IN the spring of the year 61 there disembarked at Puteoli a troop of prisoners, whom the Procurator of Judaea had sent to Rome under the charge of a centurion. Walking among them, chained and weary, but affectionately tended by two younger companions, and treated with profound respect by little deputations of friends who met him at Appii Forum and the Three Taverns, was a man of mean presence and weather-beaten aspect, who was handed over like the rest to the charge of Burrus, the Praefect of the Praetorian Guards. Learning from the letters of the Jewish Procurator that the prisoner had been guilty of no serious offence, but had used his privilege of Roman citizenship to appeal to Caesar for protection against the infuriated malice of his co-religionists—possibly also having heard from the centurion Julius some remarkable facts about his behaviour and history— Burrus allowed him, pending the hearing of his appeal, to live in his own hired apartment. This lodging was in all probability in that quarter of the city, opposite the island in the Tiber, which corresponds to the modern Trastevere. It was the resort of the very lowest and meanest of the populace—that promiscuous jumble of all nations which makes Tacitus call Rome at this time " the sewer of the universe." It was here especially that the Jews exercised some of the meanest trades in Rome, selling matches, and old clothes, and broken glass, or begging and fortune-telling on the Cestian or Fabrician bridges. In one of these narrow, dark, and dirty streets, thronged by the dregs of the Roman populace, St. Mark and St. Peter had in all probability lived when they founded the little Christian Church at Rome. It was undoubtedly in the same despised locality that St. Paul, —the prisoner who had been consigned to the care of Burrus,—hired a room, sent for the principal Jews, and for two years taught to Jews and Christians, and to any Pagans who would listen to him, the doctrines which were destined to regenerate the world.
Any one entering that mean and dingy room would have seen a Jew with bent body and furrowed countenance, and with every appearance of age, weakness, and disease, chained by the arm to a Roman soldier. But it is impossible that, had they deigned to look closer, they should not also have seen the gleam of genius and enthusiasm, the fire of inspiration, the serene light of exalted hope and dauntless courage upon those withered features. And though he was chained, " the word of God was not chained." Had they listened to the words which he occasionally dictated, or overlooked the large handwriting which alone his weak eyesight and bodily infirmities, as well as the inconvenience of his chains, permitted, they would have heard or read the immortal utterances which strengthened the faith of the nascent and struggling Churches in Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae, and which have since been treasured among the most inestimable possessions of a Christian world.
His efforts were not unsuccessful; his misfortunes were for the furtherance of the Gospel; his chains were manifest "in all the palace, and in all other places;" and many waxing confident by his bonds were much more bold to speak the word without fear. Let us not be misled by assuming a wrong explanation of these words, or by adopting the Middle Age traditions which made St. Paul convert some of the immediate favourites of the Emperor, and electrify with his eloquence an admiring Senate. The word here rendered " palace" may indeed have that meaning, for we know that among the early converts were " they of Caesar's household ;" but these were in all probability—if not certainly—Jews of the lowest rank, who were, as we know, to be found among the hundreds of unfortunates of every age and country who composed a Roman familia. And it is at least equally probable that the word " praetorium " simply means the barrack of that detachment of Roman soldiers from which Paul's gaolers were taken in turn. In such labours St. Paul in all probability spent two years.
It is out of such materials that some early Christian forger thought it edifying to compose the work which is supposed to contain the correspondence of Seneca and St. Paul. The undoubted spuriousness of that work is now universally admitted. But it is worth while inquiring whether in the circumstances of the time there is even a bare possibility that Seneca should ever have been among the readers or the auditors of Paul.
And the answer is, There is absolutely no such probability. " The world knows nothing of its greatest men." Seneca would have stood aghast at the very notion of his receiving the lessons, still more of his adopting the religion, of a poor, accused, and wandering Jew. The haughty, wealthy, eloquent, prosperous, powerful philosopher would have smiled at the notion that any future ages would suspect him of having borrowed any of his polished and epigrammatic lessons of philosophic morals or religion from one whom, if he heard of him, he would have regarded as a poor wretch, half fanatic and half barbarian.
We learn from St. Paul himself that the early converts of Christianity were men in the very depths of poverty, and that its preachers were regarded as fools, and weak, and were despised, and naked, and buffeted—persecuted and homeless labourers—a spectacle to the world, and to angels, and to men, " made as the filth of the earth and the offscouring of all things." We know that their preaching was to the Greeks " foolishness," and that, when they spoke of Jesus and the resurrection, their hearers mocked and jeered. And these indications are more than confirmed by many contemporary passages of ancient writers. We have already seen the violent expressions of hatred which the ardent and high-toned soul of Tacitus thought applicable to the Christians; and such language is echoed by Roman writers of every character and class. The fact is that at this time and for centuries afterwards the Romans regarded the Christians with such lordly indifference that—like Festus, and Felix, and Seneca's brother Gallio—they never took the trouble to distinguish them from the Jews. They confused them with the whole degraded mass of Egyptian and Oriental impostors and brute - worshippers; they disdained them as seditious, turbulent, obstinate, and avaricious; they regarded them as mainly composed of the very meanest slaves out of the gross and abject multitude. But as far as they made any distinction between Jews and Christians, it was for the latter that they reserved their choicest and most concentrated epithets of hatred and abuse. A " new," " pernicious," "detestable," "execrable," superstition is the only language with which Suetonius and Tacitus vouchsafe to notice it. Seneca—though he must have heard the name of Christian during the reign of Claudius, and during the Neronian persecutions—never once alludes to them, and only mentions the Jews to apply a few contemptuous remarks to the idleness of their sabbaths, and to call them " a most abandoned race".
The reader will now judge whether there is the slightest probability that Seneca had any intercourse with St. Paul, or was likely to have stooped from his superfluity of wealth, and pride of power, to take lessons from obscure and despised slaves in the purlieus inhabited by the crowded households of Caesar or Narcissus.
Seekers after God. p. 167.