Tacitus on Christ

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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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3][4]

Scholars generally consider Tacitus's reference to the execution of Jesus by Pontius Pilate to be both authentic, and of historical value as an independent Roman source.[5][6][7] Eddy and Boyd state that it is now "firmly established" that Tacitus provides a non-Christian confirmation of the crucifixion of Jesus.[8]

In terms of an overall context, historian Ronald Mellor has stated that the Annals is "Tacitus's crowning achievement" which represents the "pinnacle of Roman historical writing".[9] The passage is also of historical value in 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.[10][11]

The passage and its context[edit]

A copy of the second Medicean manuscript of Annals, Book 15, chapter 44, the page with the reference to Christians

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.[3]

The key part of the passage reads as follows (translation from Latin by A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb, 1876):

"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 then describes the torture of Christians. The exact cause of the fire remains uncertain, but much of the population of Rome suspected that Emperor Nero had started the fire himself.[3] To divert attention from himself, Nero accused the Christians of starting the fire and persecuted them, making this the first confrontation between Christians and the authorities in Rome.[3] Tacitus never accused Nero of playing the lyre while Rome burned - that statement came from Cassius Dio, who died in the 3rd century.[2] But Tacitus did suggest that Nero used the Christians as scapegoats.[12]

No original manuscripts of the Annals exist and the surviving copies of Tacitus' works derive from two principal manuscripts, known as the Medicean manuscripts, written in Latin, which are held in the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy.[13] It is the second Medicean manuscript, 11th century and from the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino, which is the oldest surviving copy of the passage describing Christians.[14] Scholars generally agree that these copies were written at Monte Cassino and the end of the document refers to Abbas Raynaldus cu... who was most probably one of the two abbots of that name at the abbey during that period.[14]

Specific references[edit]

Christians and Chrestians[edit]

Detail of the 11th century copy of Annals, the gap between the 'i' and 's' is highlighted in the word 'Christianos'.

The passage states:

"... called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin ..."

In 1902 Georg Andresen commented on the appearance of the first 'i' and subsequent gap in the earliest extant, 11th century, copy of the Annals in Florence, suggesting that the text had been altered, and an 'e' had originally been in the text, rather than this 'i'.[15] "With ultra-violet examination of the MS the alteration was conclusively shown. It is impossible today to say who altered the letter e into an i. In Suetonius’ Nero 16.2, "christiani", however, seems to be the original reading".[16] Since the alteration became known it has given rise to debates among scholars as to whether Tacitus deliberately used the term "Chrestians", or if a scribe made an error during the Middle Ages.[17][18] It has been stated that both the terms Christians and Chrestians had at times been used by the general population in Rome to refer to early Christians.[19] Robert Van Voorst says that many sources indicate that the term Chrestians was also used among the early followers of Jesus by the second century.[18][20] The term Christians appears only three times in the New Testament, the first usage (Acts 11:26) giving the origin of the term.[18] In all three cases the uncorrected Codex Sinaiticus in Greek reads Chrestianoi.[18][20] In Phrygia a number of funerary stone inscriptions use the term Chrestians, with one stone inscription using both terms together, reading: "Chrestians for Christians".[20]

Adolf von Harnack argued that Chrestians was the original wording, and that Tacitus deliberately used Christus immediately after it to show his own superior knowledge compared to the population at large.[18] Robert Renehan has stated that it was natural for a Roman to mix the two words that sounded the same, that Chrestianos was the original word in the Annals and not an error by a scribe.[21][22] Van Voorst has stated that it was unlikely for Tacitus himself to refer to Christians as Chrestianos i.e. "useful ones" given that he also referred to them as "hated for their shameful acts".[17] Paul Eddy sees no major impact on the authenticity of the passage or its meaning regardless of the use of either term by Tacitus.[23]

The rank of Pilate[edit]

