A Brief Review of the Historicity of Jesus: Part III

Like many Romans of his era, we do not know for certain where or when Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was born. He may have been born in Italy or more probably, he may have been born in the province of Africa, in Hippo Regius. His birth date of 69 AD has been deduced from his book, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, in which he tells us that his father, Suetonius Laetus, was a tribune with the 13th Legion Gemina and was present when Otho decided to commit suicide after Otho’s defeat by his rival to the purple, Vitellius. As Laetus was a military tribune, several facts are readily deduced: 1) Laetus could only have been about 20 years of age in 69 AD; 2) the defeat of Otho ended his political career; 3) tribunes could only come from senatorial or equestrian classes; and 4) Laetus must have had some wealth. In addition, Suetonius described himself as being a young man twenty years after the death of Nero, who died June 9, 68 AD.

During the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD), Suetonius was sent to Rome to be educated as an orator and where he studied rhetoric. There, he became a close friend of Pliny the Younger, a Senator. We know a great deal about Pliny the Younger and Suetonius from the surviving letters of Pliny.

Pliny was considered to be a connoisseur of literary talent. Pliny paints the picture of Suetonius being a “quiet and studious, a man dedicated to writing.” Pliny helped Suetonius in many ways, such in buying a farm, obtaining certain immunities granted to only a father of three children, when Suetonius was childless, and appointing him to a staff position when Pliny was proconsul of Bithynia Pontus. Further, Pliny introduced Suetonius to Emperor Trajan and later to Emperor Hadrian. Thus, Suetonius became secretary of studies and director of imperial studies under Trajan, and later personal secretary to Hadrian.

Was Suetonius in a position to know? The imperial offices which Suetonius held lend great weight to his writings.

We know from an inscription in stone found in 1952 in Hippo Regius that Suetonius had been a bybliothecis, an a studiis, and an ab epistulis. The office of a bybliothecis means that Suetonius was responsible for the libraries in Rome. There were at least seven of them, usually consisting of two reading rooms, one for Latin and one for Greek literature. The a studiis was a documentalist of the imperial archives. If the emperor were to ask a question, then the a studiis had to find the texts of imperial documents which dealt with the matter. Finally, the ab epistulis was one of the most important men in the civil administration of the Roman Empire, being the ‘minister of letters’, because Suetonius was responsible for the imperial correspondence.

Suetonius’ work, Lives of the Twelve Caesars makes two references:

“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” Claudius 25.4

“Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.” Nero 16.2

Much has been made of the word “Chrestus” in the first reference, because this is the correct spelling of a proper Greek name. From this word, some have argued that the reference is not to Jesus, which would have required the use of the word “Christus”, but is to a person named Chrestus. In addition, Suetonius correctly spelled ‘Christians’ so it is unlikely that he mis-spelled Chrestus when he meant ‘Christus’.

Dr. Robert Harris has noted three things which, in my opinion, are dispositive concerning the matter: first, the 4th-century Latin Christian Lactantius noted that Jesus was commonly called “Chrestus” by those who were ignorant; second, Suetonius did not say, “at the institution of a certain Chrestus,” Suetonius simply expected that his readers would know the person to whom he was referring-it had to be a person very well known at the time Suetonius was writing; and third, the substitution of a ‘e’ for a ‘i’ was a very common spelling error in proper names in this era. Finally, it should be noted that the first reference is made to the same events which are chronicled in Acts 18:2, which places Christians in Rome in 41-49 AD, which would be a strong indication that Jesus existed, because His life would have been within living memory.

In the next part of this article, I will review the writings of Pliny the Younger.



A Brief Review of the Historicity of Jesus: Part II

Most of the facts of the life of Tacitus are shrouded in mystery. We do not know for certain whether his first name was Publius or Gaius, the exact year of his birth, or the place of his birth.  We do know that he was a friend of Pliny the Younger, but this does not help us to raise the veil much. What is known about his early life is scant: he was a member of the Cornelius clan and he was probably born in 56 or 57 AD.

