Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. His books provide a contemporary history of the Roman Empire beginning with the death of Caesar Augustus in AD 14 and ending with the death of emperor Domitian in AD 96.
His work Annals is important to many Christian scholars, as Tacitus provides an account of the persecution of early Christians by Nero, in which he seemingly confirms some of the events recorded in the gospels.
The final work of Tacitus was Ab excessu divi Augusti, dubbed Annals, written circa AD 117. It is a collection of sixteen books covering the history of Roman emperors starting at the death of Caesar Augustus (AD 14) and ending with the death of Nero (AD 68). The books cover the reigns of Caesars Tiberius (AD 14-37), Caligula (37-41), Claudius (41-54), and Nero (54-68). The focus is mainly on Tiberius and Nero, as some of the books have not been found.
Book 15 of Annals provides this account of the persecution of Christians (Annals, 15.44):
- Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite punishments on a class hated for their disgraceful acts, called Chrestians by the populace. Christ, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty (i.e., Crucifixion) 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 Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center 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. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
In this passage, Tacitus is making reference to a fire that burned a large portion of Rome in AD 64. In an attempt to quell the rumor that he had started it, Nero blamed the fire on Christians dissidents, and subsequently arrested, tortured, and executed Christians en masse (though it was clearly Tacitus' opinion that Nero simply disliked Christians; the fire was just an excuse).
To modern Christians this passage is important because, in their opinion:
- Tacitus provides a non-canonical, contemporary account confirming the historicity of Christ.
- He confirms the story of Christ's crucifixion at the hands of Pontius Pilate.
Most of the criticism of the passage in Annals surrounds what the passage proves. There is no scholarly consensus on the issue. The passage is accepted by some scholars as evidence for Jesus' existence, whereas others dismiss it as Tacitus simply repeating the story as Christians told it.
- Independent investigation. In The Gospels As Historical Sources For Jesus, The Founder of Christianity R. T. France writes "[there is no] reason to believe that Tacitus bases this on independent information - it is what Christians would be saying in Rome in the early second century." In this and his book Evidence for Jesus, France concludes that Tacitus' reference to Jesus was likely echoing the story being spread by Christians at the time, not something he investigated and sourced independently.
- Lacking information. In his book Jesus, Charles Guignebert states that "so long as there is that possibility [that Tacitus was simply repeating the story as it was being told], the passage remains quite worthless." Without more information, which we don't currently have, the passage proves nothing (it can't be used as evidence for or against).
- Sourced from Roman archives. In Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, Thiessen and Merz argue that if the source had been an official Roman archive, one would expect him to have referred to Pilate as a prefect instead of as a procurator (he was not a procurator). They thus conclude that the information Tacitus gives about Jesus was not copied from an official source.
- Opposing viewpoints:
- Thiessen and Merz (above), while stating that Tacitus provides few details the source of which is unclear, conclude that there was a Jew named Christus who Pilate had executed, and he began a religious movement which was widespread during Nero's reign.
- Bart D. Ehrman writes, "Tacitus's report confirms what we know from other sources, that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, sometime during Tiberius's reign." (The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings)
- Opposing viewpoints:
The writings of Tacitus can be considered as either non-Canonical confirmation or as useless, depending on whether the scholar thinks Tacitus exercised due diligence in investigating the story before writing the passage.
Given that we are lacking key information, and that the passage itself provides very little detail, a determination about Tacitus' diligence in investigating it cannot be made. Any statement which assumes he did exercise due diligence (i.e. that what he said was based on fact) is speculative.
Implication to Christianity
If we accept that Annals is evidence enough that Jesus existed, the following points are made:
- There was a Jew named Jesus who founded a religious movement
- He was ordered executed by a Roman prefect named Pilate
- His martyrdom is likely what fueled the growth of the movement
However, we have not made the points that:
- The man had magic powers
- The Biblical account is factual
- The Bible is a reliable historical source
- What people believe today is true
To someone looking for confirmation of the Biblical account, Annals may be used as non-canonical evidence. After all, someone did found the Christian movement, we might as well call this person Christ (or Jesus), and it's not a stretch to believe that the leader of such a movement may have been executed by a Roman prefect named Pilate, especially considering that Nero openly persecuted Christians at the time.
However, to someone who is reading Annals without specifically looking for confirmation, the account is, as Guignebert said, "quite worthless." The information provided shows only that early Christians believed such, not that that belief was factual. How much of the story is based on fact versus myth is not answered by Tacitus' writings.
Non-canonical evidence, even if thousands of definitive sources existed, would not prove anything other than that a revolutionary Jewish preacher started a religious movement which, after it had been adapted to include Greek values, became wildly successful. It would not be evidence that any of the extraordinary or supernatural claims of the resulting religion are true.