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Is Suetonius's Chresto a Reference to Jesus?

by D.M. Murdock/Acharya S

Does the Roman historian refer to the historical Jesus of Nazareth, or is the famous Suetonian passage concerning "Chresto" about another individual altogether? 

Suetonius, represented in the Nuremberg ChronicleOne of the few citations from antiquity proffered by Christian apologists and others to prove the purported historicity of the figure "Jesus Christ" is a sentence from the ancient Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus's Lives of the Twelve Caesars (book 5, Life of Claudius 25.4). Published around 120 AD/CE, this passage is one of two in Suetonius's works held up as "evidence" of Jesus of Nazareth's existence as a "historical" personage, the second a sentence in that writer's Life of Nero 16.2 which supposedly discusses "Christians." Here I will examine the Claudius passage in terms of its value in this quest for the "historical Christ."

'Christ' or 'Chrest'?

In presenting this purported evidence from Suetonius's Claudius 25.4, Christian apologists typically cite an English translation, such as:

As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (another spelling of Christus), he (Claudius) expelled them from Rome. (Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict (1979), 83)

The Christian-preferred Latin of this sentence is as follows:

Iudaeos impulsore Christo assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit 

However, it is now the scholarly consensus that the original Latin of this passage must have been the following:

Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit 

This latter version with the word Chrēsto, not Christo, is what our earliest extant manuscripts relate. Contrary to what Christian apologist Josh McDowell and other fundamentalists assert, and despite the fact that the two words are evidently related through the roots χρίω and χράω, "Chrēsto," the ablative of Chrestus, is not an "another spelling of Christ." These terms represent Latinizations of two different Greek words that sound quite similar: Chrēstos, sometimes a proper name, means "good," "righteous" or "useful"; while Christos denotes "anointed" or "messiah." Hence, although an earlier generation of scholars believed that this Suetonian passage reflected the uprisings of Jews against Christians in Rome, we are not certain at all that this purported "reference" in Suetonius has anything to do with Christ and Christians.

"We are not certain at all that this purported 'reference' in Suetonius has anything to do with Christ and Christians."

Scientific studies of Suetonius's extant works demonstrate that "Chresto" is the most common epithet in the manuscript tradition. As we will discover, Chresto or its Greek original, Chrestos, was commonly found in pre-Christian antiquity, and its presence in Suetonius most likely had nothing to do with any historical founder of Christianity called "Jesus the Christ." Rather, this commonly held title was one of the earliest applied to what is clearly a fictional composite of characters, real and mythical, styled "Jesus the Good."

In addition, the event in which Claudius expelled Jews from Rome is recorded elsewhere in other histories - without the "impulsore Chresto" claim - and seems to date to around 49, 52 or 53 AD/CE, an incident that apparently was unrelated to a historical Jesus of Nazareth and cannot serve as evidence for his historicity.

Chrestos in Pagan Antiquity

In reality, the term "Chrestos" or χρηστὸς has been used in association with a plethora of people and gods, beginning centuries before the common era. Chrestos and its plural chrestoi were utilized to describe deities, oracles, philosophers, priests, oligarchs, "valuable citizens," slaves, heroes, the deceased and others. Importantly, chrestos appears to have been the title of  "perfected saints" in various mystery schools or brotherhoods, associated with oracular activity in particular. 

This word χρηστός or chrestos appears in ancient Greek sources such as those of playwright Sophocles (497/6-406/5 BCE), who discusses ὁ χρηστὸς, "the good man," in Antigone (520). Also composed during the fifth century BCE and containing numerous instances of chrestos are playwright Euripides's works Heraclidae, Hecuba, Troiades and Iphigenia. Other ancient writers such as Herodotus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Xenophon, Pseudo-Xenophon, Plato, Isocrates, Aeschines, Demosthenes, Plutarch and Appian likewise use this term chrestos or "good," sometimes quite often. In an anonymous tract discovered among the possessions of historian Xenophon (c. 430–354), the "Old Oligarch," modernly styled Pseudo-Xenophon (fl. c. 425), contrasts "the good man" (chrestos) with "the wicked man" (poneros), a common juxtaposition throughout classical antiquity that found its way into the New Testament as well (e.g., Lk 6:35).

Socrates the Chrestos

The fact that Plato (424/423-348/347 BCE) frequently mentions "the good" (χρηστὸς) when discussing various figures (e.g., Plat. Rep. 5.479a) serves as an indication of the word's importance among philosophers and religionists. This association is especially germane considering the exalted place afforded Plato among spiritual seekers for centuries into the common era, including many Christians and assorted "Neoplatonists." Indeed, Plato (Theaetetus 166.a.2) uses the word to describe famed philosopher Socrates: ὁ Σωκράτης ὁ χρηστός - "Socrates the Good."

