Historical Documentation for Jesus (Part 2)
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
In the first part of this series (CLICK HERE to read part 1), we looked at the writings of Josephus and Tacitus, who both attested to the existence of Jesus and His followers. In this article, we will look at three other authors: Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, and Lucian. At the end of this article, we will summarize our findings from these ancient authors!
Pliny the Younger
The third ancient writer we will review is Pliny the Younger. He was a magistrate in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) during the reign of the Emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98-117 AD. He was a contemporary of Tacitus. In 110/111 AD, Pliny wrote a letter to Trajan asking him how he should handle accusations and trials against Christians. Letters 97-98 reveal this exchange.
“From Pliny the Younger to Trajan the Emperor: ‘It is my invariable rule, Sir, to refer to you in all matters where I feel doubtful; for who is more capable of removing my scruples or informing my ignorance? Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them. Whether, therefore, any difference is usually made with respect to ages, or no distinction is to be observed between the young and adult; whether repentance entitles them to a pardon; or if a man has been once a Christian, it avails nothing to desist from his error; whether the very profession of Christianity, unattended with any criminal act, or only the crimes themselves inherent in the profession are punishable; on all these points I am in great doubt…”
“In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have been brought before me as Christians is this: I asked them whether they were Christians; if they admitted it, I repeated the question twice, and threatened them with punishment; if they persisted, I ordered them to be at once punished…There were others also brought before me possessed with the same infatuation, but, being Roman citizens, I directed them to be sent to Rome…”
“But this crime spreading (as is usually the case) while it was actually under prosecution, several instances of the same nature occurred. An anonymous information was laid before me containing a charge against several persons, who upon examination denied they were Christians, or had ever been so. They repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered religious rites with wine and incense before your statue (which for that purpose I had ordered to be brought, together with those of the gods), and even reviled [cursing] the name of Christ: whereas there is no forcing, it is said, those who are really Christians into any of these compliances: I thought it proper, therefore, to discharge them…”
“Some among those who were accused by a witness in person at first confessed themselves Christians, but immediately after denied it; the rest owned indeed that they had been of that number formerly, but had now (some above three, others more, and a few above twenty years ago) renounced that error. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, uttering imprecations at the same time against the name of Christ…”
“They affirmed the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they met on a stated (fixed) day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal. From this custom, however, they desisted after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your commands, I forbade the meeting of any assemblies. After receiving this account, I judged it so much the more necessary to endeavor to extort the real truth, by putting two female slaves to the torture, who were said to officiate in their religious rites; but all I could discover was evidence of an absurd and extravagant superstition…”
“I deemed it expedient, therefore, to adjourn all further proceedings, in other to consult you. For it appears to be a matter highly deserving your consideration, more especially as great numbers must be involved in the danger of these prosecutions, which have already extended, and are still likely to extend, to persons of all ranks and ages, and even of both sexes. In fact, this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the neighbouring villages and country. Nevertheless, it still seems possible to restrain its progress. The temples, at least, which were once almost deserted, begin now to be frequented; and the sacred rites, after a long intermission, are again revived; while there is a general demand for the victims, which till lately found very few purchasers. From all this it is easy to conjecture what numbers might be reclaimed if a general pardon were granted to those who shall repent of their error…”
Trajan’s reply to Pliny: “You have adopted the right course, my dearest Secundus, in investigating the charges against Christians who were brought before you. It is not possible to lay down any general rule for all such cases. Do not go out of your way to look for them. If indeed they should be brought before you, and the crime is proved, they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that where the party denies he is a Christian, and shall make it evident that he is not, but invoking our gods, let him (notwithstanding any former suspicion) be pardoned upon his repentance. Anonymous information ought not to be received in any sort of prosecution. It is introducing a dangerous precedent, and is quite foreign to the spirit of our age.”
In the exchange, Trajan congratulates Pliny on his handling of the situation. He informed Pliny not to purposefully track down those who are Christians, but only prosecute those who were reported to belong to that group. Anonymous accusations were not allowed, but specific accusations were investigated. Those brought forth upon such charges were asked that they honor images of the emperor and the Roman gods or be punished.
What do we learn?
– We learn that Christians lived in early second century Asia Minor (about 110/111 AD).
– We learn that large numbers of people were influenced by Christianity in both city and country areas. Pliny said that the pagan Temples were nearly empty before the accusations started; after they were initiated the temples were visited again. This also testifies to the length of time that Christianity was in the area. It was not an overnight phenomenon.
– Accusations were made of people from all walks of society and of all ages. This also attests to Christianity’s prevalence and appeal to all people.
– There was a difference between a real Christian, who refused to worship the image of the emperor and make sacrifices, and those who confessed the name of Jesus in public but denied Him in private.
– Christians met on a specific day every week; this would have been the Sabbath (Friday sunset to Saturday sunset). I have discussed this in other works (see Prevalence of the Sabbath in the Early Roman Empire, Appendix B, CLICK HERE to read this booklet).
– Christians directed prayers to Christ.
– They received the name Christian from this Christ.
– They met before sunrise (in context this was to avoid being captured or reported as a believer).
– They were committed to live morally upright: “binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up”
– Their assemblies were forbidden by the magistrate.
– Females officiated at Christian services. This detail testifies to the active role of women in the early church.
– Their beliefs were called an “extravagant superstition.”
Pliny’s account provides more information about the early disciples rather than Jesus. However, Jesus is mentioned as the focus of their religious practice. The fact that they prayed to Christ likely reflects their view of Jesus’ divinity. This would have contributed to the separation of synagogue and early disciples.
