How to Punish Christians and Influence People, by Pliny the Younger

by Joshua Paul Smith

I’m currently taking a course on worship practices in the early church, and just read this (in?)famous letter from Pliny the Younger to the emperor Trajan regarding the Roman punishment of Christians around the year 112 CE.

Pliny’s letter is  striking and, at times, humorous. He suggests that the primary reason he has Christians executed (after giving multiple chances for rescission) is not that they are Christians, per se, but rather because he “had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.” Apparently Pliny believed that the earliest Christians deserved to be executed simply because they were unwilling to be persuaded, not because there was anything inherently insidious about the belief system.

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He mentions that some defendants, when questioned, maintained that they had been Christians at one point, but “ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years.” I found this odd—many of us today don’t typically consider the notion that early Christians sometimes left the Church. This leads to questions about how the earliest Christians functioned as a religious society: what were some of the reasons (aside from imminent torture or execution) that might cause an ancient Christian to leave the religion? If one decided to leave and come back, how were they welcomed back into the association?

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