Why Were Aquila and Priscilla Forced to Leave Rome?

When Paul arrives in Corinth he meets Aquila and Priscilla, Jews who had been expelled from Rome by Claudius. In A.D. 49, the emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome because of continued “rioting over Chrestus,” likely a Latinized christos, or messiah in Hebrew. The most likely explanation is that Jews who had been under that Apostolic teaching in Jerusalem had returned to Rome and brought the message of Jesus as Messiah to the synagogues of Rome (Suetonius Life of Claudius, 25.4; cited from Pervo, Acts, 446).

[Claudius] “expelled Jews from Rome because they were generating incessant unrest through the instigation of Chrestus

Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultantis Roma expulit.

Almost every detail of this expulsion can be disputed. First, with respect to the date of the decree, Dio Cassius (60.6.6) says in A.D. 41 Claudius put restrictions on Jews meeting together. The same year a delegation (which included the well-known Jewish philosopher Philo) petitioned the emperor on behalf of the Jews of Alexandria.

Jews living in Rome had come into conflict with the government before. In 139 B.C. they were expelled for “corrupting Roman morals” (Valerius Maximus, Facta et dicta memorabilia, 1.3.3) and again in A.D. 19 because they were “flocking to Rome” and converting many (Dio Cassius 57.18.5). This makes the expulsion in A.D. 49 plausible, although what Suetonius meant by Chrestus is not at all clear.

The second problem is the name (or title) Chrestus. The common view is that Suetonius has misunderstood the Greek term Christos, thinking there was a person with this name who was stirring up these riots. Occasionally a writer will suggest that there was another messianic figure active in Rome with the name Chrestus, but this seems unlikely (Keener, Acts, 3:2709). As Keener shows, the use of Chrestian (rather than Christian) does appear “often” for the earliest followers of Jesus (3:2710).

Third, it is virtually impossible he would have expelled all Jews from Rome. Although many commentaries will point this out as an historical inaccuracy, it is quite typical of Luke’s literary style to use “all” where a modern writer might use “many” or “a great number.” For example, 13:44 “almost the whole city” turns out to hear Paul preach in the synagogue at Psidian Antioch.

Exile was normally a punishment for individuals (Keener, Acts, 3:2699). Keener also suggests the expulsion is plausible since Claudius revived some of the older forms of Roman religion. The Jews were always under suspicion because they practiced a superstitious eastern cult. Rome also banished astrologers from Italy in A.D. 52 (Tacitus, Annals, 12.52.3). At best, the ringleaders responsible for the unrest would be forced to leave the city of Rome.

What is important is Aquila and Priscilla were ordered to leave Rome as Jews, but they are Jewish Christians. From Rome’s perspective there is not much difference between Jews and Christians, they really the same thing.

Early followers of Jesus like Aquila and Priscilla may have heard the gospels as early as Pentecost. If they returned to Rome and argued in the synagogue that Jesus was the Christ, it is entirely possible the reaction was similar to the reaction against Paul several times in Acts. As with Stephen and Paul, the preaching of Jesus as the messiah in the synagogue met with some success, but often as not there was a zealous and violent response. While this is a speculation, it would seem reasonable that preaching Jesus as Messiah in a Roman synagogue would result in a similar reaction.

6 thoughts on “Why Were Aquila and Priscilla Forced to Leave Rome?

  1. In every case I’ve seen (or been taught in class), Rome simply regarded Jewish people as Jewish people, and assumed that they all followed the same religion. While this is a major oversight (not all Jews followed Judaism [Christians for example], and some may have even followed Roman religious practices), it provides an easier method of ruling people if you can stereotype an entire population.

    As with any expulsion from a society, I can agree with Keener that this must have been a case-by-case basis for specific individuals in Rome. There are no genocides or massive exiles that have occurred in history that resulted in the complete banishment or abolishment of an entire people group (not even the Holocaust in WWII in which some Jews escaped to other countries or by other means). Luke also uses “large language” to emphasize the fact that something important has happened (we can refer here to the “whole city” in Acts 13:44, or a “sharp disagreement” in Acts 15:39, or “Saul entered house after house and dragged them off into prison” in Acts 8:3). In many places, Luke uses this kind of big language or even plain exaggeration to make a point in his writings. In this case, it is unlikely (and not really plausible from historical writings either) that ALL Jews were kicked out of Rome. In all likelihood, many Jews were removed from Rome (though not all), and Aquila and Priscilla were two of them. The final ruling was made because of their ethnicity, but this does not necessarily mean that every single Jew in Rome was kicked out.

    This is an interesting passage for sure regarding historical narrative and the society that Paul was in. Although this particular detail does not affect the gospel message, it is part of the proof that the Bible is trustworthy and historically accurate. Without small details like this “Claudius” and “all the Jews to leave Rome” it would be hard to pinpoint some areas where extra-biblical historical narratives coincide with Scripture. I find this interesting and helpful regarding the argument that the Bible is relevant and reliable.

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  2. Aquilla and Priscilla’s exile from Rome brings up a couple of questions. Firstly, why did it take so long for this exile to take place? Many of the Jews at Pentecost following Jesus’ resurrection would have returned back to their homes in the following months; AD 33/34. The expulsion of Jews from Rome is recorded as occurring in AD 49, perhaps 15 years after the initial return of Aquilla and Priscilla; if I’m doing my math correctly. Surely there must have been some sort of disagreement between Jews in Rome and Jewish Christians in Rome prior to this date. Nevertheless, it also seems perplexing that more Jewish Christians, such as Aquilla and Priscilla, are not found, or at least written of, throughout the Empire. It seems likely that Jews who came to faith in Jesus at Pentecost would be found creating riots and upheaval throughout the Roman Empire. Lastly, I am intrigued by the nature of Nero’s expulsion. Even rounding up the leaders of those serving Chrestus and exiling them from Rome most likely have meant them finding a new home somewhere else in the Empire; perhaps only to cause more trouble there. While there is no doubt that Nero exiled the Jewish Christians in Acts 18 for their behavior I find issues with the practice itself.

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  3. It is completely possible that some Jews had been exiled from Rome. It seems more likely that Christians, who were stirring up conflict within the Jewish community were being exiled from Rome. The more hostile of the two groups seem to be Jews, which is why it is confusing that Aquilla and Pricilla are forced to leave. But the timing of them being in Corinth and ministering with Paul is perfect. They are able to have a business with Paul and create tents in order to sustain their mission within the city.

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  4. This blog brings up an interesting point. When following Paul’s ministry to the various cities and regions that he visited, there is a trend of persecution that accompanies Paul. As Paul went and talked with those in the synagogue, the Jewish reaction is always negative and aggressive. I think it makes sense that Priscilla and Aquila were early converts in Jerusalem at Pentecost. Thus, after Pentecost, they return to Rome and bring this new gospel to the synagogue there. Similar to Paul’s experiences with the gospel, Priscilla and Aquila may have created similar responses to the gospel that Paul had. This would have created various conflicts and potential riots. This may be of no correlation, but Paul in his letters often will tell of the persecution the believers have endured at Thessalonica, Corinth, Etc. I would assume that the persecution referred to by Paul maybe the continued aggression from the Jews who lived in those cities. I would agree that this is the reason the Jews, or at least the leading Jews were exiled from Rome. Among these Aquila and Priscilla would have been included.

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