How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?
Approaches to Jesus-Devotion
in Earliest Christianity
About 112 c.e., while serving as special imperial legate in the Roman province of Bithynia, Pliny “the Younger” wrote a fascinating letter to the emperor Trajan. In it he describes how he handled people who were denounced to him as Christians, and what he learned about their religious commitments and activities. Among the information that he derived from his brutal interrogation of them, Pliny learned that a prominent feature of their gatherings was to “chant antiphonally a hymn to Christ as to a god.”1 Pliny's testimony to early Christian faith and practice is all the more notable because it comes from an obviously hostile witness. For our purposes, the crucial matters are that he attests the centrality of the figure of Jesus in early Christian piety and vividly reflects the further fact that in early Christian circles Jesus was a recipient of worship such as was given to a deity.
Moreover, Pliny says that he was also able to confirm that those who were truly Christians could not be persuaded to demonstrate reverence for the pagan gods and the image of the emperor, or to curse Jesus, even on threat of death. So the reverence given to Jesus was offered by people who sharply distinguished their religious orientation from the wider religious
1. Pliny (the Younger), Epistles, 10.96. English translation and commentary can be
found in A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church to A.D. 337, ed.
J. Stevenson (London: SPCK, 1974), 13–15. For basic information on Pliny, see, e.g., Michael P.
McHugh, “Pliny the Younger,” in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 2d ed., ed. Everett Fergu-
son (New York/London: Garland Publishing, 1998), 928. Pliny is usually cited as crucial evi-
dence about the development of Roman imperial policy toward Christians. Trajan's reply to
Pliny's letter is also interesting to note; see Stevenson, 16.