Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Jesus: The Rebellious Ghost

Christian scholars have often ventured outside of biblical text attempting to verify that Jesus, as professed in the Gospels, was an actual historical entity. When attempting to verify any personality in theological text, there is no better source then those found outside of the theological spectrum. In this particular case, Christian scholars are attempting to prove Jesus' existence with non-Christian authorship. In my following treatise, I will illustrate that the citation of Suetonius as proof to a historical Jesus is erroneous. Furthermore, my hope is that Suetonius' work is removed as evidence to a reported historical Jesus.

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c.70-130CE), wrote a work titled, De Vita Caesarum (Lives of the Caesars), more commonly known as the The Twelve Caesars. In this work, Suetonius makes two references of interest, the first coming in his book on Claudius and the second being found in his book on Nero. In these two passages of interest, Suetonius makes references to a Chrestus and Christiani.


Suetonius' passage in Nero must first be discussed, especially pertaining to his passage on Christians. We clearly see that Suetonius never associates Christians with Christ; he writes:

Multa sub eo et animadversa severe et coercita nec minus instituta: adhibitus sumptibus modus; publicae cenae ad sportulas redactae; interdictum ne quid in popinis cocti praeter legumina aut holera veniret, cum antea nullum non obsonii genus proponeretur; afflicti suppliciis Christiani, genus hominum superstitionis novae ac maleficae; vetiti quadrigariorum lusus, quibus inveterata licentia passim vagantibus fallere ac furari per iocum ius erat; pantomimorum factiones cum ipsis simul relegatae.1

During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made: a limit was set to expenditures; the public banquets were confined to a distribution of food; the sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. He put an end to the diversions of the chariot drivers, who from immunity of long standing claimed the right of ranging at large and amusing themselves by cheating and robbing the people. The pantomimic actors and their partisans were banished from the city.2

By mentioning Christians in passing, Suetonius offers no historical verification to a Christ. He is merely reporting on a Jewish sect that I do not doubt existed at this time.

 Dating the Expulsion

Suetonius makes reference to a Chrestus in his book of Claudius, written c. 121 CE.3 Emperor Claudius reigned from 41-54 CE and during his rule, Suetonius claims that as a result of Jews making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, the Jews were expelled from Rome.4 We will discuss the Chrestus personality later, but for now wish to discuss only the expulsion of Jews that Suetonius mentions and attribute a date to this event.

Paulus Orosius was a Fourth Century Christian historian and theologian. He is best known for his work titled Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII, or Seven Books of History Against the Pagans.5 In this same work, Orosius dates the expulsion of Jews that Suetonius documents in Claudius, to 49 CE. While Orosius' dating was attributed in the Fourth Century, the majority of scholars today still agree with his conclusion.6 Orosius has the following to say regarding Suetonius' documentation of an expulsion of Jews:

Iudaeos Iosephus refert. sed me magis Suetonius mouet, qui ait hoc modo: Claudius Iudaeos inpulsore Christo adsidue tumultuantes Roma expulit; quod, utrum contra Christum tumultuantes Iudaeos coherceri et conprimi iusserit, an etiam Christianos simul uelut cognatae religionis homines uoluerit expelli, nequaquam discernitur.7

In the ninth year of his reign,8 Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. Both Josephus and Suetonius record this event, but I prefer, however, the account of the latter, who speaks as follows: "Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because in their resentment against Christ they were continually creating disturbances." As a matter of fact, however, no one can say whether the emperor ordered the Jews to be restrained and repressed because they were creating disturbances against Christ or whether he wished the Christians to be expelled at the same time on the ground that they were members of an allied religion.9

In relationship to Orosius' passage, A. Andrew Das explains that since Orosius attributes his dating of 49 CE to a source, this only illustrates that he himself was not the source.10 Das further points out that Orosius was not the most reliable of sources.11

The first point of interest in Orosius' passage is that he claims Josephus records an expulsion of Jews under the reign of Emperor Claudius. This statement, however, is erroneous as no such reference can be found anywhere within any of Josephus' extant works.

We know that Orosius could not have obtained a dating from Josephus.12 Furthermore, as previously mentioned, De Vita Caesarum is Suetonius' only surviving work that is completely intact. For this reason, we cannot confirm where Orosius got his dating of 49 CE, because Suetonius never attributes a date to the event.

In addition to Suetonius' passage and Orosius' dating of it, Acts of the Apostles also references an expulsion under Claudius. The passage of interest follows:

After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth; And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome: and came unto them.13

We can further attribute a date of 49 CE to this expulsion as Acts mentions Gallio's pro-consulship14 that took place from 51-52 CE.15 The second point of interest in Orosius' passage is when he conveniently replaces the name Chrestus with Christ, which clearly illustrates an interpretation on his part. Third, Orosius ponders if the Christians were expelled along with the Jews. We already know that Josephus mentions nothing regarding an expulsion under Claudius and Suetonius certainly does not associate Christians in any context regarding his documentation of an expulsion of Jews, Claudius or Chrestus. Furthermore, even if hypothetically accept for a moment that Orosius' source was the Acts of the Apostles, no where does it associate Christians with the expulsion.