The Pilate Stone, now at the Israel Museum

Pilate's rank while he was governor of Iudaea province appeared in a Latin inscription on the Pilate Stone which called him a prefect, while this Tacitean passage calls him a procurator. Josephus refers to Pilate with the generic Greek term ἡγεμών, hēgemōn, or governor. Tacitus records that Claudius was the ruler who gave procurators governing power.[24][25] After Herod Agrippa's death in 44 A.D., when Judea reverted to direct Roman rule, Claudius gave procurators control over Judea.[3][26][27][28]

Various theories have been put forward to explain why Tacitus should use the term "procurator" when the archaeological evidence indicates that Pilate was a prefect. Jerry Vardaman theorizes that Pilate's title was changed during his stay in Judea and that the Pilate Stone dates from the early years of his administration.[29] Baruch Lifshitz postulates that the inscription would originally have mentioned the title of "procurator" along with "prefect".[30] L.A. Yelnitsky argues that the use of "procurator" in Annals 15.44.3 is a Christian interpolation.[31] S.G.F. Brandon suggests that there is no real difference between the two ranks.[32] John Dominic Crossan states that Tacitus "retrojected" the title procurator which was in use at the time of Claudius back onto Pilate who was called prefect in his own time.[33] Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans as well as Van Voorst state that Tacitus apparently used the title procurator because it was more common at the time of his writing and that this variation in the use of the title should not be taken as evidence to doubt the correctness of the information Tacitus provides.[34][35] Warren Carter states that, as the term "prefect" has a military connotation, while "procurator" is civilian, the use of either term may be appropriate for governors who have a range of military, administrative and fiscal responsibilities.[36]

Louis Feldman says that Philo (who died AD 50) and Josephus also use the term procurator for Pilate.[37] It should be noted that, as both Philo and Josephus wrote in Greek, neither of them actually used the term "procurator", but the Greek word ἐπίτροπος (epitropos), which is regularly translated as "procurator". Philo also uses this Greek term for the governors of Egypt (a prefect), of Asia (a proconsul) and Syria (a legate).[38] Werner Eck, in his list of terms for governors of Judea found in the works of Josephus, shows that, while in the early work, The Jewish War, Josephus uses epitropos less consistently, the first governor to be referred to by the term in Antiquities of the Jews was Cuspius Fadus, (who was in office AD 44-46).[39] Feldman notes that Philo, Josephus and Tacitus may have anachronistically confused the timing of the titles - prefect later changing to procurator.[37] Feldman also notes that the use of the titles may not have been rigid, for Josephus refers to Cuspius Fadus both as "prefect and procurator".[37]

Authenticity and historical value[edit]

Authenticity[edit]

The title page of 1598 edition of the works of Tacitus, kept in Empoli, Italy.

Most modern scholars consider the passage to be authentic.[40][41] Eddy and Boyd state that it is now "firmly established" that Tacitus provides a non-Christian confirmation of the crucifixion of Jesus.[8] Although a few scholars question the passage given that Tacitus was born 25 years after Jesus' death, the majority of scholars consider it genuine.[40] William L. Portier has stated that the consistency in the references by Tacitus, Josephus and the letters to Emperor Trajan by Pliny the Younger reaffirm the validity of all three accounts.[41]

Tacitus was a patriotic Roman senator.[42][43] His writings shows no sympathy towards Christians, or knowledge of who their leader was.[5][44] 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.[44][45]

Andreas Köstenberger states that the tone of the passage towards Christians is far too negative to have been authored by a Christian scribe.[46] Van Voorst also states that the passage is unlikely to be a Christian forgery because of the pejorative language used to describe Christianity.[40] John P. Meier states that there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support the argument that a scribe may have introduced the passage into the text.[47]

Tacitus was about 7 years old at the time of the Great Fire of Rome, and as 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.[12] 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.[12]

In 1885 P. Hochart had proposed that the passage was a pious fraud,[48] but the editor of the 1907 Oxford edition dismissed his suggestion and treated the passage as genuine.[49] Scholars such as Bruce Chilton, Craig Evans, Paul R. Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd agree with John Meier's statement that: "Despite some feeble attempts to show that this text is a Christian interpolation in Tacitus, the passage is obviously genuine.”[34][50] Suggestions that the whole of Annals may have been a forgery have also been generally rejected by scholars.[51]

Historical value[edit]

The Fire of Rome, by Karl von Piloty, 1861. According to Tacitus, Nero targeted Christians as those responsible for the fire.

