Pagan Reaction to Early Christian Women in the 2nd Century Part 1: Pliny (Margaret Y. MacDonald, 1996)

NOTE: This article is taken from Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion: The Power of the Hysterical Woman, pp. 49-58.

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The first reference to early Christian women by a pagan author occurs in the correspondence between Pliny the Younger and the Emperor Trajan (http://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/texts/pliny.html). As governor of Pontus-Bythinia between 111 and 113 AD, Pliny was charged with bringing the province’s affairs in order. The letter in which he consults the Emperor about the appropriateness of the actions he has taken concerning Christians mentions only two specific persons: two female slaves (ancilla) who were called deacons (ministra). In order to gain information about the early church Pliny had these women tortured: ‘This convinced me that it was all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by the torture of two female slaves who were called deaconesses. I found nothing else but a depraved and excessive superstition (superstitio).’

Statue of Pliny the Younger on the façade of Cathedral of S. Maria Maggiore in Como.
Statue of Pliny the Younger on the façade of Cathedral of S. Maria Maggiore in Como.

If we place this very brief passage within the context of the letter as a whole and draw upon some information from sources of the same period, we are able to extract a substantial amount of information about the lives of these women and probable reasons why they came to Pliny’s attention. Although trials and torturing have already occurred, Pliny nevertheless turns to Trajan for advice before proceeding further. He poses a series of questions about such matters as whether allowance should be made for Christians who purportedly changed their mind. Pliny wonders whether having the mere name (nomen ipsum) ‘Christian’ is enough to warrant punishment, or whether there must be evidence of specific crimes attached to the name. It is clear from what follows that Christians have been denounced to Pliny, sometimes in such a way that the accuser offered little, if any, supporting evidence or information. Pliny was willing to adopt harsh measures despite having minimal knowledge about early Christianity, and despite having heard accusations against Christians that often amounted to little more than a label of membership in a group. His attitude indicates the powerful role rumour and impression played in defining relationships between groups in the Greco-Roman world.

 Roman Emperor Trajan, London, England
Roman Emperor Trajan, London, England

Pliny offers few details about the early Christians who were apprehended. He notes that the Christians include both citizens and non-citizens and represent all age groups, all classes, and both sexes. He describes the Christian movement as posing a risk not only to cities, but also to villages and agricultural areas. But in addition to Pliny’s observations about the general makeup of the early Christian group, we must consider carefully his references to the two female deacons. If we focus on these two women, we immediately come up with an obvious question: how did these particular slave women come to Pliny’s attention? The fact that these women had a prominent ministerial role in the Christian community—a ministry apparently not hampered by their status as slaves—was in all likelihood a significant factor in their visibility and subsequent arrest. It is impossible to be certain about the specific activities of such second-century deaconesses, but even if they were limited to those of the more traditional type of deaconess of the third and fourth centuries AD (care of the sick and poor, the instruction of female proselytes, providing assistance during the baptism of women), there is still much that may have contributed to the visibility of these women. For example, among the special duties of the deaconess was ministry to women in pagan households to which it would have been too dangerous to send a male minister. Perhaps the pagan head of a household who found his household penetrated by unwanted Christian ministers was among the informers alluded to in Pliny’s correspondence. We should also entertain the possibility that the arrest of slaves was a means of deflecting the blame away from a master or mistress with suspicious Christian tendencies.

Fragment of an inscription bearing the name Pliny, Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, Milan
Fragment of an inscription bearing the name Pliny, Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan

The visibility of the two women interrogated by Pliny may have been related to their status as slaves. There are indications in early Christian texts that the slaves of pagan households could damage the reputation of the church in the wider society. The author of 1 Timothy (a text roughly contemporary with Pliny’s letter) calls for the Christian slaves of pagan households to respect their masters in order that the doctrine of God would not be blasphemed (1 Tim. 6:2; cf. Const. Apost. 8:32). The correspondence of Ignatius of Antioch, which like Pliny’s letter dates from the time of Trajan, includes a strong exhortation discouraging slaves from attempting to secure their freedom (Ign. Pol. 4:2-3). Such efforts might very well bring unwanted attention to the church and lead to misunderstanding about the nature of the group’s social ethos and priorities. This text also warns against the church being responsible for the funds required to secure a slave’s manumission. The purchase of the slaves of a pagan master would be an especially risky practice for a group which was aiming to foster the right impression in society at large.

