Emperor Tiberius & The Resurrection Of Jesus

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Emperor Tiberius (42 BC-37 AD)
             Emperor Tiberius (42 BC-37 AD)
Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339 AD)
      Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339 AD)

The successor of the first Caesar, Augustus, was his adopted son Tiberius who ruled from 14-37 AD. He was Caesar during Jesus’ late adolescence and adulthood. It was Tiberius who had appointed Pontius Pilate as procurator of Judea (from 26-36 AD). Tiberius is usually given short shrift by historians, because of his end-of-life debauchery. But tucked away in Eusebius’ Church History 2.2.1-3 is an interesting story about him and his efforts to get the Roman Senate to appoint Jesus a god:

“And when the wonderful resurrection and ascension of our Savior were already noised abroad (in early 30’s), in accordance with an ancient custom which prevailed among the rulers of the provinces, of reporting (by an Acta) to the emperor the novel occurrences which took place in them, in order that nothing might escape Pontius Pilate informed Tiberius of the reports which were noised abroad through all Palestine concerning the resurrection of our Savior Jesus from the dead. He gave an account also of other wonders which he had learned of him, and how, after his death, having risen from the dead, he was now believed by many to be a God. They say that Tiberius referred the matter to the Senate, but that they rejected it, ostensibly because they had not first examined into the matter, for an ancient law prevailed that no one should be made a God by the Romans except by a vote and decree of the Senate, but in reality because the saving teaching of the divine Gospel did not need the confirmation and recommendation of men. But although the Senate of the Romans rejected the proposition made in regard to our Savior, Tiberius still retained the opinion which he had held at first, and contrived no hostile measures against Christ.”

The Resurrection— Rembrandt, 1638 (Notice resurrected Jesus behind the angel)
                    The Resurrection— Rembrandt, 1638 (Notice resurrected Jesus behind the angel)

Over one hundred years before Eusebius wrote of Tiberius’ sentiments regarding the resurrection and deity of Jesus, the Carthaginian lawyer and apologist for Christianity Tertullian had written about Emperor Tiberius and the same matter in c. 197:

Tertullian (uncertain dates: c. 160 - c. 220)
                                                          Tertullian (uncertain dates: c. 160 – c. 220)

“…there was an old decree that no god should be consecrated by a general without the approval of the Senate….among you (Romans) divinity is weighed out by human caprice. Unless a god shall have been acceptable to men, he shall not be a god. Man must now have mercy on a god! Accordingly Tiberius, in whose time the Christian name first made its appearance in the world, laid before the senate tidings from Palaestina which had revealed to him the truth of the divinity (of Jesus) there manifested and (Tiberius) had supported the motion by his own vote to begin with. The Senate rejected it because it had not itself given its approval. Caesar Tiberius held to his own opinion and threatened danger to the accusers of Christians.” Apology 5.1.2

The Roman Senate
                                                                                  The Roman Senate

It appears the aging and debauched Emperor Tiberius, holed up far from Rome in his elaborate mansion Villa Jovis on the Isle of Capri, “the old goat,” as he was called, may have had a favorable impression of Jesus when he was a bit younger and wanted the Roman Senate to declare Him a god.

Ruins of Tiberius’ castle on Isle of Capri
                                                              Ruins of Tiberius’ castle on Isle of Capri

But there is no evidence from Tiberius’ life or in his death on the Isle of Capri (meaning ”goat”) in 37 that Tiberius embraced the Christian faith. Perhaps his passionate pleas to the Senate to declare Jesus a god were just an old goat picking his way through his confusing life, always climbing somewhere, trying to be sure-footed, feinting a  charmed life, hedging his bets but in the end, doomed to fall. Or…who but God knows the mind of each of us?—Sandra Sweeny Silver

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