Sub-sub index, Historical Jesus: evidence for Jesus historical existence:page 4 Tascitus.

The Religious A priori

Historical Jesus

III.Ancient Secular Historians

B. Tacitus (Annals, c.115)
Tacitus was a Roman historian writing early in the 2nd century A.D. unfortunately much of his work is lost, including that covering the years of Jesus life and death. [Meie.MarJ, 89] From Annals 15.44. he tells us that Nero scapegoated the Chrsitians to remove suspiscion form himself for starting the fire of Roman in A.D. 64.

"But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center 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."

[Note: not only does he know of Jesus as an histoircal figure, but knows enough detials to include the obscure Pilate and the time of his office.]

The passage is generally assumed by historians to be genuine [though see Cutn.JGMM, 111-2],. The style is that of Tacitus and the tone is so anti-Christian it cannot be a foregery of Chrstians. [Dor.Tac, 149] Some skeptics may argue that this passage is a forgery because no chruch father quotes form it. But this is easily explianed by it's negative anti-Chrsitian nature, as well as the fact that Tacitus works were lost to posterity until the 11th century, so most chruch fathers may not have known of him.

Tacitus has a large fan club among historians and is generally regarded as reliable and knowlegeable. Holding quotes several of them:

J.P. Holding's list:

* Syme, who was regarded as one of the foremost Tacitean scholars, says [Sym.Tac, 398] "the prime quality of Cornelius Tacitus is distrust. It was needed if a man were to write about the Caesars." He adds [ibid., 281, 282] that Tacitus "was no stranger to industrious investigation" and his "diligence was exemplary."

*Chilver [Chilv.Tac, 24] indicates that "for Tacitus scepticism was inescapable is not to be doubted."

*Martin [Mart.Tac, 211] , though noting difficulties about discerning Tacitus' exact sources, says that "It is clear, then, that Tacitus read widely and that the idea that he was an uncritical follower of a single source is quite untenable."

*Grant [Gran.Grec, 40-3; see also Gran.Tac, 18] , while charging Tacitus with bias, error, and "unfair selectivity" in various areas (especially associated with the Emperor Tiberius), nevertheless agrees that Tacitus "was careful to contrast what had been handed down orally with the literary tradition." Elsewhere he notes that "There is no doubt that (Tacitus) took a great deal of care in selecting his material." [ibid., 20]

*Dudley [Dud.Tac, 29] notes that despite problems in discerning what sources Tacitus used, "it may be said with some confidence that the view that Tacitus followed a single authority no longer commands support."

*Mellor [Mell.Tac, 20, 45] observes that although he made use of other sources, including friends like Pliny, Tacitus "does not slavishly follow, as some of his Roman predecessors did, the vagaries of his sources." He adds (ibid., 31-2) that, "If research is the consultation and evaluation of sources, there can be little doubt that Tacitus engaged in serious research though it is not often apparent in the smooth flow of his narrative." Tacitus "consulted both obscure and obvious sources," and "distinguishes fact from rumor with a scrupulosity rare in any ancient historian."

*Benario [Benar.Tac, 87] tells us that Tacitus "chose judiciously among his sources, totally dependent upon none, and very often, at crucial points, ignored the consensus of his predecessors to impose his own viewpoint and his own judgment."

*Wellesley [Dor.Tac, 65-6] remarks that investigation "very seldom shows (Tacitus) to be false to fact" and that archaeology has shown that "only once or twice is Tacitus found guilty of a small slip." He adds: "When the sources differ and the truth is hard to decipher, (Tacitus) takes refuge in ambiguous language or the balance of alternative and sometimes spiteful variants," rather than doing original research to determine which option is the truth. We may note that there is no such ambiguous language in the Christus cite.

*Finally, Momigliano[Momig.CFou, 111-2] , while pointing out that Tacitus was of course "not a researcher in the modern sense," nevertheless says that he was "a writer whose reliability cannot be seriously questioned." He cites only one possible major error by Tacitus, but puts it down to him relying on a trusted predecessor rather than official records.

