Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, commonly known as Suetonius (69 CE – 122 CE), was a Roman historian who wrote during the early Imperial era of the Roman Empire. His most prominent surviving work written around 120 CE is entitled “De Vita Caesarum“, meaning “About the lives of the Caesars”, and often referred to as “The Twelve Caesars“, which is a compilation of twelve biographies of Julius Caesar and the first eleven emperors of the Roman Empire. I don’t know why, but I found the information here that talks briefly about each individual emperor fascinating. Definitely worth the time to read if you have a moment.
Anyway, let’s get to debunking the supposed references by Suetonius of Jesus that many fundamental scholars believe to be true and accurate. These scholars confound me because they are Christians looking at history through a theological lens. How can you accurately and from an unbiased perspective interpret history that way? You can’t, and the evidence will support that.
The supposed proof seems to reside in the name “Chrestus”. Let’s look a little deeper.
‘Christ’ or ‘Chrest’?
“In presenting this purported evidence from Suetonius’s Claudius 25.4, Christian apologists typically cite an English translation, such as:
As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (another spelling of Christus), he (Claudius) expelled them from Rome. (Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict (1979), 83)
The Christian-preferred Latin of this sentence is as follows:
Iudaeos impulsore Christo assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit
However, it is now the scholarly consensus that the original Latin of this passage must have been the following:
Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit
This latter version with the word Chrēsto, not Christo, is what our earliest extant manuscripts relate. Contrary to what Christian apologist Josh McDowell and other fundamentalists assert, and despite the fact that the two words are evidently related through the roots χρίω and χράω, “Chrēsto,” the ablative of Chrestus, is not an “another spelling of Christ.” These terms represent Latinizations of two different Greek words that sound quite similar: Chrēstos, sometimes a proper name, means “good,” “righteous” or “useful”; while Christos denotes “anointed” or “messiah.” Hence, although an earlier generation of scholars believed that this Suetonian passage reflected the uprisings of Jews against Christians in Rome, we are not certain at all that this purported “reference” in Suetonius has anything to do with Christ and Christians.
Scientific studies of Suetonius’s extant works demonstrate that “Chresto” is the most common epithet in the manuscript tradition. As we will discover, Chresto or its Greek original, Chrestos, was commonly found in pre-Christian antiquity, and its presence in Suetonius most likely had nothing to do with any historical founder of Christianity called “Jesus the Christ.” Rather, this commonly held title was one of the earliest applied to what is clearly a fictional composite of characters, real and mythical, styled “Jesus the Good.”
In addition, the event in which Claudius expelled Jews from Rome is recorded elsewhere in other histories – without the “impulsore Chresto” claim – and seems to date to around 49, 52 or 53 AD/CE, an incident that apparently was unrelated to a historical Jesus of Nazareth and cannot serve as evidence for his historicity.
The bottom line is that the Suetonian sentence in question apparently used originally the word “Chresto.” Combined with the facts that Christ was never related as having been at Rome, that the phrase “Jesus the Good” evidently does not make its appearance until the third or late second century at the earliest, and that the word chrestos was used to describe gods and many other figures in antiquity, doubt is cast upon the value of this passage as providing any evidence that “Jesus of Nazareth” was an actual historical figure.
Moreover, the fact that Suetonius called Chresto’s followers “Judeans” or “Jews,” rather than associating them with the “Christians” or, perhaps, “Chrestians ” of his Nero passage, tends to negate the idea that the Roman historian is referring to a historical “Jesus Christ.” The evidence points, rather, to another individual or, more likely, their tribal god, Yahweh the Good, as the “Chresto” of Suetonius’s Jews.
In summary, the “Chrest” under whose instigation at Rome the Jews were revolting could have been their Lord God, called “the Good” or chrestos in the Old Testament. No “historical Jesus of Nazareth” would be needed, and we may retire this purported Suetonian “proof” from Christian apologetics.
And just to wrap this one up:
1. “The Twelve Caesars” was written almost 90 years after Jesus was supposedly killed.
2. In which he only mentions Christians being persecuted under Nero, but without any details as to their beliefs of even the reason for their name, nor any mention of Jesus.
3. And in which he mentions a certain Jewish man named “Chrestus” being a trouble maker in Rome under Claudius.
4. Jesus was never in Rome, and cannot have been crucified by Pontius Pilate if he was alive a decade later to appear under Claudius.
5. Suetonius wasn’t even born until decades after Christ’s supposed death.
6. Suetonius, therefore, cannot corroborate the Gospels; in fact, he doesn’t say anything that would corroborate them.
7. Even what he says of “Chrestus” (a common name of the time, especially among slaves and freedmen) does not corroborate anything in the Gospels, even if taken as a misspelling of “Christus”.
8. There is no reason to take it as a misspelling of “Christus”; Suetonius is talking about an entirely different person.
Credit: Richard Carrier, OHJ, 8.11, pp. 346-349
Next up, Celsus, the Greek philosopher.