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§ 31. Pagan Opposition. Tacitus and Pliny.

The Greek and Roman writers of the first century, and some of the second, as Seneca, the elder Pliny, and even the mild and noble Plutarch, either from ignorance or contempt, never allude to Christianity at all.

Tacitus and the younger Pliny, contemporaries and friends of the emperor Trajan, are the first to notice it; and they speak of it only incidentally and with stoical disdain and antipathy, as an "exitiabilis superstition" "prava et immodica superstitio," "inflexibilis obstinatio." These celebrated and in their way altogether estimable Roman authors thus, from manifest ignorance, saw in the Christians nothing but superstitious fanatics, and put them on a level with the hated Jews; Tacitus, in fact, reproaching them also with the "odium generis humani." This will afford some idea of the immense obstacles which the new religion encountered in public opinion, especially in the cultivated circles of the Roman empire. The Christian apologies of the second century also show, that the most malicious and gratuitous slanders against the Christians were circulated among the common people, even charges of incest and cannibalism,7676    Οἰδιπόδειοι μίξεις, incesti concubitus; and θυεστεῖα δεῖπνα, Thyesteae epulae5 which may have arisen in part from a misapprehension of the intimate brotherly love of the Christians, and their nightly celebration of the holy supper and love-feasts.

Their Indirect Testimony to Christianity.

On the other hand, however, the scanty and contemptuous allusions of Tacitus and Pliny to Christianity bear testimony to a number of facts in the Gospel History. Tacitus, in giving an account of the Neronian persecution, incidentally attests, that Christ was put to death as a malefactor by Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius; that he was the founder of the Christian sect, that the latter took its rise in Judaea and spread in spite of the ignominious death of Christ and the hatred and contempt it encountered throughout the empire, so that a "vast multitude" (multitudo ingens) of them were most cruelly put to death in the city of Rome alone as early as the year 64. He also bears valuable testimony, in the fifth book of his History, together with Josephus, from whom he mainly, though not exclusively takes his account, to the fulfilment of Christ’s prophecy concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and the overthrow of the Jewish theocracy.

As to Pliny’s famous letter to Trajan, written about 107, it proves the rapid spread of Christianity in Asia Minor at that time among all ranks of society, the general moral purity and steadfastness of its professors amid cruel persecution, their mode and time of worship, their adoration of Christ as God, their observance of a "stated day," which is undoubtedly Sunday, and other facts of importance in the early history of the Church. Trajan’s rescript in reply to Pliny’s inquiry, furnishes evidence of the innocence of the Christians; he notices no charge against them except their disregard of the worship of the gods, and forbids them to be sought for. Marcus Aurelius testifies, in one brief and unfriendly allusion, to their eagerness for the crown of martyrdom.

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