The Roman Historian Tacitus’ Mention of Christ

The Roman historian and senator Tacitus referred to Christ, his execution by Pontius Pilate, and the existence of early Christians in Rome in his final work, Annals (written ca. AD 116), book 15, chapter 44.

The context of the passage is the six-day Great Fire of Rome that burned much of the city in AD 64 during the reign of Roman Emperor Nero. The passage is one of the earliest non-Christian references to the origins of Christianity, the execution of Christ described in the canonical gospels, and the presence and persecution of Christians in 1st-century Rome.

The scholarly consensus is that Tacitus’ reference to the execution of Jesus by Pontius Pilate is both authentic, and of historical value as an independent Roman source. Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd argue that it is “firmly established” that Tacitus provides a non-Christian confirmation of the crucifixion of Jesus. Scholars view it as establishing three separate facts about Rome around AD 60: (i) that there were a sizable number of Christians in Rome at the time, (ii) that it was possible to distinguish between Christians and Jews in Rome, and (iii) that at the time pagans made a connection between Christianity in Rome and its origin in Roman Judea.

The Passage

The Annals passage (15.44), which has been subjected to much scholarly analysis, follows a description of the six-day Great Fire of Rome that burned much of Rome in July 64 AD.

The key part of the passage reads as follows:

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 Judæa, 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.

Tacitus was a patriotic Roman senator. His writings show no sympathy towards Christians, or knowledge of who their leader was. His characterization of “Christian abominations” may have been based on the rumors in Rome that during the Eucharist rituals Christians ate the body and drank the blood of their God, interpreting the ritual as cannibalism by Christians.

Tacitus was about seven years old at the time of the Great Fire of Rome, and like other Romans as he grew up he would have most likely heard about the fire that destroyed most of the city, and Nero’s accusations against Christians. When he wrote his account, Tacitus was the governor of the province of Asia, and as a member of the inner circle in Rome he would have known of the official position with respect to the fire and the Christians.

Having read the following five (5) Primary Sources that deal with the early Empire, what do you think this contributes to your understanding of the period? From which source did you learn the most? Why do you think that particular source taught you the most?

Roman Historian