Some skeptics may argue that Tacitus got his information from Pliny the younger. They were freinds. If this is the case, however, it assumes that something is wrong with Pliny's infomration. Nevertheless, this is does not mean that Tacitus accepted Pliny's word uncritically. He is known to have disputed infomration offered by Pliny and even to have thought it absurd.[Annals 15.53)

Holding again on the care which Tacitus gave his sources:

"Mendell notes that in Annals 13, Tacitus quotes three divergent opinions from three different historians on a story involving Nero. [Mende.Tac, 208] He was concerned even about minor historical details in this regard. Mendell [ibid., 207] further notes Tacitus' citation of a fantastic story about one Drusus, "based only on persistent rumor, which (Tacitus) refutes by the application of logic." He writes: "In the Histories there are sixty-eight instances in which Tacitus indicates either a recorded statement or a belief on someone's part with regard to something which he himself is unwilling to assert as a fact; in other words, he cites divergent authority for some fact or motive." [ibid., 201] These instances "would seem to indicate a writer who had not only read what was written by historians...but had also talked with eye witnesses and considered with some care the probable truth where doubt or uncertainty existed..."

"The sum total of the picture is clear. For the main narrative, Tacitius assumes the responsibility of the historian to get at the truth and present it. His guarantee was his own reputation. To make this narrative colorful and dramatic, he felt justified in introducing facts and motives which he might refute on logical grounds or leave uncontested but for which he did not personally vouch. There is no indication that he followed blindly the account of any predecessor." [ibid., 203-4] Mendell also notes that Tacitus was concerned for maintaining his integrity as a historian.

"In the Annals, the work with the paragraph on Jesus, Mendell cites 30 instances where Tacitus uses specific phrases "to substantiate a statement or to present a statement for which he does not care to vouch." [ibid., 205] Mendell also notes that "In Books 11-16 of the Annals (the Jesus cite is in 15) Tacitus "concerns himself with the evidence and source references to a greater extent than in the earlier books." He relies on other historians, a bronze inscription (11.14), reports or memoirs (15.16), personal testimonies (15.73), and physical evidence (15.42). There are indications of searches for first-hand (15.41) and written (12.67, 13.17) evidence. [Mende.Tac, 207] Thus the cite on Jesus comes in the middle of one of Tacitus' most carefully-documented works."

"In reporting a conspiracy of Piso to assassinate Nero, Tacitus acknowledges the difficulty of accurate knowledge of such conspiracies, indicates where his knowledge is uncertain, and does not use of one of Pliny's quotes as positive evidence because he considers it to be "wholly absurd." (15.53) [ibid., 209]

Skeptics such as Wells assert that Tacitus was merely repeating what Christinas were saying. [Well.WhoW, 20] ; "was surely glad to accept from Christians their own view that Christianity was a recent religion, since the Roman authorities were prepared to tolerate only ancient cults," [Well.HistEv, 17; Well.JesL, 42] and "(t)he context of Tacitus' remarks itself suggests that he relied on Christian informants."

Holding responds:

"This, as we have noted above, would be completely out of character for Tacitus: Careful inquiry was indeed part of Tacitus' modus operandi. (Ironically, in reference to the fact that Tacitus does not even say in the passage where Pilate ruled, Wells says, "Tacitus cannot be expected to give the life history of every incidental character he mentions." - [Well.JEaC, 186] . Would that he applied that criteria to Jesus in such a way!) Moreover, we have clear evidence that Tacitus would not simply repeat what he was told by people whom he disliked: When reporting on the history and beliefs of the Jews, whom he despised as much as the Christians, it seems fairly obvious from the disparaging descriptions given that Tacitus was not inclined to consult the Jews' "own view" or even "Jewish informants." Certainly no Jew told Tacitus the horrible things he suggested about the origins of Judaism!"

