« PreviousContinue »
GROUND OF PAGAN PREJUDICES AGAINST CHRISTIANITY. 193
blame. I rather blame those who forsake their own country religion to embrace the Jewish; but if those people give themselves airs of sublimer wisdom than the rest of the world, and on that score refuse all communion with it, as not equally pure, I must tell them that it is not to be believed that they are more agreeable to God than other nations.” Hence among the Pagans the Jews came to be distinguished from all other people by the title of “a race of men odious to the gods.” Such was the case with the Jews, and an attention to it may help us to account for many things connected with the reception which Christianity first obtained among the Romans.
In whatever relates to the worship of the one living and true God, as well as in their opposition to the worship of all idols, the most intimate relationship exists between Judaism and Christianity. The latter arose upon the foundation-or, if you will, on the ruins of the former. The great author of Christanity not only recognized the existence of one eternal Jehovah, the first cause of all things, and the alone object of religious worship, but he showed the utmost zeal against transferring to any other the glory which is exclusively due to him. So far was the Gospel from relaxing the rigorous bonds of Judaism on this point, that, if possible, it carried the rule of duty still higher. It inculcated the necessity of all men forsaking their own national religions, and turning from the worship of dumb idols to serve the living and true God.; and hence it brought upon itself that indignation and hatred of the Pagan world which led to a series of persecutions, and deluged the empire for two centuries with the blood of the saints and the martyrs of Jesus. Hence we see how it came to pass that such mild and tolerant emperors as Trajan and Mark Antony came to be found in the first rank of persecutors. The true reason is, that Christianity forbade its friends to pour out libations or throw a grain of incense on the Pagan altars; and this unsociable, uncommunicable temper, in matters of religious worship, could be regarded by the best of them in no other light than as arising from an aversion to mankind. Universal prejudice had brought men to regard a refusal of this intercommunity as a vice which ought to be punished by the civil magistrate, though supported by the uniform testimony of Scripture.
Trajan became emperor in the year 98, and soon afterwards VOL. I.
conferred the government of the province of Bithynia on his friend, the ingenious and celebrated Pliny, one of the finest characters that ancient history can boast. In the exercise of his office as Proconsul, the Christians, against whom the severe edicts which had been issued by Nero and Domitian were still in force, were brought before his tribunal. As Pliny had never had occasion to be present at any such examinations before, the immense number of the accused, and the severity of the laws that were in force against them, appear to have struck him with surprise, and caused him to doubt how far it was proper to enforce them, without first consulting the emperor on the subject. The letter which he wrote to Trajan on this occasion, and the emperor's reply to it, have been preserved, and are among the most valuable monuments of antiquity, for the light which they pour upon the state of Christianity at the beginning of the second century. The following is Pliny's letter, which seems to have been written in the year 106 or 107 :
PLINY TO THE EMPEROR TRAJAN.
“ It is my usual custom to consult you on every point of difficulty ; for, where my own judgment hesitates, who can be more competent to direct me than yourself, or to instruct me where I am uninformed ?
“I never had occasion to be present at an examination of the Christians before I came into this province: I am, therefore, ignorant to what extent it is usual to inflict punishment, or urge prosecution. I have also hesitated whether there should not be some distinction made between the young and the old, the tender and the robust; whether pardon ought not to be offered to penitence, or whether the guilt of an avowed profession of Christianity can be expiated by the most unequivocal retractation, whether the profession itself is to be regarded as a crime, however innocent in other respects the professor may be: or whether the crimes attached to the name must be proved, before they become liable to punishment.
"In the mean time, the method I have hitherto observed with the Christians, who have been accused as such, has been as fol
LETTER FROM PLINY TO TRAJAN,
lows:-I interrogated them— Are you Christians ?' If they avowed it, I put the same question a second, and a third time, threatening them with the punishment which the law has decreed. If they persisted, I ordered them to be instantly executed ; for of this I had no doubt, whatever was the nature of their religion, that such perverseness and inflexible obstinacy certainly deserved punishment. Some, that were infected with this madness, I reserved to be sent to Rome, on account of their privileges as Roman citizens, to be referred to your tribunal.
