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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Runaway Power: The Reign of Gaius

If the Roman legions had had their way, Germanicus rather than Tiberius would have succeeded Augustus. Germanicus died in 19 CE, but his son Gaius Julius Caesar inherited his position as heir to the empire. Nicknamed “Caligula,” the term for the small military boots he wore as a child, Gaius had inherited his father's popularity with the armies and the people. According to later records, however, his tendency toward cruelty was apparent even before he came to power. Tiberius himself felt that allowing Gaius to live would prove the ruin of himself and of all people. Because of his immense popularity, however, Gaius was the unanimous choice of the senate as emperor when Tiberius died in 37 CE. Suetonius reports that he was welcomed by 160,000 sacrifices during the first three months of his reign (Gaius Caligula 11, 14).

Gaius came to power at the age of twenty-five, and although he is credited with extensive achievements, his attitude and actions proved to be a disappointment to the troops and others who had supported him. Caligula quickly embraced a more absolute sense of his authority and severely punished anyone who challenged it. The image of the princeps as a first among equals gave way to a sense of the emperor as monarch. There was probably little difference between Gaius's power and that wielded by his predecessors, but Gaius was unwilling to feign humility.

Gaius claimed that being emperor made him equal with the gods and deserving of divine worship. Suetonius mentions that Gaius imported famous statues of the gods and ordered that likenesses of his head be substituted for the divinity's. Gaius also set up a temple to his own divine spirit, complete with priests and exotic sacrificial victims (Gaius Caligula 22). The claim to divine honors outraged some Romans, so most emperors attempted to maintain a balance between modesty and offending those who wanted to pay homage to them. Gaius, however, had no such inclination to moderation.

Demanding and receiving divine honors, Gaius raged against anyone who refused to offer them. Thus the Jews, who would not worship any god but their own, were frequently the targets of the emperor's wrath. The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria details what transpired when Gaius proposed to force the Jews to worship him by installing his statue in the Temple in Jerusalem (Legatio ad Gaium 30–42; a shorter and slightly different account of the same story is found in Josephus, Jewish War 2.10). Philo uses this account to illustrate the mental instability of Gaius, who had suffered a life-threatening illness in the eighth month of his reign. In Philo's view, this illness caused a “turning to wildness, or rather bringing to light the savagery that he had hidden under the actor's mask” (Legatio ad Gaium 22).

In trying to convince Gaius to abandon his plan to desecrate the Temple, Philo cites the example of the moderation of the deified Augustus in dealing with the Jews: “So highly did he regard our concerns that he and almost his whole family furnished our sanctuary with the richness of his offerings, commanding that perpetual burnt offerings should be made each day at his own expense as a tribute to the most high God” (Legatio ad Gaium 157). Although this description of respect for the Jews might be hyperbole, Philo wrote it only twenty-five years after the death of Augustus, so it could reflect a genuine level of tolerance. Philo cites examples from Tiberius as well, and records that Gaius was eventually persuaded to abandon his plan to install his statue in the Temple, without changing his fundamentally negative disposition toward the Jews.

Philo concludes his discussion of Gaius with a description of an audience that he and other Jewish leaders from Alexandria had with the emperor. This embassy meets with Gaius in hope of defending their right to live peacefully in the city. Instead, Gaius becomes the accuser of the Jews in general: “Are you the god-haters who do not know me as a god, a god acknowledged by all others, but not named by you?” The Jewish delegation responds that they show their loyalty by offering regular sacrifice on behalf of the emperor, but Gaius is unmoved: “You have made offerings, but to another, even if it was for me. What good is it then, for you have not sacrificed to me.” Eventually, Gaius dismisses the Jewish embassy with an uncharacteristically mild rebuke, saying that they seemed “to be unlucky rather than evil, and to be foolish in not believing that I have been allotted the nature of a god” (Legatio ad Gaium 353, 357, 367).

Jewish followers of Jesus would have received the same harsh treatment. At this time the development of a mission to “the nations” began to bring non-Jews into the Jesus movement. This inclusion of Gentiles led to internal debates about whether one needed to be a Jew before being a follower of Jesus (Acts 10–11; 15; Gal. 1–5 ). The participation of non-Jews must also have raised the profile of the movement considerably. Paul makes it clear that he suffered persecution both from Jewish authorities and because of his efforts to bring Gentiles into the church (2 Cor. 11.24–26 ). When people who all their lives had worshiped the Greco-Roman gods and given due homage to the emperor suddenly refused to do so, social unrest arose. This no emperor could tolerate, and Gaius responded with brutality.

While the Jews and the Jesus followers lay at the mercy of the divine emperor's moods, Gaius's pretensions were also infuriating to more powerful members of society. After less than four years as emperor, Gaius Caligula was assassinated by soldiers of the Praetorian Guard assigned to protect him.

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