Pliny on Christians ca. 110 CE: Authentic (My view)

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 18

I have finished reading Hermann Detering’s chapter “Pliny the Younger—Christian persecution in Bythynia” from his book Falsche Zeugen (“False Witnesses”), and have also surveyed the rather copious literature on this seemingly obscure topic—at least, the literature readily available at my university library and online.

While I have immense respect for the late Dr. Detering’s work, I have to disagree with him regarding these two Pliny letters (Bk. 10:96–97). Of course, few things are 100% certain in history, and Detering marshals evidence for his argument that the letters in question are forgeries. Uncharacteristically, however, he used outdated (19th century) references that became obsolete when newer evidence came to light in the early twentieth century. Furthermore, Detering does not appear to have consulted that newer evidence—he doesn’t discuss it in his chapter on the Pliny letters, and the extensive writings of E. Rand, in particular (numbering several hundred pages) are not listed in his bibliography. I consider this a major flaw.

I have already dealt with some of Detering’s arguments in a prior post (e.g., the quasi-et-ut sequence, which I find unpersuasive). Here I look at the real nub of the matter—the manuscript history of the tenth book of Pliny the Younger’s letters, which includes the two epistles in question.

Before proceeding, we can all agree that this issue is of some significance, for Pliny’s letters regarding Christians are an oasis in an evidentiary desert. There are very few (many mythicists would say ‘not even one’) extra-Christian attestations for the existence of Christianity before c. 150 CE. In fact, the purpose of Detering’s book Falsche Zeugen is to invalidate the six principal, non-Christian early witnesses and to demonstrate that they are either forgeries or completely without force: the “Christ” passages in Josephus; the Tacitus reference to Christians and the burning of Rome; Pliny the Younger on Christians; Suetonius on “Chrestus”; Mara bar Serapion on the “wise king”; and Thallus on the sun’s darkness (interpreted by later Christians as accompanying Jesus’ crucifixion).

If they are authentic, then Pliny’s letters offer ‘hard’ data. They date precisely to 111 CE and we know their geographical and social context—they come from northern Asia Minor (Bythynia and Pontus) and are correspondence between the provincial governor and the Roman emperor. If those two letters are authentic, they arguably constitute the first demonstrable mention of “Christ” and “Christian(s)” anywhere.

This tells us a lot. It indicates, for example, that Jesus-followers quite removed from Palestine had, by that time, associated their founding prophet with the Jewish meshiach, “anointed one”—Christ. Approximately 175 years had already passed since the death of the movement’s founder, Yeshu ha-Notsri, ca. 65 BCE. That is indeed ample time for the Jesus-followers to have associated their founding prophet with the Jewish messiah. Recall that I have proposed three general christological stages:
          – Stage I (the saving ‘Jesus’ = gnosis);
          – Stage II (the saving ‘Jesus’ = the gnostic spirit of God indwelling the saint); and
          – Stage III (the saving ‘Jesus’ = Jesus of Nazareth)

The reference to “Christo” in Pliny’s letter shows that we are already between Stages II and III. Not only is the founder of the movement viewed as a (very human) prophet indwelled by ‘the Jesus’ (Stage II), but he is now the messiah/Christ—the liberator who showed the way to salvation for those who believe in the indwelling divine power—namely, for “Christians” (cf. the Gospel of Barnabas). The messiah is not yet divine (that came a few decades later with Stage III), but we are well on the way to that christological revolution.

It goes without saying that I am writing here as an ‘ultra-heretical’ Jesus mythicist. Mainstream Christians (including almost all academics in the field) will have none of this. They hold that the canonical gospels and Pauline epistles date to the first century—well before Pliny the Younger’s time—and that the founding prophet was (of course) Jesus of Nazareth, not the earlier Yeshu ha-Notsri. Yet readers of this blog and of the writings by Robert M. Price, etc., know better—Jesus of Nazareth was a fiction and the New Testament was a product of the second century (here and here).

If authentic, the two Pliny letters may be the earliest unbiased witness to the spread of Christianity, and possibly also the earliest attestation for the loaded theological term “Christ” as applied to Jesus/Yeshu. Determining the authenticity of those two letters is indeed an issue worth carefully considering.


