R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Suetonius and Chrestus — revised

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by Neil Godfrey

I have revised the following 18th January to include a comparison with Doherty’s treatment of Suetonius.

Oh dear, this is embarrassing from the historian’s point of view. I am sure F.F.Bruce represented the brightest lights of his time but, well, 1974 was another generation ago, even if I was part of it, and the series to which this book belongs is by its own account “by theologians” to further advance their belief that it is only religion that can contribute a “deeper understanding of the mystery that surrounds us” (The Editor’s Preface pp.7-8).

So it is little wonder that Bruce’s work reads as a superficial rationalization of ancient evidence while demonstrating precious little of genuine historical method and serious interest in analytical debates over the evidence in which he finds nonbiblical references to the historical Jesus.

In his discussion of the passage in Suetonius that deals with the expulsion of the Jews by Claudius for reportedly rioting “at the instigation of Chrestus” he writes:

Chrestus, a common slave-name, was a popular mis-spelling of the name of Christ.

From that, the rest of the discussion rests on this “evidence” that the Jews indeed did riot in Rome in some connection over Christ and Christianity. It matters not, it seems, that Bruce admits that the name over which they rioted really was “a common slave-name”. Surely this is every reason to take the passage at face value and not try to turn the name into something else.

But perhaps sensing a little weakness in this argument Bruce tosses in for good measure gratuitous claims that Suetonius got this information from “police records”. Of course, this causes more problems so he has to explain that Suetonius would have misunderstood the police records. — The police records would not have said that “Chrestus” was actually “in Rome” at the time of the riots that were “instigated by him”. (p.21) Bruce is silent on the implication that the police records wrote the wrong name for the instigator of these riots. Besides, anyone who knows Suetonius and his style of histories knows he was never one for painstaking research, and that for him good old gossip and rumour were far more titillating than any facts.

Bruce does not inform us in what sources the name Chrestus is found as a “common mis-spelling” of Christ. I would like to follow this up further. I do, however, seem to recall that some sects or Christians appear to have used “Chrestus” not as a mis-spelling of Christ but as an alternative to Christ. Were these expected to be known to Suetonius? That might be worth checking. But there is a more telling reason to question Bruce’s assumptions.

Comparing Doherty’s discussion of Suetonius

Who is “Chrestus”? Is this a misspelling of “Christus”? An unknown Jewish agitator with a very common name? Are these Christians at all, or simply apocalypti-minded Jews anticipating the arrival of the Messiah? Is this figure supposedly on the scene, or is he merely the object of the agitator’s beliefs? There is too much uncertainty here to take this as evidence of anything. (p.203 of The Jesus Puzzle)

I challenge anyone to dismiss this as “fringe” or “extreme” or even merely “radical” scepticism. I suggest they represent some of the questions that go through most reader’s minds on first encountering this passage in Suetonius.

Compared with Doherty Bruce looks like a naive confessionalist rationalizing anything close to his goal. Compare how creative his imagination and how his speculations become fact:

‘Chrestus’, a common slave-name, was a popular mis-spelling of the name of Christ. The situation referred to was probably the result of the recent introduction of Christianity . . . . Police action was called for . . . . [and] police records provided one of his[Suetonius’s] sources of information. . . . (p21 of Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament)

Other reasons to reject the assumption that Suetonius meant “Christ”

But when Acts appears to refer to the same event (18.2) it gives not a hint that the expulsion by Claudius or Aquilla and Priscilla had anything to do with Christianity. Aquilla meets Paul because of his common trade only. Later in the same chapter when another Jew, Apollos, who does bring some (imperfect) knowledge of Jesus with him, arrives in Paul’s area, Acts tells us so. So one must ask if Suetonius meant that Jews were expelled because of “Christ” why both he AND the author of Acts did not say so. One cannot plead that a riot over Christianity would have been embarrassing to relate because Acts is if nothing else a long catalogue of riots instigated by the name of Christ! And if it was Paul in the vanguard of taking this controversial Christianity to the gentiles then who was responsible for these so-called “Christ-instigated riots in Rome” so early? The book of Acts concludes with Jews in Rome declaring their near total ignorance of the Christian faith, hearing only of its reputation in places outside Rome. (28.22)

Further, if Acts was a mid-second century anti-Marcionite work (assuming that its author also extensively redacted Luke) it is not impossible that Suetonius was the source of Acts 18.2. If so, then it appears that the author did not make any link between Chrestus and Christ.

What is certain is that the early Church Fathers are as silent regarding this passage in Suetonius as they are the Testimonium Flavianum in Josephus — both silences begging for explanations if they were both known to refer to Christ and Christians from such an early date.
So there is no historical discussion of the evidence in question. In this case not even an uncritical naive face-value acceptance of the evidence. We have a common riot instigated by a person with a common name turned into “evidence” for another name (Christ) and a related event (riot in Rome) of which the biblical record is inexplicably silent.

