Suetonius, Nero’s Dreams, and Biographical Memory

Several years ago, back in Spring 2011, I took a graduate course taught by prominent Classics scholar Marilyn Skinner on ancient biography and Suetonius’ Life of Nero. One of the most interesting sections of the biography is a series of Nero’s dreams that Suetonius describes (chapter 46), prior to his downfall as a Roman emperor:

“Although he had never before been in the habit of dreaming, after he had killed his mother it seemed to him that he was steering a ship in his sleep and that the helm was wrenched from his hands; that he was dragged by his wife Octavia into thickest darkness, and that he was now covered with a swarm of winged ants, and now was surrounded by the statues of the nations which had been dedicated in Pompey’s theatre and stopped in his tracks. A Spanish steed of which he was very fond was changed into the form of an ape in the hinder parts of its body, and its head, which alone remained unaltered, gave forth tuneful neighs.”

There is a lot to unpack here, and I think the process of doing so will reveal how the preservation of memory was not always such a reliable process, even in historiographical biographies. For historical-critical purposes, I will also be drawing some comparisons between Nero’s dreams and those of Jesus’ father Joseph in Matthew 2:13 and 2:19-20, in which he is warned to take Jesus and flee to Egypt.

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Posted in Ancient Biography, Classics, Dissertation, Exegesis, Historical Jesus, History, Literary Theory, Religious Studies, Weird Stuff from Antiquity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Review of the Anti-Abortion Movie “Unplanned” (2019)

About a week ago I had a chance to watch the recent anti-abortion movie Unplanned. Admittedly, since I cannot (in good conscience) financially support the producers of the film, I resorted to downloading a pirated copy online. Nonetheless, I did watch the movie with two friends of mine, who had previously not heard of it. Unplanned appeared on my own personal radar, after I saw a number of anti-abortion advocates promote the movie on my Facebook feed. Although I did not pay to see Unplanned in theaters, perhaps they can still take a certain solace in me increasing the film’s viewership (even if off the record, since I didn’t want to increase its turn out at the box office).

Unplanned is produced by the makers of God’s Not Dead, which did not initially give me high expectations for the quality of the film. Nevertheless, I was delightfully surprised to find that Unplanned is actually a decent bit better than its predecessor. One of the major problems with God’s Not Dead was the uneven acting. Some characters were performed alright, but a lot of the acting in the film was B-rate and made the presentation feel choppy. I wouldn’t say that the acting in Unplanned is especially good, but the main actress (Ashley Bratcher) gives a compelling performance, while tracing the journey of the central protagonist (Abby Johnson) on her career from being a Planned Parenthood volunteer, and then clinic director, to ultimately coming out as an advocate against the organization.

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“The Rationalization Hypothesis: Is a Vision of Jesus Necessary for the Rise of the Resurrection Belief?” — by Kris Komarnitsky

Although the bereavement vision hypothesis is widely regarded as a plausible naturalistic explanation for the rise of the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead, I have never quite found this hypothesis completely convincing. My article below draws on social psychology to propose what I believe is a better, or at least significantly complementary, explanation for the rise of the resurrection belief, followed by a critique of the bereavement vision hypothesis. To be up front, I attempted to publish this article in a peer review journal, but the reviewer found it too speculative and the use of biblical texts and ancient Jewish literature too secondary for their purview. I respect the judgment of this journal even though I found their criteria overly restrictive, and I was encouraged by the lack of technical objections. The origin of the resurrection belief is a captivating historical puzzle and the lack of a satisfying answer motivated my inquiry into this topic. Ironically, the lack of a satisfying answer for the rise of the resurrection belief subjected me to the same basic cognitive process that I will suggest led to the resurrection belief. This cognitive process affects all of us, more than I think we are usually aware of. I hope readers find my article useful. – Kris Komarnitsky (

The article below is also available as a pdf.


The conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead is found in the earliest evidence of Christian origins and appears to have come about almost immediately after Jesus’ death.[1] How does one account for the rise of this extraordinary belief if the later Gospel accounts of a discovered empty tomb and corporeal post-mortem appearances of Jesus are legends, as many scholars believe is the case?

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Did the Author of Matthew Intend to Imply that the Disciple Matthew Was the Brother of James son of Alphaeus?

