Ministrae in Pliny 10.96

Ben Witherington recently wrote a ‘postlude’ for his series of reviews on Frank Viola’s and George Barna’s work, Pagan Christianity.  In the latter part of the post he mentions Pliny’s comments on the Christians in Pontus-Bithynia as an outsider investigating some of their practices.  After quoting Pliny’s famous passage Ben notes that the two female servants “were tasked with the serving of the meal, since diakonia in its root meaning is ‘to wait on tables’.”

I bring this up not so much concerning the servants’ function, but rather the translation of ministrae.  Here, Ben’s comment seems a bit misleading, implying the letter was written in Greek when, in fact, it was written in Latin.  Here are my comments I made on his post, followed by a few additional thoughts:

I’m sure you know that Pliny’s letter to Trajan was written in Latin; so the word translated, in my opinion awkwardly, as ‘deaconesses’ isn’t diakonia, but rather ministrae.

Also, very recently (in April during my course on Tacitus and Pliny) I had a conversation with classicist Miriam Griffin about this passage and the awkwardness of deaconesses as the translation for ministrae. Pliny certainly knows of some of the practices, but he admits in 10.96.1 that he had never been present at ‘trials of Christians.’ With the women, Pliny is dependent on what they’re saying to him. We don’t know what they said. But they must have given Pliny some explanation concerning the status of these Christians.

We both concluded that Pliny, although he was aware of these Christian practices (how much did he know?), might not have known the particular nuances of the specific function of these ministrae. We settled on a more general translation such as ‘servants.’  We were trying to see things from a Roman point of view as Pliny wrote about his investigations.

This is not to detract these women’s function in their own church context, but it seems safer to keep it generic and understand Pliny is writing from his point of view as a Roman.


It’s interesting that Sherwin-White, Radice, Walsh, and W. Williams translate ministrae as deaconesses.  Even the OLD has that as a gloss translation.  Commenting on the Latin, Williams (Pliny: Correspondence with Trajan from Bithynia, p. 143) writes, “The Latin word ministrae is probably used to translate the Greek word diakonoi, for Paul refers to Phoebe as the diakonos (servant) of the church at Cenchreae (Romans 16, 1).” There certainly may be a reason for giving that sort of translation–even connecting the dots (anachronistically?) with Paul.  But as I try to see it from a Roman’s point of view, as I mentioned, although he knew some of their basic practices, I don’t think Pliny would have known the intricacies of these Christian people’s function and organization.  Again, I think it may be better to translate the word more generically.  (I tend to repeat myself a lot!)  It really isn’t a huge issue but I’m just nit-picky sometimes. 🙂  Does anyone else have an opinion on the passage?

3 thoughts on “Ministrae in Pliny 10.96

  1. As a result of the work of John N. Collins(1990) the use of diakonia in the New Testament is now seen as meaning,”One who is commissioned to undertake a commission or task.” Perhaps even a “go-between” Neither in spoken Greek nor in the New Testament does diakonia mean “menial service.” So perhaps a rethink is required?

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