Episode 23 - Mischievous Superstition
The non-Christians who wrote about Jesus and Christianity can show us something quite interesting. We can see how Romans viewed the Christian concept of the resurrection. While they obviously disagreed with Christianity, evaluating their writings still help us learn about how the Early Church was viewed by the people during that time, and even helps us see that the most foundational doctrines of the faith went right back to the earliest moments of the history of the Church.
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In our last episode we continued our evaluation of the non-Christian ancient sources that refer to people and events found within the New Testament. For today’s episode, we’ll continue this by taking a look at Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and Tacitus, to see how they confirm and expand upon many ideas found in the New Testament, including a very interesting take on how the Romans would have viewed the doctrine of the resurrection.
For today’s podcast, we’ll first look at a work by Pliny the Younger, who wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan around 122ad. Pliny was a Roman governor, and was actively persecuting Christians during this time. He wrote to Trajan, basically asking for advice on how to handle the persecution. While neither Pliny nor Trajan actually comment on what crime the Christians were guilty of, aside from merely being Christians, the two of them discuss how to handle the killing of Christians. The text is too long to read the whole thing for the podcast, but here’s some of the elements within it.
Pliny said that, when he had suspects brought to him, he would ask them if they were Christian. If they confessed to being Christians, he would interrogate them more. He would threaten them with punishment, and if they persisted, he would have them executed. Interestingly, he said that, regardless of their beliefs, simply the fact that they were this obstinate and stubborn was itself reason alone to deserve death. However, if they were Roman citizens, he would have them transferred to Rome, so Rome would have to deal with them. Pliny writes that many people began to be anonymously accused of being Christians. When interrogating these people, he would demand that they worship the Roman gods, and that they would pray and offer incense, and worship the emperor’s image, and also, that they curse their Christ. If they were willing to do this, he would assume that they weren’t really Christians, because it was known that true Christians wouldn’t do such things. He writes that some of the accused admitted that they had been Christians, but had left the religion behind. He forced them to do these pagan worship practices, and curse Christ, which they did, so he let them go.
Pliny the Younger also writes that Christians would meet on a fixed day, and that they would sing a song to Christ, as a god. These Christians also followed an ethic where they wouldn’t do immoral things like crimes, fraud, theft, and adultery. They were also known to eat food together, which is likely a reference to communion. Pliny also writes that he tortured two female slaves who were called deaconesses, in order to learn more about Christianity. He comments that nothing else bad was discovered about the faith, except that these Christians were excessively superstitious. The word “superstitious” is interesting here, but we’ll come back to that when we discuss Tacitus. When Pliny comments on these different practices of Christians, he makes a point to say that, when they gathered together for food, the food was “innocent”. That might seem weird to us, but he probably said this because there was a rumour around this time that Christians were atheists and cannibals, and would have orgies together. This is because Christians wouldn’t worship the Roman gods, so they were deemed atheists. Also, the Christians would gather for communion together, having a meal as brothers and sisters in Christ; however, they would refer to this as a “love feast”. Because of this nickname for the meeting, those outside the faith thought they were given to orgies. Also, as you likely know, communion is understood to be eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ, so people outside the faith thought they were literally cannibals. These misunderstandings were part of the reason the Romans hated the Christians, and this is why you see these sorts of comments in what Pliny wrote. He writes that Christians wouldn’t commit adultery, that they worshipped Christ as a god, and that the food they ate was “innocent”, thus, he was doing research, through torture, to see if these sorts of rumours were true.
Pliny writes that he is concerned about Christianity, because of the sheer number of Christians. He says that Christians were found in all groups of people, regardless of age, rank, and gender. He also says Christianity had spread to large cities, as well as small villages and farms. The way he writes, he treats Christianity as a disease that needs to be cured, and is getting a little out of control, however, he seems hopeful that they can cure this ill. He speaks of the Roman population coming back more and more to the pagan religion, and that more and more people are performing the sacrifices and what not, so there’s hope that the Roman religion will flourish, and people will start leaving Christianity, if they’re given the chance to repent.
This writing by Pliny is interesting for many reasons, but most of all, it’s fascinating to see the Roman perspective, specifically, how a governor and the emperor himself considered Christianity. They considered it a disease that was spreading and needed to be dealt with. They mocked the Christian idea of immorality, calling it a superstition, and that they were willing to die for their faith, laughing in the face of death, all of which likely refers to the theology of resurrection. They also confirm many things for us, like Christian monotheism, not worshipping other gods, that they worshipped Christ, had a strong moral ethic, practiced communion, had people from every race, rank, and both genders not only being part of Christianity, but that everyone was considered brothers and sisters in the faith, even having the lowest of people, female slaves, having positions of authority within Christianity.
