Pliny: Letters from Bithynia c. AD112
Pliny, sent to administrate the disorderly province of Bithynia by Emperor Trajan, wrote to the Emperor seeking advice on how to deal with a troublesome group known as “Christians”.
Pliny complained that “many of all ages and every rank and also of both sexes” were involved in the movement, and that like a spreading disease “not the cities only, but also the villages and the country” were affected. Temples had been deserted and those who sold food for sacrifices were going out of business.
Upon interrogating the “Christians” he found out what they believed. He wrote to Trajan;
“They maintain, however, that the amount of their fault and error had been this, that it was their habit on a fixed day to assemble before daylight and recite by turns a form of the words of Christ as a god; and that they bound themselves with an oath, not for any crime, but not to commit theft or robbery or adultery, not to break their word, and not to deny a deposit when demanded. After this was done, their custom was to depart, and to meet again to take food, but ordinary and harmless food.”
Peter’s first letter is addressed to those of Bithynia, among others.
Tactius: writing about the fire in Rome AD64
Tacitus was made governor of the province of Asia soon after Pliny’s appointment in Bithynia. He had a reputation as a historian. In his ‘Annals of Imperial Rome’, written about the same time as Pliny’s letters, he records how the Emperor Nero tried to divert blame for lighting a fire that destroyed three quarters of Rome onto the Christians.
“But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. 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 Pilate, and a deadly superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but also in the City [Rome], where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who confessed; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of arson, as of hatred of the human race.”
Suetonius: writing about Rome c. AD49
Speaks damningly of Christians as
“A class of man given to a new and wicked superstition”. He relates an incident in AD49 that, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.”
Among these were Aquila and Pricilla who settled in Corinth (Acts 18:2-3).
Josephus is the best known of non-Christian Jewish authorities. An aristocratic Pharisee, he wrote the Jewish Antiquities in AD 90’s. In his writings he speaks of “James, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ”, confirming that Jesus was called Christ and that His brother was called James. The most famous reference to Jesus in Josephus’ works, although disputed, is known as the Testimonium Flavianum:
“About that time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.” (Antiquities 18:63,64)
- Christians lived in Bithynia very soon after the death of Christ.
- Christianity sometimes destroyed the business side of other religions (Acts 19:24)
- Christians met for worship on a set day and ate together (Acts 20:7)
- Christians prayed to Jesus as a god (or God).
- The public career of Christ occurred in the time of Emperor Tiberius (Luke 3:1)
- Pontius Pilate was the govenor when Christ died (Matthew 27:2; Acts 3:13)
- Christ was executed as a criminal (Luke 23:2)
- This occurred in Judaea (Mark 11:16)
- The movement spread from Jerusalem to Rome (Acts 1:4 and 28:14)
Both Pliny and Tacitus confirm that the virulent new movement was fast growing. Tacitus even refers them to them as ‘a class’.
This reminds us of Paul’s opponents complaint in Acts 17:6 that “These men…have turned the world upside down.” Or the Jews question to Paul in Rome (AD62) about, “this sect…that everywhere…is spoken against.” (Acts 28:22).
Suetonius confirms that:
- The Emperor Claudius expelled Christians from Rome (Acts 18:2-3).
- many of the details of the gospel as it was recorded by the early disciples.
Christian Confirmation Of The New Testament
The coming of Jesus and the activity of the apostles, spoken and written, sparked off an explosion of Christian literature in the second and third centuries. Three authors wrote close to the year 100—Clement in about 96, Ignatius in about 108 and Polycarp in about 110. What is significant for this discussion is that these writers quote from, or refer to, many books of the New Testament.
In the first dozen sentences of Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, written in about 110, he quotes from Acts, First Peter, Ephesians and the gospel of Matthew, thus establishing that these books were in use by the time he wrote.
Altogether Polycarp attests the existence of:
In his seven short letters written, c. 108, Ignatius quotes or refers to:
1 & 3 John
Clement, writing from Rome to Corinth, c.96, refers to:
On the basis of these three early Christian authors it can be stated that twenty-five pieces of the New Testament were definitely in circulation by about the year 100. By that date 1 Thessalonians had been used for almost 50 years.
From this we can summarise that:
- Paul’s letters were written in the period c.50-c.65AD
- Apart from 2 John & Jude, the remaining parts of the NT were written after c.33 and were in use by the nineties.
It is interesting to note that the literature concerning other great figures of history often goes undisputed yet was written long after their demise. One example is Alexander the Great who died in 323BC and his major historian wrote only in the AD130’s, over 400 years after his death.
Pliny, the Roman governor of Bithynia wrote in AD112 of the church, “it was their habit on a fixed day to assemble”. 40 years later the Christian writer, Justin, described what happened in Rome when Christians met in this way;
“On the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together to the one place, and the memoirs of the apostles (the gospels) or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.”
Given the slowness and expense of the copying process (there were no printing presses) and the relatively brief space of time, these early versions read in Rome would have almost certainly been copied directly from the original manuscripts by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John or ones very close to them.
Half a century after Justin, these Greek documents were copied into Latin for reading in Latinized Africa, Gaul, and Spain as well as Italy. By the fourth Century the New Testament had been translated into Coptic and Syriac. And so on. The scriptures were translated from language to language for reading on the “fixed day” when the church met together.
Profusion of manuscripts
Half a century after Justin, these Greek documents were copied into Latin for reading in Latinized Africa, Gaul, and Spain as well as Italy. By the fourth Century the New Testament had been translated into Coptic and Syriac. And so on. The scriptures were translated from language to language for reading on the “fixed day” when the church met together. This habit of meeting to read together led to a profusion and preservation of the scriptures. As more churches began, the demand for more copies grew. There still exist over five thousand early manuscript copies or fragments of the New Testament in Greek. In addition to these there are numerous translations in Coptic, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian etc.
If we contrast this with another early work such as Tacitus’ ‘Annals of Imperial Rome’, the chief historical source for information about the Roman world in New Testament times, the difference in dramatic. There is only one surviving manuscript for Annals 1 to 6 (discovered c.1510), only one for Annals 11 to 16 (discovered c.1430). Neither manuscript is earlier than the middle ages. Annals 7 to 10 are missing.
Avalanche of early Christian books
The Ante-Nicene Library, a huge collection of writings written in the first 200 years after the book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, was completed, comprises 10 large volumes (each volume several times longer than the NT itself) written by Christian intellectuals and leaders, explaining and defending the faith. These writers often quoted at length from the NT scriptures, and these quotations are used to check early manuscripts of the New Testament. Almost the entire NT could be recovered from this library alone.
Stephen Neill, a Biblical scholar, after much study into this area, concluded thus;
“We have a far better and more reliable text of the New Testament than of any other ancient work whatever, and the measure of uncertainty is really rather small…Anyone who reads the New Testament in any one of half a dozen recent Greek editions, or in any modern translation, can feel confident that, though there may be uncertainties in detail, in almost everything of importance he is close indeed to the text of the New Testament books as they were originally written.”