"In the fifth century BCE, Plato referred to the famous Greek philosopher of Athens as 'Socrates the Chrest.'"

The term continued to be used throughout classical antiquity, into the common era. Indeed, the Greek historian Plutarch (c. 46-120 AD/CE), writing precisely at the time when the Christian effort begins to become noticeable, uses the word χρηστός chrestos numerous times, including to describe Alexander the Great (Alex. 30.3), illustrating the term's ongoing or increased currency at this time.

There are also many uses of the plural word χρηστοί or chrestoi  in ancient writings, such as in Euripides, Aristophanes, Thucydides, Isocrates, Plato and numerous times in Xenophon. What we discover, then, is a slew of chrests in ancient, pre-Christian literature, including as concerns the biblical god, as we will see below. We also find repeated references to chrests in the writings of early Church fathers, such as Clement Alexandrinus (Strom. 2), Gregorius Nazianzenus, Athanasius, and especially Cyrillus Alexandrinus and Joannes Chrysostomus.

Chrestos in Religion and Spirituality

Chrestos heros in an inscription from Delphi, GreeceThe term χρηστός chrestos was utilized not only in secular situations but also within ancient religion, philosophy, spirituality and the all-important mysteries, which concerned life and death, including near-death experiences and afterlife traditions. "Chrestos" was one of the titles for the dead in tomb writings "of the Greeks in all ages, pre-Christian as well as post-Christian." Examples of these epithets can be studied in August Boeckh's Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum. We read elsewhere that the epithet "Chrestos" appears commonly on the epitaphs of most citizens of Larissa, Greece, specifically in the form of chrestos heros , this latter term meaning "hero" and "demigod." The Greek word chrestos was popular also as an epithet or on epitaphs at various Egyptian funerary sites as at Alexandria and elsewhere.

Moreover, the oracular usages of these terms needs to be emphasized, in that chrestos and chrestoi were already utilized in conjunction with deity, religion, spirituality, mysticism and magic, long before the common era. This oracular convention also appears in the New Testament (e.g., Mt 2:12, 2:22; Lk 3:26; Acts 10:22; Heb 8:5, 11:7), in which the verb χρηματίζω chrematizo is employed as connoting "to warn of God." Strong's (G5537) defines chrematizo as "to be the mouthpiece of divine revelations, to promulgate the commands of God."

"The oracular usage of chrestos can be found in the New Testament, employed as connoting 'to warn of God.'"

As another example of the Pagan use of the word chrestos, in 2008 an evidently pre-Christian cup or bowl was found at Alexandria, Egypt, with the genitive form chrestou inscribed on it. This artifact could predate the common era by decades, part of the genre of magical bowls used for protection and incantation. Another artifact with significance in this analysis of the uses of chrestos in antiquity is the chi-rho symbol.

Chrestos Bowl, discovered by Franck Goddio in 2008 Chi Rho symbol used for both 'christ' and 'chrest.'

Related articles:

The Gods Must Be Chrestoi

In addition, it is claimed that this title chrestos/chreste was conferred upon the Greek god and goddess Hades and Persephone, divinities of the underworld. "Chrestos" was also bestowed upon the "ubiquitous mystic" or Greek god Hermes, the "Psychopomp" or guide to the afterlife, also an important figure in underworld mythology and in mystery schools. So too is the title claimed of the Greek sun god Apollo, god of oracles. In the Saturnalia (3.4.8) of ancient Latin author Macrobius (c. 400 AD/CE), we read that, "according to Cassius Hemina, the Gods of the Samothracian mysteries were styled Θεοὶ Χρηστοὶ [Theoi Chrestoi]." (Mitchell, 18) 

Speaking further about Roman historian Lucius Cassius Hemina (fl. 146 BCE), Macrobius states that he also calls the Roman goddess Juno "khrêstê," which Macrobius names as an epithet of bona Iuno or "good Juno," thus identifying the Greek and Latin words with each other. In Latin, therefore, the comparable epithet conveyed upon divinities is Bonus - "Good" - and we find many deities honored with this epithet, including the deity Bona Dea or "Good Goddess." 

After Greek became a popular language around the Mediterranean, and the Egyptian pantheon spread outside its native borders, a number of Egyptian "good" deities may also have been called chrestos/e, as we know was the case with the goddess Isis. The Egyptian "Houses of Goodness" may likewise have been labeled by this term when their name was rendered into Greek.


'Isis Chreste' in a Greek inscription

There is much more to this subject of the Pagan usage of the word chrestos and its related terms, enough for a significant monograph.

