Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Who is Suetonius's "Chrestus"?
What do you all make of the “Chrestus” riots which resulted in the Jews (possibly including some Christians) being expelled from Rome by Claudius, reported by Suetonius, Claudius, 25.4? Whatever the identity of “Chrestus”, this event provides important background to the book of Romans as well as insight into the relationship between Judaism and Rome more generally.

Some scholars give ‘probabilities’ over whether or not this is Jesus, although in my book there were surely other “Christ” candidates in that era. The concept and would-be identity of Messiah was strongly debated in Judaism writ large. Religious argument could have contributed to civil unrest, or could have been interpreted as contributing to it, if factions fell out along certain lines.

(1) Is “Chrestus” Christ, as in Jesus?
(2) Is it not necessarily Jesus, but another messianic figure being debated by the Jews?
(3) Is the concept of “the Christ” part of a debate along party lines?
(4) Is an unrelated figure named "Chrestus" (not a common name, as I understand it), perhaps a Gentile, to be blamed for insulting or instigating Jewish riots?

As far as question (1) goes, DeSilva, Intro to the NT, 599-600, says yes, as do Dunn (“almost universally taken to be Christ”) and more tentatively, NTW, who in the mid-90s said during lectures on Romans, “75 percent sure.”


Blogger Chris Weimer said...

I don't see how it can be in any way related to Jesus. When was Jesus in Rome? Chrestos is Greek for "good", and with Suetonius elsewhere using "Christian" and not "Chrestian" I'd doubt that he'd make the link. I also doubt, as you must be thinking, that Tacitus had both Chrestian and Christ in his annals. But I'm far from having a comprehensive theory on that. It was probably some Greek named Chrestus, perhaps a freedman, who incited the Jews to riots, and subsequently got them expelled.

10:28 AM, February 14, 2006  
Blogger Mark Goodacre said...

It's an interesting topic. If it is an error for "Christ", does it show that the term "Christos" was not well known outside Jewish circles in the first and second centuries? What I mean is that one might have expected it to have been a well-known term, but does Suetonius have any idea what it means? Was the term "Christ" ever used in non-Christian and non-Jewish sources?

6:30 PM, February 14, 2006  
Blogger Michael F. Bird said...

Jase, see the discussion in Robert Van Voorst, 'Jesus Outside the NT'.

1:50 PM, February 15, 2006  
Blogger J. B. Hood said...

Thanks all--sorry, my comments had been set to "moderate" and I had no idea how that worked.


"Chrestos" does come up in the NT some--including a nice pun in Philemon 11, which perhaps could buttress your argument for a 'freedman'. The argument some make (and since then I've found more evidence among scholars for it, quite a lot in fact) is that the e/i in Latin sound a good deal alike, as best as we can tell, probably on occasion interchangeable. But 'chrestus'=useful carries an eta, and would be more pronounced. Would this receive an 'e' in Latin?

Assuming this is Christ for a moment, I imagine this person was only known to Suetonius through oral reports, and that he knew nothing about Christianity/Christ and very little about Judaism; thus he didn't necessarily see/make the connection.

9:08 AM, February 20, 2006  
Blogger Chris Weimer said...


Indeed, the word Christos was used before the Septuagint, but if I recall correctly, it meant the actual oil itself, and not he who is anointed.


The E and I in Latin were not so confused as they were in Greek. This is especially confused the later we go. Coptic, for instance, uses H and I for nearly the exact same sound, and in later Greek H and I became equivalents. They remain so to this day. So if there were any error in source, it would have stemmed from the Greek ultimately, e.g. Suetonius heard the Greek Christos and thought Chrestos. I'm still not sure how likely this is, though. The circumstances surrounding Chrestos doesn't seem to parallel anything we know about Jesus Christ. I still think later authors saw Chrestos and thought it meant Christ.

3:09 PM, February 20, 2006  
Blogger J. B. Hood said...


Thanks for the helpful background comments; so it referred to the "anointing oil," not the one anointed? Interesting. That could certainly explain Suetonius' confusion.

The reason most (almost all) find some resonance between Christ and the "Chrestus" riots is that there are strong parallels between the riots described and what's recorded in Acts. Most scholars agree--regardless on the historicity of Acts--that there was indeed a great deal of rousing activity produced by Jesus in various Jewish communities; there's a fair bit of evidence to suggest Luke wasn't being too fanciful here.

For the record, I'm not sure myself--just trying to argue the case and see where it leads.

4:12 PM, February 20, 2006  

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