Friday, February 15, 2008

Tacitus: Accurate guide to early Roman Christianity, or not?

My short answer? Not.

Tacitus is a “go-to source” for many scholars of early Christianity, whether classicists, New Testament exegetes seeking a background for “Pauline” Rome, or early Christian period historians.

But, there’s some problems with Tacitus’ assertion that Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome over disturbances about “a certain Christ,” as he is normally translated.

First, Tacitus does NOT use Χριστος, the Greek word for Christ, but Χρήστος, a Greek epithet often translated as “noble” or similar, and used for Apollo. It is arguable that the Latin-first Tacitus confused two Greek words, but, perhaps he did not. In either case, it shows someone who, although familiar with classical Greek vocabulary was likely unfamiliar with Greek religious terms being used to represent yet other religious ideas coming from a non-Greek culture and language.

In other, shorter words, Tacitus had little familiarity with Judaism in general, let alone the idea of Messianism. Perhaps he meant to use Χρήστος about some esteemed rabbinic leader in Rome for all we know.

In any case, there’s nothing to indicate that, by “a certain Christ,” Tacitus actually meant ”this particular Christ,.” In other words, if Tacitus is talking about a historical incident, this could have been a Messianic disturbance with no connection to Yeshua bar-Iusuf of the village of Nazareth. As even the book of Acts makes clear, Messianic claimants were running all around Judea. And, as events in Alexandria show, Judea itself wasn’t the only locus of Jewish religious ferment.

Next, per evangelical Christian sociologist Rodney Stark, there were probably less than 1,500 Christians in the entire world at the time Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome, allegedly for a Christian disturbance.

Of those 1,500 Christians, reasonably, no more than 300, at best, would have been in Rome, out of a population of 1 million. It’s ridiculous to think that “Christians,” rather than “Jewish Messianism,” could have been the cause of either Claudius’ expulsion or Nero’s persecution.

And, if all the Jews were expelled, when did any of them come back? And, how many?

In short, leaning on Tacitus as an authority for either the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, or the existence, let alone the strength, of pre-Pauline Christianity in Rome, is leaning on a mighty slim reed indeed.

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