There are however, many similarities between Suetonius' account of an expulsion and the one found in Acts. Both mention (1) Claudius, (2) expulsion, (3) the Jews and (4) Rome. Howard Dixon Slingerland further illustrates that the major difference between the two texts are the characters involved. Acts mentions Priscilla and Aquila, while Suetonius mentions a Chrestus.16 The two scenarios, for the most part, are in harmony with one another. Some scholars, such as Smith,17 Lüdemann,18 and Janne,19 believe that the expulsion Suetonius references took place in 41 CE. One reason for this dating is the documentation of Cassius Dio regarding Claudius' inability to expel the Jews; Cassius writes:

As for the Jews, who had again increased so greatly that by reason of their multitude it would have been hard without raising a tumult to bar them from the city, he did not drive them out, but ordered them, while continuing their traditional mode of life, not to hold meetings. He also disbanded the clubs, which had been reintroduced by Gaius. Moreover, seeing that there was no use in forbidding the populace to do certain things unless their daily life should be reformed, he abolished the taverns where they were wont to gather and drink, and commanded that no boiled meat or hot water should be sold; and he punished some who disobeyed in this matter.20

Cassius attributed the preceding passage to the first year of Claudius' reign, therefore, we know that it transpired in 41 CE. Upon reading the passage, we learn that the number of Jews were to great to be expelled and Cassius himself specifically denies that an expulsion occurred. Yet we do find that restrictions were placed upon the Jews themselves, for example, they were not allowed to hold meetings. In lieu of this information, trying to connect Cassius' documentation of 41 CE and Suetonius' expulsion of 49 CE produce little more then speculation. There is no conclusive evidence that he and Suetonius are referencing the same event. Furthermore, Cassius is writing more than a century after Suetonius and neither of them provide a source to their information, so we cannot conclude that Cassius is referencing Suetonius. Lastly, Cassius denies an expulsion and omits reference to a Chrestus, who it has turned out, is the focal point of interest.

 Who is Chrestus?

In Suetonius' book of Claudius, he mentions a Chrestus in relation to an expulsion of Jews. The passage of interest follows:

Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit. Germanorum legatis in orchestra sedere permisit, simplicitate eorum et fiducia commotus, quod in popularia deducti, cum animadvertissent Parthos et Armenios sedentis in senatu, ad eadem loca sponte transierant, nihilo deteriorem virtutem aut condicionem suam praedicantes.21

Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome. He allowed the envoys of the Germans to sit in the orchestra, led by their naïve self-confidence; for when they had been taken to the seats occupied by the common people and saw the Parthian and Armenian envoys sitting with the senate, they moved of their own accord to the same part of the theatre, protesting that their merits and rank were no whit inferior.22

Robert Van Voorst illustrates that the Latin word impulsore in Suetonius' passage does not mean instigation, but rather instigator.23 Since impulsore is immediately followed by Chresto, the sentence should read “the instigator Chrestus”, not the “instigation of Chrestus”, as the translation suggests. Van Voorst further concludes that Impulsore and Chresto agree with each other in gender, number and case, making Chresto an appositive. He further points out correctly that to translate the passage at the instigation of Chrestus conveys the basic meaning, but mutes the judgment that Suetonius was making. Not only did Chrestus lead an agitation, but he himself was the agitator.24

In relationship to Suetonius' reference of an expulsion, specifically the date attributed to it, is that the majority, if not all, Christians accept that a reported Jesus of Nazareth was crucified sometime between 30-33 CE. If we hypothetically accept for a moment that Christ was actually being referred too (while keeping in mind the previous point made by Van Voorst regarding impulsore Chresto), how could a reported Jesus of Nazareth instigate anything in 49 CE? Especially since he was already deceased and not present on earth.

Christian scholars further assert that Suetonius misspells Christus, Chrestus. This argument is made using examples of those writing in antiquity. For example, Tertullian25 claimed that people commonly misspelled the word Christian,26 while Lactanius argued the misspelling of Christ.27 However, this argument is irrelevant for several reasons, specifically due to the fact that Lactanius is writing his argument in the Fourth Century, while Suetonius is writing in the second.

