Sunday, 5 February 2017

What did Tacitus really say about Christ and Christians?

Tacitus was a distinguished writer, born in the 50s of the first century AD, perhaps in northern Italy. Born about two decades after the crucifixion of Jesus, he is valuable to us not as an eyewitness of Jesus, but as a historian far closer to the time and place of Jesus than we are. And we are talking about him here because in one of the books of history he wrote, he mentions Christ. By way of an opening statement, he is a 'secondary source'  - as historians call it - on the subject of Jesus, and a useful one. Sometimes the term 'secondary witness' is used instead. 

Tacitus also provides our first explicit historical reference to an event of which he was a contemporary - the persecutions of Christians under Emperor Nero in his own native country. This is  all in his Annals 15:44, written in Latin, published late in his life, around 116AD. I had to study this passage as part of my Latin degree (at a secular university, I would add), not much to my enjoyment as Tacitus is not an easy read in the original Latin. I will give him only in English translation here, a standard academic translation, you may be pleased to know. And what I'm setting out below is common ground to scholars in the field, nothing particularly new. 
Tacitus was well placed to get the information he gives in this passage for a few reasons. He had close ties to the Roman government: early in the second century, he was also an official of the Roman government in Asia; Tacitus had a special interest in the east of the Roman Empire too: he wrote a long history of the Roman war with the Jews in Israel. The breadth of his writing on the issue can only mean that Tacitus had spent time studying Roman records about what had happened in Palestine (as the Romans came to call the place) and talking to people who knew about it. He had access to official documents in Rome. He was a servant of the power of which the Christians were victims.
What was his attitude to Jews and Christians? Disdainful. In particular, we will see him calling the Jesus movement a nasty ‘superstitio’, with derogatory comments about Christians dripping from his pen.

Before tackling arguments about this, let’s see what the text of the passage by this Roman historian actually says. Tacitus paints a vivid picture, set in Rome in the 60s of the first century. This was after the great fire of Rome in the days of the Roman Emperor Nero. History has not been kind to Nero’s reputation. Tacitus tells us some of his problems. Here’s the situation:
First, your city burns down. What do you do? You make sure it never happens again. But how? You rebuild better than before and, for good measure, you appeal to your gods. At least, that’s how it was for the Romans in the first century.
Tacitus describes how Rome was rebuilt after the great fire with new better fire precautions. Normal earthly precautions. But in ancient Rome’s worldview, you also needed divine help to keep a city safe. So Tacitus moves on from describing the sensible fire precautions like this:
“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.”
That is all very exotic sounding. All this superstitious ritual activity was done in the hope that it would safeguard the city from future threat of fire. It was like a deal with the Roman gods. It was expected that the Emperor should be seen to be playing his part in keeping their gods happy so there would be no more such disasters. Nero would want to be seen to be securing the future safety of the city of Rome, by both earthly and divine means. He had done his bit. Now the city was safe again. But for Nero, there was another problem that would not go away, one thing that all the superstitious ritual was no use for. Tacitus continues by switching from what the ritual was good for, to what it was not good for:
“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.”
Tacitus means an order given by Emperor Nero to burn down his city. It had all been his fault, sinister rumours were saying, this fiery destruction. A safe city is not enough for Nero; he needs his reputation saved too. This needed a different solution. Placating the gods would do for stopping fires. But what do you do about a reputation in tatters? For this he has the time-honoured solution beloved of politicians. Find a scapegoat. Find someone else to blame, someone the populace hate, someone who would be capable of terrible things in the public’s imagination. Nero’s scapegoat was… you guessed it… the Christians in Rome. Tacitus continues – and here begin the references we are so interested in:
“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 Chrestians by the populace.”
Tacitus’ point is that it is precisely because rumours of Nero’s guilt have stuck to him that he diverted attention onto a scapegoat. So now Tacitus has mentioned Chrestians. (Footnote 2 below deals with them being named as such.) Tacitus indicates that Nero knew of the Christians as a distinct group, and therefore Tacitus reports of them as such. He doesn't here try to explain any distinction between Christians and other Jews. He just refers to Christians because Nero fastened on them. In short, Nero knew of them as a distinct group, and as a consequence Tacitus did too. 

The populace's view of Christians is ill-informed. Their perception of 'abominations', coupled with Tacitus' perjorative words 'hideous and shameful' is in sharp contrast to the words of a Roman official who actually interrogated Christians and reported that Christians would "bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so." It seems that the real life of a Christian was unknown to Tacitus and the populace. 