Scholars generally consider Tacitus's reference to be genuine and of historical value as an independent Roman source about early Christianity that is in unison with other historical records.[5][6][7][41]

Van Voorst states that "of all Roman writers, Tacitus gives us the most precise information about Christ".[40] John Dominic Crossan considers the passage important in establishing that Jesus existed and was crucified, and states: "That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be, since both Josephus and Tacitus... agree with the Christian accounts on at least that basic fact."[52]

Some scholars have debated the historical value of the passage, given that Tacitus does not reveal the source of his information.[53] Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz argue that Tacitus at times had drawn on earlier historical works now lost to us, and he may have used official sources from a Roman archive in this case; however, if Tacitus had been copying from an official source, some scholars would expect him to have labeled Pilate correctly as a prefect rather than a procurator.[54] Theissen and Merz state that Tacitus gives us a description of widespread prejudices about Christianity and a few precise details about "Christus" and Christianity, the source of which remains unclear.[55] However, Paul R. Eddy has stated that given his position as a senator Tacitus was also likely to have had access to official Roman documents of the time and did not need other sources.[23]

Scholars have also debated the issue of hearsay in the reference by Tacitus. Charles Guignebert argued that "So long as there is that possibility [that Tacitus is merely echoing what Christians themselves were saying], the passage remains quite worthless".[56] R. T. France states that the Tacitus passage is at best just Tacitus repeating what he had heard through Christians.[57] However, Paul R. Eddy has stated that as Rome's preeminent historian, Tacitus was generally known for checking his sources and was not in the habit of reporting gossip.[23] Biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman wrote: "Tacitus's report confirms what we know from other sources, that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, sometime during Tiberius's reign."[58]

James D. G. Dunn considers the passage as useful in establishing facts about early Christians, e.g. that there was a sizable number of Christians in Rome around AD 60.[10] Dunn states that Tacitus seems to be under the impression that Christians were some form of Judaism, although distinguished from them.[10] Raymond E. Brown and John P. Meier state that in addition to establishing that there was a large body of Christians in Rome, the Tacitus passage provides two other important pieces of historical information, namely that by around AD 60 it was possible to distinguish between Christians and Jews in Rome and that even pagans made a connection between Christianity in Rome and its origin in Judea.[11]

Other Roman sources[edit]

