After decades of peace and prosperity, a battle began brewing between the two sons of Salome Alexandra, Queen of the Hasmonean Jewish Kingdom. Both Hycranus II and Aristobulus II claimed they were the rightful heir to the Jewish throne. Without outside interference, it was almost inevitable that this political schism would end in civil war. Such an internal war threatened to divide the Kingdom of Israel, undoing all the work accomplished by Judas Maccabee some 100 years earlier.
Officials in Rome saw a potential civil war as a direct threat to their partial control of the area. In response, Pompey the Great, the Roman general appointed to the area, sent spies to keep an eye on the kingdom. Seeing Rome as the deciding factor in the struggle for power, both brothers appeared at Pompey’s table pleading for his military support. In the end, it was Hycranus II who won the support of Pompey.
In 63 BC, (when Herod was 10 years old) Pompey and his Roman armies laid siege of Jerusalem. Both Antipater and Hycranus the High Priest supported the Roman take over of Jerusalem. Aristobulus II tried to hold out against Pompey in Jerusalem, but ultimately was captured and sent to Rome. He was later executed by Mark Antony at the request of Herod the Great. Hycranus II, Aristolbulus’ brother, continued on as the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Herod’s Family Seeks Power
It was into this that Herod the Great was born in 73 BC. He was the son of Antipater the Idumaean. Their family came originally from the area of Idumea just south of Judea. Although it had been an area populated by pagans, it had been converted to Judaism by force by Judas Maccabee during the Jewish revolt against the Greek Kingdom. This meant that the Herod’s were known, and even derided, as being half Jewish and half Edomite. And the Jews were no friends to non Jewish rulers.
This helps explain why Herod was so nervous about revolutionaries, but in order to truly understand why Herod would order the death of all the baby boys in Bethlehem, it is important to know about his father, Antipater, and how Herod followed in his father’s footsteps.
First, it is important to know that Antipater was power hungry. He saw Rome’s power grab in the middle east as a chance for him to gain political control of Judea. So Antipater and his family spent years developing a comfortable political relationship with the Romans.
By the time Hyranus II became high priest, Antipater already had a long track record of supporting Julius Caesar in his bid to gain political power in Rome. For example, during Julius Caesar’s campaign in Alexandria, Egypt, Antipater sent Caesar military assistance. Julius Caesar repaid Antipater’s ongoing support by appointing him Procurator of Judea. Caesar also declared that Hycranus II and his family would be High Priests over the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Herod Become Governor of Galilee
In 47 BC, as Procurator of Judea, Antipater appointed Herod Governor of Galilee and Herod’s elder brother, Phasael, Governor of Jerusalem. Both were backed by Rome and each set about consolidating their power in their own way.
Herod wasted no time, and in that same year he put down a Jewish resistance movement led by a rebel named Hezekiah. When finally captured, Hezekiah was dealt with the Roman way: He was summarily executed. This action immediately brought down the anger of the Jewish High Court. The Sanhedrin accused Herod of breaking Jewish Law by killing Hezekiah without giving him a fair trial. That was how pagan’s meted out Justice; God demanded higher standards.
The Trial Before the Sanhedrin
Soon, the Sanhedrin confronted Hycranus II the High Priest concerning Antipater and Herod. They told him to open his eyes. Antipater and Herod were the real rulers of Israel on behalf of the Romans and that Hycranus II was a political and religious leader of Israel in name only. Hycranus II took this to heart and eventually convinced Herod to stand trial before the Sanhedrin.
If the people weren’t already convinced that Herod was a pagan king, Herod marched into the court of the Sanhedrin in full military regalia. Herod elevating himself above Jewish law. In the minds of many, Herod was no longer a Jew. So it came as no surprise that, after a trial before the court, the Sanhedrin pronounced the sentence of death upon Herod.
Hycranus II, the high priest, advised Herod to escape before the Sanhedrin took action. Herod quickly escaped to Damascus. Herod’s father and brother convinced him not to take vengeance upon the Sanhedrin, but to continue in his role as Governor of Galilee.
