Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Colossians 3:11
Jesus was in his twenties when Gaius Plinius (Secundus, II or Jr.) was born in 23 AD in Como, northern Italy. His father Gaius was an Equities, a class of people just below the Roman senator class. The Equities or Equestrians owned land and typically served as leaders in the military.
The Gaius family descended from 4,500 Roman colonists that were placed in Como, Italy as a force to subdue Alp tribal warriors in 59 BC. Julius Caesar himself picked these families, and these families were fiercely loyal to Rome.
His father took his son Gaius to Rome to be educated by the most excellent writers and orators. In the early thirties, while Jesus was starting his ministry in Galilee, mobilizing a ragtag group of uneducated fisherman and the likes, Gaius was being educated at Rome learning from the likes of Servilius Nonianus.
Gaius was in Rome when Jesus rose from the dead in 33 AD finishing his education. Thirteen years later, Gaius was in the Roman military, and they were conquering German lands. Entire villages were destroyed. Roman military mercy was to spare poor villagers lives if they became slaves of the Roman empire. Millions took the deal. Many estimate that up to 40% of the Roman homeland were slaves. The slave traders swooped in after each Roman conquest. This practice made the military leaders rich. Gaius became wealthy while serving in the military.
By the time of Nero, Gaius was in Rome again, but he went out of his way to focus his law and writing career on things that would not get the attention of the lunatic Nero. He gave himself to studying grammar during Nero’s reign, a safe subject.
Nero blamed the burning of Rome on the Christians in 64 AD. Most believed that Nero was insane, and the Christians had nothing to do with the burning of Rome. Both the Apostle Paul and Peter were said to have been martyred at the hands of this madman.
Likely, Gaius never met St. Peter or St. Paul.
After the death of Nero by suicide in 68 AD, and after a time of unrest, the next Emperor Vespasian appointed Gaius to various government posts. Gaius knew Vespasian from their early military days. He was a governor in northern Africa. His last position was admiral for the Roman fleet at Misenum.
Aside from his government appointments, Gaius became passionate about encyclopedic knowledge. His grand opus was a book called “Natural History” published in 77 AD. This book was considered the Wikipedia of its day. He wrote about such things as nations, animals, and even plant remedies. If you wanted to know about gold mines, you could read how slaves worked them. For example, Gaius wrote,
By the light of lamps long tunnels are cut into the mountains… The miners carry the ore out on their shoulders, each man forming part of a human chain working in the dark, only those at the end seeing the daylight… men may not see daylight for months on end.
It was said that Gaius read, researched, and wrote continuously, sometimes falling asleep in mid-sentence only to wake up to read and write more. In many ways, he reflected the best of Roman writing, remarkable for the first century.
Gaius was a remarkable Roman figure. He was a wealthy lawyer, military officer, a governor, a researcher, a writer, a grammarian, a friend to the Emporer, and an admiral.
Gaius never married, and no biological children are known. His sister Plinia married Lucius Caecilius Clio. She bore a son named Gaius after her brother, so they had high respect for Gaius. This honor was not lost to Gaius. Lucius Caecilius died at a young age, and his sister, Plinia and her son came under the care of brother Gaius. History records that Plinia bore her brother’s legacy.
Gaius treated his sister’s son as his own. He adopted him as his heir. Gaius made sure young Gaius, his namesake was educated with the proper tutors. Gaius himself tutored his nephew. They had a special relationship. So close that history knows Gaius as Pliny the Elder, and his adopted nephew, Gaius, as Pliny the Younger.
When Pliny the Elder was serving as an Admiral for the Roman fleet in 79 AD at Misenum, Mount Vesuvius erupted and Pliny the Elder went on a rescue mission where he lost his life. The account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius has been passed down by Pliny the Younger, who at age 18 chronicled the events and the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder.
Twenty-five later, Pliny the Younger wrote down a detailed account of the eruption for the historian Tacitus. The report still stands today as a somewhat accurate depiction of the happenings of a volcanic eruption. In this remarkable account, the Younger made his uncle, Pliny the Elder, a hero who gave his life to rescue people caught in this national tragedy.
Pliny the Younger, like his uncle, excelled at writing. He also excelled at staying on the right side of Roman emperors. His life depended on it, and he was smart enough to know that. One emperor had an order on his desk to have the Younger executed. That order was not carried out because that Emporer happened to be assassinated before that order was completed.
Pliny the Younger inherited his uncle’s estates and served the Roman emperors throughout his career that spanned from 80 AD to 113 AD.
