Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tacitus on Pilate as Procurator of Judaea

There is a debate in the blogosphere recently between Richard Carrier and Bart D. Ehrman, over Ehrman’s new book Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (2012).

For the debate, see these posts:
(1) Richard Carrier, “Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic,” Richard Carrier Blogs, April 19, 2012.

(2) Bart D. Ehrman, “Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier,” Bart’s Blog, 25 April, 2012.
Most of the debate, however, seems petty and pedantic to me.

Take one aspect of the debate: the use of the term procurator applied to Pontius Pilate by Tacitus at Annales 15.44 (if we assume the passage is not an interpolation by a very clever Christian or pagan scribe*):
auctor nominis eius Christus Tiberio imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat

“the originator of this name [sc. of the Christians] Christus had been afflicted with [sc. capital] punishment by the procurator Pontius Pilatus in the reign of Tiberius” (Annales 15.44).
Here both Carrier and Ehrman make sensible remarks, but the fundamental point is that there is no necessary reason why Tacitus is relying on anything other than what Christians in his own day were saying about Jesus: that is to say, there is no necessary reason why this passage is independent pagan testimony to an historical Jesus of Nazareth.

In terms of official titulature, Tacitus’s error is straightforward: when Tacitus was writing in the early 2nd century AD the equestrian governors usually carried the official title procurator. Before Claudius, equestrian governors were generally officially called prefects (or praefectus in Latin). But under Claudius terminology shifted (see Garnsey and Saller 1987: 23; Jones 1960: 124). B. Levick describes this:
“The second change concerns the titulature of equestrian governors. Equites [viz. equestrian Romans below the rank of senators] sent to govern small provinces or districts such as Judaea or Raetia had been styled by the military title of Prefect. Prefects vanished from all provinces except Egypt, where the title was buttressed by law, and ‘praesidial’ procurators ... replaced them.” (Levick 2001: 48).
In informal terms, however, prefects could still be called procurators as private financial agents of the emperor: for we have a letter of Claudius written in 41 AD to Vitrasius Pollio the Prefect of Egypt (no doubt his official title) where Claudius clearly calls him a “procurator” (Levick 2001: 48).

Tacitus’s use of “procurator” at Annales 15.44 is either (1) just an anachronism (and why would Tacitus have bothered to use obsolete terminology from over 70 years before his own time anyway?) or (2) perhaps even conscious use of the contemporary term, so that his readers would not be confused by the obsolete term “prefect.”


* Book 15 of the Annales of Tacitus is preserved in a mid-11th century manuscript called the “Second Medicean” (or M2 for short) copied at Monte Cassino, which was brought to Florence after 1360 (Mellor 1993: 138). Some scholars have argued that Leidensis BPL 16B (the Leyden Manuscript of Tacitus) is a manuscript with readings derived from a tradition independent of M2 (on this, see Martin 1964), but this idea appears to have won little support today (Martin 1981: 266, n. 15).

The passage on the Christians and Pilate is already in M2, and it seems unlikely that the passage is an interpolation. The interpolation must have been done before c. 1150. Why would a Christian write such negative and insulting things about his own religion? (Tacitus is highly derogatory in his comments on the Christians).

If one really wants to argue in favour of interpolation, perhaps there are three possibilities:
(1) An ancient pagan or non-Christian medieval scribe interpolated this passage. Its negative bias reflects the scribe’s hostility to Christianity.

(2) A very clever medieval Christian scribe copied Tacitus’s style and had the wit to write a negative interpolation about the Christians, to make it believable.

(3) I suppose it is also possible that humanist Renaissance scholars altered the text of M2, but that seems impossible to me, for surely the current manuscript M2 would show clear signs of such a major change. Some evidence adduced here about the possible change of “Chrestianos” to “Christianos” by the original M2 scribe or a later author of marginal glosses does not support some major interpolation at all, for the whole passage on the Christians and the fire is clearly already in M2, as well as the sentence beginning auctor nominis eius Christus ... . In any case, the presence of “Chrestianos” in the original work of Tacitus means only that this was how the ordinary people referred to the Christians, an inaccurate spelling or pronunciation, which Tacitus corrects by his curious phrase auctor nominis eius Christus (Voorst 2000: 43-44).
All in all, however, I do not think these hypotheses are credible. Probably Tacitus did write the passage.


Ehrman, Bart D. 2012. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, HarperOne.

Garnsey, Peter and R. Saller. 1987. The Roman Empire: Economy, Society, and Culture, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Jones, A. H. M. 1960. Studies in Roman Government and Law, Blackwell, Oxford.

Levick, Barbara. 2001. Claudius, Routledge, London.

Martin, R. H. 1964. “The Leyden Manuscript of Tacitus,” The Classical Quarterly n.s. 14.1: 109-119.

Martin, R. H. 1981. Tacitus, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Mellor, Ronald. 1993. Tacitus, Routledge, New York and London.

Voorst, Robert E. van. 2000. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, W.B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich.

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