In the next article, we will at Herod’s elevation from Governor of Galilee to the King of Judea.
The source of Herod’s trouble: The thirst for Jewish Independence
November 2016 witnessed the death of one of the last soviet era communist dictators, Fidel Castro. He was a man responsible for the death of nearly ten thousand people, most of whom simply wanted human freedom and independence. As with most 20th century communist dictators, Castro thought very little of the value of any single human life. So it should come as not surprise that, during his time as leader, it is estimated that up to 40% of Cuba’s population tried to flee. It was a terrible era that has now come to an end.
Two-thousand years ago, there was another wicked dictator who ruled over the land of Judea in what is modern day Israel. He was Herod The Great. Like Castro was a vassal of Soviet Russia, Herod was a vassal of the Roman Empire. He enforced their rules and kept the population at peace.
Still, what Herod the Great is most famous for is an event that happened around the birth of Jesus. Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem and told Herod that they had seen a star in the East. This star, the said, signified the birth of a Jewish king and they had come bearing gifts for the “King of the Jews”. Herod was enraged! He was the only King of the Jews! That child must die!
Herod then calmly asked the wise men to let him know should they find the child. He had a gift of his own to present. God warned the wise men of Herod’s plan to assassinate the child, and the wise men returned home a different way while Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt. When Herod discovered he’d been tricked, he sent out soldier to kill all the children two years and under in Bethlehem.
So what kind of man would order the death of every young child in an entire town in a vain attempt kill the promised Messiah of Israel? In order to understand Herod’s actions in killing the baby boys of Bethlehem, we need to briefly understand the historical background leading up to the life of Herod the Great. We also need to take a brief look at the history of the Jewish struggle for national independence to understand Herod’s fear of the birth of this new Jewish King.
Jews Exiled to Babylon and Their Return to Judah – (586-536 BC)
In the early 6th century, the people of Judah were given into the hands of Babylon for their refusal to give up their idols. They were deported and left in exile in Babylon for 70 years. God gave them warning after warning through his prophets. Return to Him, serve your God, but they would not. So God said through the prophet Jeremiah that they would be sent into exile for a period of 70 years and then they would return.
That is actually extremely merciful of the Lord. He could have simply wiped the nation completely from the face of the earth for their disobedience. But God remembered his covenant with Abraham. It would be through his line that all nations would be blessed. Today we know that Jesus is the blessing he promised to all peoples and all nations. God was faithful despite Israel’s unfaithfulness.
As promised, when the 70 years was up, the exile ended. The empire of Babylon was overthrown by the empire of Persia. Cyrus, the head of the Persian empire, was used by God to fulfill the promise that he had made. Judah would only be in exile for 70 years. And so Cyrus allowed the Jews to return home.
The Greek Empire Rules Over Israel – (333 BC-167 BC)
For about two centuries (333-167 BC), the Jews were ruled by the Greeks. Alexander the Great had swept across the middle east and Asia, conquering all in his path. Greece fell; Egypt Fell; Babylon fell. Persia fell. In a few short years, Alexander had formed a great Greek empire that stretched from Egypt to Greece to India. Alexander and his armies conquered vast areas of land in his brief lifetime.
When Alexander died unexpectedly at the age of 33, his generals ended up ruling over an empire split into three pieces. Then the fight began to reunite the Greek empire under a single ruler. The land of Israel was ground zero for the war between the Egyptian Greek empire and the Persian one. By the second century B.C., Antiochus the fourth had become ruler over the eastern Greek empire, and he ruled Judea with an iron hand. As the book of Maccabees records, he was very oppressive to the Jews.
Maccabean Revolt – (167-142 BC)
By 167 BC, the Jewish people had had enough of Greek rule. Antiochus the fourth, angry at the rebellious Jews, wanted to carry out an early version of the Nazi “final solution” against the Jews. He tried to prevent the Jews from circumcising their children. He began a campaign to destroy Judaism, but the Jews could only take so much of this. They remembered how they had been exiled into Babylon by God because of the very sin of idolatry, and they did not intend on committing the same sin again.
