201 of The Jesus Puzzle)

So in a few brief lines Doherty cuts to the core of the deficiency of Pliny’s letter as non-Christian evidence of Jesus. Compare Bruce’s three pages (six pages including the translations of the correspondence) of discussion elaborating on the face value of the text. Bruce is certainly deeply interested in the contents of Pliny’s letter about the Christians and never stops to question whether Trajan himself would be, let alone if it is the sort of content one could reasonably expect from a governor to his emperor regarding criminal cases worthy of death. One wonders if some orthodox scholars dismiss Doherty so quickly for fear of having their own intellectual nakedness exposed.

Compare Bruce:

Bruce typically starts with the passage itself. Had he begun with Pliny’s career background the nonsense that this letter contains would be all too apparent from the first few lines.

Although he gives background about Pliny’s uncle and how many books of letters were included in Pliny’s published collection, he does not appear to see any point in noting that the famous letter in question belongs to a collection (the tenth book) that was not published in Pliny’s lifetime. The significance of this latter point, if any, may be considered in light of both the other unfathomable anomalies in this letter and the relatively recent publication of Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions.

Bruce writes:

Pliny, who had never had any official contact with Christians during the fifty years of his life thus far, found himself obliged to deal with them in Bithynia because of the rapidity with which they were spreading in the province. (p.25)

What was the extent of this rapidity?

[T]hey had grown so numerous that the pagan temples were being neglected and the purveyors of fodder for the sacrificial animals found their livelihood threatened. (p.28)

Now:

  • if Pliny had never had any experience as a courtroom lawyer in Rome,
  • and if he had thus never heard of or enountered a Christian on trial in Rome,
  • and if he was just embarking wet behind the ears on his public career,
  • and if he had just arrived in Bithynia as a newly appointed governor,
  • and if the rapid spread of Christianity was confined uniquely to Bithynia and had been a virtual unknown quantity elsewhere despite being so strong in Bithynia that pagan temples were being neglected,
  • and if Pliny before setting out for his governorship position had been completely unaware of such a major development he was about to face,
  • and if not a single Christian had been implicated in the great fire of Rome of the previous generation,
  • and if Pliny had somehow moved in different circles entirely from his friend Tacitus (who also appears to have written with some knowledge about Christians),

then yes, we would have no difficulty in accepting that one of the very first things Pliny would have to write to Trajan about was “the (uniquely Bithynian?) Christian problem”.

But we have, rather, a Pliny problem:

  • Pliny had been a prominent lawyer in Rome for 28 years — it is therefore incredible to think that he had no knowledge of any precedents re Christians
    • Trajan’s reply failing to address any precedents in Rome or elsewhere in the empire (in particular the fire of Rome a generation earlier?) equally defies explanation.
  • Pliny had been travelling throughout Bithynia as governor for a year and a half before he saw fit to write a letter about the Christian problem — just how seriously can we take the letter’s descriptions of the seriousness of this problem if 18 months could lapse before this first and only letter addressing it?
  • Pliny begins by saying he has never seen a Christian trial so has no idea how to conduct one, and confesses his ignorance on how to deal with Christians and indeed, this is his reason for his letter to Trajan — to seek guidance. Yet in the same letter Pliny goes on to say:
    • that he has been conducting trials of Christians for some time — long enough to notice that the pagan temples are once again being frequented;
    • that he has routinely executed Christians who stubbornly refused to recant;
    • that he has routinely released those who do;
    • that he only decides to write the letter after carrying out these convictions and acquittals for some time when he happened to learn as a consequence of torturing two female slaves that they were guilty of “nothing more than a perverse superstition” (no details provided)

Conveniently for the naive reader the author fails to detail the cities affected, where the victims lived, how many Roman citizens he sent to Rome for trial, etc. Why do not more heads spin when they are hit with this illogical and utterly implausible nonsense? Biblical scholars like to insist that the coherence of the Testamonium Flavianum is evidence that it is built on a genuine original statement by Josephus about Jesus, yet blithely accept without question the incoherence of this letter.