Next Tacitus gives his readers a few historical footnotes, so to speak. He makes some clear statements about the man after whom the Christians were named:
“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,
Tacitus is very restrained in what he says here. He does not stray beyond saying what the Romans did to Christ, and where and when. That he suffered the 'penalty' indicates that his execution was for some perceived offence. That's all that is said here. Tacitus does not attribute any kind of action of activity to Jesus whatsoever. He merely implies that Jesus did something bad enough to be executed for. He only mentions him to let us know that Christians took their name from him. (This is quite unlike, say, Tacitus' writing on the origins of the Jews which is not at all restrained and includes all manner of tosh. On Christ, Tacitus limits himself to saying what the Romans did. By the way, Tacitus possibly wouldn't believe anything of the supernatural side of the Jesus story, if he heard it - not because of its merits, but by default because it came from the likes of Israel - the Romans could be snooty about eastern nations. He could easily think it below him to give it the time of day and look into it. Obviously, Tacitus had no foreknowledge that people would come to regard it as the central event in history over the next 2,000 years. Anyway, he just limits himself to saying what the Romans did to Christ, which is what he was mainly concerned about.) Note that Tacitus states that Christ was killed under the Roman official Pilate, a simple factual past event. (I needed to point out the obvious there, if only because some mythicist hyper-sceptics today claim that Tacitus mentions the event of Christ's death only as a 'Christian belief'. Tacitus says nothing of the kind. He states that this death happened only as a simple fact, and gives us it only from a Roman perspective. Also, if Tacitus were conveying Christian beliefs, isn't it a bit strange that he ascribes to Christ no kind of action or activity or role or status whatsoever?) Tacitus references a particular Christ who was executed in Judea under Pontius Pilate and informs us that Christians got their name from him. As it happens, there is only one candidate that ticks all those boxes: Jesus.

Broken down, the passage is interesting for being unlike ancient Christian formulations. It mentions 'Christ', but unlike Christian creeds omits 'Jesus'. Also entirely absent is the typical Christian formulation that Jesus was crucified, died, was buried and was raised. Also unlike Christian creeds, Tacitus includes the odd detail that the death was under a 'procurator' and 'during the reign of Tiberius'. Some sceptics believe that an accurate Roman historian would only ever write that Pontius Pilate was a Roman “prefect,” never a “procurator.”  On this, see footnote 4 below.
Now, Tacitus only mentions the word 'Christ' to give an explanation for the origin of the word 'Chrestians' and thus to give a context to the origins of the movement. Where did Tacitus get the word 'Christ' from? Perhaps it was just general knowledge that Christians were so called because they spoke of Christ (Acts 11:23-36). The simple question, "Why are they called Christians?" would have delivered this answer to him. So Tacitus was interested in the origins of the word 'Chrestians', although seemingly not in the realities of Christian lives. 

It's worth mentioning, that the one word 'Christus' does not tell us that the source of the rest of the passage is a Christian source, as that would fail to explain why the formulation of the rest of the passage on the death of Christ is dissimilar to Christian texts and seems uniquely Roman, and it would also fail to explain why Tacitus is as ignorant as the populace of what Christians actually do.

Tacitus shows no interest, by the by, in the meaning of the word 'Christus'. (If he had any such interest, he would indicate it by saying something like, 'Christus means...' He does not do so.) In fact, Tacitus shows no awareness at all that the name Christus is anything more than just a name. He shows no awareness that to Christians it is actually a word that they have some beliefs about. To Tacitus, it is just the answer to a question: "what is this group named after?"

Lastly, it may be worth noting that what Tacitus says about Christ points to Christ being a human man but does not point to Jesus being divine, about which Tacitus shows no awareness. Again, this suggests that Tacitus had no knowledge of what any Christians celebrated in their gatherings, in sharp contrast to his friend Pliny who knew rather more.

Now Tacitus talks about the Christians again:
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.”
Tacitus clearly regards Christians as toxic. He couldn’t write a nastier poison pen letter if he tried. Here he has given us useful information: that the Christian movement started in Judea, was checked for a moment after Christ was executed, but then got going again in Judea. And then spread to Rome where the Christians were disliked.