It is thought that his father, who was also named Cornelius Tacitus, was a friend of Pliny the Elder, which explains the friendship of the two sons. Tacitus married, Julia, the daughter of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, that is the famous General Agricola, who conquered Britannia. This fact supports the contention that Tacitus may have come from Gallia Narbonensis. Nonetheless, shortly after marrying Julia, his career took off, and he quickly went through the various offices of the cursus honorum. Becoming a quaestor, praetor, and then, a quindecimvir sacris facundis, a priest presiding over the all-important Sibylline Books and the Ludi Saeculares, the so-called Secular Games, which marked the changing of epochs of 100 or 110 years, the supposed longest possible human lifetime in 88AD. As a quindecimvir sacris facundis, he was a member of the council which supervised foreign cults in Rome, and, thereby, Van Voorst argues that he could have become familiar with Christianity in this way. As a senator and as a lawyer, he was renowned for his oratory, which is ironic given his cognomen of Tacitus or “silent”. Ultimately, he rose to the highest governorship position in the Empire, Governor of Asia.

He authored numerous works, including ‘The Life of Agricola’,’Germania’, “Dialogue on Oratory’, ‘Histories’, and the ‘Annals’. The last two works together provide a continuous history from 14 AD (the death of Augustus) to 96AD (the death of Domitian).

The context of the Annals, as it relates to Jesus, is the great six day fire that consumed much of Rome. Tacitus wrote of Jesus as follows:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, 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 Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Annals of Tacitus Book 15, Chapter 44

First and foremost, this passage, confirms the crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of Pontius Pilate, and thus the historicity of Jesus.   While it incorrectly refers to Pilate as a procurator, a term which was applied to leaders of Judea after 42 AD, some six years after Pilate left Judea, it correctly dates Pilate’s tenure in Judea to the reign of Tiberius. This passage is highly critical of Christians-‘a highly mischievous superstition’ and labeling Judea as the ‘first source of the evil’. It is thus unlikely that this passage is a later interpolation into the Annals, for why would Church fathers write thusly of their own religion?

The issue of whether the term procurator demonstrates that the passage is a later interpolation has been dismissed by most scholars. Many leading scholars now agree with Bruce Chilton, Craig Evans and Robert E. Van Voorst that Tacitus probably used the term which was more familiar to his readers of his day, rather than to use a discarded more ancient term.

Likewise, the issue of whether Tacitus used the word Christians or Chrestians is really unimportant because there is a great deal of evidence to support the fact that Christians used both terms. Luke in Acts uses the term ‘Christian’, which appears to be the origination of that term, but that is only a single usage. Otherwise, Christians often referred to themselves as Chrestians.

This passage also tells us a great deal about early Christianity. First, by 64 AD, that is the date of the Great Fire of Rome, there were Christians in Rome. Second, Christians could be distinguished by the Romans from Jews. Third, Judea was seen as the home of Christianity. Fourth, Christians were martyred in Rome.

Given as to how negative this passage is concerning Christianity, and given Tacitus’ clear goal of painstakingly verifying his facts, it is hard to conceive that this passage is not genuine.

In future parts to this article, I will discuss other Roman writers, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger, who give further support to the historicity of Jesus, as well as shedding light on early Christianity.

The Author at Theater in Taormina

The Author at Theater in Taormina

A Brief Review of the Historicity of Jesus: Part I

Did Jesus exist? Was he crucified? The historicity of Jesus deals with the issue of analyzing the historical record to determine whether Jesus lived, as well as whether any of the events set forth in the Gospels, such as the crucifixion, happened. Historicity is to be distinguished from reconstructing the historical life of Jesus. We are solely looking at the issue of whether there is historical evidence of Jesus apart from the Gospels.

It is beyond the scope of this five-part article to deal with the entirety of the historical record and, therefore, we will focus upon only two records at this time and will return to this issue at a later date. The records to be reviewed are The Antiquities of the Jews, written by Josephus (Part I), and the Annals, written by Tacitus (Part II).

Josephus wrote in Chapter 3, Book XVIII of his Antiquities:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

Why should we believe this account? There are a number of reasons which include: (1) the identity of Josephus; (2) date of the writing of the Annals; (3) mentions of Jesus by Josephus in other of his works; (4) his profession of wanting the facts, the true facts, to be recorded; and (5) his accuracy in presenting the facts of other events recorded in his works.

