Roman Society Elites, a Greek Celebrity and the Christ

Two Roman society elites became authors of renowned works of antiquity on the history of Rome and they have one other thing in common that is unique. Each of these Romans made a reference to the Jewish Christ who spawned a new religion, one that was problematic to Rome.

A prominent Roman political figure, Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (56-120 AD), served as a Roman Senator, a Consul, and a provincial governor.[i] Highly esteemed in Roman society was a Senator; more so, was a Consul who was voted by the people as a dual leader of the Roman Senate.[ii] As a provincial governor, he had complete power over a province and the Roman Legions assigned to it. Tacitus was a powerful Roman political figure who became a historian.

In his acclaimed historical works, Annales, Tacitus made an inadvertent defense of Christians. He called out Nero for falsely blaming the Christians for burning Rome as a means to cover up his own complicity. Tacitus seemed obliged to explain who the Christians were, but in a far from sympathetic manner:

“Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.  Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and 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 centre and become popular.”[iii]

Christus is Latin for Christ, the Greek word for Messiah.[iv] Some skeptics suggest that since the name of Jesus was not actually mentioned, there is no proof Christus refers to Jesus.[v] It raises two obvious questions. What are the chances this Christus could be anyone else in Judea called the Messiah who suffered the extreme penalty at the hands of Procurator “Pontius Pilatus” spawning a new belief by Christians? How could Rome crucify a mythical figure?

Suetonius (circa 71-135 AD), another Roman historian, was close friends with Roman Consul Pliny the Younger who considered Suetonius as a scholar of the highest integrity. Their friendship opened the door to Suetonius for extraordinary opportunities that gave him full access to all of Rome’s libraries; custodian of the archives of imperial letters written by previous Emperors; and responsibility for all imperial correspondence for Emperor Hadrian.[vi]

Known for his historical work written less than 100 years after the crucifixion judgement by Pilate, in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars Suetonius covers the reigns of the first twelve Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian. In “The Life of Nero,” he made reference to “the Christians” that draws little attention, but serves to clarify another:

 “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.”[vii]

Suetonius defined Christians as a class of men motivated by their new Christian teachings deemed to be a “mischievous superstition,” the exact words used by Tacitus. Why was their “superstition” deemed to be mischievous by Rome? History bears witness that the new belief by Christians was indeed an unsanctioned belief – deemed a superstition – that came into severe conflict with the establishment Jewish religion, not to mention Rome’s pagan practices. In turn, the Jewish conflict become a problem that had to be dealt with by Rome.

First, the problem with the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth was forced upon Procurator Pilate specifically mentioned by Tacitus. Next, the Sanhedrin filed formal charges with Procurator Festus against the Apostle Paul whereupon Paul was discovered to be a Roman citizen who appealed to Caesar and was then imprisonment in Rome. Then, according to Josephus, the provocative incident of stonings of Jesus’ brother James and his companions ordered by the Sanhedrin Chief Priest, the incident being  appealed to Procurator Albinus. Decades later, the Christian problem persisted giving Nero an opportunity to falsely place blame them for the burning of Rome – the widespread persecution of Christians continued.

Drawing all the attention pro and con over the historical reference by Suetonius to the existence of the Christ, the founder worshiped by Christians, is a second quote from “The Life of Claudius.” He called out Chrestus as the source of the Jews causing trouble in Rome:

“Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”[viii]

The quote has multiple implications. First, it corroborates the Bible verse Acts 18:2 “…Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.”[ix] But, this is not the point of contention nor is it the slightly different spelling of Chrestus, not even the mention of the name Chrestus.

Instead, skeptics use the same argument made against the reference to Christus by Tacitus saying that since “Jesus” is not mentioned specifically by name, there is no proof that Chrestus is a historical reference to Jesus. Again, it raises two obvious questions. What other Jewish figure called Chrestus was the source of a troublesome movement in Rome by a class of men identified as Christians if it wasn’t Jesus called “the Christ” whose teachings became the religion for whom it is named? Would Suetonius, a Roman archives authority directly accountable to a Roman Emperor contradict his contemporary historian, Tacitus, who said Christus was crucified by Pilate?

