The Gospel According to Seneca

Jesus left no written record of his life and teachings; practically all that we know of him is what the four evangelists chose to tell us. The gospels launched Christianity onto the world stage, transforming an obscure Jewish sect into a powerful movement that no amount of persecution could destroy. They were the weapons with which Christianity conquered the worldyet those who created them 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.

            From the letters of Paul we gather that the first generation of Jesus’ followers were not particularly interested in the details of his earthly life; what was central to their beliefs was his death and resurrection: The Christian faith and the Christian message stood or fell on the fact of the resurrection. The gospels were the product of the next generation, which found itself in a head-on confrontation with the power of Rome. The Christians began to suffer persecution as the result of a verdict handed down by the Court of Caesara verdict quite opposite to that which Paul had stubbornly pursued in the effort to turn the table on his enemies. Paul’s miscalculation cost him his life; it also meant that Christians suddenly found themselves branded as enemies of the stateuntil then they had been able to live securely in the shadow of Judaism.

            Paul’s protracted court proceedings brought about the need for some sort of an apology of Jesus, in the manner of Plato’s Apology of Socrates, to account for the scandal of the cross, that is, to explain to the Romans how the Christians could worship one who had been sentenced to crucifixion, a particularly infamous form of execution in Roman eye[1]. Plato, with his unique literary gifts, had succeeded in preserving for posterity the life and personaty of the greatest intellect of ancient Greece. Similarly the gospel writers were able to draw a portrait of Jesus that proved compelling to their contemporaries as well as to all later generations. Only the judges at the Court of Caesar seemed immune.

            The kernel of the gospel narratives is the trial and execution of Jesus. Whereas Jesus’ ministry in Galilee is presented as a string of utterances, deeds and incidents, culled from oral traditions and differently arranged by each of the four evangelists, with Jesus’ arrest the pace quickens and a highly dramatic story emerges, in which the differences between the gospels fade into insignificance. This indicates that the gospels drew on some pre-existing written account of the passion. As we read the story of Jesus’ final hours and watch one carefully-construed scene succeed another, we begin to distinguish the hand of a master. There must have been an individual of literary genius who wrote about the trial and execution of JesusI speak of an individual, because genius is individual.

            Ever since the Enlightenment, when the gospels began to be studied in a rationalistic frame of mind as literary works within their ancient context, parallels have been drawn between the passion of Jesus and the rituals and mysteries of the dying and resurrecting gods such as Dionysus and Osiris. The death and resurrection of Osiris was enacted annually in a dramatic performance. Greek tragedy evolved from sacred plays in honor of Dionysus. Did primitive Christianity, too, begin as ritual drama?

The economy of the Gospel narratives is related to the ritual commemoration of the Passion; taking them literally we run the risk of transposing into history what are really the successive incidents of a religious drama,

so wrote Alfred Loisy, one of the most perceptive New Testament scholars of our time.[2] J. M. Robertson went even further, claiming that the story of the passion is

the bare transcript of a primitive play... always we are witnessing drama, of which the spectators needed no description, and of which the subsequent transcriber reproduces simply the action and the words...[3]

            Even theologians who are less daring in framing hypotheses continue to stumble upon traces of some ancient drama that appears to underlie the passion narrative.[4]  S.G.F. Brandon is impressed by the superb theatrical montage of the trial of Jesus[5] ; 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.[6] But none of these scholars has succeeded in reconstructing this drama or identifying its author.  They came very close to the truth but missed a crucial elementthe drama that constituted the kernel of the passion story was not a primitive ritual performance, but a tragedy of considerable subtlety and sophistication.

            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.

            Seneca’s choice of Jesus as a tragic hero may at first seem surprising; but we must remember that there was a whole gendre of Roman tragedy that dealt with historical events from the recent past (the so-called fabulae praetextae). Moreover, Seneca had a lifelong interest in oriental religions and wrote several books on the subject.[7] 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] Seneca encountered, in the trial of Jesus, a subject worthy of his aspirations as a philosopher and dramatist. His treatment of it was strictly within the conventions of the ancient theater, since it corresponded point by point with the original cultic tragedy of Dionysus, which every subsequent tragedy tried to emulate:

1.  The hero is defeated in a struggle.

2.  He is killed in a sacrificial ritual.

3.  A messenger arrives, announcing his fate, and the chorus responds with its lamentations.

4.  The body is brought onto the stage and is buried.

5.  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.[9]

