Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Suetonius' biography of Augustus.

From reader David:
"Below, I've given you selected excerpts from Suetonius' biography of Augustus. A Christian audience will note the many, MANY parallels to Matthew 2. So here's my question for you: what do you think these parallels mean?

I considered the possibility that Suetonius cribbed from Matthew, but rejected it in part because Suetonius famously refers to Jesus as "Chrestus." This implies that he's heard of Jesus' name but hasn't seen the name written down.

So instead I think this reveals that Matthew and Suetonius are part of the same Mediterranean culture -- really we might say the same Greco-Roman culture -- and so each biographer, when he wanted to establish that his subject was a Very Big Deal, reached into the standard bag o' tricks that was common to their culture, and pulled out similar stories.

Is that your take on it too, or what would you say? (My, Betty's, notes below. #1)

Quotes follow, with my notes in brackets.

“Having reached this point, it will not be out of place to add an account of the omens which occurred before he was born, on the very day of his birth, and afterwards, from which it was possible to anticipate and perceive his future greatness and uninterrupted good fortune...
According to Julius Marathus, a few months before Augustus was born a portent was generally observed at Rome, which gave warning that nature was pregnant with a king for the Roman people; thereupon the senate in consternation decreed that no male child born that year should be reared; but those whose wives were with child saw to it that the decree was not filed in the treasury, since each one appropriated the prediction to his own family. [Emphasis mine. Also: Massacre of the Innocents averted! But notice how similar this story is.]

The day he was born the conspiracy of Catiline was before the House, and Octavius [Augustus' father] came late because of his wife's confinement; then Publius Nigidius, as everyone knows, learning the reason for his tardiness and being informed also of the hour of the birth, declared that the ruler of the world had been born. [Emphasis added, but wow!]

Later, when Octavius was leading an army through remote parts of Thrace, and in the grove of Father Liber consulted the priests about his son with barbarian rites, they made the same prediction... [and] the very next night he dreamt that his son appeared to him in a guise more majestic than that of mortal man, with the thunderbolt, scepter, and insignia of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, wearing a crown begirt with rays and mounted upon a laurel-wreathed chariot drawn by twelve horses of surpassing whiteness. [If the idea of Augustus as a god-who-is-also-a-man sounds suspiciously Christian, remember that Augustus was deified after he died. Quite a few emperors received that honor posthumously, which led to some grade-A gallows humor: Vespasian, on his deathbed, is reported to have said, “Dammit. I think I'm becoming a god.”] #2

As soon as he began to talk, it chanced that the frogs were making a great noise at his grandfather's country place; he bade them be silent, and they say that since then no frog has ever croaked there. [Augustus can command nature!]

While in retirement at Apollonia, Augustus mounted with Agrippa to the studio of the astrologer Theogenes. Agrippa was the first to try his fortune, and when a great and almost incredible career was predicted for him, Augustus persisted in concealing the time of his birth and in refusing to disclose it, through diffidence and fear that he might be found to be less eminent. When he at last gave it unwillingly and hesitatingly, and only after many requests, Theogenes sprang up and threw himself at his feet.”"

As, always, thank you for writing David. 

Until the Age of Unenlightenment it was accepted that Matthew was written by the disciple of Christ about AD 50. One fact I learned recently was that Roman tax collectors (Matthew's job before becoming a disciple) were required to learn a type of shorthand so they could take word-for-word transcripts of long tax meetings.  This would mean that the sermons and events in Matthew may very well be written from his own notes taken at the time they happened. 

Anyway, to your questions:

#1 Suetonius wrote his biographies a good 70 years after Matthew wrote his Book (AD 121), about 90 years after Jesus walked the earth. Even if Suetonius never read the word "Christ," he obviously had heard of Him. By this time in history the Christians have already suffered Nero's persecution (due at least in part to growing so fast the Emporer felt threatened), so Christ's story was likely enough a part of the culture (transmitted orally) to be the source Suetonius unconsciously drew from. Like a game of Telephone, the details (including the names of the major players) had simply become skewed over time. 

So, yes Suetonius drew from his culture to create his story, but that culture had already been shaped by Matthew's and Luke's rendition of the Christmas Story.

#2 Actually, it was quite normal for kings throughout history to claim deity for themselves or their ancestors. It made the people easier to rule. So the deification of Augustus was only unusual, in historical context, by it happening after his death. Christ's own claim is in the same vein, of course, except He was not the ruler of any physical kingdom. It is unusual for a commoner to claim deity. Jesus backed up His claim with a multitude of miracles recorded by eyewitnesses (i.e. Matthew who had the skills necessary to make transcripts of the events as they happened) and prophecies that came true to the letter (Matthew 24).


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