Our next historian is Suetonius, who wrote quite a lot, but the vast majority of his writings haven’t survived. For our purposes we’ll look at his work on the 12 Caesar’s, called de Vita Caesarum. This work was written about 121ad, and in it he refers to a figure called “Chresto”, which is pretty obviously a reference to “Christ”, and he just got the word mixed up a little. It says that Emperor Claudius had the Jews in Rome kicked out, because they were constantly making disturbances at the instigation of this person. Interestingly, the book of Acts in the New Testament also refers to this event, in Acts 18, where it says basically the exact same thing. Realistically, a Roman wouldn’t really appreciate the difference between a regular Jew and a Christian, and Christianity would have been seen as just Judaism, but they believe in Jesus as the Christ, or Messiah. This is why there’s a bit of an oddity here where the Jews were creating problems by talking so much about Jesus. If nothing else, this bit of historical data confirms some of the history of the book of Acts for us.
For our last example of a non-Christian writing that confirms and sheds light on biblical history, we’ll take a look at Tacitus. A couple of episodes ago I said that, if you’ve studied the historical sources outside the New Testament, you’ve certainly run into Josephus. Well the same can be said for Tacitus, because he’s probably the second most popular piece of ancient non-Christian writing people refer to when looking into Christianity. Tacitus wrote about Nero accusing the Christians of starting a fire in Rome, which was likely Nero just trying to take blame off himself. So we read in Tacitus’ “Annals”, 15:44
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.
This is the main portion of Tacitus that is often read, because it confirms for us a few details. There was someone called “Christus”, which is the way a Roman might understand “Christ”, or “Christos”, which is the Greek word for the Hebrew term “messiah”. So Tacitus refers to the Christ, and says this is where Christianity gets its name from, and that this Christ suffered “the extreme penalty”. Now, in first century Rome, what is the extreme penalty? Obviously crucifixion. There’s not really an alternative there. So Tacitus says this Christ was crucified, during the reign of Tiberius, which fits the timing of the death of Jesus, and that this was done by Pontius Pilatus, again, confirming the biblical account. I should also comment on an oddity found in this bit of Tacitus’ writing that you probably noticed. In this passage it says that Christians were “hated for their abominations”. What were these abominations? This seems to be referring to what I mentioned earlier, how some people thought Christians were atheistic cannibals having orgies. The passage continues, saying that Christianity started in Judea, and that it spread all the way to Rome. Again, this confirms what the New Testament tells us.
Now, normally people don’t read the rest of the passage, but I think it’s good for us to look at it, just to get a fuller historical understanding of what happened to these early Christians. Usually, people only refer to Tacitus when some atheist who has looked at a few memes on Instagram, or watched a conspiracy theory documentary, starts throwing around accusations that Jesus never lived. However, the real purpose and context of this passage in Tacitus’ work is to describe how the Early Church was persecuted as a way for Nero to escape the blame put on him for the fire in Rome. The details about Jesus are a bit of a side point, which actually works in our favor, because it seems obviously to be trustworthy historical information. That said, we can learn even more from Tacitus. The fire that caused all this persecution towards Christians that Tacitus is writing about happened in 64ad, so this was only three decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He continues his description of the persecution, writing the following:
Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty (meaning of being Christian); then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.
So again, this seems to imply that the persecution of Christians wasn’t really for being the cause of the fire in Rome. After all, people recognized it was Nero, and he was just trying to cover himself. However, his distraction seems to have worked. Instead, the persecution of Christians is described as being for “hatred against mankind”, which is likely a reference to the accusation of cannibalism. The passage continues:
Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
When given the entire context of this passage, it actually confirms a bit of what we found in what Pliny the Younger wrote. They interrogated people, and if they wouldn’t repent of their Christianity, and instead remained stubborn, not denying Christ, then they would be executed. It also seems here that Nero didn’t care too much about finding out the truth of Christian beliefs and practices, in the way that Pliny did, because he was just trying to create a scape goat for himself, so that the people wouldn’t focus on his fire in Rome. We see here the disgusting ways that Nero would have these Christians killed. Not only did he kill them in very violent and painful ways, but he would make a mockery of it, even dressing up in costumes. It seems Nero even allowed his personal gardens to be used for the execution of Christians, as a type of entertainment for a party, and even used Christians as candles, burning them alive, so that his gardens could have proper illumination during the night time. Because of the severity of his grotesque tortures, people started to feel sorry for the Christians, because it seemed obvious this wasn’t about justice, but instead, one twisted man wanting to satisfy his cruel and unusual desires for torture.
