Historical Jesus III:Suetonius, Galen, Celsus

The Religious A priori

Historical Jesus

III.Ancient Secular Historians


G. Galen


Suetonius is Weaker evidence, but still worth addressing. He makes one statement regarding "Christ." "As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome."

A second quote does not mention Jesus, but refers to Christians being persecuted under Nero.

Does this passage really refer to Jesus?


This is the key objection to using this passage. "Chrestus," as Suetonius spells it, is the correct Latin form of a true Greek name, so that some would say that it does not refer to Jesus Christ. Benko, for example, has suggested that "Chrestus" was some kind of Jewish agitator who had no association with Christianity, perhaps a semi-Zealot reacting to plans by Caligula to put a statue of Zeus in the Jewish Temple; as for the spelling issue, he points out that Suetonius spells "Christians" correctly, so it is unlikely that he misspelled "Christus." [see Benk.EC49, 410-3] . (On the other hand, one oddball author suggested that the reference was to Jesus Himself - still alive, and visiting Rome in the 40s AD!) Mason [Maso.JosNT, 166] , on the other hand, believes that the reference is to Jesus, but that Suetonius altered the name he heard to that of a common slave name. Harris [Harr.3Cruc, 22; see also Harr.GosP5, 354] notes that the substitution of an "e" for an "i" was "a common error in the spelling of proper names" at the time; he also says that because Suetonius did not say, "at the institution of a certain Chrestus," the historian expected that his readers would know the person that he was referring to - hence, this "Chrestus" could not have been merely a Jewish agitator, for there was only one possible "Chrestus" that Suetonius could have been referring to that would have been so well known at the time he was writing (120 AD). It may be that Suetonius wrongly presumed from one of his sources that Chrestus had at some time in the past personally delivered His message to Rome, and that is why he seems to indicate that Chrestus was directly behind the agitation. [ibid., 356] Harris also explains, in an amusing footnote, that to Greek ears, the name "Christos" would have sounded like something drawn from medical or building technology, meaning either "anointed" or "plastered"! (The Romans who heard these Jews talking about "Christus" assumed that, perhaps, another type of "plastering" was going on!) So, they switched it to the more comprehensible "Chrestus," which means "useful one." Harris further indicates, via a quote from the 4th-century Latin Christian Lactantius, that Jesus was commonly called "Chrestus" by those who were ignorant.

Is this historian/writer a reliable source? Is there good reason to trust what they say?


If this is indeed a reference to Jesus, then it is a good one, nearly as good as Tacitus'. Suetonius was known as "a painstaking researcher, interested in minute details," [Benk.PagRo, 14] as well as a prolific writer in matters of history and antiquities, including biographies of Julius Caesar and several Roman emperors - this was a man "in a position to know!" - see Harr.GosP5, 353) The only way to completely devalue the Suetonius reference is to say that it has nothing to do with Jesus, or with Christians, at all. The issue is an open one, and since we have Tacitus (who both wrote earlier and gave far more information), this reference is not really that important. What do we learn about Jesus and or Christianity from this historian/writer? At worst, the passage reflects Suetonius' confusion after hearing about Jews arguing over a "Chri/estus" who the Christian Jews would have spoken of as still alive. This, and the second passage referring to persecution of Christians, provides us with nothing that we do not find elsewhere or that can be substantially used. Perhaps more important is the possible historical connection with the expulsion of Jews from Rome referred to in Acts (which is commonly dated in 49 AD, though some prefer 41 AD - see Wlkn.JUF, 215, Benk.EC49, 407-415; and Harr.3Cruc, 23 for a nice sampling of opinions). If there were Christians in Rome in 41-49 AD, then that's a pretty strong indication that Jesus existed, since His life would have been well within the memories of those living at the time.

Galen (various writings, c.150)

Peter Kirby's site offers more information on theLife of Galen.

The Jewish Roman World of Jesus

Dr James. D. Tabor

Galen, De pulsuum differentiis, ii & iii

"One might more easily teach novelties to the followers of Moses and Christ than to the physicians and philosophers who cling fast to their schools.

. . . in order that one should not at the very beginning, as if one had come into the school of Moses and Christ, hear talk of undemonstrated laws, and that where it is least appropriate."