On a much lighter note, newsworthy personalities of today – gladly or not – know they are in the national discourse when they become the subject of a Saturday Night Live satirical skit. The humor of satire is based on actual, factual events. SNL satires rely on the assumption that their public TV audience is aware of the subject matter.

Lucian, a Greek satirist (circa 115-200 AD), who authored more than 70 works, is considered to be among the greatest of Roman era satirists. As a celebrity, he toured his satire show throughout the regions of Greece, Italy and Gaul (France and surrounding areas).[x] Among Lucian’s works was The Death of Peregrine, a satire about the factual events of a man, Peregrinus Proteus, who cremated himself at the Greek Olympics in 165 AD. Peregrine, the deranged main character, at one point in the story encountered some Christians of Palestine:

“It was now that he came across the priests and scribes of the 11 Christians, in Palestine, and picked up their queer creed…. The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day, — the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account.

“You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.”[xi]

Lucian’s satire literally played off the Gospel truth more than a century before the first complete New Testament Gospel was produced. At the risk of his reputation as a famous satirist, he assumed his audiences in the late 100s were aware of the fact that Jesus lived; was a Jewish lawgiver who taught the gift of eternal life; and was crucified for his new teachings.

Strength of the evidence from these three antiquity sources that Jesus is a real historical figure comes in part from their close proximity in history to Judea governed by Procurator Pilate. A reinforcing factor is that none of them had favorable views of teachings of the founder of Christianity – Tacitus and Suetonius viewed it as a “mischievous superstition” and Lucian made fun of its “queer creed.”

Fact or baseless, the historical references by Tacitus, Suetonius and Lucian to the historic existence of Jesus of Nazareth?

REFERENCES:

[i]  “Tacitus.”  Encyclopædia Britannica.  2014.  “Gaius Cornelius Tacitus.”  UNRV History |The Roman Empire.   <http://www.unrv.com/bio/tacitus.php>  “Tacitus.”  Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering.  2014.  <http://www.livius.org/person/tacitus>
[ii] “Consul.”  Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering.  4 August 2015.  <http://www.livius.org/cn-cs/consul/consul.html >  Roman Consuls.”  UNRV History |The Roman Empire.  <http://www.unrv.com/government/consuls.php
[iii] Tacitus, Gaius Cornelius. The Annals. 109 AD. Trans. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb.  Internet Classic Archive. 2009.  Book XV.  <http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.html>
[iv] “Christus.” Latin Dictionary.  2008.  Latin-Dictionary.org. <http://www.latin-dictionary.org>   Strong, James, LL.D., S.T.D.  “christos <5547>” (Greek).   Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible. <http://lexiconcordance.com
[v]  Murdock, D.M. aka S., Acharya.  “Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius:  No Proof of Jesus.” Truth Be Known. 2017.  <http://www.truthbeknown.com/suetoniuschresto.htmlrel=”nofollow”
[vi]  “Suetonius Tranquillus, Gaius.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering.  2014.  <http://www.livius.org/su-sz/suetonius/suetonius.html>
[vii] Suetonius (C. Suetonius Tranquillus or C. Tranquillus Suetonius).  The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.  Book VI “Nero.”   University of Chicago|Bill Thayer. <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/home.html>
[viii] Suetonius.  The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.  Book V “Claudius.”  
[ix]  New American Standard Bible translation
[x] Pearse, Roger, ed.  “Lucian of Samosata : Introduction and Manuscripts.” The Tertullian Project. <http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/lucian/lucian_intro.htm>  “Lucian” and “Peregrinus Proteus.”  Encyclopædia Britannica. 2017.<https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lucian>.  “The Lucian of Samosata Project.”  LucianOfSamosata.info.   <http://lucianofsamosata.info/#sthash.lMVtk483.dpbs
[xi] Lucian of Samosata.  “The Death of Peregrine.” The Works of Lucian of Samosata. Volume IV.  Internet Sacred Text Archive. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/wl4/wAXl420.htm