Related articles:

The Good Lord

Significantly, like the Pagans, Jews too employed the term Chrestos to describe their god: "Since the OT more readily associates majesty and condescension, it commonly uses chrêstόs for God..." (Kittel, 1321) This fact gives us reason to suspect that Suetonius's Jews rabblerousing at Rome were in fact doing so in the name of their god, Yahweh the Chrestos, rather than at the instigation of a historical personage by the epithet of Chresto.

In the Greek Bible or Septuagint ("LXX"), a translation begun about 200 years before the common era, the word chrestos occurs in conjunction with "the Lord God," as a rendering of the Hebrew word טוב towb (Strong's H2896), meaning "good, pleasant, agreeable," as well as "good, rich, valuable in estimation." For example, at Jeremiah 33:11 (LXX 40:11), we read that "good [is] the Lord," χρηστὸς κύριος, literally "Chrest Lord." Psalm 106:1 (LXX 105:11) says:

αλληλουια ἐξομολογεῖσθε τῷ κυρίῳ ὅτι χρηστός

Allelouia, give praise to the Lord that [he is] good

The beginning of the next chapter (Ps 107:1; LXX 106:1) starts with the same invocation of the "Good Lord."

Thus, we find "the Lord God the Chrest" in the Greek OT/Septuagint, and the Lord is also chrestos at Psalm 25:8 (LXX 24:8). At Psalm 52:9 (LXX 51:11), God's name is chrestos, while at Psalm 69:16 (LXX 68:17), His mercy is chrestos.

God is likewise called ὁ χρηστός or "the Chrest" in the intertestamental Jewish text Maccabees II (1.24). In addition, we find chrestos in the important works of the Jewish philosopher Philo (20 BCE-50 AD/CE), in which God is likewise described using this adjective, meaning "good," "friendly" or "kind." One such usage in Philo occurs in De Mutatione Nominum ("On the Change of Names"), 44: , rendered by Yonge (362) as "the merciful God." The Jewish historian Josephus too uses the term with similar meanings as well. (Kittel, 1321)

New Testament Chrestos

We also find seven uses of the word chrestos in the New Testament: Mt 11:30; Lk 5:39, 6:35; Rom 2:4; 1 Cor 15:33; Eph 4:32; and 1 Pe 2:3. In this regard, Luke 6:35 also associates God with chrestos, demonstrating an ongoing tradition concerning the "Good Lord," beginning centuries before the common era and extending decades into it:

...καὶ ἔσεσθε υἱοὶ τοῦ ὑψίστου ὅτι αὐτὸς χρηστός ἐστιν ἐπὶ τοὺς ἀχαρίστους καὶ πονηρούς

...and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.

Here Luke uses another term from antiquity, πονηρούς or ponerous , "selfish," previously mentioned, as contrasted with chrestos in ancient pre-Christian Greek philosophy. Obviously, the term chrestos as used here in the NT verse comes from (Greek) Paganism, along with, we submit, much else.

The verse at Romans 2:4 uses two different forms of chrestos, both applied to God, the second instance of which refers to τὸ χρηστὸν τοῦ θεοῦ or the "chrest of God."

The epistle 1 Peter (2:3) - which does not emerge clearly in the literary record until the second century - also calls "the Lord" χρηστὸς or chrestos, in reference to God, not Jesus:

ἐγεύσασθε τι χρηστὸς ὁ κύριος

you have tasted that good [is] the Lord

Essentially, this phrase reads "the Lord Chrest," apparently based on Psalm 34:8 (LXX 33:9):

γεύσασθε καὶ ἴδετε ὅτι χρηστὸς ὁ κύριος...

taste and see that good [is] the Lord

This passage was confounded in antiquity by Church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215), who depicted it as saying: "Taste and see that Christ is God" (Exhortation to the Heathens, 9). This fact demonstrates the Chrest-Christ confusion around the beginning of the third century.

The word  appears at Ephesians 4:32 as well:

γίνεσθε δὲ εἰς ἀλλήλους χρηστοί εὔσπλαγχνοι χαριζόμενοι ἑαυτοῖς καθὼς καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἐν Χριστῷ ἐχαρίσατο ὑμῖν

Become to others chrestoi, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, as God in Christ forgave you.

It should be emphasized that the good/kind followers of "Christ" were called "chrests," a fact that might explain why "Christians" were also styled "Chrestians."

"Chrestos appears in the Bible, in verses about God in both the Old and New Testaments." 

As we can see, the usage of "Chrestos" in conjunction with deity is pre-Christian, continuing well into the common era, within the Bible as well, in verses about God in both Old and New Testaments. Thus, again, no "historical" Chresto is necessary to explain the behavior of Suetonius's Jews.

The Divine Impeller?

