Tacitus

The Roman historian and orator Tacitus (c.55-120 AD) writes that, after the Fire of Rome in 64 AD, it was rumoured that the fire had been started on Nero’s orders:

“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.” (Annals 15.44.)

Scholars acknowledge Tacitus as one of the best historians of his time. Being an obvious opponent of Christianity, the fact that he mentions Jesus’ crucifixion in this manner is considered as extremely strong corroboration by any normal historical standards. Another, arguably greater, significance is as confirmation of Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome following the fire of 64 AD. As pointed out elsewhere, this event helps substantiate the early date of the New Testament documents themselves.

Some suggest Tacitus simply took his account from Christian sources: but the fact that he displays no knowledge of Christian doctrine, viewing them rather as an obnoxious cult, makes this improbable. Moreover, he is normally very careful in his Annals to distinguish between reported facts and those he regards as established beyond reasonable doubt, using phrases such as, ‘It is said,’ ‘Some have put it on record,’ etc. for hearsay, and even, ‘I have followed the majority of historians,’ or ‘the most numerous and trustworthy authorities,’ in areas where he acknowledges there to have been some dispute. Yet he writes of Jesus’ crucifixion as plain fact, with no qualification whatsoever.

If any doubt had existed as to the facts concerning Jesus’ death, Tacitus would scarcely have missed the chance to say so; and, as a Roman historian, he would have had ready access to the Imperial archives.

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