In doing research on the Gospel of Matthew the other day, I noticed a peculiarity in the Matthew’s redaction of the Gospel of Mark. The process started when I was looking into the name change between “Levi” son of Alphaeus (Mk. 2:13-17) and “Matthew” (Mt. 9:9-13) between the two gospels. The question I was searching for was: “What would motivate the author of Matthew to identify the role of Levi with the disciple Matthew?”

“Matthew” is first mentioned in Mark among the list of twelve disciples in 3:16-19. There, no indication is given that this individual is the same “Levi” mentioned in Mk. 2:13-17. This is a curious omission, since the author of Mark specifies elsewhere when the same individual was known by two names. In the same list of disciples, he clarifies that “Simon” was also known as “Peter” at 3:16 (which is a point also reinforced at 14:37). The former of these identifications help to bridge the reader between the Simon who first appears in 1:16, and the character Peter who first appears solely by that name in Mk. 5:37. I call this a bridge, because the names “Simon” and “Peter” switch, right after the two figures are connected in the list of the twelve at 3:16-19.

But no such identification is provided in Mark to connect “Levi” with “Matthew.” So where did the Gospel of Matthew get the idea to connect the two? To answer this, I think there are a few major clues:

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Authorial Third Person Narration–in Thucydides, Josephus, Xenophon, and Caesar–Versus the Gospel of Matthew

One of the issues that pops up frequently, when discussing the authorial anonymity of the Gospel of Matthew, is how a number of Classical authors refer to themselves in the third person, when narrating historical events in which they themselves had taken part. This point is raised, due to the fact that the disciple Matthew is mentioned in the gospel attributed to him (Mt. 9:9-13), but is only described in the third person, rather than identifying himself in the first person as the author of the text.

It is claimed that this omission should not count against the traditional authorial attribution of Matthew, since authors like Thucydides, Josephus, Xenophon, and Julius Caesar likewise describe themselves in the third person within their own narratives, without switching to the first person when they appear. Some additional nuance needs to be incorporated to address this point, however, since the authorial use of the third person in these Classical authors differs in a number of ways from how the disciple Matthew plays a role in the Gospel of Matthew.

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David Bryan on N.T. Wright and the Argument from “Anachronistic Anastasis” by Eric Bess

[Below is a guest blog by my friend Eric Bess, which deals appropriately with a topic pertaining to Easter and how to interpret the nature of the resurrection event.]

General Problems of Reasoning and Rhetoric

One of the most common arguments in the popular brand of resurrection apologetics is the idea that the resurrection of Jesus was some kind of unprecedented “anachronism.” Because Jesus was said to be resurrected individually and in advance of the collective resurrection many ancient Jews expected in a future age, no one would have ever imagined Jesus’ resurrection on their own. As N.T. Wright, a former Anglican bishop, popular New Testament theologian, and one of the most noted apologists for the resurrection today, states (“The Surprise of Resurrection,” Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened, pp. 89f.):

“Nobody ever imagined that this final event would be anticipated in the case of one person in the present. No first-century Jew, prior to easter, expected it to be anything other than that large-scale, last-minute, all-people event” [1].

This point is emphasized heavily in N.T. Wright’s landmark tome on the resurrection of Jesus [2]. Wright takes this to be evidence the resurrection of Jesus really happened, for only perceptions of Jesus appearing alive again after his death and an empty tomb being discovered (i.e., what the gospel stories narrate) would have generated such a belief. The best explanation for these twin phenomena is that Jesus really was resurrected [3]. This is far from the only argument mustered by apologists, including Wright, to defend the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, but to Wright it appears to be especially important.

But do people come to believe only what they “expect” to believe, for instance? This is obviously not the case, or new religious beliefs (to say nothing of beliefs in general) would never occur to anyone. People come to hold all sorts of novel religious beliefs for a variety of reasons: theological debate, changing social conditions, individual creativity, rationalization, and so forth. It’s characteristic of new religious movements to believe things nobody believed before pretty much by definition. Although they draw from existing religious traditions, they are unconventional, and often deliberately so [4]. That typically doesn’t require that people have good reasons to hold their beliefs, or require us to posit, if a precise explanation for the logic of how those beliefs were formed is unavailable, that those beliefs are best explained as true. Although it conflicts with the overconfident rhetoric displayed throughout his volume, for a brief moment Wright (The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 693f.) seems to appreciate this point. Observe:

“But with history things are seldom that straightforward. Furthermore, when our primary datum is a widely held belief for which we are seeking the causes, matters are even more open-ended. People believe many strange things for many odd reasons.”

