Tacitus on Jesus

From Academic Kids

The Roman historian Tacitus wrote concerning the Great Fire of Rome, in his Annals (c. AD 116):

Sed non ope humana, non largitionibus principis aut deum placamentis decedebat infamia, quin iussum incendium crederetur. Ergo abolendo rumori Nero subdidit reos et quaesitissimis poenis adfecit, quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Christianos appellabat. (15.44.2) Auctor nominis eius Christus Tibero imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat; repressaque in praesens exitiabilis superstitio rursum erumpebat, non modo per Iudaeam, originem eius mali, sed per urbem etiam, quo cuncta mundique atrocia aut pudenda confluunt celebranturque. (15.44.3.)

The following is a translation of the above Latin text:

But, despite kindly influence, despite the leader's generous handouts, despite appeasing the gods, the scandal did not subside, rather the blaze came to be believed to be an official act. So, in order to quash the rumour, Nero blamed it on, and applied the cruellest punishments to, those sinners, whom ordinary people call Christians, hating them for their shameful behaviour. The originator of this name, Christus, was sent to execution by Procurator Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius, but although checked for a moment, the deadly cult erupted again, not just in Judaea, the source of its evil, but even in Rome, where all the sins and scandals of the world gather and are glorified. (Tac. Ann. xv.44.2–3)

Or this alternate translation:

rather the fire was believed to be an official act. Therefore, in order to stop the speculation, Nero blamed and applied the cruelest punishments to, those evildoers, whom ordinary people call Christians. They were hated for their sinful behavior.(Annals 15.44.2)
Christ, was sentenced to execution by Prefect Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius. However, the vile cult erupted again a short while later, not just in Judea, but even in Rome. Thus this poison was spreading! (Annals 15.44.3)

Although anti-Christian in nature, these confirm that Jesus was sentenced under Pilate, that Christ was the founder of Christianity and that he lived in Judea. It also afffirms that these events took place early in the first century.

The first section merely corroborates the presence of Christians in Rome in Nero's time, a documented historical fact. Only the second paragraph concerns Jesus as a historical figure (actually Tacitus tells about Christus).

Some scholars believe this could be a later textual interpolation by Christian scribes. Unlike the case with Josephus on Jesus, however, there is no clear evidence for doubting the authenticity of this text.

Tacitus is considered the most reliable scholar of his time. He had access to Roman archives, and his only mistakes arose from occasional reliance on secondary sources. In this case he could have been using either Christian sources or Roman archives. It is argued that if he had been using Roman archives, he should have identified Pontius Pilate as a "prefect" rather than a "procurator," but that is disputable. The more serious criticism is that the records would have identified Jesus by his given name rather than "Christus." Although Tacitus was Roman rather than Jewish and might have believed that was part of the name, it is extremely unlikely he would have selected it alone from the archives. In addition, Christian accounts were readily available while centuries of inquiry have turned up no Roman documents related to a historical Jesus.

Because of his unflattering descriptions of Christianity (quoted above) and Judaism (Hist., V.iii (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Tac.+Hist.+5.3), iv (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Tac.+Hist.+5.4)), Christians have impugned his credibility since at least the 3rd century: Tertullian called him "ille mendaciorum loquacissimus" (Apologeticus (http://www.tertullian.org/latin/apologeticus.htm) 16), and the Catholic Encyclopedia mentioned "the credulity with which he accepted the absurd legends and calumnies about the origin of the Hebrew people ." [1] (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08375a.htm) This hardly does him justice as an historian: his shrewd understanding of the political age which preceded him is virtually unparalleled. He was not particularly interested in the Jews or the Christians, both of whom were marginal troublemakers to the Roman aristocracy of the day.

However, the text merely mentions that Christians existed, which is not generally in doubt, and that they had founding in someone called "Christ" executed by Pilate, a statement that could easily have come merely from a conversation with a Christian, rather than a statement of fact.


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