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Monday, July 09, 2018

Suetonius and Jesus

I have long been prejudiced against the Romans, but am glad I finally broke down and read the Roman historian (or biographer) Suetonius.  And not only because he confirms my prejudice!  (Though that is always welcome.)

Julius Caesar swings and 
misses at changing the
world for the better.
Suetonius is must-read background for those who wish to understand the time of Christ and the early church.  He begins with Julius Caesar, and relates the lives and "contributions" of twelve Italian tyrants in sequence.  This is just the period during which Jesus lived, Paul preached, and the early Church arose.  I find this a faith-strengthening read, for a variety of reason.

Following Suetonius' own format, I arrange conclusions mostly according to theme rather than chronology.

A. Thank God for Jesus Christ!  To be honest, reading how the ancient Romans lived, especially how they treated one another and subject peoples, it would have been perfectly understandable if God had sent another flood, or a world-destroying Meteor of Death (MOD) instead. 

So Julius Caesar killed a million people on his rampage through Gaul.  So he overthrew the Republic.  His lavish support of "the Games," which meant large-scale human sacrifice for the entertainment of the masses, is in some ways more telling, because even a queasy stomach like that of Suetonius finds few qualms with it.  (Not that he didn't admire the conquest of France as well!)

Even when Suetonius complains about the cruelties of various emperors, he often does, it is a class-based complaint: it's not "Caligula made this man fight to the death on a whim," it's "and he was a respected member of society, not a freeman or slave or foreigner!"

Take this remarkable sequence of thoughts for example, on Titus:

"Nor had any of his predecessors ever displayed such generosity.  At the dedication of his Amphitheatre and the Baths, which had been hastily built beside it, Titus provided a most lavish gladiatorial show; he also staged a sea-fight on the old artificial lake, and when the water had been let out, used the basin for further gladiatorial contests and a wild-beast hunt, 5,000 beasts of different sorts dying in a single day.

"Titus was naturally kind-hearted . . . "

I kid you not, those paragraphs appear in succession!  What a damning indictment of the Roman mind!

Following Caesar and civil war, we get Augustus, who gives Rome a break from the insanity, but solidified one-man despotism.

Tiberius, Suetonius makes it clear, had some talent as a ruler, or general, but was cruel and increasingly desolute after the death of his son.  Enough to say, in this space, that not a single pervert in America abused his power to hurt people nearly as cruelly as Tiberius, if half the stories Suetonius relates are true.  (Which is probably an open question, however.)

Tiberius also helped create Caligula.

Ten pages in, Suetonius transitions from the good to the bad and ugly in Caligula's career with a single effective sentence:

"So much for the Emperor; the rest of this history must deal with the Monster." 

Following Tiberius and Caligula one wishes for a break before Nero, who we know is coming up.  And one gets it, in a way, with the somewhat bumbling but essentially decent (for a Roman) Claudius.   Yet even with Claudius, who gained supreme power by random accident, we get this sort of thing:

"He ruled that all (gladiators) who fell by accident should have their throats cut -- above all net fighters, so that he could gaze upon their death agony."  

If the gladiators didn't provide enough blood, Claudius would force carpenters who worked on the stage, and whose engineering failed, to go out and fight to the death:

"He even forced one of his pages to enter the arena just as he was, and fight in his toga."

Again, bear in mind how ordinary Claudius was for his time and culture.  He didn't have to kill anyone to gain power: he gained it (according to Suetonius) because he was hiding behind some drapes when the assassins who knocked off Caligula needed a new ruler of proper upper-class stock, essentially.

Claudius was not a monster, to Suetonius.  He was just an ordinary bloke.

Ordinary Roman men (and many women) would have been bored by a snuff film.   They liked to see the blood of innocents splashed on the walls for themselves, and hear his last terrified cries.

As for sexual abuse, enough to say that as a Roman emperor, Harvey Weinstein would be noteworthy mainly in limiting his predations to unrelated members of the opposite sex, and in not actually murdering any of his "lovers."

So why didn't God have given such a race the judgement it so richly earned?  Instead, He sent Jesus.

Turn from Suetonius, and re-read the Sermon on the Mount.