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The Jewish Pharisee General Who Served Roman Emperors – Josephus

Perhaps the most famous secular source outside the Bible who made reference to Jesus as a real historical figure was a Jewish Pharisee turned Roman citizen and historian. Born in 37 AD, Joseph, better known by his Roman name, Flavius Josephus, grew up during the era of Jesus’ disciples, the beginning of Christianity.[i]

Josephus, a Jewish Pharisee, was appointed by the Sanhedrin to be the governor of Galilee and its military General commanding over 100,000 men. As a result of Jewish political treachery on multiple fronts, it contributed to his eventual defeat and capture by Roman Legion commander Vespasian. Josephus eventually befriended his captor and foretold to Vespasian that he would one day be Emperor of Rome, a thought that did not seem possible at the time.

Vespasian did indeed become Roman Emperor within two years whereupon Josephus was granted Roman citizenship and employed by Rome.[ii] While he had enemies among both the Jewish and Roman populations, he was trusted by the house of Vespasian going on to serve both of his sons, Titus and Domitian, when each ruled as Emperors. His job as a historian was to chronicle the official historical account of the Jews for an intended Roman audience.

And that he did. Josephus wrote The Antiquity of the Jews, considered by some to be one of the greatest works of antiquity, consisting of 20 books. Previously, he penned The Jewish Wars consisting of seven books where his experiences offered unique insights, both from the perspective as a Jewish General and later as an eyewitness from the Roman military perspective to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. Two other works included Against Apion and his autobiography, The Life of Josephus.

Today Josephus’ works, discounting some of his self-serving embellishments, are widely accepted to be authentic, factual Jewish historical accounts.[iii] That is, except for one particular section making reference to Jesus by name, commonly referred to by scholars as the Testimonium Flavianum.[iv] Conspiracy theorists allege that Christian scribes intentionally manipulated the text while reproducing handwritten copies of which there are still 133 in existence, in part or in whole, dating back to 324 AD.[v] Quoted from Antiquities, the most commonly alleged interpolations of the Testimonium appear in italics: [vi]

“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure: he drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles also: this was the Christ.  And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first, did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these, and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him.  And still the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”[vii]

One undisputed key phrase is “Jesus, a wise man” whereas the phrase “this was the Christ’ is disputed. Taking out the disputed phrases still leaves in place the portions of Josephus’ account that says a wise man named Jesus drew many followers including Gentiles, known as Christians, who was crucified by order of Pilate. A curious fact that goes unmentioned by the Christian conspiracy theorists is that Josephus made a second reference to Jesus, “who was called Christ” in a different book of Antiquities, one that is not disputed:

“…Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority].  Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions.]  And when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned…”[viii]

Undisputed perhaps for good cause – too much specific historical detail? A highly charged political issue involving a King, a Roman Procurator, an illegal Sanhedrin-ordered execution, a formal Jewish complaint to Rome and the forced removal of the High Priest would be very difficult to make a reasonable claim of interpolation. Further, it corroborates the Bible verse Galatians 1:19 “But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.” (NKJV)

Two historical references by Josephus to Jesus, the “Christ,” the Greek word for “Messiah,” but only one is disputed by critics. How likely is it that one is an interpolation while the other is not?

