(1) Christians were named for their founder, Christus (from the Latin), (2)who was put to death by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilatus (also Latin), (3)during the reign of emperor Tiberius (AD 14–37). (4)His death ended the “superstition” for a short time, (5)but it broke out again, (6)especially in Judaea, where the teaching had its origin. (7) His followers carried his doctrine to Rome. (8)When the great fire destroyed a large part of the city during the reign of Nero (AD 54–68), the emperor placed the blame on the Christians who lived in Rome. (9)Tacitus reports that this group was hated for their abominations. (10)These Christians were arrested after pleading guilty, (11)and many were convicted for “hatred for mankind.” (12)They were mocked and (13)then tortured, including being “nailed to crosses” or burnt to death. (14) Because of these actions, the people had compassion on the Christians. (15) Tacitus therefore concluded that such punishments were not for the public good but were simply “to glut one man’s cruelty.”^4
Several facts here are of interest. As F.F. Bruce has noted, Tacitus had to receive his information from some source and this may have been an official record. It may even have been contained in one of Pilate’s reports to the emperor, to which Tacitus would probably have had access because of his standing with the government.^5 Of course, we cannot be sure at this point, but a couple of early writers do claim to know the contents of such a report, as we will perceive later.
Also of interest is the historical context for Jesus’ death, as he is linked with both Pilate and Tiberius. Additionally, J.N.D. Anderson sees implications in Tacitus’ quote concerning Jesus’ resurrection. It is scarcely fanciful to suggest that when he adds that “A most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out” he is bearing indirect and unconscious testimony to the conviction of the early church that the Christ who had been crucified had risen from the grave.^6 Although we must be careful not to press this implication too far, the possibility remains that Tacitus may have indirectly referred to the Christians’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since his teachings “again broke out” after his death.
Also interesting is the mode of torture employed against the early Christians. Besides burning, a number were crucified by being “nailed to crosses.”
3 Tacitus, 15.44.
5 F.F. Bruce, Christian Origins, p. 23.
6 J.N.D. Anderson, Christianity: The Witness of History(London: Tyndale, 1969), p. 19.
Not only is this the method used with Jesus, but tradition reports that Nero was responsible for crucifying Peter as well, but upside down. The compassion aroused in the Roman people is also noteworthy.
The second reference to Jesus in the writings of Tacitus is found in the Histories. While the specific reference is lost, as is most of this book, the reference is preserved by Sulpicus Severus.^7 He informs us that Tacitus wrote of the burning of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans in AD 70, an event which destroyed the city. The Christians are mentioned as a group that were connected with these events. All we can gather from this reference is that Tacitus was also aware of the existence of Christians other than in the context of their presence in Rome. Granted, the facts that Tacitus (and most other extrabiblical sources) report about Jesus are well known in our present culture. Yet we find significance in the surprising confirmation for the life of Jesus. Suetonius