12 Sep

[#2 in a Series on Non-Biblical References to Jesus]
Read #1, on Josephus, here

Cornelius Tacitus (ca. AD 55/56-ca. 117/118) was proconsul of Asia (AD 112-113) and a friend of Pliny the Younger. We possess eleven letters from Pliny addressed to Tacitus. Pliny recognized Tacitus’ skill when he told his friend, “Your histories will be immortal” (Epistles 7, 3). Pliny was the governor of Bithynia (modern day Turkey) in Asia Minor. The “Younger” was so named because he was the son (through adoption) of Pliny the Elder, a natural historian and all-around smart guy. The Elder’s curiosity got the best of him one day … in the form of getting too close to an active volcano.

Tacitus married Agricola’s – the governor of Britain – daughter in AD 78. He wrote his Dialogue on Oratory in AD 75 and a biography of his father-in-law titled Agricola in AD 98. That same year he wrote Germania (or On the Origin, Geography, Institutions, and Tribes of the Germans). In the twentieth century, Tacitus’ work became highly politicized because it dealt with the history of Germany and was the only treatment of its kind. He wrote a twelve-volume work, Histories, sometime during the reign of Emperor Trajan and an 18-volume work, Annals, around AD 116. Tacitus’ Annals span from AD 14 to 68.

Of the 18 (an alternate count yields 16) books of his Annals, twelve are extant, with three of the twelve being more fragmentary (especially Book 5, but also Books 11 and 16). Books 7-10, which cover AD 37-46, and the final sections, covering AD 66-68, are all lost [Ronald Mellor, The Roman Historians (New York: Routledge, 1999), p83-84]. The books we do have come in the form of two different manuscripts, dating from the ninth and eleventh centuries (called the Second Medicean) [F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? 5th Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), p16]. A fifth century historian, Sulpicius Severus, witnesses to most of the passage about Nero and the Christians in his Chronicles (2.29). 

Tacitus was born in France (southern Gaul), studied rhetoric – as many sons of equestrians did – and began serving under Emperor Vespasian (AD 69-79). Next, he served under Emperor Titus (AD 79-81) in the Senate. Tacitus served further under Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96) and eventually made it to the consulship in AD 97. Tacitus finished off his illustrious career as the proconsul of Asia – a great honor – and probably died around AD 117 or 118.

Many modern historians admire the integrity of Tacitus: “his primary interest is character: and when he has conducted some skillful piece of moral diagnosis there attaches to his verdict some of the severity of a sermon” and his accuracy: “more than any other Roman historian he desired to tell the truth and was not fatally biased by prejudice” [W. Hamilton Fyfe, Tacitus: The Histories, Volume I and II (London: Oxford, 1912), Kindle Location 48, 25]. Stephen Benko, Professor of History at California State University at Fresno, called Tacitus a “painstaking researcher, interested in minute details, he wrote with brevity and candor, making his subjects come alive” [Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986), p 14].

One detects the twin strands of pessimism and moralizing running through Tacitus’ writings; this is why “it has been wittily remarked that no one in Tacitus is good except Agricola and the Germans” [Moses Hadas, The Complete Works of Tacitus (New York: Random House, 1942), xii]. His work is not mere propaganda and is not (often) truimphalistic. Instead, Tacitus laments over the inner decay of Rome.

I see minor connections between Tacitus’ anthropology and Paul’s letter to the Romans, especially chapter three. Romans 3:9-20 is an intense discourse about the universal sinful nature -and subsequent condemnation- of all humanity. The thematic connections between Tacitus and Paul are loose; Tacitus does not believe in original sin and his skepticism about human goodness comes from an aristocratic cynicism rather than divine revelation. Tacitus often romanticizes the Rome of old, which Paul – nor any New Testament author – would never do, as evidenced by their willingness to scorch Israel herself for constantly rejecting the prophets.

Tacitus, like Polybius (Ancient Greek historian, ca. 200-118 BC), “believed that history should be written by experienced politicians, who could assess motivations and evaluate documents” and like Thucydides (Ancient Greek historian, ca. 450-400 BC), “he thought that his history could be useful to future generations since he believed that history could be useful to future generations” [Mellor, The Roman Historians, p 78]. Tacitus sees the redemptive value in history. Likewise, the Hebrew Scriptures recorded historic events and persons and often portrayed them as failures. One reason for recording the errors of the past was so future generations could learn from those who went before them.

