Writing c. 112 CE from Amisos, the capital of Bithynia-Pontus, the governor Pliny the Younger identified a group of people who worshiped “Christ” and did not worship the emperor (Letters 10:96). I suggest that Pliny the Younger’s “Christians” belonged to the local ethnos-based sect that used the original letters of “Paul.” They were soon pastored by Marcion, who was from nearby Sinope.* Pliny’s letter provides a glimpse of Paul’s world before Marcion entered the scene there. The Christ belief system in Bithynia-Pontus had developed independently of the proto-orthodoxy in Rome and Alexandria. Probably the Bithynia-Pontus Christ belief system had Samaritan roots. And the “Christians” belonged to the sect known to history as the Hypsistarians.
Characteristics of Pliny the Younger’s Christians
At this time, there were ethnos-based religions, and non-ethnos-based religions. Examples, respectively, are Pharisaic Judaism–by and for the Judean ethnos–and the Roman state religion, for all. Pliny says that the local Christ believers met, dined, and worshiped. They lived in cities as well as villages and rural areas. Pliny does not mention temples, which implies that the belief system is gnostic/spiritual rather than institutionalized, with priests. Because of the refusal to worship the emperor, I infer that the Christ believers in Bithynia-Pontus belonged to a sect of a local ethnic group influenced by Judean/Samaritan religion. I believe I am the first to identify them as the Hypsistarians later mentioned by Church Fathers and documented archaeologically.
Pliny says the beliefs of this religion are “a debased superstition.” Unfortunately Pliny didn’t provide details.
Pliny mentions only two of their beliefs: They refused to worship the emperor. And they “recite a hymn among themselves to Christ, as though he were a god.”
(Note: “As though he were a god” was, I think, not original. The phrase implies that Pliny knew enough about the real “Christ” to assert that the Bithynians were wrong to call him a god. But the letter itself is proof that Pliny knew little to nothing about “Christ” or Christians. I think the phrase was added to Pliny’s letter by an orthodox editor, to make Pliny a witness to the human being, Jesus of Nazareth. But such witness is historically implausible: the Jesus of Nazareth figure wasn’t floating around in Pliny’s cultural world, it was created by the orthodox at least 25 years later (post-Marcion’s activity in the East, post-130).)
In the letter as we have it, Pliny does not describe the Bithynians’ concept of their Christ figure. One would think he would have given Trajan a simple metaphor—i.e., the Bithynians’ Christ was “like Osiris”—to help Trajan assess the problem. (I wonder if a description did exist. As it would have contradicted the Christ=Jesus of Nazareth story, and therefore would have been deleted by the same orthodox editor who wrote “as though he were a god.”)
As for the Bithynians’ refusal to worship the emperor, that sounds like influence from Samaritans or Judeans. For several reasons, I suspect that the belief came from Samaritans.
The Samaritan Connection
Why do I think that Pliny’s Christ-believing Bithynians were influenced by Samaritans and not by Judeans?
- The sophisticated Pliny undoubtedly knew something about Judean religions, including Pharisaic Judaism, whose practitioners paid the fiscus Iudaicus. He almost certainly knew there was a congregation in Rome that had been patronized by the Flavian family, and had a Jesus/Christ belief.** But he does not link the Bithynians’ Christ with the Roman congregation’s Jesus/Christ. He does not compare the Bithynians’ beliefs to Judean religion. He does not state that they were influenced by Judeans or had beliefs based on Judean Scripture. (An orthodox editor of Pliny’s letter would have retained any such statements.)
- The orthodox did not claim to have evangelized Bithynia. The orthodox-authored Acts of the Apostles, from the 130s-150s, says: “After [Paul’s party] were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not” (Acts 16:7). (emphasis added)
- There were both Judean and Samaritan expatriate colonies in major cities of the empire. Possibly Samaritan evangelists had visited Bithynia, or a Samaritan-trained figure—perhaps the original “Paul”—had brought Samaritan monotheism into a local folk religion.
- To the Bithynians, “Christ” could not have meant “anointed king” or “anointed high priest,” as it did for Judeans. (Judeans had traditions of an anointed earthly (Davidic) messiah, a heavenly messiah, a high priest, and a heavenly high priest (Hebrews).) Instead, “Christ” must have meant a personal savior, as it did for the original “Paul.” And we know that Acts treats “Paul” as an outsider to orthodoxy. All this together makes me think that the author(s) of the original Pauline letters (pre-Marcion) was Samaritan or Samaritan-trained. And so too were Pliny’s Christians.
- In Acts 8, the orthodox writer employs the figure of Simon Magus to explain Samaritans’ pre-orthodox usage of the term “Christ.” The Bithynians had a Christ concept at the same time.***
Implications of Pliny’s Christians for “Paul”
The original “Paul” is an elusive figure. Was there an individual who wrote letters, which were then expanded and added to, by Marcion and by the orthodox? Or, instead of an individual, was “Paul” a group name for the “author” of a set of approved teachings within the sect that used them? Or was “Paul” a fiction, and Marcion wrote the earliest letters?
I have tried to juxtapose the religious landscape Pliny briefly describes, with components of the first seven Letters of Paul, that Robert M. Price (The Amazing Colossal Apostle) sees as Marcionite. The problem is that these “Marcionite” extracts are written for literates. And they are parts of conversations with other texts. Yet Pliny gets information about the religion from two tortured female, illiterate slaves. This is understandable if Pliny’s goal was to determine if the folk version of the religion—around which the masses would rally—was subversive. But these illiterates’ version of the religion would agree with “Paul” only in the crudest sense. Even if indeed they were part of the same sect as Paul.
Also, it seems to me that Pliny had a reason to portray the Bithynians’ religion—opposed as it was to emperor worship—in an unflattering way. Pliny would look more loyal to the Roman traditional religion, and Trajan’s advice would take care of the worst-case scenarios as well as the milder ones.
So it’s possible that Pliny’s information is correct regarding the religion of the illiterates, but the religion of the educated, urban Christ believers in the province was not “depraved superstition” but a mixture of local folk beliefs, (probably) Samaritanism, and gnosticism. (Which is exactly what Hypsistarianism was.) And their authority was the original “Paul”.**** At least, that’s my working hypothesis.
*Sinope was some 100 miles by ship from Pliny’s capital in Amisos. Marcion must have learned about Paul’s teachings before Marcion went to Rome in the 130s (if indeed Marcion existed). Marcion asserted that Paul was the only true apostle of Christ. It makes sense that “Paul” and “Christ” were local concepts in the Bithynia-Pontus area.
**Pliny wrote about 20 years after Mark, so the congregation’s beliefs may have evolved in the interim. With that caveat, the Gospel of Mark is about a Jesus figure who is also anointed. The figure is referred to consistently as “Jesus”; “Christ” is an attribute or role, not a name. This I think is true for both the figure in Mark’s play and the heavenly figure in the congregation’s real-life worship. So, at least in Mark’s time, an outsider would have thought that the congregation worshiped with a Jesus figure, not a Christ figure. A matter of emphasis.
***Who knows what was really behind “Simon Magus” of Acts? There is no objective evidence for his existence, and the real history is hopelessly confused–I think, deliberately, to cover up the fact that Samaritans had already evangelized with some of the ideas that the orthodox wanted to claim for their own.
****It’s possible that “Paul” (small, humble, least, little) was used as the “author” of documents deemed authoritative by the sect, just as Thomas was used as the “author” of Judean collections of Gentile wisdom.
version December 22, 2022