The Latin word 'superstitio' is a generic word, and means that the Christians didn't conform to what Romans would consider proper religion. It doesn't mean 'superstition' in the way that we might use it - the Romans using it were not implying particular content such as 'throwing salt over your shoulder' - they were implying a lack of Roman content. Here this generic word basically means that the Christians' religious attitude lacked approved Roman behaviour. Although Tacitus evidences no particular knowledge, this word signals aberrations such as, perhaps, not frequenting Roman temples, not making animal sacrifices, not burning incense to honour the emperor, etc. That is what would be 'mischievous' about it.

Tacitus may have been disinterested in the content of Christian practices. Rome's interest in Christians in the second century was their refusal to conform. Rome's interest was not in the life of Christ. The refusal to take part in rituals of emperor worship was enough for Christianity to be branded a 'superstitio'. We can't assume that Tacitus cared to look any further into the things that Christians do - he was not a heresiologist.

Tacitus tells us how Nero’s scapegoat tactic was implemented:
“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.”
It is unclear what they may have admitted guilt to. Tacitus says it was guilt ‘not so much of the crime of firing the city’. Basically, “hatred of mankind” was attributed to Christians – and those admitting to being Christians paid the price for it. ‘Hatred of mankind’ needs explanation. It is well known to historians that early Christians were regarded in a bad light because they avoided pagan religious activities around which so much of Rome’s business and social life was based. This was regarded as anti-social, separatism, a ‘hatred of mankind’. In summary, Christians are painted in a very bad light here. No-one has a good word for them it seems. It may not seem to us much to be arrested for, but this was a time of injustice.

Tacitus says there was a multitude of Christians in Rome: he is our only witness to it being so many; while there are no witnesses who say their number was small. We do at least have corroboration that there was a church in Rome, and we know this first-hand from Paul who, in the 50s of the first century, had already known of the existence of a church there for some years (Romans 15:23 etc.).  

Tacitus next describes the grim fate of Nero’s scapegoats:
“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.”
So Tacitus tells us how gruesome it got. And Nero made sure everyone noticed that punishment was being carried out, even seen from his own garden.  He wanted it to seem as if everyone could now trust that the real culprits for the fire must be these Christians, so deserving of their punishment.
This is an appropriate place for us to answer a suggestion by mythicist hyper-sceptics who claim that this passage was not written by Tacitus but by later Christian editors. Some of them claim that this is an example of Christian martyrdom literature. That is nonsense. If it were a text written by Christians, it would have Christian touches such as the martyrs seeing heaven open, or speaking to a heavenly Jesus, and with such Christ-like virtue whilst dying that it causes onlookers to marvel at the specialness of their faith. (These stories generally show literary borrowing from the likes of the account of the martyrdom of Stephen in the Book of Acts.) That sort of pious detail. But there is nothing of the kind in this passage, which rules out that mythicist suggestion. We know what early Christian martyrology texts look like, and Tacitus lacks their key features. So Annals 15:44 was not written by any Christian.
Tacitus tells us what happens so often when the state attacks the marginalised in society. It backfires. It didn’t quite have the effect Nero wanted. Tacitus explains how the Christians were then regarded with pity, and Nero with more disapproval:
“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.”
Tacitus reveals that as much as Nero tried to stage-manage events, his reputation just suffered more. And so that, then, is Tacitus’ account of the persecution of Christians in Rome.
Tacitus has told us quite a bit there: that the movement started in Judea before Christ's death, and it arose again after his death, a death under the procurator Pilate during Tiberius' reign; it also says that the movement spread to Rome.

It is worth reiterating that Tacitus is restrained in his treatment of Christians inasmuch as he tells no fanciful stories of their exploits. Unlike the tosh he wrote about the ancient origins of the Jews, Tacitus indicates only that this modern movement came from Judea, revived despite the death of Christ, and he tells that they admitted guilt to something in Rome. That's all. Everything else Tacitus says about them is what the Romans did to them, and what a nasty impression the Romans had of them. That's all. As with what Tacitus said of Christ, he is restrained. He makes no great claims of anything about the origins or actions of the Christians. Their is no fanciful elaboration, nor any obvious knowledge of Christian practices. He seems uninterested in any actual stories about them except what relates to Nero and Rome.

