Jesus of Nazareth was not a person of wealth or political influence. Yet details of his life and legacy are documented by ancient accounts found outside of the Bible; texts written by people without pro-Christian bias. These sources corroborate each other and support the New Testament Gospels themselves.
Now – it is true that there is more written about important political leaders like Caesar Augustus or Cicero…and Jesus is simply a no-one by comparison. Yet in spite of his obscurity, “if you limit yourself just to people at Jesus’ socio economic status … lower class peasant … there isn’t anyone from the ancient world that comes close to the amount of evidence we have for Jesus.” And that quote comes from a sceptical scholar who rejects the supernatural claims about Jesus life!
I previously discussed Roman historian Suetonius’s reference to Christ. Now let’s turn to Cornelius Tacitus.
Cornelius Tacitus was governor of Asia and he documented Nero’s reign in the first century. Much of Tacitus’s Annals is lost, but what remains points to the historical Jesus. In Annals we read:
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 Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome
This account gives valuable data supporting Jesus’ historicity.
First, Tacitus says that “Christus”, which is Latin for Christ, was responsible for the Christian class. Second, Tacitus gives extra-Biblical support for the account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. Third, these events reportedly began in Judea. Fourth, the Christian Church is describes as a “most mischievous superstition.” This phrase echoes something that Suetonius also says, when he describes Christian belief as a “new and mischievous religious belief.”
Some sceptics will ask, “can we be sure the Christ Tacitus speaks of is Jesus?” Tacitus does not use Jesus’ name directly; Christ is the Greek form of Messiah, a Hebrew title meaning “a king, priest or prophet”, or could also refer to a specific, expected Jewish “Anointed One” who would usher in God’s rule. Extra-Biblical sources show evidence of various first century Christ candidates. Jewish historian Josephus, writes about King Herod’s slave Simon who, “was so bold as to put a diadem on his head, while a certain number of the people stood by him, and by them he was declared to be a king.” Having led a rebellion, Simon was killed by the Romans and his followers scattered. History clearly records that various Jewish rebel leaders thought of themselves as kings. Yet only one individual is recorded as being punished by Pontius Pilate, leaving more followers after his death than he had before, and known as Christ. Josephus mentions Jesus by name, “there was a wise man who was called Jesus. … Pilate condemned him … those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. … he was perhaps the Messiah.” This corroborates Tacitus who also refers to the Christ who suffered the extreme penalty under Pilate, and whose teachings broke out after his death possibly supporting the Christian preaching of Jesus’ resurrection. Therefore, I conclude that our extra-Biblical sources only refer to one historical person with the title Christ who fits Jesus’ profile.
Richard Carrier is a sceptic who does not believe Jesus of Nazareth existed. Carrier suggests Tacitus’s original text documented the punishment of a Jewish rabble who followed someone named Chrestus. Decades later, Carrier says that a Christian scribe came along with his writing instrument and repurposed this passage by inserting a sentence mentioning Christ and Pilate, thus erasing the original Chrestus link, and bolstering a Christian myth about Jesus of Nazareth: “the suspect line was probably not written by Tacitus … More likely Tacitus was originally speaking of the Chrestians, a violent group of Jews first suppressed under Claudius, and not the Christians, and accordingly did not mention Christ.”
However, there are problems with Carrier’s argument.
- First, Tacitus never mentions Chrestus, but does mention Christians. In order to force his case, Carrier must himself re-write Tacitus and replace mention of Christians with “Chrestians.”
- Second, Carrier’s suspect line does not just document Christ and Pilate, we also read a judgement on the Christian religion itself. Christianity is cynically described as a “most mischievous superstition.” Wouldn’t a later Christian interpolator present an apologetic for Christianity instead? Licona comments, “the style of the text definitely belongs to Tacitus. … a Christian editor would not have had Tacitus call Christianity a ‘deadly superstition’.”
Carrier further justifies his replacement of the word “Christians” with “Chrestians” by observing that while Nero blamed the Christians for arson, no Christian writer recorded this until the 4th century. Carrier states,
Given the immensity of the persecution Tacitus describes … and the injustice of it being based on a false accusation of arson to cover up Nero’s own crimes, what are the odds that no Christian would ever have heard of it or made use of it or any reference to it for over three hundred years?
In other words, Tacitus cannot be referencing Christ or his church, Carrier says, because no early Christians complained about Nero’s accusation; arson was blamed on a different group.
But hang on a minute, Richard.
Tacitus would have known of Nero’s arson accusation because he had used official Government records when writing historical accounts. Perhaps Tacitus read privileged evidence of Nero’s private plot to blame the fires on the hated Christian sect?
Further, if we can show Tacitus’s report is typical of Christian persecution under Nero, this points to the passage’s authenticity, and helps to strengthen the case that Tacitus is also referencing Christ. While no record exists of Chrestian persecution, much evidence of Nero’s Christian persecution survives.
