RESPONDblogs: Did Jesus Exist?

suetonius

Jesus.

 

There have been many canvases painted, books written, stained glass windows mounted and movies made about him. There are many different opinions today on who he was and what he actually said. But he lived such a long time ago; isn’t it possible he has been made up? Perhaps Jesus is just a mythical talisman people use to salve their fears, legitimize their ministries, justify their philosophies and excuse their behaviour. Is Jesus a myth?

 

No – I’m going to do a series of posts where I will outline my reasons for asserting the historicity of Jesus, and I will base this position on historical sources external to the New Testament.

Why?

Because so many people come to the Bible with a pre-conceived notion that it must be biased in its portrayal of Jesus. But what if extra-Biblical historical sources, from people with no pro-Christian theological bias…and sometimes some anti-Christian bias… did refer to the person of Jesus? And what if they also corroborated many many details that we read about Jesus in the New Testament Gospels? Would you be interested?

 

These sources fall into three categories, “(1) classical (that is, Greco-Roman), (2) Jewish and (3) Christian.”[1] I will focus on the first two.

 

The first Greco-Roman source is Gaius Suetonius, the Roman writer, lawyer and historian. He was chief secretary of Emperor Hadrian, and he wrote a history called On the Lives of the Caesars. His historical accounts were written with the aid of this Roman government documentation. Reporting on events in 49 C.E. he says,

“He [Emperor Claudius] banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus.”[2]

(The translator of Suetonius’s account notes that “Chrestus” is a variant spelling of “Christ”.)

A second related comment from Suetonius states that,

“After the great fire at Rome … Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief.”[3]

 

Taken together, these records from Suetonius tell us some important details:

1 – Jews were expelled from Rome

2 – it was Christ who caused these Jews to make a disturbance…leading to their expulsion

3 – these Jews had a belief that was described as mischievous by Suetonius, and also described the same way by Tacitus (as we will see later)

4 – the term “Christians” was coined to describe this Jewish group who followed the teachings of Christ

 

Sceptic Richard Carrier denies the historical Jesus completely; he has decided that Jesus is a mythical and fictional invention. Richard says of the expulsion of the Jews from Rome that, “This incident was more likely city-wide violence ginned up by a Jewish [rabble rouser] named Chrestus.”[4] But Richard has problems with this:

  • He cannot produce any evidence of this supposed rabble rouser.
  • there is no evidence of any Jew being given that name; “among hundreds of Jewish names in the catacombs of Rome, there is not one instance of Chrestus being the name of a Jew”[5].

It is much more likely that Suetonius is not mentioning a person named Chretus; rather he is repeating an error in his source. He is referring to Jesus (passing on the assumption that his name was Christ), but misunderstood him to be an “agitator who lived in Rome in 49 C.E.”[6]

 

Richard Carrier continues; “it cannot plausibly be argued that [Suetonius] meant Jesus, who was neither alive nor in Rome at any time under Claudius.”[7] Carrier is pointing out that, because these Roman disturbances are dated to between 41 and 54 A.D. when Claudius was emperor, there is clearly a time discrepancy. Jesus was crucified years earlier; how can he provoke disturbances if he is already dead?

Yet Carrier is forgetting that the early Christian Church clearly declared Christ’s Resurrection from the dead. Surely Suetonius was only reporting clearly what was occurring during Claudius’s reign; namely that the Jewish Christian disturbances were claimed to be instigated by the resurrected Jesus. It is likely that these disturbances were, “sparked by disagreement about who Jesus was and/or what he said and did.”[8]

 

Richard Carrier also denies that the Suetonius quote corroborates anything written in the New Testament[9], but actually the opposite is true. Suetonius second quote describing the aftermath of the fires in Rome corroborates a small detail mentioned in Acts chapter 18 that affects the friends of Jesus; namely that, “Paul met a Jewish couple from Pontus … who had recently left Italy because Claudius had demanded that all Jews leave Rome.”[10]

 

Given the well documented Christian Resurrection preaching and the corroboration of a Christian expulsion from Rome, it would seem reasonable to agree with the majority scholarly opinion that Suetonius mentions the person of the historical Jesus, not a lost Jewish rabble rouser named Chrestus.

Did Jesus exist? Suetonius certainly thought so. Next up – TACITUS

  [1] Lawrence Mykytiuk, “Did Jesus Exist? Search for Evidence Beyond the Bible”, Bible History Daily, accessed March 12th, 2015, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/did-jesus-exist/.

[2] Gary Habermas, “The Historical Jesus Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ Select chapters by Gary R. Habermas”, Dr. Gary R. Habermas Online Resources, Information, Media, accessed February 4th, 2015, http://www.garyhabermas.com/books/historicaljesus/historicaljesus.htm.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Richard Carrier, HITLER HOMER BIBLE CHRIST The Historical Papers of Richard Carrier 1995-2013, (Philosophy Press 2014), 377.

[5] Mykytiuk, “Did Jesus Exist?”.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Carrier, HITLER HOMER, 377.

[8] Mykytiuk, “Did Jesus Exist?”.

[9] Carrier, HITLER HOMER, 376.

[10] Habermas, “The Historical Jesus Ancient Evidence”.

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stuartgrayuk

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

6 thoughts on “RESPONDblogs: Did Jesus Exist?”

  1. The problem with all of these, and the ones you’ll be bringing up in the future, is that they aren’t attesting to the existence of Jesus. They’re attesting to the existence of Christians.

    And no one is arguing about whether or not Christians (or Jews of a particular sect that believed Jesus was the messiah) existed.

      1. Hey there – I missed your comment…apologies. As I state in the blog, Suetonius is one of the Roman historians who had access to government documents while writing his account of Rome in the first century. So I really don’t see what difference the time gap makes. Suetonius is not claiming to be an eye witness of these events. Rather, he is documenting the experience of the eye witnesses. Second sources are equally as valid to detectives and historians as direct first sources are…

        Stu

      2. Depending on the particular claims being made.

        If you’re only argument or claim is that there was an itinerant preacher named Yeshua who was killed, then I have no problem with that.

        But if you’re trying to use Suetonius as justification for any of the supernatural claims, it becomes much muddier.

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