Who Was Pliny the Younger? (And What He Said About Jesus)

Written by Joshua Schachterle, Ph.D

Author |  Professor | BE Contributor

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Date written: May 6th, 2024

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

If you look for sources about early Christian history, you may see a figure named Pliny the Younger mentioned in connection to Jesus and find yourself asking “Who was Pliny the Younger?”

Pliny is one of several non-Christian sources about Jesus and the Christian religion written during its early development. Unlike Tacitus, for example, Pliny was not a Roman historian who wrote about Jesus but rather a person of political authority writing official letters about Christians. But why is this person so important for our knowledge of early Christianity?

In this article, I’ll provide a biography of this Roman statesman and prolific letter-writer, explain his connection to early Christians, and demonstrate what his letters can tell us about Jesus and early Christianity in the Roman Empire.

Who Was Pliny the Younger_ (And How He Proved Jesus' Existence)

Who Was Pliny the Younger?

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Younger, was born in what is now Como, Italy in the year 61 CE. He was born into a wealthy family of great privilege. His mother was the sister of Pliny the Elder, a famous Roman author and naturalist (more about him later).

His grandfather, Gaius Caecilius, was a Senator and wealthy landowner. Pliny’s bright future was virtually assured by just being born into such an eminent family. Nevertheless, his father died when he was quite young and he likely grew up with his single mother.

In his letters, Pliny notes that he was educated from a young age by some of the best tutors, organized and hired by his official guardian Lucius Verginius Rufus who was himself famous for helping to stop an uprising against the emperor Nero when Pliny was a child.

At some point in his adolescence, Pliny was sent to Rome for further education, a common practice among Roman elite families. There he was taught by Quintilian, one of the most famous teachers of rhetoric and oratory in his time.

Pliny notes in his letters that while in Rome as a teenager, he became closer to his famous uncle, Pliny the Elder (real name: Gaius Plinius Secundus). This led to one of the most significant events in Pliny the Younger’s life.

In 77 CE, Pliny the Elder, known as a scholar, published his Natural History, a massive, multi-volume work that many would call the first encyclopedia. By modern standards, the science in the book is highly inaccurate, but Trevor Murphy notes that for historians, it provides a useful glance into Roman thought about science and nature in the 1st century CE.

Two years later, Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other nearby cities. Pliny the Elder, who was also commander of the Roman navy, was in the area aboard a ship and tried to mount a rescue mission at Herculaneum. However, during this heroic attempt, he was ultimately asphyxiated by toxic volcanic gasses and died.

Pliny the Younger, only 17 or 18 at the time, writes in a letter that he himself was nearby at a city called Misenum and saw much of the eruption and its effects, only later learning of his revered uncle’s tragic death.

There was a bright spot for Pliny the Younger, however. Pliny the Elder had left his entire estate to Pliny the Younger, whom he officially adopted as part of his will (this was a common practice in ancient Rome, granting higher status to the adoptee). Added to his already significant family wealth and status, this inheritance allowed Pliny to begin a successful and ambitious career.

At the age of 18, Pliny began his vocation in the Roman legal system. He was a lawyer, initially dealing with inheritance cases and later prosecuting or defending a number of provincial governors accused of malfeasance. This type of livelihood was a common steppingstone for wealthy Roman men toward becoming statesmen.

In the late 80s CE, when he was still in his twenties, he became a Senator. Not long after, he was elected Quaestor, a kind of public official, a high honor on the way to achieving even more status and power. In this way he quickly rose through the ranks, eventually appointed as an imperial governor of the Bithynia-Pontus region (in modern-day Turkey) by the emperor Trajan in about 110 CE.

Pliny died in Bithynia-Pontus of unknown causes in 113 CE at the age of 52.

Why Are Pliny’s Letters Important for the History of Christianity?

Pliny wrote enormous numbers of letters throughout his lifetime. Fortunately for us, a whopping 247 of them survive. They give us fascinating insights into Roman history, Roman government, and other aspects of 1st-century (elite) Roman life.

While he himself was not a historian, he wrote letters to historians like Tacitus who used those letters as source material. Tacitus’ narrative of the eruption of Vesuvius, for example, came largely from Pliny’s letter on the subject. In addition, if you read between the lines a bit, his letters are one of the few Roman documents on Jesus.

What can we learn about early Christianity from Pliny’s letters?

