Continuing our historical investigation into the early sources for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we turn next to the ancient non-Christian sources. We will move, successively, from ancient historians, to government officials, to other Jewish and Gentile sources, to early Gnostic sources and then to lost works that speak of Jesus.
Cornelius Tacitus (ca. AD 55–120) was a Roman historian who lived through the reigns of over a half dozen Roman emperors. He has been called the “greatest historian” of ancient Rome, an individual generally acknowledged among scholars for his moral “integrity and essential goodness.”^1
Tacitus is best known for two works—the Annalsand the Histories. The former is thought to have included eighteen books and the latter to have included twelve, for a total of thirty.^2 The Annalscover the period from Augustus’ death in AD 14 to that of Nero in AD 68, while the Historiesbegin after Nero’s death and proceed to that of Domitian in AD 96.
Tacitus recorded at least one reference to Christ and two to early Christianity, one in each of his major works. The most important one is that found in the Annals, written about AD 115. The following was recounted concerning the great fire in Rome during the reign of Nero:
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. 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.
1 Moses Hadas, “Introduction” to The Complete Works of Tacitus(New York: Random House, 1942), pp. IX, XIII-XIV.
2 An alternate theory is that the Annalsincluded sixteen books and the Histories, fourteen books, also for a total of thirty (cf. Hadas, p. XII).
From Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus – Ancient Evidence For The Life Of Christ (in print at Amazon)
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.^3 From this report we can learn several facts, both explicit and implicit, concerning Christ and the Christians who lived in Rome in the AD 60s. Chronologically, we may ascertain the following information.