When I first started this blog, I debunked an egregious piece of apologetic misinformation claiming that there is more ancient literary evidence for Jesus than the contemporary Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar (see my refutation of the 10/42 apologetic). I was rather surprised when I saw apologist Cliffe Knechtle make this claim, because the reign of Tiberius is one of my areas of Classical research, and I was rather disturbed that Christian apologists were misrepresenting this period in order to create specious talking points for converting people to their religion. In doing some readings of the patristic Church Fathers last academic quarter, however, I realized that Christians spreading false information about the reign of Tiberius is apparently nothing new.
It started when I was reading the church father Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (a devilishly clever piece of Constantinian propaganda), in which the Christian “historian” makes the following claim about Tiberius allegedly voicing early support for Christianity:
“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.
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.
Now, to be sure, Eusebius’ history is packed full of misinformation, in which he relies on a vast array of pseudepigraphal literature to relate a number of dubious stories about early Christian communities. The fact that Eusebius had inherited so many false traditions by the 4th century CE quite vividly illustrates just how much misinformation Christians had circulated in the preceding centuries about their origins (see Bart Ehrman’s Forged: Writing in the Name of God).
Today, professional historians have used a number of philological and historical-critical techniques to root out these false stories, so that we actually have a much clearer picture of Christianity’s real origins in the 1st-3rd centuries CE in modern times than even Eusebius had much closer to the event. A lot of these false stories are rejected even by orthodox Christians and apologists, despite credence from several Christians in antiquity. This story about Tiberius greatly interested me, however, and I want to say a bit more about Christian lies pertaining to the reign of the Tiberius, since this is hardly the only one.
Eusebius was not the first Christian to falsely claim that Tiberius supported Christianity only a couple years after the death of Jesus. In fact, Eusebius even states that he had inherited this tradition from the church father Tertullian, who was writing in the early 3rd century CE. We do not possess Tertullian’s actual words, since Eusebius was relying on a lost Greek translation of his Apology for the Faith. Eusebius quotes the translation, however, and here is what Tertullian relates:
“Tiberius, therefore, under whom the name of Christ made its entry into the world, when this doctrine was reported to him from Palestine, where it first began, communicated with the Senate, making it clear to them that he was pleased with the doctrine. But the Senate, since it had not itself proved the matter, rejected it. But Tiberius continued to hold his own opinion, and threatened death to the accusers of the Christians. Heavenly providence had wisely instilled this into his mind in order that the doctrine of the Gospel, unhindered at its beginning, might spread in all directions throughout the world.”
This story is obviously false. The historians Velleius Paterculus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio know nothing of it, and such a fabricated tale obviously serves Christian apologetic purposes.
Allegedly, according to Eusebius’ account, Pontius Pilate had communicated with Tiberius to discuss Jesus. We also possess a forged letter from Pilate to Tiberius about Jesus. And this is hardly the only Christian forgery about Pilate, since we also possess forged Acts of Pilate. Christians in the first several centuries CE likewise produced a number of other forgeries of this kind, which had allegedly been written by Pagans. Another example is a forged set of letters between the apostle Paul and the Stoic philosopher Seneca.
Modern apologists today will often try to brush off the lack of contemporary evidence or Pagan corroboration for the miracles of Jesus on the grounds that people in antiquity allegedly only wrote about historical events hundreds of years after the event. I have already discussed in my essay “When Do Contemporary or Early Sources Matter in Antiquity?” how apologists relying on this escape hatch frequently make multiple methodological and factual errors. I find it further amusing, however, how this apologetic rebuttal is, in fact, even refuted by the forged literature of Christians in antiquity.
If nobody back then wrote about historical events until hundreds of years later, why did Christians in antiquity go looking for such contemporary corroboration? Why did Julius Africanus have to falsely report that Thallus and Phlegon wrote about the midday darkness at Jesus’ execution (discussed further by ancient historian Richard Carrier in “Thallus and the Darkness at Christ’s Death”), if nobody in antiquity would have ever expected such evidence? Why did Tertullian feel the need to lie and claim that the emperor Marcus Aurelius created a whole Roman legion of Christian soldiers because of the miracles that they performed (discussed further by Carrier in “Beckwith on Historiography”)?