Pliny lived from 61-113 CE, a time when Christianity was developing and spreading into the Roman Empire. As an imperial governor, Pliny came face to face with this new sect. In other words, he had to come to terms with this new religion and figure out whether or not it was a threat.

Philip Carrington writes that while the origins of the Christian community in the Bithynia-Pontus region are unknown, they have long been associated with the Apostle Paul. This makes historical sense since we know that a large part of Paul’s missionary activity occurred in what is now Turkey. If indeed the Bithynia-Pontus community did go back to Paul, then it had been there for decades before Pliny’s arrival.

Stephen Benko writes that the region of Bithynia-Pontus was viewed by Rome as being in disorder at the beginning of the 2nd century, which is why the emperor Trajan handpicked Pliny, who had proven himself as a public official, to be its governor. However, despite Pliny’s great legal experience, he admits that he had never investigated Christians before and so wrote to Trajan for advice.

Although we tend to picture Christians being constantly hounded in mass persecutions in the Roman Empire, there was no official persecution in Pliny’s time. For this reason, Timothy Barnes writes that until 249 CE, long after Pliny’s life, “actual persecution…was local, sporadic, almost random."

However, like all new religions in Rome, Christianity was maligned by vicious rumors, making it seem like this newest sect could be dangerous and/or criminal. Everett Ferguson notes that although Pliny’s letter to Trajan doesn’t mention the actual charges brought against Christians, they likely involved atheism – in this case meaning the denial of other gods –, cannibalism – likely based on the ritual of the Eucharist - , and incest – possibly based on the “brother and sister” language used by early Christians, sometimes even between spouses.

proof of jesus christ

What Does Pliny’s Letter to Trajan Say about Jesus and Christianity?

In the opening of Pliny’s letter 10.96-97, he writes that Christians have been brought before him for trial.  Having never prosecuted any Christians, he needed to know a few things. This indicates, by the way, that he probably knows that Christians have been brought to trial elsewhere in the empire and that he therefore believes there must be an official protocol for dealing with them.

In this opening, Pliny asks Trajan three specific questions:

  1. Should he treat Christians differently according to their ages? In other words, should he grant more clemency to very young Christians than to adults?
  2. Should he automatically pardon Christians who deny being Christians?
  3. Is the name “Christian,” when applied to a person, enough to convict them?

This last question was particularly significant, since, as A.N. Sherwin-White writes, when a new religious movement was legally banned in the Roman Empire, merely being called by the name of that movement was often enough to ensure a conviction.

Pliny goes on to report to Trajan about his trial procedure. He first asked the defendant if they were a Christian. If they said yes, he asked them twice more, allowing them three chances to renounce their Christian identity or face execution. If they didn’t recant, he executed them or sent them to Rome for trial if they were Roman citizens.

Those who denied being Christians were ordered to sacrifice to the gods. If they did this, they were freed. Those who claimed to be former Christians were also asked to sacrifice to the gods in Pliny’s presence. If they did so, they were also released.

Christians who refused to sacrifice, however, were then executed. Although there is nothing funny about capital punishment, it’s a bit amusing to see that Pliny complains bitterly that the mere stubbornness of Christians in declining to sacrifice should be enough to require them to be punished.

The next section of Pliny’s letter is truly fascinating for historians of early Christianity. In it, Pliny details what the Christians say are their religious practices. This gives us an unprecedented window into early Christian practice and the Roman view of it.

First, Pliny writes that Christians gather on a certain day (he doesn’t say which day) and sing hymns to Christ “as to a god.” This in itself is intriguing because it shows that at least some early Christians must have had a high Christology, believing that Jesus was God in some sense.

What do we learn from Pliny the Younger on Jesus? Pliny clearly finds it strange that Christians worship Christ at all. This is probably because he knows of Christ as a real person. Christians may think Jesus is divine, but Pliny knows who Jesus was, a crucified criminal. While this is not irrefutable proof of Jesus Christ, it does indicate that even those who hated Christians believed that Jesus was a real human being.

Next, he says they all take an oath not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery. In the letter, Pliny almost seems disappointed that the Christians don’t instead pledge to commit these and other crimes. It would have made prosecution so much easier!

Finally, he says the Christians share a meal of what he calls “ordinary and innocent food.” The phrase “innocent food” is probably a reference to the charges of cannibalism sometimes proffered against Christians, likely from a misunderstanding of the ritual and meaning of the Eucharist.

