During his discussion of the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, Tacitus mentions that the emperor Nero blamed it on the Christians, and in our texts of the Annales there appears this sentence explaining the origin of the word “Christian”:
auctor nominis eius Christus Tiberio imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat.It is not impossible that the sentence is an interpolation (see Appendix 1 below), but for the sake of this post I will assume that it is genuine.
“the originator of the 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).
In this post, Tim O’Neill makes the case that Tacitus’ history most probably preserves an independent pagan testimony to the existence of an historical Jesus.
Unfortunately, his argument is far from secure. The alternative view that Tacitus’ information was ultimately based on what Christians said is just as convincing.
Let us review why:
(1) Did Tacitus get his information from contemporary Romans?Appendix 1
It is quite possible and probable that Tacitus got his information about Christianity from a fellow Roman senator, such as Pliny the Younger, who dealt with Christians while governor of Bithynia-Pontus in 110 AD. Pliny’s letter to the Emperor Trajan on Christians and the emperor’s reply can be read here.
Immediately, one can ask: when a Roman like Pliny encountered Christians where did he get his information on what they believed?
The answer: in Pliny’s own words, by interrogating and even torturing Christians themselves:“Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.So we see here that an elite Roman like Tacitus could easily get information on Christians from fellow Romans who had themselves obtained that information from Christians.
Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.”
It is entirely convincing that Tacitus would have accepted as reliable and credible what his fellow Romans told him about Christians and even the origin of their religion, even if this information ultimately had come from the Christians themselves.
(2) Did Tacitus get his information from official archives?
This is unlikely. The two major relevant public records in Rome were:(1) the acts of the senate (acta senatus), andHowever, as a senator Tacitus only had open access to the “acts of the senate,” and it is highly unlikely that the “acts of the senate” recorded information about foreign affairs in a province like Judaea because Judaea was under the emperor’s direct control as an “imperial” province (Voorst 2000: 50). Any reports from a governor of Judaea to Rome would have been sent directly to the emperor and then kept in the imperial archives.
(2) the imperial archives (commentarii principis).
But the imperial archives were not even “public” in the modern sense, but more like the private records of the emperors. Tacitus in his other work the Histories 4.40 tells us explicitly that the senate itself had to request special permission to consult documents from the imperial archives, and it is unclear whether they were even given permission.
So the imperial archives were not normally open to individual senators or even to the senate as an official body. And why, given the difficulty of accessing them, would Tacitus have even bothered to consult the imperial archive on the origins of some obscure sect anyway?
For Tacitus a respectable and acceptable “reliable” source would have been (1) a fellow knowledgeable Roman from his own era (as we have seen above), or (2) an earlier written history or source.
(2) Did Tacitus get his information from an earlier written Greek or Roman historian or source?
That is not only possible but also probable, and it has long been suggested that Tacitus used the earlier Roman historians Fabius Rusticus, Cluvius Rufus, and Pliny the Elder (Hornblower and Spawforth 2003: 1427), who may well have discussed the origin of Christianity in their accounts of the Great Fire and the persecution that followed it.
But even here the use of these earlier authors is no solid proof that Tacitus’ own source obtained the information independently of Christian tradition! They may well have got their information from Christians or what was generally said about Christians. In the latter case, this would probably ultimately stem from Christians themselves.
Perhaps the tradition came independently from Jewish sources or Roman sources, but the argument that Tacitus most probably preserves independent information on Jesus is hardly secure.
(3) Did Tacitus consult Josephus about Jesus?
There is evidence that Tacitus published his work the Annals by c. 118–121 AD. He would have written this work in the years before c.118–121, but hardly more than 10 years, if even that.
But Josephus’ death is dated from c. 95 to c. 105: therefore it is likely that Josephus died well before Tacitus was writing the Annales, so the suggestion that Tacitus consulted Josephus about Jesus is not very probable, on the current evidence.
Is the reference to Christ in Tacitus’s Annales an interpolation?
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 so if it is an interpolation, then the interpolation must have been done before c. 1150.
If the whole passage is an interpolation (including the information on the fire), then why would a Christian write such negative and insulting things about his own religion? (Tacitus is highly derogatory in his comments on the Christians). That is a serious problem for anyone who would argue that whole passage is an interpolation.
Alternatively, the passage on the fire and the Christians is probably the genuine work of Tacitus, but the short sentence on Christ could be an interpolation.
If one really wants to argue in favour of such a shorter interpolation, perhaps there are three possibilities:
(1) An ancient Christian scribe long before the 12th century interpolated the sentence on Christ.BIBLIOGRAPHY
(2) A pre-1150 medieval Christian scribe interpolated the sentence.
(3) I suppose it is also possible that humanist Renaissance scholars altered the text of M2, but that seems highly unlikely 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 Roman people referred to the Christians, and it was an inaccurate spelling or pronunciation, which Tacitus corrects by his curious phrase auctor nominis eius Christus (Voorst 2000: 43-44).
Hornblower, Simon and Antony Spawforth (eds.). 2003. The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd rev. edn.). Oxford University Press, Oxford.
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.