How Dangerous was Non-Conformity under Rome?

You have adopted the proper course, my dear Pliny, in examining into the cases of those who have been denounced to you as Christians, for no hard and fast rule can be laid down to meet a question of such wide extent. The Christians are not to be hunted out; if they are brought before you and the offence is proved, they are to be punished, but with this reservation – that if any one denies that he is a Christian and makes it clear that he is not, by offering prayers to our deities, then he is to be pardoned because of his recantation, however suspicious his past conduct may have been. But pamphlets published anonymously must not carry any weight whatever, no matter what the charge may be, for they are not only a precedent of the very worst type, but they are not in consonance with the spirit of our age.[1]

This correspondence of the emperor Trajan with Pliny the Younger, the sitting governor of Bithynia and Pontus, has been notorious in Christian circles for a long time. Even Tertullian was commenting on it about a century afterward. Most stunningly for moderns, Trajan advertises the Roman policy of religious repression in quasi-progressive terms: “Yes, my dear Pliny, punish, torture, and execute incorrigible Christians as they pop up, but let’s not have any witch-hunts now; this is the ninth century ab urbe condita, after all.”

Eyes may be rolled justifiably at Trajan’s self-congratulatory little tag—nec nostri saeculi est, such nonsense “doesn’t belong in our age,”—yet it and the rest of the letter tip the Roman hand, at least in this particular period, which comes near the apex of Roman power.

Namely, acute ideological, religious, or theological conformity did not necessarily constitute a political desideratum unto itself, certainly not as it has for many a modern regime. By the far the greater concern taking shape in the emperor’s mind is breakdown in the public social order. To be sure, Christians themselves might threaten that order in certain ways (e.g., their apparent egalitarianism for one, as per the female slaves apparently serving as officers for the community), though Pliny himself in the first letter seems at pains to stress that most of what they appear to be up to is fairly harmless on that front, albeit misguided.

As I stress to undergraduates, when we look at the Roman system, we need to jettison many unhelpful modern notions of state and empire from closer to our own time. Rome was not a proto-fascist or proto-Stalinist system; there was not a centurion on every street corner in Jesus’ Galilee; there was no strict ideological party line expected of its subjects, no corresponding “crimethink” inviting state violence. Such micromanagement was, in the main, too difficult and too expensive in antiquity, even had the emperors desired that level of oversight. In fact, through the first half of its history, the empire was a strikingly “federal” arrangement, so that as long as local elites kept things running quietly and brought in the taxes, that was typically enough for those back in the capital. And the total tax burden was, for what it’s worth, probably under a third of what we generally see in modern Western nations today. Rome was not a police state over top a command-and-control economy.

Of course, none of this means Rome’s administration was straightforwardly benevolent or tolerant in the modern sense—far from it. Let’s not miss the bare text for the context: Trajan and Pliny bespeak a fairly casual attitude toward judicial violence, provided certain thresholds are crossed. There are still some rigid, universally understood rules to this game, and people break them at their own risk.

If the general outline given above is more or less accurate, it also leaves it looking unlikely that, say, Paul was writing lots of coded criticism of the empire in between the lines of his own letters. Now, if a letter had somehow come before a first-century Pliny reading, “May the Lord Jesus Christ swiftly destroy the empire, the emperor, and all his officers!” then he would have been obliged to do a little digging into Paul and his associates.[2] Think of Pilate in the gospels: with comparable charges of threatening the Rome-sanctioned order of things, he examines Jesus but inclines to let him off, and in a far more volatile Palestinian context where such charges had a much better chance of veracity.

Or take Ephesians 6:12. “For our battle is not with flesh and blood, but with the offices, with the authorities, with the world-rulers of this darkness, with the spiritual things of wickedness in the heavens”—this too would have been liable to raise Roman eyebrows, especially the first two terms for the opposition. Whatever one thinks about the authorship or the exact theological meaning of this line, it seems improbable that an early Christian especially worried about censorship and consequent persecution would have used this language, which was at least open to be being misread as political troublemaking.

Or to trace out the dynamics from the opposite angle: even for a fairly blatant, perhaps even seditious text, such as the War Scroll of Qumran, there are still certain elements that would have been unclear to a Roman governor, had it come to his attention and been translated for him into perfect Latin or Greek. Presumably, the “anti-Kittim” (i.e., anti-Roman) thrust of the War Scroll was obvious and essentially “un-coded” to all its intended readers, nor at Qumran would there have been much worry about Roman censors looking over the shoulder of the scribes. In other words, certain things can still look esoteric or coded to an outsider, even when there’s little concern about censorship for the insiders. This, I suspect, is more how Paul and others are operating in their writings. They were saying what they meant, but much closer to the surface of the text and not so much in fear of Roman punishment. That Rome and its emperor were “problematic” in various ways would have been plain to any Jew or Christian (and not a few pagans) who gave it much thought. On the other hand, the imperial system seems not have served as an especially high-priority ideological or theological target, which is the real rub for many: it is embarrassing to contemporary sensibilities that expect vibrant critique, protest, and resistance to the political realm.

  2. See the text of the War Scroll here:


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