Born in the Second Century

15. Pliny's Letter Part 6. Is This Your Homework, Pliny?

October 14, 2021 Chris Palmero
Born in the Second Century
15. Pliny's Letter Part 6. Is This Your Homework, Pliny?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The assault on Pliny's Letter about the Christians approaches its glorious conclusion. We continue the close reading and criticism of this famous text.

Anyone who listens to this episode can learn about how even on the most conservative models, there wouldn't have been enough Christians in the entire world in the time of Pliny for the events he describes to have taken place. Host Chris Palmero also examines strange literary devices and obvious anachronisms used by the forger, such as his problem-laden discussion of the Christian ceremony and worship - which appears to draw from Christian customs from a century after the purported time of writing. It's part of BORN IN THE SECOND CENTURY's implacable campaign against the great fortress of the theologians that is Pliny's Letter.

Opening reading: A.N. Sherwin-White's famous commentary on Pliny's Letter inadvertently reveals that the apologists are afraid: they, too, have doubts about this letter's authenticity.

Music: Pompeii Gray on Apple Music, Spotify, SoundCloud

00:47 - Reading: A.N. SHERWIN-WHITE, Commentary on Pliny's Letter.
23:31 - OPENING Remarks.
33:13 - Close Reading RE-INTRO.
36:17 - Close Reading CONTINUATION.
38:48 - REDCARD: Twelve Groups of Three.
43:33 - REDCARD: Persecution Trope: Confessors, Deniers, Apostates.
45:23 - REDCARD: Pliny Investigates Further.
48:02 - REDCARD: Christians Did Nothing Wrong.
51:39 - REDCARD: No Heretics?
54:13 - REDCARD: Lack of Incidence of Christianity.
1:13:43 - REDCARD: On Ceremony.
1:21:28 - REDCARD: Christ as to a God.
1:27:00 - REDCARD: The Oath.
1:32:01 - REDCARD: Ordinary and Harmless Food.
1:36:39 - REDCARD: On a Fixed Day.
1:41:47 - REDCARD: The Ban on Clubs.
1:50:53 - REDCARD: Pliny Learns More After Torture.
1:52:31 - REDCARD: Deaconesses.
1:58:57 - REDCARD: "Superstitio."
2:03:06 - CLOSING Remarks.

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[music: Intro]

A reading from the definitive commentary on Pliny's Letter to Trajan on the Christians, and Trajan's response, by A.N. Sherwin-White. 1966 AD. "It is hardly necessary to defend the genuine character of these two letters." That was a reading from Sherwin-White's commentary on Pliny. In fact, that is the first line of his commentary on the letter about Christians. Just as an aside. Imagine if you were reading a commentary on The Wasteland and the first sentence was "There's no reason to doubt that T.S. Eliot wrote this." Now, I've said many times in this series that the apologists all maintain that Pliny's Letter is genuine. And I pointed out in Episode Ten that for the most part, they don't know anything about Pliny or his letters. But they always repeat that "all scholars say that it's genuine." What they mean is, Sherwin-White said it was genuine. Sherwin-White is the guy. His commentary on Pliny's letters - he laid out the arguments, and everyone who argues for the Pliny Letter's authenticity follows his arguments, to this day. And for that reason, this series is really a dialogue between me and him. Everyone today who defends this letter is almost not even worth reading; they are all ultimately commenters in Sherwin-White's comment section. And he was a historian of ancient history, at least primarily, but he somehow was also a Christian apologist. He wrote a lot about the New Testament and early Christianity, and he was fundamentally conservative in his views of Christian origins, because he was an ardent believer. However, he was also probably the biggest expert on Pliny's letters that has ever existed. And when I started this series, I was using a smaller commentary of his as well as some of his papers, but, his major work, the full commentary on Pliny, is actually pretty rare, and I didn't have it. To find a copy of it that costs under a trillion dollars, you have to go to some fairly prodigious lengths, like you have to visit the Night Witch of the swamps of Lake Maeotis, and she'll tell you to go outside under a pink moon and recite from the Necronomicon while standing over a concoction brewed out of...rock salt from an asteroid and three blonde hairs from a horned griffin's nutsack that you had to steal from its nest atop the Mountains of Time on the frontier of Great Cathay, and, originally I figured I could get by without it but, I realized that if I'm gonna do this Pliny series, and this is gonna end up being my definitive statement on this thing, and, as I'm slowly coming to recognize, it will probably and unfortunately end up being what this show is remembered for. But if I'm gonna do this, I decided that I'm gonna do it the right way. And so, I followed the instructions of the Night Witch, and I obtained Sherwin-White's commentary on Pliny's letters, and, this is the first sentence of his discussion of the Christians letter. "It's hardly necessary to defend its genuineness." Not, "Hey folks, it's the Christian letter." No. He begins with the official slogan of Christian apologists everywhere: "There's no reason to doubt." Now, in the close reading, I've already been engaging with a lot of Sherwin-White's arguments because like I said, I had his smaller commentary, and I'll continue to engage with them, but I thought that here I would cover his introduction to the letter in his major commentary, where he lays out his key arguments.

And what is his first argument that he advances to prove the authenticity of Pliny's Letter? Well, it may not surprise you, but it's the same argument that theologians use to defend the authenticity of Paul's letters: the writing style. Now, first of all, a writer's "style" is not like their fingerprint or DNA that it would be impossible for any other writer on earth to have or to imitate. And, the Latin language in general is not like Tamarian [tuh-MAHR-ian] or something - it's highly inflected and there's only a finite amount of ways to piece words together to form a sentence. And it also shouldn't surprise you that the argument for authenticity based on style always seems to be put forward by people who are full-time academics and professors, to whom plagiarism is like one of the top five worst things that ever happened in the history of the universe, and every academic sees himself as a kind of forensic text detective when they have to suss out plagiarism from their students and now they fancy themselves to be experts on style and they're like "Yep, definitely an authentic letter of Paul - looks like his work!" And it's like - thanks Colombo. It's comforting to know that these guys are authenticating Christian letters with the same method they use to authenticate an eighteen year old's homework. [sound effect: Is this your homework, Larry?] Is this your homework, Pliny? It's not impossible to mimic someone's style, and that should be manifestly obvious, but all the more so in the ancient world, where part of one's education was to mimic the style of famous poets and writers - you're learning to do that as a child in fact, that's how you learned how to write. And we can imagine the proficiency that a literary forger would have coming out of that kinda background. And if you're gonna use "style" as an argument for something being authentic, make it your fiftieth argument or something, or bring it up only as an aside - by no means should you ever be using it as your first argument. It actually reminds me of that thing from Muslim apologetics, where it says that the Quran has to be the true word of God because it's written in such a beautiful style, which not even the best poets could imitate - I guess, other than the poets who wrote it in the first place but - needless to say, Sherwin-White would not appreciate someone arguing that the Quran has to be the word of God because it's written in a pretty style. So we can dispense with this argument on style and I never wanna hear it again. Style is useful for identifying interpolations, but it can't prove a writer's identity. I've used style arguments to suggest that Galatians had five separate writers but notice how I didn't thereby try to demonstrate who those writers actually were. At the end of the day, they were just "some guys." And Pliny's Letter was forged by "some guy."

But the next argument that Sherwin-White gives is a pretty intriguing one, actually. He says that Pliny was very exact in his "technical language and usage" when talking about Roman legal procedures, and a forger wouldn't be likely to do that on his own. Here are the examples that he gives: "the crimes associated with the name," which we already talked about in the last episode as being a Christian formula. "I led them away," to be executed. Don't see why it would take a lawyer to be familiar with a term like that...I mean I get that lawyers in the ancient world had certain specialized training but it's not like you had to be a wizard to be familiar with the fairly basic terminology that's used in this letter. To say nothing of the fact that Tertullian, who is on the short list of possible forgers of this thing, was clearly very familiar with legal terminology and may have been trained as a lawyer - was certainly trained as a, rhetorician. Also, the Roman playwright Plautus used this same expression that Pliny uses, in his play "The Prisoners" from the third century BC, and he was decidedly not a lawyer - in fact he was supposedly a carpenter before treading the boards, so to speak. Um, "Because they were Roman citizens I remitted them to the city," I mean, we talked extensively about the Roman citizens thing last time and I in fact think that the forger was actually confused here - he seems to be aware that Roman citizens would be treated differently but he defaults to having them shipped to Rome like Ignatius was and like Paul was, instead of appealing to Trajan in his actual presence. And Sherwin-White gives more examples in a similar vein but, here's where he introduces one of his main arguments for authenticity when he says, quote, "Above all, where could a forger have learned about the special edict against collegia, which is not specified elsewhere in Book Ten?" What he's talking about is where the apostate Christians told Pliny that they'd given up their weekly meetings after Pliny had banned social clubs, following Trajan's instructions. And it's a good question, that Sherwin-White asks. And when I read [red] that I was like "Damn, guess I need to end this Pliny series." And so I started to close the book sadly, just kind of desultorily flipping back through the pages, and wouldn't ya know it, through my tears I glimpsed, Pliny's Letter 93, only three installments prior to the Christians one, and in it, Trajan says: "If the citizens of Amisos are allowed by their own laws to form a benefit society, there's no reason why we should interfere: especially if the contributions aren't used for riotous and unlawful assemblies, but to relieve cases of hardship among the poor. In all other cities that are subject to our own law these institutions must be forbidden." So the answer to the question of how a forger could learn about Trajan's edict against social clubs is that he read [red] about it on, like, the previous frickin' page. Now if you remember in Episode 13 I wondered why the Christians of the fifth century put the forged Pliny Letter in the specific place that they did within the collection. And I said that one reason could be that Pliny during this leg of his journey was out in the burgs, and so they felt safe sticking this Christian letter there as opposed to having this whole saga take place in Nicaea or Nicomedia which had a certain cachet, and so it would have raised questions - like Christians living there in the forger's time could've said, "Hey, why didn't we know anything about this? Why isn't any of this preserved in our records?" But actually, the likeliest reason as to why this Christians letter ended up as Letter 96 - as opposed to say Letter 42 or Letter 3 or something - was that the fraudsters who slipped it in at that place were unsure whether Trajan's statement, that I just read [red], was a standing law, or something that he literally just came up with in that one specific communication with Pliny, and in the Christians letter, indeed, as Sherwin-White says, Pliny brings up Trajan's ban against social clubs. And therefore the Christian compiler figured that it's probably safest to put the Christians letter as soon after that one as possible. And if you look at the flow of Pliny's Letters - Letter 92 was him asking Trajan whether the city of Amisos could form a benefit society, Letter 93 is Trajan responding to that and basically saying "I-D-G-A-F, but make sure that you prohibit benefit societies everywhere else according to our law," Letter 94 is Pliny asking Trajan to let Suetonius have the privilege of kid's meal prices at Burger King, Letter 95 is Trajan agreeing to that but bein' a real jerk about it, and of course Letter 96 is the Christians letter, where, Trajan's edict against clubs is prominently mentioned. So what I'm saying is that the Christians letter itself was indeed forged in the 190's but as a standalone letter. It ended up in Tertullian's compilation book, as I'll talk about in a minute. But it wasn't part of what we would call the manuscripts of Book Ten. But it was placed there by Christians in the fifth century, and they made their decision to put it in this specific place based not only on what I said about the safe obscurity of the places where Pliny was writing from but much more importantly, because of the fact that Trajan had just got done talking about his ban of clubs, in Letter 93, and they weren't sure whether that was something that Trajan had just come up with in Letter 93, or whether it predated it, and so...we find quite the opposite of what Sherwin-White is contending it's really ignorance that governs the mention of Trajan's edict here, not expertise. And of course, for my theory to work, Book Ten had to have existed and been in circulation at the time of the forgery, so that the forger could have read Letter 93, well, it's a good job then that in Episode Ten I stated that our working position would be that Book Ten is genuine and early in some form, with the exception of the Christians letters.