Location of Bithynia et Pontus within the Roman Empire
Location of Bithynia et Pontus within the Roman Empire

When we consider Christian exhortations which clearly were intended to limit the activities of slaves (such as those from Ignatius to Ploycarp), we cannot assume that these injunctions reflect the actual situation in the church. There may be divergence between teaching and reality, as the mention in Pliny’s letter of deacon slaves being tortured illustrates. Further, there is the possibility that in some early church circles, slaves were encouraged to take on dangerous and unconventional roles, despite the dominant tone of caution one finds in Christian literature from the beginning of the second century. As is often the case with texts on women from this period, one is left wondering whether such circumspection reflects ambivalence about the powerful contribution that subordinate members of the household were in fact making to the expansion of the early church, despite the shadow of suspicion their activities might cast on the group. A slave who was also a deacon might have a prominent interest in the conversion of the unbelieving members of the household. She would have access not only to other slaves, but presumably also to the children of the household and perhaps to its mistress. A slave who shared devotion to Christ with her mistress might accompany her to Christian gatherings and she might well be called upon to orchestrate the arrangements required for continued participation. As will become clear, both the pagan critiques of early Christianity and early Christian texts themselves suggest that the early church was seen as having a contaminating influence on the household, and it is likely that slaves played a major part in the spreading of this “contagion.”

Depiction of Christian Eucharistic bread, Catacomb of Callixtus, 3rd century
Depiction of Christian Eucharistic bread, Catacomb of Callixtus, 3rd century

Another relevant factor to the situation of the two female slave deacons that Pliny arranged to have tortured may be the loss of business opportunities, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 16:16-21; cf. Acts 19:23-5). Acts includes an intriguing account of Paul and Silas being accused before the magistrates in Philippi for causing a disturbance through the advocacy of ‘customs illegal for us Romans to adopt and follow’ (16:21). This charge is the result of Paul’s exorcizing a slave girl. She had been possessed by a spirit who told fortunes, and her owners had made her the centre of a lucrative business. Her new state meant the end of this business opportunity, and thus Paul and Silas were accused of failing to respect property rights and household structures (Acts 16:16-21). It is easy to imagine similar scenarios in which a slave owner was enraged because of the loss of revenues resulting from a slave’s passion for following Christ. For example, a once talented and highly desired slave prostitute who had become a source of frustration for an owner might be disposed of by accusing her of being a Christian.

St-Paul-prison1

Pliny’s question to Trajan about whether or not specific crimes must be associated with the name Christian in order for offenders to merit punishment has intrigued commentators and it is worth considering in relation to women. Pliny proceeded as though the name Christian were enough; Trajan supported this basic assumption, but he forbade the ‘hunting out’ of Christians, made allowances for them changing their minds, and cautioned against accepting anonymous accusations. When we read Pliny’s letter we get the impression that he was convinced on principle that early Christianity was an enemy of the state and that adherence to the cult itself was punishable. But there are indications here that he nevertheless set out to find specific crimes of subversion. He may have been looking for confirmation of the rumours he had heard. Initial inquiry led him to discover ‘stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy’ which deserved punishment. Christians who were questioned subsequently revealed that their so-called crimes included:

[coming] together on a certain day before daylight to sing a song with responses to Christ as a god, to bind themselves mutually by a solemn oath, not to commit any crime, but to avoid theft, robbery, adultery, not to break a trust or deny a deposit when they are called for it. After these practices it was their custom to separate and then come together again to take food but of an ordinary and harmless kind, and they even gave up this practice after my edict, when in response to your order I forbade associations. (Letters 10.96-97).

Trajan's Column, Rome.
Trajan’s Column, Rome.

The description of early Christian rites here seems innocuous enough, but Pliny gives the impression that he had approached his inquiries with the expectation of discovering something far more sinister, especially with his assessment that the food was ‘ordinary and harmless.’ Pliny may have been influenced by the Roman historian Livy’s description of the suppression of Bacchic (Dionysian) rituals in Italy, written during the reign of Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD). This well-known episode occurring in the early 2nd century BC involved the migration of a cult from Greece to Italy, a cult which was accused of holding night meetings involving feasting, promiscuity, and ‘meetings of men and women in common.’ (http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ah/livy/livy39.html) From later in the 2nd century also comes evidence that Christians were accused of rites involving meals where human flesh was consumed. Having considered early Christian frescoes and textual evidence for meal settings and Eucharist celebrations, Kathleen Corley has noted an interest in table etiquette and sensitivity about the impressions Christians might make at a public banquet. She is especially interested in concern about women’s proper association with the private sphere and the perception that the presence of church women with men at public meals is immoral. Women were closely associated with meal practices in public opinion about the church. What this means for our evaluation of Pliny’s innocuous description of Christian rites is that language which might first appear as banal and lacking in specific accusations may still encode deep suspicions about the presence of women at early Christian celebrations.

