Roman Histories surrounding Jesus (part 2)

“There is properly no history; only biography.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Suetonius (Roman Historian; 69 -122 AD) Emperor Claudius (A.D. 41–54) edict to expel Jews from Rome in A.D. 49

“Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” (Life of Claudius XX v. 4)

"After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome." (Acts 18:1-2)

Suetonius’ quote here may seem small but look at how much he tells us about Christianity and Christ. First, it seems that there was a problem within the Jewish people that was large enough that the problem could not be handled internally. If it were simply one or two Christians, they would be able to handle the problem themselves. So, the question is why not? It seems that there was a mix of Jews and Romans who were Christians at the time and some Jews did have Roman citizenship and could not be beaten or killed because of the protection of Rome.

Another interesting fact is that the groups of Christians were large enough that the Emperor took notice of them. Even though it was hard to tell the difference between Jews and Christians. Regardless of how unfamiliar the Emperor Claudius is, this shows us that by 49 AD Christianity had moved from Jerusalem to Rome in large numbers.

This brings up a few questions. Was there a huge migration of Christians or was there a small number that grew over time? Christ’s death is placed at 33 AD so, this gives us 16 years (give or take) for the number to be large enough for all that has been said to occur. Would a series of arguments from Jews among themselves warrant this type of attention? Is it possible that it was the Roman citizens who were Christians (viewed as Jewish adherents) that were constantly being harassed and complained about by the non-Christian Jewish Roman citizens (and non-citizens) that got Claudius so fed up that he just expelled all ethnic Jews from the City hoping to solve the problem?

Now, what could have the Christians been saying that would have been causing problems? What is the disagreement between Judaism and Christianity in the first century less than 20 years after the crucifixion of Christ?

Christians within communion confess the resurrection of Jesus. This would be a problem for Jews because they believe that the resurrection happens at the end of time for the final judgment and that it is a national resurrection. An individual resurrection would not be an acceptable belief for those of the Pharisaical group and the Sadducees, regardless on whether or not it happens on an individual basis or if it’s national, do not accept the concept of a physical resurrection.

Another problem would be with the claim of Jesus as the Messiah. Judaism of the first century was looking for a Jewish Alexander the Great. Jesus did not fit this description. The title also has divine implications by this point in Jewish understanding. Saying that Jesus is the Christ is saying that he is God with all power and authority to judge the nations and that he is to be worshipped.

There are other problems that the Roman Jews would have with what Jewish Christians were saying, but I think this is enough to see that maybe one or two arguments might have occurred. To solve the problem, it would be easier to throw the Jews out of Rome. This is what Claudius chose to do in 49 AD. Notice that the problem was not that Jesus never lived. On the contrary it was on what Jesus was said to have done and who he really was.

Tacitus (Roman Historian; 115 AD) Nero (A.D. 54–68) - set fire to Rome in A.D. 64; blamed the Christians, sang while it burned

“Consequently…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 the Procurator Pontius Pilatus, and a deadly superstition, thus checked for a moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but also in the City.” (Annuls XV. 44. 2-8)

Tacitus was a contemporary of Pliny and Suetonius. His account of this time in history shows us that Christianity was so large that as a community they could be blamed for something and that this would have been common knowledge, not only by the elite or religious people, but also to everybody in the Roman Empire. From the accounts of martyrdom in the numbers and length of time this persecution took place, there must have been a large number of Christians living in the Roman Empire at this time in history.

Not only do we have an outline of who the Christians were but also some details on why they were called Christians. Basically it was named after this guy called Christus (Christ) who suffered the extreme penalty (crucifixion) during the reign of Tiberius (14 – 37 AD) at the hands of Pontius Pilatus. This names Jesus as a real person who was executed by Pilate during the time of Tiberius.

The Lords Supper would be one of the only sacraments that, to an outsider, would be revolting. Another abomination would be the atheism that’s ascribed to Christians since they refused to, not only not worship Caesar, but also recognize any pagan gods.

We have to ask ourselves what would qualify as a “deadly superstition” from Tacitus’ point of view? This would have to be something that was checked for a time and then broke out in Rome as well as in Judea where it first started. It could be the worship of Jesus as God or recognizing him as king. I don’t think the worship of somebody as a god would be that threatening and we would need to know something about the behavior of Christians during the time of Christ’s death.

Now if the threat was the messianic prophesy that one would come and over throw the Romans and re-establish Jewish control that was lost in 63 BC. This would be seen as a deadly superstition from a Roman perspective. All we know is that there was some sort of peek time when people thought Jesus was this person and was executed for this reason.

I haven’t yet qualified the Gospels but I think a quick mention of their contents here would be beneficial for anyone unfamiliar with the story. Jesus had a huge following. In some accounts five to six thousand men (not counting women and children) were following him at a given time. Some were members of the Sanhedrin and some were Roman soldiers. Then, Jesus is executed and even those closest to him abandoned him and his message. Many, if not all, went back to their old jobs they had left 3 years prior. For some reason these same men who disowned him, left his ministry and teachings, and return to “life as usual” were now teaching in his name. This seems more closely to mirror the pattern of the “deadly superstition, thus checked for a moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but also in the City”, that Tacitus is speaking about.

About fifteen years later Jewish Christians are expelled from Rome (49 AD), in another fifteen years Nero is blaming Christians for setting fire to Rome (64). From what we saw with Pliny’s history, about fifteen years after the fire, we know that Jesus was being worshipped as God and the Lords Supper has the understanding of a cannibalistic ritual. We can also see a parallel in descriptive language between Pliny and Tacitus about Christian assumptions among the popular consensus. I think we can infer from this comparison that the understanding of the Lords Supper is well known of (by Christians and their critics) before 64 AD.

As we’ve seen the historicity of Jesus is not in question in the minds of these Roman Historians or the Emperors during the times of the writings. Also here is what we’ve learned about Jesus so far from them.

  1. Jesus is worshiped as God by his followers
  2. Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilot
  3. Jesus was viewed as the Messiah and King
  4. Christians get their name from Jesus Christ
  5. Jesus was Jewish
  6. Jesus lived during the time of Tiberius
  7. Jesus is said to have been resurrected and his followers believed they were eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

What we’ve seen from the Roman accounts of history is that the effects of Jesus Christ’s life and death are as notable as the historical events that surround them. There seems to be about fifteen years between the death of Christ and these recorded events. When we look at further historical accounts we’ll see that this time is not necessarily addressed but the time of Christ and accounts therein are. Keep this missing time in your memory because we will come back to it in later posts.