The New Testament writers, especially the gospel authors, are zealous to record the biography of Jesus for posterity. Luke’s prologue in Luke 1:1-4 sets forth his intentions as such: “it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4). This is the ultimate use of historical writing as a vehicle for redemption.

In Annals 15.44, Tacitus mentions Jesus and a despicable class of people known as Christians. This reference occurs in connection to the fire at Rome -and the resulting Neronian persecutions- and was designed to show Nero’s lack:

Consequently , to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.

To get an idea of what was happening in the timeline of the New Testament, Annals 15.44 refers to 64 AD and on, probably at a time between Paul’s first and second imprisonment. Here is a possible re-construction of key events.

-Claudius expels the Jews from Rome, AD 49 (Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 25.2)
-Paul’s Caesarean Imprisonment Acts 24:27 Summer 57 – Summer 59
-Acts 24:27 = Festus’ succession to Felix, AD 59

-Pauls’ Voyage to Rome Acts 27:1-28:16 late Summer 59 – Spring 60
-Acts 28:30 = Acts closes around AD 60-62, before Nero’s persecution
-Paul’s Roman imprisonment Acts 28:30 Spring 60 – Spring 62
-First and Second Peter may have been written around AD 64 – Pastoral Epistles too?
-The Great Fire of Rome, July of AD 64
-Peter and Paul martyred, AD 67-68
-Emperor Nero commits suicide, AD 69
Years later (AD 95-96), Clement of Rome makes reference to this persecution in one of his letters

As with other works of antiquity, historians wish we had more manuscripts; we only have two manuscripts for Tacitus and they only contain half his writings. New Testament scholar Mark Allen Powell says, “Unfortunately, the portion of Tacitus’s Annals dealing with the years 29-31 C.E. is missing from our manuscripts. We don’t know for sure whether he described the life or death of Jesus further in the missing portion of his book” [Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), p 187]. Almost all scholars concur with the opinion of John P. Meier on Tacitus: “[the] passage is obviously genuine. Not only is it witnessed in all the manuscripts of the Annals, the very anti-Christian tone of the text makes Christian origin almost impossible.” [Meier, A Marginal Jew, 90.]

Christ-mythicists raise a “problem”: in his passage on Jesus, Tacitus referred to Pilate as a procurator, which was not the technical term for Pilate’s Judean post. Prefect is the more precise title. Those seeking to deny the historicity of Jesus leap on this anachronism and claim the passage is phony or Tacitus has not done his homework and is simply parroting Christian belief. Therefore, they say, this passage simply leads to arguing in a circle and is not valid attestation to the existence of Jesus.

It is true Tacitus using procurator is an anachronism. Prior to Agrippa, who ruled Judea from 41-44 AD, Roman governors held the rank of prefect. Tacitus made use of procurator, though, because it was more common when he wrote instead of praefectus.

On the variant of spellings of CHRISTUS, see Elsa Gibson, The Christians for Christians Inscriptions of Phrygia: Greek Texts, Translation and Commentary Harvard Theological Studies 32 (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1978) 15-17. Gibson reproduces and analyzes forty-five inscriptions and only six have the correct spelling. For example, take note of the errors on this gravestone: “Christians for Chrestians”.

Considering his lack of social standing, the evidence for the life of Jesus is actually quite astounding: “In fact, it is amazing and significant that Jesus shows up at all in the sources we have. Even a seemingly important ‘middle management’ figure like Pontius Pilate, the decade-long governor of Judea, is mentioned by only a single pagan source, the Roman historian Tacitus” [Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus, p 46-48].

Furthermore, we observe quite a few non-Biblcal corroborations to the Gospels concerning the basic facts about the life of Jesus. As Professor Jakob Van Bruggen states:

“Jesus did exist, and he was killed under Pontius Pilate. The latter fact seems not to have been derived from the Christians themselves, since Tacitus would have been more likely to use the term crucified if he had taken his information from the Christians’ creed. In addition, his animosity toward the Christians was such that he would not have indiscriminately copied their own claims. Finally, Tacitus was a historian who had access to the state archives. It would not have been difficult for him to consult the reports that Pontius Pilate had sent to Rome. If those reports had given a completely different, nonreligious picture of Jesus, Tacitus would certainly not have failed to use this against the Christians. But the historian who was vehemently opposed to these followers of a new religion accepted the fact that their founder, Christ, was killed by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and that at that time he had already become the object of superstitious veneration.”

