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Tacitus: Grabbing at Straws (1st-Century Fridays #12)

Tacitus: Grabbing at Straws (1st-Century Fridays #12) September 10, 2021

Hi and welcome back! It’s Friday, and that means it’s 1st-Century Friday! We’re pretty much finished with all the genuinely contemporary writers alive and active during at least some part of Jesus’ lifetime. Now, let’s turn our attention to a source that Christians often reference as PROOF YES PROOF that their historical claims are true: Publius Cornelius Tacitus, often just called Tacitus (56 CE – 120 CE). His two major surviving works are both histories. and he makes a mention of the mythology emerging about Jesus. So Christians just love him. Today, we’ll see how sturdy this reference really is. Is it really a slam-dunk for Christians, as they think? Or is it just a straw they’re grabbing in desperation?

healing a horse
Emil Doepler, Second Merseburg Charm, 1905. From Wikipedia.) They’re apparently healing the horse.

(Series tag. In 1st-Century Fridays, we’re meeting the ancient contemporaries of Jesus. We’re using the real definition of the word “contemporaneous” here, not the one Biblical scholars have weaseled into use to give themselves some leeway with their utter lack of support for their claims. No, the people we’ll meet here must have been alive during that critical time of 30-35 CE AND have had a good chance of hearing about what Christians claim was happening in Jerusalem then. Here’s the largely-canonical list of contemporaries you might have seen around. We examined this list in full here.)

Everyone, Meet Tacitus.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, or just Tacitus, was born in 56ish CE to equestrian-rank parents in the Roman Empire. His family owned property, but wasn’t as high up in rank as the senator class. We’re not totally sure where he was born: northern Italy or southern Gaul, perhaps. Around 77 CE, he married the daughter of the famous general Agricola.

Remember that cursus honorum we’ve talked about in this series? That’s the established path of public service that Roman men traveled to become powerful. Tacitus traveled that path as well. He moved up through the ranks at the appropriate times, it sounds like, eventually reaching the rank of praetor in 88. A praetor commanded armies or handled other similarly high-level government duties. He held a seat in the Senate, too.

Eventually, Tacitus reached the very highest rank of the cursus honorumsuffect consul — in 97.

So Tacitus was the real deal in the Roman Empire.

Needless to say, he’s not even vaguely contemporary with Jesus. He wasn’t even born until 20+ years after Jesus supposedly died. By his adulthood, pretty much everyone contemporaneous with Jesus would have died already. Under that thinking, I, a Gen-Xer, could be considered contemporaneous with F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940).

What Tacitus Wrote.

After reaching the rank of suffect consul, Tacitus turned his hand to writing. His first works, both released in 98 CE, were fairly short — the well-known Agricola and Germania. In 105, he released one of his major works, Histories. Then, in 117, he released at least the first part of his really big thing, The Annals.

Agricola describes the life of the father-in-law of Tacitus, General Agricola. Agricola is famous for doing the heavy lifting in bringing Britain under Roman control. Along the way, Tacitus describes not just the military campaign but also the customs and reactions of the native Britons the army encountered.

Meanwhile, Germania describes, as you might guess, the area of Germany and the Germanic tribes that lived there. It’s clear to me that Tacitus really admired a lot of things about the ancient Germans. Read this, and then consider the contrast between these customs and those of wealthy, indolent Romans:

Their marriage code, however, is strict, and indeed no part of their manners is more praiseworthy. Almost alone among barbarians they are content with one wife, except a very few among them, and these not from sensuality, but because their noble birth procures for them many offers of alliance. The wife does not bring a dower to the husband, but the husband to the wife. The parents and relatives are present, and pass judgment on the marriage-gifts, gifts not meant to suit a woman’s taste, nor such as a bride would deck herself with, but oxen, a caparisoned steed, a shield, a lance, and a sword. With these presents the wife is espoused, and she herself in her turn brings her husband a gift of arms. This they count their strongest bond of union, these their sacred mysteries, these their gods of marriage. [Source, ch. 18]

Quite a burn!

Sacred Texts has provided translations of everything Tacitus wrote that survived, from what I can see. You can get fancier downloads from Project Gutenberg as well, but I’ll be going off the first site.

What Tacitus Believed.

In every way I can see, Tacitus was a good Roman — which implies that he was religious in the way that the Roman Empire liked best. As we’ve already seen in this series, believing the wrong things or following the wrong philosophy (like vegetarianism) could end a guy’s cursus honorum right quick!

Histories begins with the Year of the Four Emperors (69 CE) and ends, we think, with the death of the terrifying Domitian in 96 CE. Unfortunately, of the many volumes of Histories, only the first four volumes and a bit of the fifth survive today. So we have 69-70 CE. Interestingly, that fifth book talks about the Jews (here, where we get a very different account of the Exodus, and also here). La Wiki insists that this information is entirely inaccurate. If nothing else, we can tell that Tacitus didn’t think highly of Jews or Judea:

The doors of the inner shrine were suddenly thrown open, and a voice of more than mortal tone was heard to cry that the Gods were departing. At the same instant there was a mighty stir as of departure. Some few put a fearful meaning on these events, but in most there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judaea, were to acquire universal empire. These mysterious prophecies had pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, with the usual blindness of ambition, had interpreted these mighty destinies of themselves, and could not be brought even by disasters to believe the truth. [Source, ch. 13.]

