Two Roman Historian 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?
[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.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.” 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>