Roman Elites Who Acknowledged Realty of Christ
Three Roman society elites – a Consul, an imperial archive custodian, a famous comedian – have one thing in common. Each ridiculed the crucified Jewish Christ and in doing so confirmed his historical existence.
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, one who was a Consul 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 duplicity. Tacitus seemed obliged to explain who were the Christians though far from a 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] The skeptic’s claim presents a dilemma that can be answered with logic. 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?
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,” his reference to “the Christians” draws little attention, yet serves to clarify the second:
“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 this new belief considered by Rome to be a “mischievous superstition”?
History bears witness that the new belief by Christians was indeed an unsanctioned belief – a superstition – that came into direct conflict with the establishment Jewish religion, not to mention Rome’s pagan practices. In turn, the Jewish conflict posed by Christians became a problem that had to be dealt with by Rome.
First, the problem with the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth was forced upon Roman Procurator Pilate whom Tacitus specifically mentioned by name. Next, the Sanhedrin filed formal charges with Roman 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.
According to Josephus, the provocative stonings of Jesus’ brother James and his companions ordered by the Sanhedrin Chief Priest dragged Rome yet again into the scenario when the incident was appealed to Roman Procurator Albinus. Decades later, the Christian problem persisted giving Nero an opportunity to falsely place blame on them for the burning of Rome thereby advancing the widespread persecution of Christians.
Drawing all the attention over the historical reference by Suetonius is another quote from “The Life of Claudius.” He blamed 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 corroborates the Bible verse Acts 18:2: “… Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.”[ix] Contention by critics does not focus on the slightly different spelling of Chrestus nor 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 of Nazareth. Again, it raises the same obvious response.
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” or Chrestus whose teachings became the religion for whom it is named?
A more challenging question: 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 real high-profile current 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 presenting his shows 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 actual Gospel’s message 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 sources of antiquity 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 the 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?\
Updated July 26, 2021.
[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. 2019. <https://www.livius.org/sources/content/tacitus>
[ii] Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2019. <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.net> 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.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2019. <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>