SUETONIUS : WITNESS TO JESUS?

If Pliny tells us little of value regarding ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ it would appear that the alleged reference to Jesus in Tacitus is positively destructive to the general definition of an ‘historical Jesus’ as the details contradict the most common narratives built up around this figure:

Even less helpful is a reference found in the writings of the Roman biographer Suetonius, often also cited in discussions of the existence of Jesus… Suetonius indicates that at one point in his reign Claudius deported all the Jews from Rome because of riots that had occurred “at the instigation of Chrestus”.

Ehrman is quite correct, I think, in disparaging this supposed ‘evidence’ as less than helpful because if this is indeed the historical Jesus it indicates this Jesus did not die in Judea during the reign of Tiberius as depicted in the gospel tales (and generally accepted among Jesus historicists) but instead lived another 20 years or so and made it to Rome where he stirred up trouble. We never learn whether this Chrestus ends up crucified, either.

At least Suetonius’s Chrestus is associated with stirring up trouble and associated with Judaism, unlike Pliny’s Christ.

Some argue that Chrestus is just a misspelled ‘Christus’ and that this indicates friction among Jews over a particular messianic candidate (possibly an historical Jesus, but just as easily an historical Jacob or Ishmael).

…even if Suetonius is referring to Jesus by a misspelled epithet, he does not help us much in our quest for non-Christian references to Jesus. Jesus himself would have been dead for some twenty years when these riots in Rome took place, so at best Suetonius  would be providing evidence, if he can count for evidence, that there were Christians in Rome during the reign of Claudius. But this would have been the case whether Jesus lived or not, since mythicists would argue that the “myth” of Christ had already been invented by then, as had the supposed life of the made-up figure of Jesus.

On the whole, I would agree with this, except for a couple of points.

Certainly, if it is true Jews were at this time period especially prone to messianism, no doubt rival candidates could cause trouble among their partisans – even if none of the candidates were ‘our’ Jesus. Since Christ itself is merely an epithet that could be applied to anyone (indeed priests were ‘anointed’ too, and the epithet could apply to them) there’s no guarantee that ‘Jews arguing about Christ’ has anything to do with a putative ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. We’d need a lot more detail than we have for this to count even as evidence for Christians in Rome at this date.

Taking Suetonius at face value, it would seem that we merely have someone whose name is (or is known as) ‘Chrestus’ – a not uncommon proper name in those days – was the instigator of rioting the purpose of which is unknown. It could have been about something completely unrelated to messianism at all. It could have been food prices, or housing discrimination, or anti-semitism.

Thus far we have a couple of instances, sometimes taken to be referring to ‘Jesus’, which do not come to anything much when we look at them dispassionately.

At best they indicate the existence of christians, which no one seems to deny.

 

 

 

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