Claudius Caesar, the fourth Roman emperor, ruled from AD 41 to 54, providing the political context for some of the New Testament era. His father was a prominent Roman general, and his uncle was Emperor Tiberius. A sickly and unappealing man, Claudius ascended to the throne with the support of the military elite after the assassination of his nephew Caligula. He was apparently a prolific writer, but none of his works are extant. Claudius is something of an enigma to modern scholars: ancient sources remember him as frail, gullible, and unimpressive, yet he was apparently a highly capable leader. His reign included a great expansion of Roman territory, reforms within the Roman legal system, and substantial building projects.
Claudius’s rule as emperor also saw the spread of Christianity, which he indirectly influenced. He appears two times in the New Testament, both in the book of Acts. Acts 11:28–30 mentions a famine that occurred during the reign of Claudius. This famine is historically attested (see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XX, Chapter 2.5), and the emperor was apparently successful in alleviating its effects. More significantly, Claudius’s forcible expulsion of the Jews from Rome is mentioned in Acts 18:2. This event is also corroborated by sources outside the New Testament. One of the most famous references is from Suetonius, who writes that Claudius expelled the Jews due to conflict surrounding someone named Chrestus (Lives of the Caesars, Vol. 5, De Vita Caesarum—Divus Claudius, § XXV). The majority of scholars believe that “Chrestus” is a reference to Jesus Christ.
Claudius Caesar had several unintended effects on Christian history. First, his scattering of the Jews in Rome led directly to Paul’s encounter with Priscilla and Aquila. These two became faithful partners in Paul’s gospel ministry, helping to establish several churches and guide the sincere but misguided Apollos (see Acts 18). Second, if conflict over Jesus was the reason for the expulsion, Claudius inadvertently provided more historical evidence for the existence of Jesus and the spread of Christianity. Finally, some of Paul’s earliest letters were written under the reign of Claudius Caesar, so Claudius provided the political context for at least some of Paul’s writings and travels. God sovereignly used the reign of Claudius Caesar, as He did every other Roman emperor, to continue spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ across the world.