And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (ESV: John 1:14, 17)
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… For the moment this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished. There have been others similarly fanatical who are Roman citizens. I have entered them on the list of persons to be sent to Rome for trial. (1)
These words were written about 111AD by Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of the province of Bithynia, to the Roman Emperor Trajan. Bithynia was the region at the southern end of the Black Sea near the city now called Istanbul (known as Byzantium in that day, later called Constantinople). Pliny’s dilemma was that the province’s Christians would neither worship the traditional Roman gods nor venerate the Roman emperor as a god. Therefore, he sought the emperor’s advice concerning whether or not his actions regarding the Christians was the appropriate course to take. A subsequent letter from the Emperor confirmed that Pliny’s actions were the approved method of interrogating and punishing Christians.
The ancient Romans tended to welcome the gods of their subject peoples into the Roman pantheon. In the ancient world, the prevailing belief was that each people group or nation had its own local god. Thus, divine truth was relative to a person’s own feelings and perceptions; one person’s “truth” was not necessarily the “truth” of another. This myriad array of gods was acceptable as long as this relativistic attitude towards truth and divinity was adhered to.
Christianity, however, challenged this mind-set. It is apparent in Pliny’s letter to the Emperor that even under threat of execution, many Christians refused to recant their beliefs or worship other gods. They believed in a single triune God as revealed to them by Jesus Christ, the Apostles, and by those to whom the Apostles anointed as leaders in the early Church. That confidence, however, rested upon the conviction that truth can not only be clearly known, but also that there is one single Truth that is valid for all people, at all times, in all places. After all, if there can be more than one truth, then who’s to say that the Christian God is the only God, or even the most powerful God among many? Only through an implicit belief in one single, universal Truth can the belief in the triune God be defensible.
When Jesus was interrogated by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate prior to his crucifixion, Jesus said to him, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Upon hearing this, Pilate countered, “What is truth?”
One can almost hear the confusion in Pilate’s voice when confronted by a man who laid claim to a knowledge of Truth that was universal and absolute. Just as Pilate was taken aback by this claim of Truth, so are many in this present “postmodern” world. It is common to hear people speak of “your truth” and “my truth;” as though “your truth” and “my truth” can contradict each other, and yet both remain “equally true.” If this had been the attitude of the early Christians, Christianity would never have survived the Roman persecutions. Only through their confidence in the absolute Truth of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the redemption of mankind by God’s grace through faith did the early Christians persevere in the face of temporal punishments. They had the assurance to endure because, as John maintained in his Gospel, “… grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name. (ESV: Psalm 86:11)
1) Letters of the Younger Pliny, The. Trans. Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Books, 1969. pg. 96