- Acts, for example, shows Roman Christians being viewed with suspicion; this was surely due to Nero’s influence. The Roman Jewish leaders said, “We understand that people everywhere are against this new group.” Perhaps Roman Jews would view Christian behaviour through the filter of anti-Christian Government propaganda. Acts lends weight to this.
- Also, the second century Christian writer Tertullian records Christian persecution in his Ad Nationes. Tertullian’s account gives many reasons for the general hatred toward the Christian Church, but “no proof is forthcoming of any crimes, only rumour; the first persecutor was Nero, the worst of emperors.” What rumour is Tertullian referencing? Alongside many documented accusations, he is most likely referencing Nero’s Christian arson rumour.
Yet sceptics will continue; since they cannot label Tacitus as a later interpolation, they will try to discredit his credentials as a historian. Sceptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman questions the quality of Tacitus’s research. Tacitus claims Jesus received, “the extreme penalty … at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.” Ehrman commented during a conversation on the Unbelievable podcast on this passage:
I wanted to show that Tacitus knew something about the historical Jesus. I also said he had not done research in archives in Rome. Pilate wasn’t that kind of Governor. He was actually a Prefect. We know this because there was an inscription discovered in Caesarea Maritima in the 1960s put up in honour of Pontius Pilate naming him Prefect not Procurator.
Ehrman is saying, if Tacitus recorded Pilate’s job role incorrectly, could this count against the accuracy of his Jesus report?
I propose not. When Tacitus wrote Annals, he was a person of power with a reputation to maintain. Habermas demonstrates this by saying, “Tacitus had to receive his information from some source … It may even have been contained in one of Pilate’s reports to the emperor, to which Tacitus would probably have had access because of his standing with the government.” Therefore it would seem unlikely that Tacitus would put his reputation at risk through poor research. Ironically, it is Carrier who leaps to Tacitus’s defence: “provincial prefects were often also imperial procurators … throughout the Annals Tacitus has a particular motive to emphasize that fact.”
In summary, yes sceptics will try to dismiss Tacitus’s Annals as an independent reference to Jesus of Nazareth. But there are no good reasons for doing this.
- Tacitus’s report is clearly an original unmodified record of the historical Jesus and his church.
- It is unreasonable to dismiss the reliability of Tacitus’s account of Jesus’ execution by Pilate because of poor research.
Cornelius Tacitus gives us excellent, early evidence that Jesus of Nazareth existed. As does the much debated JOSEPHUS…
 Bart Ehrman and Justin Brierly, “Did Jesus Exist?”, Unbelievable Podcast Saturday 18th August 2012, accessed January 31st, 2015, http://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Did-Jesus-Exist-Bart-Ehrman-Q-A-Unbelievable.
 Clay Jones, “Prepared Defence”, Jones, DVD-ROM (version 2.2).
 New Testament Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all record Jesus’ activity in the region of Judea.
 Gary Habermas, “The Historical Jesus Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ Select chapters by Gary R. Habermas”, Dr. Gary R. Habermas Online Resources, Information, Media, accessed February 4th, 2015, http://www.garyhabermas.com/books/historicaljesus/historicaljesus.htm.
 I. H. Marshall, “JESUS CHRIST, TITLES OF.” In New Bible Dictionary Second Edition (Inter-Varsity Press, 1993).
 Peter Kirby, “Antiquities of the Jews – Book XVII”, Early Jewish Writings, accessed March 1st, 2015, http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/josephus/ant17.html.
 Habermas, “The Historical Jesus”.
 Jones, “Prepared Defence”.
 Richard Carrier, HITLER HOMER BIBLE CHRIST The Historical Papers of Richard Carrier 1995-2013, (Philosophy Press 2014), 391.
 Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, “The Annals By Tacitus”, The Internet Classics Archive, accessed February 23rd, 2015, http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.11.xv.html.
 Mike Licona, “A Refutation of Acharya S’s Book, The Christ Conspiracy”, Risen Jesus the Ministry of Mike Licona, accessed February 4th, 2015, http://www.risenjesus.com/a-refutation-of-acharya-ss-book-the-christ-conspiracy.
 Carrier, HITLER HOMER BIBLE CHRIST, 390.
 Acts 28:22 NLT.
 John Chapman, “Tertullian”, The Catholic Encyclopaedia, accessed 23rd February 2015, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14520c.htm.
 Habermas, “The Historical Jesus”, Dr. Gary R. Habermas.
 Ehrman and Brierly, “Did Jesus Exist?”, Unbelievable Podcast.
 Habermas, “The Historical Jesus”, Dr. Gary R. Habermas.
 Richard Carrier, “Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic” Richard Carrier Blog, accessed January 31st, 2015, http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/1026.