Christ and the Caesars
The Origin of Christianity from Greco-Roman Civilization
Printed and published by Eugen Grosser.”
Machine translated by Neil Godfrey from Christus und die Caesaren. Der Ursprung des Christenthums aus dem römischen Griechenthum
Preface on the previous views of our subject.
I. Seneca’s religious foundation.
- Recent opinions on Stoicism
- A look back at Cicero
- Seneca’s teachers
- Views on Seneca’s Christianity
- Seneca’ view on politics
- Seneca’s new religion
- Seneca’s ideal
- Seneca in the New Testament
- Seneca’s compromises
II. Seneca as a teacher and minister of Nero.
- The dissolution of Roman particularism
- Nero, nothing but a human.
- The humanistic school of rhetoric
- Seneca’s rhetorical education
- Seneca at the court of Claudius
- The friend of humanity on the throne
- The death of Agrippina
III The downfall of Nero and Seneca.
- The cosmopolitan on the throne
- Seneca’s disgrace
- The fire of Rome and the Christians
- The death of Seneca
- Seneca and the satire on Claudius’s ascension
- Nero’s end
- Nero as the Antichrist
- Persius, Lucan and Petronius
IV. The House of Flavian and Judaism.
- The invasion of the West by the East
- The historical sources on the Jewish War
- The position of the Jews up to the outbreak of the war
- Josephus as a warlord and messenger of God
- Josephus before Jerusalem
- Josephus at the triumphal procession of Titus
- Josephus’s world religion
- A Heraclitean school
- Domitian and the gentle ones
V. Trajan and the first emergence of Christianity.
- The happiest epoch for mankind in Roman history
- The Last Judgment
- The Trajanic Era
- Pliny and the Christians
VI. Hadrian and Christian Gnosis.
- The potentialized Nero
- Hadrian’s letter on religious mixtures in Alexandria
- Jewish uprisings and the age of the messianic image
- The path to the Gospel
- Christian Gnosis
VII. The time of Marcus Aurelius.
- Marcus Aurelius’s self-reflections
- Christianity as a heightening of Hellenism
- The morality of Roman society
- The fate of Marcus Aurelius.
VIII. The conclusion of the New Testament literature.
- A great history and a late epic
- The Beatitudes and the elevations of the law in the source texts of Luke and Matthew.
- Variations on the battle cries of the original gospel
- The history of the childhood of Jesus
- Gnosticism in the Fourth Gospel
- The Paul of the Acts of the Apostles
- Gnosticism in the Pauline Epistles
- Peace agreement between Peter and Paul
On the previous interpretations of our subject.
Christ and the Roman Caesars, the subject of this work, are not just contemporaries who were brought together by chance of history or a predetermined fate and providence that watched over the fate of humanity in the first centuries of our era, either as friendly parallels or as a pair of enemies. As soon as the reader enters my picture gallery, he or she will feel, and this feeling will become certainty as he or she progresses, that the Christian Savior and the bearers of Roman imperial power are products of the same force that sought to consolidate the sanctions and immaterial goods of antiquity into a personal, all-powerful form, and that in their hostile sibling relationship, one and the same impulse that inspired the Orient, Greece, and Rome to a common purpose manifested itself.
I have already pointed out the parallel between Suetonius’ imperial biographies and evangelical historiography, the Roman emperor figures and the Christian Savior image, when I first entered this issue (see my “Critique of the Evangelical History,” Leipzig, 1841, 2,46. 47). I recalled that the world ruler, who held all rights in himself on his throne in Rome and judged the measure of everything, life and death, grace and rejection on his lips, already announced himself here as the world ruler and judge, who with a breath of his mouth overcomes the resistance of nature and strikes down his enemies, and will one day separate the elect of grace and the rejected of wrath from each other, even though he has a hostile brother but still a relative.
As I now proceed to describe the origin of both figures, their development (for even the Lord of the Gospels undergoes a series of metamorphoses in the sequence of these writings), and the final victory of the Christian Judge over the Caesar, I have some preliminary remarks to make about my position with regard to the previous treatments of the same subject.
