Charging second century Christians with superstitio declared them a threat to the common good. This is especially vivid in Pliny who notes how in Bithynia the pagan temples were being deserted, religious rites were being neglected, and sacrificial animals were not being purchased, all declines Pliny links to Christianity breaking out like a contagious superstitio.
A valuable lesson for 21st century Christians is found in the writings of three 2nd century Romans: Pliny the Younger, an imperial governor; Tacitus, both senator and historian; and Suetonius, a prolific biographer of Caesars, poets, orators, historians, grammarians and rhetoricians.
Observed in careful detail in Michael Kruger’s, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church, each of these ancient Romans left behind scornful commentary on the practice of early Christians. What is particularly instructive is how each identified Christianity as a superstitio.
Pliny summarized Christianity as a “depraved, excessive superstition” and wrings his hands that “the contagion of this superstition” has spread not only to the cities but to the countryside (Letters, 10.96).
Tacitus speaks similarly. After stating the historic facts of Christ’s judicial death during the reign of Tiberius, he adds: “a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular” (Annals, 15.44).
Suetonius, in a biographical sketch of Nero, briefly outlines persecutions the emperor leveled against Christians: “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition” (Nero, 16.2).
At first reading, this all might seem like a case of the pot calling the kettle black. After all, did not Hadrian, a second century emperor, build the Pantheon, a temple honoring the twelve-plus gods of the Roman state – and not a few deified emperors? Is not this superstitio?