Wikipedia’s article on Pliny the Younger condenses his life and significance in two brief paragraphs,
Pliny the Younger wrote hundreds of letters, of which 247 survive and are of great historical value. Some are addressed to reigning emperors or to notables such as the historian Tacitus. Pliny served as an imperial magistrate under Trajan(reigned 98–117),and his letters to Trajan provide one of the few surviving records of the relationship between the imperial office and provincial governors.
His last government post before his death in the early years of the second century find him as imperial governor in Bithynia, modern-day Turkey. Pliny the Younger is near the age of his uncle when his uncle died at Vesuvius, and he is serving Emperor Trajan.
Many of Pliny the Younger’s surviving letters have been preserved for us to read today. He asked Emporer Trajan governance advice. He reported stories he found interesting. He wrote a story about how a master was beaten and left for dead. The master was pretending to be dead, however. Piny wrote how the master got revenge on his slaves.
Trajan was persecuting and executing Christians as Nero had done. The year is between 110-113 AD, about 80 years after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Pliny is encountering Christians. Christianity is rapidly spreading. It is considered a new religious movement separate from Judaism. Christianity is spreading its way to Bithynia.
Christianity is not well funded as it spreads. The bishops are growth-orientated, and they are appointing called and responsible Christian leaders in every rank of society. Ordinarily, these leaders are volunteers. The professional clergy shows up in mass two hundred years later.
Most new ministers were volunteers trained and ordained as a Deacon (Greek) first. In Latin, Deacon translates as the word “minister.”
Pliny the Younger encountered Christians, and he wrote a famous letter that survived. Here it is: Letter from Georgetown University
Pliny 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 ministers. 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
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.
Christianity was spreading throughout the Roman empire and beyond. While Christians were increasing in every area of the empire. It is interesting that Pliny the Younger wrote to Roman Emperor Trajan between 110-113 AD that Christianity was spreading like a contagion.
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.
Christianity Brought Disruptive Change
The Roman culture was built on the religious premise that Caesar was Lord. Augustus started the emperor cult. This cult was not just about piety or honor to the ruler. This cult represented the Roman way or culture. Katherine Crawford of St. Olaf College wrote, “After Augustus, [the emperor] cult was firmly implemented in the Roman Empire and was used by successive emperors as a way to maintain control of the Roman state.” http://wp.chs.harvard.edu/sunoikisis/files/2011/04/Crawford.pdf
Jesus was born while Caesar Augustus was still Emperor. Thirty-three years later, Jesus was crucified as a criminal and died on a cross with the emperor cult a factor in his demise.
But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”
“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.
“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered. (John 19:15)
There is no getting around the fact that the Christian message challenged the authority of Caesar and the Roman way of life. Pilate mockingly inscribed on Jesus’ cross the words, “King of the Jews.” When Jesus rose from the dead, he rose as King over life and death – and everything in between.
In 110 AD, the Christian message was quickly spreading. By this time, the Roman government started persecution campaigns because of this disruptive message that threatened to place Jesus as Lord of life, death, and even culture. Christians were in trouble with the law. Many were imprisoned; many were martyred.
Christianity threatened the Roman way of life and the worship of the Emperor. Christianity claimed a message that exalted Jesus, a Jewish peasant carpenter, as the Lord over every authority, even life and death. Christians believe that Jesus is Lord, their “emperor” so to speak, not Caesar. The Apostle Paul put it this way: “For in Christ, all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, power, and authority.” (Colossians 2:9-10)
The emperor cult stressed the point that Caesar saved humanity. Christians underlined the point that Jesus saves humanity.
Interestingly, Christianity appealed to large numbers of people in the Roman Empire. Donald L. Wasson observed that “Christianity continued to spread across the empire, appealing to women and slaves as well as intellectuals and the illiterate.” http://www.ancient.eu/Roman_Religion/
By 112 AD, when Pliny the Younger wrote about Christians, Pliny sensed that Christianity was a threat to the Roman way of life and religious thought. He wrote that Christians were everywhere, “for there are many of every age, of every rank, and of both sexes, who are now and hereafter likely to be called to account, and to be in danger; for this ‘superstition’ is spread like a contagion, not only into cities and towns, but into country villages.” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/maps/primary/pliny.html
While Trajan did not ruthlessly seek out Christians for martyrdom, he did consider their offenses against the Emperor worthy of death. Pliny enforced his policies with moderation. Pliny investigated the seriousness of the problem. He found some Christians who would not deny Christ. Some recanted their faith. Some he executed and some he set free.
Pliny arrested two female slaves and wrote about the proceedings.
