The Historicity of Pontius Pilate Part II

Last week we reviewed the works of Josephus, now we turn to Tacitus, a first century Roman senator and historian, likewise mentions Pilate, in his Annals, as the man who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus.

Who was Tacitus? Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus, c. AD 56 – after 117, was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero as well as those who reigned in the Year of Four Emperors AD 69. These two works span the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus in AD 14 to the years of the First Jewish Roman War in 70 AD. Tacitus is considered one of the greatest writers of the Silver Age of Literature of the Roman Empire.

The context of the portion of the Annals, which relates to Pilate, is the about the event of the great six day fire that consumed much of Rome.

Tacitus wrote of Pilate 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.  This excerpt was written in 116 AD.

Why should we credit this report?

Tacitus makes use of the official sources of the Roman state: the  acta senatus (the minutes of the session of the Senate) and the acta diurnal populi Romani (a collection of the acts of the government and news of the court and capital). He also read collections of emperors’ speeches, such as Tiberius and Cladius.  He is generally seen as a scrupulous historian who paid careful attention to his sources. The minor inaccuracies in the Annals may be due to Tacitus dying before he had finished (and therefore proof-read) his work.

Tacitus cites some of his sources directly, among them Cluvius Rufus, Fabius Rusticus and  Pliny the Elder, who had written Bella Germaniae and a historical work which was the continuation of that of Aufidius. Tacitus also uses collections of letters (epistolarium). He also took information from exitus illustrium virorum. These were a collection of books by those who were antithetical to the emperors. They tell of sacrifices by martyrs to freedom, especially the men who committed suicide.

Tacitus’ historical style owes some debt to Sallust. The Annals, however, are written from source or primary documents, and his intimate knowledge of the Flavian period, and are therefore thought to be more accurate. His historiography offers penetrating insights into the psychology of power politics, blending straightforward descriptions of events, moral lessons, and tightly focused dramatic accounts. Tacitus’s own declaration regarding his approach to history, Annals 1, I, is well known:

“inde consilium mihi … tradere … sine ira et studio, quorum causas procul habeo.”

my purpose is to relate … without either anger or zeal, motives from which I am far removed.



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