The mystery of the first two centuries of our era has been sought to be grasped in fragments until now. Instead of interpreting that period of world history in which antiquity gained its Christian form as a single whole, people have resorted to the division of labor and performed a separation of the body of these centuries, which a wise king of the Jews threatened to bring about to settle the dispute between two mothers over their child.
Thus, there existed on our field a secular and a spiritual economy that, by virtue of a self-explanatory agreement according to general belief, delimited their territories and made themselves comfortable side by side. The secular lord is the historian; he is at home in the histories of the activities and dealings of the emperors, in the civil and domestic life of the peoples, and distills from the products of these areas a kind of profane world spirit. On the other hand, the workers of the spiritual section are fortunate enough to see the genius of their field face to face when they enter their field of history, and they only need to follow him on his conquest and describe how he overcomes the resistance of the world and the domestic disputes of his believers, and finally takes possession of the Roman Empire.
At this separation of both workshops, it is irrelevant whether the spiritual master craftsman places his genius a couple of steps higher or lower on the ladder to heaven that connects him with the earth and the upper spiritual realm. Nothing changes in the contrast between the worldly historian and the spiritual chronicler. Even if the latter turns his guide into a sort of Socrates or, like Strauss, into the executor of a Messiah program drafted long before, the wall separating the sacred and profane worlds does not waver. Renan’s romantic embellishment of Strauss’s prose stands so alien to the Roman imperial world as the punitive visions of the New Testament Apocalypse to the cesspool of sin of the world city on the seven hills, and all secularization of sacred history only serves to petrify the illusion of the young Christian community about its opposition to imperial Rome into a prosaic historical proposition.
The division of labor is considered a gain of modern times, but the benefits it promises can only be achieved if the separate workshops serve a common plan. However, the separate worker sections engaged in researching the first two Roman-Christian centuries lack such a guiding overview. Both groups finally reach out to each other and lend each other their products, but since they originated without regard for each other, they can only be mechanically integrated into the adjacent work, and while the workers confess their own helplessness in their mutual borrowings, their achievements in the new environment that seeks to complement and illustrate them spread no light around them.
The spiritual section, which has fallen into a harmful confusion due to its aversion to what they consider to be excessive criticism, and the disagreement within its ranks over the countless hypotheses of their attempts at mediation, we do not hold responsible for the uselessness of the loans that their secular counterparts receive from them. The antithesis of a corrupt world and a saving Deus ex Machina is one of the traditions of their circle.
The matter is more serious with the secular researcher. It is his task to seek out the seeds of the future in his world, but in this case, he moves in the fruitful time of imperialism, when the barriers of the caste system fall, the fetters of partisan compulsion crumble, individualism spreads its wings and the struggle of conscience against dogmas begins – when the treasure of immaterial goods is lifted from shattered political orders. However, these shining companions of imperialism do not even welcome historians as the dawn of the time that is beginning, and let the sun, which brings life back to the world, even in their view corrupted, break through the clouds like a surprising coincidence, without being able to explain how it was possible that it still found seeds to revive.
For example, Hermann Schiller, while describing the corruption of Roman civilization under the reign of Nero in his “History of the Roman Empire under Nero” (Berlin, 1872), had the books of the German theological left on early Christianity on his bookshelf, and took them down when Tacitus gave him the cue for the appearance of an exotic element. Thus, in the “deeply immoral time, in the corrupt imperial city where asceticism or bottomless depravity and their product, hypocrisy, prevailed,” the “young Christianity” appears as a savior.
Earlier masters of landscape painting, in order to devote themselves entirely to the depiction of nature, had other masters insert human figures into their paintings. Similarly, modern historians, when creating their pictures of the Roman imperial era and the person who is supposed to spread life and prosperity among the ruins of antiquity, have their theological neighbors draw them.
