Tag Archives: Suetonius

Review, part 6bi: On That Exception in Litwa’s Favour. A (Qualified) Correction.

This post is a correction to the conclusion of what I wrote in Review, part 6b. Litwa on “Mythistorical” Prophecies, Biblical and Greco-Roman

I concluded my most recent review of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths with the concession that when writing of Augustus Suetonius expresses none of the distancing of his own views from his accounts of miracles that we find typical in other historians. There is no expression of doubt. It is all told as simple matter of fact. Comparable, that is, to the telling of any other poetic myth or even the gospel narratives of Jesus. I wrote:

* The Greek hero Heracles is clearly categorized as mythical—especially by modern people. Yet the mytho­logical template exemplified by Heracles played out in the lives of figures still deemed historical: Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, and Jesus himself. When historiography follows a mythic pattern, however, it is no longer simply a record of past events. It is what we are calling mythic historiography. (Litwa, p. 101)

An Exception in Litwa’s Favour

In the above quotation* mention is made of Caesar Augustus. Earlier Litwa had informed readers of the Roman historian Suetonius’s account of the prophecies relating to Augustus’s birth. In this case the evidence Litwa is claiming for his thesis is more secure. Suetonius did often (not always) write of many bizarre events (including human ones, not only supernatural prodigies) that read more like a scandal rag’s gossip than serious history. Here is Suetonius on the prophecy about Augustus:

On the day Augustus was born, when the conspiracy of Catiline was being discussed in the senate house and Octavius stayed away until late because his wife was in labour, Publius Nigidius, hearing why he was delayed, when informed of the hour of the birth, asserted (as is generally known) that the master of the world was born. When Octavius, who was leading an army through remote regions of Thrace, sought guidance concerning his son at some barbarian rituals in the grove of Father Liber, the same prediction was made by the priests, for so great a flame had leapt up when they poured wine on the altar, that it passed beyond the peak of the temple roof and right up to the sky, a portent which had only previously occurred when Alexander the Great offered sacrifice at that altar. And on the very next night thereafter, he dreamed he saw his son of greater than mortal size with a thunderbolt and sceptre and emblems of Jupiter Best and Greatest and a radiate crown, on a chariot decorated with laurel drawn by twelve horses of astonishing whiteness.

When Augustus was still a baby, as is recorded in the writings of Gaius Drusus, he was placed one evening by his nurse in his cot on level ground but the next morning he had disappeared. He was only found, after a long search, in a tower of great height where he lay facing the rising sun. When he first began to speak, he ordered some frogs to be silent who happened to be croaking in his grandfather’s villa and they say that from that time no frog croaked there. . . .

So Litwa can rightly say that some historians wrote of prophetic pronouncements in the same way as did poets, novelists and the evangelists.

Augustus (the Divine)

I confess I was surprised a little when I re-read Suetonius’s “Life of Augustus” because it did indeed, on this particular point, stand as an exception to the rhetoric of quite a number of other Roman and Greek historians I have read. So I did a little digging to try to see what explanations were out there for this exception.

The Exception that Proves the Rule (contra Litwa)?

The answer I was looking for was found in a 2012 article by D. Wardle, “Suetonius on Augustus as God and Man”, in The Classical Quarterly. Wardle himself points out that Suetonius writes of Augustus in a manner quite different from how he writes of any other Roman emperor. That is, Suetonius’s account of Augustus is not only an apparent exception to the way many other surviving ancient historians wrote, but it is an exception even to how Suetonius himself normally wrote. Suetonius really did accept as “seriously true” the divinity of Augustus Caesar.

Suetonius’ Divus Augustus, by comparison with the other divi, appears to be a deity whom Suetonius is encouraging his reader to take seriously. His deliberate framing of Augustus’ life by passages that place great emphasis on the real divinity of Augustus is unique in the Lives. While this might be put down to a desire for variety, other Lives do share similar structures. And it seems likely that for Suetonius Augustus’ divinity was qualitatively different from those of the other divi. There is not the slightest hint in Suetonius of the equivocation that marks the culmination of Pliny’s discussion of the misfortunes of Augustus: in summa deus ille caelumque nescio adeptus magis an meritus. In the biographer’s presentation of Augustus the material that involves the emperor’s godhead demonstrates a vital element of what the emperor was to the world over which he ruled and had ruled.

Wardle appears to be saying that Suetonius’s presentation of Augustus is different from his biographical accounts of other emperors because he (Suetonius) believed Augustus was a literal god.