SOURCE: Jakob Van Bruggen, Christ on Earth: The Gospels Narratives as History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), p 28.

To sum it up, Tacitus (55-120 AD) was an important Roman official and historian. He wrote Annals 15.44, the section we have been looking at, around 117 AD. In it, he discusses the Great Fire in Rome and the resultant scapegoating of Christians by Nero. Along the way, he mentions Jesus and makes some choice criticisms of Christians. These include that Christians are:
  1. Hated because of their crimes and loathed for their vices
  2. Guilty and deserved exemplary punishmenttacitus
  3. Spreading a disease and following a deadly superstition
  4. Mischievous
  5. Degraded and shameful
  6. Incendiarists
  7. Antisocial: they have a hatred of their enemy – all mankind


An interesting and important question is where did Tacitus get his information about the early Christians and their dead Christ? We can’t know with certainty because ancient historians felt no obligation to cite all their sources; that is not the way they  generally did things.

Of course, this does not mean they never did. Tacitean scholar Mendell points out that Tacitus “not only states that he intends to compare various accounts, but constantly cites sources of information…” [Clarence W. Mendell, Tacitus: The Man and his Works (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957), 211]. 

There were no MLA standards for citation in the first century. A different kind of control was in place, though: the author’s credibility, integrity, and even honor were on the line. This was important to them, as it should be to us now. One big difference for us is how anonymous we can be, especially with the advent of the Internet.

However, this does not mean we are at a complete loss and there are a few promising prospects: Pliny the Younger, the Imperial Archives or the Christians themselves.

1. Pliny the Younger
Pliny the Younger and Tacitus were friends. We know from Pliny’s letter (Letters 10:96) to Emperor Trajan around 112 AD, that Pliny had some information about Christian beliefs and practices. Some of Pliny’s information was induced by torture and some was given by lapsed Christians.

We know Tacitus would send his work to Pliny so he could review and critique it. Tacitus relied on “Pliny for first-hand material for his Histories” (Mendell, Tacitus, 21). Yet we know from Annals 15.53 that Tacitus did not always trust Pliny as a source: “So it is related by Caius Pliny. Handed down from whatever source, I had no intention of suppressing it, however absurd it may seem… .” Still, Pliny is a possibility. (For a more in-depth look at Tacitus’ general reliability as an author, see J.P. Holding, ed., Shattering the Christ-Myth: Did Jesus Not Exist? (Xulon Press, 2008), 56-58. 

2. The Imperial Archives 
These were carefully guarded documents; even senate members needed a high level security pass. Tacitus tells of a time when the Senate asked Emperor Domitian if they could consult them and they were granted access (Histories, 4.40). It is likely that Tacitus was even nominated by Emperor Domitian himself before he was assassinated. These factors make it possible that Tacitus could have read official records in regards to the Christians and their founder “straight from the vaults”, as it were.

Further, there is some internal evidence within his work that he did have some access to these archives: Tacitus cites Senate records (acta senatus) in Annals 5.4 and 15.74. Many Tacitean scholars believe Tacitus had access to this kind of information; see Holding, Christ-Myth, 61-62, for a list of scholars and some select quotes to that effect.

There were other, more public sources of official and semi-official records as well. Tacitus could have made use of Rome’s public libraries, the daily public gazette (Acta Diurna), private journals/memoirs and other Roman historians whose work is now lost.

3. The Christians (or from the trials of Christians)
Tacitus was an author and Roman official and “as governor of Asia he could have hardly been ignorant of Trajan’s rescript, and his province must have had just as many if not more Christians than Pliny’s had” (Stephen Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986), 16).

Tacitus was in Rome in 95 AD when the Emperor’s own niece and her husband were both “accused of atheism” and “had been carried away into Jewish customs” (Dio, Roman History 67.14.2). They were both condemned. Stephen Benko thinks this may have been a trial of two aristocratic Christians because Judaism was recognized as being “kosher” (albeit disdainful) and therefore not illegal.

Therefore, Tacitus may have been present at (or at least aware of) the trial of Christians. As far as his receiving his information from Christians themselves, this cannot be entirely discounted. No Christian would have spoken of their faith with such disapproval as Tacitus did, although his bigotry could be shining through and not as a result of his source. It is unlikely Tacitus would completely trust a Christian source – disliking them as he did.

