Most of the facts of the life of Tacitus are shrouded in mystery. We do not know for certain whether his first name was Publius or Gaius, the exact year of his birth, or the place of his birth. We do know that he was a friend of Pliny the Younger, but this does not help us to raise the veil much. What is known about his early life is scant: he was a member of the Cornelius clan and he was probably born in 56 or 57 AD.
It is thought that his father, who was also named Cornelius Tacitus, was a friend of Pliny the Elder, which explains the friendship of the two sons. Tacitus married, Julia, the daughter of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, that is the famous General Agricola, who conquered Britannia. This fact supports the contention that Tacitus may have come from Gallia Narbonensis. Nonetheless, shortly after marrying Julia, his career took off, and he quickly went through the various offices of the cursus honorum. Becoming a quaestor, praetor, and then, a quindecimvir sacris facundis, a priest presiding over the all-important Sibylline Books and the Ludi Saeculares, the so-called Secular Games, which marked the changing of epochs of 100 or 110 years, the supposed longest possible human lifetime in 88AD. As a quindecimvir sacris facundis, he was a member of the council which supervised foreign cults in Rome, and, thereby, Van Voorst argues that he could have become familiar with Christianity in this way. As a senator and as a lawyer, he was renowned for his oratory, which is ironic given his cognomen of Tacitus or “silent”. Ultimately, he rose to the highest governorship position in the Empire, Governor of Asia.
He authored numerous works, including ‘The Life of Agricola’,’Germania’, “Dialogue on Oratory’, ‘Histories’, and the ‘Annals’. The last two works together provide a continuous history from 14 AD (the death of Augustus) to 96AD (the death of Domitian).
The context of the Annals, as it relates to Jesus, is the great six day fire that consumed much of Rome. Tacitus wrote of Jesus as follows:
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 center 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. Annals of Tacitus Book 15, Chapter 44
First and foremost, this passage, confirms the crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of Pontius Pilate, and thus the historicity of Jesus. While it incorrectly refers to Pilate as a procurator, a term which was applied to leaders of Judea after 42 AD, some six years after Pilate left Judea, it correctly dates Pilate’s tenure in Judea to the reign of Tiberius. This passage is highly critical of Christians-‘a highly mischievous superstition’ and labeling Judea as the ‘first source of the evil’. It is thus unlikely that this passage is a later interpolation into the Annals, for why would Church fathers write thusly of their own religion?
The issue of whether the term procurator demonstrates that the passage is a later interpolation has been dismissed by most scholars. Many leading scholars now agree with Bruce Chilton, Craig Evans and Robert E. Van Voorst that Tacitus probably used the term which was more familiar to his readers of his day, rather than to use a discarded more ancient term.
Likewise, the issue of whether Tacitus used the word Christians or Chrestians is really unimportant because there is a great deal of evidence to support the fact that Christians used both terms. Luke in Acts uses the term ‘Christian’, which appears to be the origination of that term, but that is only a single usage. Otherwise, Christians often referred to themselves as Chrestians.
This passage also tells us a great deal about early Christianity. First, by 64 AD, that is the date of the Great Fire of Rome, there were Christians in Rome. Second, Christians could be distinguished by the Romans from Jews. Third, Judea was seen as the home of Christianity. Fourth, Christians were martyred in Rome.
Given as to how negative this passage is concerning Christianity, and given Tacitus’ clear goal of painstakingly verifying his facts, it is hard to conceive that this passage is not genuine.
In future parts to this article, I will discuss other Roman writers, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger, who give further support to the historicity of Jesus, as well as shedding light on early Christianity.