Historians of that era sometimes mocked the notion that any mortal was declared to be a god. But Wardle finds significance in the way Suetonius emphatically presents Augusts as a veritable divinity before he embarks on narrating his very mortal and fallible human career. Never does Suetonius at any moment suggest any doubt about the divinity of Augustus. In the cases of other emperors, Suetonius does write like other historians — expressing a certain personal detachment from the “facts” he is narrating. Suetonius

The expression of his face, whether he was speaking or silent, was so calm and serene that one of the leading men of Gaul confessed to his fellows that he was so impressed and won over that he abandoned his plan to throw the emperor over the cliff, when he was admitted to his presence as he was crossing the Alps. His eyes were clear and bright; he liked it to be thought that they revealed a godlike power and was pleased if someone who regarded him closely then lowered their gaze, as though from the sun’s force. . . . 

It is said that his body was mottled with birthmarks spread out over his chest and stomach which in their shape, number, and arrangement resembled the constellation of the bear. 

(Suetonius, Deified Augustus 79-80)

Wardle explains the significance of that bear constellation:

The constellation of Ursa Major was recognized by the ancients as the axis around which the universe rotated . . . . 

(Wardle, p. 318)

Signs abound, and without any intellectual distancing in the telling. Egyptians, Greeks, they all worshipped Augustus as divine while he was with them and were right to do so, just as right as to genuinely believe that he continued as a divinity post mortem.

More Names with Puns

read more »

Another example of that bookend structure in ancient literature

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but here’s another instance of that bookend/concentric/ring/chiastic structure that once upon a time a long time ago I thought was evidence of divine inspiration when I saw it in the Bible. I posted an example from Suetonius recently. This one is from Josephus and his book Antiquities of the Jews. It is set out and discussed by Steve Mason in his commentary on Josephus’s Life. Life has a structure that mirrors the Antiquities, Mason shows. So without the details that he mentions to fill in much that is generalized here, here is the structure of Antiquities.

Prologue (1.1-26)

PART I: First Temple {Ant. 1-10)

A. The Lawgiver’s Establishment of the Constitution (1-4)

Antecedents: Creation to the deaths of Isaac and Rebecca; Abraham the first convert (vol. 1)—in Mesopotamia

Antecedents: Jacob and Esau to the Exodus (vol. 2)

The Judean constitution: summary of priestly laws (vol. 3)

Forty years in desert, rebellion to the death of Moses; summary of the law as constitution (vol. 4)

B. First Phase: senate, kings, and high priests of Eli’s descent (5-8)

Conquest of Canaan under Joshua (vol. 5)

Conflicts with Philistines under Samuel and Saul (vol. 6)

Zenith of the first monarchy: the reign of David (vol. 7)

The reign of Solomon and division of the kingdom (vol. 8)

C. Second Phase: decline through corruption of the constitution (9-10)

Problems with neighbors to the fall of the Northern Kingdom (vol. 9)

CENTRAL PANEL: Fall of the first Temple; the priest-prophet Jeremiah and prophet Daniel assert the Judean God’s control of affairs and predict the Roman era. Decisive proof of the Judean code’s effectiveness.

PART II: Second Temple {Ant. 11-20)

A. Re-establishment of the aristocracy through the glorious Hasmonean house; its decline (11-13)

Return of Jews under Cyrus to Alexander the Great (vol. 11)

Successful interaction with the Ptolemaic world from the death of Alexander; translation of the LXX; Tobiad story; the Hasmonean revolt (vol. 12)

Zenith of the Hasmonean dynasty with John Hyrcanus; monarchy and decline to the death of Alexandra (vol. 13)

B. Monarchy writ large: Herod (14-17)

The end of the Hasmoneans; Roman intervention in Judea; Herod’s rise to power; benefits to the Judeans (vol. 14)

Herod’s conquest of Jerusalem; building projects and dedication of Temple (vol. 15)

Herod at the peak of his power; his domestic conflicts (vol. 16)

The end of Herod’s life; his son Archelaus (vol. 17)

C. World-wide effectiveness of the Judean constitution (18-20)

Judea becomes a province; Judeans in Rome; Roman rule to Agrippa I; Herod’s descendants; Gaius’ plan fails and he is punished; Asinaeus and Anilaeus in Babylonia (vol. 18);

Detailed description of Gaius’ punishment; promotion of Claudius; career of Agrippa I; the Roman constitutional crisis; Judeans in Alexandria (vol. 19)

From the death of Agrippa I to the eve of the revolt; the conversion of Adiabene’s royal house in Mesopotamia; causes of the revolt; concluding remarks (vol. 20)

Epilogue (20.259-68)


Mason, Steve. 2001. Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, Volume 9: Life of Josephus. Leiden: Brill. p. xxiv


“Is This Not the Carpenter?” – References to Jesus outside the Christian Sources

The third chapter of Is This Not the Carpenter? is by Lester L. Grabbe, “‘Jesus Who Is Called Christ’: References to Jesus outside the Christian Sources”. The first of these he addresses is Tacitus. (This is the sixth post in the series.)