            Seneca was at the height of his poli­ti­cal career, serving as Nero’s chief advisor, when Paul arrived in Rome about 56 A.D. Paul’s presence in Rome was occasioned by his appeal to the Court of Caesar of an un­favorable verdict against him. Some of Paul’s activities had led to riots in the provinces and his name repeatedly came to the attention of the Roman authori­ties. One such incident, four years earlier, involved Seneca’s brother Gallio, then ser­ving as a magistrate in Greece. The Jews of Corinth had charged Paul with spreading false doctrines and brought him before the magistrate’s courtbut Gallio refused to hear the case. Later, charged by the Jews of Caesarea of propagating an illicit religion, he demanded his right, as a Roman citizen, to be judged by the Court of Caesar; he was brought to the capital in chains. Paul spent two years in Rome under house arrest awaiting Nero’s verdict, yet all the while preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all confi­dence, no one forbidding him. (Acts 28:31). The Acts of the Apostles ends with these very words, and gives us no further information about Paul’s activities in Rome or the outcome of his trial. Since The Acts of the Apostles originally formed part of the gospel of Luke, the entire work must pre-date Paul’s martyrdom in 58 A.D. [10] If at the time of his writing Luke had known how Paul met his end, he could hardly have failed to mention it.  Both parts of Luke’s writings, the gospel and The Acts of the Apostles, open with a dedication to Your Excellency, Theophilus. Theophilus is evidently the pseudonym of some prominent personage in Nero’s palace, but his identity has remained an enigma. If Luke’s two-volume exposition of Christianity was composed  during the time of Paul’ Roman captivity in an effort to influence the  outcome his trial, it should  be remembered that only one person had the power to condemn Paul to death or to free himCaesar Nero himself. 

            The  central issue in the trial of Paul was the status of the faith he was propagatingwas it a permitted religion (religio licita) by virtue of being the true form of Judaism, as Paul maintained, or was it an illicit new sect, as his accusers were charging? Paul hoped that by winning his case he would outmaneouver the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem. Appealing his case to Caesar’s Court was a calculated risk. The stakes were high, but Paul was convinced that he would prevail. As it turned out, he miscalculated. Instead of winning official recognition for the Christian faith, Paul lost his appeal and received the death sentence, with the result that not only he, but Christians throughout the Empire were branded as members of a proscribed religion. Persecution of Christians remained official Roman policy for the next 250 years.

            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. This turn of events posed a threat to Seneca as well, since in his latest play he had extolled Jesus as a Stoic hero. Decisive action was called for. Seneca had learned to orient himself quickly in the treacherous currents of court politics: to save himself, he had to take the initiative in getting rid of Paul. Procuring a guilty verdict was a relatively easy matter; getting Nero to sign the death warrant had proven more difficult. He tried to soothe Nero’s feelings in a rambling memorandum, On Clemency, in which he argued that state reasons at times require the death of innocent individuals. The ruler has to face such decisions with fortitude, as Nero had done in signing the death warrant in a recent capital caseeven while voicing his regret at ever having learned to write.[11]

            Seneca’s career, however, never recovered from this blow. His influence waned to the point that in 62 A.D. he resigned all his government posts and retired to his country villa south of Rome. Meanwhile Christianity, though banned, continued to flourish. In 64 A.D., in the aftermath of a great fire that devastated the capital, Nero instigated a savage persecution of the Christians. According to Tacitus, an im­mense multitude of Christians perished; many others were forced to flee for their lives. The following year an alleged conspiracy against Nero was dis­co­vered, in which some of the most prominent citizens of Rome were found to be im­pli­cated. Suspecting that Seneca, too, had taken part in the plot, Nero dis­patched soldiers to inform him that he would be permitted to put an end to himself. 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 nine tragedies of Seneca that have come down to us were probably edited posthumously by Seneca’s friend and confidant Lucilius Iunior.[13] Their publi­cation would hardly have been possible in Nero’s lifetime; only after the tyrant’s death in A.D. 69 could Lucilius safely undertake the task of preparing Seneca’s literary works for public release. The very fact that a sizable collection of Seneca’s letters to Lucilius has survived, while the rest of Seneca’s corres­pondence is lost, indicates to whom we owe the preservation of Seneca’s writings. But Seneca’s tragedy of Jesus 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 tragedy of Jesus from his edition of Seneca’s collected works.

            Seneca’s play about Jesus was not a tragedy in the usual sense, but a fabula praetexta, that is, Roman historical drama. All the major Roman playwrights produced such historical plays, but our knowledge of this genre is based on a single surviving exemplar: This fabula, called Octavia, deals with the fate of Nero’s first wife, executed in 62 A.D. In the manuscript tradition it is attached to the nine plays of Seneca, but the majority of modern scholarship agrees that Seneca could not be its author.[14] It may have been written by Lucilius Iunior as a tribute to Seneca and a scathing indictment of Nero, in the aftermath of the tyrant’s death.

            The nine tragedies of Seneca formed a philosophical whole, beginning with The Mad Hercules, in which some weighty moral questions are posed, and culminating with Hercules on Oeta, where the soul is at last liberated from its bodily prison.[15] It is reasonable to assume that this series originally included a historical drama, a fabula praetexta, in which the lessons expounded in the nine tragedies were applied to a contemporary subject. It is our hypothesis that this historical drama, which is now lost, was Seneca’s tragedy of Jesus. When Lucilius decided to omit the tragedy of Jesus from the collection of Seneca’s works, he substituted for it his own recently completed Octavia, a play for which he could expect to find an appreciative audience in the wake of Nero’s overthrow. But while Lucilius’ Octavia is a vitriolic piece of political propaganda, having no organic relationship to the nine extant plays of Seneca, the tragedy of Jesus, as we reconstruct it in this book, was an eloquent summation of Seneca’s philosophical ideals and a monument to his mastery of the dramatic art.

