Archive Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers The Two Kingdoms

Is Christianity Politically Subversive? (2)

In a previous post, I tried, through a reading of part of Letter 10.96 of Pliny the Younger to Trajan, to sketch a way of formulating the spectrum of possible answers to this question as it relates to “politics” in the narrow sense of government self-definition and legal policy.

There is a broader aspect to “politics” as well: that is, it can refer simply to life in the polis, the community viewed under its aspect as community (under its aspects, that is, of shared religious life, shared economic life, etc., rather than under its aspect as governed/under magisterial authority, as in the previous post).

This aspect, too, can be investigated from Pliny’s letter.

After the passage cited last time, Pliny gives a brief (and fascinating) outsider’s perspective on Christian worship; the Christians’ pledging of themselves to living morally pure lives; and his torture of two female slaves “who were called assistants/deaconesses” (quae ministrae dicebantur), which yielded only that the Christians held to “depraved and immoderate superstition” (superstitionem pravam et immodicam). He could find no other evidence of wrongdoing.

Pliny then worries aloud about the quick growth of Christianity, both vertically and horizontally, as it were (“many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes,” confirming from a hostile perspective what early Christian apologists themselves claim). Yet he still holds out hope. He writes:

But it seems possible to check and cure [the contagion of this superstition]. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had almost been deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed…

As one reads this sentence, he might think that Pliny is just happy that good, old-fashioned piety is being resumed. Not so. He goes on:

…and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found.

We should linger over that last clause. For from it emerges the fact that Christianity was bad for business in early second-century Asia Minor, and it was to the economic advantage of the purveyors of the old religion to stamp it out.

For readers of the New Testament, the connection between business and religion, and Christianity’s disruptive impact upon the former, is already familiar from Acts 19, where where the anger and resentment of Artemis’ image-makers at Ephesus leads to a riot:

About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”


The political power of business interests, and the way in which their capital is spent to push for or oppose various social agendas, is a phenomenon that is rather more present in the modern world than in the ancient1, but it had a role to play there as well.

In many instances, of course, the government itself takes an interest in what is bad for business and–ecce!–finds that what is bad for one is bad for the other, and consequently the two can easily ally against the threat, as they do here, in which the interests of the sacrifice-salesman share a large degree of overlap with the interests of the emperor as detailed in the previous post.

In what is a very brief letter, then, and one that is almost 1900 years old, Pliny the Younger puts his finger on two of the ways in which, given the right mixture of circumstances, the Christian faith can arouse the ire of the “political community,” construed under the aspects of both government interest and economic interest. The potential for conflict in Letters 10.96 is universal because the factors that lead to it are universally potential. In other words, we can still learn very much from very, very old documents.

  1. Cf. the recent remark of Salesforce CEO Mark Beinoff that CEOs form a third political party in the U.S., which will do all it can push for the agenda it finds most advantageous: “‘This is a really important point that, you know, CEOs have a lot of power and control on investment in states and we want to invest in states where there is equality,’ Benioff said. ‘One thing that you’re seeing is that there is a third [political] party emerging in this country, which is the party of CEOs.'”

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.