Same era.  Same civilization (in its Jewish manifestation.)  

True, there were other good teachers and moral philosophers in the ancient Greco-Roman world: Socrates and the Stoics are a relief.  (Epictetus in partly is a noble teacher.)  The Cynics' anti-disestablishmentarianism, which followed Socrates and presaged the Stoics, is also a breath of fresh air.

But it is impossible for a serious person to deny, reading the New Testament and Suetonius together, than God's mercy on the human race is more than evident in the life and impact of Jesus of Nazareth.  Christ softened this hardened and cruel civilization, as people like the Durants and Stark show.


B. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Ain't it the truth, Lord Acton.  Suetonius clearly recognizes this phenomenon, as well.


C. Where do all these folks come from? 

A common error in critiquing the gospels is to suppose that they were written long after the life of Jesus, thus one hears terms like "generations," "oral tradition," "Chinese whispers."  But Jesus died young, and many of his younger disciples would have lived well past the date at which the gospels were written, as I point out in Jesus is No Myth. 

A common response is to say, "But life expectancy was so low in those days!  People only lived to about 30 on average!  So by the time the gospels were written, the first witnesses would all have passed away!"

This is an error, for one thing because it neglects the fact that that low life expectancy was largely caused by high infant mortality.  The disciples were not infants, and some could have expected to live into what even we see as old age, as John, for instance, is said to have done.

I make those arguments and more in Jesus is No Myth: Suetonius supports them in four ways.

First, he notes the demise of infants frequently, or simply mentions of a family that three children survived.

Second, he notes the long lives of some prominent Romans.

Third, child-birth is encouraged by the Roman state, among Romans, but women do not give birth to, say, 15 or 20 children, as would be demanded by the actuary tables that Richard Carrier relies upon to suppose a forbiddingly high death rate.  In other words, for the ancient population to increase, as it often did, births must exceed deaths.  And if the birth-rate is only moderately high, that implies that death of all causes could not have been so high as to preclude a thriving Roman Empire.  (Since it did thrive, for a very long time.)

But fourth, Suetonius also shows that early deaths were often not natural.  We have assassins.  We have wars.  We have random crucifixions.  We have executions of all kinds, and fires in Roman, and many whimsical murders by our more demented rulers.  We have the ever-popular Snuff Games.

The point is that while these people got sick a lot, the generations that produced the gospels were not dying at random or of diseases at such a rate as to keep peaceable Christians (outside of Rome) from growing up to write gospels in their late middle age or early old age.


D. The following note on the life of Augustus, who ruled Rome during the birth of Jesus, helps make sense of Luke's account of that birth:

"According to Julius Marathus, a public portent warned the Roman people some months before Augustus' birth that Nature was making ready to provide them with a king; and this caused the Senate such consternation that they issued a decree which forbade the rearing of any male child for a whole year."

This law was annulled, Suetonius adds.  But it reflects (1) the willingness of rulers to believe portents about the birth of kings, such as the wise men brought Herod; (2) the casual cruelty of the age; (3) and cheerful willingness to murder babies, which is overwhelmingly reflected in Greco-Roman literature anyway; (4) were a provincial ruler to do such a thing, skeptics aside, the odds against such a trivial event being recorded by uninterested historians would seem small.


E. Michael Grant notes, in his forward:

"The period about which Suetonius is writing is one of the most important, critical, and formative in the history of the western world, and with the exception of the Greek Dio Cassius (who is much later, incomplete and often anachronistic), Suetonius and Tacitus are our only major literary sources for the epoch."

So much for lists by some silly skeptics of all the dozens of Roman and Greek writers who should have talked about Jesus and his movement, but didn't.  And of course Suetonius and Tacitus both do, along with Josephus and the Christian writers themselves.  Grant overlooks them, Philo, and others, thinking primarily of Roman history in the main.  But his point is well-taken: we treasure our sources from this era, because they are few and far-between.


F. Grant also amends or overturns a point repeated, I think, from Matthew Ferguson (though Ferguson may be more careful than the version that came to me recently), about how good or real historians of the era name their sources:

"His employment of literary authorities is hard to reconstruct, because, like so many other authors, he is reluctant to cite them by name."

