22 Sep

[#4 in a Series on Non-Biblical References to Jesus]
Read #1, on Josephus, here

#2, on Tacitus, here
#3, on Mara Bar Serapion, here

Gaius Suetonius Ranquillus (71-135 AD) wrote much on Roman history, especially the Caesars. He mentions Christians twice.

One mention is while he is writing about the Neronian persecution. Suetonius speaks of Christians as people following a superstitio nova et malefica: “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition” (Nero 16.2). This little Latin word – nova (new) – should give pause to those who profess the “Christianity-as-pagan-copycat” theory. Why? Suetonius views Christian doctrine as novel and new; not something old or already established. The average Roman would define superstitio “as a sect based on fanatical beliefs, not recognized by, and therefore contrary to, the Roman state” (Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Logic of History. Cambridge, UK: Apollos, 1997, p 32). Cicero (On the Nature of the Gods, 1.117; 2:72) and Plutarch (On Superstition, 166c) appreciate this stereotypically Roman gentleman’s idea. Similar opinions come from Pliny the Younger and Tacitus about the early church. Suetonius mentions Christians in the same swath as chariot drivers and pantomimic actors; he obviously holds them in derision and has no desire to affirm their ideas.Sue

There is a brief mention of Christ in the fifth volume of Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars, written around 120 AD. Suetonius tells us the Roman Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome: “because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city” (Life of Claudius, 25). Another translation reads “because they were constantly rioting at the instigation of Chrestus” and another “since the Jews constantly made disturbance at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome”. The idea of law and order loomed large in the Roman mind, especially to the upper classes and the basic criticism is that Christians caused a disturbance of the peace.

This expulsion happened in 49 AD (the same year as the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15) and may be referring to Acts 18:2, where Luke mentions a Jewish Christian couple, Priscilla and Aquila, who were affected by the expulsion: Paul “found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome”. Some historians call this expulsion the “edict of Claudius”.

By AD 64, the name “Christian” was in common use in Rome: Herod Agrippa II used this term with Paul in Acts 26:28. Interestingly enough, this word occurs only two other times in the New Testament: Acts 11:26 and 1 Peter 4:16. We know there were Christians in Rome before 64; apparently, they were having some conflicts with non-Christian Jews in the city. Gerd Theissen and Annette Marz state: “there may have been disturbances among the Jews of Rome because of Christian mission preaching about the Messiah…” (The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998, p 84). This pattern accords with Acts 13:44-52 and Acts 17:1-9: disputes in the synagogues between Christians and non-Christian Jews spill out into the city streets and cause problems. Years later, Tertullian called the synagogues “fountains of persecution” (Scorpiace, 10). It is not clear when Rome’s politicians became aware of the differences between Jews and Christians. For the most part, they disliked both, although many pagans had a certain begrudging respect for Judaism’s antiquity.

Suetonius is (confusedly) referring to Jesus, even though he spells his name incorrectly and may even think he is still on the earth (cf. A.N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. London: Nortonn, 1997, p 104; F.F. Bruce, New Testament History. New York: Doubleday, 1972, p 297). This mention of Jesus is notable because Suetonius was an ex-lawyer and former Chief Secretary to Emperor Hadrian (reigned 117–138 AD); he likely had some access to state documents and records.

Some have taken issue with the spelling of Christ as Chrestus. This apparently is the colloquial (mis)spelling of Christus (Christ). To make things even more interesting, Chrēstos means “good” in Latin. This Chrestus/Christus confusion led to a plethora of puns from the pens of the Early Church fathers, using the word Chrēstos (“good”). Justin Martyr utilized such a play on words: “For we are accused of being Christians (Chrestiani) but to hate what is good (Chrēstos) is unjust” (Apology 1.3-4, 16 in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1.163). Around 197 AD, Tertullian chided unbelievers when he wrote that Christian “is derived from ‘anointing’. Even when you wrongly pronounce it ‘Chrestian’, it comes from ‘sweetness and goodness’. You do not even know the name you hate”! (1 Apology, 3.5). In 309 AD, Lactantius wrote about “the error of ignorant people, who by the change of one letter customarily call him ‘Chrestus’” (Divine Institutes, 4.7.5). Andrew Chapman, a blogger friend of mine, pointed out that it might be worth adding that Codex Sinaiticus has χρεσ for χρισ in all three references to Christians: Acts 11:26, 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16 (see images below).1Peter4-16folio320b2

Acts11 copy Acts26folio315bSinaiticus2

EXCURSUS: Pagan Criticism of the Ancient Church from Acts
The Book of Acts is filled with Christians getting in trouble with Gentile rulers; riots even broke out due to their preaching. Below are a few selections from the Book of Acts, written as early as 62 AD by Luke, a Gentile (Syrian?) physician who converted to Christianity (per Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.4.6; cf. Colossians 4:14).

In the Roman colony of Phillipi, Paul casts out a money-making, fortune telling demon: “when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers” (Acts 16:19). Acts 16:20-21 continues: “when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.’” Commentator Stanley D. Toussaint points out that “Rome permitted the peoples of its colonies to have their own religions but not to proselytize Roman citizens. The civil leaders could not distinguish between Judaism and Christianity (cf. 18:14-15), so they would see the preaching of Paul and Silas as a flagrant infraction of imperial law” (The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983). This is the seed form of the charge that Christians were ushering in a new and novel faith. Christians are seen as importing a foreign religion onto Roman soil, one that seeks to displace the accepted Roman gods. The crowds knew the charge of “disturbing our city” would spark the ire of local rulers who were hell bent on maintaining Pax Romana. Consequently, Paul and Silas were beat and bound.