These examinations made me think it necessary to inquire by torments what the truth was; which I did of two servant maids (female slaves), who were called Deacons (deacons in the Greek; ministers in Latin): but still I discovered no more than that they were addicted to a bad and to an extravagant superstition. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/maps/primary/pliny.html
Pliny tortured these deacon ministers likely causing their deaths. While he found out that they were “addicted to a bad and an extravagant superstition.” What did that “bad and extravagant superstition” look like? Maybe something like, “Jesus is Lord. I am an image-bearer of God. I have hope over death because of the resurrection of the dead of Jesus Christ.” Maybe they shared the ideas of Colossians 3:11, “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all.”
The Deacon Slave Minister Enters the World Stage
Why did Pliny go out of his way to mention to Trajan that he tortured two female deacon ministers who were slaves? He questioned many people. Indicating that he arrested two female deacons who were slaves and tortured them seems insignificant. Why mention it? Why not share what he found out from two citizens?
I believe that Pliny wanted to mention the slave women called deacons (ministrae). Pliny wrote Latin here, and he used the word “ministrae,” which translates into English as a minister. The Latin word “ministry” is translated from the Greek word “diakonos”, which translates as “deacon, minister or servant.” He wanted to communicate that the Christians have leaders who are slave women, called deacons. I believe Pliny wanted Emperor Trajan to know that these women ministers were slaves.
The message between the lines was: “Sir, these Christians are a threat! Their ministers also include slave women. Sir, they are mobilizing the slave women to be their leaders. Remember Spartacus! Sir, this group should be persecuted, what is your advice? These are criminals against the state.”
Much of Roman society was built on the backs and bosoms of slave labor. Slavery was widespread in ancient Rome. Historian Mark Cartwright comments on this:
Slavery was an ever-present feature of the Roman world. Slaves served in households, agriculture, mines, manufacturing workshops, construction and a wide range of services within the city. As many as 1 in 3 of the population in Italy or 1 in 5 across the empire were slaves and upon this foundation of forced labour was built the entire edifice of the Roman state and society.
The Romans needed the slaves to stay slaves. Any religion that mobilized slaves to be the leaders was offensive.
Imagine the disgust of Roman leaders who presided over an empire keen on keeping thirty-five to forty percent of the population serving their needs. These male and female slaves were treated as property. They could not marry or determine their destinies.
Romans treated slaves poorly, female slaves, even worse. Owners expected them to do their bidding regardless of the consequences. Many male owners showed little sexual restraint to the point of abusing their female slaves. Owners considered them as property, and they did not have legal rights.
Author Neel Burton wrote, In Ancient Rome, “slaves were regarded as property and lacked the legal standing that protected a citizen’s body. A freeman who forced a slave into having sex could not be charged with rape, but only under laws relating to property damage, and then only by the slave’s owner.” Neil Burton, Psychology Today
The slave women were objects of sexual domination for their owners. Carolyn Osiek writes, “No legal recognition is granted to the sexual privacy of the female slave.” (Carolyn Osiek; Margaret Y. MacDonald; Janet H. Tulloch. A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity (Kindle Location 1344). Kindle Edition.)
The role of a female slave was defined in Roman culture. A female slave was not a person; she was property. She was not allowed to marry. When she bore a child, the child was a slave. Even if the father was the master, the child was still a slave. The slave child was not considered a son or daughter of the slave owner. This slave child did not belong to her, but her owner. She raised her child as the owner’s property. Edgar S. Shumway said, “The prevailing view of the Roman slave was that he/she was a thing and not a person.” (Freedom and Slavery in Roman Law“, Edgar S. Shumway)
I find it ironic, that the title “minister,” is used in this official Roman government business between Pliny and Emperor Trajan. The title is cast upon two female slaves. Christianity appeared as something very different from anything ever seen before.
The Disruptive Message of the Gospel
The message of the Christians also challenged the Roman worldview to its core.
The worldview of the Christian faith was that all people are image-bearers of God and have intrinsic value in Christ. Female slaves included! Christians were ordaining deacon ministers who were women and slaves. Christians were seeing the slaves in the Roman empire as “brothers and sisters,” not property. This view was evidenced in recent archeological digs. Early Christian.org reports,
The pagan writer Celsus criticized Christianity in the second century for being a cult of the low, women, slaves, and children – “only foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children” (http://www.bluffton.edu/courses/humanities/1/celsus.htm) Christianity reached the lowest strata. Women and slaves, the ignorant and children, were given value in the early church. Christianity mobilized ministers including men and women, freeborn or slave born. They were made out to be criminals, and many died for their “crimes.”