The fact that Christians felt the need to forge literature written by Pontius Pilate and Seneca, and also to make up false stories about the emperor Tiberius, illustrates that they did, indeed, expect there to be such evidence, if the miracles of Jesus were true. After all, the Jesus in the Gospels is a larger-than-life figure who could walk on water, darken the Sun in the sky, rip the curtain in the Jewish Temple, and fly into space in broad daylight. And yet not a single Pagan contemporary knew of these events. It would seem almost as if the real Jesus had been an unmiraculous nobody. Embarrassed by such an absence of evidence, Christians in antiquity felt the need to produce forgeries.
But Christian lies about Tiberius do not stop there. An even more colorful tale about Tiberius appears in a 7th century text, titled The Avenging of the Savior, in which Tiberius even converts to Christianity! The story contains multiple historical inaccuracies, such as claiming that the later emperor Titus (who lived from 39-81 CE) was a prince during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 CE). There is a particular claim made about Tiberius’ physical appearance in the text, however, that I want to flesh out in more detail.
Near the beginning of the text, the following description is made of Tiberius suffering from a flesh-eating illness:
“In those days Titus was a prince under Tiberius in the region of Equitania, in a city of Libia which is called Burgidalla. And Titus had a sore in his right nostril, on account of a cancer, and he had his face torn even to the eye. There went forth a certain man from Judaea, by name Nathan the son of Nahum; for he was an Ishmaelite who went from land to land, and from sea to sea, and in all the ends of the earth. Now Nathan was sent from Judaea to the Emperor Tiberius, to carry their treaty to the city of Rome. And Tiberius was ill, and full of ulcers and fevers, and had nine kinds of leprosy.“
Nine kinds of leprosy! Where did that come from? Interestingly enough, this detail echoes a number of physical descriptions that are made of Tiberius in earlier sources. The biographer Suetonius Tranquillus (Life of Tiberius, chapter 68) records the following detail about Tiberius’ facial complexion:
“He was of fair complexion and wore his hair rather long at the back, so much so as even to cover the nape of his neck; which was apparently a family trait. His face was handsome, but would break out on a sudden with many pimples.“
Likewise, the historian Tacitus metaphorically describes the appearance of Tiberius’ soul as being scarred and lacerated. Tacitus, of course, is notorious for being a staunch critic of Tiberius. In his Annals (6.6), Tacitus rather poetically describes the condition of Tiberius’ soul with the following details:
“So completely had his crimes and infamies recoiled, as a penalty, on himself. With profound meaning was it often affirmed by the greatest teacher of philosophy that, could the minds of tyrants be laid bare, there would be seen gashes and wounds; for, as the body is lacerated by scourging, so is the spirit by brutality, by lust and by evil thoughts. Assuredly Tiberius was not saved by his elevation or his solitude from having to confess the anguish of his heart and his self-inflicted punishment.”
The later emperor Julian (4th century CE) appears to have even somewhat conflated these two descriptions, one about Tiberius’ facial complexion and the other about the condition of his soul. In his Caesars (309), Julian satirically describes a banquet, to which the souls of previous emperors are summoned. Tiberius is one of the shades to appear, and here is how Julian describes the appearance of Tiberius’ soul:
“The third to hasten in was Tiberius, with countenance solemn and grim, and an expression at once sober and martial. But as he turned to sit down his back was seen to be covered with countless scars, burns, and sores, painful welts and bruises, while ulcers and abscesses were as though branded thereon, the result of his self-indulgent and cruel life.”