REFERENCES:

[i] “Flavius Josephus,” Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011.  The unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com>  “Flavius Josephus.” Encyclopædia Britannica.  2014. <http://www.britannica.com>   “Josephus.”  Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2016. <http://www.livius.org/person/augustus>
[ii] Josephus, Flavius.  The Life of Flavius JosephusThe Complete Works of Josephus.  Trans. and Commentary by William Whitson. Google Books. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>   Suetonius (C. Suetonius Tranquillus or C. Tranquillus Suetonius).  The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.  Book VIII, “Tacitus,” #6.  University of Chicago|Bill Thayer.  <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/home.html
[iii] “Josephus, Flavius.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011.   “Flavius Josephus.” Encyclopædia Britannica.
[iv] Goldberg, G. J. “Josephus’ Account of Jesus – The Testimonium Flavianum”.  Josephus.org. <http://www.josephus.org/testimonium.htm
[v] Van Voorst, Robert E. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Pages 93-96.  Google Books. <http://books.google.com/books?id=lwzliMSRGGkCEncyclopaedia Judaica. Vol. 11. 2nd edition.  Gale Virtual Reference Library. “Jesus.” Pages: 246-251.  <http://go.galegroup.com/ps/infomark.do?action=interpret&eisbn=9780028660974&prodId=GVRL&userGroupName=imcpl1111&type=aboutBook&version=1.0&authCount=1&u=imcpl1111>
[vi] Westcott, Brooke F. & Hort, John A. The New Testament in the Original Greek – Introduction | Appendix.  1907.  “Introduction , #7, #10, #5, #6-11, #240, #313, #363..  Google Book.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=0xtVAAAAMAAJ&pg=ACfU3U33CMW3331Vv20NgGvjyOs52I1mlA&vq=%22will+not+be+out+of+place+to+add+here+a+distinct+expression+of+our+belief+that+even+among+the+numerous%22&source=gbs_quotes_r&cad=2_0#v=onepage&q=criticism%20is%20still%20necessary%20&f=false>
[vii] Josephus.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book XVIII, Chapter III.3. 
[viii] Josephus.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book XX, Chapter IX.4. 

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Was Jesus of Nazareth a Real Historical Figure?

Media pop culture today widely treats Jesus of Nazareth as a real historical figure. Evidence can be seen in many forms such as the 2013 History Channel mini-series The Bible and its adaption into the 2014 major motion picture release of Son of God. The next year followed with the 2015 NBC mini-series A.D.: Beyond the Bible picking up where the Gospels ended with the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus.

National Geographic published in 2015 the hard cover book Jesus: An Illustrated Life where its website promo begins by saying “Two thousand years after his death, Jesus of Nazareth remains one of history’s most influential and fascinating figures.”[i] The 2016 spin-off magazine special edition entitled The Story of Jesus states “Jesus of Nazareth remains one of history’s most influential and fascinating figures.” The premise of both is based on the factualness of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem during the end of King Herod’s reign; his Roman crucifixion at Jerusalem, and the claims of his Resurrection that spawned a new religion.

Decades earlier the magazine US News & World Report ran as its cover story on April 16, 1990, “The Last Days of Jesus:  The new light on what happened.” The article was based on the premise that Jesus was a real person who lived, died and quite possibly rose from the dead.

Movies, books and magazines do not necessarily prove Jesus was a true historical figure. Did Jesus really exist – was he a real historical figure? While many may react by thinking this is a dumb question, there are those who are skeptical with some who adamantly insist that he never existed at all and, as a consequence, Jesus cannot then be the Son of God.

Of those who do not believe the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth, that small percentage still translates into millions of people. Many consider themselves to be agnostics or atheists, but not all. On what do they base their belief that Jesus never existed?

Theories loosely center on some manner of Christian conspiracy ranging from a passive form of legend that developed over centuries to a full blown conspiracy where Christian activists created a fictitious messiah figure.[ii] Quotes from the promo webpage for the aptly named book, The Christ Conspiracy by D. M. Murdock, are examples of these views:[iii]

“Jesus is a mythical figure in the tradition of pagan mythology and almost nothing in all of ancient literature would lead one to believe otherwise. Anyone wanting to believe Jesus lived and walked as a real live human being must do so despite the evidence, not because of it.” – C. Dennis McKinsey

“The gospel story is an artificial, non-historical work. It has been fabricated from source materials that can be identified and traced to their incorporation into the gospels. There is not a particle of hard evidence that ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ ever existed.” – Harold Leidner

Standing opposed to these charges are diverse sources outside the Bible reaching from today back through the centuries to within just a few years after the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. They come from Roman era historians and a Greek celebrity; non-Christian major religions – even some  atheists. 

