Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (/ˈtæsɪtəs/ TASS-it-əs, Classical Latin: [ˈtakɪtʊs]; c. 56 – c. 120 AD) was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. Tacitus is considered to be one of the greatest Roman historians. He lived in what has been called the Silver Age of Latin literature, and is known for the brevity and compactness of his Latin prose, as well as for his penetrating insights into the psychology of power politics.
The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD). These two works span the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus, in 14 AD, to the years of the First Jewish–Roman War, in 70 AD. There are substantial lacunae in the surviving texts, including a gap in the Annals that is four books long. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacitus
The Annals (Latin: Annales) by the Roman historian and senator Tacitus is a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero, the years AD 14–68. The Annals are an important source for a modern understanding of the history of the Roman Empire during the 1st century AD; it is Tacitus’ final work, and modern historians generally consider it his greatest writing. Historian Ronald Mellor calls it “Tacitus’s crowning achievement,” which represents the “pinnacle of Roman historical writing”.
Tacitus’ Histories and Annals together amounted to 30 books; although some scholars disagree about which work to assign some books to, traditionally 14 are assigned to Histories and 16 to Annals. Of the 30 books referred to by Jerome, about half have survived.
Modern scholars believe that as a Roman senator, Tacitus had access to Acta Senatus—the Roman senate’s records—which provided a solid basis for his work. Although Tacitus refers to part of his work as “my annals”, the title of the work Annals used today was not assigned by Tacitus himself, but derives from its year-by-year structure. The name of the current manuscript seems to be “Books of History from the Death of the Divine Augustus” (Ab Excessu divi Augusti Historiarum Libri). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annals_(Tacitus)
Tacitus’ work entitled the “Annals” is of particular interest in that it actually references a man known as “Christus”, which means “Christ” or “anointed one.” See the entry below in Book 15, Chapter 44.
“Such indeed were the precautions of human wisdom. The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the fane and image of the goddess. And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women. But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his 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 stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed”.
That sure seems convincing on the surface but with diligent research and a perspective not based in theology, we come to troubling issues with this particular piece of evidence. For starters, Tacitus and Pliny – the Younger were friends and shared information with each other. More on Pliny here. The problem is that we know Pliny typically shared his information with Tacitus after he would request it, and then Tacitus would proceed to write down what was conveyed to him by Pliny. The problems with Pliny’s account can be found here.
An excellent takedown of this forgery can be read in scholar Dr. Richard Carrier’s book “On the Historicity of Jesus“. As well as the following information from RationalWiki that is clearly laid out and easy to follow:
He gives a brief mention of a “Christus” 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 are thought to already have been in circulation.
There is much to question the provenance and veracity of Annals 15.44. There is no other historical confirmation that Nero persecuted Christians for the burning of Rome. Josephus and Pliny the Elder – who were both in Rome in 64 CE – didn’t mention Christians at all, which seems unlikely if Nero had been blaming them for the fire. Seneca the Younger’s lost On Superstition also didn’t mention Christianity, according to Augustine in the 4th century. Furthermore, Neither Origen nor Tertullian use this passage despite referring to or citing Tacitus elsewhere.
Christian works in the three centuries after Tacitus do not mention that Nero persecuted Christians for the burning of Rome. The apocryphal Acts of Paul (c.160 CE), which has Nero burning Christians to death around the time of the death of Paul (i.e., 64 or 67 CE) because Nero had seen some guy named Patroclus who had supposedly died, and had been told this man was now a soldier in Jesus’ army seeking to “overthrow all kingdoms” (i.e., the authors of Acts of Paul have Nero reacting to a possible attempt at overthrowing his government). The Acts of Peter (late 2nd century CE) says Nero considered destroying “all those brethren who had been made disciples by Peter“, but was told in a dream after Peter’s death (either 64 or 67 CE) ‘you cannot now persecute or destroy the servants of Christ’, so a frightened Nero ‘kept away from the disciples … and thereafter the brethren kept together with one accord ..’
So, not only are there no contemporaneous accounts of Nero’s persecution of Christians for the burning of Rome, but early Christians themselves do not appear to be aware of it and give two wildly contradictory accounts — either Nero killed Christians along with Paul some three years after the fire because he was told this cult would “overthrow all kingdoms”; or he had a dream resulting in him leaving them alone, and that could have been as early as AD 64, the year of the fire.
It isn’t until Sulpicius Severus c. 400 CE that there is mention of Nero persecuting Christians for the burning of Rome (there are references to Nero persecuting or punishing Christians in works of Suetonius (Nero 16), Melito, Tertullian and Lactantius but not for the burning of Rome). A passage in Sulpicius’ Chronicle [of Sacred History] is ironically similar to Annals 15.44, but without the overt anti-Christian rhetoric. Arthur Drews proposed that, rather than Sulpicius Severus getting the information from Tacitus Annals, the Annals passage was doctored after Sulpicius Severus had written his Chronicle (it could have been done at the same time).