But when it comes down to it, the main argument that Sherwin-White gave for the letter's authenticity is that Tertullian talks about in the year 197 AD. In his Apology book. And at the end of the day, Tertullian's supposed use of Pliny's Letter is probably the only relevant argument for its being genuine. That's why, in this series, it was the very first thing that I addressed, it was like a "first strike," like in the Cold War. And I pointed out that in Tertullian's discussion of Pliny's Letter - as even Sherwin-White points out - he doesn't appear to be working off of the same text that we see in our modern editions of Pliny, and not only that, but all the indications in his discussion of it point to it being a Christian forgery that he had found in a lost florilegium of pagan testimonies about the Romans' treatment of Christians. And please see the full discussion in Episode 10 for more on that, but, whatever Tertullian was talking about, whatever he was doing when he discussed Pliny, should be one of the great mysteries of the scholarship of early Christian origins. I'm damn curious about it myself - in fact, Tertullian should do an Ask Me Anything - you know how on Reddit they have the various features, like "Ask Me Anything," or "Am I the Asshole" - well it'd be pointless for Tertullian to do "Am I the Asshole," because in every single scenario the answer would be "yes," but, I would ask him specifically where he got his information about the Pliny and Trajan correspondence because it raises more questions than it answers if he actually had the genuine letters in front of him. You know how they say, "Which historical figures would you invite to dinner," I would invite this man, Tertingulus, and my one and only question would be, "Dude. What in the [thee] blue hell were you referencing when you talked about Pilate converting to Christianity, and Pliny the Younger when he ruled a province and drove some Christians from their steadfastness." But he also brings up about four other documents in the same Apology book, all of which share similar themes, all of which have to do with the Roman persecution of Christians, all of which end up with the Romans prescribing a form of light treatment of the Christians, and you have to wonder why theologians have no issues with declaring those four other documents to be forgeries but not this one.

I was asked recently by a Christian apologist in a Facebook group: what do I have to say to the fact that the scholarly consensus is that Pliny's letter about Christians is genuine. Here's the thing. Always remember, that, when these theologians or even historians are analyzing these documents, it doesn't really occur to them to set their analysis aside for a moment and say "Why don't I write up a big fifty thousand word demonstration that Pliny's letter is genuine." In many cases, as I think I'm showing, forgery is a better explanation for these documents that better fits the evidence. But theologians are busy writing papers like "Why Pliny used a specific verb in line 12." If they were able to demonstrate and to believe that this letter is actually a forgery, then the next thing they would have to do is click and drag and highlight all the contents of their work computer and drag them to the Recycle Bin because all the work that they do is based on the fundamental assumption that these documents are genuine. And no one has really ever done a scholarly, line by line demonstration that Pliny's Letter is genuine since Sherwin-White, since 1966 - if he can even be said to have done that. And no one has ever, I mean ever, done a thorough analysis proving the authenticity of the Tacitus passage about Christians. And remember that these theologians do research, and write papers, for a living; they're not doing this for the pursuit of truth. And if you get into areas like "Paul's letters were possibly forged, Pliny's letter was possibly forged," then you're really undermining everything you and your field stand for and everything that your career's based on. And then it also gets into weird political territory, like professional respect. Because lot of these theologians - these academics - respect one another as mentors and colleagues, and when you start straying too far from the basic assumptions of the field it could rightly be construed as a slap in the face to those mentors and colleagues. I remember in one of Bart Ehrman's books he talks about a former student of his who was out to demonstrate that the Josephus passage was a forgery, and he played up the person's youth - went out of his way to call him a "graduate student" - and kind of implied that this was part of his rebellious phase, kind of his Rumspringa, and y'know, Bart Ehrman was like, "His paper was intriguing, but I'm afraid it didn't pass muster." And Ehrman of course name-checked Alice Whealey and some other mainstreamers who'd wrote against the paper and shot it down. The academy closed ranks. 

But here, the hypothesis that a Christian forger created this document in the late 100's AD explains everything. Otherwise, we're just going to be confused by all the weird problems in this text, and, here's something else we need to talk about: if you ask most people who are into this stuff to describe Pliny's Letter, they usually say something like this: "Pliny was presiding over trials of Christians but, while he was conducting the trials, more information came to light, and he wasn't sure exactly how to go about conducting the trials in light of all the new information, and so he asked Trajan for advice." That is a summary that one can derive only from the barest surface level reading of this thing. Because what we in fact have, is a document that assumes that Christianity is illegal but at the same time doesn't know whether it's illegal, or why. We have a letter written by a pagan, but at the same time it contains allusions to Christian martyria written a century later. We have a document written at a time in which we're told that the Romans confounded Christians with Jews, but at the same time it shows no knowledge that Christianity is even remotely related to Judaism. We have a letter written by a man who usually takes careful note of his surroundings and tells us precisely where he's writing from, but at the same time this specific letter seems like it was written in the Sargasso Sea. A letter that declares that Christianity is somehow a mortal threat, but at the same time treats it with kid gloves when describing it, or happily reporting that it doesn't seem that these people were doing anything wrong. A letter written by a famous Roman statesman that supposedly circulated widely in the Empire, but at the same time only one person can possibly be said to have read [red] it for fourteen entire centuries. A letter that mysteriously reflects Christian stereotypes about persecution that were still in currency eight decades after its purported date of composition. The hypothesis of a Christian forger who composed Pliny's Letter as a standalone text, that made its way into a curious little florilegium that was used by Tertullian, and was eventually added to the main body of the letters in the fifth century - this explains all these strange elements in the letter. And remember - there's nothing preventing this! No prohibitively early testimony, no earlier citations, certainly no archaeological testimony. At the end of the day, and you and I and everyone else no matter what they say - everyone recognizes this in their hearts - the only real argument is "it seems authentic." And I want to make one thing clear - and never forget this. Pliny's letter is a fake, but - if Pliny the Younger did write about Christians to Trajan in the year 112 - that letter would not be something that Christian apologists would wanna read. Because Christianity would have barely existed at the time, and if Pliny did have occasion to encounter Christians, it would be - in the eyes of modern theologians - a perverse and heterodox faith that he'd be describing. He would show a lack of development, a lack of consensus, syncretism with local pagan religions, syncretism with rabbinic Judaism. He would in fact reveal that the Romans didn't have any prior knowledge of this sect, dashing to pieces the myths of the persecutions by Nero and Domitian. He would show that they lacked authoritative books other than the Jewish scriptures, he would show that Christians were more inclined to drop the dime on their sectarian opponents than to band together in solidarity and die for the name. And his investigation of Christianity would be the first such investigation ever undertaken by a Roman official, and his question to Trajan would be, not some ridiculously byzantine query about  whether we should try them for the name or the associated crimes, but rather, does this perverse syncretic cult require countermeasures to be taken against it. It would be brutal and upsetting to read. A far cry from the nice, neat, peaceful orthodoxy with its willing martyrs banding together to eat an innocent meal, which is itself a fantasy concocted at the writing tables of the late second century catholic theologians. And I think that the apologists recognize this, somewhere in the recesses of their minds, with their shrill vehemence in defending Pliny's Letter. They have a doubt. They know that something's wrong with this letter. And we see that even in the first sentence of Sherwin-White's commentary on it. When we read [reed] it, we're reminded of what they said about the brain bug at the end of the movie: It's afraid.

[music: Chime]

You're listening to Born in the Second Century, and it's now "five PM" on October 13, 2021. This is Episode 15 of the regular series which is a...grand exposé of Christianity's late origin, hosted by Chris Palmero. The music for today's broadcast was provided by the recording group Pompeii Gray. Pompeii Grey has posted a new album of music from this telebroadcast which can be streamed on Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, and YouTube. It's free streaming on most of those. And I've put more information about them into the episode description for each show.

Also for those unaware, the episode description for each show also includes "chapters," on some platforms - at least on Apple Podcasts it does. And this allows you to essentially skip around to different parts of the episode. It's all part of the painstaking preparation that I do for this.

And speaking of, I would also like to announce the foundation of Born in the Second Century's Patreon page. It can be found at It's available for anyone who enjoys the show and wants to contribute to its improvement. Now, specifically, the ultimate goal is to do more shows, and I can once it makes economic sense to do that. What I would really like to do is a mainline Born in the Second Century show every other week, and in the weeks in between I want to do a sort of laid-back commentary on a specific Christian text or even a book by a theologian, and ideally I wanna to discuss apologetics materials and podcasts and refute them from the standpoint of Christianity having a late origin, but in the meantime, I'm always looking for ways to improve the show in its existing format. I'm looking at better soundproofing and audio quality, but the main expense is always the books and research materials, and the academic papers and databases. I often say that when it comes to books that even if I wasn't doing the show, I would probably end up buying those anyway, because I love the material, and if I weren't doing an actual podcast then "Born in the Second Century" would just be me reading those books, developing my theories, and accosting people on the street or steering conversations at parties and weddings to the late origins of Christianity and then dominating the conversation, kind of like when Homer Simpson learned all about Thomas Edison and that's all he wanted to talk about with everyone, but, supporting the show will allow it to become more of a force for stability in this world than it already is. So please consider it and remember that my goal here is to expand; I don't have any other goals than doing this show. My life is basically working eight hours at the work factory, and come back and do Christianity stuff basically. And before we begin the show today I want to welcome our first converts into the wisdom of God hidden in a mystery. I don't want you to be unaware, brothers, that Stu has made the pledge, and is now aware that Christianity was born in the second century. I boast about Emilia, and my boasting about her has not been empty. Lucas has provided seed to the sower. Todd has made an abundance for every good deed, as it is written. And because of Scott, we overflow with many thanksgivings. Those were quotes from Second Corinthians 9, which was a secondary addition to that letter that was added by an editor, and, I feel confident that I'm using this material in the way that he intended.

But before we move forward today, I need to issue some clarifications on the last show. I actually need to go back and issue another Redcard to Pliny; I feel like he doesn't have enough yet. When I was reading the letter last time, in the English translation portion I used a certain phrase that I think wasn't as clear as it could have been. It was the part where Pliny said that he killed the confessing Christians for being obstinate, and he justified it by saying, "I had no doubt that whatever the nature of their creed, inflexible obstinacy oughtta be punished," that's the translation that I read [red] on air, but an even more accurate translation of that phrase, "qualecumque esset quod faterentur," would be, "whatever it was that they were admitting." So Pliny literally said that he executed the Christians because, quote, "I had no doubt that whatever it was that they were admitting to, inflexible obstinacy oughtta be punished -" it's actually even worse than I made it out to be in Episode 14. I said that the forger need to have Pliny kill Christians because that's what the Persecution Trope dictates. But because Pliny said that he didn't know what the charge was, he had to make up the spurious reason of obstinacy as to why he executed them. And the forger here appears to be admitting how ridiculous it sounds by having Pliny essentially say "Whatever they're guilty of, it's probably bad." Again. The kind of thing that only makes sense to a contemporary Christian who is familiar with the idea that Christians are killed by the Romans as a matter of course, and accepts that, but totally incomprehensible in the very context of this letter, if we're to accept it as genuine, in which Pliny is writing to the emperor to get a sense of what the very charge should be. Also in the last episode I mentioned that the forger of Pliny's Letter was pulling his punches by referring to Christianity by using the tame term "amentia," or "madness." "Madness" is also the term that the Christian forgery called the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs also uses and puts into the mouth of the Roman persecutor - although there it's "dementia" as opposed to "amentia." So here's an example of how the word "dementia" was used in Latin literature, it's Julius Caesar, the Gallic Wars, quote: "Caesar concluded that waiting until the enemy's forces were augmented and their cavalry had returned, would be the greatest dementia." En quote. So when applied to Christianity, we can see that it's negative indeed, but too negative. Right? I like to imagine a Christian cleric who tells his scribe, "OK go forge an anti-Christian letter in the name of a pagan." And he comes back with his first effort and he has the pagan say things like "Yeah I can't wait until we eliminate this stupid, stupid, dumb, stupid religion where they make you write for sixteen hours a day," and the cleric horse-whips him and makes him try again but use milder language this time. And you can see that in pretty much all the testimonies about Christians by pagans except that of Lukian, y'know, the one genuine one. Either they're way too hilariously over the top in condemning Christianity, or they're giving them a love-tap. 

