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Publius Cornelius Tacitus, also Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, generally just Tacitus, (ca. 55 - 117 CE) was a Roman historian and senator. Tacitus gives a brief mention of a "Chrestus" in his Annals, which Christians have interpreted as authoritative proof that a divine Jesus existed. He was also good friends with Pliny the Younger, with whom he exchanged many a letter.
He gives a brief mention of a "Chrstus" in his Annals (Book XV, Sec. 44), which he wrote around 109 CE. He gives no source for his material. He says:
“”Nero looked around for a scapegoat, and inflicted the most fiendish tortures on a group of persons already hated for their crimes. This was the sect known as Chrestians. Their founder, one Chrstus had been put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. This checked the abominable superstition for a while, but it broke out again and spread, not merely through Judea, where it originated, but even to Rome itself, the great reservoir and collecting ground for every kind of depravity and filth. Those who confessed to being Christians were at once arrested, but on their testimony a great crowd of people were convicted, not so much on the charge of arson, but of hatred of the entire human race.
Even assuming the passage is totally genuine, two fires had destroyed much in the way of official documents Tacitus had to work with and it is unlikely that he would sift through what he did have to find the record of an obscure crucifixion which suggests that Tacitus was repeating an urban myth whose source was likely the Christians themselves,:344 especially since Tacitus was writing at a time when at least the three synoptic gospels were are thought to already be in circulation.
However, there is much to question the validity of the passage. There is no other historical confirmation that Nero persecuted Christians for the burning of Rome...not even in Christian works after Tacitus such as The apocryphal Acts of Paul (c. 160 CE) which has Nero burning Christians to death around the death of Paul (i.e., 67 CE) because Nero has seen some guy named Patroclus who had supposedly died and was told that Christ Jesus would "overthrow all kingdoms" and this man was now a solder in Jesus' army (so the Christians themselves have Nero reacting to a possible attempt at overthrowing his government) and "The Acts of Peter" (late 2nd century CE) which claims Nero considered to "destroy all those brethren who had been made disciples by Peter" but had a dream after Peter's death (either 64 or 67 CE) which said 'you cannot now persecute or destroy the servants of Christ.' and a frightened Nero 'kept away from the disciples . . . and thereafter the brethren kept together with one accord . . .'.
In fact, it isn't until Sulpicius Severus c. 400 CE that the Christians themselves start writing about Nero persecuting them for the burning of Rome. Moreover, Josephus and Pliny the Elder who were both in Rome in 64 CE don't mention Christians at all which would be highly unlikely if Nero was trying to blame them for the fire. Furthermore, Seneca the Younger's lost On Superstition didn't even mention Christianity according to Augustine in the 4th century.
So not only do non-Christians who were in Rome at the time not notice Nero's persecution of Christians for the burning of Rome, but the Christians themselves appear to be unaware of it as well and instead give two wildly contradictory accounts — either Nero killed Christians with Paul some three years after the fire because he was told this cult would "overthrow all kingdoms" by one of their members, or he had a dream resulting in him leaving them alone which could have been as early as 64...the year of the fire. The passage is therefore highly suspect and adds virtually no evidence even for early Christianity. In fact, Richard Carrier in his 2014 "The Prospect of a Christian Interpolation in Tacitus, Annals 15.44" Vigiliae Christianae, Volume 68, Issue 3, pages 264 – 283 (an earlier and more detailed version appears in Hitler Homer Bible Christ) shows strong evidence that the passage is an interpolation. And if that wasn't enough we have proof that the earliest extant copy of Tacitus has been tampered with.
Further compounding matters is "it is questionable if a non-Christian historian would refer to this person as Christ rather than the more secular Jesus of Nazareth. A Christian scribe, however, would have no issue in calling him Christ" as well as the fact neither Origen or Terullian who quote Tacitus use this passage.
Even Remsburg who in 1909 felt there was enough to support the existence of a historical Jesus said "This passage, accepted as authentic by many, must be declared doubtful, if not spurious, for the following reasons:
1. It is not quoted by the Christian fathers.
2. Tertullian was familiar with the writings of Tacitus, and his arguments demanded the citation of this evidence had it existed.
3. Clement of Alexandria, at the beginning of the third century, made a compilation of all the recognitions of Christ and Christianity that had been made by Pagan writers up to his time. The writings of Tacitus furnished no recognition of them.
4. Origen, in his controversy with Celsus, would undoubtedly have used it had it existed.
5. The ecclesiastical historian Eusebius, in the fourth century, cites all the evidences of Christianity obtainable from Jewish and Pagan sources, but makes no mention of Tacitus.
6. It is not quoted by any Christian writer prior to the fifteenth century.
7. At this time but one copy of the Annals existed and this copy, it is claimed, was made in the eighth century -- 600 years after the time of Tacitus.
8. As this single copy was in the possession of a Christian the insertion of a forgery was easy.
9. Its severe criticisms of Christianity do not necessarily disprove its Christian origin. No ancient witness was more desirable than Tacitus, but his introduction at so late a period would make rejection certain unless Christian forgery could be made to appear improbable.
10. It is admitted by Christian writers that the works of Tacitus have not been preserved with any considerable degree of fidelity. In the writings ascribed to him are believed to be some of the writings of Quintilian.
11. The blood-curdling story about the frightful orgies of Nero reads like some Christian romance of the dark ages, and not like Tacitus.
12. In fact, this story, in nearly the same words, omitting the reference to Christ, is to be found in the writings of Sulpicius Severus, a Christian of the fifth century.
13. Suetonius, while mercilessly condemning the reign of Nero, says that in his public entertainments he took particular care that no human lives should be sacrificed, "not even those of condemned criminals."