Adding to this notion that the Jews at Rome could have been rabblerousing because of their god, the "Good Lord" Yahweh, in Suetonius the Latin word impulsore is the ablative form of impulsor and denotes not "instigation" but "instigator." This scenario would not require a historical personage named Chresto to be present or even the memory of a deceased messianic figure. The passage is translated better as, "Jews because of the instigator Chresto," where impulsor could also mean one who "impels" someone else to do something, a "persuader," "prompter," "enticer," "pusher," "inciter," "inducer," "abettor," "stimulator," "mover," "encourager," "enabler" and "consiliarus," this latter word used in the Vulgate of Isaiah 9:6, describing the "Mighty God" as "Counsellor."

In the first century BCE, Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius ("Tully") Cicero (On the Consular Provinces, 8) wrote that a certain political "storm" had been excited by "Caesar the impeller" (Caesare impulsore). Moreover, in the play Aulularia or The Pot of Gold (735) by Titus Maccius Plautus (c. 254-c. 184 BCE), we find the line: deus impulsor mihi fuit, which could be rendered, "A god was my impeller." Hence, we see that this term impulsor was associated with deity in the second to third centuries before the common era, as well as into it.

In this regard, in City of God (1.7.11), Church father Augustine (354-430) remarks of the Roman god Jupiter:

They have called him Victor, Invictus, Opitulus, Impulsor, Stator...and other names which it were long to enumerate.

There is no record of Jews or anyone else being impelled by or worshipping "Jesus the Good" or a historical Chresto at Rome by this time, but there is plenty of evidence of Jews worshipping their god Yahweh as chrestos or chresto. Thus, the situation of Jews being "constantly tumultuous" because of the "impulsor" Yahweh "the Good" may have been akin to rabblerousing Muslims inspired by "Allah the Merciful." Again, no historical Chresto or "Chrest" is needed.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that the Suetonian sentence in question apparently used originally the word "Chresto." Combined with the facts that Christ was never related as having been at Rome, that the phrase "Jesus the Good" evidently does not make its appearance until the third or late second century at the earliest, and that the word chrestos was used to describe gods and many other figures in antiquity, doubt is cast upon the value of this passage as providing any evidence that "Jesus of Nazareth" was an actual historical figure.

Moreover, the fact that Suetonius called Chresto's followers "Judeans" or "Jews," rather than associating them with the "Christians" or, perhaps, "Chrestians " of his Nero passage, tends to negate the idea that the Roman historian is referring to a historical "Jesus Christ." The evidence points, rather, to another individual or, more likely, their tribal god, Yahweh the Good, as the "Chresto" of Suetonius's Jews.

"The Chrest under whose instigation the Jews at Rome constantly revolted could have been the god Yahweh, not a historical Jesus of Nazareth."

In summary, the "Chrest" under whose instigation at Rome the Jews were revolting could have been their Lord God, called "the Good" or chrestos in the Old Testament. No "historical Jesus of Nazareth" would be needed, and we may retire this purported Suetonian "proof" from Christian apologetics.

Bibliography

Boman, B. Jobjorn. Inpulsore Cherestro? Suetonius' Divus Claudius 25.4 in Sources and Manuscripts. Liber Annuus, vol. 61, pp. 355-376.
Boeckh, August. Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum, vol. 3. Berlin: Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1844/1853.
Bruce, F.F. "Christianity under Claudius." Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 44 (March 1962): 309-326.
Kittel, Gerhard, et al., eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003.
McDowell, Josh. Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1979.
McGlew, James F. Citizens on Stage: Comedy and Political Culture in the Athenian Democracy. University of Michigan Press, 2002.
Mitchell, J.B. Chrestos: A Religious Epithet. London: Williams and Norgate, 1880.
Philonis Alexandrini. Opera Quae Supersunt, vol. 3. ed. Paulus Wendland. Berlin: Georgii Reimeri, 1898.
Witt, Ronald E. Isis in the Ancient World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.
Yonge, C.D. The Works of Philo. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Further Reading

The Chi-Rho Symbol and Chrestos
Chrestos Magical Cup? 
Chrestes as Oracle and Chrematizo in the New Testament
Isis the Chrest and the Egyptian Houses of Goodness
Apollo, Son of God and the Chrest?
Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius: No Proof of Jesus
Christos or Chrestos?
Does Josephus prove a historical Jesus?
The Jesus Forgery: Josephus Untangled
Franck Goddio Society Chrestos Bowl Report
Earliest Reference Describes Christ as 'Magician'
Catalogue of Chrest
The First 'New Testament': Marcion of Pontus and the Gospel of the Lord
Christian Lindtner's Review of Hermann Detering's Falsche Zeugen: Ausserchristliche Jesuszeugnisse auf dem Prüfstand



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