Also in Episode 13 I talked about Pliny's use of the term "Christian" and I said that if the term originated as a slur among Latin-speakers, that that could make sense if the letter was genuine. And Pliny would actually be the very first Roman to ever use it, at least that we have documented evidence of. However. Please note that in Pliny's own testimony, the people that he's trying and interrogating are also calling themselves Christians. So it isn't enough to say, "Well, it makes sense that Pliny would be throwing around the term Christian, it's a Latin slur, but he's a Latin speaker who has negative attitudes towards Christians so it makes sense." No. You also have to account for why the Christians who are on trial are also answering to the term Christian - and not saying "hey we should be called brethren, we should be called saints, we should be called Jews." Makes much more sense to posit this as a late forgery that's using an anachronism, rather than go to these lengths to try and explain why everyone happens to be using the term Christian or why or what. 

But today we continue our close reading of Pliny's Letter about the Christians and Trajan's response.

Supposedly written in 112 AD, and therefore supposedly one of the earliest external witnesses to the Christian religion. But I'm maintaining that it was actually forged by a Christian cleric of the late second century who wanted to influence the legal discourse surrounding the persecution of Christians by the Romans, whether that persecution was real, exaggerated, or imagined. A few times on this show I've mentioned close readings and I plan to do them for all the biblical texts as well. I think that's one thing that's sorely lacking on the Christian apologetics podcasts that I listen to. Maybe if they would cut out that awkward chatter that they all do at the beginning about beer and football and fantasy football which like seventy-five percent of them do for some reason, they'd have more time to do a close reading. 

But, we're going to continue through the letter and provide a running commentary by means of our Redcards, our specific arguments against the letter's authenticity.

In making our way through this letter, let's always our key question in mind - whether or not it's impossible to view it as a forgery. Back after this.

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When we last left Pliny the Younger, he had encountered two distinct groups of Christians. The first group, which was brought before him by a prosecutor, all confessed their faith. The second group, brought to his attention by an anonymous pamphlet, all denied their faith. From this, we learned that policing in the Roman Empire was more effective than even the Pre-Crime unit from Minority Report which was set in the year 2054. Pliny, who in his letter indicates that he doesn't know practically anything about Christians and doesn't know what the charge usually is, nonetheless efficiently executed the confessing Christians. Well he said that he executed them for being obstinate after he asked them three times if they were a Christian. How were they obstinate. You don't even know what the charge is. It would be like if an American judge said to the defendant, "State your name," and he said it and the judge was like "I hereby sentence you to life in prison." He sentenced them to death for answering a question truthfully. Even one of the commentators that I'm using, Wynne Williams, remarks on how strange that is. Does that lead him question whether the letter's authentic? Nope. By the way, here there's another massive contradiction in Pliny's Letter that immediately exposes it as a forgery. Notice how he said about the confessing Christians that he asked them three times, "warning them of the punishment." Then when they persisted he executed them for obstinacy. So, when you were warning them of the punishment, what was it a punishment for? Punishment for what? I mean surely it wasn't a punishment for "obstinacy." But by the logic of this letter, it also couldn't have been a punishment for being a Christian, because Pliny started out by saying that he doesn't know what the specific charge is. The forger of this letter believes that Christians are punished by the Romans simply for being Christians, but he wants to change that in a certain specific way, and the vehicle that he employs to bring that about is a letter from a Roman official whom he depicts as not knowing anything about Christianity, almost as if he's learning about it in realtime and seeing himself how contradictory the Roman treatment of Christians is. And then he can say to the emperor like, "Is this right? Should we be doing this?" But you see how it creates all these contradictions when he also has that same official behaving like the stereotypical Roman persecutor that he's familiar with from the Christian literature, it makes no sense. Anyway Pliny executes the confessing Christians for no reason, or a ridiculous reason, and then for the denying Christians, he - the first person to ever use the term Christian, the first person to ever successfully distinguish Christians from Jews, the first person to put the question to the Christians multiple times in their trials, also becomes the first person to prove that the Christians denied their faith by compelling them to worship the traditional gods and the image of the emperor. All in a day's work for Pliny. We continue now with the close reading. Pliny, activate!

Alii ab indice nominati, esse se Christianos dixerunt, et mox negauerunt; fuisse quidem - sed desisse: quidam ante triennium, quidam ante plures annos, non nemo etiam ante uiginti. Hi quoque omnes et imaginem tuam, deorumque simulacra uenerati sunt: et Christo male dixerunt. Adfirmabant autem...hanc fuisse summam uel culpae suae, uel erroris, quod essent soliti stato die ante lucem conuenire; carmenque Christo quasi deo dicere secum inuicem...seque sacramento non in scelus aliquod obstringere...sed ne furta ne latrocinia ne adulteria fidem depositum adpellati abnegarent. Quibus peractis, morem sibi discedendi fuisse, rursusque coeundi ad capiendum cibum, promiscuum tamen, et innoxium: quod ipsum facere desisse post edictum meum, quo secundum mandata tua hetaerias esse uetueram. Quo magis necessarium credidi, ex duabus ancillis, quae ministrae dicebantur, quid esset ueri, et per tormenta quaerere. Nihil aliud inueni, quam superstitionem prauam et immodicam.

Others, named by an informer, said that they were Christians and then denied it; they said that they'd in fact been Christians but had given it up, some three years before, some more years earlier than that, and a few even twenty years ago. All these also paid homage to your image and to the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ. They maintained, however, that this was the sum of their guilt or error: that they'd been in the habit of gathering together on a fixed day before dawn, and of singing antiphonally a hymn to Christ as if to a god, and of binding themselves by oath, not to some wickedness, but not to commit acts of theft or robbery or adultery, not to falsify a trust, nor to refuse to return a deposit when called on to do so. When these ceremonies had been completed, they said it had been their custom to disperse and to meet again to take food - but ordinary and harmless food. They said that they'd given up doing even this after my edict, in which, in accordance with your instructions, I'd banned hetaerias. So I believed it to be all the more necessary to ascertain what the truth was from two slave women, who were called deaconesses, and under torture. I found nothing other than a depraved and extravagant superstition.

En quote. Redcard. Peculiarities of Style. Listen, to what I'm gonna tell you now. When you stare at Pliny's Letter to Trajan long enough, you start to see some strange things. Like for example, we learn that the author's favorite number is three. Because, Pliny asks three questions to Trajan: whether age matters in the trials, whether repentance is sufficient, whether the name itself should be punished. Pliny encounters three types of Christians: confessors, deniers, apostates. These Christians are accused in three different ways: delation, libellus, index. Pliny asks the confessors whether they're Christians, three times. Pliny has the deniers perform three acts: invoke the gods, offer wine and incense, curse Christ. The apostates give three different time durations for when they gave up their faith. One of which is, three years. The apostates did three things during their dawn meets: sing to Christ, bind themselves with an oath, and disperse and come back again to take harmless food. In the oath that's sworn by the apostates, they're forbidden from doing five things, but when those five things are listed, it's in the form of three commands: don't commit, don't falsify, don't refuse. Pliny says that the Romans are threatened by Christianity in three ways: age, class, sex. Pliny says that the "contagion" of Christianity has spread to three places: towns, villages, farms. But Pliny is optimistic that Christianity might still be stopped, and for this, he gives three pieces of evidence: the temples are back online, the customary rites are being renewed, and the animal victims are being sold again. And lastly, Trajan gives three directives to Pliny: don't seek them out, if prosecuted they should be punished, and anonymous pamphlets ought not to have any place.

Well. I said that this letter was forged by a Christian. But, what would attract a Christian to the number 3. Hmm. Cough cough, "trinity," cough cough. I dunno, that's what I wrote down in my notes - oh no I see wh - I get - I was doin', like, a thing? OK - [cough] Trinity! But I mean, even if this use of twelve groups of three is not necessarily meant to evoke the trinity, this letter is way too short for there to be a valid excuse for this. The only counter-argument that I would entertain is that this letter was edited prior to publication. Heavily! But there's no evidence of that, no textual evidence, that Pliny cleaned up the letters in Book Ten to make them more "literary" before publication. And, added to which, if we are to believe that someone worked over this text to such a degree to artistically paint this beautiful word picture with these carefully crafted groups of three, then it creates questions as to what the hell the text originally said. And make no mistake - this is not one of those documents that the theologians are content to summarize, they pore over every single word of this thing and perform exegesis on it because it's a massive source for early Christianity. But let's also posit for the sake of argument that Pliny did write this letter and that Christianity was the world-denying threat that he claims that it was. In that case, it's interesting that he took the time to create a word painting with this letter, instead of scrawling it on the side of a pigeon and sending it flying off to Trajan right that second. I mean, don't even bother writing a message and tying it to the pigeon's hands just write it on the actual pigeon - no time to lose. Now, when I noticed this thing about the groups of three, I basically posted it everywhere, and I got a response from an apologist, and you'll never believe what this cat said - it was on the Bible Geek Listeners page. He said that "Pliny is simply using the Folkloric Rule of Three." Like, how in fairy tales, certain things are grouped in threes and it's like, this is the typical response to any problem in any ancient book having to do with Christianity. If there's something weird in it, just claim that it's an example of ancient storytelling or rhetoric and move on, because by saying that, you hope to intimidate the opponent because they're, "Well, I thought I was on the right track in criticizing this Christian document, but now it turns out that I have to go get a master's degree in Literature to really comprehend it." But if you're looking for evidence that this Pliny Letter is a literary creation, it is here. And, the forger clearly had a lot of time on his hands; very much misemploying his leisure time here. Moving on.

Our cup runneth over with Redcards and we bestow another one upon Pliny for, the Persecution Trope. We talked about this last time - when he encounters the Christians it's in three distinct groups: the Confessors, the Deniers, and the Apostates. And so we've covered this, and we talked about imagining Pliny making his way through a videogame - Pliny's Nightmare - and these three groups of Christians and their three distinct accusation types are like three individual minibosses that he encounters and has to figure out how to beat each one. Well now we've encountered the third and final miniboss: the Apostates. And these are former Christians, who have left the faith well before Pliny began his investigation. And they have their own unique accusation type: an informer, or "index" in Latin. Now Pliny in fighting this miniboss commits the classic mistake that a lot of videogame players make - he uses the lessons he learned from the last miniboss and applies it to this one. In this case, back when he was facing down the deniers, he ingeniously developed a special test procedure to get them to offer libations to the gods and deny their faith. He tries it again on the apostates, but, it's not as effective. Yes, he gets them to deny Christ but, he gets the sense that this isn't really the right solution. Pliny is tired of all the killing, he's tired of pouring out wine by the boatload to give to the deniers so that they can offer it to the gods, it's time for him to take a rest, and at this point in his labors, he actually has occasion to talk to the Christians and learn more about them. And he finds out that the real way to tackle this problem, is not to look at what the Christians are doing, but to look within himself. In other words, when he's facing this miniboss, Pliny learns that he and the Roman Empire are actually the real miniboss. And if that sounds a bit confusing, I'll no doubt clear it up once I issue this next Redcard.

And the Redcard is for Peculiarities of the Situation. It's one of the strangest things about this letter, and it's gonna provide us with a major clue as to the forger's intent. Let's review the scenario up to this point. Pliny killed the confessors. He put the deniers to the test. He also now puts the apostates to the test. But now he's somehow suddenly interested in what Christians believe and what they do. Did he not think to inquire about this from the confessors and the deniers? I mean I guess he couldn't ask the confessors what Christians believe since he was so busy waxing the shit outta them, but certainly the deniers - on their way out the door from offering the libations he could've said "Hey, before you go, since I know you have nothing scheduled at the moment, come back and chat for a minute. I want to get to the bottom of this belief system - I know you don't profess it - that much is clear - but think of helping me as part of your penance, so to speak." And remember up until that point, other than the brief comment about how no true Christians would ever curse Christ, Pliny hadn't mentioned any Christian beliefs or practices at all. Now. By the logic of this letter and what Pliny is trying to do with it, which is basically to get Trajan to approve his sacrifice test, the letter could have ended after he let the deniers go free. He could have still said the stupid thing about how the temples were all bankrupt, and ended the letter asking for Trajan's advice, he didn't need to take us or Trajan on a journey where he talks about how the lapsed Christians instructed them in the wisdom of their ways like Pocahontas lecturing John Smith. I mean, Pliny was pretty much done at this point. I killed half of 'em, I let half of 'em go - I'm not sure if it was right to let that half of 'em go, so please clarify. But you see, if the letter ended there, we wouldn't get the opportunity to learn about how peaceable and innocent the Christians were. I mean, this further investigation doesn't help Pliny's argument to Trajan in the slightest - in fact it severely detracts from it in every possible sense. But to us, the readers, and to the audience of early Christians like Tertullian who were the primary consumers of this forgery, this is really the only chance that the forger has to drive home as much Christian apologetic as he can in order to appeal to them - he's gonna drill that Christian apologetic through the reader's head like Anton Chigurh with that cattle gun. So the forger has Pliny pause the trials at this point and conduct the investigation so he can whack in all his pro-Christian propaganda, because otherwise he has no place to put it. And speaking of.

