Monday, February 18, 2013

Fr. Domenico Grasso, S.J., "Chrestians"

Tacitus, a great Latin historian, writing around the year 116, devotes a whole page of his Annals to Jesus. In speaking of the burning of Rome, which was presumably the work of Nero himself, he attempts to recapture the drama of the destruction of Troy. Tacitus claims that the emperor, in order to quell the voices accusing him of having been the cause of the disaster, accused those people who were called "Chrestians". He goes on to say that the founder of this sect,
Christ (Chrestus), had been put to death by the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius. This 'dangerous superstition' which, for a time was successfully controlled, began to spread from Judea, where it first originated, to the City (of Rome), where all the most common and shameful things seem to congregate and win applause. (Annals, XV, 44) 
This brief description, which Tacitus probably found in the Senate archives, fully supports what we knew of Jesus from the Gospels. He is a Jew who was put to death, under the reign of Tiberius, by the procurator Pontius Pilate; he was the initiator of a religious movement whose followers are called Christians. For the Latin historian, Jesus is an historical personality, living at a precisely determined moment in history, a few decades prior to Tacitus' writing. Tacitus' witness is confirmed by the writings of Suetonius around the year 120. In his Life of Claudius, he tells us that this Emperor expelled the Jews from Rome because of their constant agitations "over Chrestus". (Vita Claudii, XXV) The word which he uses, "Chrestus", obviously stands for Christ, the Greek translation of the Hebrew term "Messiah" (anointed). Suetonius alludes to the frequent heated debates between Christians and Jews on the nature and teachings of Christ. Still, as Abbot Giuseppe Ricciotti, C.R.L observes, "since he was only poorly informed on the subject of Christianity, Suetonius seems to believe that this Chrestus was personally present in Rome at the time and had provoked the rioting himself". (Ricciotti, Life of Christ, 2nd ed., Milan, 1941, p.107) But even for Suetonius, Christ is a real person and not a myth. Before Tacitus and Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Roman governor of Bithynia (in modern Northern Turkey), in his correspondence with the Emperor Trajan (A.D. 112) speaks of Christians and their presence throughout the territory under his administration.
Describing their religious practices, he says that they used to congregate at dawn on a given day to sing hymns to Christ whom they regarded as their God. (Pliny, Letters, X, 96) 
From this testimony, written less than 100 years after the death of Jesus, we have exact information regarding the place and time in which Christ lived. These sources speak of him as an historical personage, and not a myth, as would be expected from the Orient. 
Link (here) to the piece by Fr. Domenico Grasso, S.J. entitled, The Gospels: Historical and True

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