[K:NWTS 20/3 (Dec 2005) 26-38]

Tiberius Caesar

James T. Dennison, Jr.

Vicisti Galilaee!—"Thou has conquered, O Galilean!" These are reputed to be the last words of Julian, emperor of Rome from 361 to 363 A.D. At least, the patristic historian, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, reports them as Julian's last words. Julian allegedly uttered them as he died in battle with the Persians on the eastern border of the Roman empire.

Julian had earned the nickname "The Apostate" because, having been raised a Christian, he converted to paganism when he was about twenty years old and adopted the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon as his own. In his enthusiasm for his 'rebirth' into the rites of ancient paganism, he wrote a book against Christianity entitled Contra Galilaeos ("Against the Galileans") in the year before his death. In that book, Julian describes his Christian phase as darkness; in fact, a kind of 'sickness'. But his new-born pagan affirmation, he describes as 'light'. The new devotion to the ancient and traditional gods gave Julian a mission; in fact, made him a missionary of paganism—his purpose, to reclaim the world for the gods. In writing his refutation of the New Testament, the gospels especially and the life of Jesus in particular, he acknowledges that the events of the life of Christ are alleged to have occurred in the reign of the emperor Tiberius. But he dismisses the history of Jesus as fiction because, so he argues, none of this history is mentioned by Greco-Roman historians. Christianity is therefore clearly an aberrant superstition, of no significance because unnoticed.

Julian's rejection of the historicity of the life of Jesus and the facticity of the New Testament has been echoed and re-echoed by unbelievers before and after—the high-water mark being the rebirth of ancient paganism in the 17th century (the rise of English Deism) and the 18th century (the age of the Enlightenment). Modern liberal fundamentalism agrees in principle with Julian the Apostate (as J. Gresham Machen demonstrated in Christianity and Liberalism): according to these liberal fundamentalists, the historicity of the gospels, especially the life of Jesus, is problematic—even fiction; or to paraphrase Voltaire, the record of the life of Jesus in the New Testament is a trick we play with the dead.

Julian the Apostate was not the first pagan to attack the historicity of the gospels and the New Testament record. If the modern Jesus Seminar echoes some of his observations, we learn that with respect to unbelief, there is nothing new under the sun. The bane of the Enlightenment hangs heavy over the modern—even the Reformed—church; and the dialectic of history versus faith continues to undermine the integrity of the God-breathed Scriptures. Notice, I did not write the synthesis of history and faith, but the dialectical paradox—true to faith, false to history. Thank you, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing!

Luke and History

If Luke anchors his third gospel in concrete, objective history it is because that's how it happened. What Jesus said and did actually happened in concrete, objective history. Luke is not writing fiction; not manufacturing religious words and deeds; not proposing religious matters to be philosophically deconstructed; not a pen name for a religious community creating the portrait and the words of Jesus for ulterior motives—but real time-and-space event and speech.

Now Luke advances this record of objective historicity in a number of ways. But I want to direct your attention to how he does this in Luke 2:1 and Luke 3:1. In Luke 2, he mentions the reign of emperor Caesar Augustus. In Luke 3, he mentions the reign of Tiberius Caesar. These two emperors form the bookends of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Augustus is the Caesar of our Lord's birth; Tiberius is the Caesar of our Lord's death. Luke too knows of the history of the words and deeds of Jesus during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius—but for Luke this history is no fiction.

