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In his book The Twelve Caesars (also known as Lives of the Caesars), written ca. 112 CE, Suetonius makes two statements that are often presented as evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ.[note 1]
Quotes claimed to show the existence of Jesus
The Jews and Chrestus
|From Rome he (Claudius) expelled the perpetually tumultuating Jews prompted by Chrestus.|
— tr. Jobjorn Boman
The first mentions that Claudius “banished the Jews from Rome, since they had made a commotion because of Chrestus.” "Chrestus," a common name meaning “good,” was used by both slaves and free people and occurring more than 80 times in Latin inscriptions. There is nothing other than similarity in spelling to suggest that there is any relationship between Chrestus and Christ and it is unlikely that Christianity had spread as far as Rome during the reign of Claudius, or that it was large enough to have caused a revolt.
Ironically, Irenaeus' argument for a older then 45 but younger than 50 Jesus being crucified under Claudius Caesar sometime in the 42-44 CE range better fits this account but would prove that Paul's Jesus and the historical Jesus are two different people.
The punishment of Christians
The second is in the "Life of Nero" section and goes as follows:
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."
Tertullian claimed 'We read the lives of the Cæsars: At Rome Nero was the first who stained with blood the rising faith."
But that is not what Suetonius says in this passage. Christians are just one of the "many abuses" that were "severely punished and put down", i.e. part of a general house cleaning of Rome. The passage gives no indication that any of the groups were killed. The inflicted punishment is disclosed only in the case of 'the pantomimic actors and their partisans' (banishment). The Christians could have simply been driven from Rome as had been the case with Jewish and Egyptian worshipers under Tiberius in 19 CE. Their lands and wealth could have been confiscated for the good of the state, they may have been enslaved, or subject to some other kind of non-capital punishment.
Tertullian is (surprise, surprise) claiming something that is not in the material he is citing.
The fire is not mentioned in "Life of Nero" until 38:1 or nearly 16 paragraphs latter, implying the punishments inflicted on the Christians occurred before the Great Fire.
Furthermore, Josephus and Pliny the Elder make no mention of Christians in Rome in Nero's time.
Also, Seneca the Younger's lost On Superstition didn't even mention Christianity according to Augustine in the 4th century.
Finally, "The Acts of Peter" (late 2nd century CE) claims Nero considered to "destroy all those brethren who had been made disciples by Peter" but had a dream after Peter's death (either 64 or 67 CE) which said 'you cannot now persecute or destroy the servants of Christ.' and a frightened Nero 'kept away from the disciples . . . and thereafter the brethren kept together with one accord . . .'.
So what we have, at best, is possible evidence that there were Chrestians/Christians in Rome at the time of Nero. Which on it is own doesn't support the existence of Jesus.
- Evidence for the historical existence of Jesus Christ
- Jesus myth theory
- Pliny the Younger
- See the Wikipedia article on Suetonius.
- See the Wikipedia article on Suetonius on Christians.
- Works of Suetonius in Latin and English on Wikisource
- Boman, Jobjorn ap. "Suetonius most probably wrote Chrestus and not Christus". Jesus granskad. Roger Viklund. 19 April 2012.
- Boman, Jobjorn (January 2011). "Inpulsore Cherestro? Suetonius' Divus Claudius 25.4 in Sources and Manuscripts". Liber Annuus 61: 355–376. doi=10.1484/J.LA.5.100355 "The passage Divus Claudius 25.4 in Suetonius’ Life of the Twelve Caesars is about the emperor Claudius expelling from Rome the “perpetually tumultuous Jews”, “impulsore Chresto”. . . . The most trustworthy reading, which most likely was Suetonius’ original spelling, is Chresto."
- McClintock, John; James Strong (1894) Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature Volume 2 Page 259
- Slingerland, Howard Dixon (1997). Claudian Policymaking and the Early Imperial Repression of Judaism at Rome. Scholars Press. pp. 151–217. ISBN 978-0-7885-0425-9.
- Gruen, Erich S. (1998). "Review of: Claudian Policymaking and the Early Imperial Repression of Judaism at Rome. South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism, 160". Bryn Mawr Classical Review. ISSN 1055-7660. "[Per] the widespread conviction that “Chrestus” is Christ. . . . Slingerland reaches a proper and salutary conclusion: the burden of proof rests with those who wish to identify Chrestus with Christ, not those who distinguish them (pp 169-217)."
- Porter, Stanley E.; Pearson, Brook W.R. (2000). “Why the Split? Christians and Jews by the Fourth Century”. Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism (JGRChJ). 1. pp. 82–119. reproduced: Sheffield Phoenix Press. ISBN 1-905048-0-68. "[T]he name Chrestus is a very common one, no ancient source makes the identification with Christians, certainly not Suetonius… —(p. 102)"
- Irenaeus (c180 CE)Demonstration (74)
- Against Heresies 2:22
- Boatwright, Mary T. (2012) Peoples of the Roman World Cambridge University Press pg 123
- The Life Of Flavius Josephus 3
- Carrier 2014, pp. 349.
- Rand, Edward K. (1926). "On the History of the De Vita Caesarum of Suetonius in the Early Middle Ages". Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 37: 1–48 (37–38).