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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.

To Be or Not to Be a God: The Reign of Claudius

When Gaius Caligula died in 41 CE, some in the Roman senate sought to restore the republic. The military, on the other hand, saw an advantage in having only one ruler if he could be easily influenced. Having eliminated the uncontrollable Gaius, the Praetorian Guard felt that they had found a potential puppet in his fifty-year-old uncle, Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus. The troops took Claudius to their camp and declared him to be emperor. Eventually the senators capitulated and voted power to Claudius, who began a thirteen-year reign that would be more productive than either the senate or the army had anticipated.

After voting appropriate honors and titles to the new emperor, the senate attempted to dishonor Gaius Caligula officially. Claudius blocked this legislation, but on his own removed the name and image of his predecessor from all civic records. Remembering the reasons for Gaius's downfall, the new emperor was especially careful about accepting honors that could be construed as excessive. In a letter to the citizens of Alexandria in Egypt, Claudius responded to the offer of honors by accepting some, such as a formal celebration of his birthday and statues erected to his family and to the peace secured by his reign (Pax Claudiana), but rejecting others. He adamantly refused the dedication to him of temples and priesthoods, saying that these were to be reserved for the gods. Claudius thus showed both an awareness of his own humanity and a respect for the consequences of claiming excessive honors.

This letter (Corpus papyrorum Judaicarum II 153) illustrates the carefully balanced power relationships that held together the empire. When Claudius came to power, governing bodies in provincial cities like Alexandria rushed to show loyalty to the new emperor. After passing various honorific decrees, leaders in each city would send representatives to pay tribute and pledge support. It remained for the emperor to endorse these gestures, thereby ratifying the local actions. Through this reciprocal action, the emperor established a reliable contingent of powerful persons in the main cities, which in turn hoped to ensure future benefactions from the emperor.

This relationship made the cities dependent on the emperor's approval for many of their actions. In his letter, Claudius responds to other questions that the Alexandrians raised about the local political and social structure. One concerns the institution of a lottery system for selecting priests for the temple of the deified Augustus. Ever since Augustus's postmortem deification, cities had set up sacred structures and instituted religious rituals to honor the divine Augustus. At the same time, various religious rites involving the emperor were an important means of articulating the mutual relationships that held the empire together.

The structures, statuary, and other images associated with the emperor tangibly represented Roman power, even in distant provincial cities. At the same time, the rituals associated with the emperor allowed people to demonstrate their loyalty and pay honor to the power of Rome as manifested through the emperor. Priests of the divine Augustus stood at the intersection of this relationship, mediating the bonds of loyalty and patronage. As such, the Augustan priesthood was a highly significant and coveted position in the city. Citing earlier practice, Claudius stipulated that the priest should be chosen by lot, eliminating the possibility of divisive competition or the monopolization of the office by powerful families or groups.

The letter from Claudius to the Alexandrians also sheds light on a long-standing social conflict involving the Jewish population in the city. Representatives of both parties had defended their actions before the emperor, but Claudius was upset with everyone involved, and he used harsh language to express his anger. Claudius affirmed the rights of the Jews, who had lived in the city for many years, and, citing precedent from Augustus, insisted that they be allowed to follow their traditional religious customs. On the other hand, he reminded the Jews that they were aliens in the city, and warned them against trying to participate in civic functions where they were not welcome.

Apparently, some Jews were attempting to improve their status by joining in games and other activities. This intrusion prompted some Alexandrians to attack the Jewish community, at times violently. Claudius threatened to punish both sides if the dispute was not resolved, but he imposed extra restrictions on the Jews. Most notably, in order to relieve the xenophobic fears of the Alexandrians, the emperor prohibited further Jewish immigration into the city. These actions illustrated the Roman desire to maintain order, whatever the cost. Unlike Gaius Caligula, Claudius displayed no animosity toward the Jews or their religion, but he would not tolerate any activity that might upset the social order in this important provincial city. The same lack of tolerance is demonstrated in an incident involving Claudius and Jewish residents of Rome.

The second-century historian Suetonius notes in passing that Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because of a continuous disturbance caused by Chrestus (Claudius 25). It is possible that this refers to conflict within the Jewish community over the claims that Jesus fulfilled expectations for the anointed one, the Messiah, or Christos in Greek. If so, then by the mid-40s CE the Jewish population of Rome included some followers of Jesus. Exactly how the message of Jesus reached Rome is not clear. It may have been brought by missionaries, or by Jewish members of the movement who traveled or relocated to Rome. Apparently, these Jesus followers were willing to argue for their belief, creating a disturbance in the Jewish community and in the capital city. Moreover, if Chrestus does refer to Christ, this is the earliest reference to the activity of the Jesus movement outside Christian literature. The report is sketchy, but Suetonius seems to be describing a dispute involving the Jewish community, with no mention of the problems associated with Gentiles joining the churches.

For most Jews, Jesus had simply not lived up to what Jewish scriptures predicted for the coming Messiah. Jewish followers of Jesus, however, read many biblical passages as prophecies that Jesus had fulfilled. Those who did not see Jesus as the Christ were not persuaded by such interpretations. They remained unconvinced by promises that Jesus would return to earth to complete the messianic work of setting up God's kingdom. This disagreement about Jesus as Christ was the fundamental difference that eventually isolated the Jesus followers from Judaism, and caused the creation of a separate religion known as Christianity. During the reign of Claudius (41–54 CE), however, this complete separation still lay in the future. Claudius did not care at all about the details of the dispute over Chrestus, but once it led to social disorder, he acted swiftly and decisively to end it. The report by Suetonius may be exaggerated, but the expulsion order it describes was well within character for a Roman emperor.

After a reign that included many effective and harsh efforts to maintain order, Claudius died from other than natural causes. Agrippina, the wife of Claudius and mother of Nero, was the prime suspect, accused by Roman historians of assassinating her husband with poisoned mushrooms. Nero came to power and shortly thereafter eliminated his one rival, Britannicus, Claudius's fourteen-year-old son.

Neither Tiberius nor Gaius had been deified after death, but the senate recognized Claudius as a god despite opposition. After the senate's action, someone—probably Seneca, the philosopher and teacher of Nero—wrote a satirical account of Claudius's deification. Known as the Apocalocyntosis (“pumpkinification”), this imaginative piece recorded a controversy among the gods as to whether the newest god, Claudius, should be admitted to the heavenly court. After rancorous debate, the divine Augustus himself spoke against Claudius because of his murderous cruelty, and the gods dispatched Claudius to Hades to stand trial for his crimes.

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