Christianity has no part in Tacitus’s history of the Caesars. Except for one questionable reference in the Annals he records nothing of a cult marginal even in his own day.
Sometime before 117 AD, the Roman historian apparently wrote:
“Nero looked around for a scapegoat, and inflicted the most fiendish tortures on a group of persons already hated for their crimes. This was the sect known as Christians. Their founder, one Christus, had been put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. This checked the abominable superstition for a while, but it broke out again and spread, not merely through Judea, where it originated, but even to Rome itself, the great reservoir and collecting ground for every kind of depravity and filth. Those who confessed to being Christians were at once arrested, but on their testimony a great crowd of people were convicted, not so much on the charge of arson, but of hatred of the entire human race.
Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals’ skins , they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight.”
– Tacitus (Book 15, chapter 44):
As we have seen, the term ‘Christian’ was not in use during the reign of Nero and there would not have been ‘a great crowd’ unless we are speaking of Jews, not Christians. ‘Jewish/Christians’ – being perceived by Roman authorities (and the populace at large) simply as Jews meant that early Christ-followers also got caught up in general attacks upon the Jews.
“Their effects to dissemble their Jewish origins were detected by the decisive test of circumcision; nor were the Roman magistrates at leisure to enquire into the difference of their religious tenets.”
– Edward Gibbon (Decline and Fall)
One consequence of the fire which destroyed much of Rome in 64 AD was a capitation tax levied on the Jews and it was the Jews – throughout the empire – who were required to pay for the city’s rebuilding – a factor which helped to radicalise many Jews in the late 60s AD.
Not for the first time would Christian scribes expropriated the real suffering of a whole people to create an heroic ‘origins’ fable…
No Christian apologist for centuries ever quoted the passage of Tacitus – not in fact, until it had appeared almost word-for-word in the writings of Sulpicius Severus, in the early fifth century, where it is mixed in with other myths. Sulpicius’s contemporaries credited him with a skill in the ‘antique’ hand. He put it to good use and fantasy was his forte: his Life of St. Martin is replete with numerous ‘miracles’, including raising of the dead and personal appearances by Jesus and Satan.
His dastardly story of Nero was embellished during the Renaissance into a fantastic fable with Nero ‘fiddling while Rome burned’. Nero took advantage of the destruction to build his ‘Golden House’ though no serious scholar believes anymore that he started the fire (we now know Nero was in his hometown of Antium – Anzio – when the blaze started.) Indeed, Nero opened his palace garden for temporary shelter to those made homeless.
In short, the passage in Tacitus is a fraud and adds no evidence for a historic Jesus.
Update: The probing eye of science
11th century monk corrects Tacitus: “Goodies” to read “Christians”!
Ultraviolet photo of a critical word from the earliest known extant manuscript of Tacitus (second Medicean, Laurentian library, Italy).
The photograph reveals that the word purportedly used by Tacitus in Annals 15.44, chrestianos (“the good”), has been overwritten as christianos (“the Christians”) by a later hand, a deceit which explains the excessive space between the letters and the exaggerated “dot” (dash) above the new “i”. The entire “torched Christians” passage of Tacitus is not only fake, it has been repeatedly “worked over” by fraudsters to improve its value as evidence for the Jesus myth.
The truth may be that there was an original gnostic cult following a personified virtue, “Jesus Chrestos” (Jesus the Good). Consequently, they were called Chrestians, an appellation which seems to have attached itself at an early date to the sectarians of the “heretic” Marcion. Support for this possibility comes from the earliest known “Christian” inscription, found in the 19th century on a Marcionite church at Deir Ali, three miles south of Damascus. Dated to circa 318, the inscription reads “The meeting-house of the Marcionists, in the village of Lebaba, of the Lord and Saviour Jesus the Good”, using the word Chrestos, not Christos.
As a flesh-and-blood, “historical” Jesus gradually eclipsed the allegorical Jesus so, too, did “goodness” get eclipsed by “Messiahship”. Justin, in his First Apology (4), about thirty years after the death of Tacitus, plays on the similarity in sound of the two words Χριστὸς (Christ) and χρηστὸς (good, excellent) to argue for the wholesome, commendable character of Jesus followers.
The Chrestianos Issue in Tacitus Reinvestigated by Erík Zara © 2009
see more at the link above.