------------------------------------------------------------------------ Galen, fragment in Arabic quotation

"If I had in mind people who taught their pupils in the same way as the followers of Hoses and Christ teach theirs--for they order them to accept everything on faith--I should not have given you a definition"


(True Discourse, c.170)

"Celsus lived in during the 2nd century, CE. Origen is refuting him in the 3rd century. Celsus' writings no longer survive in tact, but we have access to some of his work when Origen quotes passages for the purpose of refutation. The following is one such passage." [AH]

Origen, Contra Celsum 1.28

Translation, quoted from Mead.

"Jesus had come from a village in Judea, and was the son of a poor Jewess who gained her living by the work of her own hands. His mother had been turned out of doors by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, on being convicted of adultery [with a soldier named Panthéra (i.32)]. Being thus driven away by her husband, and wandering about in disgrace, she gave birth to Jesus, a bastard. Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain (magical) powers which Egyptians pride themselves on possessing. He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god."

These following qutoations are found on a website, with others by Celsus that I'm not giving here:

That webstie takes the quotations from the following book:

The following quotes are taken from Celsus On the True Doctrine, translated by R. Joseph Hoffman, Oxford University Press, 1987:

Myther's argue that Celsus is unclear about thinking that Jesus lived, he may just be repeating Christian legeond. He's also criticized for writting after the time of Christ by over 100 years (late second century). But is pretty clear he thought that Jesus was a historical figure, he never gives any indication otherwwise, and acts as though exposing his biographical data exposes the man to ridicule, which one doesn't do with a mythical fiture.

"Let us imagine what a Jew- let alone a philosopher- might say to Jesus: 'Is it not true, good sir, that you fabricated the story of your birth from a virgin to quiet rumourss about the true and insavoury circumstances of your origins? Is it not the case that far from being born in the royal David's city of bethlehem, you were born in a poor country town, and of a woman who earned her living by spinning? Is it not the case that when her deceit was uncovered, to wit, that she was pregnant by a roman soldier called Panthera she was driven away by her husband- the carpenter- and convicted of adultery?" (57).

"I could continue along these lines, suggesting a good deal about the affairs of Jesus' life that does not appear in your own records. Indeed, what I know to be the case and what the disciples tell are two very different stories... [for example] the nonsensical idea that Jesus foresaw everything that was to happen to him (an obvious attempt to conceal the humiliating facts)." (62).

"The men who fabricated this geneaology [of Jesus] were insistent on on the point that Jesus was descended from the first man and from the king of the Jews [David]. The poor carpenter's wife seems not to have known she had such a distinguished bunch of ancestors." (64).

"What an absurdity! Clearly the christians have used the myths of Danae and the Melanippe, or of the Auge and the Antiope in fabricating the story of Jesus' virgin birth." (57).

"After all, the old myths of the greeks that attribute a divine birth to Perseus, Amphion, Aeacus and Minos are equally good evidence of their wondrous works on behalf of mankind- and are certainly no less lacking in plausibility than the stories of your followers." (59).

It's clear that Celsus got his information from Talmudic sources. He clealry understood Jesus to be a man in history. He's giving his biolgrpahical data. That his sources were jewish is unmistakable since he calls Jesus "Pantera" which no Christian source ever did or would ever do. This indicates that he's drawing upon sources that had been around for sometime, and probalby go back to the time of Christ.

Catholic Encyclapidia

Other pagan writers [who mention Jesus]

The remaining pagan witnesses are of less importance: In the second century Lucian sneered at Christ and the Christians, as he scoffed at the pagan gods. He alludes to Christ's death on the Cross, to His miracles, to the mutual love prevailing among the Christians ("Philopseudes", nn. 13, 16; "De Morte Pereg"). There are also alleged allusions to Christ in Numenius (Origen, "Contra Cels", IV, 51), to His parables in Galerius, to the earthquake at the Crucifixion in Phlegon ( Origen, "Contra Cels.", II, 14). Before the end of the second century, the logos alethes of Celsus, as quoted by Origen (Contra Cels., passim), testifies that at that time the facts related in the Gospels were generally accepted as historically true. However scanty the pagan sources of the life of Christ may be, they bear at least testimony to His existence, to His miracles, His parables, His claim to Divine worship, His death on the Cross, and to the more striking characteristics of His religion.

I've left Pliny and Serapion out of the list, even thoug Pliny is always quoted in history books for the light he sheds on early Chrstian persecution because he really does nothing to prove the historicity of Jesus. Serapion doesn't mention Jesus by name and I find the arguments for Serapion's veracity as a source to be fairly circular. Rather than going to a lot of effort to defned a bad source, what is already covered is more than enough to establish Jesus' historicity.

Next:I. Talmudic Sources

The Religious A priori