Fresco of a female figure holding a chalice at an early Christian Agape feast. Catacomb
Fresco of a female figure holding a chalice at an early Christian Agape feast. Catacomb

Pliny’s account suggests that whatever information he was able to gather initially, or perhaps more importantly, whatever impression he took away from the initial interrogations, was insufficient to convince him of the group’s harmlessness. He set out to gather more information by the torture of two female slaves who were called deaconesses. His efforts resulted in the discovery of ‘nothing else but a depraved and excessive superstition.’ It is impossible to tell if the torture of the slave women led him to uncover additional information about early Christian activities, but the fact that he does not furnish further details leads one to suspect that his efforts were unsuccessful. The presence of female slave leaders in the group may have been enough to conjure up suspicion of sexual immorality given the association in the Greco-Roman world between slavery, sexual availability, and prostitution. Pliny does not hesitate to offer a categorical final judgment: Christianity was a depraved and excessive superstition (superstitio prava, immodica). Pliny’s language is characteristic of assessments of oriental religions, including Judaism, in the first and second centuries AD. If we focus on the issue of the involvement of these women in these foreign superstitions, we find accusations of the indiscriminate defilement of women and immodest mingling of men and women. Added to these perceived characteristics of ‘foreign superstitions’ was the well-attested sentiment that women were especially susceptible to their proselytizing tactics. Roman readers might have had their suspicions confirmed that Christianity was a woman’s religion, in hearing that the two Christians Pliny had tortured were two slave women who had the role of ministra, a title which is sometimes given to pagan cult officers.

Early Christian painting of an Agape feast.
Early Christian painting of an Agape feast.

In the end, Pliny’s comments are quite ambiguous, for although he seems to be aware that he has discovered a group which lacks the characteristics of the strangest of foreign groups, he nonetheless uses language that would conjure up accusatory imagery in the minds of his readers. The effect of Pliny’s ambivalence and somewhat unsystematic approach in dealing with the issue of early Christianity (supported by Trajan’s reply) was to create a situation for members of the early church which was ambiguous. This is not to say that these Christians were conscious of this ambiguity the way a modern person would be, who has been schooled in the tradition of Jean-Paul Sartre to expect life’s absurdities. Rather, a second-century Christian in Asia Minor might express an awareness of the treachery of Satan which could lead to slander of the community at the hands of outsiders (e.g. Ign. Trall. 8:1-2). However, early Christians from this period did voice injustice and irony. Pliny’s operative policy of punishing Christians who were so in name, without finding evidence of specific criminal activities, is echoed in early Christian texts themselves. In the middle of the second century the Christian apologist Justin Martyr told of the trial of a Roman Christian, Ptolemaeus, who had come to the attention of authorities on account of his being denounced as the instructor of a pagan’s wife. Ptolemaeus was sentenced to death, and a Christian who witnessed the events protested with this interesting comment: “What is the ground of this judgment? Why have you punished this man, not as an adulterer, nor fornicator, nor murderer, nor thief, nor robber, nor convicted of any crime at all, but only that he is called by the name of Christian?’ (Second Apology 2, ANF 1.188). In 177 AD Tertullian expressed a similar sentiment: ‘all that is cared about is having what the public hatred demands—confession of the name, not examination of the charge.’ (Apology 2, ANF 3.18-19). In the same work Tertullian told of the ironic, cruel treatment of Christian wives who had reformed their behaviour. Instead of rejoicing in the now chaste behaviour of his wife, the unbelieving husband cast her out of the house.’ (Apology 3, ANF 3.20).

Tertullian’s remarks remind us that even Christian women who exhibited behaviour considered model and womanly by the standards of the day might not escape serious or even life-threatening consequences. Confessing Christ, rejecting worship of the gods, and being a member of a group labelled as subversive to home and state would be enough to lead to accusation. If we consider the nature of the activities of the two female slave deacons mentioned by Pliny we must be careful not to assume too quickly that their arrest was related to some type of sensational or revolutionary emancipator behaviour. We should be aware of the fact that even quite conventional behaviour might be negatively interpreted by outsiders. Despite the brevity of the reference to women in Pliny’s letter to Trajan, when taken in the context of the letter as a whole, there is much interesting material to consider as we reflect on the issue of female visibility. Having been alerted to the possibility that what Christian women experienced at the hands of outsiders, and even within church communities themselves, had as much to do with the appearance as with the reality of their actions, we may now move on to consider subsequent references to early Christian women in pagan critique.

 https://www.scribd.com/doc/210990816/Complete-Letters-Pliny-the-Younger-Walsh-Oxford