We got another Redcard for Pliny the Younger's ass: Low Key Christian Propaganda, when he reports that the apostate Christians did nothing wrong. This also happens to be a Redcard for Intertextuality, so two in one. The critic Neil Godfrey pointed out some interesting parallels between Pliny's statements here to some famous New Testament phrases. Pontius Pilate in the gospels of Matthew and Mark asks the crowd what evil Jesus committed. He found no evidence of any crime; in fact in the gospel of Luke he says, "You brought this man to me as someone who's turning away the people. And look. I, after I examined him before your face, found nothing criminal in this man of what you're accusing against him. Not even Herod did. Because he sent him up to us. And look, nothing worthy of death is having been acted by him." There's nothing I love more than reading the gospels literally word for word instead of those translations that deliberately try to make them sound more august. Lastly the gospel of John: "Pilate says to them, You take him and you crucify him. Because I'm not finding a cause of incrimination in him." The received Christian literary device was that Christians are innocent no matter what. It's interesting that when Justin, Minukius, Athenagoras, Tertungulus - all these people say that the Romans accuse Christians of monstrous, unspeakable crimes, but they don't even so much as slightly concede that some Christians somewhere could be guilty of those crimes. They don't even take the law of averages into account. No - to them, true Christians might be accused of anything you can conjure up, but they're never guilty of anything in fact the more you accuse them of, the less likely they are to be guilty. That is a doctrinal position. It is a belief that is spelled out clearly in Pliny's letter, Paul's letters, the John letters, the Shepherd of Hermas, the letter of James - by the way, did you notice, and I've pointed this out once before - Pliny's Letter has the same exact problem that the gospels do. Because in the gospels, exactly what crime is Jesus being charged with? I once read [red] an article that talked about how a team of modern lawyers analyzed the gospels and they concluded that whatever happened at Jesus' trial, it was a miscarriage of justice, that much is clear, they said. And that's great, but, exactly where and when did these lawyers think these trials took place? They didn't take place in Bible Land, during the Bible Time Period, they took place in the Roman Empire, which, whatever could be said about it, was fairly obsessed with procedure. Generations of Romans made their names by arguing cases at law; it was practically their national pastime. But in the New Testament and in Pliny's Letter, everything is suddenly ad hoc. But what the forger was doing here was of course, adapting the received Christian literary device. Whatever happened with Christians in the trials Pliny was conducting against them, they were innocent, and the story or the through-line of this letter is actually Pliny recognizing their inherent innocence. And that inherent innocence by the way, is one of the trademarks of the fake Tacitus passage about Christians in Annals Book 15 as well. It's one of the telltale signs of Christian fabrication. So two Redcards here. Pliny' trouble. Moving on. 

Just a quick hit here; a Redcard for Peculiarities of the Situation: were there no heretics in Bithynia? If you read the writings of the second century theologians, they're finding a heretic around every corner. They're like Grampa Simpson when he kept seeing Death. But the apostate Christians that are brought in by Pliny are just a faithful, homogeneous band of brothers - they all met together, they all had meals together, they don't intimate that "Hey that codger around the block calls himself a Christian but he ain't really a Christian - he's one of them jagoff Nicolaitans." If we accept that the book of Revelation is genuine and early, it was also written in Asia Minor, about fifteen years before this and that writer appears to envision himself as surrounded by heretics. Think about those letters in the book of Revelation for a minute - this guy, the author, has the opportunity to have Jesus write letters to seven churches. Could have him say literally anything. Could reveal some cool information about heaven for example. Instead, seventy-five percent of what he writes about is the bog standard second century Christian griping about those damn heretics. Would Jesus not have something more important to talk about? Walter Bauer, the great theologian - I would almost call him a radical - in his famous study of orthodoxy and heresy in earliest Christianity he essentially said that you'd be hard-pressed to find a single orthodox Christian east of the Sangarius River. Well, in Pliny's Letter, the Christians are hanging out in perfect solidarity, almost as if it's a Golden Age of some kind, and it probably would have been, to a forger writing eighty years later. At least, he takes the opportunity to portray it as such. Now, I have been saying in this series that the forger very much had heretics in mind in all this, and, I think that his way of dealing with heretics is to imply that those were the Christians who denied their religion outright, after all - as I've said - that was the common belief of the Christians in the late 100's - heretics are ready to deny Christ for a hot dog and a soda. And in real life, he's concerned with this idea that a mass persecution could envelop heretics and then continue to intensify and spread to him and his brethren, so his very object in forging Pliny's Letter is to have the Roman state offer an "out" to the heretics - let them deny their faith like they always do, and then let's all forget about the whole thing and certainly don't start arresting real Christians. Moving on.

We now issue a major Redcard to Pliny and it's one that we...haven't really used up until now, but it's a big one. Lack of Incidence of Christianity. When Pliny interviews the apostate Christians, they tell him that some of them have long since given up the faith, some as many as twenty years earlier. And that would have been around 90 AD. So this means that there were people calling themselves Christians in Bithynia and Pontus by that early date, and there were enough of them to cause problems for Pliny by the year 110; in fact, Bithynia is represented by Pliny as being absolutely teeming with Christians. You have the Christians who gave up the faith three years ago, some a few years earlier than that, some twenty years ago. Then you have the anonymous pamphlet with "many" names of Christians on it, and let's of course not forget about the Christians who admitted to their faith, of whom there were enough Roman citizens in that group for Pliny to make a special mention of it. Now first of all. This looks unlikely just on its face. It reminds us very much about what the fake Tacitus said in the forged passage from the Annals about there being an "immense multitude" of Christians in Rome in the 60's AD. And we talked about the Christian apologists of the late 100's AD, always emphasizing that Christianity was spreading everywhere, right under the noses of the Romans, in every city and throughout the provinces, there's no nation on earth that's not Christian, crowds of people are passing over daily from you to us. And the forger of Pliny's Letter is using that trope as well - in fact, if you were to read this letter knowing nothing else about Christianity, this actually sounds like it's taking place in a colonial province where Christianity is the mass religion of the locals but it's not the religion of the colonial administrators; it'd be like if the British Empire had outlawed Hinduism in India and we had a letter from some colonial official who now realizes that the entire population of his province is secretly practicing it. That's what it sounds like - it doesn't sound at all like this is some obscure sect that only a tiny portion of the population in Bithynia and Pontus belong to. 

Now, the Pliny expert Wynne Williams did a fairly good overview of Bithynia and Pontus in his commentary on the letters. Bithynia is named after its original people, the Bithynoi, who maintained their independence from Alexander and his successors. Eventually one of their kings bequeathed the entire nation to the Romans in his will. Pontus, which is the coast of northern Turkey, was another independent nation originally, ruled by a family of Iranian descent who eventually waged war against the Romans in some spectacular conflicts - by the end of these, the Romans prevailed and came to rule all of northern Anatolia. They combined Bithynia and Pontus into a single province, and they would remain united until the rule of Diocletian in the fourth century. It was the Roman general Pompey who had presided over the final Roman victory in the wars and so, he had the authority to organize the province, and the result was that most of Bithynia in the time of Pliny fell under what was called the "Constitution of Pompey," and this was the law code that he had devised and imposed on the region. Kind of like how FDR wrote the constitution of Haiti at his desk in the Navy Department while smoking a cigar, well, the reality was that laws differed from city to city in Bithynia, some cities were self-governing, some were exempt from direct tax, others weren't, some cities had what were called "the Italian rights" which meant that for legal purposes they were treated as if they were part of Italy, and entitled to the same privilege. I once worked for an airline, but, the planes were under lease, and figuring out who actually owned them was a Herculean endeavor. I remember one time my boss, who was this Scottish guy, said, [Scottish] "What, did they make all the deals in the fookin' alcoholics' clinic?" That would also aptly describe the legal system of these Bithynian cities and by the way - the variations between the various local laws comes up a lot in Book Ten of Pliny's Letters. Like a whole lot. Doesn't come up at all in the Christians letter. I'm just pointing that out. So, Yellowcard for that, but, if the events described in the Christian letter really happened, they had to have occurred either in the city of Amisos or Amastris, although, like I've said, those cities are three hundred miles away from each other, but that's where Pliny was located before and after the Christian letter was supposedly written.

Now Amisos was an ancient Greek colony that was made into a "free city" by Julius Caesar, actually its title was "a free and allied city." It was not actually free nor allied, it was actually part of the Empire; the "free and allied" part was just an honorific, like making the div kid at school milk monitor as Gareth said. And it looks like Julius Caesar also spent some time in the alcoholics clinic where they wrote the Bithynian constitution. Well, the Romans had a habit of doing this kind of thing throughout the world. If you didn't object to their conquests, you were considered "free." But it was "free" with like eighteen footnotes after it. Now Pliny in Letter 93 reminds us that the city of Amisos did technically have its own laws that applied only to it. This is a state of affairs that probably would have been relevant if these trials of Christians came up when Pliny was spending time there, so the fact that he doesn't bring it up could be an indication that the trials didn't take place there. And shortly after the Christians letter, Pliny writes from Amastris which was just a bog-standard city - both of these towns still exist today by the way, in modern Turkey. But, both of these cities were in Pontus. Now Pontus had the reputation of being somewhat of a backwater. This is what Tertullian says about it nearly a century later, quote, The fiercest nations inhabit it, if can actually be called habitation when you live your life in a wagon. They have no fixed abode; their life has no germ of civilization; they indulge their libidinous desires without restraint, and for the most part, naked. We see some exaggeration here but as with anything in ancient writings you have to remember: the criticism or the joke has to have made sense in some way to the audience for someone to write stuff like this. If Pontus had a bullet train and neon signs everywhere, it wouldn't have been effective rhetoric for someone to make fun of them for living naked in wagons. So when it comes to Pontus, we see that, if there's bright center of the Roman Empire, we're in the province that's reasonably far from it. Could this many Christians have existed in this place and time in the year 110 AD? For that, we have to talk somewhat now, about the spread of earliest Christianity.

For this, I'm going to draw on the critical scholar Richard Carrier's arguments from his book "Not the Impossible Faith" where he talks about this. And I chose him because in his analysis, he also surveys a lot of the work that's been done by others in calculating the increase in the amount of Christians from decade to decade, from its earliest beginnings all the way up until the year 300. And these are people like Rodney Stark, Robin Lane Fox, Bruce Malina, William V. Harris, Jack Sanders, and Thomas Finn. Essentially, at the turn of the fourth century, we can estimate that there were about six million Christians in the entire world. And the sociologist Rodney Stark calculated that there would have had to have been about a forty percent growth rate per decade to achieve this number, which, by the way, may be somewhat on the high end in terms of estimates. But extrapolating backwards from this, that would mean that in the year 110 there were no more than about ten thousand Christians on earth. And most of them were concentrated in cities. And when we think about the distributions of these Christians in the year 110, where they would have lived - we shouldn't expect them to have been distributed evenly. They were more prominent in some places than in others. And, estimating ancient populations is notoriously difficult but based on the work done by Bruce Frier [FRYER] on the demographics of the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries, I've estimated that the population of the eastern empire in 110 AD contained about 56% of the population of the empire. I said it was my estimate because he's given the totals for 14 AD and 164 AD, so one has to extrapolate the 110 AD number, which is the time that Pliny supposedly wrote his letter. But what that means is that in the entire Greek east, there were likely no more than five thousand six hundred Christians to go around in the time of Pliny. And then you consider how many Christians lived in the biggest cities: Alexandria, Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus - even if you assume congregations of about 500 Christians each for these cities in the time of Pliny, it soon becomes clear that there aren't enough Christians to go around, and not enough to sufficiently populate this backwater of Pontus in the year 110. And as Richard Carrier also points out when discussing Rodney Stark's analysis, this rate of growth matches what we know of the growth of similar smaller cults in the Empire - which is not much  - but certainly nothing that we know of really strongly conflicts with Stark's findings. 