Moreover, Tacitus was obsessed with invetigating cliams of cults espeicially those invovling rising formt he Dead. As crazy and convient as that sounds, Bowersock [Luc.TacT, 5] offers three such enstances where Tacitus gives exceptionally detailed accounts of figures, who claimed to have risen from the dead.

As to the question of where Tacitus got his information, we can't really know this, but how much speicial research would be requied just to know that someone was a real and not a fictional person? What if he did simpley go by common knowlege or the knowlege of Chrsitians? This still proves that they knew as ealry as the first quarter of the second century that Jesus was a flesh and blood histircal figure. But it is doubtful that he consulted them because his tone is so negative. It is more likely that he consulted the imperial archieves. He may have even read Pilate's report to Rome on the Jesus exicution. But of course that is mere speculation. Accient writters were not good about revealing their sources, they did not have peer review or modern concepts of foot noting and documenation. On the other hand, they did have sources.

Tacitus was well respected and had serious contacts in Roman soceity. Pliny indicates that being a freind of Tacitus was very socially advantageous. Famed as an orator, procounsul of Asia, very prestigious office, a member of body of preists in charge of Sibylline books and reach culslarship by 97 AD. He married a daughter of Julius Agricola, governor of Britan. He cretainly could have gained permission to look at the archives.

Holding makes the point that in Tacitus' own works there are strong implications that the archieves could be consulted:

* "Speeches of the emperor are discussed also in (Annals) 1.81, obviously as accessible. Of letters sent to Tiberius and of others attacking Nero and Agrippina he speaks (5.16 and 5.3) as though they might still be consulted. This is certainly true of the one to Tiberius." [Mende.Tac, 204] In Annals 15.74, Tacitus cites the records of the Roman Senate from Nero's time [ibid., 21] and cites Senate records elsewhere (5.4) [ibid., 212] The acta Senatus included letters from emperors, governors of provinces (like Pilate!), allies, and client kings."

There are other souces he could have consulted as well:

*Rome's public libraries. [Dud.Tac, 28]

*Tacitus also consulted the Acta Diurna, a daily public gazette (3.3, 12,24, 13.31, 16.22), and private journals and memoirs, which presumably "were preserved in large numbers, especially in the older aristocratic families." [Mende.Tac, 212]

*Syme [Sym.Tac, 278] writes: "The straight path of inquiry leads to the archives of the Senate...the first hexad of Annales (which is not where the Jesus passage is) contains an abundance of information patently deriving from the official protocol, and only there to be discovered." Regarding an incident in Africa: "That Tacitus consulted the Senate archives is proved by the character of the material, by its distribution..." (ibid., 281) Relative to Book 4 of Tacitus' Historiae: "required constant access to the register of the Senate." (ibid.)

*Mellor [Mell.Tac, 19-20] says that Tacitus used the records of the Senate for speeches and information." (ibid., 33) Mellor adds that Tacitus' "archival research is especially notable and groundbreaking for its day."

*He did use the works of previous historians. [Benar.Tac, 80-7]

Holding takes another jab at Wells:

"So Wells is obviously not in agreement with Tacitean scholars on the matter of Tacitus' consultation of written documents, and thus it is worthwhile to ask where exactly he does get his information! His source, it turns out, is a scholar named Fabia. [Well.JEaC, 187] Who is Fabia? The Taciteans are familiar with the name: Mendell [Mende.Tac, 211] notes the work of Philippe Fabia from 1893, where he wrote of Tacitus: "Primary sources, documents, records, inscriptions, and the like...were rarely consulted." However, Mendell writes, "the conclusions (by Fabia) drawn are inconsistent with the reputation of Tacitus as evidenced by the letters of Pliny and with the impression given by Tacitus himself," who "not only states that he intends to compare various accounts, but constantly cites sources of information, even though he less frequently names the authority."

