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Tacitus, Suetonius, and the Historical Jesus

Tacitus, Suetonius, and the Historical Jesus

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One of the earliest and most informative references to Jesus in a non-Christian source appears in the Annals of Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman historian writing about AD 115-117. This would be about 85 years or so after the crucifixion of Jesus. Tacitus made his comment about Christ in the context of discussing Nero’s blaming the Christians for the fire of Rome in AD 64, which Nero was rumored to have started himself:

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 [Chrestianos]. Christus, the founder of the name [auctor nominis], had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator [procuratorem] Pontius Pilatus, and a pernicious superstition [exitiabilis superstitio] 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 or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.1

There is a considerable body of literature on this short passage in Tacitus, with the vast majority of scholars agreeing that it gives authentic information about the historical Jesus. Those who argue that Jesus never existed (called “Jesus mythicists” or simply “mythicists”) have attempted to explain away this reference in two ways. (1) Mythicists commonly argue that the sentence referring to Jesus was an addition to the passage by a later Christian scribe (such additions are called interpolations). This explanation is typically the first line of defense. (2) Mythicists also often argue that if the reference to Christ is genuine, then it is still not independent testimony to the existence of Jesus because Tacitus would have gotten his information about Jesus entirely from Christians, who had invented the myth as propaganda. I have discussed the theory that Jesus never existed in another article.2 Here we will consider the two arguments just mentioned for setting aside Tacitus’s reference to Christ as evidence for his historical existence.

Is the Reference to Jesus in Tacitus an Interpolation?

Mythicists have often contended that the reference to Christ here, “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,” was a later Christian interpolation.3 Four considerations, taken together, prove the authenticity of the statement almost beyond a reasonable doubt: the textual evidence, style, point of view, and context.

First, there is no manuscript evidence supporting the suggestion that the line about Christ was an interpolation. This fact does not by itself prove the line is authentic, but it places the burden of proof on the mythicist at this point.

Second, the style of the passage is consistent with its authenticity and makes it unlikely to have been a later interpolation. Latin scholar Norma Miller notes:

If stylistic criteria mean anything at all, the chapter was written either by Tacitus or by a very skilful imitator of his style. The digression on the auctor, the resumption of the main theme by igitur, the tone of exitiabilis superstitio f., as well as the vocabulary and sentence structure, are most plausibly produced by the historian himself, and not by a later interpolator.4

Third, the text speaks of Christ in a way that perfectly reflects what one would expect from a pagan Roman historian. The text states only that someone named Christus was the founder of the movement bearing his name and that he was executed during the reign of Tiberius by order of Pontius Pilate. If this is a Christian interpolation, it is restrained beyond anything one would expect. Nothing is said about Christ’s miracles, teachings, the redemptive significance of his death, or his resurrection. The historicity of Jesus was not an issue at any time during the first millennium, so there was simply no motivation for a Christian to insert a line in Tacitus’s Annals attesting to the bare fact of Christ’s existence and execution.

Fourth, the context of the statement provides decisive evidence in favor of its authenticity. If the reference to Christ is removed, Tacitus is made to say that Nero tortured the “Christians” (or “Chrestians”) as the scapegoat for the fire in Rome, and as a result of that persecution the movement was “checked” temporarily, after which it broke out again. However, this alteration of the text results in a confused flow of thought, since what Tacitus says is that the movement “again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome….” What this statement clearly means is that after being checked temporarily, the movement started up again and then reached Rome—meaning it had not already been in Rome before being checked. This cannot be right if being checked refers to Nero’s persecution because Tacitus clearly says that Nero blamed the fire in Rome on the people of this movement, whoever they were. The chronological flow of thought is that (1) the movement began in Judea, (2) was checked briefly, but then (3) started up again there in Judea and (4) made its way to Rome, where (5) its presence gave Nero a convenient scapegoat for the fire there. This flow of thought obviously corresponds to the origin of Christianity: it began with Jesus’ ministry in Judea, was seemingly checked briefly by his execution, started up again in Judea with the ministry of the apostles, and was spread abroad and reached Rome. Thus, the text requires some statement about the movement being checked before it spread to Rome—and the statement about Christ being executed by Pilate serves precisely that function. Contrary to mythicist Richard Carrier, then, who claims that “the text flows logically and well with the line removed,”5 the flow of the text is disrupted by removing the line.