Given these earlier descriptions, it is not surprising that The Avenging of the Saviour depicts Tiberius as suffering from ulcers and nine kinds of leprosy. The 7th century legend, from top to bottom, is obviously completely bunk, but I do find it to be an interesting example of the reception of Tiberius’ body. From Tacitus, to Suetonius, to Julian, to this 7th century text, Tiberius comes to be described in more and more hideous ways.
All of this physical description, however, perfectly sets the scene for Tiberius’ conversion. After being tormented by this flesh-eating condition, Tiberius’ conversion to Christianity cures him of his ailments. The Avenging of the Saviour describes Tiberius’ baptism and conversion as follows:
“Then said the Emperor Tiberius to Velosianus: Velosianus, hast thou seen any of those men who saw Christ? Velosianus answered: I have. He said: Didst thou ask how they baptize those who believed in Christ? Velosianus said: Here, my Lord, we have one of the disciples of Christ himself. Then he ordered Nathan to be summoned to come to him. Nathan therefore came and baptized him in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Immediately the Emperor Tiberius, made whole from all his diseases, ascended upon his throne, and said: Blessed art Thou, O Lord God Almighty, and worthy to be praised, who hast freed me from the snare of death, and cleansed me from all mine iniquities; because I have greatly sinned before Thee, O Lord my God, and I am not worthy to see Thy face. And then the Emperor Tiberius was instructed in all the articles of the faith, fully, and with strong faith.”
There you have it, Tiberius Caesar the Christian! This is truly one of the most bizarre stories that I have read about Tiberius in my Classical research. It shouldn’t really be that bizarre of a story, since invented Pagan conversions are a common trope of Medieval literature, with Pontius Pilate, Seneca, and many other Pagans likewise (allegedly) converting to Christianity. I say that this story is “bizarre” though, because of how strongly it contrasts with Tiberius’ representation in Pagan literature.
In my essay “The Old Goat of Capri: Historical Uncertainty and Plausible Doubt,” I discuss some of the rumors that spread about Tiberius in the writings of Roman historians. They are of quite a different character, to say the least. Here is how the biographer Suetonius (Life of Tiberius, chapters 43-44) describes Tiberius’ behavior, during his retirement on the island of Capri:
“On retiring to Capreae he made himself a private sporting-house, where sexual extravagances were practiced for his secret pleasure. Bevies of girls and young men, whom he had collected from all over the Empire as adepts in unnatural practices, and known as spintriae, would copulate before him in groups of three, to excite his waning passions. A number of small rooms were furnished with the most indecent pictures and statuary obtainable, also certain erotic manuals from Elephantis in Egypt; the inmates of the establishment would know from these exactly what was expected of them. He furthermore devised little nooks of lechery in the woods and glades of the island, and had boys and girls dressed up as Pans and nymphs prostituting themselves in from of caverns or grottoes; so that the island was now openly and generally called ‘Caprineum.’ Some aspects of his criminal obscenity are almost too vile to discuss, much less believe. Imagine training little boys, whom he called his ‘minnows,’ to chase him while he went swimming and to get between his legs to lick and nibble him. Or letting babies not yet weaned from their mother’s breast suck at his breast or groin – such a filthy old man he had become!”
Yikes! Apparently between all of his sexual escapades, Tiberius found time to learn about Jesus Christ and convert to Christianity. Or, rather, the whole story is made up. That said, as I discuss in my essay above, we can’t even be sure if Suetonius’ stories about Tiberius’ perversion are true, due to all of the dubious details and the tendency among Roman historians to vilify past emperors. From child molester to Christian convert, the reception of Tiberius in the centuries after his death are both colorful and diverse.
In fact, the reception of Tiberius is one of the main reasons that I am interested in studying his reign. I actually first became interested in Classics when I read Suetonius’ Life of Tiberius (or, rather, listened to it on audiobook) in my junior year of college. I was so surprised by the graphic anecdotes about his life that I wanted to study his reign as emperor more thoroughly. Now, after studying Classics for some years, I also came upon this story about Tiberius converting to Christianity. There have, indeed, been a variety of interesting things said about Rome’s second emperor…