Christianity Through the Lens of Polytheism
We live in a time in the United States where Christmas music begins playing as soon as Halloween is over and the Easter bunny is loved by young children across the country. It can be hard to imagine a time when Christianity was not the dominant religion, where Christians were persecuted, or where Christians were sometimes even executed based on their faith alone. Those acts can be even harder to conceptualize as Americans who were taught since elementary school that freedom of religion was one of the strongest beliefs and most important individual rights that our own nation was founded on. However, less than 2,000 years ago, Christianity was seen as a threat to Roman society and the polytheistic practices that dominated the Roman way of life. While the Romans’ fear that Christianity was a threat to the stability of their empire may have been valid, this did not give the Roman leadership the right or justification to persecute the Christians.
Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor, wrote about his perspective on how to deal with the Christians in his letter to the Emperor Trajan. Pliny asked Trajan for his advice and opinion on whether or not to seek out possible Christians or to trust anonymous accusations. In his investigations, Pliny found, “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.” Despite finding that the Christians were not terrorizing or disrupting society in any way, Pliny and Trajan agreed that people found guilty of being Christians should be punished. Pliny even went to the trouble of torturing to “deaconesses”, Christian women, only to chalk up the terror to superstition and rumors. In short, Pliny and Trajan decided to set the precedent that Christians could be persecuted and charged with crimes merely because of their religion. He also set the precedent that those accused would be able to prove their innocence if they could recite the polytheistic calls to the Roman gods, such as Jupiter. Such oppression is completely unjustifiable, and the only way that Pliny and Trajan were able to justify it was through superstition and fear for the fall of their empire.
In fact, Pliny was correct for worrying about the triumph of Christianity over polytheism. The religion and organization possessed many strengths that eventually led to its triumph over polytheism in Rome. Christianity was extremely organized with its hierarchy and structure, was able to communicate effectively across different regions to achieve uniformity in the church, and put a large focus on missionary work and converting people to Christianity. As a thriving and globalizing religion, it was clear that Christianity was superior to polytheism. In fact, in Eastern Rome, leadership embraced Christianity so much that it became a theocracy where the head of the government in Eastern Rome also acted as the head of the Church.
– Quin Ramos
Word Count: 527
Pliny, Letters 10.96-97