The Ancient Novels and the New Testament: Possible Contacts

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Late in the reign of Nero, in Rome, Petronius, a member of the so-called 'Neronian Circle' and Nero's arbiter in matters of taste or arbiter elegantiarum, wrote his novel, Satyricon. It was during the time of, or soon after, the first Christian persecution, (2) which was initiated by Nero himself against the members of a religion that a decision of the Senate in A.D. 35 had labelled as an 'illicit superstition.' According to Tertullian, Tiberius in the Senate proposed to recognize the Christians' religion, but the senators refused, and proclaimed Christianity a superstitio illicita, so that every Christian could be put to death. But Tiberius, thanks to his tribunicia potestas, vetoed the Christians' condemnations, and there was no Roman persecution until the time of Nero. (3) According to Tacitus (Ann. 15, 44), in A.D. 64, at the time of the infamous fire of Rome, the Christians, who were very numerous, a multitudo ingens in the city, a [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] according to Clement of Rome (Cor. 5), (4) and were hated by people because of their supposed wrong-doings (ob flagitia invisi), were accused of arson and underwent spectacular tortures, which stirred pity (miseratio) even among pagan spectators. (5)

At that time it is likely that Mark's Gospel was already circulating in some form. In fact, according to the Christian tradition of the late first-early second century, represented by Papias (ap. Eus. HE 3, 39, 15), Clement of Alexandria (Hypot. 6, ap. Eus. HE 2, 15; 6, 14, 6, and F9 Staehlin), and Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 3, 1,1), (6) it was written in Rome, at the beginning of Claudius' reign after St. Peter's preaching: the audience, imperial officials and Roman knights (Caesariani et equites), asked Mark for a written version of the oral preaching. Evidence for this early tradition may come from the possible identification of the Qumran papyrus fragment 7Q5 with a short passage of Mark's Gospel (6, 52--63). The fact that it is a link passage in the narrative texture may lead us to believe that it was written in a late phase of the composition of the Gospel (7)--if we admit a 'stratified' writing, which some scholars do not accept. (8)

This identification, asserted by Jose O'Callaghan and then by Carsten Peter Thiede, has been accepted also, e.g., by Orsolina Montevecchi, Sergio Daris, and, most recently, Karl Jarosh. (9) The Gospel of Mark could thus have been written before A.D. 50, as suggested by the palaeographic style of the papyrus fragment, and in any case before A.D. 68, when the Qumran Caves were definitively closed. (10) The fragment itself was found in an amphora with the Aramaic word for 'Rome' on it: rwm. Anyway, contemporary scholarly research commonly acknowledges a date of composition before or around A.D. 70 for Mk; (11) thus, it is possible that this Gospel circulated in a written form in Rome in the late Neronian age, (12) and, in any case, it is probable that it circulated in an oral form in that period.

In this context it is not so strange that in the literary work of Petronius, a pagan author who was close to Nero and to his court and was proconsul of Bithynia (probably an already Christianized region at the beginning of the Sixties of the first century, as is clear from Pliny's well-known letter to Trajan on the Christian question), and on the other hand was interested in certain aspects of the Judaic culture, although from a critical point of view, (13) around the year A.D. 64, it is possible to point out probable traces of knowledge of Christianity--even if partial and expressed with irony, if not with hostility--, and perhaps, as it seems, also of the Gospel of Mark. (14) Petronius clearly alludes to the fire of Rome in his novel and writes during the persecution against the Christians, or immediately after it. (15)

I shall expand here on the passages in which the Satyricon seems to reveal some knowledge of the Christian sect and, in particular, of Mark's Gospel. …