To be fair, Wright supplements his view of the “unprecedented” nature of the resurrection of Jesus with a number of common ancillary arguments. For example, messiahs who were killed were not, as a rule, subsequently considered to be messiahs, and their movements lost momentum and disappeared because they were considered failures [5]. We are also to take the very fact that there was a widespread, standard belief in a future collective resurrection as a positive reason for why no one would think to say an individual was resurrected. In other words, the more the association of the language of resurrection with the idea of a future collective resurrection was ingrained in the minds of ancient Jews, the less likely it is that it would occur to anyone to apply that language to Jesus, presumably because it might come to be seen as deviating from accepted beliefs [6]. Wright’s rhetoric is even stronger and more emphatic than that (The Resurrection of the Son of God, 447 & n.70, emphasis added):

“This shows how impossible it is to suggest … that because the hope of resurrection was ‘in the air’ at the time this somehow made it more likely that people would believe that Jesus had been raised. What the Christians believed was not what was ‘in the air’ at the time.”

These ancillary arguments attempt to provide more of a reason why the ancient Christians would avoid wanting to say Jesus had been resurrected, but the point is, “no one had thought of or expected this very precise thing before” isn’t really a sound argument for why no one would come to believe or “imagine” it on their own without being “forced,” as it were, by some in-your-face event corresponding to the belief itself.

It’s nevertheless difficult to see what massive discontinuity Wright sees between the idea of the resurrection of Jesus as an individual and the doctrine of a future collective resurrection. This is a culture where people believe in entities like messiahs and concepts like magical resurrections, so despite Wright’s insistence to the contrary, I don’t see why this should compel a historian towards his historical conclusions.

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Margaret Froelich on the Death of Aesop and Luke 4:16-30

Both teaching and dissertation work have been keeping me occupied of late. I have an exciting announcement about an important conference that I have been accepted to present at later this year, which I will discuss here at some point in the near future. But otherwise I’ve had less time for blogging than I would like. I’m still soliciting guest blogs to help keep up with posting regular content. If you are interested in contributing to the content here on Κέλσος, please contact me about any ideas you have for essays relating to secular perspectives on the Bible, ancient history, philosophy, or counter-apologetics. I especially welcome book reviews.

jesus-reads-in-synagogue1I would be amiss, however, not to briefly discuss a very interesting paper that I saw presented a little over a week ago at the 2018 Pacific Coast SBL meeting. The presentation was given by Margaret Froelich, who is a PhD candidate at Claremont School of Theology. I actually met Froelich two years ago at the 2016 Pacific Coast SBL meeting. The title of the presentation was “‘You Are to Be Thrown from the Cliff’: Insult and Disputed Identity in Luke and the Life of Aesop.” Since the paper is being submitted to be published as a article, I won’t spoil too much of the content, beyond what can be gleaned from the title.

In the Gospel of Luke (4:16-30), Jesus gives a sermon at a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, which results in those present making an attempt to kill him. The content of Jesus’ teaching there upsets his Jewish listeners for reasons that are very similar to why, in the Life of Aesop (126), the Delphians become angry with the fabulist Aesop when he speaks at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, for reasons that Froelich discusses in her paper. Aesop’s death (which is one of the earliest strands of the Life) is noteworthy for his manner of execution. The Delphians sentence Aesop to be thrown off a cliff on charges of blasphemy (132):

“The Delphians came in to Aesop and said, ‘You are to be thrown from the cliff today, for this is the way they voted to put you to death as a temple thief and a blasphemer who does not deserve the dignity of burial … The Delphians were not deterred but took him off and stood him on the cliff … Aesop cursed them, called on the leader of the Muses to witness that the death was unjust, and threw himself over the cliff. And so he ended his life.

When the Delphians were afflicted with a famine, they received an oracle from Zeus that they should expiate the death of Aesop. Later, when word reached them, the peoples of Greece, Babylon, and Samos avenged Aesop’s death” [1].