The Letters of Pliny the Younger exist today in a collection of ten books. The first nine books consist of Pliny’s personal correspondence and offer a lively and detailed view on aspects of provincial Roman life in the early second century. Pliny himself collected them while he was alive but died before their publication. Apparently, the nine-book corpus was published shortly thereafter and recopied periodically, either in toto or in the form of selected letters. Many of these handwritten manuscripts are lost, as is typical. Those that survive date from the ninth century onwards.

Book 10 of Pliny’s correspondence seems to have had a separate existence from the very start, when Pliny himself decided to gather his official correspondence into a separate corpus. He may have thought that these administrative letters would have a different readership and, perhaps, be of less interest to the wider public. History seems to have borne out his view—while the nine-book corpus had an independent existence in a number of (full and partial) copies, Book 10 surfaced for the first time only in 1502 CE, when it was discovered in Paris by Fra Giocondo (aka Iucundus, theologian, philosopher, engineer, and builder), in a ‘complete’ manuscript that also contained Books 1—9. This manuscript—known as the Parisinus, or ‘P’—was very ancient in character. The famous printer Aldus Minutius of Venice, who received the manuscript on loan from Fra Giocondo in 1506, enthused about the great antiquity of the manuscript and even opined that it might go back to the time of Pliny himself.

But P raised some suspicion, particularly Book 10 which caught the literary world by surprise. Not only were its 121 letters previously unknown, but the character of those letters (being administrative) differed from the character of the larger nine-book corpus. Already in 1506, one editor (Catanaeus) wondered in print if Book 10 (or part thereof) was forged.

Those of suspicious mind also pointed to the fact that Book 10 was attested only by the manuscript P. Nothing less than the discovery of a second, earlier, manuscript of Book 10 would allay such suspicions. Lacking such an earlier manuscript, there was simply no way to prove that forgery did not take place.

One might think that—if Book 10 were forged—then it would be a simple matter for an expert to compare Book 10 with Books 1–9 to confirm whether the two corpora of letters matched as regards script, paper, binding, etc. But adding to the mystery surrounding Book 10 is the fact that within a few years of its discovery, manuscript P—the only manuscript attesting to the existence of Book 10—was ‘lost.’

A page from the Morgan Fragment of Pliny the Younger’s letters. The script is continuous majuscule, which went out of style in the Middle Ages. E. Rand argued that this is in fact a page from the famous Parisinus manuscript. (Lowe & Rand, pl. VIII.)

Book 10 is authentic

In 1910 the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City purchased six leaves (= twelve pages) of a very early (sixth-century) manuscript of the Letters of the younger Pliny. This manuscript, called the “Morgan Fragment” (MF) contains letters from the end of Book 2 and the beginning of Book 3. Two scholars analyzed and published on the MF in 1922—E. Lowe and E. Rand.  The script of this manuscript is ‘continuous uncial’—that is, all the letters are in capitals and there are no spaces between words (see illustration). This type of writing went out of style in the Middle Ages and demonstrates that the manuscript is indeed very old.

While Lowe studied the physical nature of MF, Rand compared the text (including errors, omissions, additions, etc.) to other extant manuscripts. He concluded not only that the text is very old, but that MF belongs to the same family of manuscripts as two already known ninth-tenth century copies, B and F. In fact, MF is the ancestor of B and F. All three of these manuscripts contain only parts of Pliny’s letters. MF, as we have seen, contains twelve pages. For their part, B and F—which are by the same hand—contain only Books 1–6 (F has a few more letters of Book 6).

The title of manuscript B, however, is significant. It reads: “PLINI SECUNDI EPISTULARUM LIBRI DECEM”—that is: “The Ten Books of Pliny the Younger’s Epistles.”  

In other words, the tenth century manuscript B originally contained all ten books of Pliny’s letters.

On the bases that MF is of venerable antiquity and is of the same family as the 10-book manuscript B, Rand further concluded that the MF was itself part of the lost Parisinus manuscript (Lowe & Rand: 40, 57)!

Letters 10.96 and 97 are authentic

The discovery of a tenth century manuscript of Pliny the Younger’s letters puts to rest—or should put to rest—all suspicion that Book 10 was forged in the early sixteenth century. But what about the two letters dealing specifically with Christians? Could it be that they were forged and inserted into the Parisinus manuscript in the early 1500s?