One Jewish priestly family, the Hasmoneans, took up arms against Antiochus the fourth. It was Matthias and his five sons who led this Jewish revolt against their Greek rulers. Judas Maccabee was the eldest son and the first of the brothers to lead the Jewish revolt. This Hasmonean Independence movement won many military victories in the span of 3 years.
They eventually captured Jerusalem from the Greeks and rededicated the Jewish Temple on December 25, 164 (yes, the traditional date of the birth of Jesus). The Jewish people finally achieved full independence in 142 BC under the leadership of Simon Maccabee, the brother of the Judas Maccabee. The Jewish nation hadn’t been independent since the time of the Babylon conquest and he founded what is now know as the Hasmonean dynasty. The Hasmonean dynasty continued for generations through the descendants of Simon. This royal line would include Hycranus the first, Aristobulus the first, and Alexander Janneus. These men acted as both the political and religious leaders of this new Jewish independent state.
This arrangement worked for awhile. However, human nature being what it is, absolute power began to corrupt absolutely. Eventually, a queen rose to power over the Jewish state. She was Queen Alexandra. When it came time for her sons to rule, her two sons, Hycranus the second and Aristobulus the second, embroiled themselves in a bitter struggle for control of the empire. This was a full blown civil war.
The Romans had made an earlier agreement with Judas Maccabee to help him achieve Jewish independence. When civil war broke between Queen Alexandra’s two sons, Rome saw they were rapidly losing out on their investment on partial control of Judea, and decided to take full control of Judea. Thus began the Roman period.
In the next article, I’ll use this background about the thirst for Jewish independence to explain the actions of Herod the Great after he arrived on the scene as the principle stooge of the Roman Empire.
Throughout his writings and on his website, Spong lists several specific early modern scientists whom he believes sounded the death knell of orthodox Christianity. The scientists that Spong mentions are Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Darwin, Freud and Einstein. As Spong goes through each of these scientists, he highlights a specific scientific accomplishment of each one and then concludes that this is a scientific argument against Judeo-Christian theism.
In this series, we will take a brief look at the life of each early modern scientists, Spong’s spin for that particular scientist and a historical, scientific and theological refutation for each of Spong’s false assertions.
Life Of Copernicus
The first early modern scientist that Spong uses to debunk theism and Christianity is Nicolas Copernicus. Copernicus born in 1473 in Torun, Poland to parents both from wealthy merchant families. Unfortunately, his father died while he was still young, so his uncle took him under his wing.
Coperncicus started his education at St. John’s school in Torun. From there, he went on to attend the Cathedral School at a nearby town. This school prepared Copernicus to enter the University of Krakow. It was at the University that he began studying the Arts.
Later, he focused on various branches of astronomy and mathematics. He became fascinated with astronomy and collected a large number of books on the subject. Copernicus left the University of Krakow and later enrolled at the University of Bologna from 1496-1501. It was here that he became the student of one of the greatest astronomers of his time. It is also here that his interest in astronomy began to sour.
In 1497, Copernicus made his first astronomical calculations about the moon. In 1500, he traveled to Rome where he began another apprenticeship in astronomy. This led to him become a professor of astronomy. During this time, Copernicus also obtained a medical degree at the University of Padua from 1501-1503. In close connection with obtaining a medical degree, he also studied astrology. Both medicine and astrology were considered interconnected disciplines at this period of time.
Copernicus first began developing his heliocentric theory with his short book The Commentaries (sometime before 1514). He later published On The Revolutions in 1543. In 1533, the Pope’s personal secretary heard about the heliocentric theory and passed on the information to Pope Clement VII. At the time, the Pope had no problem with the theory.
