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.