This analysis serves as a second glance; the first glance seems to have produced the position that Tacitus offers evidence of a historical Jesus. As such, this second glance will investigate the nature of the data, the state of the evidence, the reliability of the claim that Tacitus is reliable, and whether it can be said with any high probability that he stands as a witness to a historical tradition of a historical Jesus or if he is simply restating popular rumor or opinion from his own time. Because of the complex nature of this discussion, I’ll attempt to simplify it the best I can and keep this discussion limited to lengthened bullet-points. (Also, to all of those who think Tacitus’ account is a forgery, it probably isn’t; so get over it.)
(a) Tacitus is writing c. 112 CE. This is probably the most important part of the discussion: this cannot be forgotten. Tacitus was not a witness to anything he said about Christians, Jesus, or the fire in Rome. He pulled his information from somewhere and this analysis will determine what his likely source was and what it probably wasn’t.
(b) The second fact that must be recalled is that Tacitus is not a reputable representation of things he finds superstitious and nonsensical. Consulting any modern encyclopedia on antiquity for the article on Tacitus and ancient historians (in general) will be helpful to those who wish to validate this position; also see Michael Grant’s Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation (1995). You cannot, should not, put trust in the words of any historian or documentarian from antiquity without first putting it through a healthy dose of skeptical inquiry. You should never blatantly accept what you read, even if you cite it for something; caution must always be used. Historians from antiquity were almost always under the influence of outside sources—the politics of their period, their families, friends, other politicians (be it from a tyrant, the Senate, or an Emperor), the populace, and, most certainly, rumor.
(c) Tacitus could have very well (and most probably did) receive his information on Christians from his good friend Pliny the Younger.
(1) Tacitus is recounting events from 40 years prior, he is writing his works, the Annals, in c. 110’s CE. He is no longer in Rome when he is writing these down, but probably in Asia, where he was proconsul from c. 112-113. Pliny at this time was the Emperors’ legatus Augusti in Bithynia-Pontus, which is in Asia Minor and, how about that, right next door to Tacitus. This is the period in which Pliny executed Christians and wrote to Trajan to confirm he had done the right thing. I have no doubt that he would have also consulted his good friend Tacitus and, probably, even Suetonius, who was also his good friend. It is interesting also that Suetonius does not mention this event occurring in Rome, but Tacitus does, even if merely as a digression. He goes on about the superstition of the religion and does not explain the horrible abominations (flagitia invisos) he claims that the Christians committed, the reason he gives for the hatred directed towards them by Rome.
(2) There is more reason to accept this conclusion than there is that he was getting his information from records, especially since he often cites his sources when he pulls them from the records elsewhere in his Annals. He calls Christianity a “destructive superstition” (exitiabilis superstitio) which is exactly the thing that Pliny calls it in his letter to Trajan. (Pliny calls it a superstition twice, in one instance he calls it a superstitionem pravam—a depraved superstition—and also a superstitionis istius contagio, or a contagious superstition.) This meets one criterion for reworking or borrowing, specifically in interpretability. Also, both Tacitus and Pliny recount the leader as ‘Christ’ instead of ‘Jesus’, indicating another link between the two. The only difference between Pliny’s account and Tacitus’ account is that in Pliny’s letter to Trajan, he never mentions that Jesus lived under the reign of Tiberius, nor was he penalized by Pilate, and Tacitus specifically suggests (oddly) that the populace calls them Christians after their leader, which suggests that Tacitus got this additional information from the population and not records (vulgus Christianos appellabat auctor nominis eius Christus).
(3) That neither Tacitus, nor Pliny, seem to know of the name Jesus, there is reason to believe that they are recounting kerygmatic perspectives from Christians during their period and not various official records and statements. More on this below.
(d) Christianity existed not as a unified orthodoxy, but as a segmented and diverse group of Jews, Gentiles, and combinations of assimilation/acculturalization thereof. Assuming Tacitus did receive his information from an actual written source (that wasn’t Christian in origin), as will be established below, he would probably not have fact-checked it and would not have bothered to check it against other sects of Christianity at the time. So his accounting of this Christus, in the fashion he is often quoted, is representative of the trend of kerygmatic thought of the period which he was writing in and only of one slither of that kerygmatic thought. It would not, nor could it, encompass every part of the ebb and flow of Christianity during his life time, let alone what occurred decades earlier when he was not even present at the event!