Spong’s Conclusions About Copernicus
Spong states concerning Copernicus:
“There was a Polish monk named Nicolaus Copernicus, whose studies shattered the image of the earth as the center of a three-tiered universe, which also assumed that God who dwelled just above the sky, always looking down, always recording in the book of life the good deeds and the misdeeds of each person. The promise of reward with God in heaven or punishment from God in hell after this life constituted the central linchpin of a well-ordered human society” – http://johnshelbyspong.com/2015/12/10/charting-the-new-reformation-part-ii-the-burning-necessity/
“His calculations led him to a startling conclusion. The earth is not the center of a three-tiered universe! This insight, an incredibly great breakthrough in knowledge, also had severe religious consequences. The Bible, for example, was written from the perspective of a three-tiered universe and claims had been regularly made by the church that the Bible is “the inerrant word of God.” With the discovery of Copernicus, however, the inevitable conclusion was that the Bible was wrong!Copernicus did not publish his thinking widely so the hierarchy of the church just ignored his work, hoping that no one else would notice.” –http://johnshelbyspong.com/2015/12/24/charting-the-new-reformation-part-iv-building-the-case-for-the-death-of-theism-the-copernican-revolution
Spong also states a further consequences of following of Copernicus: “ … the earth could no longer be envisioned as the center of the Universe. God might not be so quite involved in the day to day affairs of human beings.” (Why Christianity Must Change or Die)
Where did Spong get the idea that if the earth is not at the center of the universe, then God has no special interest in humanity? This specific myth about Copernicus began about 100 years after his death. There was a concerted effort to show that man is no special creation by God, but simply a “power play” by humanity to show a self specialness to God that never existed. Cyrano de Bergerac asserted this very notion when he said, “The insupportable arrogance of mankind, which fancies, that Nature was only created to serve it.”
Another writer, Fontenelle, in his book Discourse of the Plurality of Worlds (1686) said that Copernicus had taken “the earth and throws it out of the center of the world … for his design was to abate the vanity of men who had thrust themselves into the chief place of the Universe”. (Danielson 57,58 in Galileo Goes to Jail)
Many things could be said in refutation of Bishop Spong’s statements on Copernicus:
Spong fails to mention that Copernicus dedicated his book to the Pope Paul The Third because Copernicus wanted to make sure that he was not misunderstood as challenging the authority and legitimacy of the Papacy.
Copernicus received the official approval of Pope The Third as well as the financial support of two top Cardinals for his book On The Revolutions. 1
In addition to Pope Paul The Third, after he died, the next 9 Popes following him saw no heresy in what Copernicus was saying with his heliocentric theory.
Spong has a twisted understanding of what the Bible says about humanity and its place in the cosmos. The Bible teaches the vastness of the cosmos and yet God cares for humanity. (Psalms 8:3,4)
Some of the great thinkers of the ages saw earth’s centrality as a negative and not a positive. a
Moses Mainonides: “in the case of the Universe … the nearer the parts are to the center, the greater their turbidness, their solidarity, their inertness, their dimness and darkness, because they are further away from their loftiness element, from the source of light and brightness.”
Thomas Acquinas: In the Universe, earth – that all the spheres encircle and that, as for place, lies in the center, is the most material and coarsest of all bodies.
Many more quotes could be produced that directly refute Bishop Spong’s assertion that people during middle ages believed that because earth was in the center of the universe that that meant it had God’s special care over it. In fact, the opposite was true. Copernicus believed that because the earth revolved around the sun, this gave earth a “specialness to God”
Galileo, when commenting on how sun’s light upon the earth makes the moon shine brighter states: “The earth, with fair and grateful exchange, pays back to the moon an illumination like that which it receives from the moon … those who assert, principally on the grounds that it [the earth] has neither motion nor light, that the earth must be excluded from the dance of the stars. For … the earth does have motion … it surpasses the moon in brightness and … it is not the sump where the universe’s filth and ephemera.”
Even Johannes Kepler, whom Spong highly respects, states concerning man’s ability to contemplate says, “he [man] could not remain at rest in the center … he [man] must make an annual journey on this boat, which is our earth, to perform his observations … There is no globe nobler or more suitable for man than the earth. For, in the first place, it is exactly in the middle of the principles globes … Above it are Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Within the embrace of its orbit run Venus and Mercury, while at the center the sun rotates.”
