A Secunda Facie Analysis of Tacitus on Jesus and as a Historian

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.

10 Responses

  1. Speaking as an amateur, I find the approach original and insightful. Nevertheless, my impression is that there are enough other reasons to disregard the story of Nero’s fire and martyrs of it. While Pliny the Elder and Suetonius do in fact mention the fire, Tacitus is alone in claiming that Nero blamed the Christians. Josephus was in Rome when the fire occurred (see Life 3), and yet he fails to mention the fire. If there were any Christians in the first century, they would surely have been thought of as Jews. This makes Josephus’ silence on this point rather striking. As pointed out in several studies, Tacitus’ account is not mentioned by other writers until Severus Sulpicius referred to it in about A.D. 400. Eusebius’ history, recording the ordeals of 146 martyrs, makes no mention of the fire. The Christian apocrypha, too, are silent. Augustine authored a list of calamities that befell Rome before the Christian era, but the fire is not mentioned. As stated by Gerard Walter (Nero, p. 174), “of all the Christian authors who wrote before and after Tacitus up to the year 1000, Severus Sulpicius is the only one to make use of the version implicating Nero, and, if we admit the authenticity of the passage of the Annals, we have to find some explanation for the ‘conspiracy of silence’ which surrounded it during the first ten centuries of the life of the Church.”

    According to Prof. Darrell J. Doughty (1936-2009), the description of the tortures suffered by the “Christians” resembles what we find in Christian martyr legends. While rejecting the mockery and the execution by crucifixion as a Christian motif, he writes that the portrayal of Nero in the gardens driving his chariot may be original, and suggests that the original version may have been something like the following:

    “Therefore, to put an end to the rumor Nero created a diversion and subjected to the most extra-ordinary tortures those hated for their abominations by the common people. Nero had thrown open the 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 drove about in a chariot. Hence, even for crimnals who deserved extreme and examplary punishment there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being punished.”

  2. I’m not quite sure what it is you’re arguing? If your point is that the rumor, while authentic, is dubious for the reasons you list, I would say you’re right to be suspicious; Tacitus is most probably citing rumor. But if you’re arguing that the passage is spurious because it is an interpolation, I have to say this is not a compelling argument.

    If you do seek to argue that the passage is interpolated, then your argument doesn’t hold much ground. First, I don’t think it is correct to say that Severus Sulpicius was the first to use this passage and, therefore, imply that it did not exist(?) before his use. Severus did not quote the passage, but paraphrases the events–though he probably did get them from Tacitus and, as a friend of Eusebius (who inherited Origen’s library), had access to Tacitus’ Annals–so it is unlikely that he interpolated the passage. Also, Nero as a persecutor of Christians is not only a long-standing Christian tradition that precedes Severus, but it exists in an apocryphal work known as the Acts of Paul, where Nero’s hatred for the Christians stems from the death of his pagan cupbearer who then is resurrected, converts to Christianity, and denounces Nero as a god. Nero is so infuriated at the course of the events that he starts to persecute Christianity. The Acts of Paul is widely (and arguably convincingly) accepted to be a second century Christian narrative and, as a result, not only establishes that Nero, as a Christian persecutor, precedes Severus by two centuries, but it also cements the fact that people in the second century—the same time Tacitus was writing—believed that Nero persecuted Christians. Tacitus might have been the first to link the fire in Rome with Neronian persecutions, but it would not have been much of a stretch for him to make.

    You might argue that, perhaps, it was an accidental interpolation, but that doesn’t hold either. The fact that Severus doesn’t cite Tacitus directly as the source also means that it is unlikely that it was accidentally interpolated into Tacitus by some means of a marginal note left by a copier (an event that happened quite frequently in antiquity), which stands as the most common type of interpolation via copy-error. If it were an accidental interpolation, such as one caused by a marginal note, what you would see would be a clear, long trend of events: (a) Severus cites Tacitus and explains the events of the fire and Christian persecution, (b) a scribe who is copying both Severus and Tacitus reads the passage in one and includes, in a marginal note, the rendering of Severus as a means to better explain the passage in Tacitus’ Annals and, (c) a later copier, thinking the scribe he is copying from (who left the marginal note) wanted to include the passage, adds it to his copy—which is then continually copied thereafter with the marginal note existing from then on as a part of the text. But this isn’t what we see at all.