True, Suetonius names sources far more often than the authors of the Gospels.  But I think Bauckham offers a plausible explanation for that latter fact -- evangelists DO refer to their sources implicitly, but don't name them for fear of causing them trouble.  Anyway, clearly one should not exaggerate the difference, as some skeptics do.  It is of little importance in rating the value of the gospels as historical works.


G.  Were Christians often persecuted?  Candida Moss has made it fashionable to downplay the persecution of Christians in the ancient Roman empire.  But so much that Suetonius writes makes good sense of the traditional emphasis on Christian heroism in the face of systematic persecution.

For one thing, for all his crocodile tears about the "blood-thirstiness" of certain rulers, Suetonius seems to stand forthright on behalf of the Roman establishment when they are persecuting religious minorities.

Tiberius:

"abolished foreign cults at Rome, particularly the Egyptian and Jewish, forcing all citizens who had embraced these superstitious faiths to burn their religious vestments and other accessories.  Jews of military age were moved to unhealthy regions, on the pretext of drafting them into the army; the others of the same race or similar beliefs were expelled from the city and threatened with slavery if they defied the order."  

Suetonius seems to approve.  Also:

"Gaius drove from the city the perverts known as spintriae, and could with difficulty be restrained from drowning the lot." 

These were apparently young male prostitutes.  Cracking down on sexual "perverts" is a bit rich, from Caligula.

And then we come to this famous passage:

"Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instance of Chrestus, (Claudius) expelled them from the city."  (Again.)

Grant seems to figure the traditional explanation of this as a reference to Jesus is correct.  One might demur, on the grounds that the Christian faith (as per Stark) would have been very small at this time, maybe only 1500.  But I suspect Stark under-estimated its early strength.

Still, what amazed me is not that there are so few early references to Christianity, but that there are so many.

Anyway, back to the topic of persecution of religious minorities, Suetonius notes a few sentences later:

"Augustus had been content to prohibit any Roman citizen in Gaul from taking part in the savage and terrible Druidic cult; Claudius abolished it altogether." 

So much for the theory that the ancient Romans were tolerant pagans, unlike those intolerant Christians.

But one trembles to ask what caused even the Romans, so promiscuous and gleeful in party-time human sacrifice and murder, to tremble at the "savage and terrible" Druidic cult.  Maybe that's just projection, but the bogs do occasionally spew out evidence to the contrary.


(H) Elsewhere, Suetonius' account also agrees with the biblical account of the times.  For instance, he mentions Marcus Antonius Felix, with whom Luke records Paul had a run-in, and who was known for his less-than-stellar character:

"For Felix (Claudius) had an equally high regard, giving him command of infantry cohorts and cavalry squadrons, and the Governorship of Judaea; this Felix married three queens."

One came to attend Paul's interrogation with her husband.  Not the worst form of entertainment available in Rome!


(I)  On Jews and would-be Jews.  A passage on persecution of the Jews after their rebellion was squashed (by the persecutor's Dad and brother, largely, though he also rode a white horse to Israel) helps explain why Christianity gained market share at the expense of Judaism, and maybe also one reason it was persecuted as well:

"Domitian's agents collected the tax on Jews with a peculiar lack of mercy; and took proceedings not only against those who kept their Jewish origins a secret in order to avoid the tax, but against those who lived as Jews without professing Judaism.  As a boy, I remember once attending a crowded Court where the imperial agent had a ninety-year-old man inspected to establish whether or not he had been circumcised."  

Who wouldn't pick a brand of theism that did not require circumcision, if they could, under those circum -stances?

I'm glad to note that Suetonius says Vespasian was wounded in the attack, and Titus had a horse shot out from under him.  At the Jews put up a good fight against two legions plus under an extremely able commander.

Another point worth mentioning here, however, minor, is that again that despite skeptical actuary tables, it was not that unusual for ancients to grow ancient.  If this suspected Jewish gentleman could live to the age of 90, so could St. John.


