Monday, February 22, 2010

Ancient Evidence for Jesus from Non-Christian Sources - Part 2

By Michael Gleghorn

Evidence from Pliny the Younger

Another important source of evidence about Jesus and early Christianity can be found in the letters of Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan. Pliny was the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. In one of his letters, dated around A.D. 112, he asks Trajan's advice about the appropriate way to conduct legal proceedings against those accused of being Christians.[8] Pliny says that he needed to consult the emperor about this issue because a great multitude of every age, class, and sex stood accused of Christianity.[9]

At one point in his letter, Pliny relates some of the information he has learned about these Christians:

They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food – but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.[10]

This passage provides us with a number of interesting insights into the beliefs and practices of early Christians. First, we see that Christians regularly met on a certain fixed day for worship. Second, their worship was directed to Christ, demonstrating that they firmly believed in His divinity. Furthermore, one scholar interprets Pliny's statement that hymns were sung to Christ, "as to a god", as a reference to the rather distinctive fact that, "unlike other gods who were worshipped, Christ was a person who had lived on earth."[11] If this interpretation is correct, Pliny understood that Christians were worshipping an actual historical person as God! Of course, this agrees perfectly with the New Testament doctrine that Jesus was both God and man.

Not only does Pliny's letter help us understand what early Christians believed about Jesus' person, it also reveals the high esteem to which they held His teachings. For instance, Pliny notes that Christians "bound themselves by a solemn oath" not to violate various moral standards, which find their source in the ethical teachings of Jesus. In addition, Pliny's reference to the Christian custom of sharing a common meal likely alludes to their observance of communion and the "love feast."[12] This interpretation helps explain the Christian claim that the meal was merely "food of an ordinary and innocent kind". They were attempting to counter the charge, sometimes made by non-Christians, of practicing "ritual cannibalism."[13] The Christians of that day humbly repudiated such slanderous attacks on Jesus' teachings. We must sometimes do the same today.


[8] Pliny, Epistles x. 96, cited in Bruce, Christian Origins, 25; Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 198.
[9] Ibid., 27.
[10] Pliny, Letters, transl. by William Melmoth, rev. by W.M.L. Hutchinson (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1935), vol. II, X:96, cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 199.
[11] M. Harris, "References to Jesus in Early Classical Authors," in Gospel Perspectives V, 354-55, cited in E. Yamauchi, "Jesus Outside the New Testament: What is the Evidence?", in Jesus Under Fire, ed. by Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), p. 227, note 66.
[12] Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 199.
[13] Bruce, Christian Origins, 28.

< Read Part 1 | Read Part 3 >

1 comment:

  1. Another thing that Pliny's letter tells us is that Christianity was rife before the writings of the Gospels. Indicating that the silly idea that the Gospels produced Christianity to be false, but rather it was Christianity that produced the gospels.

    Good post.



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