Copernicus would find Spong’s assessment of himself strange because Copernicus was an ardent Christian theist as the following quotes from him show 1 To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.2
“Not the Grace received by Paul do I desire, Nor the good will with which Thou forgavest Peter, Only that which Thou didst grant the thief on the cross, That mercy I ask of Thee.”3
“For who, after applying himself to things which he sees established in the best order and directed by Divine ruling, would not through diligent contemplation of them and through a certain habituation be awakened to that which is best and would not admire the Artificer of all things, in Whom is all happiness and every good? For the divine Psalmist surely did not say gratuitously that he took pleasure in the workings of God and rejoiced in the works of His hands, unless by means of these things as by some sort of vehicle we are transported to the contemplation of the highest good.”4
In conclusion, the example of Copernicus as well as the remaining early modern scientists that we will look at show highly selective Bishop Spong is in what historical and theological conclusions that he is willing to draw for the benefit of his readers. Much of his readership comprises those who have already rejected the Christian Gospel and Bishop Spong wants to supply more reasons they can use to justify their rejection of the Gospel. No serious student of history, science or theology would be hoodwinked by Spong’s deceptive use of the facts.
3 That Copernicanism Demoted Human From The Center of The Cosmos—Myth 6 Dennis R. Danielson found in Galileo Goes To Jail And Other Myths About Science and Religion. Edited by Ronald L. Numbers Harvard University Press 2009
Flavius Josephus was a well-known Jewish historian of the first century AD. He is remembered for his history of the Jewish people and a book about their struggle to free the land from Roman rule in the mid first century. He is also remembered for defecting to the Romans after a failed military campaign against them resulted in his surrender. At the time, many Jews called derided him as conceited and a traitor. Fortunately, history allows us a much more balanced picture of this historical figure.
Flavius Joesphus was born Joseph ben Matityaho in Jerusalem into a family in the line of the high priest; His mother’s heritage linked directly to the Maccabean dynasty. At a young age, he showed a thirst for knowledge; to know more about his Jewish heritage. As he notes, many of the Jewish Priests came to him while still a boy to ask him questions about the Jewish faith.
At 16, he became a Pharisee. Pharisees were a Jewish group that adhered very strictly to the written law of Moses as well as to the great body of oral tradition that had grown up around the written law. In 63 AD, at the of 26, he sailed to Rome to ask for the release of some Jewish Priests. The priests had apparently risen up in rebellion against Roman authority, had been captured, and were now in Rome as prisoners. Josephus ultimately gained the release of these Priests, and in the process, became good friends with one of the mistresses of Nero.
After returning to Judea from Rome, he found Judea on the brink of revolt against its Roman task masters. He tried to reason with some of the Jewish leaders trying to convince them that it was “suicide” to revolt against Rome. Rome had far superior military forces. His pleadings failed to convince any of the Jewish leaders.
Over the course of time, because of his eminence in the Jewish community, he was called into military service on behalf of the Jewish rebels against Rome in the siege of Gamala. Even at this point, he still tried to convince the Jewish rebels to lay down their arms against Rome. Josephus only went through the motions of supporting the Jewish rebels against Rome.
Later, at the siege of Jotapata, an overwhelming Roman force had Josephus and a number of other rebel leaders backed into a corner; There was no way out. In desperation, they entered into a suicide pact similar to that at Masada. However. Josephus was able to cunningly weasel out of the pact so that, in the end, all the other Jewish leaders committed suicide while he cheated death by suicide.
Ultimately, Josephus surrendered to the Romans and became a slave of the Roman general. He was in their service as translator. At the siege of Jerusalem, Josephus tried again to urge the rebels to lay down their arms. They would not and, as a result, Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple were destroyed. The city was sacked and the temple set on fire.
