Do gods exist? 41 Jesus by Tacitus

Image adapted from reconstruction of face of Jesus by Richard Neave

A second independent record of Jesus was written about 110 ad by Gaius Tacitus, a Roman Consul who turned his attention to writing in his forties.

His first major work, the Histories, was written around 105 ad. It chronicled the Flavian dynasty that ruled the Roman Empire during the final third of the first century.

His second major work, the Annals, was published about five years later. It covered the quarter century leading up to the Flavian dynasty, from the death of Augustus Caesar to the suicide of Nero.

Here’s what Tacitus had to say about Jesus in the context of the spread of Christianity, and the burning of Rome, in 64 AD:

“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.”

Here are some points about this record:

  • Though somewhat overshadowed by the unpleasant nature of Nero, this does suggest that a person known as Christus once existed. Tacitus was a disciplined historian, and is likely to have satisfied himself that what he wrote was accurate. Despite this, the claim has been challenged on various grounds.
  • It is far from contemporaneous, being written almost eighty years after the supposed event.
  • It is merely a passing reference while discussing something else, to explain how the Christians got their name.
  • Tacitus did not base the reference on official records as, if they had existed, they would have called the victim Jesus and given Pilate his proper title of prelate.

In my next post I will look at the record of Jesus by Pliny the Younger.

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