Bithynia and Pontus

The regions of Bithynia and Pontus are perhaps best known to readers of the New Testament from 1 Peter, a letter written to the Christian “exiles” in the provinces of Asia Minor. This ancient letter provides us with important glimpses into the lives of Christian groups there in the late-first century. The author emphasizes the ambiguity of the Christians’ place within society: they are “exiles” and yet they are to interact positively with their Greek and Roman neighbours. The addressees were faced with “suffering” primarily in the form of verbal abuse: they were spoken against, blasphemed, reviled, and falsely called “wrongdoers” (1 Peter 2:12; 3:9, 15-17; 4:3-5; 5:9). The reasons for this suffering stemmed from the Christians’ failure to participate in religious life in the same way as they had before: the Gentiles “are surprised that you do not now join them in the same wild profligacy, and they abuse you” (1 Peter 4:4 [RSV]). Persecution of Christians, which was local and sporadic, was more often than not a consequence of denying the gods and goddesses of others, along with the social implications of non-participation in the rituals that honoured these deities.

Yet this was not the only side to the relationship between Christian groups and surrounding society. The author of 1 Peter advocates behaviour that will lessen these tensions: "Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge” (2:12). Immediately following this is the author’s exhortation to “honour the emperor” and to adopt other cultural values (including the so-called “household codes” on proper relations within the family) that were shared by most Greeks and Romans of the time. This was a way of finding a home within Greco-Roman society despite the Christians’ strange monotheism (strange from the perspective of most Greeks and Romans).

1 Peter is not the only evidence we have for Christian groups and their relations with others in the cities of Bithynia and Pontus. In fact, one of the very few early references to followers of Christ in “pagan” literature pertains to this region, so it is worth taking a closer look at the letters of Pliny the Younger, the specially appointed Roman governor of Bithynia and Pontus (c. 110-12 CE). These ancient letters provide us with glimpses into social, religious, and political life in the cities of the province and shed important light on Roman rule overall. In the process of fulfilling his duties, Pliny encountered associations on several occasions, including his infamous dealings with Christians.

First, when the emperor Trajan (also see photo above left, from the museum at Ephesos) received a letter from Pliny requesting that an association (collegium) be formed to fight fires at Nikomedia, the emperor cautioned that “we must remember that it is societies like these which have been responsible for the political disturbances in your province, particularly its towns. If people assemble for a common purpose, whatever name we give them and for whatever reason, they soon turn into a political club” (Epistles 10.34 [LCL]). Trajan’s reply mentions that Pliny should disallow what was, in fact, not uncommon elsewhere in the empire: the formation of a group of craftsmen to also act as a voluntary fire-brigade. Second, in another letter Pliny refers to the free city of Amisos’ petition to form “benefit-societies”. In this case, Trajan and Pliny allowed the formation of these groups provided that the groups were “not used for riotous and unlawful assemblies, but to relieve cases of hardship among the poor” (10.93-94).

Finally, while visiting the coastal region of Pontus (c. 112 C.E.), perhaps at Amisos or Amastris, Pliny wrote to Trajan regarding accusations against so-called Christians “of every age and class, both men and women” who were being brought to trial by local inhabitants of the region (10.96-97 [LCL]). What is especially interesting to note is that Pliny describes the Christ-devotees’ gatherings in terms familiar from religious activities of associations: “the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath. . . . After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind; but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all political societies” (10.96.7-8 [LCL]). He also confirms that they had obeyed his edict regarding meetings of associations (probably limiting gatherings at night), considering themselves to fall under the rubric of associations (hetaeriae, sometimes a synonym for collegia; 10.96.7-8). Pliny is by no means alone among ancient Greek and Roman authors in describing Christian groups using the terminology familiar from associations (compare Lucian of Samosata, Celsus, and Christians like Tertullian), as I discuss extensively in my book

As to Pliny’s dealings with the Christians, his letter begins with the following statement regarding his unfamiliarity with what procedure to follow:

I have never been present at an examination of Christians. Consequently, I do not know the nature of the extent of the punishments usually meted out to them, nor the grounds for starting an investigation and how far it should be pressed. Nor am I at all sure . . . whether it is the mere name of Christian which is punishable, even if innocent of crime, or rather the crimes associated with the name (10.96.2 [LCL]).

Pliny had not previously seen any trials involving Christians. Considering the fact that Pliny spent most of his career at Rome in various important imperial positions (from c. 90-110 C.E.), it is very unlikely that any official trials of Christians took place at Rome in this period too.

Lacking any precedents to follow, Pliny adjudicated differently depending on the response of the accused, and convicted based not on crimes (flagitia) but simply on whether one was a Christian (nomen). The “stubborn” and “obstinate” persons who were asked repeatedly and admitted to being Christians were either led off to execution or, if Roman citizens, sent to Rome for trial, without any need for a test involving the gods. Those who denied the charge, Pliny states, “repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had ordered to be brought into the court for this purpose along with the images of the gods), and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do” (10.96.5 [LCL]). Imperial cult rituals (worshipping the emperor) appear, not as the reason why Christians were accused by inhabitants or condemned by the Roman official, but simply as part of a test along with rituals addressed to the gods more generally.

Trajan’s overall response to this situation of accusations against Christians cautions that Christians “must not be hunted” down and that anonymous accusations must not be permitted. Persecution of Christians in the first two centuries was local and sporadic, rooted in the Christians’ monotheism and denial of the Greek and Roman gods, which could lead to tensions with inhabitants who felt these gods protected their communities and families. There was no systematic, official persecution of Christians by the Roman emperors or government until the year 250 CE. Evidently, the situation of affliction faced by the Christians addressed by 1 Peter is far better understood in light of Pliny and his letter.