There’s nothing favourable about Tacitus’ poisonous treatment of Christians. To recap part of the argument against interpolation, Tacitus’ words are obviously not written by Christians, poisonous hostile words calling Christians and their religion a ‘disease’, a ‘pernicious superstition’, a people ‘loathed for their vices’ who have ‘hatred for the human race’. And Tacitus implictly links all this back to their following Christ, but the real force behind his words is surely that the Christians were not bowing to the emperor, and so these Christians have to be described in very sinister terms. This is just not the sort of publicity which Christians want Christ’s name to be associated with. Tacitus wrote all these words, none of it was written by Christians. Naysayers who say otherwise are just being tendentious.

Now an important question is about the source of Tacitus’ information about Christ and Christians. The first thing to say is that, whatever sources he was gleaning from, he was satisfied with the validity of the report. (Whereas, wherever he does doubt the validity of some report, it's not unusual for him to indicate that one way or another.) Tacitus does not pepper his work with lists of sources; he was a historian, not an archivist. So if he was satisfied that his source was valid about Christ, then we need to have a good reason if we are to disagree with that judgment. Now, I said at the start that Tacitus is a secondary source, which means he is not a hundred per cent independent of his primary source, expect inasmuch that a good historian sifts his sources and doesn't just accept them all uncritically. And he was a good historian. The question then is, what source(s) was he not entirely a hundred per independent of: Roman sources? a Christian source? a Jewish source?

In examining this, I have to keep in mind the evidence, what Tacitus actually wrote. In regard to Christ, Tacitus says only what the Romans did to him; and although Tacitus knows him as Christ which is what Christians called him, this tells us nothing about the source of the rest of what Tacitus tells us about Christ, since this is dissimilar to ancient Christian formulations. In regard to Christians, Tacitus echoes popular hysteria about Christians rather than convey any analysis or real details about what Christians actually do.

I will briefly touch on the weaknesses of three common suggestions for who might be the source of the information on Christ especially (and Christians too): Josephus, Pliny and Christians.


Some mythicists do accept that Tacitus was the author (not an interpolator), and turn their attention to attacking the validity of Tacitus as having any independence by saying he was uncritically merely re-using dubious Christian sources, but there are good reasons why scholars doubt that argument, not least that Tacitus was clearly satisfied as a historian that the information was valid. I will expand on that below, but there are stronger points than that. 

The information Tacitus gives differs in multiple ways from what we would expect from an ancient Christian source, based on our knowledge of such. We need to be clear which information we mean. As to Christ, it consists only of what Romans did to him: the who, where, when, what of that. As to Christians, it consists only of the vague reference which we can infer is to fantasies entertained by the Roman populace about Christian practices being in bad taste, and the Christians' alienation from the populace. We can surmise from this that Tacitus and his sources in the general populace, who thought in this perjorative way, had not really got to know any actual Christians personally. This makes a Christian source unlikely, and it is worth amplifying the point. Just as Tacitus does not seem to have consulted any Jews about the origins of the Jewish people (which is obvious in that he recycled tosh about the Jews), so also he does not seem to have had personal contact with Christians (which is obvious in that he has no apparent knowledge of what Christians actually do, unlike his friend Pliny). Tacitus therefore had only non-Christian sources, which could say only what the Romans did to Christ and what their own perjorative perception of Christians as an alienated group was. It is very different from the more measured and expansive account, containing actual details, given by someone who actually did meet Christians - Pliny. (See Footnote 3 below.) 

I've also covered above that the passage differs significantly from Christian formulations.

It is worth noting that despite the rather obvious obstacles above, some persist with their belief that Tacitus' information source about Christ was Christians, which assumption depends in turn on the inbuilt assumption that some unknown Christians were referring to Christ with unusually non-Christian formulations such as being executed under a procurator in the reign of Tiberius, and also depends on the further assumption that there was an unknown chain of transmission to get this from the unknown Christians to Tacitus, and it depends on the further inbuilt assumption that Tacitus never bothered to fact-check that from his own sources: a string of assumptions, which ignores the problem that Tacitus seems to have had no knowledge of what real Christians actually do, let alone knowledge of any Christian formulations that have come down to us, all of which somewhat undermines the theory. He shows knowledge only of what the Romans did.