These four lines of evidence, considered cumulatively, decisively support the view that the line about Christ is an authentic part of Tacitus’s text and not a later Christian interpolation. The matter would be beyond any reasonable dispute whatsoever were it not for a single letter of the Latin alphabet in the text as it has come down to us.

Tacitus, Suetonius, and “Chrestus”

Perhaps the main argument for viewing the reference to Christ as an interpolation focuses on the term used in the preceding sentence for his followers, which is spelled Chrestianos rather than Christianos. Mythicists have suggested that the spelling Chrestianos indicates that Tacitus was referring to a different movement that followed someone named Chrestus, not to the Christians at all. Supposedly this Chrestus was a Jewish zealot who led an uprising in Rome during the reign of Claudius. This idea is based in part on a comment in Roman biographer Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars written about AD 120 that is also a possible reference to Jesus. In his life of the Roman emperor Claudius, Suetonius mentions that Claudius expelled Jews from Rome, an event that most scholars date to the year 49 and that Luke mentioned in passing in his account about Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:2).6 “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [impulsore Chresto], he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.”7 Mythicists argue that Tacitus was referring to the followers of a Jewish zealot Chrestus, not to the followers of Jesus Christ, and that the copyist responsible for the interpolation in Tacitus clumsily inserted the reference to Christus, ignoring the discrepancy between the forms Christus and Chrestianos this created in the text.8 Thus, the interpretation of Tacitus’s statement has become somewhat intertwined with the interpretation of Suetonius’s statement.

Against this theory, most scholars have understood Suetonius’s reference to Chrestus as simply a misspelling of the name Christus. This explanation is eminently reasonable, since the names Christus and Chrestus would have sounded alike in Latin, and there are other examples of the use of the spellings Chrestus and Chrestianos in reference to Christ and Christians.9 For example, in a group of some nine tombstone epitaphs in North Phrygia (in modern-day Turkey), the Greek word for “Christians” is spelled Christianos, Chreistianos, and Chrēstianos, the last of which corresponds precisely to Tacitus’s spelling. In at least one of these inscriptions, the name is spelled in two different ways (Christianoi Chrēstianois, “Christians for Christians”). Codex Sinaiticus, a fourth-century Christian edition of the Greek Bible, spells the word Chrēstianos in its three occurrences in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:8; 1 Peter 4:16). G. H. R. Horsley, in his important discussion of these inscriptions, points out “the linguistic fact that there is a nearly complete overlapping of the sounds represented by ι, ει, η [i, ei, ē] in koine.”10 He provides several examples and cites earlier studies that document the point in great detail.

The ease with which people in the Roman world used the Greek form Chrēstianos in place of Christianos suggests that Suetonius might have done the same thing with the Latin form Chrestus in place of Christus. This possibility becomes the likeliest explanation in light of the additional fact that in the Greco-Roman culture Christus was virtually unknown as a name whereas Chrestus was a common pagan name—but not a common Jewish name.11

We have no evidence independent of Suetonius’s use of this form that a Jewish revolutionary by the name of Chrestus existed in the middle of the first century. On the other hand, we have abundant evidence for the existence of a controversial Jewish teacher during that period known as Christus (Christ). In effect, we have more reason to advocate “Chrestus mythicism” than “Christ mythicism.” The Jesus mythicists would have us believe that Jesus Christ did not exist, but that during roughly the same time period there was a Jewish leader who stirred controversy among the Jews and whose name coincidentally happened to be Chrestus. As Miller observes, the speculation “that there existed simultaneously Jewish zealots known as Chrestiani, is to stretch coincidence rather far.”12

This still leaves the problem, though, of what Suetonius said about Christ. In saying that the Jews caused disturbances “at the instigation of Christ,” Suetonius may have mistakenly thought that Christ was in Rome during the reign of Claudius, which would be the wrong place and the wrong time. However, Suetonius may have meant only that the Jewish riot was sparked by controversy about Christ. The statement is short and vague enough to be susceptible of different interpretations. Assuming that Suetonius made a mistake here, this would not in any way impinge on the accuracy of the information given by Tacitus, who in general is regarded as a far more careful historian.