Virtually all the sources that corroborate the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth are antagonistic toward Christianity. When opposing forces agree on a common point of information, it becomes the strongest form of a truth because both sides have essentially established – willingly or reluctantly – that it is a fact. It is a strategy used by courtroom lawyers who artfully attempt to extract common points of truth from the witnesses who testify in a trial. Using the testimony of their opposing witnesses, they extract truths and establish facts that strengthen their own cases.

Some sources do not directly discuss the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, but in denouncing or criticizing the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, they have conceded by inference that he was born, lived and walked this earth. Others refer to the crucifixion of Jesus, a recognition that he once lived in order to be put to death.

Credentials of each of these sources are key to weighing the integrity of their statements or positions in-spite-of their antagonism. The space needed to give due justice to each source exceeds the reasonable limits of a single blog. In the next few blogs, they will be introduced along with the specific evidence they offer toward establishing the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was a true historical figure.

Setting all the evidence of those sources aside, there is one overarching impression to consider. The personage of Jesus has made such an impact on the world over the past 2000 years up to this very day – as can be witnessed weekly if not daily in current news stories – the name of Jesus of Nazareth still causes religious tensions, political turmoil, persecution, brutal atrocities of martyrdom and wars to be fought.[iv]

What are the odds that all these consequences are the result of a false premise, one that says Jesus was not a real person? To many, these things alone attest to the fact that something profound happened involving a historical figure two thousand years ago that forever changed history; nevertheless, some will still continue to believe it is all a myth. What do you believe?

REFERENCES:

[i] Isbouts, Jean-Pierre. “Jesus: An Illustrated Life.” National Geographic Society. 2015. <http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Illustrated-Life-Jean-Pierre-Isbouts/dp/1426215681/ref=sr_1_1/185-6473608-4923818?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1462376067&sr=1-1&keywords=national+geographic+jesus>
[ii] Gauvin, Marshall J. “Did Jesus Christ Really Live?” (ca. 1922).  Infidels.org. <http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/marshall_gauvin/did_jesus_really_live.html rel=”nofollow”>
Ron Csillag. “For scholars, a combustible question: Was Christ real?” TheStar.com. 2008. <http://www.thestar.com/article/557548
“Was Jesus a Real Man?” The Atheist Apologist. 2010. <http://www.atheistapologist.com/2010/06/was-jesus-real-man.html rel=”nofollow”>
“Historicity of Jesus.” New World Encyclopedia. 2012.  <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Info:Main_Page>
Roussos, Ioannis. “On the Historicity of Jesus Christ.” Atheist Foundation of Australia. <http://atheistfoundation.org.au/article/on-the-historicity-of-jesus-christ rel=”nofollow”>
Rich, Tracey R. “Looking for Jesus?”, JewFAQ.org. <http://www.jewfaq.org/search.shtml?Keywords=what+about+Jesus>
Wolchover, Natalie.  “Proof of Jesus Christ?  7 Pieces of Evidence Debated.” 2013. LiveScience.com.  <http://www.livescience.com/38014-physical-evidence-jesus-debated.html>
Gloag, Paton J.  Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. 1895.  “Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels.”  Online Books Page. <http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008728595>
[iii]  Murdock, D.M. aka S., Acharya.  The Christ Conspiracy.  Advertisement.  <http://www.truthbeknown.com/christ.htm rel=”nofollow”>
[iv]   Chiaramonte, Perry. “Christian persecution seen in more locations across the globe, new report shows.” February 02, 2017. <http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/02/02/christian-persecution-seen-in-more-locations-across-globe-new-report-shows.html>

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