They usually persist with the claim that Tacitus could only have got this information from Christians as a Christian 'belief'. Tacitus says nothing of the kind. He merely states what the Romans did to Christ as fact, without qualifying it as a 'belief'. And there is another particular problem for the mythicist suggestion briefly touched on above: why on earth would Tacitus trust people he despised as an information source for histories that he was devoted to writing well, and why then state it all as fact as he does without any disclaimers? And if he had a Christian source, why does he not report anything more than what Romans did to Christ? Anyway, he wouldn’t just regard Christians - as people he despised - as a good touchstone for information and then just write it without any disclaimer. There is no evidence that he had listened to any Christians or read any gospels or any other Christian literature. He could find things out for himself. He preferred Roman sources.


Some suggest that Tacitus got his information indirectly from Christians via his friend and fellow Roman official Pliny. But there are problems with such a suggestion. The first is that there is no indication that they compared notes on this, only that they wrote about different groups of Christians. Their separate writings reveal two completely separate sets of data. Tacitus speaks of the movement's origins and recent events in Rome, on which Pliny says nothing. Pliny basically details the day to day ritual practices of Christians (in Asia Minor), on which Tacitus says nothing. There is  no overlap of data. Pliny knows what Christians actually do, but Tacitus seems ill-informed about that by comparison, merely echoing the popular hysteria about the Christians being up to something awful. This sharply contrasts with Pliny's dispassionately conveyed informed and detailed knowledge. In any case, it is on the more unlikely side that they compared notes on this particular issue as it forms a very small part of their writings indeed, which fits with the fact that their writings betray no sharing of information on this. (The most you could say was comparable would be their derogatory comments about Christians holding to a bad superstition, but Tacitus and Pliny would say that, as they were currying favour with an imperial audience, and of course describing any religion that refuses to bow to the emperor as a bad superstition was an appropriate thing for them to say. It no more shows writers pinching off each other than would be the case if two civil servants described ISIS as religious extremists.) For the record, Pliny's information is in Footnote 3 below.


Josephus has also been suggested as a source used by Tacitus, but we can more or less rule that out, given that Tacitus had nothing but tosh to say about the origins of the Jews, a subject on which Josephus could have enlightened him. Curiously, this option is attractive to some Christian apologists and some mythicists! Christian apologists are tempted by it because Tacitus using what Josephus wrote in Antiquities Book 18 about Jesus would mean that Josephus really did write it (a couple of decades before Tacitus wrote) and not some later Christian scribe. Some mythicists like the idea because making Josephus the source for Tacitus would make Tacitus a less independent source (even though still an independent historian making his own choices). But the evidence for authorship by Josephus is not strong.

Official sources
Once we evaluate those three suggestions as weak, there are less complicated explanations available for Tacitus’ knowledge (uncomplicated is better usually). The key fact is that Tacitus wrote a set of books about the Roman war in Judea, and for this purpose he would have consulted Roman records on Judea and the war. Therefore, for any given piece of information he discloses about Judea, the first likelihood is that it cropped up in his research in Roman records, unless a different source is revealed. Let's look at some of the sources available to him:
  • He spent time working for Rome out east, so was probably also informed of this new Jewish group there, and because of his official position he would have had some access to the Roman Empire's records. 
  • For fact-checking, he undoubtedly had the Acta Diurna (for events in and around Rome) and Acta Senatus (records of the Roman Senate) to refer to (if only we had  copies of them too!), but possibly not access to the jealously guarded Imperial library. If the Acta Diurna included notices of events in the wider empire, then a library copy of the Acts Diurna could have been Tacitus' source for his comments on what the Romans did to Jesus, but it is difficult to say that these would have included the detail that some people called him the Christ, which is one thing that probably needed an additional source. Anyway, Rome's Acta Diurna have not survived and so there would be no way to evidence any of this. For more information, see Brian J. Wright, "Ancient Rome's Daily News Publication with some Likely Implications for Early Christian Studies" in Tyndale Bulletin 67.1 (2016) 145-160.
  • Tacitus also consulted other authors (for example on the fire of Rome, see Annals 15.38). He was a keen researcher. He wrote lengthy histories about the Jewish War which means he had significant sources about what went on in first century Judea.
  • If he had had access to records relating to the trial of Paul before Nero's court (which was due to happen about 62AD, just a couple of years before Nero's fire and persecution of Christians) it would have been useful, but that is not possible for us to evidence.

 Tacitus never says he had any Christian source, never mentions Josephus and does not give the impression of being interested in Jewish statements of belief, and his relationship with Pliny evidences no contact in this matter.

