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?
One 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
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
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
Chrestos in Religion and Spirituality
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
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.
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.
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
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
...and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the
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 ὅτι χρηστὸς ὁ
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
In this regard, in City of God (1.7.11), Church father Augustine (354-430) remarks of the Roman
They have called him Victor, Invictus, Opitulus, Impulsor, Stator...and other names which it were long to
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.
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
"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.
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,
Bruce, F.F. "Christianity under Claudius." Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 44 (March 1962):
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
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,
Witt, Ronald E. Isis in the Ancient World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.
Yonge, C.D. The Works of Philo. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.
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