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Does Tacitus provide independent testimony about Jesus?

July 9, 2013

One of the most important non-Christian references to Jesus in ancient non-Christian sources is found in Tacitus.

Tacitus is generally regarded as one of the finest Roman historians. He mentioned Jesus once in his Annals (15:38-45) when he describes how Nero deflects accusations from himself on the fire of Rome and instead blames the fire on the Christians. In describing this, Tacitus gives a short historical background to these ‘Christians’.

“Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians.

Christ the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentance of the procurator Pontius Pilate, and a pernicious superstition was checked for the moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible and shameful in the world collect and find a vogue’ (Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, tr, M Grant (Harmonsdsworth: Penguin Classics, 1985), 15.44.

There are many theories as to where Tacitus obtains his information. Yet there are two main options: was he simply quoting what he heard from Christians, or did he do his own independent research (and hence provides independent testimony to the existence of Jesus)?

It is indeed possible that Tacitus could have received his information from the Christians. Indeed many atheist Christ myth proponents suggest this. Yet I think this is unlikely for a couple of reasons.

1. Which Christian would have informed him? Tacitus was no friend of the Christians describing it as a ‘pernicious superstition’ and a ‘disease’. The information he supplies about Jesus is fairly specific, correctly identifying the otherwise obscure Pontius Pilate.  Tacitus would require fairly intimate knowledge of Christianity to identify Jesus’ death at the hands of Pontius Pilate (and in the reign of Tiberius, see next point). Pilate is mentioned in the four Gospels. Acts and 1 Timothy 6. Pilate is absent in the earliest and most succinct Christian creed (1 Corinthians 15), and absent from Christian preaching to a Roman audience (see Acts 17 as an example). Hence to describe Jesus’ death at the hands of Pilate, Tacitus would require fairly intimate knowledge of Christianity which is he is unlikely to have obtained from the Christian sources he despised.

2. Furthermore, Christians were unlikely to connect the reign of Tiberius with Pontius Pilate and Jesus’ execution. Tiberius is mentioned only once in the entire New Testament in Luke 3:1. This reference has nothing to do with Jesus’ death. The reign of Tiberius is absent entirely from all Christian creeds and preaching. Tiberius is not mentioned at all by any other Christian source in the first 150 years after Jesus’ death. There was no reason for Christians to connect Tiberius’ reign with Jesus’ death.

Hence the connection with Tiberius and Pilate and Jesus’ death would have required further research. It’s unlikely that Tacitus would have been aware that Pilate was in power in the reign of Tiberius from his own general knowledge as Pilate was an obscure ancient figure. Tacitus’ mention of Pilate here is the only extant reference to Pilate in Roman sources. It appears that Tacitus has done some original research or thinking to connect Pilate with Tiberius and Jesus’ death. This connection is unlikely to have originated from Christians.

Historian Paul Barnett speculates (quite reasonably) as to where Tacitus obtains his information: ‘As a former consul in Rome, Tacitus would have had access to official archives and may have seen Pilate’s report to Tiberius about the execution of Jesus and others in Judea in 33.’ (Gospel Truth, p.39).

I think it’s reasonable to suggest that it is quite likely that Tacitus provides independent testimony about Jesus and corroborates key historical data of the Gospels.

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From → History

11 Comments
  1. Hi Rob,
    I’ve been wondering about Tacitus because it seems the earliest copies we have of his writings are quite late. In fact the lateness of the Tacitus copies compared to copies of the New Testament is often used to show how reliable the New Testament is in relation to other ancient writings, which seems cast doubt on Tacitus. It seems strange to argue for the reliability of Tacitus on one hand, and then to argue on the relative unreliability of Tacitus on the other hand. What are your thoughts?

    • Thanks for the thoughts. Yet I don’t think that the later date of the ancient writings ‘cast doubt on Tacitus’ which you seem to imply. I think historians generally agree that the time between authorship and earliest manuscript for Tacitus is sufficient to be comfortable that the manuscripts have been transmitted accurately. The argument then goes, how much more, then is the NT reliable when the date between authorship and earliest manuscript is so much smaller!

      • Steven Carr permalink

        Good point. We know nothing which seems to be dated less than 20 years ago can be a forgery, because the date between authorship and earliest manuscript is very small.