Tacitus can generally be trusted as a historian of what to him was modern history of his day. He was normally a rigorous historian on events from his own century, even on small details. To give you some idea, he even sees fit to correct information from his friend Pliny on occasion (see Annals 15.53). There is no basis for saying that Tacitus has got his facts wrong in this account, if the question should arise. In fact, the passage is well trusted by secular academics. No-one holding a classics seat, or a history seat, teaching at an accredited secular university says that this passage is fake as far as I am aware. If we were to try to say that all the experts were wrong, we would need a very convincing explanation for why we thought they were wrong. There is no good reason to overthrow this academic consensus on this useful passage in Tacitus. The fact that he  is a hostile independent historian makes his treatment of this subject more clearly useful for corroborating what Christians say about their movement having started in Judea with Christ who died there under Pontius Pilate.   

This might not seem to add up to very much, but here's a thing: if there were no mention of Christ in Tacitus, sceptics would be quick to jump on this and assert with much alarm and fuss firstly that there ought to be such a mention if Christ existed, and secondly that it follows (as if it did) that the absence of such a mention is a smoking gun telling us that Jesus Christ probably never existed. As it happens there is such a mention, which means that Tacitus cannot be used by sceptics to raise an objection on that basis. 
In summary then, this is something in Tacitus' ball park. He was a good historian, particularly in regard to things from his own century. Nero's persecution was in Tacitus' own country and in his own lifetime. The execution of Christ was out east in fairly recent history, and Tacitus served in an administrative role out east. Christ's death was in first century Judea and Tacitus wrote and researched a book about the war in later first century Judea. If we wanted to say that Tacitus is wrong about Christ, we would need a very good reason as to why he is wrong.  There is no very good reason. 

We can usefully put Tacitus’ information alongside other independent author, Josephus, who lived in the first century. In material normally accepted by secular historians as authentic, they tell us this:
  • A man called John the Baptist lived in an area under Herod’s jurisdiction (Josephus)
  • John told Jews to live good lives and baptised them (Josephus)
  • Herod feared John would trigger a revolution, and so he had John arrested and killed (Josephus)
  • It was in Judea that the movement associated with Christ began, some time before his death. (Tacitus)
  • Jesus was a teacher who brought many Jews over to his way of thinking (Josephus)
  • Some senior Jews complained to the Roman Governor Pilate about Jesus (Josephus)
  • Pilate sentenced Jesus to be crucified (Josephus)
  • The death penalty for Jesus given by Pontius Pilate happened during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (Tacitus)
  • The movement was only temporarily stopped, and broke out afresh in Judea (Tacitus)
  • So despite Jesus’ death, his followers carried on regardless for decades on end (Josephus)
  • In the 60s, James the brother of Jesus – the Jesus who was called Christ - was stoned to death, and others too, because some Jewish leaders did not like his attitude to the Jewish law (Josephus)
  • By the 60s, Jesus’ followers had also spread to Rome, where some people called them Chrestians, but really they were named after Christ (Tacitus)

Footnote 1
For those who like to know these things:
  • the earliest extant use of this Tacitus passage by another writer is by Sulpicius Severus, a contemporary of St Augustine, who lived about 363-425AD, in his Chronicles 2.29. 1-4a
  • Nero persecuting Christians after the fire is also mentioned in the second century by Tacitus' friend Suetonius in his Nero 16.2
  • The earliest explicit Christian mention of Nero in particular persecuting Christians (albeit, a different episode) was, like Tacitus, published in the second century, and can be found in the Acts of Paul X.II
  • It is widely thought by scholars that there is an earlier coded Christian allusion to Nero persecuting Christians in the Book of Revelation chapter 13 where the number 666 is numerologically connected with Nero's name.

Footnote 2
Tacitus doesn't say the followers of Christ in Rome called themselves Chri/estians. He says only that it was the populace who called them Chrestians. He doesn't say what the group called itself. 
In Greek and Latin writings, the terms Chrestians and Christians were used almost interchangeably in the early centuries by Christians and non-Christians alike. You can read more about this in Eric Scholtens comments which you should scroll down to at 

There is no room for claiming that this refers to a group of "Chrestians" unconnected with followers of Jesus, not only for the above reason, but also because Tacitus connects them with a Christ who "suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus", and whose followers had reached Rome. Only one known Christ with Christian followers fits the bill. 

