Cornelius Tacitus

Estimated Range of Dating: 115-115 A.D.

Chronological List of Early Christian Writings
Online Text for Cornelius Tacitus

Perseus: The Annals
Perseus: A Dialogue on Oratory
Perseus: Germany and Its Tribes
Perseus: The History
Perseus: Agricola
The Internet Classics Archive: The Histories by Tacitus
The Internet Classics Archive: The Annals by Tacitus
The Histories
Agricola in Latin
Germania in Latin
Online Resources for Cornelius Tacitus

Tacitus and his manuscripts by Roger Pearse
Roman Historians: Tacitus
The Tacitus Home Page by Steven H. Rutledge
Tacitus and Nero’s Persecution of Christians by Darrell J. Doughty
Josh McDowell’s “Evidence” for Jesus: Is It Reliable? (On Annals 15.44 by Jeffery Jay Lowder)
Offline Resources for Cornelius Tacitus

Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 39-53.
Recommended Books for the Study of Early Christian Writings
Information on Cornelius Tacitus

The most famous passage in which Tacitus mentions Christianity is as follows (Annals 15.44):

Such indeed were the precautions of human wisdom. The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the fane and image of the goddess. And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women. But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order.

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.

There has been some question about the integrity of this passage. Jeffery Jay Lowder responds to Gordon Stein in a footnote on this issue:

Gordon Stein denied the authenticity of this passage, arguing: (1) there is no corroborating evidence that Nero persecuted the Christians; (2) there was not a multitude of Christians in Rome at that date; (3) ‘Christian’ was not a common term in the first century; (4) Nero was indifferent to various religions in his city; (5) Nero did not start the fire in Rome; (6) Tacitus does not use the name Jesus; (7) Tacitus assumes his readers know Pontius Pilate; (8) the passage is present word-for-word in the Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus. However, Stein’s arguments are extremely weak. At best, (1), (2), and (5) only cast doubt on the reliability of the passage; these are not good reasons for rejecting the authenticity of the passage. (3) and (4) are likewise irrelevant. Contrary to what Stein claims, (6) and (7) suggest that Pontius Pilate might have been relatively unknown. Finally, (8) is irrelevant. The fact that a later author expanded the passage in no way makes it probable that the original passage was interpolated. Furthermore, there are good reasons for accepting the authenticity of this passage: the anti-Christian tone of the passage, the scapegoat motif, the Latin style, and the integration of the passage with the story. Stein’s argument for interpolation is completely unconvincing. See Stein 1982.

Robert Van Voorst comments on the question of authenticity (Jesus Outside the New Testament, pp. 42-43):

But there are good reasons for concluding with the vast majority of scholars that this passage is fundamentally sound, despite difficulties which result in no small measure from Tacitus’ own compressed style. The overall style and content of this chapter are typically Tacitean. The passage fits well in its context and is the necessary conclusion to the entire discussion of the burning of Rome. Sulpicius Severus’s Chronicle 2.29 attests to much of it in the early fifth century, so most suggested interpolations would have to have come in the second through fourth centuries. As Norma Miller delightfully remarks, “The well-intentioned pagan glossers of ancient texts do not normally express themselves in Tacitean Latin,” and the same could be said of Christian interpolators. Finally, no Christian forgers would have made such disparaging remarks about Christianity as we have in Annals 15.44, and they probably would not have been so merely descriptive in adding the material about Christ in 15.44.3.

Even though the passage is authentic to Tacitus, it might be argued that Tacitus received his information about the origin of the Christian name from Christians themselves. This could be argued on six grounds: (1) Tacitus does not identify his source explicitly. (2) Tacitus anachronistically identifies Pilate as a procurator, when the proper title would have been prefect. (3) Tacitus refers to the founder of the name as ‘Christus’, while written records would presumably have used the name Jesus. (4) As meticulous as the Romans were, crucifixion records hardly went back nearly a century in time (the Annals being written c. 115 CE). (5) There is insufficient motive for Tacitus to research about this Christus in any detail, as the reference appears in Tacitus merely as an explanation of the origin of the name Christian, which in turn is being described only as an example of Nero’s cruelty. (6) Finally, there would be no reason for Tacitus not to take the basic Christian story at face value, especially since the idea that they were of recent origin would correctly classify Christianity as a superstitio.

On (1), this evidence could go either way. It has been pointed out that Tacitus relied heavily on written material, and so the lack of explicit reference could suggest a written source per his normal practice. On (2), this could be resolved on the supposition that the source identified Pilate as “PR,” which could be misread as an abbreviation for procurator. Of course, this is only a supposition. On (3), the purpose of referring to Jesus as “Christus” is to elucidate the origin of the Christian name, as Van Voorst points out: “even if Tacitus did know the name ‘Jesus’ he presumably would not have used it in this context, because it would have interfered with his explanation of the origin of Christianoi in Christus, confusing his readers” (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p. 46). On (4), it could be suggested that the written report on which Tacitus relies is not a letter from Pilate, as it would indeed be remarkable for it to survive so long. Rather, it could be that Tacitus relied upon a report that described the Christian sect and their classification as a religio prava. This classification would have been made sometime before the official persecution of Domitian, which could not have been undertaken legally without such a classification. A report of this classification would have been found in at least the Acta Diurna and the Acta Senatus, both of which were available to Tacitus. This report would have included such basic information on Christianity as to its origin and founder such that we find in Tacitus’ description. On (5), it may be suggested that Tacitus didn’t expend considerable effort but rather had a servant find what could be found on the Christian sect (not necessarily on Jesus), which would have included the report on their classification as a religio prava. On (6), this fails to show that Tacitus received the “basic Christian story” from Christian channels.

There are five arguments that might suggest that Tacitus consulted some kind of written record for this information. (1) As his practice, Tacitus was a meticulous researcher, frequently consulting written documents and multiple sources. (2) Tacitus shows hostility towards the Christian sect and thus wouldn’t have trusted them. (3) Tacitus does not mention any important Christian doctrines such as the divinity and resurrection of Jesus. (4) According to Goguel, the source is not Christian “since it presumed an eclipse of Christianity after the death of Jesus” (Jesus the Nazarene, p. 41). (5) Also according to Goguel, the mention of Christ “must originate in some documentary source, since it contains no such word as ‘dicunt’ or ‘ferunt,’ which would authorize us to suppose that Tacitus is only relating gossip” (Jesus the Nazarene, p. 40).

On (1), although this may be suggestive evidence, this doesn’t prove that Tacitus consulted written records in this particular case. On (2), even though Tacitus may have held some contempt towards Christians, that does not prevent him from taking their story about the origin of their name at face value. Similarly, a modern writer may be indifferent towards Mormons but may nevertheless take their story of the origin of the name “Mormon” at face value. On (3), Tacitus is giving merely the briefest account of the origin of the name Christian and so cannot be expected to mention such Christian doctrines. On (4), Goguel depends on an interpretation of the passage according to which the superstition was checked for several decades until the time of Nero, and this interpretation is unnecessary. On (5), this is an important point, as it can be shown that Tacitus is normally careful to make the distinction when relying upon oral testimony.

According to John P. Meier (A Marginal Jew, p. 91), “It could be, instead, that Tacitus is simply repeating what was common knowledge about Christians about the beginning of the 2d century.” According to Robert Van Voorst (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p. 52), “The most likely source of Tacitus’s information about Christ is Tacitus’s own dealings with Christians, directly or indirectly.” However, note well the contrary opinion of Maurice Goguel (Jesus the Nazarene, p. 43): “But one fact is certain, and that is, Tacitus knew of a document, which was neither Jewish nor Christian, which connected Christianity with the Christ crucified by Pontius Pilate.” The present writer believes that the most persuasive case is made by those who maintain that Tacitus made use of a first century Roman document concerning the nature and status of the Christian religion. As to the reliability of that source, following normal historical practice, it is prudently assumed to be accurate until demonstrated otherwise. The reference from Tacitus constitutes prima facie evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

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