Syme notes further [Sym.Tac, 282] that the arguments of Fabia and those who agreed with him are based mostly on a single passage in Tacitus where he says that he was not able to give some information that should have been in the acta diurna. Hence, it was assumed by Fabia that he had no access to it! Syme points out that Tacitus gives an explanation for not being able to get the information, and "he deserves to be taken at his word." Wells has relied upon a badly outdated and highly incorrect source for his argument! It is salient to point out here again something that cannot be emphasized enough: This type of mistake is committed only by people working outside their field, as Wells is. Tacitean scholars have the breadth of judgment and background to know that Fabia is bogus; that Wells uses him as reliable source indicates Wells' radical unfamiliarity with the scholarship in Tacitean studies. Again, this cannot be overemphasized - the mark of a novice is their uncritical use of sources and methods within a discipline. Genuine scholars, with training and background in specialty, know how to use sources critically and keep the arguments and evidence in perspective!

Tacitus use of titles

One objection that Sketpics often use (including Wells) is that Tacitus makes mistakes reguarding Pilate's title. He calls him "procurator" in Pilate was "prefect."


1. Evidence indicates that there was a certain fluidity in the usage of these terms.
2. Tacitus may have been anachronizing on purpose.

We should first consider the difference between these two titles. A procurator, as the word implies, was a financial administrator who acted as the emperor's personal agent. A prefect was a military official.

1. What evidence is there for the easy interchange of these terms? Meier notes [Meie.MarJ, 100] that in a "backwater province" like Judea, there was probably not much difference between the two roles. This assertion is backed up by literary evidence. Philo and Josephus were not consistent in the usage of the terms either: Josephus calls Pilate a "procurator" in Antiquities 18.5.6, the story about Pilate bringing images into Jerusalem. (It has not been suggested, but we may wonder if, in a backwater like Judea, Pilate may have held both titles)!

2. Tacitus may have used an anachronistic term for his own reasons. The first reason may have been to avoid confusion. Sanders [Sand.HistF, 23] cites inscriptional evidence that the position held by Pilate was called "prefect " in 6-41 A.D., but "procurator" in the years 44-66, so he deduces that Tacitus was simply using the term with which his readers would be most familiar. (This is a far better point than we may realize: Being that Tacitus' readers were - like he had been - members of the Senate and holders of political office [Dor.Tac, 64] , we must suppose that this "error" escaped not only Tacitus' attention, but theirs as well! We may as well suggest that a United States Senate historian's error of the same rank would pass without comment!)

The second reason for this use of terminology may be deliberate anachronizing on Tacitus' part. Kraus and Woodman [KrWoo.LHn, 111] note that Tacitus often uses "archaizing, rare, or obsolete vocabulary" and also "avoids, varies, or 'misuses' technical terms." They do not cite the prefect/procurator issue specifically, but it is worth asking, in light of this comment, if the usage might not have been simply part of Tacitus' normal practice. (In fact, Harris [Harr.GosP5, 349] does indeed suggest a conscious [or unconscious] anachronizing).

Tacitus' Use of term "Christ."

Another objection often made is that Tacitus refers to Jesus as "Chirst" which indicates he did not consult sources other than Chrsitains.

Wells also offers this objection. [Well.HistEv, 16-17] But Tacitus was Roman, not Jewish, he may have thought that Christ was part of his name, As Bruce tells us in The New Testament Documents.

Holding sums up what we learn from Tacitus:

1. He regards "Christus" as the founder of the movement. This mitigates against ideas that Paul or some other person was the ideological head of Christianity.

2. He confirms the execution of Jesus under Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius.

3. He indicates that Jesus' death "checked" Christianity for a time. This would hint at the probability that Christianity was recognized to have had some status as a movement (albeit not under the name "Christianity") prior to the death of Jesus.

4. He identifies Judaea as the "source" of the movement. This mitigates against ideas that Christianity was designed piecemeal from pagan religious ideas.

5. He indicates that Christians in Rome in the mid-60s A.D. were dying for their faith. (We will look at the subject of martyrs as historical confirmation later in this chapter).

The Religious A priori