Does Tacitus provide independent testimony about Jesus?
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.