Tiberius and Pilate

I want to consider Tiberius Caesar and the threads which weave his story into the biblical narrative; or perhaps more aptly stated, juxtapose his name and his story with Luke's story of Jesus. Beginning with Luke 3:1, we notice the conjunction of Tiberius and Pilate. The historical point is subtle, yet significant. Pontius Pilate was appointed governor or prefect (not procurator) of Judea in 26 A.D. by Tiberius Caesar. I make a point of the term prefect not procurator to correct the mistake of Josephus (first century Jewish historian) and Tacitus (first century Roman historian). They labeled Pilate a procurator. But an inscription discovered in Palestinian Caesarea in 1961 reads: Pontius Pilatus Praefectus Iudaeae. The governor of Judea was called a prefect, not a procurator during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius Caesar. That Pilate was sent off to Judea in 26 A.D. is well choreographed in William Wyler's magnificent film "Ben Hur". You may recall the scene—the festal celebration of Ben Hur's adoption by Quintus Arrius and his introduction to Pilate who says, "It seems the wilderness needs my particular talents." Pilate's particular talents had been recommended to Tiberius by Lucius Aelius Sejanus (or Sejanus for short). Sejanus was the powerful commander of the Praetorian Guard, the Roman equivalent of the Secret Service, only decidedly more ruthless. Pilate and Sejanus will play a role once more at the end of Christ's life. So the bookend recurs: Augustus at the beginning of Jesus' life; Tiberius at the end of Jesus' life; Pilate at the beginning of Jesus' public career; Pilate at the end of Jesus' public career. Luke is not only an accurate historian; he is a gifted writer foreshadowing the end of his story of Jesus in the beginning.

The emperor Tiberius is mentioned only here in the New Testament. You will find a city called Tiberias in John's gospel (6:23). This lavish city on the west side of the Sea of Galilee (or Sea of Tiberias, as it is called in John 6:1 and John 21:1) was erected by Herod Antipas (the Fox) in 20 A.D. as a tribute to the reigning Roman emperor. It was to serve as Herod's new capital. New emperor? build a new capital in his honor. Now you will notice, the Herod mentioned in Luke 3:1 is the very same Herod Antipas who ruled Galilee from 4 B.C. to 39 A.D. He distinguishes himself by taking Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, beheading John the Baptist for objecting to his adultery and hoping Jesus would perform some magic tricks when he was dispatched by Pontius Pilate the night before his crucifixion (Luke 23:8). Herod and his brother, Philip, mentioned here in 3:1 along with Lysanius (about whom we know nearly nothing) were all Roman toadies—sycophants eager to do Rome's bidding in Jewish Palestine.

The rule of Jewish Palestine in the 1st century A.D. was no picnic. There was the climate; there was the religious fanaticism; there was the factiousness of the social classes; and there was the Old Testament with its prognostication of a Messiah. Pilate, like Herod Antipas, in an attempt to honor his emperor Tiberius in Jerusalem, ran afoul of Jewish sensitivities. The historian Josephus tells us that Pilate erected standards or ensigns in Jerusalem with the effigy of Tiberius etched into them (Antiquities, 18.3.1). The Jews objected to the image of the emperor in their holy city and though Pilate threatened them with death, they prostrated themselves, bared their necks and said—'Do your worst!' Pilate relented and removed the standards to avoid a bloodbath.

There is a denarius of Tiberius undoubtedly circulated in Palestine during his procuratorship. It may well be the coin presented to Jesus in the famous case of "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Luke 20:25; Mt. 22:21; Mk. 12:17). This coin not only bore the emperor's image, but it was inscribed Tiberius Caesar divi Augusti filius Augustus ("Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus").

There is another famous incident in which Pilate exacerbated the sensitivities of his Jewish subjects. He dedicated some gilded shields in honor of Tiberius at his gubernatorial residence in Jerusalem. Philo, the first century Jewish philosopher, tells this story (Legatio ad Gaium, 299-305). The shields evidently bore a dedication to the emperor which Pilate ostensibly knew would irritate the Jews (there is some evidence that Pilate and his Roman patron, Sejanus, harbored anti-Semitic tendencies). Tiberius was not complimented by the deed or the shields—especially when it was reported that the Jews were in an uproar over them. Tiberius ordered Pilate to remove the offending objects from Jerusalem and transfer them to Caesarea. Pilate could have lost his job over this incident, but Tiberius permitted him to stay on in Judea. Whew!!

But Luke tells us even more about the character of Pilate. He records a reference to the "Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices" (13:1). Apparently, Pilate had executed some Galileans when they presented their sacrifices to God—perhaps when they came to Jerusalem for Passover. Pilate had avoided bloodshed in the matter of the ensigns and shields, but he did spill the blood of these devout Galilean pilgrims. And we know he did once more—in the matter of the Jerusalem aqueduct. Josephus records Pilate's plan to build an aqueduct in order to bring fresh water to Jerusalem. Nice public works project! But to pay for it (here is the bureaucrat in Pilate), he raided the Temple treasury and seized the funds (Antiquities, 18.3.2). The ensuing protest resulted in death for many of the protestors. Thus, by the time we arrive at Good Friday, we should not be surprised that Pontius Pilate is compliant in shedding innocent blood. Now to Tiberius himself.