    Now Tacitus might very well be wrong about his conclusion that Nero blamed the Christians and, granted, his sources would also be wrong–but that doesn’t mean the passage is interpolated. All it means is that Tacitus didn’t check his facts, but that can already be proven and most scholars familiar with ancient historiography understand that to be common of most (if not all) ancient historians.

  3. Thanks for replying in such detail. A couple of comments:

    (1) There is no mention of a fire in the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Peter, or the Acts of Peter and Paul. In these writings, Nero is satisfied with killing Peter and Paul, and refrains from persecuting the rest of the Christians. The crime of the two apostles is related not to pyromania, but to promoting chastity and leading the wives and lovers of distinguished men, including Nero, astray.

    (2) The demonization of the Nero figure can be traced to Jewish sources. As stated in the Jewish Encyclopaedia (1906), “Nero–the vilest wretch that ever mounted a throne–filled the ideal of wickedness sufficiently to be considered the worthy leader of the heathen. The Jewish Sibyl, writing about the year 80, tells the story that Nero was at that time in concealment in the land of the Parthians, where he would remain for decades, returning thence to stir up a universal war (IV Sibyl. 119-150 …). More of the demoniac character of Antichrist, and more, therefore, of the original conception concerning him as being either Satan or one of Satan’s tools, is reflected in the reference to Nero in the fifth Sibylline … But the complete metamorphosis of Nero into a devil–wherein he is no longer the representative of Rome, but the incarnation of the Evil One–is first to be found in a Jewish Sibyl of about 120-125 (V Sibyl. 28-34)…” Christian writers simply inherited from Jewish writers the notion of Nero as a monster.

    (3) It is true that Eusebius dwelt at Caesarea where Origen’s library was preserved. But this is a weak argument. Origen writes (Contra Celsum III, 8), “In order to strengthen the faith of the pusillanimous and to teach them to brave death, a few martyrs from time to time offered them the example of their consistency.” Nero is not mentioned at all. This is an indication that Origen was unfamiliar with the celebrated passage.

    (4) I think Prof. Doughty was correct in arguing that the passage contains Christian interpolations. The earliest known manuscript of Tacitus dates from the eleventh century. Hence, as pointed out by Gerard Walter (Nero, p. 174), it cannot be determined whether Severus Sulpicius borrowed his text from a contemporary copy of the Annals, or whether a later copyist interpolated the passage into Tacitus after the publication of the Sacred History. The reason for being sceptical in the first place is, as Gibbon pointed out, that Christians could not have been identified as a group distinct from Jews at so early a date. It is often ignored that for at least two centuries (until approximately A.D. 200) and effectively well into a third, there is no extant material (apart from literary) evidence of Christianity as a distinct socio-religious phenomenon.

  4. Thanks for keeping the dialogue going; I’ll reply point by point.

    (1) I never said that the Acts of Paul suggested that they were persecuted for starting the fire; in fact you missed my point (and, as a result, you’re talking past me). The purpose of bringing up the Acts of Paul is to show that the concept of Nero as a persecutor of Christians (Peter and Paul are still Christians) had existed in the minds of other Christians (those who wrote and read these apocryphal works) since at least the turn of the second century Common Era. Tacitus might have very well have forged the truth of the fire’s blame by suggesting Nero pointed his finger at the Christians, but that doesn’t mean the passage was interpolated. It is far more likely given the evidence that Tacitus just didn’t fact-check his information, made up the story to explain the common rumor that Nero hated the Christians. He has presumed things before and claimed them as fact (see my evidences, v.s.); you’re making an a priori case based on silence alone and it’s not even a valid argument from silence. It’s simply not good enough to establish a condition for interpolation.

    (2) It is odd that you suggest that the demonization comes from Jewish sources, as if you can establish a single line of evidence. This is quite bizarre as many people hated Nero and simply because you can site Sibyl as an earlier source than the Acts of Paul does not mean Christians got the idea to hate Nero from Jewish literature; they had reason to hate Nero too. You’re not going to suggest that the Romans hated Nero because of Jewish literature, too, are you? The truth is quite contrary to your position here; intertextuality is not a straight line, per se, its a forest with lots of trees; each tree has its own branches and leaves and energy–its own life force—which all stem from the same soil (human language), but they are different entities and narrowing down which roots belong to which tree is not always easy as many are buried too far below the surface for us to ever discover. We can only see the roots that penetrate the surface and we can only speculate from which tree they come; some we can be more certain of than others, but to say with certainty is a stretch of imagination. Certainty is a luxury the historian must do without.

