Tacitus as a Credible Witness

COPYRIGHT WARNING

Claims that Tacitus account of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, were written at too great a distance to the event—to be considered credible, are without merit.

Tacitus was 7 years old when the Great Fire of Rome took place, he was well aware of this massive inferno, which destroyed most of the city. Tacitus knew in great detail, the accusations of Nero and the reasons for which Christianity was spreading so greatly over the world: the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Tacitus never refutes either, and being that he was a patriot of Rome, he certainly was not sympathetic to Christians—whom he believed were responsible for the destruction of the city he loved. Tacitus simply recorded the facts of Jesus Crucifixion, as they were dictated to him by Nero and those who had first hand knowledge of the event.[1]

The most credible scholars today have confirmed that this text from Tacitus is authentic and reliable.[2] Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, in their masterpiece of critical assessment of the Gospels, describe the verity of the Tacitus text as firmly establishing, by extra-biblical sources, that Jesus was crucified under the Roman government—during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, by Pontius Pilate, precisely as the New Testament Gospels describe.

“Tacitus provides us with independent, non-Christian confirmation of Jesus’s crucifixion, that it occurred during the reign of Tiberius (14– 37 CE) and under Pilate’s governorship (26– 36 CE). He also shows us that within three decades of Jesus’s death there was a strong Christian presence in some quarters of the Roman Empire—enough so that Nero could use them as a plausible scapegoat for political purposes. And he tells us that many of these Christians were willing to suffer and die for their faith.”[3]

John Meier, Professor of the New Testament and Biblical Scholar, said this regarding the authenticity of the Tacitus manuscript:

“Despite some feeble attempts to show that this text is a Christian interpolation in Tacitus, the passage is obviously genuine.”[4]

Other Scholars which include Bruce Chilton, Craig Evans, Paul R. Eddy, and Gregory A. Boyd also agree with John Meier’s statement.[5]

In 1885, Polydore Hochart attempted a run at designating the Tacitus works as fabrications of “Pogge,” an Italian humanist from the 5th century. Hochart simply repeated an earlier claim made in 1878 by John Wilson Ross, in his book: “Tacitus and Bracciolini,” which alleged that the Annals of Tacitus were forged in the 15th century.”[6]

At the present time, the world’s Christian historians have impeached both the works of Hochart and Wilson as invalid and lacking evidence to conclude that they are true.[7] Today, every suggestion that the entire body of text in the Annals are either inaccurate or a forgery has been rejected by virtually all credible scholars.[8]

The record of Jesus’ execution by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, written by Tacitus, is of immense value for the historicity of Jesus Christ. Being an independent source from both the Roman government and the Biblical text, Tacitus authenticates the narrative of the four gospels that Jesus was scourged and crucified exactly as the Gospels describe.[9] Tacitus further describes the certainty that the Christians of this time believed that by drinking the blood and eating the body of Jesus of Nazareth, who was described as the “Christ”—those who believed could live forever.[10]

Taccitus_annals_book_15_chapter_44[11]
A copy of the Tacitus second Medicean manuscript of Annals, Book 15, chapter 44, the page with the reference to Christians.[12]

The following is the English translation of the text from the image above:

“Such indeed were the precautions of human wisdom. The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the fane and image of the goddess. And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women. But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. 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.”[13]

Academic experts confirm that the crucifixion of Jesus is an established event, equal to any other respected and confirmed event of antiquity.[14] Even those who are regarded as scholars, who do not believe in the deity of Jesus Christ, consider Jesus’ scourging and crucifixion as actual occurrences that can be proven from extra-biblical authorities.[15]

The fact that Tacitus and the history of the Roman government records the same events occurring during the same period of history that the four Gospels record these events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—should cause any serious historian to conclude they are authentic. There is no contradictory evidence in any of the writings of Tacitus that controverts the New Testament narrative of Jesus Christ.

Further writings of the Emperor Trajan, Pliny the Younger, and Josephus—all affirm the accounts, given by Tacitus, of the events that took place at Jesus’ crucifixion before Pontius Pilate. [16]

Tacitus displayed no favoritism nor sympathy towards Jesus or the new Christian church. The tone in which Tacitus describes Christians is both hostile and negative—so much so, any reader would never conclude that Tacitus was trying to record events to assist the Christian message, nor authenticate or validate Jesus as the Messiah, whom the Christian church claimed Him to be.[17]

Dr. Robert E. Van Voorst, Professor of New Testament Studies at Western Theological Seminary, describes the writings of Tacitus in regards to proving the authenticity of Jesus as illustrated in the New Testament, as follows:

“Of all the Roman writers, Tacitus gives us the most precise information about Christ.”[18]

John Dominic Crossan, an Irish-American New Testament scholar and historian of early Christianity, writes:

“That He (Jesus) was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be, since both Josephus and Tacitus… agree with the Christian accounts on at least the basic facts.”[19]

Even Dr. Bart Ehrman, who denies that Jesus is God, confirms the historical record that Jesus is a real person from history who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, as the New Testament details:

“Tacitus’s report confirms what we have known from other sources, that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, sometime during Tiberius’s reign.”[20]