Now, if you notice. Everything I've just said about the calculation of Christianity's growth rate, still assumes that Christianity originated in the 30's AD. Because what we did here was to use the conventional paradigm's own numbers against it, for demonstration purposes. In other words, even if you assume that Christianity began early, your own numbers regarding its spread and growth make such a situation as described in Pliny's Letter impossible. There wouldn't have been enough Christians in the world, let alone enough Christians in this specific place, to produce the kind of scenario that Pliny's talking about here. But let's also briefly talk about how this would work under my own theory of Christian origins: if there were six million Christians in the year 300, and if the rate of growth was forty percent per decade, what implications does that have for Born in the Second Century as a whole - well, as I said in Episode 1, and as I later found out that Martin Luther King Jr. actually said in a college paper where he trashed Christian apologists, Christianity did not spring forth fully grown like Minerva from the head of Zeus. It developed out of the Jewish gnosis, and if there no more than twenty five hundred Jewish gnostics anywhere in the world in the year 70 AD that were amenable to these new ideas, which there most certainly were, then my own model for the rise of Christianity can also account for six million Christians by the turn of the fourth century even when, as I said, that seems a bit on the high side for estimating the amount of Christians at that time. And Christianity was indeed a tiny sect until well into the third century, such that Origen can say in the 240's that quote, "only a very few" are Christians, such that we don't see a reliable pattern of archaeological evidence for Christians until the third century, such that the church in the largest city in the empire can have less than ten thousand parishioners by the year 250. On the subject of archaeology, Richard Carrier also says in his book that "only in the third century does material presence of a Christian presence anywhere in the empire begin to match even that of minor pagan cults." But since we're talking about Richard Carrier, I wanted to say a bit about his overall treatment of Pliny's Letter. We've just talked about how he's outlined the growth of Christianity in his book "Not the Impossible Faith," and he agrees with Rodney Stark's conclusions that there weren't many Christians by the time that Pliny supposedly wrote his letter, certainly less than twenty thousand in the whole world. But I've been saying throughout this series that Pliny in his letter seems to be describing a vibrant faith with many adherents: his investigations are turning up entire hordes of them, they're tanking the economy, everyone in the province is in danger. And Carrier believes that Pliny's letter is genuine. So how does he square the fact of the low number of Christians in the year 110 with what Pliny says about them in his letter. Well, Carrier would not agree with me that Pliny's letter actually indicates that Christians were very numerous in Bithynia. He views every instance of Pliny freaking out about the advance of Christianity as an example of - take a shot - ancient rhetorical techniques. He says that the Christians couldn't have been that numerous since Pliny doesn't know anything about them, never attended their trials...he points out that Pliny had been governor for over a year before even learning that there were Christians in his province - which, the letter actually doesn't suggest that. In fact as I pointed out in Episode 13, Pliny never reveals how and when he became aware of Christians. But anyway, Carrier also says that Pliny's complaints about the temples being deserted and no one buying sacrificial animals is "classic, rhetorical, flourish." This is an example of what I've been pointing out throughout this series about those who believe that Pliny's Letter is genuine yet recognize these massive intractable problems and contradictions within it and they don't want to argue that it's inauthentic so they come up with ways to explain these problems away. And they usually do this by saying that anything in this letter that doesn't fit their theory is an example of classical rhetoric. But in this case, the letter being inauthentic explains all the concerns that Carrier raised: first of all, the forger assumes that there were plenty of Christians in Bithynia because there were plenty of Christians in his time. On my model there would have been about a hundred and sixty thousand Christians in the world in the year 190, when I'm saying this letter was forged. Pliny not knowing about Christians is necessary for the forger to make it look like the Romans came up with this idea of light treatment of the Christians all on their own - to the forger, a Pliny who knows nothing about Christians is about as close to an objective third party weighing in on this situation as it's possible to get. The temples being deserted and no one buying sacrificial animals is of course not true whether the letter is genuine or forged, but we can detect a bit of Christian pride in the composition of those lines - it's Low Key Christian Propaganda as we'll talk about later. More to the point, it's a reference to Acts of the Apostles. But we conclude here that, if the forger didn't realize that the term "Christian" originated later than he supposed, if he didn't recognize that Christianity split from Judaism later than supposed, then he didn't have a fighting chance of recognizing that Bithynia would not have been jam-packed with Christians in 112 AD, and that explains why he seems to suggest that it was. We can explain it that way without resorting to these ideas that everything that looks weird is an example of rhetoric. I just want to say something quickly here. This is gonna be controversial but, I sometimes think that historians try to claim that Romans and Greeks wrote in a way that made sense to them but is barely penetrable to us, to kind of justify their credentials. But, I dunno. If you read ancient literature and know somewhat about the time period, the literature and poetry is not indecipherable. In fact for the second century in particular, if you read [reed] books by Lukian and Apuleius for example, or even those Hellenistic romances by Xenophon and others, at times they read like modern writers. And this idea that you have to go to school for six years to know how to read a Roman letter, I don't know - it's suspicious to me. Added to which, yes - the Roman authors were trained in rhetoric. But to some extent, actually to a great extent in my opinion, the ability to understand Aristotelian rhetoric is kind of embedded within us when we pursue an education of any kind, whether it's self-taught or formal, because logically, our cultures have absorbed and incorporated it - some speechwriters today or some polemicists may be using these ancient rhetorical tools without even realizing that they're doing it. So, I dunno. When I read this commentaries I never get the sense that I'm out of my league - the only thing that ever occurs to me might be an issue is that, a lot of these professionals have just read [red] a lot more books and papers than me. And that's something I try to rectify over time but it's a process. 

Now one more thing on this passage from Pliny's Letter. Some might argue that Pliny may have discovered this giant nest of Christians in the city of Sinope on the northern coast; it was an ancient city that had become a Roman colony with the Italian rights. And Sinope is conveniently located right between the cities of Amastris and Amisos, the places from which Pliny is writing on either side of the Christians letter - in fact it's almost halfway between the two. Just as an aside, at this point in this series, I'm more familiar with the map of Roman Anatolia than I am of the map of my own neighborhood and that is by no means an exaggeration. I only recently moved here. But more to the point, Sinope was where the great heretic Markion supposedly hailed from, and he allegedly came to prominence in the 140's AD. So there's therefore some indication that there could have been Christians in Sinope in the early second century, given that it could produce a heretic like Markion a generation later. Well, here's what Pliny himself had to say about Sinope, in Letter 90, quote. "The town of Sinope, sir, is in need of a water supply. I think there's plenty of good water that could be brought from a source sixteen miles away, but there's a doubtful area of marshy ground stretching for more than a mile from the spring." En quote. I mean, is he not worried about Christian V.C. attacking his supply lines in Sinope? He gives no indication about there being Christians there - and that's important because even today, in scholarly treatments of Markion, it's often assumed that he was the son of a local bishop there, because that's also what the later Christians reported about him. Well, it would have been nice if Pliny had set his Christian tale in Sinope because that would tie everything up in a nice neat bow, but he didn't, and from Letter 90 as we said, there's in fact a suggestion that the Christian trials did not occur there. As I said, Pliny's Letter about Christians was originally a standalone composition that happened to be placed here in this Amisos-Amastris section for specific reasons. Back after this.


Now we get to the part of Pliny's Letter where he for whatever reason decides to take us on a curated tour of Christian ceremony in the first century AD. He'd have been better advised not to do this, because as we'll see, he's creating a world of Redcards for himself. Pliny says that the Christians met on a fixed day before dawn, singing an antiphonal hymn to Christ, swearing an oath not to commit acts of wickedness, and dispersing and meeting again to take ordinary and harmless food. Now the first thing I wanna do is to remind you of something I said last time. With any of these texts that are forged by Christians, like Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny, Josephus - the Christians who are forging these texts are doing so decades or centuries later. And, they're not in a position to know what the Christians of that early time were really like. So what they end up doing is extrapolating the behavior of what they know as orthodox Christians in their time, and projecting it into the past, and relying on earlier sources when necessary. That's why when you read a genuine Roman testimony about Christians like that of Lukian or Celsus, we learn a lot more about how Christians actually behave than we do in these Christian forgeries like Tacitus and Suetonius. Remember back to the first ever reading on this show, Episode 1, Celsus talked about Christian missionaries button-holing slaves at the washer-woman's shop, he talked about Christian priests using plants and minerals and demonic invocations in their healing...Lukian portrays the Christians as a gaggle of annoying rubes. But in Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, all we ever see is that the Christians are innocent, well-behaved, always submitting willingly to martyrdom, and they have no beliefs or behaviors outside of the norm, except for the fact that the mob and often the Roman author himself have this weird, unexplained hatred toward them. And we see this here as well - the forger of Pliny's Letter is not in a position to know what Christians said or did in 112 AD. But he needs to have them demonstrate to Pliny that they're not doing anything wrong to carry forward the Christian apologetic and make Pliny realize that they're really innocent, so he can set the table for Trajan's response prescribing light treatment. So the way the forger chooses to accomplish this is to give us a window onto the Christian ceremonies of the time, of which he knows jack shit of what those were, or what they would have looked like. And according to him their service consists of prayers, hymns, an oath, and a meal. All of these elements show up in one form or another in the writings of Justin Martyr and of Tertullian. The earliest record of Christian ceremonies can be found in the First Apology by Justin, and he says that the Christians meet on Sunday, conduct a reading, listen to an exhortation, pray together, and have a meal. Justin also says that Christians "pledge themselves to do no wickedness." So it's not that different from Pliny's account, which is supposed to be from about forty years before Justin. Now, what about the hymn. Well, I quote from Tertullian's Apology book from like the year 200 when he talks about the Christian meal service: he says that after it, "each person is asked to stand forth and sing, if he can, a hymn to God, either one from the holy scriptures, or one of his own composing." And then he says that the meal ends with prayer, and that the Christians go forth not like troops of mischief-makers or bands of vagabonds nor to break out in licentious acts. In his time, the meal ceremony is a pious and solemn religious service. Just as it is in Pliny's Letter. And in his book De Corona, Tertullian says that the congregations meet before daybreak, just as in Pliny's Letter, and they take bread from the hand of the church president, which the Lord commanded to be eaten at meal times. And as far as oaths, Tertullian is big on oaths being part of Christian services. But he talks about it in the context of public confession, almost like Marxist self-criticism - for him, it's a big part of what Christianity is all about. Forswearing sin, and making a public acknowledgement of such. And other Christian sources like the Didache also support this, they say that Christians should confess their sins prior to their common meal. Now, Tertullian says that all this came from "custom that flowed from tradition." That's by way of his acknowledging outright that a lot of that stuff isn't in the New Testament. And I want us to perform a thought exercise here. Let's imagine that we believe in the traditional timeline of Christian origins - that the New Testament books were written in the first century, that Pliny's Letter is genuine, and that Tertullian of course wrote at the turn of the third century. And also, let's assume that the New Testament does not reflect an advanced view of church order and church procedure. I think that it actually does in places, but you have to read between the lines. Now given these assumptions, how much sense does it make that the ceremony that Pliny is describing here far more closely matches what Christians were doing in the year 200, than what the New Testament appears to suggest they were doing in the first century. Again, this is one of those scenarios where we have to imagine that the Christians were caught in a closed time loop for this letter to make sense. Now as I said, I think that the New Testament, especially Acts, does suggest an advanced church order, but even still, the majority of the New Testament books were still written prior to the major period of development of Christian church practice that took place from the 160's to the 180's according to my timeline. That was the time period in which the mainstream church began to absorb the Pauline church but much more importantly, they were in the midst of a war with the great Montanist heresy, and that was the time period where, in fighting against the Montanists, who were the first to have salaried clergy members, the mainstream church began organizing itself on more regimented lines. And the substance and procedure of their ceremony began to fall into place and become more formal. And by the mid-third century they're to the point where they're talking about deacons having to stand at the door like a Walmart Greeter, well, what we see here in Pliny's Letter is the church procedure of the late 100's being projected into the early 100's. And note also, something key, and something that's rarely brought up - Pliny learns about these church ceremonies not by observing them, but by listening to testimony from the apostate Christians, who also say that some of them were doing these things twenty years earlier. So we have to imagine not only that these things could have been taking place in 112 AD but also in 92 AD as well. How much worse can this anachronism get. So we issue two Redcards to Pliny here, one for Anachronism as I just said, and also one for Intertextuality, because the substance of this ceremony appears to be drawn from Christian commentaries of the late 100's. The forger had a unique challenge here. He had to portray the Christians as innocent and had a number of ways of doing that, and what he chose was to have them outline their innocent routine in their weekly meetings, and for that, he created a somewhat simplified form of the routine that he was familiar with, and projected it into the past. And the next few Redcards that we'll be discussing are also part of this technique, so we'll need to keep it in mind. Moving on.