Tiberius's Career

Tertullian, second century Christian author from Carthage in North Africa, alleged that the emperor Tiberius Caesar presented evidence of Christ's divinity to the Roman Senate following our Lord's crucifixion. When the Roman Senate rejected the imperial proposal to favor Christ, Caesar allegedly threatened wrath against all accusers of Christians. Tertullian's story about Tiberius is interesting, but incredible. He goes on to point out that Nero was the first emperor to persecute Christians. Skipping Caligula and Claudius, who followed Tiberius, it is true that Nero did persecute Christians—even made night-lamps out of their crucified bodies by smearing them with tar and setting them aflame so as to pass the blame to the hated Christians for the flames that destroyed nearly twenty percent of the city of Rome in 64 A.D. Nero fiddled while Rome burned—fiddled and executed hundreds of Christians in order to shift the blame for Rome's inferno to someone other than himself. Tertullian contrasts the vicious Nero, destroyer of Christians, with the altruistic defender of Christ, Tiberius. But Tertullian, though basically right about Nero, is wrong about Tiberius. No one else—Christian or pagan—describes Tiberius Caesar as a defender of the divinity of Christ.

Tiberius became Caesar on the death of Caesar Augustus in 14 A.D. He would rule Rome for twenty-three years—dying away from the eternal city in a villa at Misenum on the Bay of Naples in 37 A.D. His fifteenth year—mentioned by Luke in Luke 3:1—would be 29 A.D. The span of Christ's life—his birth and death—is marked by the name of Rome's two Pax Romana emperors. The Pax Romana—the new order of Rome; the new order of the world. Luke anchors Christ's history in the history of the Roman Empire—even to the very year of his baptism in the Jordan River.

As with all the Roman emperors from Augustus on, Tiberius was declared a son of a god (divi filius) and the savior of the fatherland. The divine Tiberius was the son of the deified Augustus and as such was guaranteed a place of reverence in the imperial pantheon upon his own death. But though described on inscriptions as a son of the divine Augustus—though extender and continuer of the Pax Romana ("Roman Peace"), Tiberius Caesar was not a happy man. In fact, Tiberius's reign as emperor opened in unhappiness and Tiberius's reign as emperor ended in unhappiness. So happy were the citizens of Rome when the news of his death reached their ears that they took to the streets shouting "To the Tiber with Tiberius!" To the Tiber—the famous river flowing through the fabled city of the seven hills; "to the Tiber"—a slogan, an expostulation of disgust and contempt; "to the Tiber"—a place for the disposal of a corpse—the corpse of criminals and vagabonds. "To the Tiber with Tiberius"—the emperor of Rome, not much lamented, not much liked when he died in 37 A.D.

How pathetic! This eulogy for the king of the world—the son of the divine Augustus! Well, in truth, he was not the son of Augustus. Tiberius was, in fact, an afterthought, a convenience—indeed, a necessity. Augustus had adopted him only after his legitimate sons and grandsons had died. Tiberius was not the son of Augustus's body—he was the legal heir to Augustus's necessity. Augustus's necessity—how Tiberius was haunted by Augustus and his necessities.

Tiberius and Augustus

It was Augustus Caesar's necessity—necessity for lust—that first brought Tiberius into the emperor's ominous circle. He was four years old; his mother and father happily married; the family circle—father, mother, child—content. But Augustus wanted Tiberius's mother for himself and what Augustus wanted, Augustus got. Absolute power stops at nothing—even breaking up families for the sake of self-indulgence. Augustus Caesar forced Tiberius's mother and father to divorce so that he could take the now available wife to his own bed. Tiberius becomes a legitimate heir to the Roman throne through the illegitimate divorce of his mother and father.

