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Caligula and the Jews

July 30, 2013

Last night here in the UK, the BBC broadcast another interesting programme on things Roman, written and “starring” Prof. Mary Beard (whom I respect enormously), this one on Gaius Caesar, better known as Caligula.  It was, of course, selective, and as necessary for TV audiences (even BBC audiences) “jazzed up” just a bit and kept light and breezy. But some information did get through on the man and his brief reign (37-41 CE), which was cut short by assassination done by his own guards.

As is now standard procedure, Prof. Beard queried the historic picture of Caligula, as a cruel, paranoid, vain, morally corrupt ruler, observing that there were no contemporary references to him of this nature and that we depend on treatments in writers such as Suetonius (ca. 69-122 CE), who wasn’t even born in Caligula’s lifetime.  But we aren’t limited to Suetonius and writers of his ilk or date.  There were some curious omissions in the programme.  Sure, one has to be selective when working with a time (or word) limit.  But I found the omissions very puzzling.  

There was a brief passing mention of Seneca, who was certainly a contemporary, and whose characterization of Caligula is pretty damning.  Likewise, there was a brief reference to Philo of Alexandria (a prominent Jewish leader there) making a trip to Rome to intercede with Caligula on behalf of Jews in Alexandria. 

But Philo (Embassy to Gaius ) has much to say about Gaius than the report of this unsuccessful trip.  And there is also the extended treatment of Caligula by Flavius Josephus (ca. 37-100 CE; Jewish Antiquities), written much earlier than Suetonius. 

In considering whether in fact Caligula was the megalomaniac portrayed in the historical sources who demanded to be treated as a living god, I was particularly puzzled at the complete lack of reference to Caligula’s order to set up his image in the Jerusalem temple (described at length by Josephus, Antiquities 18.262-309).  This isn’t disputed as a historical event, and was clearly intended to force the Jews to acknowledge him as a deity, the image in question clearly a cult-image.  I’d have thought this relevant.

Now, certainly, in the first year or two of his rule, Caligula made a number of reforms and won admiration and support from many Romans, especially among the masses.  But it’s also rather clear that he didn’t handle power well (to put it kindly), and rather quickly became the sort of ruler who was feared, hated, and generated the plot that did him in.

As I say, one has to be selective.  But I would have thought that the incident involving the aborted attempt to set up his own image in the Jerusalem temple would have been a rather important example of Caligula’s readiness to push for himself as a living god.  Indeed, we may even have a reference to these events earlier than Josephus, many exegetes thinking it alluded to in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, the events still vivid at the time of 2 Thessalonians (a few decades later) as an archetypal example of blasphemous hubris.

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12 Comments
  1. godsbelow permalink

    There’s an excellent article about the statue affair by Per Bilde (1978, ‘The Roman Emperor Gaius (Caligula)’s Attempt to Erect his Statue in the Temple of Jerusalem’, ST 32: 67-93.). Bilde emphasises that Philo’s account is actually a polemic, rather than an historical account; as such, we can’t take for granted Philo’s claim that Gaius was the inveterate enemy of the Jews – and certainly he had no problem with the one Jew with whom he was personally acquainted, M. Iulius Agrippa, whom he had made a king.

    Despite his efforts to depict the statue affair as the product of the emperor’s malice and megalomania, Philo records that Gaius was actually provoked to action by the destruction of an altar to the imperial family by Jews in the city of Jamneia (Leg. Gai. 199-202). As Bilde notes, Jamneia was an imperial estate at the time – in the eyes of the Roman state, it was owned by the Julio-Claudian family, not officially part of Judaea – and so the attack on the altar would have been perceived as a rebellion (cf. the cessation of sacrifices in the emperor’s honour at the outset of the First Jewish War, which was understood to signal a rebellion: Joseph. BJ 409-410). Bilde argues that the scheme to have erect a statue in the Temple is therefore best understood as a symbolic measure to reassert imperial power over the Jewish populace of Palestine, who, in Roman eyes, had behaved rebelliously.

    • Yes, well, an interesting proposal. But we have the fuller account of Josephus as well, which means that more than Philo saw Gaius (Caligula) as having attempted an outrage against Jewish religion. And Josephus elaborates how the Roman governor tried to dissuade Caligula, and as a result was effectively told to commit suicide. So, I’m not so sure that Caligula’s effort to set up his statue in the Temple was quite as innocent and reasonable as your summary of the article suggests. But thanks for the reference.