(e) The elephant in the room is the assumption that Tacitus is reliable in reporting his information on Christian history. It’s common to assume, for example, that Tacitus drew his material from actual sources which, also, are assumed to have been reliable (as if he drew it from some obscure, now nonextant, court record). So we must now determine if he is actually as studious towards fact-checking as it is suggested. In his Historiae, Tacitus writes a discourse on the origins of the Jews (5.2-5). He writes: [I apologize for the length of quoted material]
2. Some say that the Jews were fugitives from the island of Crete, who settled on the nearest coast of Africa about the time when Saturn was driven from his throne by the power of Jupiter. Evidence of this is sought in the name. There is a famous mountain in Crete called Ida; the neighboring tribe, the Idæi, came to be called Judæi by a barbarous lengthening of the national name. Others assert that in the reign of Isis the overflowing population of Egypt, led by Hierosolymus and Judas, discharged itself into the neighboring countries. Many, again, say that they were a race of Ethiopian origin, who in the time of king Cepheus were driven by fear and hatred of their neighbors to seek a new dwelling-place. Others describe them as an Assyrian horde who, not having sufficient territory, took possession of part of Egypt, and founded cities of their own in what is called the Hebrew country, lying on the borders of Syria. Others, again, assign a very distinguished origin to the Jews, alleging that they were the Solymi, a nation celebrated in the poems of Homer, who called the city which they founded Hierosolyma after their own name.
3. Most writers, however, agree in stating that once a disease, which horribly disfigured the body, broke out over Egypt; that king Bocchoris, seeking a remedy, consulted the oracle of Hammon, and was bidden to cleanse his realm, and to convey into some foreign land this race detested by the gods. The people, who had been collected after diligent search, finding themselves left in a desert, sat for the most part in a stupor of grief, till one of the exiles, Moyses by name, warned them not to look for any relief from God or man, forsaken as they were of both, but to trust to themselves, taking for their heaven-sent leader that man who should first help them to be quit of their present misery. They agreed, and in utter ignorance began to advance at random. Nothing, however, distressed them so much as the scarcity of water, and they had sunk ready to perish in all directions over the plain, when a herd of wild asses was seen to retire from their pasture to a rock shaded by trees. Moyses followed them, and, guided by the appearance of a grassy spot, discovered an abundant spring of water. This furnished relief. After a continuous journey for six days, on the seventh they possessed themselves of a country, from which they expelled the inhabitants, and in which they founded a city and a temple.
4. Moyses, wishing to secure for the future his authority over the nation, gave them a novel form of worship, opposed to all that is practiced by other men. Things sacred with us, with them have no sanctity, while they allow what with us is forbidden. In their holy place they have consecrated an image of the animal by whose guidance they found deliverance from their long and thirsty wanderings. They slay the ram, seemingly in derision of Hammon, and they sacrifice the ox, because the Egyptians worship it as Apis. They abstain from swine’s flesh, in consideration of what they suffered when they were infected by the leprosy to which this animal is liable. By their frequent fasts they still bear witness to the long hunger of former days, and the Jewish bread, made without leaven, is retained as a memorial of their hurried seizure of corn. We are told that the rest of the seventh day was adopted, because this day brought with it a termination of their toils; after a while the charm of indolence beguiled them into giving up the seventh year also to inaction. But others say that it is an observance in honor of Saturn, either from the primitive elements of their faith having been transmitted from the Idæi, who are said to have shared the flight of that God, and to have founded the race, or from the circumstance that of the seven stars which rule the destinies of men Saturn moves in the highest orbit and with the mightiest power, and that many of the heavenly bodies complete their revolutions and courses in multiples of seven.
5. This worship, however introduced, is upheld by its antiquity; all their other customs, which are at once perverse and disgusting, owe their strength to their very badness. The most degraded out of other races, scorning their national beliefs, brought to them their contributions and presents. This augmented the wealth of the Jews, as also did the fact, that among themselves they are inflexibly honest and ever ready to shew compassion, though they regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies. They sit apart at meals, they sleep apart, and though, as a nation, they are singularly prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women; among themselves nothing is unlawful. Circumcision was adopted by them as a mark of difference from other men. Those who come over to their religion adopt the practice, and have this lesson first instilled into them, to despise all gods, to disown their country, and set at naught parents, children, and brethren. Still they provide for the increase of their numbers. It is a crime among them to kill any newly-born infant. They hold that the souls of all who perish in battle or by the hands of the executioner are immortal. Hence a passion for propagating their race and a contempt for death. They are wont to bury rather than to burn their dead, following in this the Egyptian custom; they bestow the same care on the dead, and they hold the same belief about the lower world. Quite different is their faith about things divine. The Egyptians worship many animals and images of monstrous form; the Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples. This flattery is not paid to their kings, nor this honor to our Emperors. From the fact, however, that their priests used to chant to the music of flutes and cymbals, and to wear garlands of ivy, and that a golden vine was found in the temple, some have thought that they worshipped Father Liber, the conqueror of the East, though their institutions do not by any means harmonize with the theory; for Liber established a festive and cheerful worship, while the Jewish religion is tasteless and mean.
