Publius Cornelius Tacitus was one of the most reliable of all Roman historians and many first century figures are known to us solely through his mention of them. This means his passing reference to Jesus in Annals XV.44 remains an fly in the ointment of the Jesus Myth hypothesis. Despite Tacitus’ reliability and the scholarly agreement that the reference is genuine, Mythicist ideologues have several ways by which they try to dismiss this reference; all of them characteristically weak.
The reference to Jesus comes in Tacitus’ account of the Great Fire of Rome, which raged across the city for more than six days in July 64 AD. When rumour spread that Nero himself had actually ordered for the fire to be started, the emperor sought out scapegoats for the disaster:
“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 Judæa, 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.
(Ergo abolendo rumori Nero subdidit reos et quaesitissimis poenis adfecit, quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Chrestianos appellabat. auctor nominis eius Christus Tibero imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat; repressaque in praesens exitiablilis superstitio rursum erumpebat, non modo per Iudaeam, originem eius mali, sed per urbem etiam, quo cuncta undique atrocia aut pudenda confluunt celebranturque. igitur primum correpti qui fatebantur, deinde indicio eorum multitudo ingens haud proinde in crimine incendii quam odio humani generis convicti sunt).
This reference to the founder of Christianity by one of the most reliable and careful historians of the period is something of a problem for the Jesus Myth hypothesis and so Mythicists have to find ways to make it fit their thesis and argue, despite this clear reference to “Christus” as a historical person, no historical Jesus existed at all. Generally, Mythicists deal with this reference in four main ways:
- “Tacitus only refers to the existence of Christians, not to Jesus”
- “Tacitus was talking about some other sect called the Chrestians”
- “Tacitus does mention Jesus but he’s only repeating what Christians claimed, so this isn’t independent evidence”
- “The passage is a later Christian interpolation”
“Tacitus only refers to the existence of Christians, not to Jesus”
This first counter argument to the Tacitean reference is generally used by Mythicists of a more casual kind, mainly because it is self-evidently wrong. Anyone who reads the passage can see that while it is certainly about Christians in Rome in the 60s AD, Tacitus clearly refers to their founder – “Christus” – and makes it obvious that he considered this person to be historical. He gives four specific pieces of information about this individual: (i) he was the founder of the Christian sect, (ii) he founded the sect in “Judea”, (iii) he was executed by Pontius Pilatus and (iv) this occurred in the reign of Tiberius (14-37 AD). These pieces of information give us a who, what, where and when for this “Christus” and therefore fix Jesus in a specific time and place in history in a way that accords with at least some of the information in the Christian gospel accounts. Since Pilatus governed Judea from 26-37 AD, the Tacitus reference gives us a clear window on when Jesus existed. So the naive attempt at dismissing this as merely a reference to Christians simply does not work: it is a reference to Jesus as a historical person and it gives some details about him.
“Tacitus was talking about some other sect called the Chrestians”
This slightly odd argument is found in a number of versions, including a couple that seriously try to argue that there was no Christianity prior to the fourth century and that all references to it before then are either more fraudulent or interpolated texts or just misunderstood references to these alleged “Chrestians”. The argument regarding the Tacitus reference actually being about this alleged other sect rests on two supposed pieces of evidence. Firstly, all the manuscripts we have of Books XI-XVI of Tacitus’ Annals are late medieval copies of a single earlier manuscript: called the “Second Medicean” or M.II and now found in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, or Laurentinian Library in Florence. This manuscript was copied in a Beneventan script around 1030-1050 AD in the monastery of Monte Cassino and probably derived from an earlier, probably Carolingian copy or from a much older fifth century copy. But the element in it which excites some Mythicists is the word “christianos” (Christians) in the passage in question. This is because careful examination of the manuscript reveals that this was originally written as “chrEstianos“, with the “e” only scraped out and corrected to an “i” at some point later.
Exactly when the correction was made is unclear, though it seems to have most likely been long after the manuscript was copied, possibly as late as the fourteenth century (for those interested in a detailed analysis of the evidence see Erik Zara, “The Chrestianos Issue in Tacitus Reinvestigated”, 2009). The relevant point here is that the original spelling of the word was made by the M.II’s scribe and so, the Mythicists argue, this is what Tacitus originally wrote. The later correction, they argue, is an example, of Christians fraudulently changing the text to make it about them and their Jesus.
They also note a reference in Suetonius’ life of Claudius that mentions “[s]ince the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” (Claudius, XXV). So they argue that the “Chrestians” of Tacitus are followers of this earlier “Chrestus” and so are not Christians at all. Which means the “Christus” Tacitus refers to is not Jesus of Nazareth.
The first obvious problem with this is that it rests on the supposition that there was such a sect as the “Chrestians” who followed the “Chrestus” mentioned in Suetonius. Given that there is no mention of any such sect elsewhere, this is a highly speculative basis for this reading of the Tacitus passage. The “Chrestus” mention in Suetonius could be a mention of someone by that name (it was a common Greek name at the time), or could be a misunderstanding of “Christus”/Χριστός/Messiah and refer to Jewish theological disputes about eschatology, or could refer to a Jewish Messianic claimant in Rome given the title of “Christus”/Χριστός/Messiah, or (obviously) it could be a garbled reference to Jewish disputes over the Jesus “Christus”/Χριστός of Christianity. To assume the first of these options and then suppose that this “Chrestus” founded a sect that Nero later persecuted is highly conjectural.