Was it this dysfunctional family situation that drove Tiberius to the army? to the frontiers of Roman peacekeeping bivouacs in Spain, Persia, Germany, the Balkans? Whatever the reason, these were the only happy years Tiberius knew—away from Rome—away from Augustus—away with the army, the soldiers, the fighting, the preoccupation. And his occasional visits to Rome? to visit his own wife, Vispania, to whom he was happily married.

But Augustus was not finished bringing unhappiness to the life of Tiberius. Augustus's daughter, Julia, was widowed when Tiberius was thirty years old. Augustus once again ordered a divorce—this time Tiberius was to put away Vispania, the wife whom he loved, in order to satisfy Augustus's whim for his daughter to have a husband of prominence. Dejà vu: like mother; like son. Both manipulated by the tyrannical power of the emperor Caesar Augustus.

And the new liaison? Tiberius and Julia? It was a disaster. Julia was a notorious and open adulteress, flaunting her sexual favors brazenly before the Roman public. Tiberius was revolted by her. In 6 B.C., in his unhappy bitterness, he exiled himself to Rhodes (site of the mighty Colossus—the Colossus of Rhodes—one of the seven wonders of the ancient world). Tiberius withdrew to Rhodes for eight years in order to escape—to escape Rome, Augustus, Julia, his misery. For eight years, he studied, devoted himself to the occult, idolized astrology and divination.

Augustus would recall Tiberius to Rome in the year 2 A.D. He had need of him—and Tiberius would once more be manipulated by his nemesis stepfather. Rome must have an imperial succession; Caesar Augustus had no successor—all his primary heirs were prematurely dead. Tiberius was all that was left. And so the left-over stepson, whose mother had been torn from the arms of his natural father (by Augustus); whose beloved wife had been torn from his own arms (by Augustus)—the after thought of an heir was formally adopted to succeed Caesar on the throne in 4 A.D.

Tiberius Imperator

Ten years later, Tiberius became king of the world. His nemesis, Augustus, finally died—but still Tiberius had no peace. His disillusionment with life had already made him slightly paranoid; his disillusionment with life already made him cruel. In 14 A.D., the unhappy and reluctant Tiberius became emperor of Rome. He was to continue and advance the age of gold ushered in by Augustus's Pax Romana. But there was no pax—no peace—in Tiberius's soul. Nor was there peace between the new emperor and the Roman Senate. As if sensing the hesitancy and disillusionment in their new emperor, the Roman Senate responded to him with hesitancy and suspicion. Should they jockey for a remnant of their senatorial privileges—the rights of the old republican aristocracy, so masterfully crushed by Julius and Augustus Caesar? Should they remain figureheads, puppets of their powerful ruler, rubber stamps of his every whim—or should they assert their independence, initiative, constitutional privilege?

The Senate and Tiberius were never quite sure of one another: Tiberius distrusted the Senate and remained aloof from its deliberations. He once spoke contemptibly of the Senators as "men fit to be slaves." The Senate in turn was very cautious—very cautious and deliberate in its relations with the emperor. This standoff between the old republican senators and the new imperialist monarch lasted through the twenty-three years of Tiberius's reign.

Twelve years after ascending the Palatine Hill to receive the imperial laurel, Tiberius quit Rome once and for all. In 26 A.D., unhappy, aloof, isolated, paranoid Tiberius withdrew from Rome for the last time—withdrew from the magnificent edifices of the city of the seven hills—withdrew to the tranquility of the Isle of Capri. And there, on that island overlooking the beautiful, azure blue Bay of Naples, Tiberius secluded himself in a cliff-top villa overlooking the peaceful waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. But in that villa, on that isle of retreat (if we can believe the Roman historians, Suetonius and Tacitus), unhappy, bitter, paranoid Tiberius indulged every perverse lust and aspiration to the full. Was he getting even? Sexual perversity and abuse is so often a way of getting even—a way of self-reward—paying back with abuse the abuse that has been meted out. Our own culture has not advanced beyond Tiberius in this regard. Unhappiness, disillusionment, bitterness: these often generate vile, vicious abuse. Tiberius, like so many sinners before and after, would find happiness in the abuse of others even as his happiness had been abused.

