Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History III.20.1-5

The relatives of Jesus before the emperor Domitian

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Eusebius of Caesarea
313 CE to 325 CE
Caesarea Maritima
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Title of work: 
Ecclesiastical History

For a general introduction to Eusebius and the Ecclesiastical History, please see the commentary on I.6.6-11.

This passage narrates the experience of two relatives of Jesus who are brought before the emperor Domitian. Chapter 12 of book III has previously stated that Vespasian, following the siege of Jerusalem, had required that all from the line of David be sought out, in order to ensure that there were no more messianic pretenders likely to arise from among the Jewish people and cause problems for the Romans. Here, we read that Domitian has expressed similar worries. In III.17 Eusebius has described the persecuting habits of Domitian, comparing him to Nero in terms of cruelty. As explained in the commentary on that text, arguably the way in which our author portrays Domitian, as wishing to succeed Nero in terms of ferocity and vigorous persecution of the Christians, works as a feature of his broader narrative in this book, with the present extract showing how a previously savage emperor can be changed of his ways by influential Christians. This, I suggest, helps our author to make a propagandistic point about the relationship of Christianity to Roman power, whereby the Christian religion is able to triumph over imperial dominion and oppression due to its powerful witnesses. In this case, Jesus’s own descendants fulfil this role (for a concise survey of the relatives of Jesus, and a discussion of their portrayal in the sources from the New Testament onwards, see Richard Bauckham, “The Relatives of Jesus”; for more detail, see his Jude and the Relatives of Jesus).

The account that we are given here of this trial before the emperor Domitian is likely ahistorical (see Bauckham,Jude and the Relatives of Jesus, p. 99; for an older view which believed the account to be legitimate, see Carrington, The Early Christian Church, p. 335). Aside from the fact that it serves so clearly as a rhetorical feature elevating the status of Christianity, and humbling the Roman authorities, there are other indications of its fabrication. Firstly, the term ἠουοκᾶτος (ēouokatos), representing the Latin evocatus,refers to a veteran soldier that was recalled to military service, and seems slightly strange in this particular context, where such an individual is described as being responsible for bringing Jesus’s relatives to Domitian. Moreover, as Bauckham argues, it is problematic to connect this incident to an imperially sanctioned Christian persecution, as the two figures in the story are specifically described as being from the lineage of David, not as Christians. As above, Eusebius has already stated in an earlier chapter that Vespasian had persecuted the Jews in an attempt to root out David’s line. If these two relations of Jesus had been given up to the Roman authorities, then, it would make more sense for the informant to have been acting on a policy against the lineage of David, not Christians (Jude and the Relatives of Jesus, p. 100). This is aside from the fact that scholars disagree anyway over the level of Christian persecution that occurred under Domitian, with some, such as Timothy Barnes, having argued on the basis of the fragmentary evidence which we possess that there was little to none at all (see “Legislation”). The account must therefore be seen purely as a Christian invention; what it reflects is a perception whereby the relationship between Rome and the Jews was one of rivalry (with the Jewish Messiah being a threat to the emperor).

Bauckham explains that the two figures referred to here are two Palestinian Jewish Christians who came to be of significant influence in the late-first century. They were two grandsons of the Lord’s brother Jude, known as Zoker and James. While their names are not preserved in Eusebius’s account, we find this information in another ancient summary of Hegesippus (Paris MS 1555A and Bodleian MS Barocc. 142). According to Hegesippus (quoted here in Eusebius; see “The Relatives of Jesus,” p. 21 n. 17), the narrative explains that when Domitian quizzes them about their possessions, the Lord’s relatives tell him that they have only nine-thousand denarii between them, in the form of land. It is from this land, they claim, that they are able to work as farmers in order to pay their taxes (φόρος, phoros). In order to prove this, they show their calloused hands to the emperor. They are subsequently asked about the kingdom of Christ (the formulation here is also highly suggestive of Christian composition), specifically what type of kingdom (βασιλεία, basileia) it was, and when it was going to appear. To this, they predictably respond that Christ’s kingdom is otherworldly, only to become apparent at the end of time (see John 18:36). Domitian is satisfied with their answer, and sees no threat from these individuals, so proceeds to release them. Moreover, he is so convinced that their movement does not pose a threat to the Roman government that he issues a decree (πρόσταγμα, prostagma) putting an end to the current persecution of the Christians.

The essential point being made in this episode is that the two relatives succeed in showing Domitian that Christianity is not subversive, and not a threat to Roman power (Bauckham, “The Relatives of Jesus,” p. 21). These individuals are loyal tax payers, not dangerous sectarian rebels. The emperor, therefore, can no longer justify the continued persecution of Christians. Moreover, Bauckham argues that this passage has the powerful apologetic function of attributing the end of the second imperial persecution to Jesus’s relatives, which certainly makes an inspiring addition to the overall propaganda of the Ecclesiastical History (Bauckham,Jude and the Relatives of Jesus, p. 99-100). While they are not martyred here in the way that so many of Eusebius’s Christian witnesses are, Jesus’s relatives nonetheless play a powerful role in what Doron Mendels has termed as Eusebius’s “media machine,” whereby persecution of Christians at the hands of Rome served to bring Christianity to the forefront of the public and institutional consciousness. Here, we see one such instance of Christianity in the limelight, before the emperor no less, and arguably ultimately coming out as somewhat triumphant. This said, the emperor still essentially views the individuals as harmless fools; he is not converted to their cause or sympathetic to their message.

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