One thing to note here is that there is no mention of biblical readings or readings of any kind. This is not an eyewitness account of Christian practices, of course, but if this group had been regularly reading texts as part of their gatherings, you’d think Pliny would have mentioned it.

In conclusion, Pliny notes that he had outlawed political associations in the region in order to prevent rebellion. Christians had apparently been considered one of these organizations, but Pliny notes that they had fully complied and had stopped meeting.

This doesn’t mean that Pliny thought the Christians were benign. In fact, he ends the letter by saying that Christianity is potentially dangerous, spreading as it is throughout the empire, but that he thinks it’s not too late to stop it.

Did You Know?

Because Christianity went on to be such a successful religion, we often think that Rome’s persecution of it was unique. However, Rome was very distrustful of any new religious sects, which they usually called superstitions, and persecuted many of them out of existence.

For example, L.F. Janssen writes that an unnamed sect was persecuted in 428 BCE when it was believed that they had been responsible for a drought. Additionally, leading members of a cult of the god Bacchus – god of wine and carousing – were executed in 186 BCE when Roman authorities believed they had gotten out of hand and Celtic Druids in various regions of the empire were treated similarly.

It turns out that when Roman authorities persecuted Christians, they were simply following their long-held anti-superstition policies.

Trajan’s Reply to Pliny

Compared with Pliny’s long-winded missive, Trajan’s reply is a relatively terse set of instructions. We can summarize it in four basic points: 

  1. Don’t look for Christians to prosecute.
  2. If they are found guilty of being Christians, punish them (that is, execute them).
  3. If they deny being Christians and prove it by sacrificing to the gods, pardon them.
  4. Disregard anonymous allegations.

Let’s look at these points and their implications. First, Trajan says not to hunt down Christians. This demonstrates that he didn’t think Christians were all that dangerous at the time and that there was no official persecution of Christians empire-wide.

Second, he affirms that those who refuse to sacrifice to the gods and refuse to reject Christ should indeed be punished, as Pliny had done. While we tend to think of Christians being persecuted for following the wrong gods, this is inaccurate. They were persecuted because their refusal to sacrifice to the gods for the good of the empire was thought to bring bad fortune on the empire. It was a charge of bad citizenship and disloyalty to Rome.

Third, he orders that those Christians who reject Christ and sacrifice to the gods should be pardoned. In other words, it was their actions and not merely the name “Christian” that mattered most to Trajan.

Finally, knowing that people will always accuse others in order to get a reward or some other kind of increase in status, Trajan tells Pliny to ignore anonymous accusations and only prosecute Christians when they are brought to him. This again shows the lack of official imperial persecution at this early stage.


Pliny the Younger in many ways lived the typical life of an elite, 1st-century Roman man. Born into a prominent and wealthy family and eventually inheriting even more wealth from his famous uncle, he rose through the ranks of Roman authority from a young age. At the end of his life, he was governor of an important region and as such, was forced to deal with the legal implications of a new and persistent religion.

He had recently dealt for the first time with Christians on trial, and wanted to check with the Emperor Trajan if he had done it correctly. Since he had prosecuted regional governors like himself early in his career, he was probably a bit worried that he would be prosecuted similarly if he didn’t handle the situation properly.

Pliny’s letter gives us essential information about early Christians in the Roman Empire. It shows that in the early second century, there was no Roman consensus about how to view Christians. Were they a dangerous, criminal sect? A political organization? How hard should the authorities come down on these people?

Trajan’s answer makes it clear that while Christians were considered potentially dangerous, and thus worthy of execution if they did not recant, they weren’t worthy of large-scale efforts at eradication. That would come much later.

It’s also interesting to read Pliny the Younger on Jesus. One thing Pliny’s letter implies is that he and every other Roman authority figure assumed that Jesus was a real person. The fact that Jesus had been crucified probably made it inconceivable to him that anyone would worship him as a god.

Finally, Pliny’s letter also tells us a bit about early Christian practices from a non-Christian source. For those interested not only in early Christianity but also Roman history, Pliny the Younger’s letters are indeed a treasure trove.

Josh Schachterle

About the author

After a long career teaching high school English, Joshua Schachterle completed his PhD in New Testament and Early Christianity in 2019. He is the author of "John Cassian and the Creation of Monastic Subjectivity." When not researching, Joshua enjoys reading, composing/playing music, and spending time with his wife and two college-aged children.

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