It is generally recognized by Biblical scholars and historians that the Gospels - the source from which what we are told of the life and teachings of Jesus is drawn - are highly unreliable as history. They make Jesus bestride the Holy Land like a colossus, but contemporary historical records - which are plentiful - take little notice of him. This is all the more surprising as we do find James mentioned in both Christian and non-Christian sources. There are a few stray references to Christ or Chrestus in Roman chronicles, but none to Jesus.52 And these references reinforce the Qumran texts in suggesting that there was nothing unique about Jesus even if he existed.
The usage found in the works of all non-Christian authors - Pliny, Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius - suggest that the word Christ or Chrestus (from Greek Cristoz meaning messiah) was a generic term applied to members or leaders of a messianic cult which the Dead Sea Scrolls allow us identify with the Qumranian Zealots; it was not by any means the unique title of Jesus. It certainly cannot be taken to mean the 'surname' of Jesus as many scholars have done. From this assumption to claim that classical historians knew Jesus, who must therefore be a historical person is to jump to a conclusion on what is at best a circular argument. A few examples should help make this point clear.
Tacitus in his Annals of Imperial Rome (XV.44) written about AD 110 records that there was an attempt by Nero to blame the Christians for the burning of Rome which took place in AD 64 - that is to say, two years before the outbreak of the Jewish
51 This is only a summary of selected sources. Some scholars like Allegro and Dupont-Sommer concluded that Jesus probably never existed. I am not prepared to go that far; my conclusion is: if he did exist he was an obscure and unimportant figure before his exaltation by Paul. An examination of primary sources forces one to conclude that the evidence for his historicity is slender.
52 This may be contrasted with the personality of Krishna, references to whom are abundant in numerous unconnected Hindu and Buddhist works including purely secular works like those on grammar and linguistics. Even Greek chronicles of the 4th century BC know of him. This shows that Krishna was recognized as a historical figure of importance by his contemporaries and successors. This however is not the case with Jesus. Writing a history of Jesus based on the Gospels is like writing a history of Krishna based on the Bhagavadgita.
War. Tacitus goes on to add that the Christians were already hated by the people. As he tells us, speaking of Christians:
...the name is derived from Christ, whom the procurator Pontius Pilate had executed in the reign of Tiberius.. .
This, according to Tacitus, "temporarily suppressed the pernicious superstition. that was causing disturbances in Judaea: we can now identify this as a reference to the revolts being instigated by the Qumranian Zealots that culminated in the First Jewish War. 'Christian' literally means messianic which is exactly how the Qumranians thought of themselves.
The passage from Tacitus is no less interesting for what it leaves out than for what it has to say. To begin with, it does not mention the name Jesus, but only a 'Christ' or Messiah, who had been executed by the Roman procurator for some serious violation of Roman law. Then there is also no mention of the Jews as having played any part in his death. We can read this to mean that some leader of a messianic cult - the Zealots - was executed by the Romans for causing political disturbances in Judaea. His name may have been Jesus, but of that we can only speculate. Jesus was a very common name among the Jews of Palestine.
Nor is this the whole story. Writing only a few years later than Tacitus, Suetonius too knows a 'Chrestus' and Christians as troublemakers who had appeared in Rome in the reign of Claudius (Vita Claudii 25.4). Claudius, Suetonius tells us, had expelled the Jews from Rome "who had on the instigation of Chrestus continually been causing disturbances from Rome.. This again suggests that some Zealot leader calling himself Messiah or 'Chrestus' had appeared in Rome itself, instigating the Jews to rebel against Roman rule. And this was in the reign of Claudius, some years after Pontius Pilate serving under Tiberius had executed 'Christ' in c. AD 33; Claudius' injunction expelling the Jews from Rome was issued in AD 49, long after Tiberius who had died in AD 37. The two Christs were quite obviously different.