Of particular historical interest is that the term 'Christian' appears here to be attached to the believers in Rome as early as the 60s of the first century. The term did not originate with the Jerusalem believers who first formed the church, and there is no evidence that the Jerusalem church ever called itself by that name. The evidence is that the name was coined in Antioch by outsiders as a nickname for the believers, and that the name had reached as far as Caesarea (Acts 26:28) where it seems to be what Paul was already known by, as far as Roman authorities there were concerned, when Paul was on his journey that would lead him, under arrest, to trial in Rome. This is around 60AD. If any weight is given to this, then it is plausible that the term 'Christian' was in use in Rome by 64AD, where Tacitus (a young contemporary of the events of 64AD) puts it. (Of course, at the time when Tacitus was calling them Christians, his friend Pliny was doing so too.)
Footnote 3

The evidence on Pliny’s side is in Pliny’s correspondence with Emperor Trajan. To summarise it these were Christians in Pliny’s district of Bithynia et Pontus (Turkey to you and me) and they included “many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes” in the cities, villages and farms. The Christians were not frequenting the Roman temples, and with such impact that the temples “had been almost deserted”.  Some people were denounced to Pliny as Christians. Those who, under interrogation, refused to curse Christ, were assumed to be real Christians. Some of these were executed for refusing to renounce their faith after three opportunities to do so. Some others were Roman citizens and were therefore transferred to Rome instead.

The information Pliny obtained from the Christians under interrogation about their practices was that “they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food.” Except they stopped doing the latter after an official Roman edict forbidding “political associations”. Two Christian female slaves, called deaconesses, spoke in more detail, but what they said to Pliny was, to his mind, just “depraved, excessive superstition", and Pliny does not bother to reveal the content of this. Persecution by Pliny resulted in many people abandoning the Christian groups and returning to Roman religious ways.

Footnote 4

Some sceptics believe that an accurate Roman historian would only ever write that Pontius Pilate was a Roman “prefect,” never a “procurator.” These were two different jobs in the Roman world. Their argument goes that since Pilate uses the “wrong” word - procurator – then he must have been relying on a non-Roman source. The finger is then pointed at Christians, so as to say that they are the unreliable information source, a source that is not independent of the church, and even that Tacitus has failed to maintain a historian’s independence of thought and fact-checking responsibilities. This is supposed to be a smoking-gun invalidating Tacitus’ information that the Romans executed Christ. This argument is vulnerable on multiple grounds. But the decisive objection to the sceptics' “smoking gun” is clear. Consider the two words, prefect and procurator. Ancient Roman-language and Greek-language authors used these terms. Here they are in their different languages:

•             The word for prefect is ἔπαρχος in Greek (pronounced eparchos), and praefectus in Latin

•             The word for procurator is ἐπίτροπος in Greek (pronounced epitropos), and procurator in Latin.


Here’s the thing. Sceptics might say that accuracy demands that Pilate only be called “prefect”. But the facts tell a different story. The following actually call Pilate a “procurator”:

•             Pilate’s Jewish contemporary Philo of Alexandria

•             Greek-language Jewish historian Josephus

•             Latin-language Roman historian Tacitus

So Tacitus is in good company here. And so is his source. It’s in vain to claim that Tacitus is an anomaly. He’s not. The data is as follows.


For “prefect,” we rely on just two things:

•             in the archaeology, we have the fragmentary Pilate stone where the surviving part includes praefectus Iudaeae - "prefect of Judaea." This evidence from his lifetime tells us that some Roman officals wanted people around Pilate to know that he was their Roman prefect. Pilate was in that job from roughly 26-36AD. It is not beyond speculation that the lost part of the stone included the abbreviation “proc.” for “procurator” too.

•             And under Claudius, “procurator” became more prestigious than “prefect” – after Pilate’s time. In other words, money later became a higher priority than military stuff. This understanding is influenced by the existence of the Pilate stone.

For “procurator,” we rely on three literary sources:

•             Philo wrote “procurator” in his Embassy to Gaius paragraphs 299 and 304.7. From 299: “Pilate was an official who had been appointed procurator of Judaea.” Philo of course uses the Greek word for procurator, ἐπίτροπος.

•             Josephus wrote it in his War II.169: “When he [Pilate] had been sent to Judea as procurator by Tiberius…” Josephus also uses the Greek word for procurator, ἐπίτροπος.