But the historian of that time already had to describe entire groups of people in whose minds the future was already dawning. He only needed to avoid reducing Seneca, in the spirit of Mommsen, to a superficial declaimer and to recognize in the heartening struggle of the schools of rhetoric for conscience against dogma, for love against national pride and social hierarchy, something more than “shallow and frivolous play and as mockery of human reason and truth” and he could have emancipated himself from the theological comforters on his bookshelf.
If Schiller, whom we mention here as a representative of philological historiography, had perceived the connection between those alleged declaimers and their illustrious contemporaries with the Christian innovators and still not liked them, he could have at least said so, but it had to be done in a larger context and with a different justification. Moreover, when he (Nero, p. 562-563) also “clearly” recognizes the “striking” character of the language that emerged from the “play” of the schools of rhetoric “in the works of the next decades,” he overlooked that the same language, apart from the Pauline letters, persisted for centuries, even millennia, from Tertullian and Augustine to Bossuet and Friedrich Wilhelm Krummacher. And again, even if he did not like this language in such extraordinary vitality and enduring use, he could have said so, albeit only in a well-founded explanation.
In his “History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire,” Gibbon stands high above the modern German philological historians due to the force with which he summarized the historical-theological scholarship of France and Holland, England, and Germany for his image of the development of the Christian Church. The elements of his image are not yet united into a whole. At first, he bows to the answer to the question of the ultimate reason for the finite triumph of the Church, that it is due to the convincing evidence of the new doctrine and the commanding providence of its great author, and calls the answer obvious and satisfying. Despite all the appropriate submission to this information, he then remembers that the wisdom of providence often descends to the passions of the human heart and the general conditions of human life as a means of carrying out its plans, and he believes it is permissible to seek the secondary causes of the growth of the Church, rather than the ultimate ones. Finally, the disputes of the theologians of England and Holland showed him the way that the so-called doctrine of the Trinity of the Platonic Academy found its way from the gardens of the Athenian sage through Asia and Egypt, through the mediation of Philo, into the Fourth Gospel and the fantastic dreams of the Gnostics of Alexandria. But his time could not give him more than these materials; in particular, the century whose Enlightenment he used for his historical picture still lacked the daring to seek the source of evangelical morality and soulfulness in the philosophical schools of Greece and their Roman disciples, thus discovering the true bond that connected antiquity with its Christian birth.
In this matter, the younger compatriot of Gibbon, Charles Merivale, stands alongside the modern historians at the lowest level, in his “History of the Romans under the Empire,” which covers the period from Julius Caesar to Marcus Aurelius (London, 1862). The author of this beautiful monument of biographical art strictly confines himself within the bounds of the Anglican Church, calls the human appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ “the mysterious event in which the germ of Roman dissolution and the boundary line between ancient and modern civilization can be recognized,” and lives with the conviction that the official protocol of the examination and condemnation of our Lord was sent by the procurator to the emperor and deposited in the archives of Rome.
And yet, Merivale’s work contains beautiful critical achievements. He himself expresses himself excellently (at the beginning of Chapter 55) on how traces of another and more authentic script could be discovered beneath the visible writings that have been left to us about Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius, albeit now almost obliterated traces. He speaks of a “distorting and falsifying veneer with which the character of Tiberius is overlaid,” and in the images of Caligula and Claudius, he sees “serious distortions of truth that must raise doubts about the authenticity of the features in which they are usually represented.”
The careful pen of Gibbon’s successor has also succeeded in correcting many of the features of those emperors that have been worked up into gruesome portraits in the writings of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio Cassius. However, if he had investigated further the motives and sources of those compilers, including Tacitus, among whom he belonged despite his iron pragmatism, the anecdotal collections, hostile memoirs, popular jokes, and court legends they used, he would have further cleansed the palimpsest in which the history of those three emperors is presented to us. He would likely have allowed the benefits of his criticism to extend to the portraits of Nero and Domitian and explained some of the exaggerations of the legend arising from the hatred of the noble capital city inhabitants against the divinity of these two emperors.
