Historicity of Jesus: Tacitus

by Kyle Larson

Tacitus: The Man

TacitusTacitus was born in Gaul, modern day France, and lived between 56 and 120 AD. At the time, Gaul was a Roman Province, having been conquered by Julius Caesar in the middle of the first century BC. Tacitus grew up in an upper class family. This afforded him an excellent education by Roman standards and enabled him to study Roman law. This, in turn, opened the doors for public administrative office. He married the daughter of Agricola, a Roman consul who later was appointed the governor of Britain. By the time he was an adult, Tacitus was well connected to the upper circles of Roman Imperial Administration

The Early Works

1. Agrcola

As stated above, Tacitus married the daughter of Agricola, who was a high ranking Roman official. Tacitus wanted to honor his father-in-Law Agricola by giving an account of his service to the Roman Empire, so he chose to chronicle Agricola’s reign as the Governor of Britain. In this work, we get a quick glimpse of what life in Britain was like under early Roman rule through the Governorship of Agricola; Britain became a Roman Province late in the first Century.

2. Germania

Tacitus’ second early historical work had to do with life among the Germanic tribes. Tacitus wanted to chronicle how Greco-Roman Culture was superior to Germanic culture. This book gives us a personal, if biased, glimpse into late first century life in the far north of the Roman empire.

The Histories and The Annals

This two most important substantial works of Tacitus are the Histories and the Annals.

1. The Histories (69 AD – 96 AD)

This book covers a period ranging from the time of Emperor Galba to the Emperor Domitian. This historical work takes up 5 books. The first four books as well as part of the fifth book still exists.

2. The Annals (14 AD – 68 AD)

Tacitus, after finishing The Histories, decided to take a further step backwards and wrote on the Imperial reigns from Augustus Caesar to Nero. One thing that seems obvious as one reads Tacitus is that because of his position in the Roman Imperial administration, he had access to earlier sources. He made good use of them.

Tacitus on Christians and Jesus

From his writings, we can gain insight into what Tacitus wrote concerning Jesus and his earliest followers in Rome.

Tacitus wrote in The Annals:

“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 center and become popular.”

Tacitus, based on earlier Roman governmental documentation, gives us specific glimpses into the early church. He confirms that Jesus was crucified while Tiberius was Emperor of Rome and Pontius Pilate was the Roman Governor of Judea. This places the crucifixion between 26 and 36 AD. Tacitus also writes that at some point after the death of Jesus, something happened that caused the Christians to re-surface in Judea, and later, into Rome itself.

At one point, Nero had it in mind to remake Rome into a beautiful, art filled Roman utopia. Soon after, old Rome went up in flames. Many to this day suspect Nero was behind it. To quell such rumors at the time, Nero decided to blame the early Christians for the fire. Thus began the first major persecution of the church. Tacitus records this in his Annals. Fortunately, this was not an empire wide persecution, but mainly localized in Rome.

So here we have genuine historical testimony from a Roman historian. According to Roman records of the day as accessed by Tacitus, Jesus was a real person. He actually lived and died a horrible death. He had numerous followers, even in Rome, and they continued to spread his message.

Next week, we will look into the background on Suetonius and on what he wrote on Jesus and the early Christians.