    (3) Once again you’re making an a priori case based on an unsubstantiated and weak argument from silence; historians are constantly frustrated by the lack of mention of many events in history known to have happened, even those corroborated by archaeological evidence, by contemporary or later ancient historians. It is part of the ancient genre of historiography, largely based on motive and personal agendas, all varying from each other. There was no reason to systematically record everything and what was left out could have been left out for a very important reason, especially in times of turmoil where Christianity was trying to gain favor with Rome. Attacking its emperors, even hated ones, would not have been all too wise when Christians were being thrown to the lions (quite literally). You claim that the lack of mention of the fire and Nero in Origen’s account of the persecutions is an indication he didn’t know of it; you’ll be hardpressed to prove that claim. What percentage of probability would you apply to this in order to show it’s a valid (probabilistic) indication? Analogous to your claim, it would be like saying that more than half of the archaeologically-substantiated towns and small poleis that existed in Palestine didn’t really exist because Josephus didn’t mention them in his histories—even the ones which were quite near by to where he was born and raised, where he might have every opportunity to mention them but doesn’t. Just because an account does not arise in a history from antiquity does not mean it should automatically imply that the author did not know of it; he might have reasons for not discussing it; we have case after case of this happening in antiquity from all sorts of historians and we cannot be so brash to create faux arguments from silence because of it. We should always err on the side of caution.

    (4) There is a reason why the majority of interpolations we have that have been discovered in secular manuscripts are considered accidental. It is much easier to simply stop copying a manuscript (hence, it will be destroyed by time and disappear all together—which is why we have so few ancient histories extant, they were ignored) than to spend money to interpolate a document; it was a costly waste of materials when just letting it disintegrate with time or destroying it all together was better suited. You can’t base an entire case on a priori assumptions. To back up my point, we are extremely lucky to have the manuscripts of Tacitus that we do (as only two monasteries alone copied the manuscripts and each only half—and by coincidence they happened to be different halves as opposed to both copying the same half); however, conveniently it would seem for Christians, we are missing the years 29-31 CE; to further back up the point I’m trying to make, besides this long three-year gap, other gaps exist in Tacitus’ Annals and, as it goes, gaps exist in a great deal of secular literature that Christian scribes simply chose to not copy and, thus, through neglect and lack of copying (manuscripts were fragile and if not recopied often, the manuscript would disintegrate), they no longer exist for us. Much of what we have from antiquity is fragmentary precisely for this reason and why we have so much Christian literature (because Christian scribes, for over a thousand years, devoted much more time to recopying their works rather than secular literature). So why go through all the trouble of interpolating one minor fragmentary verse into Tacitus when all they really had to do was omit that selection entirely? It makes no sense what so ever.

  5. Thanks very much for taking the time to elaborate your views. While I do recognize the validity of your arguments, it is the overall picture I find disturbing. Why would Tacitus want to suggest that a nascent “Christianity” immediately faced persecution from a cruel and bloodthirsty pagan Rome? I smell ideology.

    You wrote, “Tacitus might very well have forged the truth of the fire’s blame by suggesting Nero pointed his finger at the Christians.” If so, Tacitus, who died in A.D. 117, would have been one of the first known writers to use the term “Christians/Chrestians.” The term appears in Acts 11:26 and 26:28, but according to Joseph B. Tyson, Plutarch’s influence on the author of Acts “is more credible if we date Acts after ca. 115 C.E., since it is probable that [Plutarch’s Parallel Lives] was not published before that date.” 1 Peter 4:16 uses the term, but Robert M. Price and other scholars place 1 Peter after Marcion, that is, after 130.

    You wrote, “The purpose of bringing up the Acts of Paul is to show that the concept of Nero as a persecutor of Christians … had existed in the minds of other Christians … since at least the turn of the second century Common Era.” The martyrdom of Peter and Paul is often mentioned in one breath with the “persecution under Nero.” But the justification for doing so should be carefully considered. Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 2. 25) says nothing about a persecution against Christians in general. The same is true for 1 Clement, the earliest “evidence” for the martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome. Seneca’s Epistle to Paul, probably dating from the fifth century, does in fact mention Christians (and Jews) being “commonly executed as contrivers of the fire,” but at this late date the writer might very well have been familiar with Sulpicius’ Sacred History. The appropriate conclusion to draw is that while the second/third-century martyr cult of Peter and Paul is well documented (cf. the discovery of graffiti beneath the church of San Sebastiano in Rome), the same is not true for the “persecution under Nero.” We are speaking of two different things.

