Tacitus also provides our first explicit historical evidence of 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.
The poplace'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:
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 died, was buried and was raised. Also unlike Christian creeds, Tacitus includes the detail that the death was 'during the reign of Tiberius'. This is not found in any standard Christian formulation to my knowledge. Only one biblical gospel even names Emperor Tiberius (the Gospel of Luke) and it does so only in a different context. Unlike Tacitus, Christian creeds also don't refer to Pilate's job title (here it is 'procurator') but rather Christians usually name him as Pontius Pilate. So if Tacitus was relying on a source, it was a source that uses non-Christian formulations. The dissimialrity with Christian-style formulations about the death of Christ, as found in ancient Christian texts, suggests that what we read in Tacitus is uniquely Roman. It is not a version of a Christian belief statement.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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 origins of the Jews, Tacitus indicates only that their 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.
In examining this, I have to keep in mind 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.
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. 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 is worth amplifying. 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.) It is worth noting that despite this rather obvious obstacle, some sceptics persist with their belief that Tacitus' information source about Christ was Christians, which assumption depends in turn on the inbuilt assumption that Christians were talking about Christ being executed under Pilate in the reign of Tiberius and on the further assumption that there was an unknown chain of transmission to get news of that to Tacitus, and it depends on the further inbuilt assumption that Tacitus never bothered to check that from his own sources: a string of assumptions, which ignores the problem that Tacitus seems to have had no knowledge of what Christians actually do, which somewhat undermines the theory.
Some mythicists accept, as you will have gathered, that Tacitus was the writer (not an interpolator). 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: 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, but we can more or less rule out that Tacitus used Josephus as a source given that Tacitus had nothing but tosh to say about the origins of the Jews, a subject on which Josephus could have enlightened him.
- He spent time out east, so was probably informed of this new Jewish group there, and he would have had some access to the Roman Empire’s records because of his official position.
- 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 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.
- He 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.
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.
PUTTING THE JIGSAW TOGETHER
- 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 people began following Christ, 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 Jesus movement was only stopped for a moment, 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)
- 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.
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.)
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?