Month: January 2016

Historicity of Jesus: Pliny the Younger

by Kyle Larson

Pliny the YoungerPliny the Younger was a well educated Roman lawyer who prosecuted and defended Provincial governors throughout the late first century and early second century Roman Empire. In a series of letters written to Emperor Trajan in the early second century, Pliny the Younger described how he would identify and punish those who refused to offer sacrifices to Emperor Trajan. In particular, these letters included his dealings with Christians.

Pliny the Younger born in Italy around 61 AD. To put that in perspective, Paul and Peter were executed by Nero in 64 AD. Pliny’s father died when he was young, and he was raised by his step-father. His step-father was an imperial official well known for putting down a revolt against the Emperor Nero in 68 AD.  Pliny the Younger was also very close to his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was a close friend to Emperor Vespasian and notable scholar of the first century.

While still young, both Plinys were witness to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Both lived opposite the town of Pompeii when it erupted. Pliny the Younger vividly describes the horror that the people of Pompeii felt as a result. His uncle, Pliny the elder, died trying to rescue people caught in the volcanic eruption. As you can imagine, this was very difficult for Pliny the Younger to deal with.

Despite this, Pliny the Younger received an excellent Roman education which included studying rhetoric under Quintilian, the most famous Roman rhetorician of his day and a friend of the Emperor. After completing his education, Pliny entered the imperial service of the Roman Empire. In 110 AD, he became the Roman Governor of Bithynia, the area that covers modern day Turkey. As Governor, he had to deal with a small religious group known as Christians. There was no empire wide persecution, so Pliny was not sure how to deal with the Christians. He decided to write to the Emperor Trajan and share with him what his current policy was in dealing with the Christians.

Emperor TrajanEmperor Trajan stated that merely being a Christian was crime enough for judicial action. In response, Pliny explained his method of interrogation and the punishments awarded. First, he would give the accused three attempts to either confirm or deny the charge that they were Christians. If it was made clear to him that the accused were Christians, Pliny would then give them the opportunity to deny Jesus and offer burnt sacrifices to the Roman Emperor. If the Christians persistently and stubbornly refused to sacrifice to the Emperor, Pliny would pass judgement. Roman citizens would be sent to Rome for trial. Those not fortunate enough to be citizens were executed.

The Emperor Trajan responded to Pliny and said he had no problem with this procedure. Because the Christians were still a small group, the Emperor wrote that no special effort should be made to actively hunt down the Christians. No anonymous accusations should be accepted. Only accusations by officials and interrogations were sufficient. However, once a person was identified as a Christian, Pliny should then follow the procedure that he outlined in his original letter to the Emperor Trajan.

Pliny, in another place, talks about the high ethical and moral standards that the early Christians received from their teacher Jesus and which they sought to put into practice. He also mentions that Christians sang worship songs to Jesus as “a god”. Both of these confirm the traditional view of what early Christians believed.

Because of his position and connections, we can confidently say that Pliny the Younger was in a good place to give accurate information on the early Christians he encountered. We can believe his descriptions of their moral behavior and how it had been shaped by the ethical teachings of the Jewish teacher named Jesus. So Pliny the Younger offers testimony that a Jewish teacher named Jesus existed, was a great moral teacher, and was worshiped as God at the end of the first century by a group called Christians.

Historicity of Jesus: Suetonius

by Kyle Larson

Jesus was real. He existed in a time and lived in a place. History has provided for us numerous sources for his life, his death, and the effect he had on the ancient world. This week, we are going to take a brief look at the Roman scholar and historian Suetonius. He left a short, but telling, account of a strange people causing an uproar in Rome.

SuetoniusSuetonius was a Roman scholar who wrote a notable history of the Roman emperors around the end of the first century AD. He was born in north Africa (modern Algeria) sometime between 67-72 AD. Raised in an upper class family, Suetonius received an excellent classical education by Roman standards, including time spent studying Greek literature and art. He also learned the political and economic aspects of the first century Roman Empire.

Like Tacitus, Suetonius studied Roman Law. He was a close friend of Pliny the Younger, the Roman Governor of what is modern day Turkey. He also had access to vast amounts of Roman historical and archival records once he was appointed to serve as the Director of the Imperial Library as well as other related posts.

His historical writings are many. He wrote on many aspects of Greco-Roman culture. This included such topics as the Greek games, physical disabilities, clothing, Roman festivals and customs. With all these credentials behind him, as we did with Tacitus, we can confidently assert that he was well connected, had access to Roman records, and thus could speak confidently on Jesus and the early Christians.

