Roman senator and orator Tacitus (55AD-118AD) is considered one of the great ancient historians. He wrote a number of books, and in his last work entitled Annals he had a couple of paragraphs about Jesus and the Christians.
Though small, these two citations pack a wallop because they provide various confirmations about the Biblical account and even one contradiction that actually proves the Bible’s accuracy of events.
Tacitus was providing a brief history about the Roman Emperor Nero (37AD – 67AD) and because of this felt compelled to give an explanation about Christians and Christ as they played a role in the Great Fire of Rome (July 18-23 64 AD).
Many Romans believed Nero purposefully set the fire as part of his grandiose plan to rebuild Rome. To deflect the blame, Tacitus said Nero accused Christians of arson:
[neither] human effort nor the emperor’s generosity nor the placating of the gods ended the scandalous belief that the fire had been ordered [by Nero]. Therefore, to put down the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits and punished in the most unusual ways those hated for their shameful acts… whom the crowd called “Chrestians.” The founder of this name, Christ [Christus in Latin], had been executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate… Suppressed for a time, the deadly superstition erupted again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but also in the city [Rome], where all things horrible and shameful from everywhere come together and become popular.
In this paragraph, Tacitus refers to both Jesus (Christus) and the Chrestians. The thing we notice almost immediately is that Tacitus hated Christianity. He refers to it as a deadly superstition and evil. This was not something Tacitus was promoting, if anything he was warning others about this religion.
The second thing he said is that Christianity had spread to Rome and this contributed to Christianity’s rapid growth in popularity.
Of course, Paul’s imprisonment in Rome took place during Nero’s reign. When Paul arrived in Rome under guard, a church had already been established in the city. It is not sure when Christianity arrived in Rome, but Romans were mentioned as being part of the crowd on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell (Acts 2:9-11).
When Nero blamed the Christians for the Great Fire, it led to a horrific persecution of Christians that included crucifixion and soaking them in oil, setting them on posts and burning them alive. They were also thrown into the Colosseum.
“Accordingly, arrest was first made of those who confessed [to being Christians]; then, on their evidence, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much on the charge of arson as because of [their] hatred for the human race. Besides being put to death they were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clothed in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open his grounds for the display, and was putting on a show in the circus, where he mingled with the people in the dress of charioteer or drove about in his chariot. All this gave rise to a feeling of pity, even towards men whose guilt merited the most exemplary punishment; for it was felt that they were being destroyed not for the public good but to gratify the cruelty of an individual.”
The persecution was so bad, that many started to feel sorry for the Christians. It is generally believed the Apostle Paul was killed during this persecution after the Great Fire. The ancient church historian Eusebius said Nero or one of his subordinates had Paul decapitated.
Tacitus also references Pontius Pilate calling him a procurator. Pilate who ruled Judea between 26 AD to 36 AD caved to Jewish pressure and sentenced Jesus to death (Mark 15:15) despite believing He was innocent of all accusations (Luke 23:14).
However, the Bible describes Pontius Pilate as a “prefect.” Many used this discrepancy to suggest the Bible was inaccurate.
3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor (prefect) of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— (Luke 3:1 NASV)
So who is wrong?
In 1961, while working in the ruins of the ancient city of Caesarea, Italian archaeologist Antonio Frova found a limestone inscription describing Pontius Pilate as a prefect. It reads:
Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea, has presented the Tiberieum to the Caesareans
This was a major discovery as it provided the first archaeological evidence proving Pontius Pilate existed and confirmed the Biblical title of prefect.
So why the difference?
The terms “procurator” and “prefect” reflect a title change instituted by Roman Emperor Claudius (41 AD to 54 AD) after adjusting the job description — basically the same position, different name.
So the term ‘prefect’ shows that the Gospel writers were writing before Claudius and confirms the Biblical records were eye-witness accounts exactly as they are portrayed and that Tacitus was writing after Claudius.
Tacitus also says Christ’s crucifixion took place during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (14 AD – 37 AD) again confirming the Biblical record.
Like most historians of the day, Tacitus provided no footnote on his sources. But many suspect he gathered this information when he served as a proconsul in Asia where he would have handled the trials of Christians.
- Did Jesus exist? Searching for evidence beyond the Bible: Bible Archaeology
- Nero Caesar and the Christian Faith: Christian Courier
- Pontius Pilate: Prefect not procurator: