Tacitus on Christ
The Roman historian and senator Tacitus referred to Christ, his execution by Pontius Pilate, and the existence of early Christians in Rome in his final work, Annals (written ca. AD 116), book 15, chapter 44.
The context of the passage is the six-day Great Fire of Rome that burned much of the city in AD 64 during the reign of Roman Emperor Nero. The passage is one of the earliest non-Christian references to the origins of Christianity, the execution of Christ described in the canonical gospels, and the presence and persecution of Christians in 1st-century Rome.
Scholars generally consider Tacitus’ reference to the execution of Jesus by Pontius Pilate to be both authentic, and of historical value as an independent Roman source, Paul Eddy and Gregory Boydstate that it is now “firmly established” that Tacitus provides a non-Christian confirmation of the crucifixion of Jesus.
Historian Ronald Mellor has stated that the Annals is “Tacitus’s crowning achievement” which represents the “pinnacle of Roman historical writing”. Scholars view it as establishing three separate facts about Rome around AD 60: (i) that there were a sizable number of Christians in Rome at the time, (ii) that it was possible to distinguish between Christians and Jews in Rome, and (iii) that at the time pagans made a connection between Christianity in Rome and its origin in Roman Judea.
The passage and its context
The key part of the passage reads as follows (translation from Latin by A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb, 1876):
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 Judæa, 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.
(In Latin: ergo abolendo rumori Nero subdidit reos et quaesitissimis poenis adfecit, quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Chrestianos appellabat. auctor nominis eius Christus Tibero imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat; repressaque in praesens exitiabilis superstitio rursum erumpebat, non modo per Iudaeam, originem eius mali, sed per urbem etiam, quo cuncta undique atrocia aut pudenda confluunt celebranturque. igitur primum correpti qui fatebantur, deinde indicio eorum multitudo ingens haud proinde in crimine incendii quam odio humani generis convicti sunt.)
Tacitus then describes the torture of Christians:
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.
The exact cause of the fire remains uncertain, but much of the population of Rome suspected that Emperor Nero had started the fire himself. To divert attention from himself, Nero accused the Christians of starting the fire and persecuted them, making this the first documented confrontation between Christians and the authorities in Rome. Tacitus never accused Nero of playing the lyre while Rome burned – that statement came from Cassius Dio, who died in the 3rd century. But Tacitus did suggest that Nero used the Christians as scapegoats.
No original manuscripts of the Annals exist and the surviving copies of Tacitus’ works derive from two principal manuscripts, known as the Medicean manuscripts, written in Latin, which are held in the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy. It is the second Medicean manuscript, 11th century and from the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino, which is the oldest surviving copy of the passage describing Christians. Scholars generally agree that these copies were written at Monte Cassino and the end of the document refers to Abbas Raynaldus cu… who was most probably one of the two abbots of that name at the abbey during that period.
Christians and Chrestians
… called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin …
In 1902 Georg Andresen commented on the appearance of the first ‘i’ and subsequent gap in the earliest extant, 11th century, copy of the Annals in Florence, suggesting that the text had been altered, and an ‘e’ had originally been in the text, rather than this ‘i’. “With ultra-violet examination of the MS the alteration was conclusively shown. It is impossible today to say who altered the letter e into an i. In Suetonius’ Nero 16.2, ‘christiani‘, however, seems to be the original reading”. Since the alteration became known it has given rise to debates among scholars as to whether Tacitus deliberately used the term “Chrestians”, or if a scribe made an error during the Middle Ages. It has been stated that both the terms Christians and Chrestians had at times been used by the general population in Rome to refer to early Christians. Robert E. Van Voorst states that many sources indicate that the term Chrestians was also used among the early followers of Jesus by the second century. The term Christians appears only three times in the New Testament, the first usage (Acts 11:26) giving the origin of the term.In all three cases the uncorrected Codex Sinaiticus in Greek reads Chrestianoi. In Phrygia a number of funerary stone inscriptions use the term Chrestians, with one stone inscription using both terms together, reading: “Chrestians for Christians“.
Adolf von Harnack argued that Chrestians was the original wording, and that Tacitus deliberately used Christus immediately after it to show his own superior knowledge compared to the population at large. Robert Renehan has stated that it was natural for a Roman to mix the two words that sounded the same, that Chrestianos was the original word in the Annals and not an error by a scribe. Van Voorst has stated that it was unlikely for Tacitus himself to refer to Christians as Chrestianos i.e. “useful ones” given that he also referred to them as “hated for their shameful acts”. Eddy and Boyd see no major impact on the authenticity of the passage or its meaning regardless of the use of either term by Tacitus.
The rank of Pilate
Various theories have been put forward to explain why Tacitus should use the term “procurator” when the archaeological evidence indicates that Pilate was a prefect. Jerry Vardaman theorizes that Pilate’s title was changed during his stay in Judea and that the Pilate Stone dates from the early years of his administration. Baruch Lifshitz postulates that the inscription would originally have mentioned the title of “procurator” along with “prefect”. L.A. Yelnitsky argues that the use of “procurator” in Annals 15.44.3 is a Christian interpolation. S.G.F. Brandon suggests that there is no real difference between the two ranks. John Dominic Crossanstates that Tacitus “retrojected” the title procurator which was in use at the time of Claudius back onto Pilate who was called prefect in his own time. Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans as well as Van Voorst state that Tacitus apparently used the title procurator because it was more common at the time of his writing and that this variation in the use of the title should not be taken as evidence to doubt the correctness of the information Tacitus provides. Warren Carter states that, as the term “prefect” has a military connotation, while “procurator” is civilian, the use of either term may be appropriate for governors who have a range of military, administrative and fiscal responsibilities.
Louis Feldman says that Philo (who died AD 50) and Josephus also use the term procurator for Pilate. It should be noted that, as both Philo and Josephus wrote in Greek, neither of them actually used the term “procurator”, but the Greek word ἐπίτροπος(epítropos), which is regularly translated as “procurator”. Philo also uses this Greek term for the governors of Egypt (a prefect), of Asia (a proconsul) and Syria (a legate). Werner Eck, in his list of terms for governors of Judea found in the works of Josephus, shows that, while in the early work, The Jewish War, Josephus uses epitropos less consistently, the first governor to be referred to by the term in Antiquities of the Jews was Cuspius Fadus, (who was in office AD 44–46). Feldman notes that Philo, Josephus and Tacitus may have anachronistically confused the timing of the titles—prefect later changing to procurator. Feldman also notes that the use of the titles may not have been rigid, for Josephus refers to Cuspius Fadus both as “prefect” and “procurator”.
Authenticity and historical value
Most modern scholars consider the passage to be authentic. William L. Portier has stated that the consistency in the references by Tacitus, Josephus and the letters to Emperor Trajan by Pliny the Younger reaffirm the validity of all three accounts. Scholars generally consider Tacitus’s reference to be of historical value as an independent Roman source about early Christianity that is in unison with other historical records.
Tacitus was a patriotic Roman senator. His writings show no sympathy towards Christians, or knowledge of who their leader was. His characterization of “Christian abominations” may have been based on the rumors in Rome that during the Eucharist rituals Christians ate the body and drank the blood of their God, interpreting the ritual as cannibalism by Christians. Andreas Köstenberger states that the tone of the passage towards Christians is far too negative to have been authored by a Christian scribe. Van Voorst also states that the passage is unlikely to be a Christian forgery because of the pejorative language used to describe Christianity.
Tacitus was about seven years old at the time of the Great Fire of Rome, and like other Romans as he grew up he would have most likely heard about the fire that destroyed most of the city, and Nero’s accusations against Christians. When he wrote his account, Tacitus was the governor of the province of Asia, and as a member of the inner circle in Rome he would have known of the official position with respect to the fire and the Christians.
