Perhaps one of the boldest claims for the legitimacy of Christianity in the ancient Roman world came from Tertullian, an elder of the church in Carthage around 200 CE. In his Apology he wrote the following:
Tiberius accordingly, in whose days the Christian name made its entry into the world, having himself received intelligence from Palestine of events which had clearly shown the truth of Christ’s divinity, brought the matter before the senate, with his own decision in favour of Christ. The senate, because it had not given the approval itself, rejected his proposal. Caesar held to his opinion, threatening wrath against all accusers of the Christians (Tertullian, Apology, 5).
Tertullian’s appeal to Tiberius and his supposed profession of faith has caused great controversy ever since. There is no other historical evidence that corroborates Tertullian’s claim, and knowing the view of Tiberius held by Roman historians like Tacitus, surely someone would have jumped upon such a thing and made a show of it. It would seem entirely against everything we know about Tiberius and his character. On the other hand, the very boldness of the claim is quite startling; after all, it would only take a trip to the senatorial records in Rome to verify or falsify this claim. What is to be believed about this witness of Tertullian?
It would seem that this claim represents the foundation of a movie recently released by “FoxFaith”, a division of the Fox Corporation, entitled The Final Inquiry. The movie begins with the events surrounding the death of Jesus on the cross– the sun turning to darkness (Matthew 27:45) and the earthquake that occurred after His death (Matthew 27:51). These events are imagined to impact the whole world– Capri and Germany are covered in darkness and shaken as well as Jerusalem. The Roman emperor of the day, Tiberius, is not satisfied with the explanations given to him, and he calls forth one of his legion commanders in Germany, Titus Valerius Tauros, to investigate the events and the claims surrounding Jesus of Nazareth.
Tauros travels to Judea with his German prisoner-companion Brixos who does quite well at wielding an axe. Tauros goes around, speaking with various people, and ends up falling in love with a young Jewish girl named Tabitha, a daughter of a Pharisee who believes in Jesus. Her grave injuries and death compel Tauros to seek after Simon Peter in Galilee, who comes down and revives her. Tauros sends word back to Tiberius validating the claims regarding Jesus of Nazareth, and himself renounces everything to become a Christian. Meanwhile, Tiberius receives and believes the report, and leaves Capri for Rome to deliver a message to the Senate, proclaiming Christianity not just as a legitimate religion but also as the state religion. Tiberius’ nephew Gaius is present and hears of this, and fearing that he will not gain the honors of the emperor as given before, suffocates his uncle so that the decree will never be made and becomes emperor himself (also known as Caligula).
While some of the dialogue scenes in the movie seem overly scripted and mechanistic, the movie overall is made quite well. The movie is quite parallel to The Passion of the Christ, and it in fact employs many of the same actors (it would seem that both Pilate and Mary are played by the same people in both). While the story is engaging, and runs with Tertullian’s claim, the movie does present many serious disagreements with both the Scriptures and history.
- Pilate and the chief priests. The movie would make it seem as if Pilate was in league with the chief priests in their attempts to eliminate Christianity. While there is no evidence to the contrary, there is also no evidence in support of this claim.
- Contrary claims regarding Jesus’ death. The movie indicates that the chief priests were teaching that neither Lazarus nor Jesus truly died, but instead drank poisoned wine that led to death-like appearance for anything from a few hours to three days. While one could attempt to say that such was the wine offered to Jesus in Matthew 27:54, such a claim was not made regarding Jesus’ “apparent” death and resurrection in ancient times.The movie itself would refute this claim by the witness of the centurion who was present at Jesus’ death, who indicates that the spear pierced all the way to the heart, thus demonstrating Jesus’ death (cf. John 19:33-36; the text does not indicate how far in the spear went). It would seem that the preferred story of the chief priests was that the disciples stole away the body (Matthew 28:11-15), and not anything about a poison.
- Judas Iscariot. While the movie is not fully clear about Judas, it would appear that some of the characters believe that Judas Iscariot was alive, albeit mad, and living in the Field of Blood (Akeldama). While the place is the one mentioned in Acts 1:18-19, Judas was quite dead by the time that a Roman investigator would have come around.
- Chronology, event confusion. The movie would seem to take place somewhere between 35-37, since the historical Tiberius dies in March of 37 CE, and the events take some time to unfold.The movie introduces us to a Stephen who is a believer, and he is executed by stoning at the hands of the Jews. The movie would seem to be pointing to the Stephen of Acts 6-7, but many details are inconsistent: the Biblical Stephen is stoned immediately after his hearing in the Sanhedrin without any order of death; in the movie, Stephen is first imprisoned, and then ordered to be executed by stoning by Pilate himself.
Furthermore, while it is true that Stephen’s death could have been as late as 36 CE, such is the absolute latest date of the event. It could easily have happened at any other time between 33-36 CE (presuming Jesus dies in 30), and therefore out of the range of the events described.
Meanwhile, Simon Peter is described in the movie as having left Jerusalem for Galilee on account of the persecution. This is inconsistent with the Biblical evidence, which explicitly excludes the Apostles from those who fled after Stephen’s death (Acts 8:1). It is true that Peter left Jerusalem for Lydda, Joppa, and Caesarea sometime between 36-41 CE (Acts 9:32-10:48), but immediately returns to Jerusalem, not Galilee (Acts 11:2). The movie also claims that Simon Peter is the singular leader of “the church” in all places; this is consistent with the Catholic claims regarding Matthew 16:18, but something not indicated by Peter at all in the Biblical text. He claims no special leadership, and in terms of authority is always mentioned in the context of the other apostles.
The movie would also put forth Tauros as a believer and a Christian before Cornelius heard the word (Acts 10). There is no indication that a Gentile was accepted among the brethren before Cornelius, for such had not yet even been revealed.
- Tiberius and Gaius. Perhaps the most fantastic claim of the movie is found at the end, when Gaius is seen suffocating his uncle in order to suppress the acceptance of Christianity.It is most likely true that Gaius did suffocate his uncle in March of 37, and further that he had pretensions of being a god, but there is no indication that he did so because his uncle was going to accept Christianity. It is hard to believe such a claim, considering that Claudius later will consider the Christians and the Jews to be part of the same religion, and the first indications we have of Christianity reaching the imperial house comes in the days of Paul and Nero, 25 years later (cf. Philippians 4:22). Furthermore, in this the movie departs from Tertullian’s claim: Tertullian establishes that the decree indeed made it to the Senate, while the movie would have the decree burned before it could arrive.
The Final Inquiry makes for a standard movie: a love interest, battle scenes, other forms of violence, conspiracies, and the redemptive ending. While the movie takes the ancient claim of Tertullian and runs with it, we must not be seduced into thinking that the movie accurately represents the story. There is no indication that the mighty Roman empire was greatly perturbed at the Christian movement until the time of Nero, and especially not in 36 CE, when the movement was, to the outsider, barely distinguishable from the Judaism from which it came. Let us soberly consider the facts from the Scriptures, and not be led astray by such portrayals.