•             And Tacitus wrote it in his Annals - the subject of this article – using the Latin word.

Not only that. The fact is, Josephus uses both titles about governors both before and after Pilate. And he can call them – e.g. governor Fadus - by both terms. So there is nothing remotely strange about Pilate being known by both or either. There is no smoking gun here.

On a minor point, the title "procurator" is not found in any Christian formulation to my knowledge. The Christian gospels refer to Pilate as the governor (ἡγεμὼν), not procurator (Matt 27:2). If Tacitus were following such a Christian source, he would have used the word "governor." And Christian creedal content has wording that Jesus was executed "under Pontius Pilate," not "in the reign of Tiberius." There is just no match with Christian sources. Only one biblical gospel even names Emperor Tiberius (the Gospel of Luke) and it does so only in a different context. And, unlike Tacitus, Christian creeds also don't refer to Pilate's job title, but rather simply name him as Pontius Pilate. So if Tacitus was relying on a source, it was a source that uses non-Christian formulations. The dissimilarity with Christian-style formulations about the death of Christ, such as found in ancient Christian texts, is striking. It is not a version of a Christian belief statement. Again, we remember that Tacitus wrote books about the Roman war in Judea so the first likelihood is that it cropped up in his book research which will have relied heavily on Roman sources. It is likely that in his Roman sources, he found both titles. But trying to attribute any "anomaly" to Christians is simply not going with the evidence. Detail after detail removes the Tacitus passage further and further away from known Christian content. 

Further reading on Pilate’s roles:

Helen K. Bond, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation. Cambridge University Press. 1998. 11-12.

Warren Carter, Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2001. 215.

Gerard Gertoux, Herod the Great and Jesus: Chronological, Historical and Archaeological Evidence., 2015. 48-49.

Brian M. Rapske, “Roman Governors of Palestine (Pilate, Felix, Festus).” In Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds. Eds. C.A. Evans and S.E. Porter. Downers Grove: IVP, 2000. 978-84.


For the video version of this blog, please visit:

Links to this blog series are below.
Did Jesus Really Exist? 1. A little introduction 

Did Jesus Exist? 2a. Did any writers mention Jesus at the time he was alive? 

Did Jesus Exist? 2b. Were ancient authors silent about Jesus' existence?

Did Jesus Exist? 2c. Outside the Bible, does anyone else say Jesus existed?

Did Jesus Exist? 2d. What about these authors then, Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny?

Extra: Did Josephus mention Jesus and was that quoted by Origen?

You are here - What did Tacitus really say about Christ and Christians?

Did Jesus Exist? 3a. What did St Paul know about the life story of Jesus? 

Did Jesus Exist? 3b. Why didn’t St Paul say more about Jesus? 

Did Jesus Exist? 3c. Did Peter and Paul talk about Jesus? 

So when did St Paul persecute the church? (And when did Jesus die?)

Did Jesus Exist? 4a. So then: what about the people who were interested in Jesus before Paul was? 

Did Jesus Exist? 4b. What did people know about the life story of Jesus before Paul came on the scene?

Did Jesus Exist? 5. Did Paul invent Jesus? 

Did Jesus exist? 6. Do the gospels believe in a historical Jesus?


  1. Hullo Colin

    Cud u say summat about inturpolations - I understand that Paul's letrs - evun the non-fake wuns hav suffr'd from the ax'v inturpolations eg

    Might similar goings-on be applicabl t histry ritrs?

    Ta loads

    1. No need to worry here. The scholarly consensus is that the Tacitus passage is free of interpolation. There are clear reasons for being confident. One is that the style of Latin written by Tacitus is unique and very difficult indeed to imitate successfully. It is difficult to explain this to someone who may not be able to read Latin, but this passage is authentic to Tacitus' personal style. Experts conclude that the Latin text is authentic. Secondly, this cannot be Christian interpolation because the martyr scene lacks the pious touches that Christian writers give to their martyr scenes. See other points above too. Thank you for reading my post.

  2. Thank you for all of your hard work tackling the mythicists, and thank you for also making the work available to the public. As someone who was struggling in their faith, it has helped so much.

  3. Thanks for the analysis. Also, is it true that the first century Christians were described by Tacitus as looking like Ethiopians? And if so, please could you share the source. Thanks for all the hard work!

  4. hi, Johm. Tacitus doesn't say that. Perhaps you're thinking of someone else.