Now, as I have discussed how, like other popular-novelistic biographies, Aesop’s death in the Life is characterized by a pattern of unjust death followed by divine vindication. Aesop is executed because he is wrongfully accused of stealing an ornament from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, but a famine is sent to the Delphians by Zeus after the incident to vindicate the death of Aesop. In similar fashion, Alexander the Great is betrayed by his lieutenant Antipater in the Alexander Romance (3.31), who kills him by sending Alexander poison contained in a lead vessel. But, Alexander’s death is vindicated by dark mist filling the air during his death in Babylon (3.33), and the shaking of the bronze statue of Zeus in Babylon. Hesiod in the Certamen of Homer and Hesiod  is betrayed by hosts he is staying with murdering him and casting his body into the sea, but Zeus sends a thunderbolt to sink their ship. On the “third day” after his death, dolphins carry Hesiod’s body to the shore.

Now, Jesus’ crucifixion and vindication by God after his death in the Gospels has parallels with all of the examples above: like Aesop, Jesus was executed at a culturally vital temple, since the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was nearly as important to the Greeks as the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem was to the Judeans; the darkness at Alexander’s death and the shaking of the statue of Zeus is very similar to the midday darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion and the ripping of the curtain in the Jewish Temple; Hesiod’s body being carried to the shore by dolphins on the “third day” after his death obviously shares the “third day” motif with Jesus’ resurrection.

What I hadn’t realized prior to Froelich’s presentation, however, was that Aesop’s death paralleled another episode in the Gospels, namely the attempt on Jesus’ life in Luke 4:16-30. When the Judeans listening to Jesus’ sermon become enraged with him, they attempt to push him off a cliff in a manner very similar to Aesop. As verses 24-30 read:

“‘Truly I tell you,’ he continued, ‘no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.’

All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliffBut he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

Froelich will discuss in the upcoming article the historical, sociological, and literary reasons why this scene in Luke is probably based on Aesop’s famous manner of death. For now, I am simply glad to say that I have another parallel to discuss in my dissertation. Furthermore, this particular parallel could suggest that the Gospel of Luke was familiar with the Life of Aesop itself (perhaps an earlier version than our surviving recensions). That’s a possibility that I’ll need to explore further, so I’m glad that Froelich brought this new research angle to my attention!

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] I have used Lloyd Daly’s translation for this passage.

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Some New Peer-Reviewed Publications

I have been quite busy this quarter teaching as part of the Humanities Core at UC Irvine. So far we have covered the Incan Empire and Shakespeare’s Tempest, and we are now beginning to explore British colonialism in India. All of these subjects are outside of my ordinary academic background, and so I have been having to do a lot of reading to expand my inter-disciplinary horizons. It’s an excellent learning experience, but it has also been keeping me very busy. I got up at 1am this morning to grade (ironically enough) a student blog assignment. I’m currently enjoying that good feeling a teacher gets after finishing the grind of grading a (virtual, in this case) stack of assignments.

Since I am a bit preoccupied at the moment with teaching and dissertation work, I thought I’d announce some recent peer-reviewed articles that I am publishing. First off, I have a 12,000 word article coming out this year with Francis Cairns Publications, as part of the Langford Latin Seminar. It’s their 17th volume, the topic of which is “Ancient Biography: Identity through Lives.” Since Greco-Roman biography is probably my greatest research emphasis, I was obviously quite glad to have an opportunity to publish with this volume. The title of my article is “Comparative Eschatology in Alexander’s Letter to Olympias and the Book of Revelation.” It expands and develops an idea that I had in this earlier blog essay. Here is the abstract for the article:

“This article makes a comparison of the Letter to Olympias, affixed to the end of book two of the Alexander Romance (2.23–41), with Greco-Roman and Christian apocalyptic literature, with aim toward interpreting many of the eschatological themes in the text, particularly with regard to Alexander’s quest to seek “the end of the world” (τὸ τέλος τῆς γῆς, 2.37). Alexander attempts to journey to the “Land of the Blessed” (μακάρων χώρα, 2.39), whence he is turned back by two birds with human faces (2.40), he fails to drink from the “Spring of Immortality” (ἀθανάτου … πηγή, 2.39), and a flying creature in the form of a man points him back to the earth when he “comes close to ascending to heaven” (πλησίον τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ὑπάρχειν, 2.41). These setbacks are interpreted as reflecting the limitations of a terrestrial eschatology, which is bound to an eschaton that can only reach the ends of a mortal sphere on earth. This terrestrial eschatology is contrasted with the celestial eschatology in the Book of Revelation, in which the present world is destroyed (21:1), and a New Jerusalem descends from heaven (21:2).”

