By J.P. Holding| We now move to the references to Jesus in secular sources that have little value – beginning with the testimony of the Roman historian and contemporary of Tacitus, Suetonius. Here is the first of the two relevant quotes:
“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”
A second quote does not mention Jesus, but refers to Christians being persecuted under Nero.
Does this passage really refer to Jesus?
This is the key objection to using this passage. “Chrestus,” as Suetonius spells it, is the correct Latin form of a true Greek name, so that some would say that it does not refer to Jesus Christ. Benko, for example, has suggested that “Chrestus” was some kind of Jewish agitator who had no association with Christianity, perhaps a semi-Zealot reacting to plans by Caligula to put a statue of Zeus in the Jewish Temple; as for the spelling issue, he points out that Suetonius spells “Christians” correctly, so it is unlikely that he misspelled “Christus.” [see Benk.EC49, 410-3] .
Some may find support for this in that Suetonius’ sentence literally refers to “the instigator,” not actually “the instigation.” [VanV.JONT, 31, 33; who counters, though, that the name “Chrestus” is otherwise unattested among the Jews.
Other ideas of note:
- One author suggested that the reference was to Jesus Himself – still alive, and visiting Rome in the 40s AD!
- Mason [Maso.JosNT, 166] believes that the reference is to Jesus, but that Suetonius altered the name he heard to that of a common slave name.
- Harris [Harr.3Cruc, 22; see also Harr.GosP5, 354, VanV.JONT, 34-5] notes that the substitution of an “e” for an “i” was “a common error in the spelling of proper names” at the time.
- Van Voorst adds the peculiarity of a gravestone that offers both spellings at once.
- Harris also says that because Suetonius did not say, “at the institution of a certain Chrestus,” the historian expected that his readers would know the person that he was referring to – hence, this “Chrestus” could not have been merely a Jewish agitator, for there was only one possible “Chrestus” that Suetonius could have been referring to that would have been so well known at the time he was writing (120 AD).
It may be that Suetonius wrongly presumed from one of his sources that Chrestus had at some time in the past personally delivered His message to Rome, and that is why he seems to indicate that Chrestus was directly behind the agitation. [ibid., 356]
Harris also explains, in an amusing footnote, that to Greek ears, the name “Christos” would have sounded like something drawn from medical or building technology, meaning either “anointed” or “plastered”! (The Romans who heard these Jews talking about “Christus” assumed that, perhaps, another type of “plastering” was going on!) So, they switched it to the more comprehensible “Chrestus,” which means “useful one.”
Harris further indicates, via a quote from the 4th-century Latin Christian Lactantius, that Jesus was commonly called “Chrestus” by those who were ignorant.
Is this historian/writer a reliable source? Is there good reason to trust what they say?
I now have two varying opinions on this subject. One source would say, if this is indeed a reference to Jesus, then it is a good one, nearly as good as Tacitus’. Suetonius was known as “a painstaking researcher, interested in minute details,” [Benk.PagRo, 14] as well as a prolific writer in matters of history and antiquities, including biographies of Julius Caesar and several Roman emperors – this was a man “in a position to know!” – see Harr.GosP5, 353.)
On the other hand, Van Voorst [VanV.JONT, 38] tells us of Suetonius, “[r]epeating a mistake in his sources is characteristic of Suetonius, who often treats then uncritically and uses them carelessly.” Benko and Van Voorst are both modern and equally qualified, so for now, take your pick.
The only way to completely devalue the Suetonius reference is to say that it has nothing to do with Jesus, or with Christians, at all. The issue is an open one, and since we have Tacitus (who both wrote earlier and gave far more information), this reference is not really that important.
What do we learn about Jesus and or Christianity from this historian/writer?
At worst, the passage reflects Suetonius’ confusion after hearing about Jews arguing over a “Chri/estus” who the Christian Jews would have spoken of as still alive. This, and the second passage referring to persecution of Christians, provides us with nothing that we do not find elsewhere or that can be substantially used.
Perhaps more important is the possible historical connection with the expulsion of Jews from Rome referred to in Acts (which is commonly dated in 49 AD, though some prefer 41 AD – see Wlkn.JUF, 215; Benk.EC49, 407-415; and Harr.3Cruc, 23, for a nice sampling of opinions).
If there were Christians in Rome in 41-49 AD, then that’s a pretty strong indication that Jesus existed, since His life would have been well within the memories of those living at the time.