Tacitus displays great disdain for Judaism. He once posits that inside the Temple at Jerusalem was a statue of an ass, the selfsame ass who they think guided them during their wilderness trek. In another place in his writings (Histories, 5.3-5), he says they have no statues and instead “conceive of one god and that with the mind alone”. Compare what Tacitus says about the Christians (they have “a hatred towards mankind”) with what he says about the Jews in History V.5 “they regard the rest of mankind with the hatred of enemies”.

Similarly, if more obliquely, Juvenal (a Roman satirist) said, “The sewage of the Syrian Orontes has for long been discharged into the Tiber”. As in, Antioch was polluting Rome; perhaps he even meant Christianity? Or he could have just met Syria, perhaps as representative of that area.

The Romans harbored no sentimentality for the Christ-followers, as they sometimes did for Judaism, for the Romans respected the Old School. Romans were all too willing to believe that the members of this depraved sect would do something as crazy as set fire to Rome. R.H. Barrow (The Romans, 3rd ed. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1964, 177-178) summarizes:

“[I]f the Roman Government knew no distinction at this time between Christianity and Judaism, the people soon did; for it learnt that there was in their midst something more contemptible, and something more dangerous, than Judaism. … In the first place, Christianity was particularly vulnerable to misinterpretation: secondly, Christians often deliberately invited persecution. To the Roman of the time Christians appeared to hate the human race. They looked forward to the early return of Christ when all but themselves would be destroyed by fire as being evil; in this disaster ‘Eternal Rome’ and to the hopes of mankind they seemed to glory”.

Christians were the perfect group of people to cast blame on to appease the populace. By Roman standards, nearly everything was wrong with them and their damnable religion. Nero, with his persecution of this new group, turned the popular finger of accusation in the direction of the Christians. For an interesting and possible re-enactment of what such a blame casting discussion among Nero and his advisers may have looked like, see Paul L. Maier’s historical novel, The Flames of Rome Grand Rapids, MI: 1981, 294-305.

Suetonius (Nero 16) confirms this: “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.” The average Roman would define superstitio “as a sect based on fanatical beliefs, not recognized by, and therefore contrary to, the Roman state” (Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Logic of History Cambridge, UK: Apollos, 1997, 32) Both Cicero (On the Nature of the Gods, 1.117; 2:72) and Plutarch (On Superstition, 166c) would probably appreciate this stereotypically Roman gentleman’s idea.

A few scholars have wondered if the Christians did indeed start the fire (cf. John Bishop, Nero, the Man, and the Legend London: R. Hale, 1964, 77-79). We can’t actually know whether Nero (or Tacitus) actually thought the Christians did this or whether they were just a convenient scapegoat. It is telling that Tacitus says the Christians were killed both by wild animals and by burning because these were standard ways to punish arsonists (he also says Nero nailed Christians to crosses; perhaps in ironic mockery?).

Gaius, on the law of the 12 tables says, “Anyone who [knowingly and deliberately] sets fire to a house…shall be chained, scourged, and put to death by fire…” (Codex Justinianus, Digest 47.9.9., Book IV). Ulpianus, on the duty of procunsuls, says, “Persons of low rank who designedly cause a fire in a town shall be thrown to wild beasts…” (Codex Justinianus, Digest 47.9.12., Book VIII). The punishments were stiff because the Romans had a rightful fear of fire storms breaking out in the city. For examples of rebellions linked with arson, see Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986, 17.

Just past midnight on July 19, AD 64, with the moon full and the Emperor (who fancied himself as an artist) most likely giving a performance in Antium, a fire broke out at the north east end of the Circus Maximus. It burned for six days, was quelled, and then broke out again for three more days. After the nine days were over, only four of Rome’s fourteen districts remained untouched. Why was this fire so devastating? First, let’s talk about the fire department.

A Roman fire department had existed since the days of Augustus (d. AD 14). Twenty-one different stations housed about 7,000 firemen in Rome. There were no fire trucks, to say the least, and probably no Dalmatians, either. Instead they had hookers (pump and water specialists), blanketers (they threw vinegar-soaked blankets on the fire), capatulists (guys who busted walls), mattress men (they caught people who had to jump), and doctors (first aid). Night patrol men (vigile’s) primary job was to stroll around the city, looking for fires. If they could catch it in the beginning, it could potentially be stopped. This was crucial: once a fire got out of control, it was truly, out of control. One reason was simply the nature of being an ancient fire department; another was the nature of housing in ancient Rome.