“ In the discussion of these matters, accusations multiplying, a diversity of cases occurred. A schedule of names was sent me by an unknown accuser ; but, when I cited the persons before me, many denied that they were, or ever had been Christians; and they repeated after me an invocation of the gods, and of your image, which, for this purpose, I had ordered to be brought with the statues of the other deities. They performed sacred rites with wine and frankincense, and abjured the name of Christ ; none of which things, I am assured, a real Christian can ever be compelled to do: these, therefore, I thought proper to discharge. Others, named by an informer, at first acknowledged themselves Christians, and afterwards denied it; declaring that, though they had been Christians, they had renounced their profession, some of them three years ago, others still longer, and some even twenty years ago. All these worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and at the same time abjured Christ.
“ And this was the account which they gave me of the nature of the religion they had once professed, whether it deserves the name of crime or error: viz. that they were accustomed on a stated day to assemble before sunrise, and to join together in singing hymns to Christ as to a Deity; binding themselves as with a solemn oath, not to commit wickedness of any kind ; neither to be guilty of theft, robbery, nor adultery; never to break a promise, or keep back a deposit when called upon. The worship being ended, it was their custom to separate, and meet together again for a repast, promiscuous indeed, and without any distinction of rank or sex, but perfectly harmless ; and even from this they desisted since the publication of my edict, in which, agreeably to your orders, I forbade any societies of that sort. : ...“ That I might obtain further information, and in order to come at the truth, I thought it necessary to put to the torture two females, who were called 'deaconesses. But I could extort nothing from them, except the acknowledgment of an excessive and depraved superstition; and, therefore, desisting from further investigation, I determined to consult you; for the number of culprits is so great as to call for the most serious deliberation. Informations are pouring in against multitudes of every age, of all orders, and of both sexes, and more will be impeached; for the contagion of this superstition' hath spread, not only throughout cities, but villages also, and it has even reached the farm houses. I am, nevertheless, of opinion that it may be checked, and the success of my endeavours hitherto forbids despondency, for the [Pagan] temples, once almost deserted, again begin to be frequented ; the sacred solemnities, which had been for some time intermitted, are now attended afresh ; and the sacrificial victims, which once could scarcely find a purchaser, now, obtain a brisk sale; whence I infer; that many might be reclaimed, were the hope of pardon on their repentance absolutely confirmed.”. .
To this Letter the Emperor returned the following answer :
TRAJAN TO PLINY. “My dear Pliny, i.
"You have done perfectly right in managing as you have the matters which relate to the impeachment of the Chris. tians. No one general rule can be laid down which will apply to all cases. These people are not to be hunted up by informiers : but, if accused and convicted, let them be executed : yet with this restriction, that if any renounce Christianity, and give proof of it by offering supplications to our gods, however suspicious their. past conduct may have been, they shall be pardoned on their repentance. But anonymous accusations should never be attended to, since it would be establishing a precedent of the worst kind, and altogether inconsistent with the maxims of my government.”
REFLECTIONS ON THE STATE OF THE CHRISTIANS. 197 "I have laid both these Letters before you on account of their very interesting contents; they throw a food of light on the actual state of the Christian profession at the time they were written. Let me remind you of a few of the more prominent particulars which are suggested by them. · First, it must strike every reflecting mind that, at this early period, Christianity had made an extraordinary progress in the empire; for Pliny acknowledges that the Heathen temples had become almost desolate and forsaken of the worshippers, the animals prepared for slaughter could with difficulty obtain purchasers, and scarcely any persons came to the « sacred solemnities," as the proconsul was pleased to term them. · And we shall afterwards find a similar account given us by Tertullian of its rapid and extensive spread in Africa, towards the end of the second century.
Another thing that deserves your notice is the sanguinary edicts that were in force against the Christians, and the severe persecutions to which they were at this time exposed. We find that it was a capital offence, punishable by death, for any one to avow himself a Christian ! “I did not in the least hesitate,” says the amiable and philosophic Pliny, “ but that, whatever should appear on confession to be their faith, yet that their forwardness in avowing it, and their inflexible obstinacy in persisting so to do, would certainly entitle them to punishment.” And yet this forwardness and inflexible obstinacy, which appeared to him so unreasonable and wicked, was nothing more than what the Lord requires of all his faithful followers. Hear his own words: “ Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I confess before my Father which is in heaven ; but whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven,” Matt. x. 32; Luke xii. 8. And we see the emperor Trajan not only confirming the equity of the sentence, but enjoining the continuance of such executions, unless where Christians could be intimidated by the dread of punishment to deny their God and Saviour, and do homage to the Pagan deities. · And let us not overlook the pleasing view that is given us in these letters of the holy and exemplary lives of the Christians of that age. It appears, by the confession of apostates, that no