            While the gospels survived because they reinforced the Christian faith, Seneca’s tragedy of Jesus was consigned to oblivion because it offended Christians and pagans alike. Christians must have welcomed some of the new information presented by Senecaparticularly his additions to the lists of witnesses of the resurrectionbut were faced with the problem of reconciling this new testimony, coming from a source as respected as Seneca, with their previous­ly held beliefs. Each of the evangelists had a slightly different solution for this dilemma, expunging or modifying those elements that appeared too obviously pagan, or in direct conflict with accepted beliefs, while trying to explain why the information presented in the play had not been available earlier.

            The evidence suggests that the author of Mark’s gospel witnessed a per­formance of Seneca’s tragedy. This gospel is usually considered the first to be set down in writing, and its author seems to have resided in Rome.[16] Obviously impressed by the perfor­mance, but shocked by its pagan tendencies, the author of Mark’s gospel did not dare to include more than a highly condensed summary of the play.[17]

            The author of Matthew’s gospel followed very closely the gospel of Mark, but added his own interpretations intended to make the Christian message acceptable to strict Jews and to defend it from hostile criticism.

            The author of Luke’s gospel was probably the same Luke who accompanied Paul to the capital in 56 A.D., a voyage of which he left a detailed record in The Acts of the Apostles.[18] Thus he may have had the opportunity to attend a performance of Seneca’s play. And indeed, Luke’s account of Jesus’ passion contains variants that cannot easily be explained except as independent observations of an eyewitness.

            The fourth gospel, that of John, has been called a great enigma because its emphasis is so different from the three so–called synoptic gospels. These diffe­rences can be explained on the assumption that John wrote without the benefit of seeing the tragedy performed, but had access to the script of the play. For this reason John could render the substance of Seneca’s tragedy more fully and more accurately than the other evangelists who relied on visual impressions they did not fully comprehend.

            The contention of some critics that Seneca’s plays were not meant for theatrical performance[19] has been refuted long ago by Léon Herrmann, who showed that all the tragedies were intended to be performed in a theater, with actors, choruses, and music.[20] Moreover, as we will try to show, at least one of Seneca’s plays, his tragedy of Jesus, was actually enacted on the stage, in front of a large audience, some of whose impressions are recorded on the pages of the New Testament.

[1]    S. G. F. Brandon, The Trial of Jesus (New York, 1968), p. 136.

[2]           The Birth of the Christian Religion (University Books, 1962), p.83 (published as La Naissance du Christianisme, Paris, 1933).

[3]           Pagan Christs (London, 1903), pp. 181 ff.

[4]           Ludger Schenke, Auferstehungsverkündung und leers Grab: Eine traditionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung von Mk. 16,1-8.2nd ed. Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1969), pp. 57, 62f, 78-83, 86-89; Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (New York, 1969), pp. 331-337, 702-703, nn. 30-32.

[5]           Brandon, op. cit.

[6]           Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John in The Anchor Bible, vol. 19b (New York, 1970), pp. 858f.

[7]           Robert Turcan, Sénèque et le religions orientales (Brussels, 1967).

[8]           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.

[9]           Gilbert Murray, Excursus on the Ritual Forms Preserved in Greek Tragedy, in Jane E. Harrison, Themis, second revised edition, (Cambridge, 1927), pp. 343-344.


         See Johannes Munck, The Acts of the Apostles (New York, 1967), pp. xlvi-lxi.


         See Léon Herrmann, Du Golgotha au Palatin (Brussels, 1934), pp 152-168; idem, Le 29 Juillet 58 (av. J.–C.), Revue de l’Université de Bruxelles, 44 (1938/39), 342–346. Sénèque et les premiers chrétiens, (Brussels, 1979), 63-66. De Clementia, II. 1-2.

[12]         Tacitus, Annals XV. 60-63; Dio Cassius, 62.25.

[13]         Léon Herrmann, Le second Lucilius (Brussels, 1958), p. 51.

[14]         It is hard to imagine the philosopher putting himself as a character in his own play and describing with prophetic accuracy the death of Nero that occurred two years after his own. While L. Y. Whitman has attempted to meet some of the objections to Senecan authorship (Octavia, Bern, 1978), his remains a decidedly minority view.

[15]         Berthe Marti, Seneca’s Tragedies. A New Interpretation, Transactions of the American Philological Society, Vol. 76 (1945, pp. 216–245.

[16]         Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses III.1.

[17]         It is the consensus of many interpreters that one of Mark’s chief sources was an earlier consecutive account of the passion. This account seemingly began with the arrest of Jesus and continued with a presentation of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, a trial by Pilate, the condemnation of Jesus, his being led out to Golgotha, his crucifixion and death. Brown, op. cit., p. 789.

[18]         Chapters 27-28. Some scholars have questioned the identity of the author of Luke’s gospel and The Acts of the Apostles (originally a single work) with the Luke of Paul’s letters; but the majority agrees Luke’s gospel comes from the hand of the same Luke who was the collaborator of Paul.

[19]         See for instance Clarence W. Mendell, Our Seneca (Yale University Press, 1941).

[20]         Le théâtre de Sénèque (Paris, 1924), p. 195.