Pliny the Younger, Trajan and Jesus as God

It is often proclaimed by Jehovah’s Witnesses and skeptics alike that the deity of Jesus was fabricated at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. This is truly a foolish statement that is unfounded historically and amounts to little more than “sound bite criticism.” Posted below is a letter from Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan. Pliny was the governor of Pontus and Bithynia from A.D. 111-113 and is writing to Emperor Trajan regarding the Christian faith. Notice that it is stated that the Christians worship Jesus as God in the letter. A practice that was well established over 200 years before Nicaea.

Also, this letter is a wonderful example as to why the it took 200 plus years to call a council regarding the Christian faith (after the passing of the apostles, that is). Until the year A.D. 313, the Christian faith was a criminal offense, punishable by death. When Christianity was legalized in the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, the Christian leaders were then permitted to gather to address a new heresy that had infiltrated the church; the heresy of Arianism. Arius questioned the eternality and full deity of Christ, and as a result, the Council of Nicaea addressed the proper understanding of the Biblical teaching on this subject. Hence, the doctrine of the Trinity was not created at Nicaea. Rather, it was simply defined and officially proclaimed. It was the first chance that the early church had to officially set into doctrine, what was always believed by the infant church, that Jesus Christ is fully God, co-equal, co-eternal and co-powerful with the Father (and the Spirit, although the deity of the Holy Spirit was not the main focus of the Council itself).

Finally, you will note in words of Pliny below, that the early Christians gathered to sing hymn’s to Jesus as “a god.” This must be taken in the context that it is given and this statement is truly a crushing blow to the Watchtower Society. From Pliny’s worldview, there are many “god’s” because he was polytheistic. Hence, Pliny’s use of “a god” fits within the context of his worldview. Jesus was just a person who was being worshiped as one of many little “g” god’s. However, from the perspective of the Christians themselves, who were monotheistic in belief and practice, this proves to be extra-biblical evidence that Jesus, even from those early years after the passing of the apostles, viewed Jesus as God incarnate. A monotheist  (which the Jehovah’s Witnesses are not, they are Henotheists) would hardly sing hymn’s to more than one God, and, Christianity is and has always been a monotheistic religion. Hence, the fact that the early church was singing to Jesus as God provides a wonderful correlation between Biblical Trinitarian revelation and early Christian beliefs (also see the Carmen Christi of Philippians 2:5-11 which translates “A Hymn Unto Christ,” which is an ancient hymn that the Apostle Paul incorporates into the text of Philippians 2).

Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96-97

Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan

It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They 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, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.

I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.

Trajan to Pliny the Younger

You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–that is, by worshiping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.