Three Christian Leaders Mentioned in Historical Sources
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
As we survey the New Testament, we learn about some of the great ministers of early Christian history. People tend to be familiar with Peter, John, Paul, Barnabas, and James. Other major leaders are mentioned, but these are among the most well-known ministers.
What about historical sources outside of the New Testament?
The earliest non-Biblical historical sources that reference Christianity come from Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger. Of them, Josephus mentions James, the brother of Jesus (Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.1). In the New Testament, James is discussed as a leader of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem (Gal. 1:9).
Pliny also mentioned other Christian leaders. These two individuals are not mentioned in the New Testament, but they must have been very important. In about 110/111 AD, Pliny served as the governor for the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor. While there, Christians were put on trial for their faith. He reported to the Roman Emperor Trajan how he handled the situation and if Trajan would advise any changes to his strategy. We have an excerpt of his letter below (listed by Loeb as Letter 96; listed by Bosanquet as Letter 97).
“…to the Emperor Trajan: It is my invariable rule, Sir, to refer to you in all matters where I feel doubtful; for who is more capable of removing my scruples, or informing my ignorance? Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity, I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them…”
“An anonymous information was laid before me containing a charge against several persons, who upon examination denied they were Christians, or had ever been so. They repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered religious rites with wine and incense before your statue (which for that purpose I had ordered to be brought, together with those of the gods), and even reviled [cursing] the name of Christ: whereas there is no forcing, it is said, those who are really Christians into any of these compliances: I thought it proper, therefore, to discharge them…”
“Some among those who were accused by a witness in person at first confessed themselves Christians, but immediately after denied it; the rest owned indeed that they had been of that number formerly, but had now (some above three, others more, and a few above twenty years ago) renounced that error. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, uttering imprecations at the same time against the name of Christ…”
“…They affirmed the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal. From this custom, however, they desisted after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your commands, I forbade the meeting of any assemblies…”
“…I judged it so much the more necessary to endeavor to extort the real truth, by putting two female slaves to the torture, who were said to officiate in their religious rites: but all I could discover was evidence of an absurd and extravagant superstition…”
“…I deemed it expedient, therefore, to adjourn all further proceedings, in order to consult you. For it appears to be a matter highly deserving your consideration, more especially as great numbers must be involved in the danger of these prosecutions, which have already extended, and are still likely to extend, to persons of all ranks and ages, and even of both sexes…” (Letter 96/97).
This document is a powerful witness of early Christians. Among the details to be garnered from it are the fact that Christians lived a moral life and that the gospel message had an appeal to people from all ages and ranks of Roman society. The faith also appealed to both males and females. Unfortunately, the persecution of Christians also caused some to recant their faith and return to the worship of other gods. This report contains a fascinating piece of evidence that could be easily overlooked.
Pliny noted that he desired to learn more about the Christian faith. As a result, he sought out leaders who could explain it even further. His search led him to two female leaders!
The underlying Latin for the section that mentions them is: Quo magis necessarium credidi ex duabus ancillis, quae ministrae dicebantur, quid esset veri, et per tormenta quaerere. Nihil aliud inveni quam superstitionem pravam et immodicam.
I have highlighted some Latin words in bold. Duabus means two. Ancillis means hand-maid, servant, or slave. Ministrae dicebantur is translated as “…they were said to be ministers…” In other words, other people reported them as operating in this capacity. The Latin word ministrae is in the feminine plural form of ministra; it means “female attendant or servant.” This word is where we derive the English word minister.
The translator renders the term ministrae as officiating in religious rites. Other translations, such as Loeb, render this word deaconess. This is likely because Pheobe in Romans 16:1 is called a deaconess.
One must remember that Pliny was not a believer. Therefore, he attempted to use language to describe something from an outsiders perspective (in anthropology, this is called the etic view). Female officiants in religion were not uncommon in the ancient world, so the fact that women were report to him was not strange at all.
These women are two of three Christian leaders mentioned in early historical sources outside of the Bible. We do not know their names. After Roman authorities interrogated some Christians, they sought prominent individuals. These women were known by others to be Christian leaders and individuals who could explain the Christian faith deeper. These were extraordinary examples of the faith! They also were known to officiate services, which means that they had authority within the Christian community.
These women remind us of other female leaders in the early Christian community. In Romans 16:1, Pheobe was called a deaconess or diakonon. She obviously was a woman with authority because Paul said: “…that you receive her in the Lord, in a way worthy of the saints, and that you assist her in whatever matter she may need from you, for she herself also has been a helper of many, and of my own self” (Romans 16:2, WEB).
Later in the same chapter, Paul commended Priscilla, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, and others. These women worked hard for the faith and were considered trustworthy witnesses of the gospel message.
While we may not know much about these two women, we commend their bravery. They rose to prominence in a time when Christians were persecuted. While others recanted their faith, these women endured for the faith.
They remind us that women played a significant role in the early Christian community.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Holy Bible. World English Bible (WEB). Public Domain.
Pliny the Younger, Letter 96. Translated by William Melmoth. Revised by W. M. L. Hutchinson. Vol 2. New York: The MacMillan Co. 1915. p 404-405.
Pliny the Younger. Letter 97. Translated by Melmoth. Revised by Rev. F. C. T. Bosanquet, London: George Bell and Sons, 1905. pp 393-397.
Great job mate! Keep them coming please.
Thank you my brother! So glad to be working with you.