Tacitus is one of three key Roman authors who may refer to early Christians, the other two being Pliny the Younger and Suetonius.[59][60] These authors refer to events which took place during the reign of various Roman emperors, Suetonius writing about an expulsion from Rome during the reign of Claudius (41 to 54), and also punishments by Nero (who reigned from 54 to 68), Pliny's letters are to Trajan about the trials he was holding for Christians around 111 AD.[59] But the temporal order for the documents begins with Pliny writing around 111 AD, then Tacitus around 115/116 AD and then Suetonius writing in the Lives of the Twelve Caesars around 122 AD.[59][61]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ P.E. Easterling, E. J. Kenney (general editors), The Cambridge History of Latin Literature, page 892 (Cambridge University Press, 1982, reprinted 1996). ISBN 0-521-21043-7
  2. ^ a b Stephen Dando-Collins 2010 The Great Fire of Rome ISBN 978-0-306-81890-5 pages 1-4
  3. ^ a b c d e A political history of early Christianity by Allen Brent 2009 ISBN 0-567-03175-6 pages 32-34
  4. ^ Robert Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000. p 39- 53
  5. ^ a b c Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies by Craig A. Evans 2001 ISBN 0-391-04118-5 page 42
  6. ^ a b Mercer dictionary of the Bible by Watson E. Mills, Roger Aubrey Bullard 2001 ISBN 0-86554-373-9 page 343
  7. ^ a b Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation by Helen K. Bond 2004 ISBN 0-521-61620-4 page xi
  8. ^ a b Eddy, Paul; Boyd, Gregory (2007). The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition Baker Academic, ISBN 0-8010-3114-1 page 127
  9. ^ Tacitus' Annals by Ronald Mellor 2010 ISBN 0-19-515192-5 Oxford page 23
  10. ^ a b c Beginning from Jerusalem by James D. G. Dunn 2008 ISBN 0-8028-3932-0 pages 56-57
  11. ^ a b Antioch and Rome: New Testament cradles of Catholic Christianity by Raymond Edward Brown, John P. Meier 1983 ISBN 0-8091-2532-3 page 99
  12. ^ a b c Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times by Paul Barnett 2002 ISBN 0-8308-2699-8 page 30
  13. ^ Cornelii Taciti Annalium, Libri V, VI, XI, XII: With Introduction and Notes by Henry Furneaux, H. Pitman 2010 ISBN 1-108-01239-6 page iv
  14. ^ a b Newton, Francis, The Scriptorium and Library at Monte Cassino, 1058–1105, ISBN 0-521-58395-0 Cambridge University Press, 1999. "The Date of the Medicean Tacitus (Flor. Laur. 68.2)", p. 96-97. [1]
  15. ^ Georg Andresen in Wochenschrift fur klassische Philologie 19, 1902, col. 780f
  16. ^ J. Boman, Inpulsore Cherestro? Suetonius’ Divus Claudius 25.4 in Sources and Manuscripts, Liber Annuus 61 (2011), ISSN 0081-8933, Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Jerusalem 2012, p. 355, n. 2.
  17. ^ a b Van Voorst, Robert E (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence Eerdmans Publishing ISBN 0-8028-4368-9 pages 44-48
  18. ^ a b c d e International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: A-D by Geoffrey W. Bromiley 1995 ISBN 0-8028-3781-6 page 657
  19. ^ Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries by Peter Lampe 2006 ISBN 0-8264-8102-7 page 12
  20. ^ a b c Van Voorst, Robert E (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence Eerdmans Publishing ISBN 0-8028-4368-9 pages 33-35
  21. ^ Robert Renehan, "Christus or Chrestus in Tacitus?", La Parola del Passato 122 (1968), pp. 368-370
  22. ^ Transactions and proceedings of the American Philological Association, Volume 29, JSTOR (Organization), 2007. p vii
  23. ^ a b c The Jesus legend: a case for the historical reliability of the synoptic gospels by Paul R. Eddy, et al 2007 ISBN 0-8010-3114-1 pages 181-183
  24. ^ Tacitus, Annals 12.60: Claudius said that the judgments of his procurators had the same efficacy as those judgments he made.
  25. ^ P. A. Brunt, Roman imperial themes, Oxford University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-19-814476-8, ISBN 978-0-19-814476-2. p.167.
  26. ^ Tacitus, Histories 5.9.8.
  27. ^ Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1988. ISBN 0-8028-3785-9, ISBN 978-0-8028-3785-1. p.979, col.1.