One thing I didn’t go into from the earlier portion of Tacitus, the part that is commonly read, is the part that talks about Christianity as if it is a “mischievous superstition”. This idea brings all three of the sources from this podcast together, in a sense, because they all make a similar comment. Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, and also Lucian from the last episode, all refer to Christianity as a “superstition”, or that Christians were given to excessive “superstition”, at times pairing it with the concept of being “mischievous”. When looking at these words, the word “mischievous” here can also refer to something being “magical”, or supernatural. If we refer back to the other writers we’ve looked at that talk about Jesus doing great deeds, being a sorcerer, being known for miracles, et cetera, it seems as though this “magical” concept was quite closely linked, not just to Jesus, but also to the Early Church. The word for “superstition”, which is “superstitio”, can also just mean excessive religious devotion. Again, we see this concept come up in many of these ancient writings we’ve been looking at. My main thought, is looking back at Pliny, who said that Christians were so stubborn and obstinate in their beliefs, that they were willing to die, rather than curse Christ. This is a case that, in Roman culture, would be described as “superstitio”.
According to the New Testament, the reason the disciples and Early Church had such a strong devotion to the Gospel is because they actually saw the risen Christ. At Jesus’ death, they went from running away terrified, denying even knowing Jesus, and going back to their jobs, to a dramatic switch where they were proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus in the streets, being willing to suffer and die for the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. This strength in their faith, or “superstitio”, is directly linked to the witness of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
Now what about the miraculous aspect? Yes, Jesus did miracles, but why refer to the Christians decades later this way? Because these Christians were saying that, they too, would be resurrected. Why did the early Christians have this “superstitio”, or strong religious devotion, even to the point of being willing to die for it? Scripture tells us it’s because they saw the risen Christ, and had the security of their hope in the resurrection. Even these Roman writers confirm this concept for us! Lucian of Samosata, who we looked at last week, said that the Christians had no fear of death, and were willing to die for their beliefs, because they believed they were “immortal”. This idea of immorality fits quite nicely into a category that would be considered “magical”. On Lucians’ view, as a Roman, that’s exactly what the theology of the resurrection would look like. So we have Romans and Christians, all writing the same concept. Christians spat in the face of death because of their resurrected messiah, and the hope of the resurrection for themselves. This resulted in a religious devotion, even to the point of death, which centered around the magical concept of immortality.
To a Jew, they would have an understanding of resurrection, because it was a part of Pharisaical Judaism. However, to a Roman, this concept would be completely foreign, and would be “foolishness to the Greeks”, as the New Testament puts it. To a Roman, this would probably seem like something similar to necromancy, so it’s no wonder they referred to it in the same way we would refer to the “dark arts”, or “black magic”, or some other wicked supernaturalism. So with all this together, it makes perfect sense why we have four different writers during the early 100s ad, all writing about Christianity being a “mischievous superstition”, or, if we understand these concepts properly in their original language and context, Christianity would be seen as a religion of extreme devotion, centered around the magical concept of immortality, with the adherents having no fear of death. This is exactly the sort of picture we’re given from New Testament theology, with the resurrection of Jesus being what’s called the “first fruits” of the hope that all Christians will also be raised again. The Early Church had extreme devotion because they had witnessed the risen Christ, and they spat in the face of death because they had security that this resurrection was the same thing that would happen to them.
So as we wrap up these episodes about ancient non-Christian sources, we can see that those people writing during the time immediately following Christ not only confirm many things in the New Testament, but they even give us some elaboration, and fill in some of the details nicely for us. From these writings we learn that many people thought of Jesus as being able to do supernatural deeds, to the point His enemies had to accuse Him of sorcery, in order to put a negative spin on Jesus’ miracles. Jesus was called the messiah, He was quite virtuous, and was also a good teacher. He was also accused of blasphemy, which almost certainly refers to Jesus making claims to be God. We see that Jesus was crucified under Pilate, that the crucifixion was known to be unjust, and that many people started claiming the Jesus had been resurrected from the dead. From these resurrection claims, the disciples of Jesus were given enthusiasm and passion, because they had hope that the same resurrection would occur for them. This new group of “Christians” worshipped Jesus as God, while still being monotheists, they didn’t care about worldly wealth, and they shared all their belongings in common. Again, we learn all these things from people who were not Christians, and at times were even enemies of Christianity. In one case, we even get this information from a Roman politician, and enemy of the faith, who had done research into the faith to learn more about it. This is a far cry from the claims of the internet trolls that try and say that there is no non-Christian historical data to confirm what the New Testament says about Jesus Christ and the Early Church.
Hopefully this has helped you get the grander picture of some of the historical claims found in the New Testament. Next time, we’ll bring all of the data together to form a coherent argument. So far we’ve just been going through a lot of the historical details, which are very interesting in themselves, but when we piece everything together, we can make a very powerful case for the truth of Christianity. So I hope you’ll join me next time, as we begin looking at the argument for the resurrection, here on the Ultimate Questions podcast.