The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Part 2/Section 1

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The Roman Witnesses[edit]

1.—Pliny and Suetonius[edit]

We now come to the Roman witnesses to the historicity of Jesus.

Of the younger Pliny it is hardly necessary to speak further in this connection. He was dragged into the discussion of the “Christ-myth” at a late stage, merely to enlarge the list of witnesses to the historicity of Jesus. No one seriously believes that any such evidence is found in Pliny.[1] In his correspondence with the Emperor Trajan, which is believed to have taken place about the year 113, and which is occupied with the question how Pliny, as Proconsul of the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor, was to behave in regard to the Christians, he informs the Emperor that the adherents of the sect sing hymns to Christ at daybreak “as if he were a god (quasi deo).” What this proves as regards the historical reality of the man Christ we should be pleased to have rationally explained.[2] What has been said on the subject up to the present is merely frivolous, adapted only to an utterly thoughtless circle of readers or hearers. Yet even a man like Jülicher does not hesitate to quote Pliny among the profane witnesses. He also mentions Marcus Aurelius, who expresses his anger against the Christians in his Meditations (about the year 175!), and assures us that what is meant there by Christianity is the community of those who believed in the Jesus of our and their gospels as their God and Saviour (p. 17). We are grateful for this “information,” but we should have expected that a scholar like Jülicher would have something more serious to tell us on the subject.

There seems to be more significance in the words of the Roman historian Suetonius (77-140 A.D.), who tells us in his Life of Claudius (c. 25) that that emperor “expelled from Rome the Jews because, at the instigation of Chrestus, they were perpetually making trouble” (Claudius Judaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantes Roma expulit). If we only knew precisely who is meant by this Chrestus! The name in the text is not “Christus,” but “Chrestus” (and in some manuscripts Cherestus), which is by no means the usual designation of Jesus, while it is a common name, especially among Roman freedmen. Hence the whole passage in Suetonius may have nothing whatever to do with the question of Christianity. It may just as well refer to any disturbances whatever caused among the Jews by a man named Chrestus, and it does not say much for the “scientific” spirit of theologians when they interpret it in their own sense without further ado.

An attempt has been made to connect the passage in Suetonius with the messianic expectation of the Jews, and to interpret it in the sense of referring either to quarrels in the Jewish community at Rome owing to the belief of those who held that Jesus was the Messiah they all expected, or to a general agitation of Roman Judaism on account of its messianic ideas and hostility to the pagan world. The first alternative, however, is not very helpful in view of the fact that, when Paul came to Rome about ten years afterwards to preach the gospel, the Jews there seem to have known nothing whatever about Jesus; and, according to the account in Acts, his arrival led to no disturbance among them.[3] The second alternative, on the other hand, contains no evidence for the historicity of Jesus, as, even if we substitute Christus for Chrestus, “Christus” is merely the Greek-Latin translation of “Messiah,” and the phrase “at the instigation of Chrestus” would refer to the Messiah generally, and not at all necessarily to the particular Messiah Jesus as an historical personality.[4]

In any case, however we interpret the passage of Suetonius, it has no bearing whatever on the question of the historicity of Jesus. Jülicher and Weinel admit this when they omit Suetonius in their enumeration of profane witnesses. J. Weiss also admits: “The passage in Suetonius relating to Jewish disturbances at Rome in the time of Claudius ‘impulsore Chresto’ betrays so inaccurate a knowledge of the facts that it cannot seriously be regarded as a witness” (p. 88).


  1. It is characteristic of the tactics of our opponents that certain Catholic writers have begun to appeal to Porphyry, the Neoplatonic philosopher, who lived 232-304 A.D. He wrote many works against Christianity, which we know only indirectly from the refutations of Methodius and Eusebius. No one can say precisely what they contained, as the Emperor Theodosius II. prudently ordered them to be burned in public in the year 435. What does that matter to the theologian as long as he can bring one more name into the field?
  2. Moreover, the genuineness of this correspondence of Pliny and Trajan is by no means certain. Justin does not mention it on an occasion when we should expect him to do so, and even Tertullian's supposed reference to it (Apol., cap. ii) is very doubtful. The tendency of the letters to put the Christians in as favourable a light as possible is too obvious not to excite some suspicion. For these and other reasons the correspondence was declared by experts to be spurious even at the time of its first publication, at the beginning of the sixteenth century; and recent authorities, such as Semler, Aubé (Histoire des Persecutions de l'Église, 1875, p. 215, etc.), Havet (Le Christianisme et ses Origines, 1884, iv, 8), and Hochart (Études au Sujet de la Persecution des Chretiens sous Neron, 1885, pp. 79-143; compare also Bruno Bauer, Christus und die Cäsaren, 1877, p. 268, etc., and the anonymously published work of Edwin Johnson, Antiqua Mater, 1887), which have disputed its authenticity, either as a whole or in material points.
  3. Acts xxviii, 17, etc.
  4. In his Geschichte der Römischen Kaiserzeit, Bd. I, Abt. I (1883), p. 447, Hermann Schiller also connects the expulsion of the Jews under Claudius with their domestic disturbances, and says: “It is time to desist from the practice of identifying the impulsor Chrestus in Suetonius with Christ. Words ending in ‘tor’ stand for a constant property, or an act that impresses a definite and permanent stamp on the subject in question; in neither case can we refer this to Christ, who had never been in Rome, and was no longer living; the activity of the impulsor can relate only to the assidue tumultuantes referred to.”