Disturbing the peace was a common gripe levied against Christian preaching. In Acts 17:6-8, the crowd at Thessalonica “dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.’ And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things.” The stakes were higher here because the accusation included not only raising a ruckus but rebelling against the rex. A.T. Robertson explains: “This was a charge of treason and was a sure way to get a conviction. Probably the Julian Leges Majestatis are in mind rather than the definite decree of Claudius about the Jews (Acts 18:2).” Robertson continues, “it is plain that Paul had preached about Jesus as the Messiah, King of the Kingdom of God over against the Roman Empire, a spiritual kingdom … here in Thessalonica Paul had faced the power of the Roman Empire in a new way and pictured over against it the grandeur of the reign of Christ” (Word Pictures in the New Testament (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997, Acts 17:7).TF

Christianity not only perturbed the polloi and the politarchs but also the philosophers. When Paul is in the Athenian marketplace in Acts 17, the philosophers refer to him as a babbler preaching alien gods – new and strange deities. The word babbler “was used of sparrows eating seeds in a field. It came to be used metaphorically of itinerant teachers who picked up pieces of information here and there and tried to sell them. The RSV Interlinear by Alfred Marshall translates it as ‘ignorant plagiarist’. The NJB has ‘parrot’” (Robert James Dr. Utley, vol. Volume 3B, Luke the Historian: The Book of Acts (Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 2003), 206.” Obviously, these men did not have a high opinion of Paul’s message. The name-calling was expanded in the later works of anti-Christian philosophers, such as Celsus and Galen. These attacks function together to say this: Christianity is bad philosophy.

Things get worse once Paul makes his speech before the Areopagus: “now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked (Acts 17:32).” Conrad Gempf explains, “once the Athenians understood what Paul really meant by ‘resurrection’, hecklers brought his address to an abrupt halt. The immortality of the divine soul was one thing, but that anyone could believe in the resuscitation of corpses would have seemed to most Greeks simply naïve and absurd; thus, some of them sneered” (New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, 4th ed.; Leicester, England; Inter-Varsity Press, 1994). The Christian idea of bodily resurrection was foolish beyond belief to most Greeks. Many apologists of the ancient church spilled much ink defending this queer dogma: Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, etc.

Christianity was viewed as bad for the economy and Christians got in trouble when they “took” money out of pagan pockets (see Pliny the Younger’s letter to the Emperor). The breakout of massive proportions in Acts 19:21–34; this shows the seriousness of this criticism. Demetrius, a silversmith with a lucrative business, was upset at the change being caused in Ephesus by Paul and his companions. Demetrius decided to take action and his words in verses 25-27 give us a piece of his (and the Greco-Roman) mind:

“These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, ‘Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.’”

This pep talk by Demetrius caused two whole hours of cheer-leading for Diana (v. 34) because “Demetrius cleverly played upon his hearers’ fears of financial ruin, religious zeal, and concern for their city’s prestige. The Christian preachers, he argued, threatened the continued prosperity of Ephesus. His audience’s violent reaction shows they took the threat seriously (John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible. Electronic ed.; Nashville: Word Pub., 1997).

The last account to look at in regards to pagan criticism of the ancient church is Acts 26:24: “And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.’”  Festus seems shocked at Paul’s discourse. The King James Version translates this as, “Paul, thou art beside thyself, much learning doth make thee mad” (lit. “turning thy head”). The reason behind Festus’ reaction? “The union of flowing Greek, deep acquaintance with the sacred writings of his nation, reference to a resurrection and other doctrines to a Roman utterly unintelligible, and, above all, lofty religious earnestness, so strange to the cultivated, cold-hearted skeptics of that day—may account for this sudden exclamation” (Robert Jamieson et al., A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997, Acts 26:24). Festus did not think Jesus was really alive (Acts 25:19) and viewed the whole affair as trivial. To Festus, Paul’s passionate apologia made him appear mad. An interesting line from this exchange is Festus’ question to Paul in verse 28: “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” Festus was one of many pagan Romans who saw Christianity as mistaken, trivial, crazy and a little bit pushy. This is not the last we will see of these sentiments from a pagan.

This reference by Suetonius establishes that:

  1. There was a man named Chrestus (or “Christ”)
  2. He lived during the first century
  3. Some Jews caused disturbances relating to this man

This is a good place to pause and reflect on some of the earliest criticism arising from non-Christians about the perceived flaws of the Christian faith. Even the staunchest modern-day critic should recognize that much of it lines up nicely with the picture we see of Jesus found in the gospels. Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson further notes,

“Of equal importance to this positive evidence is what these [Greco-Roman] sources do not say about Jesus and his movement. There is no trace of evidence that either he or the movement associated with him was identified as a political or military movement. And although Jesus’ own activities could make him capable of being designated as a kind of ‘philosopher’ or ‘sorcerer’, the movement connected to him was not seen, by its first observers, either as a philosophy or as a form of magic, but rather in terms of religious categories: it was a depraved “superstition” (Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny) or “cult” (Lucian)” (The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, p 117).

Robert Van Voorst adds a second to this point (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p 217):

“The non-Christian evidence uniformly treats Jesus as a historical person. Most non-Christian authors were not interested in the details of his life and teaching, and they saw him through the Christianity they knew. They provide a small but certain corroboration of certain New Testament historical traditions on the family background, time of life, ministry, and death of Jesus. They also provide evidence for the content of Christian preaching that is independent of the New Testament”.


Vocab Malone  is an urban apologist and slam poet. Vocab holds a Master’s Degree from Phoenix Seminary and is  pursuing further education at Talbot. 

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