Does Tacitus Provide Information about Christ Independent from Christians?

Since the reference to Christ is definitely authentic, it constitutes clear evidence for the historical existence of Jesus. Most of the debate about the passage has focused on whether Tacitus’s information about Jesus was dependent solely on Christian claims or whether he had access to an independent source or sources, such as official Roman records. Tacitus’s general carefulness in drawing upon credible sources and the fact that he was referring to an official act by a Roman governor support the viewpoint that he was not merely repeating Christian propaganda, even if Roman officials learned some of the details from Christians.13 The passage focuses entirely on matters of interest in the context of Roman history, so that again the burden of proof is on the mythicist to show that Tacitus did not have access to reliable information.

Tacitus does not tell us very much about Christ. However, what he tells us agrees with the New Testament without being dependent on it. From his brief comments we learn the following facts about Christ: 

  • He was known as Christus.
  • His followers, who were named for him, were known as Chrestians (i.e., Christians).
  • The movement he founded began in Judea.
  • He was executed during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius (AD 14–37).
  • He was executed by the order of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate (AD 26–36).
  • The religion he founded was regarded by cultured Romans as a loathed “superstition.”

This information agrees with the historical facts ascertainable from the New Testament and from other sources, but it is clearly independent of Christian teaching. Tacitus’s statement that the movement began in Judea is correct if one understands Christianity to begin with the reports of Jesus’ resurrection (even though Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, something most Christians would know but one would not expect Tacitus to know). Tacitus gets the timing of Christ’s execution correct and correctly identifies Pontius Pilate as the local governor who made the decision. Tacitus does not, however, use the term “governor” for Pilate, as the New Testament consistently does, but instead calls him the “procurator.”

Ironically, Tacitus’s use of the term “procurator” has been criticized as a mistake, since the inscription on the “Pilate stone” shows his official title as prefect (praefectus). However, these titles could be used more or less interchangeably in the first and second centuries, as seen for example by the fact that the first-century Jewish writers Philo and Josephus both call Pilate the procurator.14 In any case, Tacitus’s use of the term “procurator” does not appear to have derived from Christians but is another indication that his information was independent of them.

In short, the evidence shows that the reference to Christ in Tacitus’s Annals is authentic and that it provides factual information about Jesus independent of the New Testament or early Christian proclamation. As it stands, then, the statement by Tacitus is strong independent evidence for the existence of Jesus.

 

NOTES


1. Tacitus, Annals 15.44, in Tacitus V: Annals Books 13–16, translated by John Jackson, Loeb Classical Library 322 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1937), 283.

2. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Did Jesus Exist? The Bottom Line Guide to Jesus, Part 1” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2017).

3. See especially Richard Carrier, “The Prospect of a Christian Interpolation in Tacitus, Annals 15.44,” Vigiliae Christianae 68 (2014): 264-83. Much of Carrier’s article attempts to weaken the authenticity of references to Christ by the Roman writers Pliny and Suetonius (266–72) before even turning to Tacitus.

4. N. P. Miller, ed., Tacitus: Annals XV (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1994), xxvii. The Latin word igitur is the first word in the sentence following the debated passage.

5. Carrier, “Prospect of a Christian Interpolation,” 274.

6. On Acts 18:1-2 and Suetonius’s reference to the same event, see especially Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, Volume 3: 15:1–23:35 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 2697–2711.

7. Suetonius, The Deified Claudius 25.4, Book V of Lives of the Caesars, in Suetonius, with an English Translation by J. C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library 38 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914), 2:52–53.

8. Carrier, “Prospect of a Christian Interpolation,” 273.

9. Keener, Acts, 2709–10. For the points made in the rest of this paragraph, see G. H. R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, 3: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Published in 1978 (North Ryde, Australia: Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, 1983), 129–36.

10. Horsley, New Documents, 129.

11. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume One: The Roots of the Problem and the Person (Garden City, NY: Doubleday—Anchor Books, 1991), 91–92, 102 n. 16. This point is overlooked by Carrier, “Prospect of a Christian Interpolation,” 271.

12. Miller, Tacitus, xxx; similarly Keener, Acts, 2709.

13. See further Paul R. Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 180–84.

14. See Eddy and Boyd, Jesus Legend, 181–82, and the references cited there.