Tacitus

Here is the passage from Annals 15:44, though Grabbe does not include the passages I have italicized here in his extract for discussion:

But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order.

Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians [Chrestians]. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race.

And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.
(From LacusCurtius)

Lester Grabbe introduces this as “one of our most important references to Jesus” – though the name Jesus nowhere appears in it.

This passage appears in a work (The Annals) that is generally understood as being written almost a century after the supposed death of Jesus. Like many commentators, Grabbe sugests that Tacitus more than likely had access to imperial archives and accordingly argues the likelihood that Tacitus did indeed pore through those official documents to acquire his material, including the fact of Christ’s crucifixion under Pilate.

This makes no sense to me. The only detail that Tacitus gives us about the crucifixion is that Christ was crucified under Pilate. Full stop. (I leave aside the debates over the title Tacitus uses for Pilate.) Tacitus does not even mention the reason, the crime, for which this Christ was crucified which would surely appear within an official archive if any such record of a crucifixion of a far-off Jew really existed. Nor does he even bother to tell us the name of this victim. read more »

5. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: A Roman Trio

*

Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.5

A Roman Trio

COVERED IN THIS POST:

  • Pliny the Younger – Letter to Trajan
    • Information taken from Christians
    • Is “Christ” a man or only a god?
    • Christo quasi deo” – “as” or “as if”?
    • Ancient quotes have no “quasi
  • Suetonius – Life of Claudius
    • Chrestus” and the expulsion of Jews
    • Misleading translation
    • Paul and Acts
  • Tacitus – Annals 15
    • “Christ” but no “Jesus”
    • Tacitus’ source: archive or hearsay?
    • “Procurator” vs. “Prefect”
    • The question of authenticity
    • No Christian witness to martyrdom for the Great Fire
    • No Roman witness after Tacitus
    • Sulpicius Severus (c.400) the first witness

    .

* * * * *

Non-Christian References to Jesus

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 50-56)

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Pliny the Younger

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After this considerable amount of prefatory material, Ehrman finally arrives at his discussion of the non-Christian references to Jesus. He begins with Pliny the Younger and his famous letter to Trajan in the year 112 CE during his governorship of the province of Bithynia, making inquiries regarding the prosecution of Christians.

At the outset Ehrman admits that any information about Jesus that might be gleaned from Pliny could be seen as having been derived from the Christians themselves (indeed, this is a virtual certainty from what he says), and thus is of little if any value in establishing the historicity of Jesus. Nor does Pliny use the name “Jesus,” referring to the Christian object of worship simply as “Christ.”

The information Pliny has collected from the accused about the sect’s activities is pretty innocuous:

  • A pre-dawn chant,
  • subscription to certain ethics and behavior,
  • assembling to “take food of an ordinary, harmless kind.”

We might note that the latter does not suggest the Eucharist ceremony with its eating of the flesh and blood of Christ, whether god or man, and there is no reference to a crucifixion let alone an alleged resurrection.

As if!

But that pre-dawn chant: Pliny says it was “in honor of Christ as to a god [Christo quasi deo].” read more »

Scholars undermining scholars on questions fundamental to historicity of Jesus

Zeus seduces Olympias. Fresco by Giulio Romano...
Zeus seduces Olympias. Image via Wikipedia

Here is a stock criticism of the Gospel accounts of Jesus by sceptics generally and mythicists in particular:

The historical Jesus is swallowed up by myth. Look at the framework of his Gospel story: virgin birth, facing Satan in the wilderness, transfigured on the mountain, resurrected from the dead. Without these mythical motifs Jesus is pretty ordinary. 

Here is a stock response from scholars:

Ancient biographical texts similarly contain mythical elements in their framework: the influence of the gods is shown in signs, dreams, etc. Such a mythical framework does not justify our disputing in principle the historicity of the traditions handed down within this framework. (p. 114, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, by Theissen and Merz)

More, the scholars who framed that response to the sceptic added two examples from ancient biographies to illustrate and support their claim that the Gospels are no different from other ancient biographies of historical persons: both alike are said to include mythical embellishments to their narratives.

But take a closer look at that claim. I will quote the scholar’s account of these ancient biographies that supposedly supports their claim that they are similar in this respect to the Gospels (Scholarly claim 1). I will then quote translations of the actual biographies themselves so we can see how faithful that scholarly comparison was (Plutarch and Suetonius in their own words).

After that I quote another renowned biblical scholar himself observant (or secure) enough to face up to the discrepancy between what his peers say about the evidence and what the evidence itself indicates (Scholarly claim 2).

One will forgive me if I sometimes let slip with occasional slivers of cynicism in relation to biblical scholars who present themselves as honest public intellectuals while at the same time resorting to tendentious claims about the evidence for their scholarly arguments. I conclude with another rant about the failings of too many historical Jesus scholars as truly responsible public intellectuals. read more »

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

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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