A glimpse into early Christian gatherings, from the outside
October 27, 2012
I’m always interested in what early Christian gatherings were like. Pliny the younger, who governed Bithynia from around 106-114, provides a fascinating description of his view of Christians and their gatherings. These pesky Christians were regularly brought before him to be charged. At a loss for how to deal with them, Pliny tells them emperor Trajan what he has learned about them during his examinations:
They had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind. . . . A great many individuals of every age and class, both men and women, are being brought to trial, and this is likely to continue. It is not only the towns, but villages and rural districts too which are infected through contact with this wretched cult (Pliny, Letters 10.96, quoted in NTPG, Wright, 349).
Now, Pliny’s description comes from what Christians have told him about their faith during trial. This, apparently, is what Christians felt necessary and important to tell about themselves–this is their self-introduction about their faith and practice. Moreover, Pliny’s account is not based on the description of one, single Christian. Rather, after examining NUMEROUS Christians, this is the general account about their faith that he has been able to piece together. How, then, according to Pliny, did Christian gatherings look? From this brief description, what was important in their assemblies, and what is absent that one would have expected?
Their gatherings consisted of:
- The chanting of verses. This was done alternately, each seems to have taken a turn. By verses, I would guess that means Scripture verses that were set to music–many of which would have been from the OT. What is missing in this reference to chanting? A professional worship leader?
- The chanting was sung to Christ, who was worshipped as God.
- They bound themselves regularly to an oath. Where is the mention of the preacher or the sermon?
- They shared a meal together on a weekly basis. I assume this refers to communion, which was probably part of a full-fledged meal.
- Christianity was contagious. People from all over the empire, from various cultures, and of all ages were putting their faith in Christ.