        That is going to be very useful in criminal investigations as we can rule out forgery if the document is less than 20 years old.

  2. John permalink

    Please find an essay by an Illuminated Being who was thoroughly familiar with all of the modern scholarship re the fabricated origins and institutional poltical purposes of the “New” Testament. And who spent 50 years in the most profound depth-level investigation into ever aspect of Christian dogma/belief and experience. He was thoroughly familiar with all of the classic mystical and visionary experience described in the revered texts of the Illuminated mystics of both the “Catholic” and Eastern “Orthodox” traditions,
    http://www.dabase.org/up-5-1.htm
    Also
    http://www.aboutadidam.org/articles/secret_identity

  3. Steven Carr permalink

    ‘Pilate is absent in the earliest and most succinct Christian creed (1 Corinthians 15), and absent from Christian preaching to a Roman audience (see Acts 17 as an example)’

    I see.

    So Christians would not have been able to tell Tacitus who killed Jesus?

  4. Lasse Norén permalink

    Part of this passage in Tacitus clearly indicate that it cannot be about Christians as the group identified as “Chrestianos” was supposedly an “imminence multitude” of the population in Rome. (the passage ends)

    “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.”

    If we use a normal exponential growth of the religion with a starting point in 35 CE (with about 5,000 followers) and a total population of Christians between 5 and 10 million in the year 300 CE (as is estimated by many scholars). Then we expect to see between 10,000 and 12,000 Christians in total in the whole world by the 64 CE.

    (A growth-rate of about 2.7% to 2.8% gives you between 5.8M to 7.5M people at 300 CE
    Thus with this growth-rate the population at 64 CE would be between 10.8K and 11.1K )

    If every single one of them were in Rome during this time they would not be referred to as an “immense multitude” by a writer, as Rome had over one million people living it it at that time. The scarcity of Christians is also illustrated by the writings of Pliny the Younger who was a magistrate in Rome and who’s uncle was Pliny the Elder (an author and native of Rome during this time). But despite this, Pliny the Younger write that he has never participated in a trial of a Christian in his letter to the Emperor Trajan around 112 CE. He has no knowledge about how to go about this.

    “IT is a rule, Sir, which I inviolably observe, to refer myself to you in all my doubts; for who is more capable of guiding my uncertainty or informing my ignorance? Having never been present at any trials of the Christians, I am unacquainted with the method and limits to be observed either in examining or punishing them… ” (Pliny the Younger, Book 10 letter 96)

    How is that possible that Pliny has no knowledge about this if an “Immense multitude” of Christians had been tried in Rome jut 50 years earlier and his uncle, who taught him, would have been present at (at least some of) these trials?! There would also have been a “legal presidencies ” in writing about how to do this if the trials of Christians had been common (as is indicated in Tacitus)

    If we instead take the word “Chrestianos” to mean “slaves” (as it was a common term used for slaves in the first century CE). Then we do have a multitude of these “chrestianos” in Rome at that time (in fact some 30% – 40% of the total population). In that case the part of the Tacitus passage that deals with Pilate could be an interpolation. Do note that we only have manuscripts of this passage from the 12th century and that none of the early church fathers (including Eusebius) ever referred to it as a proof of Jesus supposed existence.

  5. bob lackey permalink

    To me Lasse the burden on the early church fathers was not to show Jesus existed but that he was the Messiah. The glaring part of the Tacitus passage to me was Pilate’s title “procurator” while most experts say it was “prefect”. But Richard Carrier who doubts Jesus even lived as a human being, argues that Pilate was both prefect and procurator. I wrote to him about this and he informed me he was the one with the PhD in ancient history. So I bowed out.

    Josephus also has a gap of about 1,000 years between the original and the oldest extant copies. I can see how one could doubt anything in either. And much of Tacitus including his work that would cover the time of Jesus, Paul, John the Baptist, Peter etc is lost and not extant. So who knows.

  6. Micjael permalink

    The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.
    Psalms 14:1 KJV

    • Thanks for the comment. Not quite sure how it is relevant to the post. Thanks

    • “Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer.” [Madalyn Murray O’Hair] -I can write quotes too 😉

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