The volume is scheduled to be published on May 15, 2018. I’ll discuss more details about it when it hits the press. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to post the article electronically, due to copyright, so you will have to purchase the volume or obtain it from a library to read it. I will check with the editor, however, to see if I can privately send electronic copies to people, by request, online.

The other two articles are on the Secular Web. Both are expanded and heavily footnoted versions of blog essays that I originally wrote here on Κέλσος. The first is my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” which contrasts the compositional methods and genre of the NT Gospels with those of ancient historians–like Thucydides and Tacitus–and historical biographers–like Plutarch and Suetonius, and likewise addresses the question of how the Gospels’ genre affects their historical reliability. The article is over 13,500 words long and can be viewed online through the linked title above.

The other article is “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels,” which discusses the anonymity of the NT Gospels and the problems surrounding their traditional apostolic authorial attributions. The article not only summarizes why mainstream NT scholars doubt the patristic attributions of the Gospels to their traditional names, but also explains from a Classical perspective why the Gospels’ authorial attributions are not as reliable as those for other texts from antiquity, such as the authorial attributions for the works of Tacitus and Plutarch. This article is over 36,800 words long, and also can be viewed through the linked title above.

All together, these publications add up to over 60,000 words, which is about the length of a short book. I also just finished a draft for a short book chapter, as part of another publication that I am currently working on. Right now I have a lot of projects that I am developing as part of my long-term plans. I’m currently working on my dissertation, which (assuming all goes well) will eventually turn into a scholarly monograph, and I still plan to develop a counter-apologetics book out of the content on this blog at some point. All of this will take time, but for now, I am happy to announce that some fruit as been borne.

-Matthew Ferguson

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Bart Ehrman and Jodi Magness on the Burial of Jesus and the Empty Tomb

It’s been almost four years since Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God was published, and one of the points of controversy that arose when the book was first released is the fact that Ehrman does not endorse the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of Jesus, nor the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb as a “historical fact” surrounding the earliest beliefs in the resurrection. Ehrman is hardly the only biblical scholar to hold this view, since as I have discussed before, there are several scholars who doubt these claims, showing that there is nothing like an academic consensus agreeing that they are “minimal facts” about the origins of Christianity.

One of the biggest criticisms of Ehrman’s book was his discussion of Jesus’ burial, and that he did not interact with his colleague Jodi Magness at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the bibliography of the book, despite Magness’ expertise on burial practices in Palestine during the time of Jesus. As Greg Monette writes:

“One could only wished for Ehrman’s sake that he knocked on professor Magness’ door down the hall from his own at the University of North Carolina. His book would have greatly benefited from it.”

Based on Ehrman’s arguments for doubting the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial, however, and from what I have read of Magness’ own scholarship, I will argue that Ehrman’s thesis can be only slightly modified to still argue that Jesus was given an anonymous ground burial. To be sure, I agree with Monette that Ehrman’s discussion could be expanded to include Magness’ scholarship. But it is not to defend the empty tomb tradition in the Gospels.

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Numismatic Evidence that Corroborates Suetonius’ Life of Otho and Contradicts the Gospels

Keener and WrightTo follow up on my previous review of Christian scholar Craig Keener’s “Otho: A Targeted Comparison” in Biographies and Jesus, I’d like to briefly discuss the relevance of numismatic evidence in evaluating Suetonius’ Life of Otho in comparison to the NT Gospels.

Numismatics is the study of ancient currency, and is particularly relevant to the study of Roman emperors, since the rulers of the Roman Empire would stamp their faces on the currency in circulation throughout the Mediterranean. A number of years ago I took a seminar on Roman numismatics with professor Edward Watts at UC San Diego, in which I did a research project on the emperor Otho and the currency he circulated with his image during his short reign. It is also relevant to another seminar that I took with professor Michele Salzman at UC Riverside in which I did a research project related to the depiction of Roman taxation in the Gospel of Matthew. My research in both seminars is relevant to evaluating Keener’s argument that Suetonius’ historical reliability can be compared to that of the NT Gospels.