The hand strikes! And gives...a Redcard. For Anachronism. We have to talk about this thing that Pliny says about the former Christians saying that in their meetings they would "sing to Christ as to a god." Carmen Christo quasi deo dicere. This is one of the passages that Christ mythicists - those who believe that Jesus was not a historical figure - love to spend time on for some reason. I wished I love anything as much as Christ mythicists love talking about carmenque Christo quasi deo dicere. Because they're trying to argue that Pliny is not a reliable witness for the existence of Jesus, and they read [reed] this passage as him implying that they were worshiping a fully divine being and not a divine being that was based ultimately on a mortal man who lived in history. But what's actually important for our purposes is the cagey language that the author is using. Before we get into that, it's important to discuss another difference between what this letter says in modern editions, and what Tertullian said was in it, in his supposed use of it. And we didn't talk about this in Episode Ten - I actually did record something about it but ended up cutting it out to save the discussion for this episode. Tertullian says that in the version of Pliny's Letter that he read [red], the Christians told Pliny that they sang to "Christ and to God." And that was the reading I went with when I read [red] the Tertullian passage in Episode Ten. But that is not actually the appropriate reading. As Earl Doherty points out in his book Jesus: Neither God nor Man, the reading in some manuscripts of Tertullian's Apology reads "Christ as to God" or "Christ as if to a god," in other words, "Christ and to God" was not what Tertullian originally wrote. And that's confirmed by the fact that Brother of the Show Eusebius, who makes a big deal about how he's translating this Tertullian passage all by himself, when he translates this part he says "ton Christon theou diken," "Christ in the manner of God." Jerome also says something similar. So Pliny's Letter as we have it faithfully reflects what it originally said, no matter when it was written or by whom. They sang to Christ as to a God.

Now, there was a common belief in the late second century that the father and the son were essentially interchangeable that is, modalism. And there's some evidence of that even in some New Testament writings like Jude and Titus that refer to God as the savior, for example. I would put these shortly after 150 AD. Second Clement from the same time period begins with the words: It's fitting that you should think of Jesus Christ as of God. The letters of Ignatius, which I date to the 170's, refer to "Jesus Christ our God." Irenaeus says Christ himself is the God of the living who spoke to Moses and was manifested to the fathers. Justin says that the son, "being the first-begotten Word of God, is God." Some of these are not actually Modalist beliefs because the authors also believe in the Trinity, but they're trying to convey that Jesus Christ shouldn't be seen less than God. It's a fine distinction, which they themselves clearly don't even understand half the time. That's the thing about these ancient theology and Trinity debates you have to always keep in mind that these writers were not all geniuses; half the time they don't even understand their own material. I always say that a so-called education Christian in the second century is like a modern white collar worker with a twenty year gap in his resume that he can't explain. But Justin for example says at one point that Jesus is technically God, but then he says elsewhere that "Well, he's the second power after God." And this gets of course into the debates over the Trinity, which we obviously don't have time for today, but the trinitarian controversy was a massive one for the early mainstream church because it hit close to home for them. The oneness of God was one of their defining traits as a sect. And it would be Tertullian's famous treatise "Against Praxeas" that would establish the outlines of what the catholic church came to believe on this subject but as we see, even in this early period they're already heavily interested in exploring the relationship between Christ and God. Pliny's Christians too, appear keen to explore this relationship. Now of course, Pliny is speaking about these things in almost pagan terms because the forger was trying to replicate what a pagan would say. But would it have killed him to just say, "They sang hymns to Christ?" No it has to be, "they sang hymns to Christ as to a god." The forger, like every Catholic fabricator from the first few centuries, was trying to telegraph that this small community of early Christians shared his own orthodox beliefs. And one of those beliefs was in the divinity of Christ, and his identification in some way with God, even if the forger himself wouldn't have been clear on the specifics. Saying that they worshiped "Christ" would have been suspect, saying that they worshiped "Jesus" would certainly have been suspect, saying that they worshiped "God" wouldn't have been sufficient, saying that they worshiped "Christ as God" or "Christ as to a god" would have covered the bases for this thing to be appropriately orthodox. And even the stickler Eusebius had no problem with that language, even though God knows he had his own weird issues with the Trinity. Moving on.

We can talk now about the various Redcards that we wanna issue to Pliny for what he says about the oath that the Christians swore in their meetings. I talked earlier about how Tertullian mentions an oath as being part of Christian services, and certainly with the way he talks about the meal service being a solemn religious affair, and they go forth from it not as sinners nor to commit licentious acts, and they prayed throughout the ceremony, it would suggest that an oath - possibly also involving confession of sins - was involved with the Christian meal service in his time. Now Pliny when talking about the oath, calls it a "sacrament," and there's been a big war going on among the theologians over whether the term "sacrament" here means a general oath, or whether it refers to an official Christian sacrament like in the Catholic Mass, and I actually don't feel like getting into it because I don't think it matters that much - what I want to look at is the substance of the oath. Just as an aside, "sacrament" is one of Tertullian's favorite words, and he, writing around the year 200, explicitly uses it in its modern sense of being a Christian ritual. Now according to Pliny, the oath was not to commit acts of theft or robbery or adultery, not to falsify a trust nor to refuse to return a deposit. On those last two, basically in the Roman world, everyday people did not have access to Wells Fargo, so they sometimes would deposit money or property with a trusted friend or neighbor, and it was a reality that in at least some cases, when they came calling to get their money back, the person who'd taken it for safekeeping would say, "What name so." And the Christians are swearing an oath here that if they take money from someone else for safekeeping, they can always be relied on to do the right thing and return it to its owner. Now. I quote from First Thessalonians chapter four: "The will of God is that you abstain from sexual immorality, that each of you knows how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor and not in passion of lust like the Gentiles who don't know God, and that no one violates the rights and takes advantage of his brother or sister in the matter." I also quote from Justin Martyr's Second Apology: "Why have you punished this man, not as an adulterer nor fornicator, nor murderer nor thief nor robber, nor convicted of any crime at all, but who's only confessed that he's called by the name of Christian." In both of these passages, the sin of adultery is in very close proximity to the sin not only of theft but of fraud, like business fraud. They're placed right next to each other. And, some have pointed out that this oath that the Christians swear in Pliny's Letter has some connection to the Ten Commandments but really commandments seven and eight - you shall not commit adultery, which is immediately followed by you shall not steal. What seems to have happened was that Christians developed an ethic in the second century that expanded on the ten commandments and we see that in the First Thessalonians passage and the Justin passage, where they no longer simply say, "Don't commit adultery, don't steal." Now it's become, "Don't commit adultery, because A-B-C-D-E, and also don't steal, such as in scenarios X, Y, and Z." And in Pliny's Letter, for all its brevity, we actually see a more advanced version of this than we do in Justin and in First Thessalonians, at least when it comes to the fraud section. In Pliny's Letter they've expanded so much on "you shall not steal" that it's now "don't commit robbery, don't falsify a trust, don't refuse to return a deposit when called on to do so." This elaborate Christian commentary on the Ten Commandments makes much more sense as coming from the end of the second century than from the beginning of the second century. So it's a Redcard for Mere Anachronism but also, we see some Intertextuality with the passage in First Thessalonians so we'll also issue a Redcard for that. And you know how I learned about the connection between these passages - from Sherwin-White's commentary. And when I read [red] him saying that I was like, "That was a freebie." Of course, he puts First Thessalonians in like the 40's AD but we spent two episodes on it and I placed it at 105, but even still, this specific passage in First Thessalonians with the catalogue of sins comes from the Pastoral Stratum of the letter which was added after 150 at least. 

Now, I mentioned in Episode Ten that when Tertullian gives his whack-ass citation of Pliny's Letter, the substance of the oath is different from what we see in our modern editions. Pliny says it was adultery, robbery, not falsifying a trust, not refusing to return a deposit. Whereas Tertullian says it was murder, adultery, fraud, treachery, and what he calls "other crimes." We're going to discuss this again in the Pliny series finale and it's actually going to be yet another clear indication that this letter was not originally part of Book Ten. Moving on.

Pliny now receives three Redcards in one for his description of the Christian meal service where they get together and eat "ordinary and harmless food." First of all, Redcard for Style. "Ordinary and harmless" as opposed to what? Prions? Trans-fats? It's a strange thing to say in and of itself. Remember how Trajan refused to allow the locals to set up a fire company. Imagine if they did it anyway, and Pliny was investigating, and he said, "One of the things the firemen do is eat a meal together after they put out the fire, but it's ordinary and harmless food." It's like, what is Pliny a dietitian now? But this weird statement can be explained by issuing another Redcard, for Intertexuality. Because "ordinary and harmless food" presupposes that Christians are accused of eating human flesh, something that the late second century apologists claim is a crime that they're notorious for. Notice here that the forger assumes that the reader will be familiar with those accusations even where Pliny apparently is not. To understand this letter properly - I don't mean in modern times, I mean at the time it was forged - you need to come in with certain backstory about Christianity beforehand. You need to know the Persecution Trope, one of whose elements is that Christians are accused of what's called "Thyestean banquets," where they practice cannibalism. In other words, this is dramatic irony being employed here by the forger. And the third Redcard here is of course for Low Key Christian Propaganda. Just like in the writings of the Christian apologists of the 100's AD, Pliny feels the need to explain that the Christians' meal service is really the paragon of innocence. In one way or another, all those apologists do the same thing, it's like a weird tic that they have. They always talk about how innocuous their little meal ritual is. If Christianity was such a danger then Pliny would have been advised to omit the part about how they didn't seem to be doing anything wrong, but again, it's in the forger's interest to depict that the Christians aren't doing anything wrong. And he wants to have "Pliny" make that same realization. Now it's generally agreed that Pliny in talking about the meal service is referring to what's called the agape, which was a communal meal that the early Christians held. And then, there's a debate about whether the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, was incorporated into the agape at this early date, or whether it was still separate, but the thing is, in the late second century and early third century, the agape was still being held whether it included the Eucharist or not. This is a really complicated issue that we don't have time to get into on this episode. But the church manual called the Didache says that it's done on the Lord's day after gathering together and confessing one's sins, and Tertullian says outright in his Apology book that the Christians gather for a modest meal, it's called the agape, it's an act of religious service. The participants pray first, then eat moderately. Then they wash their hands, and each person is asked to sin a hymn to God, and they close out with a prayer. The letters of Ignatius which I claim also date to this time period also mention the agape, and they say that you shouldn't practice it without the bishop. The point here in all this is that the Christian meal that's depicted in Pliny's Letter, somehow does not look any more quote en quote "ancient" than the Christian meal service that was happening a full eighty years later. And that's surprising. Think of how much the ritual and liturgy of the church developed between the time of Tertullian and the time of Cyprian, for example - we usually see a steady level of development throughout the history of early Christianity, except in this weird, Philip K. Dick closed time loop of Pliny's Letter where nothing appears to have changed for a century. Both in the Christian service, and in the Romans' treatment of Christians. The one thing that's conspicuously missing from this meal account in Pliny, like I said, is whether or not it involved the Eucharist. But we can see from the writings of the Christians of the late 100's that some of them included the Eucharist in the agape meal, some of them apparently didn't. And eventually the Eucharist ceremony would replace the agape entirely. But, the point is, the forger projects the Christian practices of his time back to the early second century, and he must be aware, just like with the Saturday versus Sunday observance that we'll talk about next, that not all Christians would eat the body and blood of Christ at the same time as their regular communal meal. So he keeps it safe and doesn't mention it. Leaves it implied. And he has a good excuse for doing so in that, Pliny - this Roman schmohawk pagan - wouldn't understand the nuances of these things. Moving on.

