I'm currently working through the letter of Pliny to Trajan concerning the early Christians in Asia Minor. Below is an excerpt of this letter from the Loeb edition, with a bibliography of literature that I am finding helpful in discerning the issues with using this as evidence for early Christianity, and how one should appropriately understand this text within its socio-historical context.
If you know of any other resources that should be added to this bibliography, please leave a comment.
Pliny, Epistles, 10.96
It is a rule, Sir, which I invariably observe, to refer myself to you in all my doubts, for who is more capable of guiding my uncertainty or informing my ignorance?
Having never been present at any of the trials of the Christians, I am unacquainted with the method and limits to be observed either in examining or punishing them, whether any difference is to be made on account of age, or no distinction allowed between the youngest and the adult; whether repentance admits to a pardon, or if a man has been once a Christian it avails him nothing to recant; whether the mere profession of Christianity, albeit without the commission of crimes, or only the charges associated therewith are punishable - on all these points I am in considerable perplexity.
In the meantime, the method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were in fact Christians; if they confessed it, I repeated the question twice, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For whatever the nature of their beliefs might be, I could at least feel no doubt that determined contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved chastisement. There were others also possessed with the same infatuation, but being citizens of Rome, I directed them to be taken to Rome for trial.
These accusations spread (as is usually the case) from the mere fact of the matter being investigated, and several forms of the mischief came to light. A placard was put up, without any signature, accusing a large number of persons by name. Those who denied they were, or had ever been, Christians, and who repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered formal worship with libation and frankincense, before your statue, which I had ordered to be brought into the court for that purpose, together with those of the gods, and who finally cursed Christ - none of which acts, it is said, those who are really Christians can be forced into performing - these I thought it proper to discharge. Others who were named by the anonymous informer at first confessed themselves Christians, and then denied it; true, they said, they had been of that persuasion but they had quitted it, some three years, others many years, a few as much as twenty-five years previously. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, and cursed Christ.
They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was that 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 perform any wicked deed, never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called opon to make good; after which it was their custom to separate, then reassemble to partake of food -- but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. Even this practice they had abandoned after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your orders, I had forbidden political associations. I therefore judged it so much the more necessary to extract the truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were styled deaconesses: but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition.
I therefore adjourned the proceedings, and betook myself at once to your counsel. For the matter seemed to me to be well worth referring to you -- especially concerning the numbers endangered. Persons of all ranks and ages, and of both sexes are, and will be, involved in the prosecution. For this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread through the villages and rural districts. It seems possible, however, to check and cure it. It is certain at least that the temples, which had been almost deserted, begin now to be frequented; and the sacred festivals, after a long intermission, are again revived; while there is a general demand for sacrificial meat, which for some time past has met with few purchasers. From hence it is easy to imagine what multitudes may be reclaimed from this error, if a door be left open to repentance.
- Barnes, T. D. “Legislation against the Christians,” The Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 58, Parts 1 and 2 (1968), 32-50.
- Benko, Stephen Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 4-14.
- de Ste. Croix, G.E.M. Christian Persecution, Martyrdom, and Orthodoxy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 110-12; 124-128.
- Downing, Gerald, “Pliny's Prosecutions of Christians: Revelation and 1 Peter,” JSNT 34 (1988), 105-23.
- Fishwick, Duncan, “Pliny and the Christians,” American Journal of Ancient History 9 (1984) 123-130.
- Harris, Murray. “References to Jesus in Early Classical Authors.” Gospel Perspectives: The Jesus Tradition Outside the Gospels. (Sheffield: JSOT, 1985), 343–68.
- Knox, J. “Pliny and 1 Peter: A Note on 1 Pet. iv.14–16 and iii.15,” JBL 72 (1953), 187–89.
- Kraemer, Jr. Casper J. “Pliny and the Early Church Service: Fresh Light from an Old Source,” Classical Philology 29.4 (Oct., 1934), 293-300.
- Sherwin-White, A.N. The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), 691-712.
- van Voorst, Robert E. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 23-29.
- Wilken, Robert L. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 1-30.