Suetonius, Chrestus, and the Egyptian

In The Lives of the 12 Caesars, Suetonius writes of Claudius (emperor 41-54 CE):

Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.

There is an irony around apologetic references to this passage.  Apologists cite this passage as definitive proof of Jesus Christ’s historicity; rather, this passage’s true historical value is that it proves the Gospel Jesus was a fiction.  The reason is obvious: assuming these Jews in Rome were proto-Christians, Jesus would have been dead for 10 to 20 years by the time Claudius expelled them.  If Suetonius was referring to Jesus Christ’s Spirit, he would have alluded to such an oddity for his reader’s benefit.  The fact that Suetonius phrased the passage as he did (Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit) suggests he was referring to an individual person, rather than the dead Palestinian.

This means, in the mid-1st century, there was a Jew in Rome who called himself Chrestus (Chresto) and had a significant following.  This man compelled Roman Jews to behavior which irritated the Roman government enough to expel them.

If it were not for the Christian compulsion to recall Jesus Christ’s suffering under Pontius Pilate, Suetonius’s historical record would be fodder for alternative legend: Jesus Christ escaped the cross and moved to Rome to start a new sect.  However, such a hypothesis is blasphemy in any Christian congregation.  An interesting and consequential aside is that the Islamic version of Jesus Christ’s death has Jesus skipping town, convincing the authorities that Simon of Cyrene was the real Jesus.  The Islamic view is an obvious derivative the Basilidean view, which had the Christ Spirit hopping from the man Jesus to Simon of Cyrene.

I believe my own theory explains Suetonius well.  The earliest Christianities, notably the Ebionites and Cerinthians (and by extension the Johannines, Basilideans, and Carpocratians) were adoptionists: the Christ, which doubled as the Spirit which underlies the temple and works in conjunction with the feminine Spirit, descended onto an ordinary man, whose earlier persona would die.  The man would then become the Earthly Christ, and become a slave to this Spirit (Philemon 1:1).

There are several historical figures who were probably Christ claimants.  One obvious character was Theudas, that mid-1st century leader who brought his followers to the Jordan River, claimed he could part it, and was beheaded and had his severed head paraded around Jerusalem.

The second Christ figure was the one whom Josephus relayed took his followers to the Mount of Olives, gathered tens of thousands of followers, and claimed he could knock down the temple walls — the Egyptian.  Josephus gives this man’s fate: he escaped, and was never heard from again.  This occurred during Felix’s procuratorship, which was from 52 to 58 CE.  Josephus is not entirely clear when the Egyptian was active, but he mentions the Egyptian near the point where he describes Felix’s appointment, so it is likely that the Egyptian was active in the early 50s, less than 10 years after Theudas, who looks suspiciously like John the Baptist.

In my recent post, Paul and Jesus in Egypt, I pointed out a curiosity in Celsus’s polemical remarks against Jesus, specifically that Celsus believed Jesus had spent much more time in Egypt than the Gospels remember.  The fact that Acts 21 has a Roman commander referring to Paul as the Egyptian is quite remarkable in this context, as it begins to look like the Jesus Christ of the Gospels is simply a construction composed of attributes primarily from this Egyptian, coupled with influence from the Jamesians, who introduced their own version of a virgin birth in the Infancy Gospel of James.  In other words, the historical Jesus was cobbled together as a way to synthesize the various conflicting versions of the Platonic Jesus Christ (earthly Christ encapsulator).

In this theory, the Egyptian about whom Josephus complained in Wars 2.261 escaped to Rome to make similar proclamations as he made to the Judeans.  Of course, this is in no way the most economical conclusion.  The most economical assumption would be that a variety of these adoptionistic Christ encapsulators were spread throughout the Diaspora into Rome, and believed themselves to be the Christ.  However,  I think the two characters, the Egyptian and Chrestos, are one-in-the-same.