Joseph ben Matthias, later Titus Falvius Josephus, was born in Jerusalem around 37 AD to a father of priestly descent and a mother claiming royal descent. As a general, he fought against the Romans in the First Roman Jewish War. He surrendered after the siege of Jotapata to Vespasian about whom Josephus made the prophecy that Vespasian would rule the world. Vespasian kept Josephus as a hostage and as a translator. Later, after Vespasian became Emperor, Josephus was granted his freedom and took the Flavian family name. He became close friends with Vespasian son, Titus, and fully defected to Rome. Thereafter, as Titus besieged Jerusalem, Josephus acted as his translator. With this background, as a Jew who defected to Rome, it is highly unlikely that Josephus would write accounts of Jesus, if Jesus were not a historical personage. This account confirms both the existence of Jesus, as well as his crucifixion.

Many noted scholars have concluded that the crucifixion of Jesus, as well as obviously his existence, are historical facts. One, John P. Meier, states that several criterion proves the historicity of Jesus and the crucifixion including the criterion of embarrassment, by which he means that early Christians would not have invented the death of their leader, particularly by crucifixion; the criterion of multiple attestation, that is the confirmation of Jesus by many different sources; the criterion of coherence, that is it fits with other established historical elements; and, finally, the criterion of non-rejection, by which he means that ancient sources did not dispute either the existence of Jesus, nor his crucifixion.

In my next blog, I will continue with an examination of the Annals by Tacitus.

Please let me know if these articles are of value to you, as well as topics you would like to see discussed in future blogs.

Looting of Temple In Jerusalem by Titus-Arch of Titus

Looting of Temple In Jerusalem by Titus-Arch of Titus

A Survey of Current Literature Bearing on the world of Casting Lots

It is my intention that my blog might become a resource for serious study and scholarship. To further this aim, I shall from time to time review/digest articles appearing in current magazines which contain important research, scholarship, archaeological discoveries, or otherwise provide interesting insights into the ancient Roman world and early Christianity. Three articles worthy of note to my readers are: Literal Dexiolaboi by Murray Dahm; The Tomb of the Silver Hands by Marco Merola; and A Brief Glimpse into Early Rome by Jason M. Urbanus.

Turning first to the Urbanus article (May/June 2014 Archaeology), we encounter what is an ongoing dig at the Sant’Omobono site in Rome. While the subject temple has been known since 1930, recent work has been done on this site which has been a sacred site since the 7th to 6th century BC. The site, besides being a sacred site for 2,700 years, is situated in the bend of the Tiber River known as the Forum Boarium, or Cattle Market. This area was the early commercial center of Rome and was the terminus of several trade route roads, as well as near the harbor. “‘The site is crucial for understanding the related processes of monumentalization, urbanization, and state formation in Rome in the late Archaic period,’ says Dan Diffendale, a member of the University of Michigan team.” For three days, due to the difficulty of keeping the site open due to the necessity to put in steel retaining walls to hold back the ground water and the water-logged dirt, the team was able to photograph, and record the site through total station theodolite and photogrammetry. Hundreds of items including votive offerings, drinking vessels, and figurines were removed from the site.

Merola’s article appeared in Archaeology’s July/August 2014 issue. Archaeologist Carl Casi set out to relocate the ‘lost’ tombs of the Etruscans near Vulci which in the 1850’s had been a grand tour of Europe destination. While searching for these lost tombs, Casi and his team found twenty graves and tombs, as well as two larger funerary complexes. In one of the large tombs, which had three chambers, one of which had been looted, Casi found two chambers full of artifacts, including two beautiful silver hands. While more crudely made bronze hands have been found before, these elegantly made silver hands with gold-plated finger nails and traces of gold on the fingers are a unique find. The hands were once part of a sphyrelaton, a wooden dummy in the likeness of the deceased which guarded the departed after the body was cremated. Other items recovered were a chariot, and gold, iron, and bronze jewelry. Casi thinks that this particular tomb was for a noble woman and speculates that Etruscan society may have granted equal status to higher ranking members of society irrespective of gender.

