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.