We continue to shower Pliny with a ticker tape parade of Redcards; here's another one for Peculiarities of Style. Pliny says that the apostate Christians were in the habit of meeting on "a fixed day" before dawn. So let's talk a bit first about the calendars in the ancient world, the most complicated subject imaginable. The ancient Mesopotamian calendars had seven days in a week and that was based on astrological observations. The Jewish calendar also adopted a seven day week fairly early, and that was because of the seven day creation process that God undertook in Genesis - I'm sure that God creating the world in seven days had nothing to do with the fact that the ancient Mesopotamian calendars already had a seven day week. But in the Roman Empire, at least officially, a week lasted eight days; it was a custom inherited from the Etruscans, and there were market days at the end of every week: the nundinae. But during the first century the seven day planetary week began to catch on more and more in the Empire, but it wasn't formalized until the time of Constantine in the fourth century. Now, Pliny's Letter says that the Christians met on a fixed day. Justin Martyr in the 150's says outright that the Christian services take place on Sunday. He also says that the Christian services last as time permits, which implies that it took place in the morning, as it does here in Pliny's Letter when he says they met before dawn. Now the Romans, of course, recognized Sunday - that was one of their days of the week; the "dies solis," the day of the sun; they, being the lazy assholes that they were, assigned the names of each day of the week to a visible celestial body, and those of course included the sun and moon.

Now why wouldn't Pliny just say, "OK they meet together on Sunday." Well it could be that the Christian forger was trying to preserve the fiction that Pliny didn't know much about Christianity. Now here someone might argue and say, "Well, why would it be relevant for him to tell Trajan what specific day they held their meetings on?" My response would be that he goes out of his way to mention that it's a fixed day; might as well say what day it is, you're already burnin' through like eight sheets of papyrus to write this thing as it is. But it could also be because the Christian forger isn't sure whether Christians in Anatolia would have been holding their meetings on Sunday, like he probably did, or on Saturday, as some Christians in the late second century were also known to do. The letter of Ignatius to the Magnesians, and Magnesia was a city in western Anatolia, and - I would put the letters of Ignatius in about the 170's, about thirty to sixty years later than the theologians do, the author says this, quote, "We should no longer observe the Sabbath, but instead, the Lord's day." And, this is typical Christian language - first of all they're back to their permanent pastime of trashing sectarian rivals but, any time you see anything written in these books where it's like "we should really do X and not Y," it's an indication that more people were doing X than were doing Y. The fourth century church historian Socrates says, quote, "Almost all churches in the world celebrate the sacred mysteries on the Sabbath of every week, but the Christians of Alexandria and at Rome, because of some ancient tradition, no longer do this." Tertullian who's one of our prime suspects for the forgery of Pliny's Letter says, quote, "We solemnize the day after Saturday in distinction to those who call this day their Sabbath, and devote it to ease and eating, deviating from the old Jewish customs which they're now very ignorant of." That's of tremendous importance because he's saying there that there are Christians in his time who venerate Saturday and not Sunday, and this is the exact time period in which Pliny's Letter was forged. And, Tertullian's African church, which did observe Sunday, was effectively a colony of the Roman church which also observed Sunday as we know from the writings of Justin. And by the way, if you ever want to read a thousand more quotes like this where the early Christians pointed out observance of Saturday, just call up a Seventh Day Adventist apologist. They'll pour a honeyed potion in your ear and one day you'll wake up and all you'll say is "Saturday, Saturday!" So many Christians in those early days did observe Saturday. And the forger caught himself here - in fact I guarantee that in the first draft of this letter, the forger had had Pliny say, "They were in the habit of meeting every week on Sunday before dawn," and then he must have realized that "Woah, I'm gonna be opening an entire can of worms if I write that, so I'll just keep it El Generico," and that's why we have this damn strange usage of the term "fixed day," which is why we Redcarded Pliny for Peculiarities of Style. Back after this.


I now display a Redcard to Pliny the Younger for what he says about the lapsed Christians giving up their weekly meetings because of Trajan's ban on hetaerias, and these were social clubs, fraternities, civic organizations, and little brotherhoods that were formed by private citizens. This is two Redcards in one - one for Intertextuality, one for Peculiarities of the Situation. On Intertextuality, we spoke somewhat about this in the intro when I talked about Sherwin-White. He said that it was unlikely that a forger would have known about Trajan's ban of clubs and, as I said, it was actually referenced by Trajan in basically the previous letter to this one pretty much. Now on the subject of Trajan's ban, there's no real hard evidence of it, other than allusions here and there, so when Sherwin-White says that a forger wouldn't know about the ban - it's not like we ourselves have discovered the actual source for the ban that would have been unknown to the forger. It's really just extrapolated from Pliny's Letters and from certain other documents that we've found over time, like a papyrus fragment that was pulled out of an ancient garbage dump in Egypt. It's the Oxyrhynchos Papyrus 1029, and it's funny because - it's written by a small fraternity of hieroglyphics carvers, and they're listing their members, there are five members. And it's written during the reign of Trajan. And they're like "we swear there's no more than five of us - we swear. Trust me. Here's a copy of all five of our drivers' licenses. There's not - you can come and count us if you want - please, by all means." So clearly there was a ban on these type of organizations unless they had a specific license and clearly defined their approved members, as this carvers' guild apparently did. And Trajan's concern in banning them was that these little societies might become focal points of opposition or rebellion. For that reason he forbids Pliny from allowing one of the cities in Bithynia to form a company of firemen. It's important to note that we, because of that papyrus that I just mentioned, know more about this ban than the forger did. The forger only knew about it from an offhand reference in a previous letter. And, from the writings of the late second century Christians whenever they write about Roman history, as I pointed out in Episode 13, they always seem to be getting their knowledge about earlier times from Roman history books like those of Tacitus and others. Like there's no oral tradition or lived experience passed down, the forger here in the 190's didn't interview anyone who remembered Trajan's ban or its implications; he provides no more information about it than was already hinted at in Pliny's letters. He's a hack, basically. But why I think he mentioned the ban of hetaerias in the Pliny Letter at all was A, for verisimilitude, but also B, he knew he was in a lot of trouble because the Pliny Letter is operating in this legal black hole and that's by design. Because he wants to portray Pliny as being totally ignorant of any laws or procedures against Christians, wants to have Pliny invent on his own a procedure that's favorable to Christians, and then have Trajan sign off on it. The problem is, there are actual existing laws that might come into play and affect this, and one of them is this ban on clubs that he learned about from the other letters. So he has to account for it in some way, and so he has Pliny say that the lapsed Christians told him that they gave up their weekly meetings because of Trajan's ban on clubs. So his mention of it earns him a Redcard for Intertextuality because he's in dialogue with Letter 93, but I said that he earned another Redcard here for Peculiarities of the Situation. Now, why. Well, think about this. The first thing that the apostate Christians say to Pliny is, "Some of us gave up Christianity three years ago. Some gave it up earlier than that. And a few of us even gave it up twenty years ago." Then they say, When we were Christians, we used to meet together and hold a ceremony and have a meal. Then they say, We stopped doing this because of Trajan's ban on clubs. Now, the earliest that Trajan could have banned clubs would have been in 98 AD when he began to rule. And this is all supposedly taking place in 112 AD. Are the apostate Christians saying that some of them gave up meeting together twenty years ago because of Trajan's ban on clubs? That is like - before he became emperor? And yeah, I get that some of them gave up Christianity within the past few years - those may have done it because of Trajan's ban, but it's a bit confusing the way it's worded in the text. It seems like what the forger was trying to do was think of a way that he could account for the ban on social clubs without - and this is key - without making it appear as if the Christians were being tried for belonging to a social club. Now, many commentators on Pliny's Letter, including Bart Ehrman, assume that the Christians ended up in front of Pliny in the first place because they were identified as belonging to an illegal club. Even though there's no evidence of that, and Pliny doesn't say that, and he certainly doesn't conduct his trial as if that were the case; because then he'd have absolutely no question as to what the procedure is - the procedure would be - "You belong to a club, therefore, 'you're suspect.'" But he doesn't do that. Like I said the forger wanted to account for the ban without making that ban the reason why the Christians were tried - even though, according to many theologians, the reason that the Christians were supposedly tried in the first place was because of the ban. And like I said, this letter was originally "released," if you will, as a standalone letter, and it became part of a compilation of forged Christian texts that Tertullian used. A few centuries later, when a Christian published Book Ten of Pliny's Letters, this Christians letter was included for the first time as part of the collection. And the forger didn't know quite where to stick it, so, for several reasons - the primary of which was that at this point in the collection, Trajan had just got done talking about the ban on clubs, the compiler stuck it here. And it became our letters 10.96 and 10.97.

By the way I mentioned Bart Ehrman, and he actually writes about Pliny's Letter in his book Did Jesus Exist. And I think this is important to note. He discusses Pliny's Letter, but he gets hella facts wrong about it. He says for example, quote, "In his Letter Ten to the emperor, Pliny discusses the fire problem, and in that context he mentions another group that was illegally gathering together. As it turns out, it was the local community of Christians." And he says that Letter Number Ten is important because in it, Pliny appears to mention the existence of Jesus. Now, I said earlier that out of any historical figure, I would like to invite Tertullian to dinner so I could grill him over his Pliny reference. I would also add Bart Ehrman to that bill, and I would ask him what in tarnation he thinks he's talking about here. Letter Number Ten is a short paragraph in which Pliny thanks Trajan for granting a favor to his therapist. He might be referring to Letter 33? Where Pliny talks about the fire in Nicomedia and asks permission to form the company of firemen? But that letter does not mention Jesus in the slightest - in point of fact, if there is such a thing as doing the opposite of mentioning Jesus, that's what Letter 33 does. And it doesn't mention an illegal group gathering together at all. Now, why I bring this up, is to illustrate the typical methods that are used by theologians to defend Pliny's Letter. In this case, fitting the theme of this really inflammatory book by Bart Ehrman which I take very personally, he kind of diffidently dismisses the idea that Pliny's Letter is a forgery but, as we see, he doesn't really seem to have reviewed it prior to writing about it - he's like someone who didn't do the homework. And think back to what I said in Episode Ten about how theologians and apologists just want to angrily insist that the Pliny Letter is real, that it provides early support for Christianity, and move on. These mistakes are inexcusable unless he was trying to deliberately mislead the reading public - which in this case, he was self-consciously writing to a more popular audience than the one to which he normally writes. And also think back to what I even said earlier in this very episode - most of us seem to have a received narrative about Pliny's Letter and what it says - kind of like how everyone "knows" that the American natives used the entire buffalo. Everyone "knows" that Pliny's Letter is some kind of scenario in which Christians were on trial and he was seeking advice. That's it. And Bart Ehrman, despite being "trained" in this material, despite being more of a credentialist by far than any other theologian that I've read [red], appears to also accept and amplify that received narrative. But as I've shown through this close reading, Pliny's Letter is something that needs to be analyzed carefully and it rewards that type of analysis. And the theologians don't generally do that type of analysis. Moving on.