Lives of the Twelve CaesarsHis major historical work was entitled Lives of the Twelve Caesars. In it, Suetonius chronicles the major Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian. When he gets to the reign of the Emperor Claudius, he makes a brief mention of Jesus and the early Christians:

“Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city.”

Bart Ehrman is uncertain if “Chrestus” refers to Jesus or not. Other historians point out that the name “Chrestus” is the same Latin Spelling that Tacitus uses when referring to Jesus.

And we know, Tacitus was an accurate Roman historian. This passage explains that the Jewish population in Rome caused problems for Roman officials because of the growing number of Christians in Rome. As a result, the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. Even Bart Ehrman admits that this historical incident in Suetonius is confirmed by Luke in Acts 18:2.

Both Tacitus and Suetonius confirm that the Christians in Rome followed a Jewish teacher named Jesus who lived in Judea, taught the people, and was ultimately killed under Governor Pontius Pilate of Judea while Tiberius was the Roman Emperor. It is possible that Pilate filed a formal report in Rome that both Tacitus and Suetonius may have had access to.

Now that we have looked at two of the top Gentile writers who mention Jesus, next week, we will look at what the first century Jewish historian Josephus had to say about Jesus.

Historicity of Jesus: Tacitus

by Kyle Larson

Tacitus: The Man

TacitusTacitus was born in Gaul, modern day France, and lived between 56 and 120 AD. At the time, Gaul was a Roman Province, having been conquered by Julius Caesar in the middle of the first century BC. Tacitus grew up in an upper class family. This afforded him an excellent education by Roman standards and enabled him to study Roman law. This, in turn, opened the doors for public administrative office. He married the daughter of Agricola, a Roman consul who later was appointed the governor of Britain. By the time he was an adult, Tacitus was well connected to the upper circles of Roman Imperial Administration

The Early Works

1. Agrcola

As stated above, Tacitus married the daughter of Agricola, who was a high ranking Roman official. Tacitus wanted to honor his father-in-Law Agricola by giving an account of his service to the Roman Empire, so he chose to chronicle Agricola’s reign as the Governor of Britain. In this work, we get a quick glimpse of what life in Britain was like under early Roman rule through the Governorship of Agricola; Britain became a Roman Province late in the first Century.

2. Germania

Tacitus’ second early historical work had to do with life among the Germanic tribes. Tacitus wanted to chronicle how Greco-Roman Culture was superior to Germanic culture. This book gives us a personal, if biased, glimpse into late first century life in the far north of the Roman empire.

The Histories and The Annals

This two most important substantial works of Tacitus are the Histories and the Annals.

1. The Histories (69 AD – 96 AD)

This book covers a period ranging from the time of Emperor Galba to the Emperor Domitian. This historical work takes up 5 books. The first four books as well as part of the fifth book still exists.

2. The Annals (14 AD – 68 AD)

Tacitus, after finishing The Histories, decided to take a further step backwards and wrote on the Imperial reigns from Augustus Caesar to Nero. One thing that seems obvious as one reads Tacitus is that because of his position in the Roman Imperial administration, he had access to earlier sources. He made good use of them.

Tacitus on Christians and Jesus

From his writings, we can gain insight into what Tacitus wrote concerning Jesus and his earliest followers in Rome.

Tacitus wrote in The Annals:

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.”

Tacitus, based on earlier Roman governmental documentation, gives us specific glimpses into the early church. He confirms that Jesus was crucified while Tiberius was Emperor of Rome and Pontius Pilate was the Roman Governor of Judea. This places the crucifixion between 26 and 36 AD. Tacitus also writes that at some point after the death of Jesus, something happened that caused the Christians to re-surface in Judea, and later, into Rome itself.

At one point, Nero had it in mind to remake Rome into a beautiful, art filled Roman utopia. Soon after, old Rome went up in flames. Many to this day suspect Nero was behind it. To quell such rumors at the time, Nero decided to blame the early Christians for the fire. Thus began the first major persecution of the church. Tacitus records this in his Annals. Fortunately, this was not an empire wide persecution, but mainly localized in Rome.

So here we have genuine historical testimony from a Roman historian. According to Roman records of the day as accessed by Tacitus, Jesus was a real person. He actually lived and died a horrible death. He had numerous followers, even in Rome, and they continued to spread his message.

Next week, we will look into the background on Suetonius and on what he wrote on Jesus and the early Christians.