On "The Gospel According to Seneca"

On an obscure website, nazarenus.com, is an item titled, "The Gospel According to Seneca." Seneca was a Roman author and philosopher who had the fortunate distinction of advising Nero and the unfortunate fate of being around when Nero went over the edge. Our writer (whose name is not given in the article, but who we will call "Nero") begins with summary details about Christianity, which includes the argument that "those who created [the NT] belonged to a generation that had never seen Jesus or heard him speak. Jesus' closest companions had felt little inclination to write anything down for posterity. Their concern was to be among the select few to survive the cataclysm that was about to destroy the present world and usher in the Kingdom of God."

That's false on three counts: The late date for the Gospels argument (though oddly, our writer will allow later for a date for Mark and Luke in the 50s and 60s, well within the "generation that heard Jesus speak"); the idea that people with a belief in a near end would not write things down (one word: "Qumran" -- the Essenes believed this, and still wrote things down); and the idea that Christians expected the end of the world to begin with. But the late dating has its purpose: It allows room for Nero to make an even more unususal argument.

The stage is set with quotes from a couple of sources and allusions to two others -- one quote is from J. M. Robertson, a Christ-myth proponent who claimed that the Passion narrative was "the bare transcript of a primitive play." True scholars are then invoked thus:

S.G.F. Brandon is impressed by the superb theatrical montage of the trial of Jesus ; Raymond Brown finds that John's gospel contains touches worthy of great drama in many of its scenes and suggests that our text may be the product of a dramatic rewriting on such a scale that little historical material remains.

I found no such comment in Brandon on the page referenced, though it may be a different edition being used. In Brown I did find such comments, but it will not help Nero in the least, since it is ONLY John that Brown says this of, not the other Gospels, and Nero will want, as we shall see, John to be at the end of a certain line of creativity.

But from these slender threads it is argued that the author of the Passion narrative was none other than Seneca himself. Thus:

The gospels themselves contain evidence that the creator of this tragedy was someone imbued with the cultural values of the early Roman Empire, a playwright of unusual abilities, who used drama as a vehicle for expressing specific philosophical concepts. The gospels of Mark and Luke originated in Rome in the late fifties or early sixties A.D., a period that coincided with the last great flourishing of Roman tragedy in the work of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (3 B.C.-65 A.D.). Seneca was the author of at least nine tragedies, all modeled on other, more ancient dramas. His philosophical writings are still admired for their elegant exposition of the Stoic view of life. Was it Seneca who wrote the tragedy on the passion of Jesus that the evangelists used in constructing their narratives? A question such as this can never be answered with certitude. It can be, however, adopted as a working hypothesis, whose success can be judged by the extent to which it helps solve the innumerable enigmas of the passion narratives.

What "evidence" this is of "cultural values" of the Roman Empire (and how they differ from values that would have been held by Palestinians of the first century) is not explained in the essay we were given. But what of these "innumerable enigmas" that a Senecan origin allegedly explains? We'll look at an exemplar from another essay on this site shortly; meanwhile we are told:

That Seneca had received some information about the founder of Christianity may be inferred from the allusion in one of his works to an unnamed individual who had aspired to royalty, but instead was condemned to suffer a cruel death upon the cross.[8]

That footnote reads:

In his De Ira (I.2) Seneca lists six great men of the past who aspired to royalty but came to an evil end, the last being condemned to have his limbs split asunder upon a cross. The context indicates that this unnamed individual was of foreign nationality, and that his death occurred later than that of Pompey--hence within living memory. See Léon Herrmann, Chrestos (Brussels, 1970), pp. 41-43.

A reader noted on this:

...I.2 does not refer to the second section of the first chapter. It refers to the second chapter of the first book; De Ira was written in three books. A full cite to the proper passage would be I.2.2--or to be precise, I.ii.2, using the system of notation I'm most familiar with. It is, however, an acceptable shorthand to drop the third reference number.