Detering thinks so, but I consider such nefarious activity to be well-nigh impossible. After all, how does one insert two letters into a very old manuscript without the insertion being detected? Aldus—who was himself an expert, humanist, scholar, and printer—had the manuscript P in his possession for at least a few months, during which time he not only transcribed the Latin text word-for-word but obviously had occasion to examine the manuscript at leisure and very closely. Aldus enthusiastically described P as “exceptionally fine,” “with epistles not heretofore known,”  “most correct, and of a marvelous and venerable antiquity” (Lowe & Rand 38). This is entirely contrary to what one would expect from someone who detected a forgery!

Disposition of the surviving (innermost) leaves of the Morgan Fragment. (Lowe & Rand p. 4.)

It is also impossible to insert one or more additional sheets into a manuscript that is made up of quires—as is the Parisinus. A quire is a group of four vellum leaves folded and separately bound. The codex itself is made up of a number of quires bound together in a cover. Above is a sketch of the Morgan Fragment (which was part of the Parisinus itself—see above). The outermost leaf of this quire has disappeared, and only three leaves remain.

Vellum was expensive. Scribes wrote continuously and on both sides of the leaf (hair and flesh). How, then, does one insert two letters into a quire that is continuous and already full of writing? In a modern three-ring binder we can easily add a page. But with a bound quire, additional text means that the entire quire will have to be rewritten. And if one quire is rewritten, then all the other quires to the end of the codex must also be rewritten to accommodate the overflow of text.

In addition, the Morgan Fragment shows that each book was preceded by a ‘table of contents.’ If a forger added two letters to the collection, then he would also have to change the table of contents—an impossibility given that the TOC had no empty lines (cf. Lowe and Rand: Plates II, III).

In sum, I am confident that no forgery relating to the Parisinus manuscript took place (as Detering maintains) involving the two ‘Christian’ letters of Pliny the Younger. My confidence rests on the above-described two considerations:
(1) Aldus examined the Parisinus manuscript and said nothing about an anomaly, insertion, or possible forgery.
(2) The construction of codex P, with quires, renders impossible the insertion of two additional letters (taking 2-3 pages); as does the presence of a table of contents to each book.  

Other considerations

Mendacity? Aldus claimed to have received the Parisinus manuscript from Fra Giocondo around 1506. Detering, however, doubts this, noting that a learned contemporary by the name of Budaeus claimed that manuscript P was in Paris in 1508 and was still there a decade later. Detering writes: “one of the two men was not telling the truth” (p. 83). However, there is no need to impute mendacity here. The manuscript P was evidently loaned to Aldus in 1506 for the purposes of printing his edition, and then the precious manuscript was returned to Paris.

One-sided research. E. Rand not only contributed to the seminal study of the Morgan Fragment discussed above, but also penned several hundred pages of scholarly analysis regarding the Pliny letters in three installments in the years 1923/24/25.  Yet Detering cites none of Rand’s works in his bibliography. His chapter on the Pliny correspondence does not even mention the Morgan Fragment.

Internal considerations. Detering offers no less than ten points (pp. 86–94) in which he contends that Pliny’s letter to Trajan “raises questions.” In point (1) he sees Pliny as a “caricature of an administrator”; in point (2) Pliny is “clueless” (Ahnungslos); nevertheless (point [3]) Pliny has a definite plan for persecution; in point (4) Detering wonders why Pliny took so long to ask advice of Trajan; and so on. I find none of these points particularly persuasive. In point (6) Detering wonders how, in the early second century, Christianity could have made such “inconceivably quick growth” as to present a problem in northern Asia Minor. The problem disappears, however, when Christianity is seen to begin a century earlier than is customarily thought, namely, with Yeshu ha-Notsri.

Point (9) cites the antiphonal singing reported by Pliny:

[The Christians] asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god…

Detering writes (p. 92) that “antiphonal singing is not attested for so early an era.” However, this report by Pliny resonates strikingly with what Philo wrote about the Therapeutae:

And after the feast they celebrate the sacred festival during the whole night… they all stand up together, and in the middle of the entertainment two choruses are formed at first, the one of men and the other of women… Then they sing hymns that have been composed in honor of God… they join together, and the two become one chorus… [A]nd standing there until morning, when they see the sun rising they raise their hands to heaven imploring tranquillity and truth, and acuteness of gnosis. (Philo, On the Contemplative Life 83–88)

To me, (a) the antiphonal singing, (b) between men and women, and (c) before dawn, is no invention. We have here an authentic report of early Christian worship.

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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