Tiberius and Sejanus

In that famous year when he left Rome never to return, in the year 26 A.D., Tiberius did something else. He appointed Pontius Pilate governor of Judea. As we have noted, Pilate likely came to Tiberius's attention through the intercession of the commander of the Praetorian Guard—Sejanus. Beginning in 26 A.D., Sejanus would have more and more influence in Roman politics—more influence after Tiberius's departure for Capri than Tiberius himself. As commander of the Praetorian Guard, Sejanus controlled the most powerful fighting force in Rome. Every soldier in the Guard had worked his way up the ladder through long, hardened endurance in military service. This elite corps was sworn to protect the emperor, and in his absence, Sejanus became the power broker.

Tiberius trusted Sejanus implicitly—at least at first. But little by little, Tiberius—paranoid Tiberius—grew increasingly suspicious of the most powerful soldier in the empire. Five years after departing for his villa and leaving Sejanus in command of Rome, Tiberius was convinced that his vicar on the Tiber was plotting a rebellion—a rebellion in which he would execute Tiberius and elevate himself to the throne. The sword of Tiberius was swift and deadly—even from a distance. Sejanus was arrested, beheaded and disgraced. And the bitter, unhappy Tiberius fed his bloodlust to the day of his death by a vicious witch-hunt in pursuit of every ally of Sejanus's conspiracy. For six years, from 31 to 37 A.D.—the year of his death—Tiberius hunted, arrested, tortured, executed hundreds of men and women whom he accused of complicity in the treason of his former ally.

Luke 3

I want to return from Tiberius's 23rd year (37 A.D.) to his 15th year. I want to return to Luke 3 verse 1. In this passage, Luke is giving us a date; he is dating the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan. Fifteenth year of Tiberius's reign. Now when did Tiberius come to the throne? (14 A.D.) And his 15th year would be (14+15) 29 A.D. There we have it! A fixed date in the life of Jesus. In 29 A.D., Jesus of Nazareth enters his public ministry with the proclamation that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand." A very different kind of kingdom—a very different kind of king than Tiberius Caesar.

We have previously noticed who comes next in Luke 3:1—who stands alongside Tiberius in the text: "in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea." Pilate became governor of Judea in 26 A.D. In 29 A.D., he has already been in Jerusalem for three years. Pilate has been ensconced in Jerusalem already for three years, when Jesus begins to preach the kingdom of heaven.

The life of Tiberius and the life of Pilate would be intertwined by more than Luke's inscripturated narrative. Perhaps Luke knew about Pilate and Tiberius and the gilded shields. Luke certainly knew about Pilate's ruthlessness in the matter of the deaths of the Galileans (13:1). Did he know about the debacle over the aqueduct; the about-face in the matter of the standards? We do not know.

But we do know that if Jesus is baptized in 29 A.D. and his public ministry is about three years in length, he is crucified some time after 31 A.D. Now what happened in 31 A.D.? Sejanus was executed. And who recommended Pilate as governor of Judea? Sejanus. With Sejanus and his co-conspirators in trouble in Rome after 31 A.D., Pilate is very careful not to arouse suspicion or provoke riots again in Jerusalem. Imagine the chill which must have shot up Pilate's spine when the mob demanding Christ's crucifixion hurled these remarks at him: "If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar" (non es amicus Caesaris). No friend of Caesar—Tiberius Caesar! Shudder! My friend, Sejanus, recommended me to Tiberius Caesar and now my friend Sejanus is dead! Double shudder!! No, if the Jewish mob wants to crucify its messiah, Pilate will simply wash his hands of the matter rather than risk his precarious political future with a paranoid emperor bent on a bloodbath for disloyalty in Rome and beyond. Pilate had already been rebuked for one riot by Tiberius; he was not going to risk another clash with the emperor over a peasant from Nazareth.