Passage I.ii.2 does describe the fates of "six great men," and the last of them did indeed suffer crucifixion...

Behold all the leaders who have been handed down to posterity as instances of an evil fate--anger stabbed this one in his bed, struck down this one amid the sanctities of the feast, tore this one to pieces in the very home of the law and in full view of the crowded forum, forced this one to have his blood spilled by the murderous act of his son, another to have his royal throat cut by the hand of a slave, another to have his limbs stretched upon the cross....

....I'm curious what "context" is supposed to implicate a foreigner, apart from the fact that a Roman of rank would not have been crucified. And it is not only this individual who is unnamed; all six are unnamed, a fact which clearly indicates Seneca expected them to be familiar to his audience.

I'll add here that the passage clearly states that "anger" led to the fate described -- which is NOT what is said of Jesus. In any event, what we have is a case of Nero reading things into the text and not reporting all the facts. The Romans crucified literally thousands of people -- to say, "that's Jesus" is a fairly long stretch in service of the theory.

We are told that that story of Jesus by Seneca "corresponded point by point with the original cultic tragedy of Dionysus, which every subsequent tragedy tried to emulate". What the title of this "original cultic tragedy" is, is not stated here, which is careless in the least.

The elements listed ("The hero is defeated in a struggle -- He is killed in a sacrificial ritual -- A messenger arrives, announcing his fate, and the chorus responds with its lamentations -- The body is brought onto the stage and is buried -- There follows a recognition that the hero is not truly dead, but has gained immortality. He appears to men as a god, and mourning turns into a joyful celebration.") do not match anything about Dionysus I found in an earlier project, though a source, Jane Harrison's Themis (dated 1912) is listed, and it's not exactly helpful. Harrison puts this fate on Dionysus by assuming that the same thing happened to him as happened to Osiris. No actual documentation is offered of this "cultic tragedy" being performed or recorded, for this is not available.

We are told in any event that Seneca erred when he did this, because Paul lost his trial at Rome and "Persecution of Christians remained official Roman policy for the next 250 years."

Oh? Skeptics have told me previously that there was no such policy at all in the first century. Not that we are even given any documentation on this one, for that matter. Then we have this:

It may not be a coincidence that the year that Paul lost his life was marked by a particularly ill-omened event. The most venerated object in Rome was a huge fig tree that, according to tradition, was as old as the city itself, having sheltered its founder Romulus and his brother Remus when they were infants. Tacitus reports that in 58 A.D. this tree suddenly began to wither (Annals XIII.58), causing widespread consternation. Perhaps a rumor gained currency that the real cause of this evil omen was divine displeasure at the growing influence of a godless new religion. The priests may have argued that only Paul's death could atone for this sacrilege.

Paul's death is actually placed in the mid-60s, not 58 AD, which is one problem. Second is what Annals 13.58 actually says. Yes, the tree is there. But Nero, our writer, didn't quote for good reason, the entirety of this little passage:

That same year, the fact that the tree in the Comitium, which 840 years before had sheltered the infancy of Romulus and Remus, was impaired by the decay of its boughs and by the withering of its stem, was accounted a portent, till it began to renew its life with fresh shoots.

That doesn't sound like anything that would have worked to me. Those priests would have had a problem arguing for Paul's death when the tree woke up again. (Though we expect to hear the contrivance that Paul's death was what caused the revitalization.) Anyway, "Nero" tells us that Seneca had to resign because of all this, and:

In his final hours Seneca is said to have entrusted some of his literary works to his friends lest they fall into the hands of Nero and be destroyed.[12]

The footnote points us to another place in the Annals, where we find -- no such thing. After an account of how Seneca got to his final hours, we are told by Tacitus:

[15.62] Seneca, quite unmoved, asked for tablets on which to inscribe his will, and, on the centurion's refusal, turned to his friends, protesting that as he was forbidden to requite them, he bequeathed to them the only, but still the noblest possession yet remaining to him, the pattern of his life, which, if they remembered, they would win a name for moral worth and steadfast friendship. At the same time he called them back from their tears to manly resolution, now with friendly talk, and now with the sterner language of rebuke. "Where," he asked again and again, "are your maxims of philosophy, or the preparation of so many years' study against evils to come? Who knew not Nero's cruelty? After a mother's and a brother's murder, nothing remains but to add the destruction of a guardian and a tutor."
[15.63] Having spoken these and like words, meant, so to say, for all, he embraced his wife; then softening awhile from the stern resolution of the hour, he begged and implored her to spare herself the burden of perpetual sorrow, and, in the contemplation of a life virtuously spent, to endure a husband's loss with honourable consolations. She declared, in answer, that she too had decided to die, and claimed for herself the blow of the executioner. There upon Seneca, not to thwart her noble ambition, from an affection too which would not leave behind him for insult one whom he dearly loved, replied: "I have shown you ways of smoothing life; you prefer the glory of dying. I will not grudge you such a noble example. Let the fortitude of so courageous an end be alike in both of us, but let there be more in your decease to win fame." Then by one and the same stroke they sundered with a dagger the arteries of their arms. Seneca, as his aged frame, attenuated by frugal diet, allowed the blood to escape but slowly, severed also the veins of his legs and knees. Worn out by cruel anguish, afraid too that his sufferings might break his wife's spirit, and that, as he looked on her tortures, he might himself sink into irresolution, he persuaded her to retire into another chamber. Even at the last moment his eloquence failed him not; he summoned his secretaries, and dictated much to them which, as it has been published for all readers in his own words, I forbear to paraphrase.

Reference is also given to a cite in Dio Cassius, book 62, which as far as I can tell isn't even extant.

We are told further that Seneca's Passion play, Nazarenus, "could not be published, since by then Christianity had become a proscribed religion. The earliest gospels had to be circulated clandestinely. It was not by chance that Lucilius omitted the Nazarenus from his edition of Seneca's collected works."

Not one point of this is documented in the least, and is merely cobbled together at the behest of the theory to explain why its most important piece of data -- a copy of Nazarenus -- is missing and unattested in the historical record. Conveniently, Nazarenus, we are told, "was consigned to oblivion because it offended Christians and pagans alike," the former because this still non-document allegedly contained information that contradicted what Christians believed.

From here we are told that Mark incorporated elements of the play, and as did Luke and John; Matthew copied Mark; the rest is mystery.

Now what of the alleged "problems" solved by this Seneca theory? There are a few sub-essays on this, but I chose one to look at, which should indicate Nero's methodology as untrustworthy. Nero tries to explain away problems with Joseph of Arimathea. Much of what is offered is simply assuming that the theory is already proven, and then explaining the data in terms of the theory.

There is this sort of contrivance: "In all four gospels the character called Joseph of Arimathea is introduced through a sudden transition in the text. For Luke the appearance of Joseph of Arimathea on the stage as the one who buried Jesus appears to have come as a surprise, even though he tries to identify him: And behold, there was a man by the name of Joseph who was a member of the Council... from Arimathea, a city of the Jews. This one, going to where Pilate was, asked for the body of Jesus. The expression to where Pilate was (tô Pilatô) confirms that Pilate was no longer on the stage. To approach him, Joseph had to go inside the praetorium through one of the side entrances that were reserved for the use of messengers and servants."

As a "surprise"? How this is so is far from clear. Otherwise it is fairly easy to see the begged questions throughout the text. We don't get to an actual "problem" allegedly solved until this:

For about two centuries interpreters have tried to explain why the gospels should make a point of identifying by name a person to whom no reference is made anywhere else. Schonfield remarks about Joseph of Arimathea:
He is one of the great mysteries of the gospels he enters the story unheralded, and after his task is fulfilled he disappears completely from the New Testament records. There is no indication whatever of his association with the apostles or that he openly joined the Nazorean movement.[2]

I read it several times, and I am still trying to figure out the puzzle in "explain[ing] why the gospels should make a point of identifying by name a person to whom no reference is made anywhere else." What's the issue, here? There isn't one. What are we asking for, a mention of Joseph during the Galileean ministry?