Interestingly Bruce himself writes of another biblical scholar who through arbitrary recasting and erudition cleverly made texts say something other than what they clearly did say, so that:

the unwary reader might easily be misled by it; it is important to emphasize that it rests upon his own arbitrary recasting of texts which say the opposite of what he makes them say . . . . (p.46)

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Suetonius and Chrestus — revised”

  1. I think you made some valid points, but you fall into the same trap as those who insist Suetonius was referring to Christ. Based on this brief statement, we have no way of knowing what, if anything, Suetonius was thinking. Quite possibly, he was most interested in the fact there were disturbances. The fact that the Jews caused them may have been secondary. The source of them may have been a detail he picked up and tossed in because he liked details. Based on this, we should draw no conclusions at all, except that there *might* be some connection between these disturbances and the growth of Christianity in Rome. Saying there is no connection is certainly going beyond the evidence.

    1. To Neil Godfrey:
      My conclusion: Chrestus was a Judyizer, troublemaker, instigator of the same kind who followed the Apostle Paul around on his missionary work to incite riots and violence against all who would threaten their Jewish religious supremacy, ie. the “Christians”. Chrestus agitated the religious Jews in Rome against the Christians and spread the news that the Christian were the instigators, troublemakers. A rather effective labeling-device to get rid of your opposition (calling evil good, and good evil). It’s a well known fighting tactic among intellectuals and still being used today. This is certainly NOT a case of mistaken identity or miss-spelling. This conclusion was drawn from Bible-Truth, not a couple of confused misinformed historians.

      This is history: Besides the 12 apostles and the associating women, there were about 5000 more witnesses to the appearances of Christ after his death, burial & resurrection, of whom certainly a number of them went to visit their friends in Rome (+ throughout the rest of the roman empire) to tell them the good news about the Messiah having come, + He lives in spite of the crucifixion. At that early time, they (believers in Christ) did not call themselves “Christians”, they were only talking about “Christus”. There is no doubt in my mind that the Judyizers followed them hot on their heels.

      Your last 2 paragraphs hint correctly at the source of the problems in question. Congratulations! I would call it foul play in authorship. This potato was too hot for Suetonius to record the truth (which he possibly knew from Luke, also a historian, who got it from Prisca & Aquilla – “eye-witness-news”. You must admit that it is quite possible that these 2 historians met at some time [starting with when Luke was in Rome with the Apostle Paul] and discussed world-events w/o leaving any written evidence of their conversation). Can’t blame Suetonius for not wanting to get involved in this debacle, he was merely keeping himself out of trouble.
      By the way, Acts, as written by Luke, is a recording of actual historical events, NOT a mid-second century anti-Marcionite work!

      Al Renner

      1. No, Acts is a patchwork of dogmatic fiction from second century which attempts to fool mankind into believing into first-century beginnings of the Roman Catholic church. Seeing anything historical in it is plainly nonsensical.

  2. You write with a missionary zeal and a voice of conviction and authority. One reads the same complex reconstructions from as little evidence in the various conspiracies around the Kennedy assassination, 9/11 and alien abductions.

    Historical investigation (real historical investigation, not pseudo-theologico-history) evaluates the nature and reliability of the evidence first. This leads most historians to acknowledge that Suetonius was writing about genuine historical persons and events, albeit with a penchant for the the gossipy and sensational and not always reliable. It also leads to an acknowledgement that Suetonius spoke of a riot led by one with a very common slave name, Chrestus.

    It also leads to the evaluation that another source that may possibly refer to the same event is a Hellenistic novel with a clear ideological intent and that only superficially reads like a genuine history. (I have detailed the scholarly evidence for this in posts in this archive.)

    I would hope my recent comment that mimicks arguments that reconstruct so much “history” on so little evidence is seen as a parody. If I have failed to appreciate that your own comment is a similar parody I do apologize.

  3. With regard to Chrestus being a common mis-spelling of Christ, it may be worth mentioning that the Codex Sinaiticus has the spelling Xρεστιανους instead of Χριστιανους in Acts 11:26 and Χρεστιανον/ς for Χριστιανον/ς in Acts 26:28, and 1 Peter 4:16.


    1. Understood, but of course that word translates as “Christian”. Many of us are well aware of the confusion between “good” (chrestus) and “anointed” (christ) and the use of the former in many earlier texts. Also think of when and where the followers of Christ were said to be first called “Christians”, and when this event in Rome occurred. And when did the “Christ” or “Good” epithet attach itself to Jesus? How likely is it these rioters in Rome at this time were said to be following a Chrestus rather than a Jesus? It comes down to probabilities. But at the same time I personally don’t have a problem if Suetonius’s reference did originally mean to indicate “Christ”. But the implications of that are another question again, I think.

  4. Marcionites wrote “Chrestos”, as found in an inscription on a marcionite synagogal site after Diocletian’s time, in order to dissociate the saviour from the prophecies of the Old Testament.

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