First, Chrestus was a very common Greco-Roman name.28 Second, Suetonius displayed a correct spelling of Christians in Nero 16.2, giving us no reason to believe that he would misspell the reported Christian leader, Christus. Third, none of the copyists of the earliest extant (and most reliable) copies of Suetonius' De Vita Caesarum manuscript, (which range from the ninth to fifteenth centuries), bothered to change Chresto to Christo, only indicating that it made sense as it stood.29

Christian scholars, such as Van Voorst, have also argued that Chrestus was not a common Jewish name. Out of the many Roman sources and catacomb inscriptions available to us, the Jewish name Chrestus does not exist,30 however, the (female) Jewish name Chreste does. In the above photograph, an inscription, dating to 81 CE; reads:

In the reign of King Tiberius Julius Rescuporis, friend of Caesar and friend of the Romans, pious, in the year 377, the twelfth of the month of Pereitios, I Chreste (this name in the inscription is underlined in red), former wife of Drusus, release in the synagogue, my home-bred slave Heraclas, free, once and for all, according to my vow, who is to be undisturbed and unharmed by all of my heirs, and who may go wherever he desires, unhindered, as I have vowed, except that he show devotion and diligence toward the synagogue with the agreement both of my heirs Heraclides and Heliconias and also under the joint guardianship of the congregation of the Jews.31

Just as Christian scholars speculate that Suetonius meant Christus, we can also speculate that perhaps Suetonius was writing the masculine form of the (female) Jewish name, Chreste. Further solidifying the case that Chrestus was a Jewish instigator.


Suetonius correctly illustrates the spelling of Christiani in Nero 16.2 and as previously asserted, there is no reason to believe that he would have misspelled its reported leader's name. It is evident that Cassius Dio and Suetonius are not referencing the same event. As illustrated, the passage in Acts has more in common with Claudius 25.4 and less, if anything at all, to do with Cassius' passage in Roman History. The fact that Orosius may have been correct in attributing a date of 49 CE is irrelevant. The importance is when Orosius interpolated Chrestus as Christus and questions if Christians had anything to do with the expulsion.

In all three accounts (Suetonius, Cassius Dio and Acts), we see no reference to either a Christ or Christians in relation to Claudius' expulsion of Jews. We can further conclude that Acts was exaggerating its claim that all Jews were expelled from Rome. Although Cassius is referring to a different event, we learn how unlikely and difficult a task it would have been to accomplish such a feat.

Furthermore, given what we have to work with, it is evident that Suetonius did in fact mean what he wrote, that a Jewish instigator named Chrestus led to an expulsion of Jews (if in fact one took place). In further support of this, since Chreste is a female Jewish name, it is not irrational to think that a male Jew would be named Chrestus. Chrestus could have also been born a Roman citizen who later converted to Judaism.

Closing, Van Voorst's statement regarding Claudius 25.4 sums things up best:

Nothing in this sentence or its context explicitly indicates that Suetonius is writing about Christ or Christianity.32


1) Suetonius, Twelve Caesars, Nero 16.2
2) Translation by J.C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library: The Life of Nero, Boston: Harvard University Press, 1914; p. 112
3) Carl J. Richard, Greeks and Romans Bearing Gifts, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008; p. 16
4) Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Claudius, 25.4
5) David Rohrbacher, The Historians of Late Antiquity, Kentucky: Routledge, 2002; pp. 137-138 (I further encourage the reader to read pages 135-149 within this publication to obtain an excellent overview of both Orosius' life and works.)
6) Michael J. Wilkins, Jesus Under Fire, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996; p. 215
7) Paulus Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, 7.6.15
8) Emperor Claudius reigned from 41-54 CE, therefore, the ninth year of his reign would be 49-50 CE.
9) Translation by Roy J. Deferrari, The Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, Washington D.C: Catholic University of America Press, 1964; pp. 283-363
10) A. Andrew Das, Solving the Romans debate, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007; p. 161
11) ibid, p. 158
12) ibid, p. 152
13) Acts, 18.1-2, KJV
14) Acts, 18: 12-17, KJV
15) Dixon Slingerland, The Jewish Quarterly Review, LXXXIII, Nos. 1-2 (July-October, 1992) p. 132
16) ibid, p. 134
17) Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God?, California: Publishers Group West, 1978; p. 66
18) Gerd Lüdemann, Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles: Studies in Chronology, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984; pp. 164-171
19) H. Janne, Impulsore Chresto, Annuaire de l'Institut de Philologie et d'historie Orientales 2, 1934; pp. 550-552
20) Cassius Dio, Roman History, 60.6.6-7 (Translated by Earnest Cary, Loeb Classical Library, Boston: Harvard University Press; v.3, pp. 383-387
21) Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Claudius, 25.4
22) Translated by J.C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library: The Life of Claudius, Boston: Harvard University Press, 1914; p. 53
23) Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000; p.31
24) ibid, p. 31
25) Tertullian, Apology, 3.5
26) For example, Tertullian argued that the term Christian was misspelled Chrestian.
27) Lactanius, Divine Institutes, 4.7.5
28) Kurt Linck, De Antiquissimis Veterum quae ad Iesum Nazarenum Spectant Testimoniis, Germany: Giessen, 1913; p. 106
29) Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000; p.32
30) ibid, p. 33
31) Donald D. Binder, Into the Temple Courts: The Place of the Synagogues in the Second Temple Period, Atlanta: Society of biblical literature, 1999; p. 443
32) Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000; p.32