Acts of the Apostles 18:2 gives a hint:

And [Paul] found a certain Jew named Aquila, a man of Pontus by race, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome: and he came unto them


A casual observer might find Paul’s link to Pontus interesting, as the first Christian canon was assembled by our favorite Pontus native, Marcion.  A more cynical reader might presume Acts’ author was attempting to explain Marcion’s heresy and reverence for Paul.

The most consequential fact hiding in this link is Marcion’s name for his Christ:  Isu Chrestos.  In other words, Paul, who became the Christ by bearing Christ’s cross, was Marcion’s Jesus.


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

20 thoughts on “Suetonius, Chrestus, and the Egyptian”

  1. It’s embarrassing that Christian apologists love to accuse atheists and critics of the Christian orthodoxy of ripping the Bible out of context when in fact dishonesty amongst apologists whether it’s the Early Church Fathers to modern Jerry Falwell is quite rampant as they take anything with the mention of “Jesus” or any ancient scroll and attribute it Jesus’s contemporary history when in fact the New Testament itself doesn’t corroborate ballyhooed extrabiblical evidence.

    Since Suetonius wrote “Life of Claudius” around 113 AD/CE, it could be that the Acts author had it in front of him and used it to write verses 18:2 but this is just me speculating.. Chances are the first proto-Muslims or at least have their part in the writing of the Quran are Gnostics probably Basilideans who got pissed that they’re being usurped by the early Catholic Church and made their way to the Arabian peninsula. Alexandria and/or Syria are perfect places to make a new religion as these places are cultural/academic melting pots even before the common era as these places are near bodies of freshwater. Arabia is a dry, barren land with mostly Bedouins who constantly travel at night and sleep in the day and most of them are merchants with their neighboring nations with ample vegetation like Israel, lower Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

    I’ve read somewhere that pre-Islamic Arabia is known to be pagan with matriarchy as the basis of society and that the male “Allah” was called “Alat” the female moon goddess. To be honest I’m more of a bystander when it comes to critical scholarship of Islamic originis as I’m an ex-Christian who studied my whole life in Catholic institutions (even though at the moment I’m 1/2 done with reading the Quran) and there are very little critical scholarship (like Ibn Warraq’s Christmas in the Koran) when it comes to Islamic origins unlike Christianity where there are so much critical scholarship from as early as Voltaire, FC Bauer to modern times like Bart Ehrman to Robert M. Price.


    1. I think you’re absolutely correct about Islam’s origins. That’s on my list of things to investigate someday… and of course, the Alat origin is exactly the sort of detail I would expect to find, as I do think Christianity was essentially resurrecting the Ashera/Baal cult of the pre-Deuteronomists


      1. Here are some gist from Wikipedia though not the most scholarly resource but has links to some scholarly material:

        Gnostic thoughts found their way into Islam during the early medieval age. The Quran and Islamic anthropogenic share gnostic ideas and appear especially among the Sufi[121], Shia and Ismaili[122] traditions. However, according to the Islamic belief in strict Oneness of God, there was no room for a lower deity; such as the demiurge,[123] although some early writings and exegesis mentioned Iblis as the ruler over the lower heavens and earth. Especially in the “Um-al Kitab” Azazel resembles the gnostic demiurge. Like the demiurge, he is endowed with the ability to create his own world and seeks to imprison humans in the material world, but here, his power is limited and depends on the higher God.[124] Like the gnostic conception of human beings imprisoned in matter, Islam acknowledges the human soul is an accomplice of the material world and subject to bodily desires similar to the way archontic spheres envelop the pneuma.[125] The Ruh must therefore gain victory over the lower and material-bound psyche, to overcome his animal nature. A human being captured by his animal desires, mistakenly claims autonomy and independence from the “higher God”, thus resembling the lower deity in classical gnostic traditions. The higher God or Monad is identified by Sufis with the God in the Quran.[126]

        If Islam got their origins from a similar Gnostic/docetic materials, perhaps we can assume that Islam is the lunar equivalent of the solar Judaism/Christianity but share the doctrinal origins of divine pleroma battling the evil archons. But at the moment I’m not really looking at Islamic origins that much other than touch portions of it as that would require me to learn medieval and modern Arabic but also Coptic and Aramaic which I have no patience of doing at the moment. I’d rather learn Koine and modern Greek as those languages are where the modern Latin script came from and New Testament scholarship is something I have an easy grasp on.