The Bible also mentions Claudius' injunction against the Jews: "...because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome.. (Acts /8.2)
A conclusion we may draw from all this is that Christ or Chrestus was a generic term applied to leaders of the messianic fundamentalist group - the one we now call Zealots. Those known by the title Christ were seen by Romans as troublemakers and rabble-rousers, following a 'pernicious superstition', not only when Pilate serving under Tiberius executed 'Christ' but also later, in the time of Claudius, when a Jewish rebel leader known as 'Chrestus' caused him to expel Jews from Rome.53
Remarkably, this fact - that there was nothing unique about the title Christ - finds support even in the Bible. The Gospel of Matthew warns not to be led away by competing Christs.
For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.
Then if any man shall say unto you, La, here is Christ, or there; believe it not.
For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders;
53 A third Christ may have been responsible for the Jesus in India stories - with someone calling himself a 'Christ' or 'Chrestus' visiting India who later became identified with Jesus. This is a common phenomenon in world mythologies: a whole genre becoming personified into a single figure. It would be preposterous to regard this as history.
So we can see an effort in motion already in the Gospels to change the generic title Christ or Messiah into the exclusive attribute of Jesus. But all early sources, including the Bible, allow us only one conclusion: that Christ was a generic title used by the leaders of a messianic cult like the Qumranians.
These men were probably distinguished by their manner of preaching - messianic, apocalyptic, charismatic, even demagogic - threatening hellfire and end of the world that seems to have been a peculiarity of Biblical prophets. (One may see their kind in America even today, where it is big business. A few of them have their own television shows.) Our best guess is that preachers of this kind were known to outsiders as 'Christ' or 'Chrestus' just as we now use the term Yogi to mean one who practices Yoga - or claims to - and not any particular individual. All these - a whole tradition - was later made by Christian scribes to coalesce into a single personality identified with Jesus. A fuller study of the Qumran material now made available by the Huntington Library might help bring more such Christ/Chrestus personalities to light.
And these serve to highlight another point of great historical significance: the 'Christians' whom Roman historians like Tacitus, Suetonius and others record were not Christians as we understand the term today, but the early Christians - the Qumranian Zealots - the followers of an extremist messianic Jewish sect. These were the men responsible for the Jewish Wars of AD 66-74 and AD 132-5 in which both they and their faith perished. Thus, when the Church today accuses Nero (AD 54-68) of persecuting the Christians, even if a fact, it could only apply to the members of the early Church - to wit, the Qumranian Zealots.
It helps also to recognize that the Jewish War itself broke out in AD 66, when Nero was the reigning emperor. Thus, his supposed hostility to the 'Christians' of his day was military and political rather than religious. Romans were tolerant in religious matters. The same was true of Nero, at least during the early years of his reign. It would not be inaccurate to say that it was the Christians who for the first time introduced religious persecution on a large scale which they later went on to attribute to everybody else - especially the unhappy Jews - while themselves posing as victims. This is a classic case of blaming the victims.
It is necessary to draw attention to another important fact: since the original or the 'early Christians' perished in the Jewish Wars, the struggles between Rome and the Christians involved mainly these early Christians. The modern Church - which is descended from Pauline Christianity and not the early Church of Jerusalem - never opposed Rome. Paul, the founding father of modern Christianity, was himself a privileged Roman who was seen as a renegade by the early Christians, including their leader James. The modern Church has built fables of martyrdom around Nero's supposed persecution of Christians while suppressing this important historical distinction. And the charade continues today in the suppression of the Qumran material that is now threatening to blow the whole thing apart.
The Church itself should be seen as the successor to the Roman Empire, not the 'Congregation of the Poor' (also a Qumranian term) as the early Church called itself; absurdly, so too does the Vatican today. The Pope is the modern Caesar - more Nero than St Peter. He even dons the resplendent purple robe of the Caesars in preference to the simple fisherman's attire of Peter, and rightly so. He even carries the title 'Pontifex Maximus' of the pagan emperors.
Was this article helpful?