Here's another quick Redcard for Pliny. Peculiarities of the Situation. Pliny says that he learned all about Christianity from the apostate Christians. And then, apropos of nothing, in a sentence that actually looks like it was added by a later writer, he says "So I believed it all the more necessary to find out what was going on and I tortured two slave women." There was no indication in his previous statements that he felt like he was getting bad information from the apostates, or insufficient information, it's just that this forged letter has an internal logic to it and as we'll talk about in a bit, Pliny needs to end his investigation still believing that Christianity is evil. The forger's trying to create a scenario in which Pliny is still mad at them by the end of the letter. So for no discernible reason - he doesn't even say that he didn't like or believe what the apostates told him about Christian practices - he says, "anyway, I had to find the truth, so I tortured the two slaves, and yeah, I found out that it's still a big threat." It is totally illogical if the letter is genuine, but perfectly explicable if it's a forgery. Now, on this, the theologian E.A. Judge said that what happened here was that Pliny was dissatisfied with the testimony of the apostate Christians, because it was too sunny. They gave him too pretty of a picture. Hence he tortured the slaves to find out the real truth. There's no support for that in the text. This is one of those problems with the Pliny Letter that I keep mentioning - the ones that theologians are well aware of but apologists and general believers are not. And they come up with half-baked pseudo-explanations like this to explain these problems away. Moving on.

Pliny also gets a Redcard for Anachronism when he says that he tortured two women called "ministers," which is the typical Latin translation for "deacons." Now, deacons are a post-150 AD institution. They're mentioned in the Pastoral Letters, which are some of the latest documents in the New Testament, and I put those after 150, and they're mentioned in Acts, which happens to be intertextual with the Pastoral Letters, and I put Acts in that same time period, but - actually the author of Acts tries to be cute and avoids using the term "deacons" but he kinda hints at it, because he has Peter used a verb that signifies "waiting on tables," which is the root word for the term deacon. That Acts author is far too clever by half. But deacons, and female deacons in particular, are also mentioned in Paul's Letter to the Romans, chapter 16. It's a letter of recommendation for a woman named Phoebe whom he says was a deacon at the church in the port of Corinth - not Corinth itself, but its port, which was a far smaller town. And Romans 16 is one of the very few parts of the New Testament where even conservative theologians agree that it may not be original to the letter - even Origen says that some copies in his time didn't include it. And what it is, like I said, is a letter of recommendation that appears not to be addressed to people in Rome, which is the actual destination of the letter to the Romans, but in Ephesus. And it ends up being a massive series of shout-outs to all these Christian personalities there, there's dozens of them, it ends up being like the Sergeant Pepper's album cover, but, here we have clear textual evidence that this document was not originally part of the letter to the Romans. And it mentions deacons, and it mentions of course a female deacon. It looks like what happened was that the letter to the Romans, which is Paul's big statement of his theology and beliefs about salvation, appeared to lack a satisfying conclusion. And, in fact, there's also some evidence that it even lacked chapter 15 at first, let alone chapter 16. And a series of Christian editors tacked those on over the years, and from the textual evidence this had to have occurred late in the second century. So we have no conclusive proof that that the original writer of Romans knew anything about female deacons, or deacons at all. For all we know, this part could have been added to the letter in the year one hundred and eighty - the textual evidence allows for that. The other thing about deacons to remember is that, for there to be deacons, it implies that there are bishops. In almost every context in which deacons are brought up in early Christianity, they are discussed as subordinates of the bishops and indeed - that is exactly the scenario that is portrayed in Acts of the Apostles. The apostles in Acts are portrayed as almost like the bishops or presbyters, and Peter is made to say that "we don't have time to wait on tables," and this whole story is a reference to Moses appointing judges in the book of Exodus, but, to make their lives easier, the apostles appoint seven subordinates, and what prompted all this was that some widows were complaining that they were being overlooked in the daily table service. The care of widows and particularly bringing food to them and bringing the Eucharist to them, and to others who can't make it to church, is one of the primary responsibilities of deacons in the later Christian literature. So the Acts author clearly means to telegraph that these are deacons that the apostles are appointing. So for there to be deacons in the time of Pliny, there had to be a relatively advanced church order by that time - now. If this church that Pliny is persecuting is advanced enough to have deacons, then, why wasn't he able to get his hands on any presbyters or bishops - these would have been the ringleaders of this little organization that he's so keen on snuffing out. It seems to me that what the forger wanted to do was give Pliny a reason to still consider Christianity a threat, after he'd heard that lovely testimony from the apostates, like I talked about a few moments ago, but he couldn't just have it come from two slave women- he needed them to have some kind of authority, otherwise, their testimony wouldn't be as weighty. So he figured, well, I'll make it out to where he ended up torturing actual church officials, but to be safe, I'll make it the lowliest church officials, the deacons. And he had access to Romans chapter 16 and was under the impression that it was early and genuine - he certainly had no reason to assume otherwise. And so he thought "Well, in the earliest days of the church, there were already female deacons. And no doubt there were therefore female deacons in Pliny's time, eighty or ninety years before me." This is a Redcard for Anachronism for obvious reasons but it's also a Redcard for Intertextuality because I think the reason that the forger had Pliny torture two female deacons was that he "knew" that there were female deacons at this time from Romans 16. It's weird that he goes out of his way to identify their gender, is it not. And I think he was trying to play it safe. He may have recognized that his sources didn't mention male deacons in those ancient times, but they mentioned female deacons, here in Romans 16. And of course Acts of the Apostles, which he was also aware of - like I said, Acts doesn't specifically call them deacons and the church itself wouldn't get into the habit of calling them that, that is the Seven appointed by the apostles, until somewhat later. Justin Martyr also references deacons in the late 150's: he says that their job is to serve the Eucharist and to bring it to the homes of those who aren't present. And he says that they serve as subordinates of someone whom he calls "the president." 

Now lastly on this. Paul's letter to the Romans, the theologians mostly believe that it was written around 55 AD. On Rodney Stark's model of the growth of Christianity that we talked about earlier, there were something like fifteen hundred Christians in the entire world at this time. How likely is it that there would have been an established church order with deacons in place in even a tiny port like Kenkhrea the port of Corinth. That in and of itself should be an indication that Romans 16, with its mention of deacons, was written way later than 55 AD. Now on my timeline, Romans 16 was written around the year 170 and I have about eighty thousand Christians existing in the world at that time on my model. Makes much more sense.

Our last Redcard for today, that we issue to the punch-drunk Pliny - two in one. Intertextuality and Style. Pliny says that when he tortured the deaconesses he found nothing but a perverse and immoderate superstition, "superstitionem prauam et immodicam." Woah, can he say that? First, these Latin words "pravus" and "immodicus." On the word "pravus," Quintilian says "character is best molded when it's still guiltless of deceit and most susceptible to instruction: because once a 'pravus' habit has become ingrained, it's easier to break than bend." On the word 'immodicus,' Suetonius says that Domitian was "immodicus" in his actions, and as an example, he says that one time, a woman offered him a kiss, and he presented her with his hand for her to kiss. So these are quasi-insults: the forger is again pulling his punches, like with the word "amentia" or "madness," and this here is in fact the [thee] worst thing that Pliny can conjure up to say about Christianity. So it's a Redcard for Style for that reason, but also - what the hell is Pliny talking about. He just learned ninety-five percent of what someone would need to learn about this religion, when he interviewed the apostates. He learned that they worship Christ, he learned about their dawn service, prayers, agape meal - like what else could he possibly have learned from torturing these two women - what else did they tell him that, Christians don't sell wine on Sunday and he didn't like that and decided that now they were up to something? The thing is, this is one of those places where the forgery is obvious. Because the forger took Pliny on a journey where he realized that the Christians weren't really doing anything wrong. But at the end of the day, he has to still consider it a crime - that's what the Persecution Trope requires. So it would be weird if Pliny told Trajan "Hey, I investigated this and found nothing wrong whatsoever -" then the reader might expect Trajan to say something like "Well, if they're not doing anything wrong then let them all go free." But the forger is more sophisticated that that - he has to have Pliny's investigation end on a dark note, so he tells us that Pliny tortured two slaves and learned something horrible about Christianity that he hadn't learned before. I dunno, maybe they had that briefcase from Pulp Fiction that he started into and it deeply affected him, but we the readers don't get to know what Pliny learned; what he saw in that briefcase. And now of course the table is set for Trajan to also consider Christianity a threat, but not enough of a threat to where Christians should be hunted down. And of course, this is a Redcard also for Intertexuality because just like the fake passages about Christians in Tacitus and Suetonius, Pliny uses the word "superstition" to describe Christianity. Now, "superstition" is also a word that Tertullian uses a lot. And, I suspect that if he wasn't the forger of this, he was at least somehow involved in the forgery in some way. And we'll know more once the FBI completes their investigation - what I did was I tweeted "at" the FBI on Twitter and tagged Tertullian so hopefully they'll open an investigation on him in due course, over the forgery of this letter. But, the word "superstition" is very special to Tertullian because he says that that's what the Romans call Christianity, but at the same time he uses it to refer to pagan worship, so it's kind of like a literary trick that he's doing. It's like in Life of Brian where the Romans and the Jews keep calling each other "big nose," it's like "you're the superstition - no, you're the superstition." So I think there's a lot more in play there, in the use of this word, then what we can get out of a surface level reading. By the way, many analysts of this letter, including Richard Carrier, believe that Christianity is being treated as illegal by Pliny because it represents an illegal social club. If that's the case, would we expect the term "superstition" to be used all the time when describing it? Like what does "superstition" have to do with a illegal social club. It rather seems like this letter was written by someone whose opinion was that the Romans hated Christians just because of what they believed - as with the forged Tacitus passage, as with the forged Suetonius passage, as with all the other books by the late second century apologists, and as with the forger of Pliny's Letter to Trajan about the Christians.

[music: Chime]

Before we leave off for today, I want to revisit the passage from the radical critic T.L. Strange that we began reading in Episode 13. As I said there, he's one of the heroes of this telebroadcast. We [red] his treatment of the first part of Pliny's Letter, and he described how ridiculous it was that Pliny would represent himself as not knowing anything about Christians but would punish them anyway. And he called it "scene painting of a very inartistic kind." And he continues from there. Quote. "After this, strange to say, Pliny is made to appear fully aware of all that it concerned him to know of the Christian tenets." And then T.L. Strange summarizes what Pliny says about the Christian tenets; it's what we covered in today's close reading. And then he picks back up: "It's easy to see here the hand of the painter. We have one scheming to make the best possible representation of his creed, and to magnify its success. Those who followed this creed were, even under the description of their persecutors, the holiest and most blameless of men, suffering death without a cause, yet covering the land with converts. The Romans were tolerant of all religions, and it would therefore have been a direct violation of the laws and policy of Rome for anyone to have acted toward a body of harmless people with the senseless brutality attributed to Pliny. But the emperor's reply to his subordinate is said to have been 'mild and merciful.' He approves of the governor's conduct as explained in his letter, says that the Christians are not to be sought for, nor anonymous accusations against them received, and that the test to be applied when they were brought up was to be their consent to worship the Roman divinities. In short, the reply is one in appearance only, and destitute of realities. It neither rebukes the subordinate who stands committed to the extremes of feebleness and cruelty, nor gives him any solid instructions for his future guidance." En quote.

Today we've made use of our Redcards, in aid of demonstrating that Pliny's Letter to the Christians is actually a Christian forgery of the late 100's AD.

We recommence next time with our close reading of Pliny's Letter about the Christians and Trajan's response.

Always remembering that it's not impossible that this is a forgery.

In the name of Saint Candida we again declare the Letter of Pliny to be late and spurious. Thank you for listening. This criticism is ended. Go, in, peace.

[music: Outro]

Reading: A.N. SHERWIN-WHITE, Commentary on Pliny's Letter.
OPENING Remarks.
Close Reading RE-INTRO.
REDCARD: Twelve Groups of Three.
REDCARD: Persecution Trope: Confessors, Deniers, Apostates.
REDCARD: Pliny Investigates Further.
REDCARD: Christians Did Nothing Wrong.
REDCARD: No Heretics?
REDCARD: Lack of Incidence of Christianity.
REDCARD: On Ceremony.
REDCARD: Christ as to a God.
REDCARD: The Oath.
REDCARD: Ordinary and Harmless Food.
REDCARD: On a Fixed Day.
REDCARD: The Ban on Clubs.
REDCARD: Pliny Learns More After Torture.
REDCARD: Deaconesses.
REDCARD: "Superstitio."
CLOSING Remarks.