  2. Thanks for the helpful comments, Larry, which I read before watching the documentary today. I think what you say is further underlined by the fact that she began the documentary by asking why Caligula had the reputation he has. She could so easily at that point — or later — have mentioned that the Bible itself has cemented his reputation! As you say, she did mention Philo, but it was only in relation to the delegation and its encounter with the emperor. She also mentioned Josephus late on, but without the mention of the temple incident, which would actually have shored up some of the discussion about the worship of Caligula. I too like Mary Beard, but think that there was plenty of room in a documentary of this nature for the stuff you mention. (And having said that, praise the Lord for BBC2 and the fact that we get quality documentaries of this kind!)

  3. Howard permalink

    If I may add my two cents worth again. I don’t really see any connection between Mark 13:14 or 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 and Caligula. The problem with Mark 13:14 is that the surrounding text seems to give a sense of urgency. When they see “the abomination of desolation standing where it should not be” they are to immediately flee from Judea, leaving their belongings in the field. Caligula’s rule was almost thirty years before they really had to flee the destruction of Jerusalem. However, probably more important is that Luke in his parallel account tells us what “the abomination of desolation standing where it should not be” means.

    Luke 21:20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is at hand.”

    The problem with 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 is that Paul is writing to non-Jews (1 Thessalonians 1:9), who would have no emotional attachment to the Jewish temple. In fact, it is doubtful that Paul is even talking about the Jewish temple where Caligula wanted to put his image. Paul repeatedly informs his readers that the temple is made up of believing Christians (1 Corinthians 3:16, 17), So sitting in the temple of God might have a completely different meaning here, possibly having something to do with the apostasy mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, where the “man of lawlessness” might actually come from the Christians themselves.

    • Howard, The point isn’t that either Mark or 2 Thessalonians directly refers to the Caligula temple-incident, but that the incident served thereafter as prime illustration of the blasphemous hubris that was also associated with a final evil figure in some Christian apocalyptic thought. In a similar way, it is widely thought that Nero served as an exemplar of the end-time evil figure in Revelation. But let’s not get all tangled up in the intricacies of discussing these matters. My posting was about Caligular’s temple-incident.
      Oh, and it would be simplistic to think that Paul had no regard for the Jerusalem temple. He extends the idea of temple to the churches, but that doesn’t at all mean a disdain for the real thing. He was, and remained, a Jew, dedicated to his own people, concerned for their salvation, and highly respectful of their traditions.

      • Howard permalink

        I would just like to clarify a few things. I totally agree that some Roman figures and events typified later Christian apocalyptic thought, and Mark 13 is one of them. It was actually a prophetic declaration. But that is a discussion for another time. Also, I never intended to imply that Paul had no regard for the Jewish temple. I only meant that the non-Jewish Thessalonians would not have the emotional attachment that Paul and other Jews would have had. Also, in the surrounding contexts of 2 Thessalonians, Paul is trying to reassure the Thessalonians that the day of the Lord is not really here, as if someone had implied that it was through a letter or verbal message. But if you notice Paul’s response, he reassures them by saying, no, the day is not here yet, because these things that need to happen, have not yet happened. Therefore, when Paul speaks about “sitting in the Temple of God” he is referring to future events, not past events. If Paul had Caligula in mind when saying these things, he would only be reinforcing what the Thessalonians erroneously thought about the day of the Lord.

      • Howard, since you insist on pursuing this side-issue: I restrict myself to your final statement. Which is incorrect. In the 2 Thess passage, the author both re-affirms the reality of the apocalyptic scenario, and on this basis makes the point that it’s not at that point manifest. Of course, the author is referring to some future event, but most of us think that the representation of it is shaped by the past experience of Caligula’s fateful effort. That’s all. Let’s move on.

  4. I wish we had BBC in the US.

  5. M Gould permalink

    Some see the reference in Mark 13:14 to “the abomination of desolation standing where it should not be” as an allusion to, or at least influenced by the Caligula episode? A minority of scholars, including I think, Professor Crossley, use the reference as part of a case to date Mark to as early as the AD 40s?

    • Yes on both counts. In the view of most NT scholars (including me), Crossley fails to distinguish adequately between the possible date of the saying at Mark 13:14 and the date of the Gospel of Mark itself.

  6. David Graham permalink

    It was worth a watch, despite the shortcomings you identify. I did wonder if she will do a similar programme for other emperors?

  7. Torrance, Iain permalink

    Thanks, Larry. Very interesting and helpful. I too admire Mary Beard and watched the programme. Best wishes, Iain

    Sent from my iPad

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