    1. In a brief interaction with O’neill, I was a bit irritated with his hostility, and a factual error or two. The article you posted is good, but I don’t think it’s nearly as honest as it ought to be that Tacitus was referring to Chrestus, as opposed to Christus. It strikes me as quite obvious, given that Tacitus calls his followers Chrestians (Chrestianos). It’s likely Tacitus got his Christian biography from Christians, or via his membership on Quindecimviri, the Roman council that regulated foreign cults, and I have no doubt that the core of the Christian story existed by 115… although if there is blatant interpolation in Tacitus, my thought is that it relates to the reign of Tiberius. Thanks for the tip on Deedat!


      1. I have found that ,while many of his pieces are (to me) well-researched and well written, immediately O’Neill enters dialogue it takes about three comments before he goes a bit ape and pisses someone off, and comes across as an arrogant pratt.

        The pamphlet/booklet (24 pages) was published by The Young Men’s Muslim Association in South Africa.

        There is no date of publication, unfortunately, but it must be at least 30 years old as it mentions Transvaal, a word not used since the democratic elections.
        The province is now called Gauteng ( pronounced Cow-teng, rolling the C a bit )
        He also references the Gospel of St. Barnabas in which it is states that it was Judas who was crucified in Jesus’place.

        You are probably more familiar with this gospel as I had never heard of it until I found this booklet.


      2. I think the notion of Jesus tricking the authorities is present in the historicist version, as well as the Gnostic version. Imho, this trickery originates in the Gnostic version, because tricking the rulers of the heavens is no small task. The story of a preaching minister in Judea is allegory for the celestial version. Of course, mainstream Christian scholars and theologians would find this assertion outrageous (At least publicly). I really see no reason to reject this assumption, given my own findings and understanding about who these people were.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Are you ever going to release my first comment replying to you from moderation? Or are comments that take you on too hard for you to handle?


    2. I don’t want to call him a Christian apologist as a label to dismiss him but it seems to me he’s misrepresenting the arguments he’s trying to debunk (strawman).


      1. “I don’t want to call him a Christian apologist as a label to dismiss him …”

        Given that I’m a frigging ATHEIST, calling a “Christian apologist” for any reason would be monumentally stupid.

        ” … but it seems to me he’s misrepresenting the arguments he’s trying to debunk”

        Oh, okay. How? You forgot to give any details or back up this weak “seems to me” stuff with … anything. Try again.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Certainly one should not discount the Tacitus passage having significance. The parallels between the gospel story and what Tacitus describes are obvious.
        But there is one thing in the Tacitus passage that is probably too good to be true, and that is the mention of Pontious Pilate – surely his role in the Gospel story does not appear until later that century. If, as Tim O’Neil says, Tacitus was a scrupulous historian who is careful not to record hearsay, then the fact that Tacitus refers to Pontious Pilate as a ‘Procurator’ and not a ‘Prefect’ is perhaps telling. It may indicate that later Christians did ‘correct’ this record from mentioning ‘Felix’ the procurator. This would surely make more sense, placing the execution (likely crucifixion) of ‘Chrestus’ in Judea much closer to the time of the events happening in Rome.
        Another point to be made is the animosity towards this hated superstition acknowledged by Tacitus and certainly a sentiment that Tacitus agrees with even if he doubts that the ‘Chrestians’ were responsible for the burning of Rome. The early ‘Christians’ described in ACTS and the nature of Jesus in the Gospels does not fit well with a mischievous cult that is so despised in Annals. If Tacitus is the historian claimed, then I assume he does know something of the true nature of these ‘Chrestians’? It seems to me that these ‘Chrestians’ at the time of Nero are nothing like the ones who live by ‘The Beatitudes’ – they are probably revolutionary terrorists, similar to the bandits that Josephus describes causing a nuisance at the same time in Judea.
        I am not discounting that ‘Chrestus’ is a proto-jesus, possibly linked to the ‘Egyptian’ movement, but unlike the Egyptian who Josephus says got away, this one didn’t. This trail leads us to a Zealot origin for 1st century Christianity, it is one of the influences on the later mythology which developed, but a lesser influence on the final theology.

