Critics and opponents of Christianity have often used an argument of a lack of extra-biblical account of the birth and spread of the faith; there are no non-compromised sources that would confirm the Gospels. But is this true?
History shows that the Roman empire had to deal with the growing political problem that was Christianity as early as the 2nd century. This has been proven, and evidence is abound about the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple. However, is there a reliable non-Christian reference to the birth of the faith?
In 112AD, Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of Bithynia (also the place of the destructive earthquake 26-36AD, confirmed by Phlegon and modern science), wrote to Rome about what to do with Christians who have been defying Rome’s mandate to place Caesar above Jesus and worship Roman gods. This is a frightening read:
It is my constant method to apply myself to you for the resolution of all my doubts; for who can better govern my dilatory way of proceeding or instruct my ignorance? I have never been present at the examination of the Christians [by others], on which account I am unacquainted with what uses to be inquired into, and what, and how far they used to be punished; nor are my doubts small, whether there be not a distinction to be made between the ages [of the accused]? and whether tender youth ought to have the same punishment with strong men? Whether there be not room for pardon upon repentance?” or whether it may not be an advantage to one that had been a Christian, that he has forsaken Christianity? Whether the bare name, without any crimes besides, or the crimes adhering to that name, be to be punished? In the meantime, I have taken this course about those who have been brought before me as Christians. I asked them whether they were Christians or not? If they confessed that they were Christians, I asked them again, and a third time, intermixing threatenings with the questions. If they persevered in their confession, I ordered them to be executed; for I did not doubt but, let their confession be of any sort whatsoever, this positiveness and inflexible obstinacy deserved to be punished. There have been some of this mad sect whom I took notice of in particular as Roman citizens, that they might be sent to that city. After some time, as is usual in such examinations, the crime spread itself and many more cases came before me. A libel was sent to me, though without an author, containing many names [of persons accused]. These denied that they were Christians now, or ever had been. They called upon the gods, and supplicated to your image, which I caused to be brought to me for that purpose, with frankincense and wine; they also cursed Christ; none of which things, it is said, can any of those that are ready Christians be compelled to do; so I thought fit to let them go. Others of them that were named in the libel, said they were Christians, but presently denied it again; that indeed they had been Christians, but had ceased to be so, some three years, some many more; and one there was that said he had not been so these twenty years. All these worshipped your image, and the images of our gods; these also cursed Christ. However, they assured me that the main of their fault, or of their mistake was this:-That they were wont, on a stated day, to meet together before it was light, and to sing a hymn to Christ, as to a god, alternately; and to oblige themselves by a sacrament [or oath], not to do anything that was ill: but that they would commit no theft, or pilfering, or adultery; that they would not break their promises, or deny what was deposited with them, when it was required back again; after which it was their custom to depart, and to meet again at a common but innocent meal, which they had left off upon that edict which I published at your command, and wherein I had forbidden any such conventicles. These examinations made me think it necessary to inquire by torments what the truth was; which I did of two servant maids, who were called Deaconesses: but still I discovered no more than that they were addicted to a bad and to an extravagant superstition. Hereupon I have put off any further examinations, and have recourse to you, for the affair seems to be well worth consultation, especially on account of the number of those that are in danger; for there are many of every age, of every rank, and of both sexes, who are now and hereafter likely to be called to account, and to be in danger; for this superstition is spread like a contagion, not only into cities and towns, but into country villages also, which yet there is reason to hope may be stopped and corrected. To be sure, the temples, which were almost forsaken, begin already to be frequented; and the holy solemnities, which were long intermitted, begin to be revived. The sacrifices begin to sell well everywhere, of which very few purchasers had of late appeared; whereby it is easy to suppose how great a multitude of men may be amended, if place for repentance be admitted.
-PLINY’S EPISTLE TO TRAJAN ABOUT 112 CE
The red was added to provide ease of viewing the Christian reference.
Now as for the elephant in the room…why would a Roman governor write back to the emperor himself, to find out what to do, unless the issue was of significance at the time?
By comparison, 90 years after the Church of Latter Day Saints was formed, the religion had 525,000 members (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Church_of_Jesus_Christ_of_Latter-day_Saints_membership_history). How massive was that growth of the early Christian church to raise that kind of alert to the Roman empire?
Also, a historical note is that Pliny was alive and actually witnessed the eruption of Mt Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii; his description of the event is used as one of the preeminent accounts of the carnage.
Is the letter to Trajan authentic? It seems silly to me that critics of the letter would choose only this letter as being inauthentic out of the library of Pliny’s writings. Scholars have long considered this to be an authentic writing, and the question of whether it is authentic seems excessively nit-picky because of its subject. I highly doubt that Christian defenders secretly had access to these writings and then forged a passage about what Pliny should do with Christians. Perhaps it was Constantine that did it (snicker)? Wouldn’t early Christians have significantly changed the history of the events being described in the letter to give themselves and the faith a better outlook? I mean, if critics are going to review Pliny’s tone and verb usage, could it be that he was just that perplexed that he had do, I don’t know…write to the emperor? The evidence used against the authenticity of the writing is still within a spectrum sourced from Pliny’s other writings. I think that the concept is sling-more-mud-and-have-enough-stick, so as to make anyone defending it look less credible.
The funny thing is, the article itself argues against its own central point by establishing a standard deviation model and using a bait-and-switch to compare the letter to unrelated outliers. 25% of the Pliny-authentic writings sampled are further outliers than the letter to Trajan being examined.
Critics of this text seldom, if ever, debate its authenticity; but rather they have appeal to an argument of a lack of mention of Jesus himself. But this is a question-begging argument; if there are Christians, then who are they worshipping? I guess you could debate this as not being evidence for Jesus himself, but doesn’t the notion seem empty to debate the central figure of a religion to which the writer is referring to by name? I mean, isn’t this the same argument posed of Macroevolution when asked where the intermediary steps are in an evolving species and the question gets dismissed with a scoff?
These texts paint a shockingly accurate depiction of the rise and spread of Christianity in Judea and the Roman Empire. I mean sure, critics of the faith can point to the gap in time between Christ’s death and the entrance of these documents into the historical record, but the slippery slope is pointed directly at them…the burden of proof is always on them to prove that the story is nothing more than an oral tall tale that grew into legend that ultimately grew into a fable because the logical conclusion is that the central figure of Christianity existed. That’s the problem with having to arrive at the most logical conclusion in this case…the evidence is overwhelming!