Numismatics is a useful piece of data for assessing historical reliability, since ancient coins furnish archaeological evidence that we can use to corroborate (or contradict) ancient narratives. The historical claim of Suetonius in question, which is relevant to numismatics, is a peculiar of detail of Otho that he discusses about his hair (12.1):

“He had the hair of his body plucked out, and because of the thinness of his locks wore a wig so carefully fashioned and fitted to his head, that no one suspected it.”

So the emperor Otho apparently had the custom of wearing a wig. Is there any way that we could corroborate this detail that Suetonius gives with archaeological evidence? Well actually there is. During my seminar with Watts, I gave a presentation on some Roman denarii minted during his reign, and one of the things that Watts pointed out during my presentation is that the coins actually depict Otho wearing a wig. If you take a close look at the denarius below, you may notice that there is something funny about his hair:

To make the detail of his wig more prominent, I’ve included another denarius of the emperor Nero below, in which his hair is depicted in the standard fashion:

And so, outside material remains confirm that Suetonius had gotten this detail of Otho correct in his biography. We can also use numismatics to corroborate other information Suetonius gives about the Roman emperors, such as another detail about the emperor Galba. In his Life of Galba (5.2), Suetonius claims that the emperor Galba had a special connection with Augustus’ wife Livia, writing:

He showed marked respect to Livia Augusta, to whose favour he owed great influence during her lifetime and by whose last will he almost became a rich man; for he had the largest bequest among her legatees, one of fifty million sesterces. But because the sum was designated in figures and not written out in words, Tiberius, who was her heir, reduced the bequest to five hundred thousand, and Galba never received even that amount.”

Once more numismatic evidence comes to our aid in corroborating this detail, since it turns out that, when Galba first became emperor, he actually minted coins that depict Livia Augusta on the reverse. Below is another Roman denarius that depicts both Galba and Livia together:

The connection that Galba drew with the house of Augustus and the empress Livia was a special part of his propaganda when he first became emperor, which is discussed by scholar Colin Kraay in The Coinage of Vindex and Gaiba A.D. 68, and the Continuity of the Augustan Principate.

And so, when it comes to his anecdotes about these Roman emperors, what the evidence of ancient currency bears out is that Suetonius tends to know what he is talking about. Can such numismatic evidence be used to evaluate the depiction of events found in the NT Gospels? Well, it turns out that it can. But rather than corroborating the Gospels, what scholar Fabian Udoh finds in To Caesar What Is Caesar’s–a scholarly monograph on tax administration in Roman Palestine from 63 BCE to 70 CE–is that the archaeological record actually contradicts the Gospel narratives.

Surely all of us have heard the famous saying of Jesus, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” found in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Mk. 12:17; Mt. 22:21; Lk. 20:25). The context of the saying is when hostile questioners try to trap Jesus into taking a stance on whether Jews should or should not pay taxes to the Roman authorities. Clever as he is, Jesus reframes the matter, by specifying that Roman taxes are a secular matter, as the denarius they hand Jesus bears the face of Caesar, and is thus one his possessions, rather than something pertaining to God. In the Gospel of Matthew (22:15-22), the full passage reads:

“Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians.

‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?’ 

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ 

They brought him a denariusand he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’

Caesar’s,’ they replied. 

Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’ 

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.” 

While an excellent moment for displaying Jesus’ rhetorical wit, however, the scene does pose a historical-critical question: did the Judeans of this period actually pay Roman taxes using the denarius?

Roman denarius of Tiberius

By studying archaeological evidence such as the coin hoards excavated from this period, Udoh argues that this is unlikely. Interacting with the research of Donald Ariel in “A Survey of Coin Finds in Jerusalem,” who provides a systematic analysis of surface excavations and coin finds, Udoh points out that significant numbers of denarii are found in Palestine only after 69 CE, particularly from the reign of Vespasian onward. This was because, after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, the currency and government in Judea changed dramatically. However, prior to this time (and during the time of Jesus) the primary silver currency in Palestine was the Tyrian shekel. For example, a coin hoard discovered at Isfiya, which contained coins dating from 40 BCE-53 CE, contained 4,400 Tyrian coins compared to only 160 denarii, of which about 30 were of Tiberius (Udoh, pg. 235). To be sure, a few denarii made their way to Palestine through circulation, but this proportion shows that Tyrian shekels were the dominant currency that would have been used for taxation in coin.