        For Tim O’Neil, I think you need to realise you are probably coming to the same conclusions by different means. I don’t know what mythicism means elsewhere, but for me it certainly does not exclude the search for a historical Jesus. It is acknowledging that the picture we have is built upon a mixture of history and mythology intertwined and reworked beyond recognition.
        It is looking at the evolution of the mythology that is however most helpful. If earlier Christian writings were less historical based and more esoteric, then we conclude that much of the historical details (probably added later) are misleading.

        The funny thing is – and this is me coming out – I am still a Christian, obviously not in the orthodox sense, but in the cultural sense. Having rejected the fundamentalist superstitious beliefs long time ago, I am now interested in discovering the origin of this Faith that I am still very much connected to. While I find that many mythicists are unfortunately more driven by their personal hatred of religion than their desire to unravel a fascinating story, their methodology is better suited to uncovering the origins of Christianity. Rather than assuming that 4 canonical gospels are the closest thing we have to a historical Jesus (which would be how most conventional research begins) we are looking for the footprints of the religious cults that existed at the time. The picture of early Christianity is extremely complex, and it seems unlikely that it will ever lead to a single founder who was crucified in Judea, however he still does turn up regularly in all the wrong places!


      3. “If, as Tim O’Neil says, Tacitus was a scrupulous historian who is careful not to record hearsay, then the fact that Tacitus refers to Pontious Pilate as a ‘Procurator’ and not a ‘Prefect’ is perhaps telling. It may indicate that later Christians did ‘correct’ this record from mentioning ‘Felix’ the procurator. This would surely make more sense, placing the execution (likely crucifixion) of ‘Chrestus’ in Judea much closer to the time of the events happening in Rome.”

        Occam’s Razor makes short work of this idea. This requires two suppostions: (i) that there actually WAS some otherwise unattested group called “Chrestians” who, by a remarkable coincidence, also had their origins in Judea and operated in Rome and (ii) that this “correction” of Felix to Pilate was made. It makes far more sense and is far more parsimonious that Tacitus just wrote what is in the text. The “procurator” vs “prefect” element is too insubstantial a detail to dangle all this supposition from. Firstly, as even arch-Mythicist Richard Carrier notes, legally a Prefect could also be a Procurator. Secondly, these titles were not always used with precision. And thirdly, Tacitus is probably using the title used for the governor of Judea in his day; given that he uses such anachronisms elsewhere.

        PS My name is “O’Neill”.


    3. @O’Neill

      It is interesting to apply Occam’s razor to the theories, and I certainly use it, but find it always leads in circles with Christian history. There are just too many contradictions everywhere.

      Firstly, in my contention I do not say that ‘Chrestians’ and ‘Christians’ are two distinct separate groups, in fact, I am convinced they are the same. But the Chrestians here are rebellious insurgents, and Christians are tax-paying pacifists.
      You cannot draw any conclusion about Tacitus without noticing that it tells us something about the evolution of the Christan/Chrestian movement that contradicts the 4-canon gospel narrative.
      The mention of Pontious Pilate is also internally troublesome without the Prefix/Procurator issue. If Chrestus was crucified around 33AD in Judea, then Tacitus is linking him to an insurrection about 20 years later.