Dahm (Ancient Warfare Vol VIII, Iss 2) has written an exhaustive study of the word “dexiolaboi’ found once in the Book of Acts 23:23 and used only two other times in antiquity. In Acts, this word is used to describe some of the soldiers who escorted Paul at the third hour of the night to Antipatris. While the word literally means ‘right throwing’ or ‘right bearing’, this seems, to Dahm, to beg the question, because virtually all legionaries would have thrown or carried weapons with their right hands. First, he examines the rarity of the use of the word in antiquity. Next, he examines the words used to translate the subject word in the early translations of the Bible. Third, he notes the context of the subject word, such as the fact that Lysias used approximately half his garrison force as a bodyguard for Paul. Finally, he contemplates the use of the word. Dahm concludes that if Paul was to have a bodyguard to protect him from being attacked by militants in ambush late at night, then it makes sense that he would need specialized troops to protect what would be the weak or the right side from thrown or fired weapons. Those troops on the right, if they held their shields in the right hand, would be able to not only carry weapons on the left, but also, and more importantly, would hold their shields in their right hands, which would protection their right. It is this meaning that Dahm believes is the correct meaning of the word ‘dexiolaboi’ that is left handed troops who carried their shields on the right.

Ephesus: Jewel of Asia

Library of Celsus

Library of Celsus

Great Theater of Ephesus-Site of Paul's Sermon

Great Theater of Ephesus-Site of Paul’s Sermon

Street Advertisement for Brothel

Street Advertisement for Brothel

Tomb of Memmius, grandson of Sulla

Tomb of Memmius, grandson of Sulla

Casting Lots is a tale told against a tableau of ancient Romans cities and landscapes. One of the cities visited is Ephesus, which in Roman times was an important harbor city on the coast of what is now modern Turkey. The city was in a region which was very fertile. It became an extremely important city when Augustus Caesar chose it, over Pergamum, the site of the second largest library in the ancient world, to be the capital of procounsular Asia, a senatorial province, installing a governor there.

In Casting Lots, Pontius Pilate, on his voyage to Judea, as Prefect, sets foot in Ephesus. Ephesus was a large city by 26 AD. Strabo described it as being only second to Rome in importance. Modern estimates of population, however, ascribe only about 56,000 as living there at that time, not the 250,000 as was previously thought.

Ephesus was traditionally a Greek city. In 88 BC Mithridates the Great, King of Pontus, wanting to expel the Romans from Asia began a campaign to conquer the Greek cities. The Asiatic Vespers, which was the slaughter of 80,000 Romans in Asia, was part of this campaign. Rome raised an army under Lucius Cornelius Sulla who defeated Mithridates in 86 BC, which led to Ephesus becoming part of the Roman Empire.

While the Library of Celsus is, perhaps, the signature building of Ephesus, it was begun in 117AD and thus was not in existence when Pilate walked the streets of Ephesus. The façade of the library remains today and is one of the most imposing and awe inspiring remaining Roman ruins. The façade has niches for statutes and can best described as being scenographic. The library was destroyed by an earthquake in 262 AD and, thereafter, the façade was rededicated as a nymphaeum or a monument to the nymphs.

Nonetheless, many imposing building had been erected by 26 AD, with the first and foremost being the Temple of Artemis. This Temple was considered one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, because of its size, about four times as large as the Parthenon and because of its construction as the first monumental building wholly built of marble. On July 21, 356 BC, it was destroyed by fire set by the arsonist, Herostratus, who wanted to immortalize his name at any cost. That was the night of Alexander the Great’s birth, about which Plutarch said that the Goddess was too preoccupied with his birth to worry about her Temple. Also nearby was one of the largest Temples ever erected to Apollo.

Further, the city has one of the best preserved and impressive theatres of the ancient world which would seat 25,000. Erected on Panayir Hill, on Harbor Street, it had a three-story stage. It was the site of the sermon by Paul the Apostle.

The main street, made of marble, leads through a small valley between two imposing hills. Along the main street are an odeon, numerous small temples, and the tomb of Memmius, the grandson of Sulla. Sulla was revered in Ephesus as a savior.

The streets themselves were advertisement billboards. One such advertisement remains today and invites patrons to the brothel.

On the sides of the hills, villas of wealthy Romans abound. Anthony and Cleopatra honeymooned in Ephesus.

Contrasted with this wealth and opulence, is the small home of Mary, the mother of Jesus. For a time she resided in Ephesus, as did the Apostle John, who took care of her.