Apartment houses were sandwiched in all throughout Rome: they were tall (3-7 stories), tight and always ready to tumble due to lack of enforced building codes and shoddy and quick construction. As Rome grew in population so did demand for living spaces and “landlords were even able to rent out … the dark holes under staircases, cellars totally underground and tiny garrets under the eaves”. The working class who lived in them had constant fear of fire, as “charcoal braziers and oil lamps were an ever-present hazard”. Even though the buildings were brick and concrete, there was plenty of flammable material to catch aflame: wood in the floor beams, rafters, furniture, and balconies. (for the discussion on fire departments and apartment-house dwellers, I am indebted to Lionel Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 38-40. The two sentences in quotation marks are his, not mine).

When Nero undertook rebuilding the city, he planned for wider streets as opposed to the old narrow alleyways and for apartment houses built with non-flammable materials, as opposed to the old ones, composed of wood throughout and very flammable furniture. Despite his oft-publicized erratic behavior towards the end of his reign, Nero sparked something of an architectural revolution in Rome, undertaking many important building projects, advocating an increase in the use of concrete, and perhaps giving the Romans their first public baths (this last sentence sounds strange if you read it the wrong way). Nero also legislated many other common sense safety measures in the enforcement of new and improved building codes (see Tacitus, Annals XV, 43.4; Suetonius, Nero 16:1).

Despite all this, and the fact that Nero had rushed back to Rome to organize efforts to stamp out the fire, the populace (including many that were now homeless) began spreading rumors that he really liked what happened or perhaps he had even sparked the fire himself – in order to undertake some pet building projects. This seems patently false, although Nero did begin constructing a replacement palace for himself – the Golden House – that was just too much. The pop songs and graffiti of the day reflected the popular unrest:

While our ruler his lyre doth twang and the Parthian his bowstring,581px-Muk306_tacitus
Paean-singer * our prince shall be, and Far-darter our foe.
Rome is becoming one house; off with you to Veii,**
If that house does not soon seize upon Veii as well.

Translation: “Nero is an aloof buffoon whose desire for self-aggrandizement will soon swallow up all of Rome, as evidenced by the giant house he’s building for himself on the ash heaps of the city”. This is not something any politician wants to hear, especially when his power is increasingly precarious.

poem notes:
SOURCE: from Suetonius, Book 6, Nero XXXIX (JC Rolfe, 1914 Loeb Translation).
* An epitaph of Apollo as the Healer.
**A city in the southern part of Etruria.
***A name applied to the Romans as citizens.

CONCLUSION: CHRISTUS VICTOR (Latin for “Christ the Victor”)
Jesus of Nazareth died young. He died as a criminal. He died in the backwards land of a small people. He died without any official titles or merits. Some would say he died as an impostor; a failed Messiah. This is not to say his life did not have an impact on those around him – it did. For a short time, his name was on the lips of many of his countrymen. He said and did many wonderful things in their midst. He had a loyal band of male and female followers.

After his death, it took a while for these followers to leave their homeland of Israel and spread the message of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. It took a while for the Roman authorities to notice that this strange new belief system was not simply a sect within Judaism; it was something different. It took them a while to learn about their beliefs and about their strange founder, a crucified Jewish wood-worker. Once the followers of this strange cult began causing trouble, the Romans began making laws (sometimes official, often de facto) against these perverted practices. Then, they began writing about these troublemakers, the Christians. One such writer was the Roman historian, Tacitus.

Imagine if you were a Roman aristocrat or Roman official reading through the histories of Tacitus when they were first made available … what you would think? What would your reaction be to a strange and subversive sect who deserved to be punished for their stance towards others. You would have already known that Nero’s life ended in madness and suicide. You would have looked down on him, no doubt. But you would probably look down on the Christians even more.

It is hard to think you would be able to imagine that one day in the early fourth century, a Roman emperor would declare himself to be a Christ-follower. It would be difficult for you to see a scenario where Rome was falling apart and this sect – now bloated to the point of obesity – would be the group to attempt to pick up the pieces over the next millennium. I doubt you would guess this sect could even last that long, especially considering the persecution they were facing.

Yet, God’s people are victorious in Christ! The gates of Hades will not prevail against Christ’s church (Matthew 16:18). He will continue building it until his return. In the meantime, let us pray for the persecuted church as we continue to shine the light of Christ to a lost and dying world.


UPDATED: 09/15/2013


  Vocab Malone is an urban apologist and slam poet. Vocab holds a Master’s Degree from Phoenix Seminary and is  pursuing further education at Talbot.


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