Ouch.

The reason I’m including this detail will likely become clear in a moment.

The Tacitus Reference That Makes Christians Swoon.

In Book 15, chapter 44 of The Annals, we find an interesting bit of information about the Great Fire of Rome (64 CE):

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. [Source, ch. 44]

Tacitus then goes on to describe the persecution itself in some very imaginative ways.

How Christians React to the Passage.

Christians — especially evangelicals, who lean the hardest on their totes-for-realsies-historical claims about their religion — love to point to this passage as PROOF YES PROOF of those claims. Got Questions, an apologetics site, gushes:

From Tacitus’ perspective, he was merely recording the events of history in the Roman Empire. Some of the details he recorded are of great interest to us today. For skeptics, Tacitus’ reference to Jesus provides evidence, without “Christian bias,” of Jesus’ historical existence. For believers, Tacitus’ Annals affirms the Bible’s witness.

Their admiration is mirrored in many other places. For example, a missionary subgroup within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) smugly asserts that “skeptics have tried every imaginable means to discredit this passage—but to no avail.”

So gosh, y’all, it appears that we’ve finally been stumped. After name after name being utterly silent, this one-or-two-generations-removed historian finally totally confirmed Jesus’ existence!

Oh wait.

The Problem With This Passage.

Interestingly, nobody at the actual time of the Great Fire said Nero blamed Christians — as we’ve already seen. We’ve covered various writers already who mentioned this fire. Nobody talked about Christians at the time.

Here’s a Catholic article summarizing the problem:

There is no evidence for where Tacitus got this, and no other ancient writer corroborates him. Suetonius, the Roman administrator and biographer, in a life of Nero roughly contemporary with the Annals, holds Nero alone responsible for the fire, narrates the fire without connection to Christians, and says Nero punished Christians only routinely, without mentioning the fire.

Cassius Dio after about 210 AD writes about the fire but says nothing about Christians. The Chronicle of Christian Sulpicius Severus (after 400 AD) depends entirely on Tacitus.

All true.

Oh, but things are about to get way worse — for Christians.

What’s More Likely.

Contrary to the SBC’s smug assertion, Scott Oser at Infidels.org offers some potent food for thought:

Conceivably, Tacitus may just be repeating what he was told by Christians about Jesus. If so, then this passage merely confirms that there were Christians in Tacitus’ time, and that they believed that Pilate killed Jesus during the reign of Tiberius. This would not be independent confirmation of Jesus’s existence. If, on the other hand, Tacitus found this information in Roman imperial records (to which he had access) then that could constitute independent confirmation.

And here is the slam-dunk slapdown:

There are good reasons to doubt that Tacitus is working from Roman records here, however. For one, he refers to Pilate by the wrong title (Pilate was a prefect, not a procurator). Secondly, he refers to Jesus by the religious title “Christos”. Roman records would not have referred to Jesus by a Christian title, but presumably by his given name.

Oops.

Eric Laupot, also writing for Infidels.org, comes to similar conclusions in a way more scholarly piece. He suspects that Christiani was a Roman name for “a major Jewish group acting in opposition to Rome and in defense of Israel.” He goes through a series of proofs to support his assertion that they were the main participants in the “first Jewish revolt against Rome of 66-73 CE.”

Sidebar: How Ancient Historians Operated.

Over and over again in this series, I’ve mentioned that historians in those days got their information from other sources. They’d use an earlier history written by someone else as a launching-off point. Archaeology in the Renaissance worked in strikingly similar ways for the longest time. Instead of getting their hands dirty doing original research, ancient historians used earlier historians as sources.

So it’s very doubtful that Tacitus himself actually traveled to every single place he talks about in his books. By the end of Germania, that much is clear:

All else is fabulous, as that the Hellusii and Oxiones have the faces and expressions of men, with the bodies and limbs of wild beasts. All this is unauthenticated, and I shall leave it open. [Source, ch. 46]

Tacitus wasn’t doing anything underhanded or weird in using other sources, if that’s what he did.

I just wanted to make that point before we finish up.

Summarizing: Nope, Tacitus Is Not PROOF YES PROOF.

I see no reason to believe that the passage Christians idolize was a later insertion or forgery (unlike the so-called Testimony of Josephus). However, Tacitus makes such drastic mistakes in the passage that we can’t believe that he was working from Roman court records.

So at the most, Tacitus is only repeating what he knew of Christians’ beliefs. For all we know, it was these Christians who claimed that Nero had stuck them with blame for the fire and then persecuted them. It sure wouldn’t be the very first time Christians have invented persecution to make themselves look pitiable-yet-victorious. Heck, they do it even nowadays. Christians fantasize about persecution all the time — while they themselves persecute and harass anybody who refuses to comply with their demands.

But we don’t know that Christians themselves fed Tacitus the story of the Neronian persecution.

What we do know is that Tacitus makes some very key mistakes in his short account that indicate that he wasn’t working from any official Roman records. All he can tell us is that some group with a name like “Chrestianos” or “Christianos” had arisen during his lifetime and that they took their group name from someone called “Christus.”

It’s not exactly a ringing account of historicity for a group that’s already struggling to hand-wave away the utter silence of contemporary historians of the first century.

NEXT UP: Ronnie Floyd, a big name in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), is still pushing his hilariously failed “Vision 2025” thing. We’ll check out how that’s going. See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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