Pliny’s Letter (A.D. 112) as Historical Background for the Persecution of Christians in the Book of Revelation (part 1)

St_John_the_Evangelist_at_Patmos_(Tobias_Verhaecht)Pliny’s correspondence with Trajan, the Roman Emperor, might shed some light on the persecution of Christians in John’s seven churches, including Pergamum and Smyrna. Around A.D. 112, Pliny is the governor of Bithynia in northern Asia Minor; he writes a letter to Trajan to ask advice about what to do with people accused of being Christians. In his response, Trajan says not to seek Christians out. However, when they are accused, Pliny should examine them. If they will deny being Christians and worship the Roman gods, then Pliny is to release them. We also learn from Pliny’s letter that he asks Christians to worship an image of the Roman Emperor and that the punishment for those who refuse to deny being a Christian and to worship the Roman gods is death. In Smyrna, some Jews are the ones who are accusing Christians to the governing authorities (Rev. 2:9-10). In Pergamum, some Christians, like Antipas, are suffering death for being faithful witnesses. A local official, like Pliny, could have examined Antipas, because someone accused him of being a Christian (Rev. 2:13). Antipas’s death could have been the result of his refusal to deny being a Christian and to worship pagan gods and the image of the emperor.

The official who examined Antipas may not have proceeded exactly like Pliny did, since it is not clear that Pliny was following any well-known precedents. However, Wilken notes that Revelation 20:4 points to the possibility that a similar procedure (to Pliny’s) was already being followed when Revelation was written (A.D. 90-96). Revelation 20:4 says, “I saw the souls of those who have been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who did not worship the beast or his image” (Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 27).

Below are some relevant quotations from Pliny’s letter to Trajan and from Emperor Trajan’s response to Pliny’s letter. Notice how the type of persecution that Pliny and Trajan condone encourages Christians to worship the gods and the Emperor rather than face death. It also encourages a general renewal of worship of the gods. Think about how this relates to the book of Revelation, especially its concern for the temptation to worship idols and the Beast. All worship of idols and pagan gods is worship of the Beast (see, for example, Rev. 13:8 and comments on it in my commentary). Think also about how this relates to the Thyatira letter. Worshipping idols is the road of compromise that Jezebel encourages (Rev. 2:20).

1. His initial procedure: “Meanwhile, this is the course that I have adopted in the case of those brought before me as Christians. I ask them if they are Christians. If they admit it I repeat the question a second and third time, threatening capital punishment; if they persist I sentence them to death.”

2. The test that he develops to identify true Christians: More accusations against Christians followed the initial ones and Pliny uses a test to detect believers. He says, “All who denied that they were or had been Christians I considered should be discharged, because they called upon the gods at my dictation and did reverence, with incense and wine, to your image which I had ordered to be brought forward for this purpose, together with the statues of the deities; and especially because they cursed Christ, a thing which, it is said, genuine Christians cannot be induced to do.” On this test, see Wilken, Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 25-28.

3. The persecution of Christians leads to renewed worship of the gods (that is, the Beast): “There is no shadow of doubt that the temples, which have been almost deserted, are beginning to be frequented once more, that the sacred rites which have long been neglected are being renewed, and that sacrificial victims are for sale everywhere, whereas, till recently, a buyer was rarely to be found. From this is it easy to imagine what a host of men could be set right, were they given a chance of recantation.”

4. Trajan’s response regarding how to deal with Christians: “They are not to be sought out; if they are informed against, and the charge is proved, they are to be punished, with this reservation—that if any one denies that he is a Christian, and actually proves it, that is by worshipping our gods, he shall be pardoned as a result of his recantation.”

Sources:

1. Paul Hoskins, The Book of Revelation: A Theological and Exegetical Commentary, pp. 23 and 85 (see sources used on those pages).

2. Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (2nd edition; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 1-30 (chapter 1).

3. Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (2nd edition; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 3-4 (source for Pliny’s letter and Trajan’s response).

Wilken’s book provides a number of examples of Roman views of the early Christians.

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