Monday, June 20, 2011

Aquila, Priscilla, Acts 18:2 and the Edict of Claudius

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.

In his commentary on Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, ©2007), Darrel Bock notes that “Luke is a careful, ancient historian.” He says, “It is interesting to note that (1) classical historians respect Luke as a historian as they use him (Nobbs 2006) and that (2) a careful look at the details of Acts shows that, where we can check him, Luke is a credible historian. (pg. 6).

The “Edict of Claudius” and the expulsion of Aquila and Priscilla from Rome (Acts 18:2) is one of these instance, where the history in the New Testament intersects with the history of ancient Rome:
Evidence for a committed Jewish Christian presence in Rome as early as 49 C.E. may be found in an edict of Claudius (41-54 A.D.). Luke alludes to the hardships borne by Aquila and Priscilla, who had arrived in Corinth ca. 49 or 50 “because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome” (Acts 18:2). This edict of expulsion is known from Suetonius, who published his Lives of the Caesars in 120 C.E. Commenting on Claudius’s acts with regard to certain foreign groups in Rome, he states without elaboration, “Judaeos impulsore Chresto adsidue tumultuante Roma expulit” (Claudius 25.4).

The statement is ambiguous, and may be translated in either of two ways: (1) “He expelled from Rome the Jews constantly making disturbances oat the instigation of Chrestus”; (2) “Since the Jews constantly make disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, eh expelled them from Rome.” The first translation allows the interpretation that Claudius expelled only those responsible for the disturbances among the Jews. The second translation suggests that the entire Jewish community was affected by the edict because they had been engaged in frequent rioting. The reason for favoring the first translation is that in Rome the Jewish community was divided into a number of district synagogues. In all probability the decree of expulsion was directed against the members of one or two specific synagogues, who would have been forced to leave the city until there was a guarantee of no further disturbances.

The notorious confusion displayed in the words impulsore Chresto suggests a contemporary police record. It is well known that Suetonius merely reproduced his sources without attempting to evaluate them carefully. While Chrestus (signifying “good,” or “useful”) was a very common name among Roman slaves, it was not a common Jewish name. H. J. Leon lists over 550 names used by Jews in Rome in the first century of the common era, but Chrestus is not among them. The garbled reference to Chrestus is almost certainly evidence for the presence of Christians within the Jewish community of Rome. The source of the disruptions in the Jewish quarters was, plausibly, the propagation of the Christian message held by Hellenistic Jewish Christians, and especially their insistence that the crucified Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah. The leadership of the Jewish communities, or some portion of it, was drawn into violent debate that soon attracted the unfavorable attention of the imperial authorities. Claudius, it would seem, issued a decree of expulsion affecting those most directly involved.

The confusion between Chrestus and Christus was natural enough. At that point in time the distinction in spelling and pronunciation was negligible. In the manuscript of the New Testament the confusion is reflected in the spelling of the name “Christian” in Acts 11:26; 26:28; and 1 Peter 4:16, where the uncial codex Sinaiticus reads χρηϲτιανοϲ (i.e., Chrestianos). Even after the distinction was known, it was quite popular among those who were not Christians to interchange the two forms. (Lane, 204-205).
Bock notes, “The pattern that Luke has noted elsewhere appears here; it is the Jewish community’s reaction that drives the persecution” (pg 575), and “The decree of expulsion and that fact that they had to leave Rome may well suggest that [Aquila and Priscilla] were Christians while in Rome” (578).

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