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’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 had developed independent of proto-orthodoxy. Probably this early Christianity had Samaritan roots.
Characteristics of Pliny’s Christians
At this time, there were ethnos-based religions, and non-ethnos-based religions. Examples, respectively, are Pharisaic Judaism and the Roman state religion. Pliny says the local Christ believers met, dined, and worshiped. They lived in cities as well as villages and rural areas. Because Pliny does not mention temples, it is reasonable to infer that the Christ believers in Bithynia-Pontus belonged to a sect of a local ethnic group.
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.”
“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—which would have contradicted the Christ=Jesus of Nazareth story—was 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 Acts of the Apostles, written in the 130s-150s, says of Paul’s party: “After they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not” (Acts 16:7).
- 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.
- What then was the source of the Bithynians’ Christ figure? “Christ” could not have meant “anointed king” or “anointed high priest,” as it did variously for Judeans. Instead, it must have meant a personal savior, as it did for the original “Paul.” And we know that the orthodox Acts treats “Paul” as initially an outsider to orthodoxy. This biographical detail in Acts makes sense if the writer of the original Pauline letters (pre-Marcion) was Samaritan or Samaritan-trained.
- The Simon Magus of Acts 8 is a literary figure of contested historicity that the orthodox used to explain Samaritans’ pre-orthodox usage of the term “Christ.” The pre-orthodox dating of the Samaritan Christ concept fits with the dating of the Bithynians’ Christ concept.***
Implications 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? Instead of an individual, was “Paul” a group name for the “author” of a set of approved teachings within the sect? Or did 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.
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. And their authority was “Paul”, before the orthodox co opted him.
*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. 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.
***The Church Fathers’ later descriptions of Simon Magus as a Gnostic, and of Simonianism as widespread among Samaritans, are irrelevant to my theory. First, the Church Fathers are polemicists, not objective historians. A straw man “Simon Magus” is useful to them. Second, we cannot expect gnosticism from the illiterate—like the slave deaconnesses whom Pliny interviewed. Their “Christ” must have been a simple personal savior, like Osiris.