Schoenfield's "mystery" comment in a mystery of his own manufacture; it begs the question of whether Joseph, in the time that followed, did anything of note, rather than wisely laying low as one should have whose tomb was a focus of controversy. But Luke is allegedly quoted, "And behold, there was a man by the name of Joseph, who was a member of the Council, a noble and just man; he had not agreed with the decision and actions of the other members from Arimathea, a city of the Jews." And we are told:

The other gospels do not explain of which council Joseph was a member; and, in fact, there are interpreters who argue that Joseph may have been a member of the local council of the city of Arimathea. But Luke understood that Joseph was a member of the same Jewish Council of Jerusalem that had decided that Jesus should be put to death; hence, in order to explain how a member of the same group would have intervened to bury Jesus, Luke had to introduce the novel information that there was one member of this Council who had dissented from all the others.

We are not told who these unknown "interpreters" are who place a council in Arimathea, but this is rendered false inasmuch as Nero's "translation" is false. Luke 23:50-1 reads, recall: "And, behold, there was a man named Joseph, a counsellor; and he was a good man, and a just: (The same had not consented to the counsel and deed of them;) he was of Arimathaea, a city of the Jews: who also himself waited for the kingdom of God."

What meanwhile is "novel" here is left conveniently unexplained. A better explanation is found in Byron McCane's conclusion that the Sanhedrin would have had an obligation, based on Jewish burial customs, to take care of the bodies as needed.

Problem 2 alleged:

Like Luke, Mark made Joseph a member of the Council, but thought it better to omit Matthew's information that he was a disciple of Jesus. Had such a disciple existed, the Christians would have heard of him earlier.

They would have? Why? And even if so, why would he need to have been mentioned any earlier? We're still being told of this "mystery" appearance by Joseph even though the exact "mystery" has yet to be explained. Instead, this "mystery" is enlisted as proof of the Seneca thesis:

Seneca must have made appear on the stage a character identified as Joseph ab aromatis. The phrase ab aromatis indicated that Joseph was a dealer in spices, but since corpses were smeared with spices, it had the general meaning of embalmer, or undertaker. The kernel of the entire problem is that the Christian audience of Seneca's play did not understand the expression "Joseph ab aromatis" because it embodied a particular twist of the Latin language which did not have any parallel in Greek, the language with which this audience was familiar; they understood that Joseph was coming epi [from] Arimathaias.

Seneca, so high in Roman officialdom, saw an undertaker being "bold" enough to request the body of someone from a Roman prefect, for what reason? To bury it, when he was not even family and the Romans didn't give the body to just anyone? McCane shows that only family OR a Sanhedrin member would have been able to get that body; ironically Nero even seems to know this later on ("A request of this kind had to be submitted to the Roman governor in a most formal way and hence was a proper action for the Jewish Council.") but explains it with the contrivance that Joseph acted as a "messenger" for the Council, and then explains the giving away of the body as Seneca introducing a "tenet of his philosophy" that burial of executed criminals ought to be allowed. Nero's theory of Joseph as a "professional embalmer, whose task it was to bury all of the executed criminals before the coming of the holy day" is an anachronism as well; embalming among the Jews was women's work.

Finally, Nero thinks as well that we have problems locating Arimathea; the the relevant data says otherwise, and he is apparently unaware that the city is named in later sources than the OT, like Josephus and 1 Maccabees.

Thus this thesis is a mix of mystery sources that do not say what is claimed, begged questions, dates altered for convenience, and contrivances for lack of evidence.

-JPH