Further compounding matters is whether a non-Christian historian would refer to a sect founder as ‘Christ’ rather than a more secular name such as Jesus [of Nazareth]. A Christian scribe, however, would have no issue in calling him Christ. “The difference in pronunciation between Chrestus and Christus was very slight, and the latter, ‘the anointed one,’ “would mean nothing to a pagan Gentile”  The use of Christus (‘the anointed one,’) is at odds with the group of followers or supporters called Chrestianos/Chrestianoi (‘the good men’): it is a non sequitur.
Even Remsburg, who in 1909 felt there was enough to ‘support’ the existence of a historical Jesus, wrote:
This passage, accepted as authentic by many, must be declared doubtful, if not spurious, for the following reasons:
- It is not quoted by the Christian fathers.
- Tertullian was familiar with the writings of Tacitus, and his arguments demanded the citation of this evidence had it existed.
- 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.
- Origen, in his controversy with Celsus, would undoubtedly have used it had it existed.
- 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.
- It is not quoted by any Christian writer prior to the fifteenth century.
- 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.
- As this single copy was in the possession of a Christian the insertion of a forgery was easy.
- 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.
- 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.
- The blood-curdling story about the frightful orgies of Nero reads like some Christian romance of the dark ages, and not like Tacitus.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
Raphael Lataster has pointed out several other problems with the passage e.g., in a paper in Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies, titled “Questioning the Plausibility of Jesus Ahistoricity Theories—A Brief Pseudo-Bayesian Metacritique of the Sources”,
- “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.
- The book/s of Annals that refer to the time of Jesus of Nazareth -in the time of Tiberius- are missing so cannot provide corroboration.
The passage is therefore suspect as evidence for early Christianity. Richard Carrier, in a 2014 paper, “The Prospect of a Christian Interpolation in Tacitus, Annals 15.44” Vigiliae Christianae, Volume 68, Issue 3, pages 264 – 283, (and in an earlier, more-detailed version in Hitler Homer Bible Christ), outlined good evidence that the passage is an interpolation.
Furthermore, in the 1899 revised Reader’s Handbook by E. Cobham Brewer it is stated:
Annals of Tacitus (The). Said to be a forgery of Poggio Bracciolini, apostolic to eight popes (1381–1459). It is said that Cosmo de Medici agreed to pay him 500 gold sequins (about £160) for his trouble. We are further told that Poggio’s MS. is still in the library of Florence, and that it was published in 1460. Johannes de Spire produced the last six books, but the work is still incomplete. In confirmation of this tale it is added “that no writer has quoted from the Annals before the close of the sixteenth century.” The title “Annals of Tacitus” was given to Poggio’s book by Beatus Rhenanus in 1553.
And, if that isn’t enough, we have proof that the earliest extant copy of Tacitus has been tampered with. There are also issues with the provenance of all of Annals.
Tampering of Annals
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 indicates knowledge of Annals 15.44 before it was first referenced in the 14th century, there is justification to suspect Christians tinkered with it.
Okay, to sum it all up, here are the problems with Tacitus:
- Tacitus’ only known source for what the passage says about Christians would have been his best friend, Pliny the Younger, with whom Tacitus often exchanged information for the writing of his histories, and who only learned what Christians believed from interrogating Christians, not from any state documents or any other source.
- Tacitus was born in 56 CE and was not an eyewitness to anything, even if Jesus did exist.
- Never wrote anything about Jesus’ life or anything he did, like miracles or coming back from the dead.
- Tacitus doesn’t cite any sources and there isn’t any evidence that he had any sources other than what was common knowledge from hearsay and he doesn’t say anything that is a history of Jesus’ life or anything Jesus supposedly did.
- Wrote the Annals in 116 CE, which mentions a “Christus” and “Christians”, but unfortunately, this is almost 90 years after Jesus was claimed to have been killed, casting doubt on its authenticity.
- Even if Tacitus wrote the passage in question, he only reports claims from the Gospels, which are now believed to be wildly fictitious.
- Tacitus’ most likely source of information was Pliny the Younger, whose problems are laid out in detail here.
- There is also evidence that Tacitus never wrote about Christians or Christ at all, but a Jewish rebel group called the “Chrestians”, and a line about Christ was instead inserted by Christians sometime after the 4th century CE.
- The three years of Pontius Pilate’s reign under which Jesus would have stirred up trouble and been killed were removed from Tacitus’ Annals by Medieval Christians (and they remain lost), evidently embarrassed by the fact that they didn’t mention Jesus (29-32 CE).
- Tacitus made no other references to Christ or Christians in all of his books.
- The name “Christian” was not used until around 90 CE in the Book of Acts, but Tacitus was referring to 66 CE, which indicates that Tacitus was either forged or talking about “Chrestians”, the followers of “Chresto”.
Next up, the second-century satirist and rhetorician, Lucian of Samosata.