    You wrote, “intertextuality is not a straight line, per se, it’s a forest with lots of trees.” At this point I would quote Martin Hengel: “Christianity grew _entirely_ out of Jewish soil.” The Apocalypse provides us with a seamless fusion of Jewish and Christian motifs. So do the Sibylline Oracles, in which Nero possesses the attributes of the Antichrist. Jewish as well as Christian writings suggest that, at the end of the world, Belial, the Antichrist, will manifest himself as the incarnation of the dead Nero. Sulpicius Severus’ perception of Nero is shaped by the Apocalypse. He held that because Nero had been the first to persecute the Christians, so he would be the last. As foretold in the Apocalypse, Nero would return at the end of the world to work out the mystery of iniquity (Sacred History II, 28-29). Arguably, there is a continuous line from the Sibylline Oracles to Sulpicius Severus. Nero is not only seen as a historical figure but an eschatological one.

    Please allow me to post a link to Prof. Doughty’s website, which addresses a number of other difficulties:


    Thanks once again for sharing all this. Your blog is always a pleasure to read.

  6. I believe we continue to talk past each other; it seems all we really disagree upon is the authenticity of the verse. On that, I’m sorry to say, I’m not convinced its Christian ideology in the shape of an interpolation.

    Some minor things: Tacitus was not the only person to use the designation ‘Christian’ in the early second century; Pliny also did, and around the same time. There are numerous apocryphal works which use the term around the second century and it also appears in inscriptions, as well as 1 Peter which, as it goes, was written c. the time Tacitus and Pliny were calling Christians ‘Christians.’ Suetonius also makes mention of the fire and the incident where Nero blamed it on the Christians in Nero 16.2, of his Lives of the Caesars (and he uses the term ‘Christian’ as well, by the way).

    I think this actually strengthens my argument for Pliny being the originator of Tacitus’ understanding of Christians, the fire, and Christ, as both Tacitus and Suetonius were also friends, and all three corresponded with each. It seems likely then the verse is authentic after all; lets face it, if all three are talking to each other and each of what they say corresponds to the rest, that is a pretty decent case for causation to prove correlation. Its not air-tight, but then again, what is from history? We can only go on probability and it seems more likely the verse is authentic than an interpolation.

    On the rest, I quite nearly agree almost entirely.

  7. While interesting, yet this article seems to ignore or avoid the pivotal aspect of this Tacitus’ quote: that of his statement that “Christus” had been put to death by “Pilatus” in Judea. That Tacitus, a historian regardless his bias, states this strongly implies that he is stating Roman recorded history to which he is referring in his bias-based examination of Christianity in his time.

    The Romans, being the empire that they were and a well-recorded one, kept records. Tacitus as both a senator and a historian in his own right, had better access than almost anyone else in the Roman Empire to such records given his high social and political status in both government and as an historian. Thus, despite bias, to assume that Tacitus would state that “Christus” had been officially executed in Judea by its Roman governor/procurator, Pilatus, he would not have been quoting mere rumor when he would have had the very records of Rome that recorded such at his disposal.

    Thus… the fact that Tacitus states this as an historical event in Roman history strongly if not indisputably implies that Tacitus did so having verified this Roman act by Pilate (Pilatus) using the Roman records that recorded it.

  8. It takes serious skill to read an entire blog post and completely miss the point. Way to create an argument which not only was directly raised and addressed in the blog post while pretending as if you hadn’t read it. Kudos. Unless, of course, you didn’t bother to read it, which to me seems to be likely.

  9. Off topic a bit, I think it’s odd that people think that records were easy to get in the Roman Empire. I mean they were organized, but how easy was it really to get court transcripts for 50 year old trials in war ravaged provinces? And just how diligent are these historians really? His information on Christ may have been nothing more that scuttlebutt from around town.

  10. […] the Jewish exodus from Egypt which, as many scholars now agree, never happened historically.  And we actually know which sources he was using and what his sources were probably using as their sources–this is actually Tacitus using […]

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