Antiquities XX, 8, 9

Now when Porcius Festus was sent as successor to Felix by Nero, the principal of the Jewish inhabitants of Cesarea went up to Rome to accuse Felix; and he had certainly been brought to punishment, unless Nero had yielded to the importunate solicitations of his brother Pallas, who was at that time had in the greatest honor by him. Two of the principal Syrians in Cesarea persuaded Burrhus, who was Nero’s tutor, and secretary for his Greek epistles, by giving him a great sum of money, to disannul that equality of the Jewish privileges of citizens which they hitherto enjoyed. So Burrhus, by his solicitations, obtained leave of the emperor that an epistle should be written to that purpose. This epistle became the occasion of the following miseries that befell our nation; for when the Jews of Cesarea were informed of the contents of this epistle to the Syrians, they were more disorderly than before, till a war was kindled.

I just heard a theory that the Greek Epistles are the New Testament letters commissioned by Nero essentially asserting that Nero (or his wife) created Christianity. I'm not asking whether you are a believer or not (of which I certainly do believe in Christ) rather, is this claim tenable or even seriously considered among academics and scholars? What are the greek epistles Josephus mentions?

  • 1
    Welcome to History:Stack Exchange. Thank you for your question; please consider revising it to be more in line with our community expectations. Like many other stacks, we expect questions to provide evidence of prior research. That helps us to understand the question, and avoids our repeating work you've already done. Our help center, and other stacks provide additional resources to assist with revisions.
    – MCW
    Oct 15 '20 at 0:25
  • 3
    Please add citation for "I . . . heard a theory...." Did you hear this from a Biblical historian? A Marxist historian? The local mansplainer at the pub?
    – MCW
    Oct 15 '20 at 10:37
  • 1
    There are theories that the Christians invented the idea that they were persecuted by Nero, and Nero didn't have anything against them, and indeed that in Nero's time Christians may not have been considered as a group distinct from Jews or other sects. (It's not unknown for groups to invent or exaggerate a history of persecution to provoke sympathy or populist support.) What you say may be a garbled version of this; although I don't comment on its veracity, here's an example cruxnow.com/commentary/2016/12/…
    – Stuart F
    Oct 26 '20 at 10:25

"Epistle" is Greek for "letter". At the time, the only long-distance communication was by letters or messengers and the writing of eloquent and persuasive letters was a highly developed form of literature. The New Testament epistles use the conventions of that genre, and are the best-known examples in the present day, but thousands of other epistles have survived.

As Roman Emperor, Nero naturally had secretaries responsible for his correspondence. He would have used Latin for the western parts of the Empire, and Greek for the eastern. He would want a Greek secretary who was a native speaker of the language, so that his letters could be well-written and convincing.

The story Josephus is telling is about Burrhus, Nero's Greek-language secretary, who was bribed by Syrians in Cesarea to write a letter removing the equality under the law the Jews had in Cesarea. Burrhus had to get Nero's agreement to this, but Nero does not have a reputation as a careful administrator, so the agreement may well have been based on inadequate information. Giving individuals vast executive power tends to enable this kind of abuse.

I can't see anything in the passage from Josephus that indicates that Burrhus or Nero had anything to do with the New Testament epistles. Such a theory would have to be based on the wrong idea that "epistle" is very specific to the letters in the New Testament, in purpose as well as form, plus a mis-reading of the old-fashioned English in this translation.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.