Jesus, the King

So, over against Tiberius, king-maker, imperial power player of the world in which Jesus was raised; over against Pontius Pilate, Tiberian appointee—gubernatorial power player in Jerusalem (the Jerusalem in which Jesus taught, preached, worshipped—died!)—over against Tiberius Caesar and Pontius Pilate, Jesus. The juxtaposition is jarring—intentionally jarring. No, not in Rome or Capri in the reign of Tiberius; no, not in the Roman quarters of Pontius Pilate, but in a wilderness river, in a tiny village synagogue, on a bloody criminal's cross, in an empty grave: there is where lasting history was made, says Luke. The one born in an obscure village, placed in a manger, baptized by a wild man, crucified as a common criminal—such a one could be of little interest to Rome. Roman tyranny; Roman immorality; Roman cruelty—Rome was little interested in Jesus of Nazareth. But Luke is, and the church to which Luke writes is; and while Luke is most interested in the fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture in Christ (Lk. 24:44), Luke is also interested in the broader historical context of the advent of Christ.

I want to conclude by observing the titles and labels accorded to the second emperor of the Roman peace—the new order of the world—Tiberius Caesar. We have noted that he was called a son of a god. This would provide enough justification for considering his role as successor to the august one as somewhat messianic. He once described himself as the "good shepherd" to his Egyptian subjects (Dio Cassius 57.10.5). Valerius Maximus, a contemporary, called him "the savior surest of the fatherland." But a new discovery adds to the grandiose estimate of Tiberius Caesar in his own day.

Tiberius as Paterfamilias

A bronze tablet discovered in Spain and first published in 1996 (Classical Philology 95 [2000]: 318ff.) contains the Senatus Consultum de Consule Pisone Patre, which means "the Senate Decree of the Roman Consul Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso" who was governor of Syria from 17 A.D. until he committed suicide in 19 A.D. The significance of this new discovery is the way it describes the Augustan-Tiberian Imperium—the Roman state in the new age of the monarchical emperors. I have noted that the new age and the new order dawned in Rome with the succession of Augustus. The transformation in Roman culture brought in by Augustus and continued by Tiberius altered the conception and ideology of the state. Augustus became the paterfamilias—the father of the family. The family became all Romans. In other words, the Augustan-Tiberian age transformed the nation of Rome into a family, the head of which was the emperor himself. The honor due to the head of the family—namely the emperor—was like a religious duty. After all, he was a son of a god and cultic honors were required from all Romans. From this point, a new history of Rome began—a Rome in which all Romans were regarded as adopted into Caesar's family. Piety (pietas) as a family virtue was now transferred to the imperial state—to the emperor. Rome entered a new age of patriotism—patriotism as a virtue to the imperial cult—the imperial state. In this new era, the nuclear family became an extension—an organ—of the state.

Luke the Redemptive Historian

I return to Luke—this amazing historian—objective time-and-space historian. Is the subtlety of his bookends to the Augustan-Tiberian imperium an antithesis of the era and the order revealed from heaven in this one named "My beloved Son" (3:22)? If the new order of the gospel age is a kingdom not of this world; and the family of that new evangelical order is the adoption of sons and daughters of God through the Lord Jesus Christ, by the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit; and the Head of that new order is the everlasting Son of the Father—then is it possible that Luke has introduced Augustus and Tiberius not only for historical reasons (apologetic aim), but for redemptive-historical reasons (soteriological aim)?

The history of redemption is fulfilled in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar. The age of salvation dawns at the Jordan River (Luke 3), in a synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4), on a cross at Golgotha (Luke 23) and in an empty tomb (Luke 24)—not in Rome. The 15th year of Tiberius is identified with the life of one whose genealogy—whose history—reaches back to the beginning of history—back to the protological man—the first man—back to Adam (Luke 3:38). Where the sons of Rome reflect the depravity and perversity of the fallen Adam—this man—this eschatological man—this last man, Jesus Christ, is the true Son of God in fullness, perfection, glory. He is the Head of the family of the children of God; they are his lambs—he is their Good Shepherd. He has transformed them, changing them from citizens of this world to citizens of the world to come.

The 15th year of Tiberius is the beginning of the end of the Roman imperium; but it is the end of the beginning of the eschatological imperium. That heavenly kingdom brought to us by the eschatological King of kings—that imperium has no end. If Luke's gospel mentions Tiberius Caesar but tells the story of Jesus, you know who is more important—more important to every Christian believer—more important to the church—more important to your history. His name is Jesus—King of kings, Lord of lords, very God of very God. Everything else has and will die and pass away. But he—he shall reign forever and ever.