      If Christianity has its birth in a jewish zealotry movement, then most likely 50-60AD is when its leader was crucified. You can look up L. Einhorn’s research on this (by the way, I am not supporting her swoon theory). Otherwise we are talking about a Judean rebellion that is conspicuously absent in Antiquities.

      Occam’s razor tells us to keep it simple stupid, but it obviously isn’t simple. But, we should ask if Josephus is truly silent about this violent movement that began in Judea related to Chrestus? In the character of the Egyptian we certainly have someone who could also be ‘Chrestus’. The problems are that the ‘Egyptian’ got away, but Chrestus was crucified, but in some ways this contradiction may come down to a confusion here about whether they got the leader or did they get his deputy?

      What is the simplest theory that supports the history we have? If we use gospels as historical sources and remove everything we know that is simply impossible, what do we have left? On what basis should we assume that the canonised gospels have more historical authority than the non-canonised gospels?

      At some point in the construction of your theory, you are going to decide that certain pieces do not fit, and Occam’s razor will probably inform you to construct a theory which discards the least amount of pieces, especially those with greatest authority historically. Taking “Pontious Pilate” out of Tacitus brings it into line with Antiquities with only one plausible change – this I feel is good economy. However, this is speculation, and I would like to consider your theory on how a rebellious jewish movement started by Chrestus in Judea ~30AD that later spread mischief in Rome at the time of Nero became Christianity that is described in the book of Luke/Acts. I have a feeling your theory will not be too dissimilar to mythicism in the end!

      PS – you will note I have not mentioned Paul, and if he proselytized a pacifist version of ‘Chrestianity’ at the same time as the Chrestians are rebelling in Rome, then it gets more confusing still, and Occam’s razor gets very dangerously close to the arteries!


  2. In the Septuagint, χρηστός is used to translate ישר in Proverbs 2:21. That’s interesting because ישר appears as the prefix for ישראל, Israel.

    Supposing for a moment the usage of pesher and midrash, it’s well within the realm of possibility that Chrestus was interpretative of Jacob’s wrestling with the Angel, איש (Ishu) and his mystical transformation into Israel.

    But notice also, ישר (yashar), ישוע (yeshua), and ישו (yeshu) appear very close to one another, with a one letter difference between yeshua and yeshu, and a slight modification to resh to make vav. Now look at Daniel 9:26, where the Christ shall be “cut off”–resh shall be cut off for vav; or ayin shall cut off from yeshu. (Conspicuously, ayin represents the mystical number, seventy.)

    Pure speculation, and it may all be rubbish. But Isu Chrestus simply becomes the transformative power that exalts/restores man to God. This could be why the Paraclete idea was so crucial to early Christians, because the spirit of Chrestus could only ever dwell within a host body, but not as its own free agent.

    Anyway, that’s all I’ve got. Pick this apart if you can.


    1. Are you saying there is correlation between Chrestus/Christus and Yeshu/Yeshua, in terms of the 1 letter difference? If so, I like it… it’s very hard for me to grapple with speculative components of the theology, because I’d honestly believe a lot, given that these early Christians were no doubt pushing the limits of self immolation and experiential openness; the flip side is that I don’t really have a methodology, outside of the texts and Heresiologists, to test those theories, and if the texts and the fathers don’t corroborate, I tend to shy away. But I do think a good start is with correlations between Hebrew and Greek/Latin, because that transition is where the most interesting stuff seems to be


      1. This difference could also be why Jesus and Christ appear to be synonymous and interchangeable with each other. There could be a tremendous key to unlocking the theology by studying how these words and letters were employed.

        My own methodology is, admittedly, always in flux. But I think that’s important. That way we don’t get bogged down trying to defend something that may or may not be correct anyway.


      2. I most certainly agree about the Jesus/Christ confusion. I have seen more than a few times the failure to appreciate this distinction in critical matters by scholars who really ought to know better, especially in the Basilidean spirit hopping tradition


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