14. At the time that the conflagration occurred, Tacitus himself declares that Nero was not in Rome, but at Antium.
Many who accept the authenticity of this section of the "Annals" believe that the sentence which declares that Christ was punished in the reign of Pontius Pilate, and which I have italicized, is an interpolation."
It should be mentioned that there is a problem with the translation of this passage as well; the word "Chrstus" is often rendered "Christus" (Christ) but in reality there is no vowel between the 'r' and 's' to show if is indeed Christos instead of Chrestos or something else instead. In fact, on occasion "Chrstus" has been rendered Chrestos a variant reading found as far back as 1874: "Tacitus (a.d. 110) also says "Chrestus, the founder of that name (the Christian), was put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, in the reign of Tiberius." with 2009 being the latest:Tacitus identified him as “Chrestus”...
Raphael Lataster in his "Questioning the Plausibility of Jesus Ahistoricity Theories—A Brief Pseudo-Bayesian Metacritique of the Sources" paper in Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies points out there are several problems with the passage:
- "It is questionable if a non-Christian historian would refer to this person as Christ rather than the more secular Jesus of Nazareth."
- "Though Annals covers the period of Rome’s history from around 14 CE to 66 CE, no other mention is made of Jesus Christ.
- "This passage is also ignored by early Christian apologists such as Origen and Tertullian, who actually quote Tacitus in the 3rd century."
The surviving copies of Tacitus' works derive from two principal manuscripts, known as the Medicean manuscripts, which are held in the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy, and written in Latin. The second Medicean manuscript is the oldest surviving copy of the passage describing "Christians." In this manuscript, the first 'i' of the Christianos is quite distinct in appearance from the second, looking somewhat smudged, and lacking the long tail of the second 'i'; additionally, there is a large gap between the first 'i' and the subsequent 'long s'. Latin scholar Georg Andresen was one of the first to comment on the appearance of the first 'i' and subsequent gap, suggesting in 1902 that the text had been altered, and an 'e' had originally been in the text, rather than this 'i'.
In 1950, at historian Harald Fuchs' request, Dr. Teresa Lodi, the director of the Laurentian Library, examined the features of this item of the manuscript; she concluded that there are still signs of an 'e' being erased, by removal of the upper and lower horizontal portions, and distortion of the remainder into an 'i'. In 2008, Dr. Ida Giovanna Rao, the new head of the Laurentian Library's manuscript office, repeated Lodi's study, and concluded that it is likely that the 'i' is a correction of some earlier character (like an e), the change being made an extremely subtle one. Later the same year, it was discovered that under ultraviolet light, an 'e' is clearly visible in the space, meaning that the passage must originally have referred to chrestianos, a Latinized Greek word which could be interpreted as the good, after the Greek word χρηστός (chrestos), meaning "good, useful", rather than strictly a follower of "Christ".
Other evidence of tampering exists regarding the removal of the entire Annals section covering 29-31 CE; “That the cut is so precise and covers precisely those two years is too improbable to posit as a chance coincidence.”:303
Also it has been noted there is a strange temporal jump in this part of the Annals in that it goes back from the time of Nero to the time of Tiberius and returns back to Nero again. As noted "Tacitus would have had to explain more about the suppression of the new superstition if it died out in the 30’s and started again in Rome around in the 60’s. (The Fire was in 64). If the outbreak of the superstition happened in the time of Nero, as Josephus reports, there would be no need to explain what happened." Based on this temporal jumping it has been suggested that the Tacitus passage originally said:
“”Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite punishments on a class hated for their disgraceful acts, called Chrestians by the populace. Chrestus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty (i.e., Crucifixion) during the reign of Nero at the hands of one of our procurators, Porcius Festus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.
Given that our oldest copy is from the 11th century and not a single person knew of this passage before it was referenced in the 14th century there is no way to prove the Christians copyists didn't tinker with it and plenty to suggest they did.
Tacitus also wrote the Germania and the Agricola, which are invaluable pieces of ancient ethnography, and some of the few sources we have about the lives of the Germans and Britons in the second century. The Germania is one of the classical sources of the noble savage myth, since Tacitus repeatedly praises the Germans for their morality, and holds them superior to his Roman contemporaries in personal virtue.
Tacitus was born around 55 CE, or 22 years after the supposed crucifixion.
- Evidence for the historical existence of Jesus Christ
- See the Wikipedia article on Tacitus.
- See the Wikipedia article on Tacitus on Christ.
- Works of Tacitus in Latin and English on Wikisource
- With a hard "c". Takitus.
- Hupperts, Charles A. M.; Jans, Elly (2014) (in Dutch). Een tijdsbeeld in brieven: Brieven van Cicero en Plinius. Leeuwarden: Eisma Edumedia. pp. 89-100, 146-153. ISBN 9789087717629.
- Carrier, Richard (2014). On the Historicity of Jesus. Sheffield: Phoenix Press. ISBN 9781909697492.
- Carrier, Richard (2014) "The Prospect of a Christian Interpolation in Tacitus, Annals 15.44" Vigiliae Christianae, Volume 68, Issue 3, pages 264 – 283
- The Life Of Flavius Josephus 3
- Lataster, Raphael (Spring 2015). "Questioning the Plausibility of Jesus Ahistoricity Teories—A Brief Pseudo-Bayesian Metacritique of the Sources". Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 6 (1): 63-95.
- Proof Tacitus Manuscript was Altered
- Stevenson, T. M.. The natural or the supernatural?. p. 41.
- Köstenberger, Andreas J. (2009). The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown. p. 110.
- Raskin, Jay (4 April 2011). "Who Was Chrestus and Who Killed Him?".