  • Pliny lists point by point detail to demonstrate the good character and innocence of the Christians on the one hand, then reverts to stereotypical persecuter mode by pronouncing that the Christians are nevertheless guilty of the vaguely generalized charge of perverse and unspeakable superstition. How can anyone fail to see through this blatant contradiction the hand of a pro-Christian apologist awkwardly attempting to simultaneously pose as the stereotypical anti-Christian!
  • Trajan is just as confused in his reply. Christians must die: punish them if they are accused of being a Christian. Christians are harmless: do not seek to punish them.

Bruce’s discussion is blind to any of these problems. This strange contradictory letter that did not appear in Pliny’s lifetime and that raises incomprehensible questions within the context of Pliny’s career and conventional history of the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman empire (including Rome) with persecutions and court hearings by Trajan’s time, and what we know of Roman law and custom is seized as one of our earliest non-christian evidences of early Christianity. Pagan Rome’s tolerance of religious practice was well-known; the only people normally required to offer sacrifice to the emperor were those taking official government office; the liberty of Marcion himself and the rise and rise of Marcionism in Asia Minor are difficult to explain if, as Pliny says here, his policies restored pagan practices at the expense of Christianity; Justin Martyr’s apparent ignorance of Pliny’s and Trajan’s situation as a precedent in his letter pleading for tolerance to Antoninus Pius might also be seen as a problem; and the emperor soon after Trajan, Hadrian, who travelled and loved the eastern provinces especially, despite his bureaucratic and legalistic mind is not known for any follow-up ruling on Christians, let alone anything from Trajan or Pliny.

Genuine historical value nonetheless

Pliny’s letter to Trajan concerning the Christians nevertheless is of genuine historical interest in its description of an early Christian service. It matters little if that description was inserted some time after Pliny the Younger.

Bruce’s treatment in summary:

Bruce does not offer a scholarly thought provoking discussion of the Pliny letter but essentially narrates a confessional, “Look, here is more (rare indeed so oh how precious!) evidence of Christianity from a non-Christian source.” The source does contain an interesting description of early Christian practices, although it says nothing whatever about the name of Jesus. It does speak of a worship of Christ and thus could possibly reflect a Pauline (Marcionite?) theology of a spiritual or heavenly Christ deity as opposed to an earthly Jesus figure.



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  • John Goudy
    2013-01-25 17:43:42 GMT+0000 - 17:43 | Permalink

    I realise that this is a very old post, but I am confused by:
    “The emperor soon after Trajan, Hadrian, who travelled and loved the eastern provinces especially, despite his bureaucratic and legalistic mind is not known for any follow-up ruling on Christians.”
    Do you discount the reference from Eusebius and in Justin Martyr’s First Apology to Hadrian’s ca. 124 rescript to Caius Minucius Fundanus?
    See http://www.earlychurchtexts.com/public/hadrian_rescript_to_caius.htm

  • John Goudy
    2013-01-30 06:52:06 GMT+0000 - 06:52 | Permalink

    If I understand this correctly, assuming persecution occurred under Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius and that Hadrian’s rescript means that Christians should only be punished for normal crimes, a quick summary of the case against the Hadrian rescript being authentic would be:

    Tertullian doesn’t mention it and the provenance is dubious, having being found with other crudely forged rescripts in Justin’s Apology.
    If the Trajan rescript is authentic and persecution occurred from Trajan through to Marcus Aurelius, the Hadrian rescript is inconsistent as it opposes persecution.

    If however, the Trajan rescript is inauthentic, the inconsistency argument isn’t as strong, as one cannot be sure there was persecution under Trajan. It could be argued that Hadrian was being nice to Christians because he didn’t want disorder, though it could also be argued that it is unlikely that Hadrian needed to write such a rescript as it would be redundant.

    I’ve been unable to find any recent research online that disputes the Hadrian rescript and haven’t read Overbeck though.

    • 2013-01-30 06:59:04 GMT+0000 - 06:59 | Permalink

      We have a whiff of suspicion that it appears in Christian documents conveniently supporting their plea that the authorities should be nice to them. It has the same propaganda ring to it as Acts — “Hey, we Christians are the good guy. Look at the way all you Romans have experienced and treated us in the past.”

      That doesn’t prove it’s a forgery, but until we have something positive to lend it credence it does leave it under some suspicion.

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