Suetonius was a Roman historian who lived in the early second century. His writings include one possible reference to Christians and another certain reference.
Speaking of the Emperor Claudius, he wrote that: “He banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus” (Life of Claudius, 25.4).
The Latin word translated as Chrestus is Chresto. It can be used in a generic or specific sense. Chresto simply means “good.” This quote does corroborate with Acts 18:2. It is entirely possible and very likely that disputes about Jesus caused conflict among Jewish people in Rome. The book of Acts records many conflicts between Jewish people and early Christians. Does that mean Suetonius is referring to Jesus’ followers? Some scholars affirm this quote is a reference to Jesus while others are not so sure. It is entirely possible that Suetonius meant to write “Christus” instead of “Chresto”, but we cannot be totally certain.
Suetonius also described the suffering of Christians under Nero, but in a much briefer account than Tacitus. “He likewise inflicted punishments on the Christians*, a sort of people who held a new and impious superstition” (Life of Nero, 16.2). *Latin word is Christiani.
Suetonius does not add much more to the discussion of this topic than what we have already learned.
Lucian was a satirist who lived from 115-200 AD. He wrote a work called “the Passing of Peregrinus.” Peregrinus was a former Christian who later became a cynic and revolutionary. He died in 165 AD. As we look at the quote from Lucian, we must keep in mind that he is a satirist, so he mocks Christians and other groups. However, we can still glean some important information from his quotes.
“It was then that he learned the wondrous lore of the Christians*, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And – how else could it be? In a trice he made them all look like children; for he was a prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world” (Passing of Peregrinus, 11).
*The Greek word used for Christian is Christianon.
“Then at length Proteus was apprehended for this and thrown into prison, which itself gave him no little reputation as an asset for his future career and the charlatanism and notoriety-seeking that he was enamoured of. Well, when he had been imprisoned, the Christians, regarding the incident as a calamity, left nothing undone in the effort to rescue him…” (ibid, 12).
“Indeed, people came even from the cities in Asia, sent by the Christians at their common expense, to succor and defend and encourage the hero (Peregrinus). They show incredible speed whenever any such public action is taken; for in no time they lavish their all. So it was then in the case of Peregrinus; much money came to him from them by reason of his imprisonment, and he procured not a little revenue from it. The poor wretches have convinced themselves first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody, most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshiping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws” (ibid, 13).
What do we learn?
– Those who followed Christ were called Christians.
– They had religious leaders in Judea (called Palestine at that time).
– Christ was thought of as a prophet and worshipped.
– Jesus explained their books and composed many Himself (this is likely a reference to the New Testament and possibly the Old Testament).
– Christ was crucified in Judea (Palestine).
– Christians thought they would receive immortality.
– They were not afraid of death.
– They considered each other brothers.
– They refused to worship Greek gods.
– They lived by Christ’s words.
– They were known for their generosity.
Lucian’s focus is more on the followers of Jesus, but he does reiterate some details we learned from earlier writers such as Josephus and Tacitus.
To conclude this two-part series, let’s put together the total of all these details to see what kind of picture we receive about Jesus and His followers.
“Jesus was considered a wise man who did extraordinary deeds. He was known as a teacher of truth. He was also considered a prophet and worshiped. He won over many Jews and Greeks. He taught out of their books and even composed many Himself. During the reign of Tiberius Caesar, a regional ruler named Pilate heard accusations against Him by the highest Jewish authorities. Due to these accusations, Jesus was crucified. Those who loved him formed a group known as Christians, who were named after him. They still existed during the time Josephus composed his work (93 AD). Some people called Jesus the Christ; he had a brother named James.
The group started in Judea and eventually became established in Rome where it found a significant following. They may have contributed to the expulsion of Jews from Rome during the reign of Claudius. During the reign of Nero, they were blamed for setting fire to the city. They were tortured terribly during that time.
During the reign of the Emperor Trajan (early second century AD), large numbers of Christians dwelt in Asia Minor. There was a difference between a real Christian, who refused to worship the image of the emperor and make sacrifices, and those who only confessed the name of Jesus. Christians met on a specific day every week (Sabbath). They met before sunrise (in context this was to avoid being captured or reported as a believer). Christians directed prayers to Christ and committed their lives to moral principles such as those found in the Ten Commandments. Females officiated at Christian services.
Christians were not afraid of death and believed in immortality. They considered each other brothers (family). They did not worship idols or pagan deities. They lived by Christ’s words and were know for their generosity. There were books composed about Jesus. They were witnessed as an active group in the days of Lucian, who wrote about 165.
These few historical accounts provide us with significant historical information about Jesus and His early followers.
Next week, we will look at Archaeology and the life of Jesus!
To read more about this subject, download our free booklet: How Do We Know Jesus Really Lived? (CLICK HERE to download)
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org
Lucian. The Passing of Peregrinus, 11-13. Translated by A.M. Harmon, vol. 5, Harvard University Press, 1962. pp 11-15.
McDonald Jr., Kelly. Prevalence of the Sabbath in the Early Roman Empire. Bible Sabbath Association. 2020. pp 40-42.
Pliny the Younger. Letters 97, 98. Translated by Melmoth. Revised by Rev. F. C. T. Bosanquet, London: George Bell and Sons, 1905. pp 393-397.
Suetonius. The Life of Claudius, 25.4; The Life of Nero, 16.2. Translated by Alexander Thomson. Revised by T. Forester, London: G. Bell and Sons, LTD, 1911. pp 318, 347.