The fantastic and exaggerated character that distinguishes the historical compilations of the beginning of the second century and secured their entrance into the Roman literary public should have reminded modern historians to consider the attitude of the church literature of the same century. In that lively debate that was carried out by distinguished scholars of France, Holland, and Germany about the testimony of Josephus on Christ around the mid-seventeenth century, David Blondel recalled the audacity with which the authors of sacred literature went to work in the second century and the credulity with which Christian communities accepted these works of deception as authentic. He refers to the mass-produced gospels, acts of apostles, apocalypses, and prophecies, to the production of Sibylline books, and to the belief in the conversion of Seneca, as well as the relationship between the Stoic philosopher and the apostle of the Gentiles. Blondel cites the contemporary acknowledgment of the apocryphal nature of that literature to support his argument that this testimony on Christians was inserted into Josephus’s historical work. However, since then, the scope of that literature has significantly increased for historical criticism, so that in the end, none of the names to which the spiritual literature of the first and second centuries is attributed has remained free from doubt, and the historian will have to use the Christian writings of these two centuries with the same caution he applies to the biographical descriptions of Tacitus or Suetonius.
Let us now enter into the two centuries that are most closely related to us in all the marks of history, and yet are least known because of the mystery that shrouds the rise of Christianity. Here the world monarchy rises in a classical and almost artistic form, and the birth pangs of which our present is suffering and will suffer for a long time. Here personality takes possession of the world, shines in divine glory on the throne, and remains unshaken in the chamber of the poor, in the wandering assembly of the streets, and on the chair of the wise. At the beginning of this period, still in the throes of civil wars, the author of our schoolboy’s bench, Cornelius Nepos, placed personality at the forefront of history, traced history back to biography, and replaced ancient fate with the bold decisions and risks of individuals.
The literature of memoirs had begun. The great men who had risen through the sword and statecraft wanted to secure the image of their lives in writing, against the hatred of their enemies and for posterity. Sulla wrote his biography, Nepos fulfilled Cicero’s heartfelt wish and wrote his life. Caesar acquired the palm among his literary contemporaries through his Commentaries and his polemical writings; Augustus and Tiberius followed his example in writing, and after the fall of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Vespasian published his diary and Marcus Aurelius, the last of this line, gained the time in the field to reveal his innermost and best self.
Suetonius and Tacitus each recognized in their own way the fact that world history had merged into biography. The former, who with greater justice than his older contemporary could say that he wrote “without anger or bias,” assembled the image of his Caesars from the notes he had taken from their diaries or the compilations of their opponents, and did not disdain the anecdotes that the authors of slanderous writings had drawn from conversations in the Forum and high society. Tacitus’s gaze is obsessively fixed on the person of the emperors; in his hand, Cato’s dagger is transformed into a stylus, with which he records the secrets of the imperial palace, the intrigues of their women and freedmen, and the villainy of a system that, through cunning and violence, has thrust itself in place of the old warrior and governing aristocracy.
Just as in the biography of the heavenly world lord and judge, which was completed in the mid-second century as a declaration of war against the old forms of life, the opponents of the Savior, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and nameless groups of people, remain unexplained figures, neither the collector’s greed of Suetonius nor the allegedly philosophical pragmatism of Tacitus have been able to give us a picture of the social and popular classes of their time and their relationship to imperial power. And just as in the Gospels, the creative elements of Greek culture that surrounded Jerusalem and even penetrated the holy city in a fertilizing way, remain hidden in an impenetrable fog, so too do those Roman biographies of the Caesars lack a view of the luminous groups of spirits who moved at the feet of the imperial throne and used the freedom of world travel, which the victors of the civil wars had established, to spread the intellectual goods they discovered between the farthest west and east and to set up their schools as they pleased.
Nevertheless, the materials for this unknown history are readily available and we begin our presentation with the pioneer Lucius Annaeus Seneca.*)
*) We note that the present sheets/pages are a new revision of the beginnings which appeared in the 9 volumes of the “Quarterly Journal for Political Economy, Politics and Cultural History” edited by Dr. Julius Faucher, from Michaelis 1874 to the same year 1876.