Post Author: Bill Pratt
In parts one and two of this series of posts, we discussed the writings of Josephus and we saw that most historians agree that Josephus did indeed write about Jesus, even if Christians may have added a few phrases later on (this is still debatable, but possible).
There are, however, others who wrote about Jesus at a very early date. The next of these we’ll mention is the Roman historian Tacitus. Edwin Yamauchi, the historian we’ve been quoting, has this to say about Tacitus: “Tacitus recorded what is probably the most important reference to Jesus outside the New Testament. In A.D. 115 he explicitly states that Nero persecuted the Christians as scapegoats to divert suspicion away from himself for the great fire that had devastated Rome in A.D. 64.”
So what exactly did Tacitus say about Christians and Jesus?
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures of 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 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. [Annals 15.44]
Tacitus, as can be seen, is no fan of Christianity, but he provides several details about Jesus and early Christians. Here they are:
- Christians were named for their founder, Christus (Latin for Christ).
- Christus was put to death by a Roman procurator, Pontius Pilatus (again Latin).
- Christus was executed while Tiberius was emperor (AD 14-37) .
- His death ended a “superstition” for a time but it broke out again in Judea (where the teaching originated), and made its way to Rome.
- Christians were hated and tortured during Nero’s reign.
Again, we see that this data lines up well with the New Testament documents, and again we see that those who deny that Jesus ever existed are swimming upstream against the current of scholarship.
One additional note about Tacitus. There has been much speculation that the “superstition” to which Tacitus refers is the resurrection of Jesus. We can’t be sure about this, but Tacitus may be indirectly referring to it.
Tacitus’ testimony about Jesus raises an important question. How did a swelling religious movement, which started at the far reaches of the Roman empire (in Judea) but reached Rome by the mid 60’s A.D., get started when its leader was subjected to one of the most humiliating and public deaths possible at this time? Jesus was crucified as a common criminal, but people were following him. If he was resurrected, then there would be an easy explanation, but if he stayed in the tomb, then how did this movement even get off the ground? I have never heard a satisfactory answer to that question from those who deny the resurrection.
There is one more non-Christian I want to introduce to you, and I’ll do that in the next post. Thank you for sticking with this series, which has gone on longer than I originally thought!