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Monday, September 12, 2016

Christ and the Emperor Tiberius

Christ and the Emperor Tiberius 


Although largely ignored or forgotten today, there was existed in Christianity a strong tradition of reverence for the imperial throne and a deeply held belief that the Roman emperor was, while not divine himself (as many were held to be by the pagans) but certainly part of God’s divine plan for the world and the Christian religion. This can be seen in the retention of certain Roman imperial traditions by the Germans, the emphasis placed on the baptism of Emperor Constantine, the reverence for his mother St Helena of the Cross and popular myths such as that Pope St Gregory the Great resurrected the pagan Emperor Trajan in order to baptize him into the Christian faith. 

It can be seen, as was discussed here this past August, in the stories surrounding the prophecies of the Roman sybils concerning the birth of Christ and Emperor Augustus, going all the way back to the very beginning of Christianity, or even slightly before in that regard. Again, today, none of this is talked about and doubtless very, very few Christians are even aware of these traditions or would consider them significant if informed about them. However, I find them fascinating and, in all honesty, an integral part of what I would consider the ideal for western civilization. So, I will talk about them and today the focus will be on the often notorious Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar.

History has not been terribly kind to Emperor Tiberius. He is generally regarded as a cold, cruel man at best, a “bloody tyrant” at worst and one who ended his life in a self-indulgent pool of unspeakable depravity. As usual, I will be a contrarian on this point as I have always had a much more positive opinion of Emperor Tiberius than most people, thanks in no small part to the late papal Latinist Father Reginald Foster who, while admitting that Tiberius got “a little nasty” toward the end, repeatedly asserted that, “he was not a bloody tyrant, he was a hard man” who had plenty of good points. Christians, in centuries past anyway, would likely have agreed. I first discovered this long lost tradition when writing up a long article on the “Popes and Caesars” and that tradition was that Emperor Tiberius was considered to be something of a crypto-Christian by what we might today call the pop-culture of early Christendom. For people who are familiar only with the version of Tiberius seen in movies and on television, this would certainly come as a shock and yet, for a very long time there was a widely held belief that the second Emperor of Rome was almost a Christian in his conscience.

The story, handed down from historians such as Eusebius Pamphilius and Tertullian is that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate sent reports to the Emperor about the activities of Jesus Christ and His disciples. Tiberius was, of course, the emperor when Christ conducted His ministry, was crucified, died and resurrected and it was Tiberius whom Christ referred to when He said, “render unto Caesar” and so on. According to these Christian historians, when Emperor Tiberius learned about Jesus, his heart was rather moved by the accounts and he raised the issue of deifying Christ and including him among the Roman pantheon. This, however, was refused by the Roman Senate which held that it was only by their vote that someone could become a god and this worked perfectly well with the Christians who, of course, held that the divinity of Christ was not dependent on a vote by Roman politicians. That having failed, Emperor Tiberius still insisted that the Christians not be persecuted, nor even “accused” and, these historians assert, it was this decision which enabled Christianity to grow and spread in its early, formative years when it could have most easily been suppressed.

We can see then, an assertion by these early Roman, Christian historians that a divine plan was at work, involving the Roman Emperor, by which God touched the heart of Caesar in order that Christianity could flourish and eventually convert the Roman Empire and, by that body, the whole of western civilization, to the true Faith. Later, secular, historians, of course, have a very different view. While most agree that Pontius Pilate did report on the life of Christ to Emperor Tiberius, as such would have been perfectly normal procedure, they do not agree that there is any significant evidence that Tiberius Caesar was at all sympathetic to the Christians or tried to champion their cause. The lack of initial persecution of Christians is explained away, by these secular historians with the, admittedly reasonable, assertion that in those early days the Christian religion was simply too inconsequential for the Roman authorities to bother with, a sort of passing religious trend that would come and go as others had before. Again, such a view is not unreasonable but, personally, I prefer the Christian version of events. Taken on its own, this story can certainly be discounted but, as mentioned in the previous article about the sybils, when seen in the wider context, I think it becomes much more difficult to dismiss as entirely fanciful. One could just as easily see evidence of a divine plan at work.

Eusebius Pamphilius summarized it this way:
“Tiberius, therefore, under whom the name of Christ made its entry into the world, when this doctrine was reported to him from Palestine, where it first began, communicated with the Senate, making it clear to them that he was pleased with the doctrine. But the Senate, since it had not itself proved the matter, rejected it. But Tiberius continued to hold his own opinion, and threatened death to the accusers of the Christians. Heavenly providence had wisely instilled this into his mind in order that the doctrine of the Gospel, unhindered at its beginning, might spread in all directions throughout the world.”

Today, as mentioned, all of this is discounted, however, even if one does, it still makes a very powerful point about what Christians considered important in the days of and immediately following the original, Christian, Roman Empire. Whether true or not, this story illustrates the centrality of the imperial monarchy in Christian thinking. Romans, after all, remained Romans even after becoming Christian and their loyalty to the empire and to Caesar did not change, nor could it have been expected to since both Christ Himself and His apostles commanded obedience to the imperial authorities. The story of the Tiburtine Sybil foretelling the birth of Christ to Emperor Augustus, the story of Emperor Tiberius being sympathetic to Christianity, the story of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the “Thundering Legion”, the story of Emperor Commodus and his Christian mistress, the story of Emperor Constantine’s vision before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, dismiss them all as a pack of fables if you like but the very fact that they were once so widely told makes a very profound point about the priorities and the ideals of the original Christians.

This is part of an entire tradition that Christians today are totally ignorant of and I think that is a shame. Christians today have forgotten that the earliest church councils were called by the Emperor rather than a churchman, that the imperial coronation was often referred to as “the eighth sacrament” or that the custom of anointing monarchs with holy oil at their coronation is a custom that goes back to the Eastern Roman Empire, drawing upon even more ancient traditions dating all the way back to the anointing of King Saul by the Prophet Samuel. The climax of the ceremony was the Roman Emperor taking communion and all the assembled senators and clergymen bowing prostrate before him. The imperial monarchy was thus so central to Christianity that, putting historical accuracy aside, it would have been perfectly natural for Christians to interpret events in terms of a divine plan involving the Roman emperors, the monarchs of western civilization, all the way back to the very origins of the faith and to interweave the history of the Roman emperors with the overall unfolding conversion of the west from paganism to Christianity, incorporating the figures of the pagan past into the Christian present and future rather than trying to forget everything that had come before.

In practical terms, this can also allow one to better understand why there was such an emphasis placed on the sacred nature of the imperial monarchy in the east, all the way up to the end of the Russian Empire in 1917 as well as helping to explain the often contentious relationship between the popes and the German emperors in the west. The more important something is, the more likely that it will be fought over. This was a tradition so central in fact that it survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire, was imitated by the First German Empire and by other monarchies that grew up in western Europe such as in England (where more of these traditions survive than anywhere else) and in France where the tragic King Louis XVI, heir to his own sacred royal traditions, called for, “one King, one law, one faith”, he was hearkening back, wittingly or not, to that original, united and finally Christian imperial realm with a Roman Caesar at its head. So, in the end, whether Emperor Tiberius was truly sympathetic to the cause of Christ or whether modern-day Christians would even wish to claim him (I would, but I recognize the vast majority would be horrified by the very idea), is not finally the point. The point is that such stories are either true and thus illustrate the divine guidance of the imperial monarchy from the beginning, or they are not true and thus illustrate how important the imperial monarchy was to early Christians who wished them to be so. Either way, we are inevitably drawn back to the fact, the idea and the ideal of The Empire.