(J) Josephus.  Suetonius refers to "a distinguished Jewish prisoner of Vespasian's, Josephus by name," who prophesied both his own release and Vespasian's imperial rule.


(K) In general, Suetonius mentions far more miracles than any of the gospels do.  I think they are different in character, though, and far less credible, which is not to insist that none of them could possibly have happened.  Often cited are two alleged healings which Vespasian allegedly conducted in Egypt, the only such accounts Suetonius passes along, despite his general gullibility.  C. S. Lewis already remarks sensibly on these stories, less so some recent skeptics.


(L)  And here's a fascinating prophetic passage:

"An ancient superstition was current in the East, that out of Judaea at this time would come the rulers of the world.  This prediction, as the event later proved, referred to Roman Emperor, but the rebellious Jews, who read it as referring to themselves, murdered their governor, routed the governor of Syria when he came down to restore order, and captured an Eagle."

There is much to ponder here.  The Jews of course expected a political Messiah in the 1st Century, no question about that.  But was this limited to Jews?  Suetonius seems to think perhaps not.

In any case, Suetonius credits this as being fulfilled by Vespasian, who no doubt saved the Roman Empire from its extreme folly.

It is simply a historical fact, though, that the prophesy was fulfilled far more widely by "Chrestos," who came to rule a much larger portion of the globe, for far longer, and to more dramatic effect, through his teachings, life, death, and resurrection.  I wonder if given wider perspective, Suetonius would recognize that?


(M) Finally, Suetonius also refers directly to the Christian movement under Nero:

"Punishments were also inflicted upon the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief . . . "

The beliefs that the old and decadent Roman Empire so badly needed by this time, the light in the darkness that was an often hellish civilization.

This account comes a page before Suetonius warns his readers,

"I have separated this catalogue of Nero's less atrocious acts -- some deserving no criticism, some even praiseworthy -- from the others, but I must begin to list his follies and his crimes."  

So persecuting Christians was either blameless or even praiseworthy, in Suetonius' eyes.  I gather from his tone that it was probably the latter.

Chesterton wrote, in The Everlasting Man, that in the Greco-Roman civilization, the best of the pagan world had failed by the time Christianity appeared on the stage.  Maybe.  China was cruel, too, still more caste-laden India, still more the vile Central American empires.  And there is much of value and beauty and truth in the schools and artwork that came out of the Greek city-states.

But I find myself agreeing more, reading this account, that Rodney Stark was right, and the Fall of Rome was no great tragedy.  Christianity had clearly brought something great and new and revolutionary into this cruel world.  All the same, good riddance.  

But of course this passage is primarily interesting for the note it makes already of the young Christian movement.   I find that surprising that Christians were already a large enough community even to come within the purvey of Nero's demented Sauron-on-acid eye.


So even aside from such interesting tidbits as that Augustus collected dinosaur fossils, and all the sordid hoopla of half-witted lunatics who ran the Roman Empire into the ground, Suetonius is a fascinating read, for anyone interested in even more important events than he knew were happening around him.

Welcome, Jesus, into this world!  We sure needed you.  But some people seem to have already known that, even before you showed up.

11 comments:

Matthew Wade Ferguson said...

Glad to see that you are reading Suetonius, David! He was the Roman author that I wrote my MA thesis on (and have taken graduate seminars on). Just to clarify, I've never stated that Suetonius names all of his written or oral sources. I've simply noted that he does so more frequently and explicitly than the Gospels do (something you seem to grant). These sources include the writings of earlier authors, letters, inscriptions, eyewitnesses that Suetonius knew, and Suetonius' own eyewitness experience. One of the subjects I have worked on in my graduate work is source analysis (something I will also be discussing in my dissertation). In one of my graduate papers I even tracked down every previous historian that Titus Livy names, and there was quite an abundance of them.

True, Bauckham has argued that the Gospels implicitly name their sources through devices such as inclusio, though that is also a disputable thesis. Inclusio would be a much more indirect form of citation than the explicit citation of sources that Suetonius gives. Other scholars question whether the Gospels employ inclusio as a form of source citation at all. My colleague Michael Kok (a Christian scholar) wrote a rebuttal to Bauckham on the matter, as a chapter in his dissertation.