During the long siege, Josephus became good friends with Titus, the Roman commander against the Jewish rebellion. Fortunately for Josephus, Titus later became Emperor of Rome. After the rebellion, Josephus returned to Rome with Titus where he became the official historian of the rebellion.
Josephus, in his book Antiquities of the Jews, which gives a historical account of the Jewish people, mentions Jesus, John the Baptist, and Jesus’ half brother James. The original quote speaking of Jesus, strangely enough, made it sound as if Josephus was a Christian. This was not the case. Josephus was a Jew. The passage was the subject of much controversy for centuries. Comparing Greek and Latin texts, it appeared that some Christian interpolation had occurred during the second century AD, but no scholar could say how it was altered or by whom.
The answer came in 1971. A Jewish scholar in Jerusalem found a 10th century Arabic version of Josephus’ work translated by Christians living in Arab lands. He also found an 11th century Syraic copy. Comparing the versions together, the interpolation could be removed and the original passage from the point of view of Jewish historian came to light:
“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”
In this much more historically accurate version, Josephus is basically reporting historical facts. He is not trying to get his fellow Jews to believe that Jesus is the Messiah which he himself did not believe. It’s a straight forward historical report which includes his neutral reporting that the disciples reported that Jesus appeared to them. Josephus says Jesus was a wise man and seriously wonders whether or not Jesus was the messiah, not that Jesus WAS the messiah.
This Arabic translation of Josephus’ “Jesus passage” is strong evidence that Jesus really existed and that the gospel narratives are correct.
In the last of our non Jewish writers who mention Jesus, we will look at Lucian of Samasota. Lucian was born in 125 AD in Samosota, a region which today lies in modern day southern Turkey. As a young man, Lucian studied law and Greek literature. As an adult, he became a well know rhetorician, someone who argues cases in the Roman court system. He was also a widely known and popular satirist, speaker, and writer of his day. His most popular writings include:
A True Story – A take off on the stories found in the Odyssey written by the Greek author Homer several centuries earlier.
The Passing of Peregrinas – A pagan’s contact with the earliest Christians.
The Symposium – A satirical look at one of Plato’s writings
Lucian, in his writings on the Christians, views them with disdain. There are probably a few reasons for this. First, Lucian had a habit of satire; It’s not a surprise that he approached Christianity that way. Second, Christianity was still so new that, apparently, Lucian didn’t take the time to investigate Christianity for himself. Despite this, Lucian gives one of the earliest description of Jesus and the Christians by a non Christian:
“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day — the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account … You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.”
It is human nature that when a person does not understand something and has no further interest in checking it out, it is easier to make fun of the thing than to try and discredit it, especially if the person has little or no knowledge about it. This is what Lucian is doing here. He mocks Jesus and the early Christians. Yet for all the mocking that he does, Lucian does not deny the existence of the Christians “lawgiver”, Jesus. He also gives us evidence that early Christians worshiped Jesus as a divinity. So this is again, very early testimony that confirms the existence of Jesus by a non Christian writer
Next week, we will begin looking at Jewish authors who affirm the existence of Jesus as a historical figure.
Pliny 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 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.
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.
Suetonius 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.
His 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.
Tacitus 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
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.
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.
Dr. Phil Fernandes refutes the modern rehashing of the claim that Jesus didn’t exist.It is a ridiculous claim refuted more than a hundred years ago, yet it still floats around in popular culture… So Dr. Fernandes prepares us for this by looking at its proponents in popular culture and how modern scholarship has reacted.
In his “Did Jesus Really Exist” presentation at the Worldview Apologetics Conference 2015, Dr. Fernandes mentioned this debate as a great example of how the Jesus Myth theory collapses before even basic scholarship. Here is the Summary:
“Institute of Biblical Defense (2014) – Christian philosopher Phil Fernandes and atheist Mark Fulton debate the resurrection of Jesus. Fernandes shows how incredibly radical Fulton’s views are and how out of touch they are with historical reality on Jesus of Nazareth. Fulton represents so many young gullible atheists who would believe anything about Jesus – but no serious scholar or historian would.”