The Tacitean Reference to “Christus”
Cornelius Tacitus, the second century Roman historian, was born at about 55 AD to a wealthy father who was a member of the equestrian order. Between the ages of 26 and 27, he was admitted to the Roman senate and involved himself in Roman politics. — Later, between the years 105 and 109, he wrote and published the Histories which was his first historical work. Later, after his governorship in Asia in 113 AD, he published the Annals in which he wrote about the emperors Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.
It is in this second work that Tacitus makes reference to the persecution of first century Christians by Nero and to Jesus himself:
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. (The Annals 15: 44)
This passage tells how Nero used Christians as a scapegoat for setting Rome on fire when the public began to suspect him. — Also, like the references from Josephus, this passage has been used as historical evidence for the existence of Jesus. But naturally, not everybody is convinced.
One objection to the reference’s authenticity is that since Tertullian, an early Christian apologist, didn’t cite it, that is an indication that it was most probably interpolated later. — Besides being an ineffective argument from silence, the fact is that citing this passage would have been practically pointless because it only would have served to confirm Jesus’ existence which was actually never questioned by early skeptics of Christianity.
Claims that this passage is an interpolation or was put through a Christian filter are disproven by it’s anti-Christian tone. in the text which describes Christians as “hated for their abominations,” “mischievous” and “evil.” — Later, in just a few sentences, the passage says:
[The Christians were] convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.
Not only is this inconsistent with what a Christian interpolator would have written, but it is historically consistent with the misinformation that was in circulation about the Christians in the first and second centuries. — Also, the anti-Christian language used is another obvious reason why early Christian apologists wouldn’t have cited it.
Darrell J. Doughty, Professor of New Testament at Drew University, argues in favor of a “block interpolation in his paper, meaning that Tacitean passage is authentic with the exception of the two sentences that clearly mention “Christus” (or Christ) and the Christians. — This cannot be true because, even though this suggestion can work in modern English, it violates the Latin grammar. Stephen C. Carlson, another New Testament scholar, pointed out in his response to this assertion that,
Doughty cannot propose something as simple block interpolation as the following, because the relative clause, quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Chrestianos appellabat, would then be missing its verb.
Basically, this means that the references to Christ and the Christian were most certainly intended to be in the text because it makes no grammatical sense in the Latin language to delete them.
The “Jesus-Myther” and conspiracy theorist D.M. Murdock, in her comments about the Tacitean reference, attempts to show that Tacitus didn’t write the passage claiming that “the tone and style of the passage are unlike the writing of Tacitus.” — This is not an honest claim because competent scholars have actually affirmed the opposite. (Jesus Outside the New Testament, page 43)
She then parrots the fringe assertion that Tacitus’ Annals are a fifteenth century forgery caling it a “peculiar and disturbing fact.” The fact is that no serious historian of scholar that I know of doubts the authenticity of the Annals. As a matter of fact, their genuineness has been confirmed by its accuracy in the most minute details such as with coins and inscriptions which were discovered since that period disproving one of Ms. Murdock’s major justifications for dismissing the Tacitean reference. Certainly, if it weren’t for the one reference to Jesus, such a ridiculous claim would never have been made.
Some argue that even though the passage is most likely authentic, Tacitus may have only uncrittically accepted his information of Jesus from his friend Pliny the Younger. But, there a problrm with this. Even though it is known that Tacitus did source Pliny sometimes, this does not mean that he was uncrittical of the information he was given. In Annals 15.53, he describes information he gained from Pliny as being “absurd.”
Also, there is a major inconsistency with the suggestion that Tacitus sourced Pliny. As mentioned before, Tacitus claimed that the Christians were guilty of abominations. On the other hand, after Pliny had investigated Christian beliefs, he decided that they were generally harmless, as he indicated in a in a letter to Emperor Trajan. — Had Tacitus uncrittically sourced Pliny, one wouldn’t expect divergent conclusions.
Was Tacitus simply repeating what he heared from Christians? Obviously not. If he didn’t uncrittically accept information that Pliny, someone he respected, gave him, then why would he give Christians, who he despised, the benefit of the doubt? — This is like suggesting that he got his anti-semetic “information” of the origins of Judiasm, found in Histories 5.2-5, from the Jews themselves which is absolutely absurd.
As a closing statement about the Tacitean reference, Ms. Murdock says:
Even if the passage in Tacitus were genuine, it would be too late and is not from an eyewitness, such that it is valueless in establishing an “historical” Jesus, representing merely a recital of decades-old Christian tradition.
She thinks that it has to have been written by an actual eyewitness account to Jesus to be of any value. This is a popular argument among the “Jesus-Myth” crowd, but the standard is extremely unreasonable. Tacitus wrote about several historical figures several decades after the fact and to which he was not an eyewitness. For example, he wrote about Caesar Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius, all of whom had come and gone before Tacitus was born. However, no reputable historian would consider the idea of suggesting that because Tacitus wasn’t an eyewitness to the events surrounding these emperors, that his historical accounts of them are therefore of no historical value.
The same goes for several other ancient historians such as Herodotus, Xenophon, Plutarch, Josephus and others who wrote several decades or centuries after the events the report on and are still believed useful by modern historians and scholars. — The fact is that if we were to hold these other histories to the same standard as “Jesus-Mythers” insist to holding any secular, historical reference to Jesus, then we would end up erasing a huge amount of known history. If a historian writes about an event decades after the fact, that does not invalidate the historicity of what he reports. It does not have to be a first hand eyewitness account to be historically relevant.
The evidence all points to the reference being authentic. It matches Tacitus’ usual writing style and is unlikely to be a Christian interpolation because of its anti-Christian tone. And since it is unlikely that Tacitus uncrittically gave anyone the benefit of the doubt, it is very probable based on personal knowledge about the existence of the historical Jesus.