In 1885 P. Hochart had proposed that the passage was a pious fraud, but the editor of the 1907 Oxford edition dismissed his suggestion and treated the passage as genuine. Scholars such as Bruce Chilton, Craig Evans, Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd agree with John Meier’s statement that “Despite some feeble attempts to show that this text is a Christian interpolation in Tacitus, the passage is obviously genuine.”
Suggestions that the whole of Annals may have been a forgery have also been generally rejected by scholars. John P. Meier states that there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support the argument that a scribe may have introduced the passage into the text.
James D. G. Dunn considers the passage as useful in establishing facts about early Christians, e.g. that there was a sizable number of Christians in Rome around AD 60. Dunn states that Tacitus seems to be under the impression that Christians were some form of Judaism, although distinguished from them. Raymond E. Brown and John P. Meier state that in addition to establishing that there was a large body of Christians in Rome, the Tacitus passage provides two other important pieces of historical information, namely that by around AD 60 it was possible to distinguish between Christians and Jews in Rome and that even pagans made a connection between Christianity in Rome and its origin in Judea.
Although the majority of scholars consider it to be genuine, a few scholars question the value of the passage given that Tacitus was born 25 years after Jesus’ death.
Some scholars have debated the historical value of the passage given that Tacitus does not reveal the source of his information. Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz argue that Tacitus at times had drawn on earlier historical works now lost to us, and he may have used official sources from a Roman archive in this case; however, if Tacitus had been copying from an official source, some scholars would expect him to have labeled Pilate correctly as a prefect rather than a procurator. Theissen and Merz state that Tacitus gives us a description of widespread prejudices about Christianity and a few precise details about “Christus” and Christianity, the source of which remains unclear. However, Paul Eddy has stated that given his position as a senator Tacitus was also likely to have had access to official Roman documents of the time and did not need other sources.
Michael Martin states that the authenticity of this passage of the Annals has also been disputed on the grounds that Tacitus would not have used the name “Christos”, derived from “messiah”,  while others have questioned if the passage represents “some modernizing or up-dating of the facts” to reflect the Christian world at the time the text was written.
Weaver notes that Tacitus spoke of the persecution of Christians, but no other Christian author wrote of this persecution for a hundred years.
Scholars have also debated the issue of hearsay in the reference by Tacitus. Charles Guignebert argued that “So long as there is that possibility [that Tacitus is merely echoing what Christians themselves were saying], the passage remains quite worthless”. R. T. France states that the Tacitus passage is at best just Tacitus repeating what he had heard through Christians. However, Paul Eddy has stated that as Rome’s preeminent historian, Tacitus was generally known for checking his sources and was not in the habit of reporting gossip. Tacitus was a member of the Quindecimviri sacris faciundis, a council of priests whose duty it was to supervise foreign religious cults in Rome, which as Van Voorst points out, makes it reasonable to suppose that he would have acquired knowledge of Christian origins through his work with that body.
Other early sources
The earliest known references to Christianity are found in Antiquities of the Jews, a 20-volume work written by the Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus around 93–94 AD, during the reign of emperor Domitian. This work includes two references to Jesus and Christians (in Book 18, Chapter 3 and Book 20, Chapter 9), and also a reference to John the Baptist (in Book 18, Chapter 5).
The next known reference to Christianity was written by Pliny the Younger, who was the Roman governor of Bithynia and Pontus during the reign of emperor Trajan. Around 111 AD, Pliny wrote a letter to emperor Trajan, requesting guidance on how to deal with suspected Christians who appeared before him in trials he was holding at that time. Tacitus’ references to Nero’s persecution of Christians in the Annals were written around 115 AD, a few years after Pliny’s letter but also during the reign of emperor Trajan.
Another notable early author was Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, who wrote the Lives of the Twelve Caesars around 122 AD, during the reign of emperor Hadrian. In this work, Suetonius described why Jewish Christians were expelled from Rome by emperor Claudius, and also the persecution of Christians by Nero, who was the heir and successor of Claudius.
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