In light of this evidence, Udoh (pg. 236) concludes, “the imperial denarii were not required for Roman taxation, and they did not form the basis of the silver currency of the region. The connection that is made in the Gospels, especially in Matt 22:19, between Roman taxation in Judea and the denarius does not offer any specific historical information about taxation in Jewish Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime.” What is especially interesting about this insight is that the traditional author of the Gospels of Matthew is even reputed to have been a tax collector, specifically a toll collector (τελώνης) in Galilee. That he would thus make a mistake about the currency used for taxation is rather peculiar, though such an error does fit with the fact that the majority of mainstream biblical scholars agree that the traditional authorial attribution is spurious.

Furthermore, taxation in Palestine was not administered by the Romans, but by the Jewish authorities, and it was collected by Jewish agents rather than Roman agents (this was done to make the presence of Roman imperialism less obvious). In the case of Matthew’s occupation as a toll collector, Udoh (pg. 241) explains, “If toll collection was leased out to contractors in Judea, it appears that both the contractors and their agents were Jews.”

As reviewer Ed Cohen explains, summarizing Udoh’s findings in Notre Dame Magazine (“Biblical Tax Story Rendered Implausible”):

“To determine the authenticity of Jesus’ pronouncement, Udoh looked at elements of the story: Did a Roman tax exist in Jesus’s time that everyone was required to pay? Was payment required in a particular Roman coin? Would that coin have borne the likeness of the emperor, and if so, would it have been circulating in such abundance that Jesus could have reasonably expected one to be produced on the spot?

First, Udoh finds no evidence from the period of a census-based, per-capita tribute or ‘poll tax,’ as the word in Matthew and Mark is customarily translated. Any assessments by Rome, he says, likely would have been based on agricultural production and paid in-kind with farm products like grain. In fact, by Udoh’s analysis, Rome did not impose a ‘per capita’ tribute on the people in Judea until 70 CE. He also finds no evidence of a direct tribute requiring payment in Roman money. Finally, he observes that since colonial taxes are notoriously difficult to collect, requiring payment in a specific coin would have only made collection more difficult.

As for the Roman coin Jesus calls for, a silver denarius, these did exist during the time of his ministry, and they would have borne the likeness of Caesar Augustus or Tiberius. But while denarii would have been recognized by people in Jewish Palestine during Jesus’s time, Udoh says, archeological findings suggest they were not the silver coin being used at the time. That coin was the Tyrian shekel.

For these reasons Udoh believes that the render-unto-Caesar story probably originated from a later time or another place.”

And so, the passage is either anachronistic or is conflating a tax imposed from another region than Palestine. If it refers to a tax imposed at a later date, it could be because Mark (the first gospel in which it appears) was composed after 70 CE, which was the earliest time that such a tax was imposed in Palestine. If it is from another region, it could be because Christians in those areas were struggling with the issue of whether they should pay Roman taxes [1], and the authors of the NT Gospels felt the need to address the question, by spuriously placing a saying on the lips of Jesus that he actually never spoke.

But unlike in the case of Suetonius’ writings, wherein numismatic evidence confirms the details of his narrative, here the evidence of ancient coins does not bear out the narrative of the Gospels. Beyond the problems I noted in my previous review of Keener, this is another reason why we probably shouldn’t be comparing legendary texts like the Gospels to a historical biographer like Suetonius.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] An additional argument from silence may be added against the notion that the historical Jesus had spoken in favor of paying taxes to the Roman authorities, based on Paul’s letters. In Romans 13:6-7, Paul states:

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”

Paul tends to mention when he had a previous teaching of Jesus available on a matter of Christian practice (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1411:22-24), and so his failure to mention Jesus’ alleged teaching on paying Roman taxes carries some weight in this passage against the notion that there was such a previous teaching. It’s also worth noting that Paul’s reasoning differs somewhat from Jesus’, since Paul equates the governing authorities with being servants of God, whereas Jesus disassociates Caesar from God.

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