The Romans Feared Slave Leaders
Since so much of the Roman Empire consisted of slave labor. Would the Romans fear slave uprisings? Yes! The stories of Spartacus were well documented. Here a slave led a slave uprising that has been the subject of many books and movies.
Even Pliny who was mentioned before as writing about the two female deacons (ministers) also wrote about rogue slaves. Fear of slaves was on his mind. He wrote,
What a shocking story I have to tell you, and one worthy of more than just a simple letter! Larcius Macedo, a man of praetorian rank, suffered a terrible fate at the hands of his slaves. (Admittedly he was an arrogant and cruel master who remembered too little, or perhaps too well, that his own father had once been a slave.) He was bathing in his villa at formiae. Suddenly his slaves surrounded him. One began to strangle him, another punched him in the face, yet another beat him on the chest, stomach, and even (it makes me sick to report) the genital area. When they thought he was dead, they threw him onto the red-hot floor to see if he was still alive. He, whether unconscious or pretending to be, lay stretched out and still, confirming their opinion that death had come. Finally they carried him out of the bath as if he had been overcome by the heat. His more faithful slaves took his body, and his concubines ran up, wailing and shouting, But then, awakened by their voices and refreshed by the cool air, he raised his eyelids and moved his body to indicate that he was still alive. The treacherous slaves fled in all directions, but many were caught, although a few are still being sought. He himself, although barely kept alive for a few days, nonetheless did not die without the satisfaction of revenge since the slaves were punished while he was still alive in the same way that murderers are punished. Do you realize how many dangers, how many injuries, how many abuses we may be exposed to? And no one can feel safe, even if he is a lenient and kind master. Slaves are ruined by their own evil natures, not by a master’s cruelty.” —Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.14
What about female slaves? Were they a threat? Carolyn Osiek writes this,
Nor were female slaves less to be feared in the case of rebellion. Diodorus Siculus, for instance, relates that in the Sicilian slave uprising of circa 135 BCE, one couple, Megallis and Damophilus of Enna, were known to have been especially abusive to their slaves, in contrast to their daughter, who tried constantly to undo the damage by kindness. When the slaves revolted, the daughter was given safe passage, while Megallis was handed over to her female slaves, who tortured her and threw her off a cliff (34.10, 13, 39). Carolyn Osiek;Margaret Y. MacDonald;Janet H. Tulloch. A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity (Kindle Locations 1418-1419). Kindle Edition.
Christianity is not a “social gospel,” meaning that Christianity was not attempting to make the freeing of slaves the purpose of the cause of its existence. Instead, within the confines of the customs and strata of the given culture, Christianity sees a person as God would see them. While on earth, they might be a slave, in the heavenly kingdom, they are image-bearers of Christ who are even deacon ministers. Eventually, later Christian leaders wrote against Christians participating in the institution of slavery. Many slaves who were Christians would become prominent witnesses or leaders in the early period of Christianity. The story of the slavegirl Blandina showed the bravery and courage of this young slave woman who suffered martyrdom at the hand of the Romans.
This heavenly kingdom in Christ pattern has repeated itself in many issues.
Pliny may have found it laughable that two WOMEN and SLAVES, were afforded the title of MINISTER. If he took it seriously, he took it as a threat to the Roman way of life and the cult of the emperor.
The fact was that Christianity highly regarded slaves as image-bearers and potential leaders. This fact is illustrated by the former slaves who were even made into the Popes.
Notice the Christian way of social transformation. It is subtle but powerful. Christianity proposes a new narrative about human value concerning “race and rank” from a spiritual perspective. “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11)
The Mobilization of Local Christian Leaders
The story of the early spread of Christianity is a case study in the mobilization of local Christian leaders. This mobilization included every rank: slave or free, low born or high born, every economic status, each gender, every education level. Many were in trouble with the law because of their faith. The spread of early Christianity was potent and irresistible. The participants and leaders were from local stock. The early church raised up effective leaders who quickly reproduced themselves in their communities. Christianity spread to renew, restore, and revive individuals, families, and communities. The goal was to reach the whole world with the gospel.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
The early spread of Christianity has reached people and inspired Christian leaders for 2,000 years now. The growth continues. Christianity will bring renewal, restoration, and revival foreshadowing the making of all things new when Christ returns.
Maybe you are considered the low of the low; God may be calling you to bring renewal to this world. Perhaps you are in the middle class, do you sense his irresistible calling to bring restoration? Maybe you are well off financially, but you know you are called to bring revival. Still today, like in the early days of Christianity, I want Pliny’s word to be repeated of Christianity,