I'm not feeling the best right now, so I'm not going to criticize Bauckham's thesis in this comment (beyond noting that there have been rebuttals to it, by authors such as Kok). I just wanted to clarify my stance on source citation among Greco-Roman historians and biographers. From my research on them, they do tend to explicitly name sources more so than the Gospels. I think this has certain implications for historical reliability (with nuance of course, and not implying that this is the only consideration in historical criticism), but I also won't debate that right now. I need to focus on improving my health at the moment, and so I don't currently intend to get involved in online arguments of that kind. I simply wanted to clarify my position, which you mentioned, in this comment.

Matthew Wade Ferguson said...

Also, as a Native American myself, I'm not quite sure that all of the empires of the Americas were entirely "vile" (I know that you didn't say "all," but I also want to weigh in a bit on this.) Certainly the Aztecs were quite savage, but I also taught about the Incan Empire (not Central America, but still near it) in one of my courses this last academic year. They don't seem to have been particularly more brutal than the Spanish Empire, who replaced them, at least in the curriculum that we covered. But I also am not an expert on the matter, so there could be relevant information that I am not aware of.

Matthew Wade Ferguson said...

That said, the Incan Empire did engage in human sacrifice (though apparently less brutally than the Aztecs did), but Europeans likewise engaged in the mass enslavement and often rape of the natives. I'm not sure if someone can make a one-to-one comparison of the two's atrocities, though I'm also not sure that I would consider the Spanish Empire to be more humane than the natives.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Matthew. I went back and amended that comment even before I noticed your posts -- I didn't have time to check your original wording before heading out the door yesterday, and wanted to make sure I didn't misrepresent you this time. : - )

I'm inclined to agree that whether or not the gospel writers cited sources indirectly, they certainly used them, and Bauckham is probably right (as I recall, again I won't look it up) in saying that they likely had good reason not to name names. In any case, compared to the more important criteria that I think support the gospels strongly, I see this as a minor issue.

The Aztecs were, by accounts I have read, the worst. But the cultural pattern that created those horrors was ancient and pretty diffuse geographically. I have great respect for Native Americans in general, though, having lived on a reservation in the Northwest for a while, and admired what I saw there. Of course I also don't mean to demean Italians, though passages in Suetonius also brought to mind the Mafiosi.

Best wishes on your health.

Gary said...

" But Jesus died young, and many of his younger disciples would have lived well past the date at which the gospels were written, as I point out in Jesus is No Myth."

It is certainly possible that some of the disciples were still alive when the Gospels were written, but we have no proof they were.

Gary said...

" But I think Bauckham offers a plausible explanation for that latter fact -- evangelists DO refer to their sources implicitly, but don't name them for fear of causing them trouble."

I read Richard Bauckham's "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses" cover to cover and Bauckham provides zero concrete evidence that the evangelists "implicitly" refer to their sources other than patently biased conjecture.

Gary said...

The biggest problem for the historicity of the stories in the Gospels is that we have no idea who wrote these books. The consensus among modern scholars is that neither eyewitnesses nor the associates of eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels. NT Wright is quoted saying, "I do not know who the authors of the Gospels were, nor does anyone else."

David B Marshall said...

Gary: I think there is room between "zero evidence" and "concrete proof" that you are missing. Bauckham is providing a plausible explanation for a mass of curious data which some eminent scholars have found fairly convincing. One of those eminent scholars is N. T. Wright: see his fairly effusive blurb on the back on the book. Did Wright say that before or after reading Bauckham? Though of course "know" is a very strong word among historians.

Gary said...

It is true that NT Wright wrote an effusive promo for the book. However, it is full of vague flattery and provides no specific critique of the issues promoted in the book. Specifically, how do we know that the stories in the Gospels which contain named individuals were "guarded" for accuracy by those named individuals until the evangelists wrote them down?

This is baseless conjecture.



David B Marshall said...

Well, then, read my Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels, and find some basis for that conjecture.

Gary said...

It is not my conjecture it is the scholarly consensus. The only NT scholars who believe that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses are evangelicals and fundamentalist Protestants.