Publius Cornelius Tacitus On Early Christianity

"Tacitus writes about the Great Fire in Rome of 64 CE. He notes how it was thought that the emperor Nero had started this fire but then saw in the Christians an easy scapegoat. Although Nero attributed to them the blame of arson, modern historians acknowledge that the lack of connection made to the Christians and the fire in other ancient sources suggests their innocence. According to Tacitus the fire’s damage was extensive. It lasted nine days and left only four of Rome’s sixteen districts intact. In his Annals, Tacitus then narrates the story of Nero’s scapegoating the Christians, using the common early spelling of Christians as Chrestians:

“But neither human help, nor gifts from the emperor, nor all the ways of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order [of Nero]. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd called Chrestians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital [Rome] itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and become fashionable. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the clothes of a charioteer, or mounted on his chariot. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrifices not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man” (5).

Tacitus’ passage is valuable because of the details the historian can use to piece together some early Christian history. Perhaps most important is its corroboration of the figure of Jesus Christ, whom Tacitus called “Christus”, and to whom he attributes the origin of the Christian religion. The Latin term “Christus” is a transliteration of the Greek word Christos, which means “anointed” and is equivalent to the Hebrew word Messiah.

Like some other Roman writers, Tacitus was certainly a hostile witness to the early Christian movement calling it a “pernicious superstition” that had continued to grow. It was in a state of expansion despite its founder having recently been put to death under Pontius Pilatus during the reign of Emperor Tiberius. Tacitus thus corroborates the gospel sources that also name Pontius Pilate as the one who condemned Christ to death by crucifixion (Mark 15:15, Matthew 27:37, Luke 23, John 18). The gospel of Luke also says that this occurred during the rule of Emperor Tiberius (3:1). Both the gospels and Tacitus put Christ’s crucifixion in the correct time, in 30 CE, as Tiberius ruled from CE 14 to CE 37.

Tacitus also references where the “disease” of Christianity originated, which was in Judaea, the same place the New Testament locates Christ and the earliest Christians. We also know from the Apostle Paul that Christians existed at an early stage in the city of Rome. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is dated to the 50s CE, around 20 or so years after Christ’s death and a few years before the fire of Rome. In a similar fashion to details from other extra-biblical accounts, such as one provided by Pliny the Younger, members of the early Christian movement experienced persecution. According to what Tacitus informs us, the Christians were arrested by Roman authorities, many of them convicted, and then thrown to the wild beasts and dogs or crucified while being set alight to serve as lamps to illuminate the darkness of night. Tacitus says that Nero relished in this punishment making it a spectacle for the crowds to see. However, many had pity on the Christians for their suffering and deaths were due to Nero’s own hatred. Scholar Paul Keresztes explains that this was Tacitus’ attempt to portray Nero in a negative light,

“Ever purposeful in his choice of themes and characters, Tacitus shows himself in his writings as a supreme dramatist and tragic writer of history. By joining together the Christians, the outcasts of Roman society, and Nero, equally, if not more, hated by the Romans, and by joining together the fire of Rome and the massacre of the Christians, the Roman historian paints a tragedy in sheer black — and all this only, perhaps, to make the character of Nero appear even darker. By painting the Christians as the vilest and most abominable members of society and expressing obvious satisfaction at their horrible punishment by such a man as Nero himself — despite their admitted innocence of arson — Tacitus the dramatist fulfills his chief duty as historian in putting on record evil men and their evil deeds” (6).

James Bishop, "Publius Cornelius Tacitus on Early Christianity (Christian History)"


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