Let us consider:
(1) Is Tacitus openly being unbias and impartial in his treatment of the Jews?
(a) No. Tacitus deliberately ignores the Jewish texts, the Exodus story in particular, which he would have had access to. He calls the Jewish worship “at once perverse and disgusting” and that they “owe their strength to their very badness.” This sort of contempt is similar to what Tacitus says about the Jews and Christians in his Annals, where he calls Judaea “the first source of the evil” and that the Christians are a part of all that is “hideous and shameful” which finds its way to Rome (Annals 15.44). Is Tacitus telling the truth when he writes: “unbiased as I am in this undertaking by any resentment, or any affection; all the influences of these personal passions being far from me…”? He is certainly not without resentment and personal passions in his discussion of Jews, nor of the Christians.
(2) Is Tacitus citing his sources?
(a) No. In this text, Tacitus does not tell us where he is getting his information about the Jews. He generally writes that “Some say” (insedisse memorant) or this information is shared by “many” (plerique). He does not recount documents. This is problematic because it is hard to determine if he is really drawing his source material from legitimate, official documentation, written hearsay, spoken rumor, or slanderous literature.
(3) Is his information indicative of fact or of rumor?
(a) The answer is rumor. Tacitus often inflects rumor instead of fact. For example, on his discussion about Moses, he refers to him as “Moyses” (similar to the incorrect designation of Christ to Christus) and then goes on to recite popular gossip about Jewish history and origins, particularly the ailment of the Jews, leprosy in this case, which caused the Egyptians to cast them out of Egypt. It is a common rumor meant to depict the Jews as a sickly and diseased exiles rather than triumphant or nomadic peoples. This is a common retelling of a rumor, which is shared by Pompeius Trogus (recounted by Justin, Philippic History 36.2.11-13), Lysimachus (preserved by Josephus, Against Apion 1.304-311), Diodorus Siculus (preserved by Photius, Bibliotheca, Diod. Sic. 34.1), and Apion (recounted by Josephus, Against Apion 2.2-3, cf. 2.2.10-12, 2.2.15-16), that the Jews were kicked out of Egypt due to some disease, generally considered to be leprosy. He recounts their hatred towards other people, much in the same manner that Diodorus does. (ibid.) In another instance, he writes of the origin of the name, and where they came from, also rumors and gossip which came from speculation, mainly in an attempt to historicize the legends and folklores of Jewish culture from both Egyptian and Jewish communities for a gentile community. And Tacitus’ odd reflection that the Jews were refugees from Crete raises several red flags about his desires to speak honestly about the past; this is something Tacitus would have known to be flawed and inaccurate, yet the fact that he recounts the story anyway is rather dubious.
(4) Does Question (3) indicate that Tacitus used accurate and appropriate sources?
(a) No. Although Tacitus did use sources, many times his sources are specious. If we put aside the real probability that Tacitus is receiving much of his information from friends and rumor and, for the sake of argument, admit that Tacitus used a source akin to the Acta Diurna which would be possible, he would still be recounting rumor and gossip. Often times the Acta Diurna were reflective of the politics, the current emperor and his views, and propaganda (see Richard Carrier’s excellent analysis of the value of the Acta Diurna in his Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed (2009), pp. 164-173). Indeed, Tacitus is more than aware of this, as he writes that even historians were to be held accountable for this sort of action, although he is (and will be held) accountable for this as well. The sources he might have used for the passage above would not bode well for him in this discussion, as many are themselves a product of their own devices; the authors seem to have cared little about the correct transmission of history and more about how that history is received. Tacitus has proven to be no different.
(5) Can more examples be given in Tacitus?
(a) Yes. Although Tacitus is less of a political animal than his contemporaries and predecessors, he is not separated from them. The evidence above is just one example of many that could be given.
(6) Is the passage, which stands as an aside to the historical event of the fire in Rome, about Christians and about Christ indicative of his discourse on the Jews?
(a) Indeed, it is. Tacitus’ passage on the Christians and their Christus is reminiscent of his discussion on the Jews, containing rumor, gossip, unchecked facts, biased opinions which are decidedly anti-Christian, and, perhaps most important, unlike the discussion of the Jews above, his Christian digression lacks source attestation; Tacitus does not say where he is deriving his information nor does he hint that he is drawing it from “what others have written” making it more likely that his source is more personal than professional.