  28. ^ Paul, apostle of the heart set free by F. F. Bruce (2000) ISBN 1842270273 Eerdsmans page 354
  29. ^ "A New Inscription Which Mentions Pilate as 'Prefect'", JBL 81/1 (1962), p.71.
  30. ^ "Inscriptions latines de Cesaree (Caesarea Palaestinae)" in Latomus 22 (1963), pp.783-784.
  31. ^ "The Caesarea Inscription of Pontius Pilate and Its Historical Significance" in Vestnik Drevnej Istorii 93 (1965), pp.142-146.
  32. ^ "Pontius Pilate in history and legend" in History Today 18 (1968), pp. 523—530
  33. ^ Birth of Christianity by John Dominic Crossan (Apr 1, 1999) ISBN 0567086682 T & T Clark p.9.
  34. ^ a b Studying the historical Jesus: evaluations of the state of current research by Bruce Chilton, Craig A. Evans 1998 ISBN 90-04-11142-5 pages 465-466
  35. ^ Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000. p.48.
  36. ^ Pontius Pilate: Portraits of a Roman Governor by Warren Carter (Sep 1, 2003) ISBN 0814651135 page 44
  37. ^ a b c Louis Feldman "Flavius Josephus Revisited" in Aufstieg Und Niedergang Der Roemischen Welt, Part 2 edited by Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase 1984 ISBN 311009522X page 818
  38. ^ Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations by Warren Carter (T&T Clark: October 10, 2001) ISBN 978-1563383427 p.215.
  39. ^ Werner Eck, "Die Benennung von römischen Amtsträgern und politisch-militärisch-administrativenFunktionen bei Flavius Iosephus: Probleme der korrekten IdentifizierungAuthor" in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 166 (2008), p.222.
  40. ^ a b c d Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000. p 39- 53
  41. ^ a b c Tradition and Incarnation: Foundations of Christian Theology by William L. Portier 1993 ISBN 0-8091-3467-5 page 263
  42. ^ Josephus, the Bible, and history by Louis H. Feldman 1997 ISBN 90-04-08931-4 page 381
  43. ^ Jesus as a figure in history: how modern historians view the man from Galilee by Mark Allan Powell 1998 ISBN 0-664-25703-8 page 33
  44. ^ a b Ancient Rome by William E. Dunstan 2010 ISBN 0-7425-6833-4 page 293
  45. ^ An introduction to the New Testament and the origins of Christianity by Delbert Royce Burkett 2002 ISBN 0-521-00720-8 page 485
  46. ^ The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament by Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum 2009 ISBN 978-0-8054-4365-3 pages 109-110
  47. ^ Meier, John P., A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Doubleday: 1991. vol 1: p. 168-171.
  48. ^ Henry Furneaux, ed., Cornelii Taciti Annalium ab excessu divi augusti libri. The annals of Tacitus with introduction and notes, 2nd ed., vol. ii, books xi-xvi. Clarendon, 1907. Appendix II, p. 416f."
  49. ^ Henry Furneaux, ed., Cornelii Taciti Annalium ab excessu divi augusti libri. The annals of Tacitus with introduction and notes, 2nd ed., vol. ii, books xi-xvi. Clarendon, 1907. Appendix II, p.418
  50. ^ The Jesus Legend: a case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition by Paul R. Eddy, Gregory A. Boyd 2007 ISBN 0-8010-3114-1 page 181
  51. ^ Robert Van Voorst Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence 2000 ISBN 0-8028-4368-9 page 42
  52. ^ Crossan, John Dominic (1995). Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. HarperOne. ISBN 0-06-061662-8 page 145
  53. ^ F.F. Bruce,Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974) p. 23
  54. ^ Theissen and Merz p.83
  55. ^ Theissen, Gerd; Merz, Annette (1998). The historical Jesus: a comprehensive guide. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 83. ISBN 978-0-8006-3122-2. 
  56. ^ Jesus, University Books, New York, 1956, p.13
  57. ^ France, RT (1986). Evidence for Jesus (Jesus Library). Trafalgar Square Publishing. pp. 19–20. ISBN 0-340-38172-8. 
  58. ^ Ehrman p 212
  59. ^ a b c Stephen Benko "Pagan Criticism of Christianity" in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt edited by Hildegard Temporin et al ISBN 3110080168 page
  60. ^ Robert E. Van Voorst Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence Eerdmans Publishing, 2000. ISBN 0-8028-4368-9 page 69-70
  61. ^ Christianity and the Roman Empire: background texts by Ralph Martin Novak 2001 ISBN 1-56338-347-0 pages 13 and 20

Further reading[edit]