As with our previous discussion of Josephus, we turn to other sources of significance. Significant because they were quite contemporary with the events of Christ and the early church, but also that these sources were not apart of believers in Christ. These historians, who were not believers, and therefore had nothing to gain by reporting the life of Christ as fact, serve as important witnesses. After all, some of the most important witnesses (of any situation) are those who have nothing to gain, nor do they side with the individual(s) they are reporting facts about.
There are three Roman historians that give corroborating evidence to the biblical account of Christ and the early church, they are Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger. Of these three, the most informative of them all is Tacitus, who we will be considering in this article.
Publius Cornelius Tacitus was born in the 56th year of the first century. He was a Roman senator as well as a historian; his written works contain the histories of the reigns of Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, and the four emperors who reigned in 69 A.D. His writings are significant in many circles, and he is considered a great and accurate historian.
Tacitus speaks of two events that are critical for the Christian to consider. One being the death (and possibly the resurrection) of Christ, and the other being the persecution of Christians under the authority of Emperor Nero. Let’s first take a look at what Tacitus writes, and then we will analyze his record.
In the context of the aftermath of the great fire in Rome, Tacitus writes: “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 Judea, 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. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.” (Annals 15:44)
This is a tremendous record of Christ and early Christians straight from the mind of a Roman Senator who thought of Christianity as an evil in the world. Let’s start the analysis with His documentation of Christ. He speaks of a large group known by the world as Christians, who first began in Judea, but has since spread even to Rome. Tacitus notes the origins of the class called Christians who lived in the time of Nero, saying that it began with one man, whom he names “Christus,” who “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius.” The “extreme penalty” of Roman punishment was execution by crucifixion. Tacitus says that the Roman in charge of such execution was Pontius Pilatus, the Roman procurator of that region. Tacitus then proceeds to say something strange, that after this penalty was inflicted on “Christus,” that “a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out.” What Tacitus means by this, I cannot say for sure; however, a number of scholars hold the position that he is speaking of the stifling of Christianity by the execution of its leader, followed by something mischievous in the resurrection of the executed leader, following which Christianity broke out in great strength, eventually reaching Rome. Whether Tacitus is referencing the resurrection of Christ is difficult to say for sure; nevertheless, it stands as a strong possibility.
Tacitus would never had recorded the event of Jesus’ death (as it had no importance for him) if it not had been for Emperor Nero’s persecution of the Christians, to which, Tacitus, as all good historians, gives the background origins of the group. The documented history that he gives of Christ’s death, as important as it is to us, is merely a side note to Tacitus’ more important goal, which is to provide the record of how the greatest city in the world (and his capitol) burned extensively for seven days, killing many thousands of Romans. Tacitus does not give his opinion as to who was guilty of setting the fire, but he seems to point to Nero. Suetonius, another first century Roman historian, gives further detail into the proof that Nero was guilty of the fire (Suetonius’ “The Twelve Caesars,” Nero, Chapter 38). Nonetheless, it was the Christians that Nero blamed the fire on, and unleashed terrible tortures upon them.
The Christians seemed to be the easy target to place the blame on. Tacitus said that they were “a class hated for their abominations.” Certainly in Roman circles, they were understood as a group who denied the worship of the Emperors as gods, which was the state religion at that time. Tacitus even states his opinion that they were “criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment.” Although it seemed to Nero that the Roman citizens would follow suit with his attack on Christians, Tacitus reveals that “there arose a feeling of compassion” for the persecuted.
The persecution that Tacitus records is by no means of standard hardships. What the brethren of the first century endured was like nothing before its time, nor anything afterward. It began in Rome, but it seems that Nero wanted to put in end to the group throughout his entire empire, and therefore, extended the persecution into the rest of the world. Peter references this point when he speaks to Christians very far east of Rome about the present persecution, saying that “the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” (1 Peter 5:9). Peter attributes the origins of Nero’s persecution to be from Satan himself; the book of Revelation also gives witness to this fact (13:2). The details from Tacitus are as follows: Some were covered with animal skins for the purpose of releasing dogs to tear them to their deaths. Others were crucified, while still others were placed in Nero’s garden at social affairs after dusk, where they served as lamps, being burned in flames. These details that Tacitus documents give us the sense of the wrath that Nero unleashed on Christians from A.D. 64 to 68.
While there is no direct scripture that speaks of Nero blaming the great fire of Rome on Christians, the blood of Christians from that four year persecution runs through many of its pages. Prominently within Peter’s two epistles, and the book of Revelation we have biblical insight into this critical persecution.