Historical Evidence of the Gospel: Suetonius

Born in 69 AD, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, was a Roman Aristocrat who is famous for his work “Lives of the Twelve Caesars,” where he provides detailed biographies of the Caesars from Julius to Domitian. While it is an important history book for many reasons, it also serves as a witness to the truth and accuracy of the New Testament text.

Suetonius’ first reference to Christianity is in his section biographing Emperor Claudius. He records: “He banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus.” (Claudius 25:4) There are a number of things to note about what Suetonius briefly mentions here, especially when it is paralleled with the New Testament. In the book of Acts, Luke writes this: “After these things, Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them. So, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and worked; for by occupation they were tentmakers.” (Acts 18:2). Luke records the exact same event that Suetonius mentioned, saying that Claudius had expelled the Jews from the city of Rome. Luke explains that this is how a man named Aquila and his wife Priscilla came to the city of Corinth. Notice that if it hadn’t been for Claudius’ banishment of Jews in Rome, Aquila and Priscilla would not have met Paul in Corinth, nor would they have accompanied him on his preaching journey when he left Corinth, nor would they have run into Apollos who they taught the truth (Acts 18:24-28). All in all, this couple became critical in the salvation and spiritual strength of many brethren within many local congregations of the first century (Romans 16:3-4; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19). Suetonius adds something that many find interesting; he said that the banishment of Jews from Rome was brought on by a disruptive man named Chrestus. Many have believed this man to be Christ. It may be possible that Suetonius misspelled “Christ,” just as Tacitus spelled “Christ” as “Christus” in his record. The main difference is that Tacitus was clearly talking about Jesus in the context, while Suetonius does not provide any context to his statement. The other difficulty with the idea that Suetonius mentioned Christ here is that Jesus died about a decade before the reign of Claudius. Still another difficulty is that Claudius banished the Jews because of the disruptions of “Chrestus.” If Claudius made no distinction between Christ and the Jews, and thus persecuted all the Jews of Rome because of the Christians in Rome, then Luke’s account should read differently. But Luke simply states that Claudius banished the Jews from Rome. I find it hard to believe that Luke would mention this event in the way that he did if it was due to a persecution of Christians by the Emperor. However, It could all be piled up as simple ignorance on the part of the Romans, or it could be that Suetonius was perfectly accurate in his testimony of the event, and therefore, “Chrestus” was some sort of Jew who was striking up rebellion against the Empire among the Jewish community in Rome. Whatever the case, it is corroborating evidence of how Aquila and Priscilla came to be important figures in the church.

Suetonius’ second reference to first-century Christianity is found in his biography of Emperor Nero, where he writes of how Nero “devised a new style of building in the city, ordering piazzas to be erected before all houses both in the streets and detached, to give facilities from their terraces, in case of fire, for preventing it from spreading; and these he built at his own expense. He likewise designed to extend the city walls as far as Ostia, and bring the sea from thence by a canal into the old city. Many severe regulations and new orders were made in his time. A sumptuary law was enacted. Public suppers were limited to the Sportulae; and victualling-houses restrained from selling any dressed victuals, except pulse and herbs, whereas before they sold all kinds of meat. He likewise inflicted punishments on the Christians, a sort of people who held a new and impious superstition. He forbad the revels of the charioteers, who had long assumed a license to stroll about, and established for themselves a kind of prescriptive right to cheat and thieve, making a jest of it. The partisans of the rival theatrical performers were banished, as well as the actors themselves.”

In the passage above, we can see that Suetonius knew how to spell “Christians,” which is another point for “Chrestus” possibly not referring to “Christ.” Here Suetonius gives testimony to Nero instigating punishment upon the Christians but does not mention when Nero did such a thing. Tacitus (see previous article) was certainly very specific about that, showing how Christians were persecuted by Nero immediately following the great fire in Rome. Suetonius describes the Christians as a people who held a new and impious superstition. From this statement, Suetonius reveals his knowledge that Christianity was “new” during the first century and that it was “impious”, which is to say that Suetonius viewed the Christians as a group that did not honor the gods of the Romans. He also says that it was a “superstition”. Today, a superstition usually means an unjustified belief based on ignorance, but the word previously referred to an extreme religious devotion.

Both the testimony of Tacitus and Suetonius corroborate with the fact that Nero persecuted the Christians after the great fire of Rome. So then the history of Christianity being spread far beyond the borders of Judea and had reached the ears of even the Emperor of Rome and understood as a particular group, distinct from the Jewish nation, who strongly refused the State religion of Emperor worship, is accepted beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Article by Tanner Campbell