Due to the compelling testimony of a non-Biblical source which validates from the historical record that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person who died under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, the writings of Tacitus have come under great criticism and scrutiny. According to Clarence W. Mendell, John Wilson Ross, and Robert Van Voorst, who have written extensively on Tacitus—regarding a 19th century hypothesis—which claims that the Annals of Tacitus were fabricated by 15th century Italian author, Poggio Bracciolini, is false and never proven credible by any recognized Biblical scholar.[21]


NOTES:
[1] Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times by Paul Barnett 2002 ISBN 0-8308-2699-8 page 30.
[2] Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000. p 39- 53
Tradition and Incarnation: Foundations of Christian Theology by William L. Portier 1993 ISBN 0-8091-3467-5 page 263
[3] Eddy, Paul Rhodes; Boyd, Gregory A. (2007-08-01). Jesus Legend, The: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Kindle Locations 3424-3428). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
[4] John Meier, Marginal Jew, 1: 90; see also Evans, “Jesus in Non-Christian Sources,” 465.
[5] 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
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
[6] 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.”
[7] 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
[8] 1.Robert Van Voorst Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence 2000 ISBN 0-8028-4368-9 page 42
2.Although a few scholars question the passage given that Tacitus was born 25 years after Jesus’ death, the majority of scholars consider it genuine.
Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000. p 39- 53
3.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. Tradition and Incarnation: Foundations of Christian Theology by William L. Portier 1993 ISBN 0-8091-3467-5 page 263
4.Tacitus was a patriotic Roman senator. Josephus, the Bible, and history by Louis H. Feldman 1997 ISBN 90-04-08931-4 page 381 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
5.Tacitus’ writings shows no sympathy towards Christians, or knowledge of who their leader was. Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies by Craig A. Evans 2001 ISBN 0-391-04118-5 page 42
Ancient Rome by William E. Dunstan 2010 ISBN 0-7425-6833-4 page 293
6.Tacitus characterization of Christian abominations likely was 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. Ancient Rome by William E. Dunstan 2010 ISBN 0-7425-6833-4 page 293
An introduction to the New Testament and the origins of Christianity by Delbert Royce Burkett 2002 ISBN 0-521-00720-8 page 485
7.Andreas Köstenberger wrote that the tone of the text in Tacitus towards Christians is too negative to have been written by a Christian. 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
8.Robert Van Voorst siad that the passage is unlikely to be a Christian forgery because of the pejorative language used to describe Christianity. Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000. p 39- 53
9.John P. Meier wrote that there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support the argument that a scribe may have introduced the passage into the text. Meier, John P., A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Doubleday: 1991. vol 1: p. 168-171.
10.Tacitus was most likely about 7 years old when the Great Fire of Rome occured. , As he grew up he would have heard about the fire that destroyed most of the city, and Nero’s accusations against Christians. Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times by Paul Barnett 2002 ISBN 0-8308-2699-8 page 30
11.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. Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times by Paul Barnett 2002 ISBN 0-8308-2699-8 page 30
[9] 1.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
2.Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies by Craig A. Evans 2001 ISBN 0-391-04118-5 page 42
3.Ancient Rome by William E. Dunstan 2010 ISBN 0-7425-6833-4 page 293
4.Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation by Helen K. Bond 2004 ISBN 0-521-61620-4 page xi
5.Van Voorst, Robert E (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence Eerdmans Publishing ISBN 0-8028-4368-9 pages 39-42
6.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
[10] Tacitus’ 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 symbolic ritual as cannibalism by Christians. References: Ancient Rome by William E. Dunstan 2010 ISBN 0-7425-6833-4 page 293 and An introduction to the New Testament and the origins of Christianity by Delbert Royce Burkett 2002 ISBN 0-521-00720-8 page 485
[11] By Tacitus (text copied by a monk in the 11th century). Photographic facsimile by Henricus Rostagno, 1902. [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
[12] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacitus_on_Christ
[13] http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Annals_(Tacitus)/Book_15
[14] Crossan, John Dominic (1995). Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. HarperOne. p. 145. ISBN 0-06-061662-8. “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.”
[15] 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
[16] Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation by Helen K. Bond 2004 ISBN 0-521-61620-4 page xi
[17] Van Voorst, Robert E (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 0-8028-4368-9 pages 30-32
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
Meier, John P., A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Doubleday: 1991. vol 1: p. 168-171
[18] Van Voorst, Robert E (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 0-8028-4368-9 pages 30-32
[19] Crossan, John Dominic (1995). Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. HarperOne. ISBN 0-06-061662-8 page 145
[20] The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings by Bart D. Ehrman 1999 ISBN 0-19-512639, page 212
[21] Clarence W. Mendell, Tacitus: The Man And His Work (Yale University Press/Oxford University Press, 1957) page 219.
John Wilson Ross, Tacitus and Bracciolini: The Annals Forged In The XVth Century ISBN 978-1-4068-4051-3. Originally published London: Diprose and Bateman, 1878.
Robert Van Voorst Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence 2000 ISBN 0-8028-4368-9 page 42

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