Monday, January 29, 2007

The First News of Jesus: Tiberius, Pilate and Christian History

I've been thinking about this post for a while and decided today was the day to give it a run. Part of what I'm trying to do here is to rectify my own tendency to get caught up with broader themes without getting down to the nitty gritty. So what I decided to do was to look at a particular incident reported in Eusebius about the Emperor Tiberius. First, the text from Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History (taken from the CCEL Fathers library)

And when the wonderful resurrection and ascension of our Saviour were already noised abroad, in accordance with an ancient custom which prevailed among the rulers of the provinces, of reporting to the emperor the novel occurrences which took place in them, in order that nothing might escape him, Pontius Pilate informed Tiberius of the reports which were noised abroad through all Palestine concerning the resurrection of our Saviour Jesus from the dead.

2. He gave an account also of other wonders which he had learned of him, and how, after his death, having risen from the dead, he was now believed by many to be a God. They say that Tiberius referred the matter to the Senate, but that they rejected it, ostensibly because they had not first examined into the matter (for an ancient law prevailed that no one should be made a God by the Romans except by a vote and decree of the Senate), but in reality because the saving teaching of the divine Gospel did not need the confirmation and recommendation of men.

But although the Senate of the Romans rejected the proposition made in regard to our Saviour, Tiberius still retained the opinion which he had held at first, and contrived no hostile measures against Christ.
4. These things are recorded by Tertullian, a man well versed in the laws of the Romans, and in other respects of high repute, and one of those especially distinguished in Rome... .

Eusebius goes on to extensively quote the Apology of Tertullian 5,1-2 as evidence for this story. This is, of course, in keeping with Eusebius' methods which tended to feature extensive quotes of earlier authors (were they, even in Eusebius' own time, hard to find?). Note that Eusebius provides a Greek translation of the Tertullian's Latin and that most scholars think it a rather bad one.

What interests me, though, is not Eusebius' methods or use of translations so much as the history of this incident. This incident strikes anyone moderately familiar with the classical tradition about Tiberius as a bit odd. It is not, for instance, mentioned in any classical source despite its obvious usefulness for corroborating the charge of superstition so frequently leveled at Tiberius by the almost exclusively hostile historical witnesses. By itself, Tiberius' dabbling in astrology which reached such a point that he could not bring himself to return to Rome in the last years of his life gives evidence for this charge. Still, favouring such a new and outlandish cult would, to many of Tiberius' critics, have been a very useful stick to beat the dead emperor with. Yet, they don't.

This alone has led to many scholars dismissing this incident entirely out of hand as pure fabrication. At best, this incident is an inference from the assumption that Pilate would have submitted a report about the death of Jesus. Furthermore, Tiberius, at the time of Jesus' crucifixion, had just executed his manipulative lieutenant, Sejanus, and instituted a reign of terror against the Senate and the Imperial family to purge disloyal elements from the Roman state. The seeming coincidence of Pilate's Acts which coincide with this account has been dimissed by Roman historians from Gibbon onwards as just a little too convenient to be taken as corroboration of Eusebius' account.

Clearly, this view has much merit, but I wonder if there aren't elements in this account which may reflect an actual report and debate at the time of Tiberius. The fact of a report, I think, is relatively unchallenged. As Tiberius' legate, I would expect that Pilate would report on unusual occurrences in his province. Even if we accept the minimal position of Jesus' crucifixion and a body of people running around saying he had been resurrected, Jesus' death and the events which followed were unusual enough to report. I doubt we have the current Acts of Pilate are the actual report because there is widespread evidence for the forgery of these Acts by both Christian and pagan sources (Eusebius reports one such pagan forgery in HE, 9, 5).

Nor is it improbable that Tiberius might have sent this report on to the Senate nor that the Senate might debate over whether this Jesus was a new god. Given the religious conservatism of the Romans, it would not be a surprise that such a debate would end in the denial of godhood status for Jesus. Yet, in Tertullian, at least, the whole point of citing this debate wasn't to make a claim that the Romans perversely ignored Jesus' divine claims, but, rather, that, despite the Roman accusations that Jesus is just a new god and, hence, falls under the category of superstition not devotion, the Romans could and did create new gods when it suited them. It is Eusebius who converts this story into evidence for the resurrection which the Romans perversely disregarded. The seemingly throw-away comment in both that Tiberius favoured Christian claims merely serves to reinforce Christian claims that their faith has lived in harmony with Roman authorities from its very beginning.

Further, we should unpack this contention that Tiberius implicitly accepted the claims of Jesus' divine status. I think we have to be very careful here about what, if anything, that acceptance meant. There is no suggestion, for instance, that Tiberius gave up any of his worship of other gods nor, indeed, his vicious propensities so prominent in our sources. Nor does there seem to be any indication that he was trying to install Christ as the only god of the Roman Empire. What is far more likely is that, if he was trying to do anything, Tiberius was hedging his bets and attempting to syncretize this new god into the Roman religious system. The Senate blocked a formal acceptance of this syncretization, but Tiberius clearly thought it worthwhile to tolerate the cult implicitly, possibly because it was so small and localized, so hardly worth crushing. Perhaps he thought it was a form of hero worship--that halfway house between mere human existence and divinity-- which was localized to a particular area and characterized by localized festivals and cultic activity. I don't know, but I think Eusebius may have been reaching in using this as evidence for acceptance of the reports of resurrection.

Now, we come to the last question that any Christian historian should ask himself: why does this story matter? Isn't this just a misguided attempt to harmonize pagan and Christian history in order to serve a transparently apologetic purpose. Well, in a sense. Yet, if we accept this story as garbled evidence for the first reaction of the Roman state to Jesus of Nazareth, do we see here a good example of how different the world views represented by the Romans and the early Christians were. The Romans saw these reports, if I'm right, as a minor point of religious law which could be dealt with quickly and easily in a senatorial debate, while Christians continue to recognize the death and resurrection of Jesus as the hinge-point of all history. The almost ho-hum, routine atmosphere of the Senate's answer shows no effort to engage with this momentous event in a way a Christian would recognize. This is just another odd report from the provinces. Even Tiberius only saw it within the same restriction of a common Roman worldview in which he was willing to incorporate the new cult, but not really to engage in its teachings.

As Christians, we have faced incomprehension at least as much as we have faced hostility or even acceptance. This is as true today as in the Roman period. This story is merely evidence of how far that incomprehension went at the time of Jesus. Yet, the power of Jesus is that, from that insignificant beginning in Judaea, Jesus' life, death and resurrection has proven to be so analamous and so difficult to contain within any worldview that he bursts out of it. The Romans dismissed the death of Jesus and stories of his resurrection almost reflexively, yet they were unable to completely suppress the import of those events. Tiberius, the Roman Senate and, indeed, Pilate seem to have been clueless about what Jesus represented. The Romans themselves would eventually be forced to come to terms with this strange Judaean prophet.


1 comment:

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Excellent post. Right on the money about how the Romans systematically tossed out the idea of a resurrection.

The exact same as the secularists do today. Anytime an idea doesnt fit in your current world view, it takes some pretty significant life events (not merely evidence) to change your opinion. Just ask Saul.