And this conjecture becomes more tangled when we examine what Tacitus says about the founder of the sect he is referring to. He says that this founder was executed in Judea by Pilatus in the reign of Tiberius. This makes no sense if this founder was instigating “disturbances” among Jews in Rome during the reign of Claudius, who came to the emperorship four years after Tiberius died and five years after Pilatus was removed from the governorship of Judea.
Of course, it could be that Suetonius was mistaken about the disturbances being caused by this “Chrestus” directly and it may be that they were about this person instead, but this still means that for this “Chrestus” to be the founder of any “Chrestians” in the Tacitus passage, then we must have two sects, with remarkably similar names, both claiming to be founded by a man executed in Judea by Pilatus in the reign of Tiberius. This co-incidence is far too close to survive an application of Occam’s Razor.
Overall, this hypothesis is based on a series of dubious conjectures and is too fanciful to be credibly sustained.
“Tacitus does mention Jesus but he’s only repeating what Christians claimed so this isn’t independent evidence”
This third approach at least admits that Tacitus is talking about Christians and accepts that the “Christus” he mentions is their founder and that Tacitus believed he was a historical person, though it dismisses the reference on the grounds that he is getting his information from what Christians claim about their own founder and so notes that what Tacitus says is not independent evidence of Jesus’ historicity. But is there any basis for the assumption that Tacitus was merely repeating what the Christians said about Jesus?
The first problem with this idea is that Tacitus does not attribute this information to these “Christians” he has just mentioned or imply in any way that he was reporting what they believed about their founder. Furthermore, nothing in what he says about this “Christus” person indicates the information came from Christians or reports about their beliefs about Jesus. On the contrary, both the highly negative tone and the sparse information potentially indicate the exact opposite: a disapproving non-Christian source that was concerned with essential, concrete facts: who he was, what happened to him, when and where. There is no reference to any belief he was divine, no mention or hint about any preaching or alleged miracles and no indication of any belief about him rising from the dead. Nothing here indicates a Christian source for any of this information.
Unlike modern historians, ancient ones did not footnote their sources or even consistently or regularly note where they received their information. Tacitus is of a type in this respect, though when he does refer to his sources it is clear, first of all, that he researched his work carefully and, secondly, he was a judicious and often sceptical analyst. To begin with, he made his distaste for merely accepting hearsay very clear:
“My object in mentioning and refuting this story is, by a conspicuous example, to put down hearsay, and to request that all those into whose hands my work shall come not to catch eagerly at wild and improbable rumours in preference to genuine history.”
(Tacitus, Annals, IV.11)
He did occasionally refer to things that were “said” to have been the case or were “reported”, but was careful to note this when he did so. For example:
“A show of gladiators, given in the name of his brother Germanicus, was presided over by Drusus, who took an extravagant pleasure in the shedding of blood however vile — a trait so alarming to the populace that it was said to have been censured by his father.” (Annals 1.76)
Further examples of this noting of what was “said” can be found at Annals II.40, XII.7 and XII.65. Similarly, things which were “reported” or from “popular report” are noted as such. For example:
“For the present, however, Britain was in the charge of Suetonius Paulinus, in military skill and in popular report — which allows no man to lack his rival — a formidable competitor to Corbulo” (Annals XIV.29)
Other examples can be found at Annals XI.26 and XV.20. So having just mentioned the Christians, it is very likely that Tacitus would have attributed the information about their “Christus” to their “report” or to what they “said” if their ideas about their founder were the basis for his information. But he doesn’t. Likewise, having just said that “the crowd” called the sect “Christians”, it would make sense for Tacitus to attribute his information about “Christus” to them if “popular report” or what was “said” was where he was getting his information. But he doesn’t do this either. The idea that he got his information from what Christians claimed about Jesus, whether directly or from “the crowd”, simply does not fit with the way Tacitus deals with such second hand information or with his attitude to “hearsay”.
It also does not fit with his vehemently scornful attitude towards the Christians. This is, after all, a sect he describes in no uncertain terms as “a most mischievous superstition …. evil …. hideous and shameful …. [with a] hatred against mankind” – not exactly the words of a man who regarded its followers as reliable sources about their sect’s founder. It is unlikely that he would blithely report what they had to say without any caveats or even just noting this was what he was doing.
All this means that while the idea that he was simply repeating Christian claims is not solidly founded, we still don’t know where he got his information. Some Mythicists make the remarkable claim that, because of this, his reference to Jesus can therefore be totally disregarded. This is, however, absurd. If we totally rejected everything noted in an ancient historian’s text without reference to or indication of a source, we would have to reject about 95% of our source material and abandon the study of the ancient past almost totally. This consequence tends not to bother Mythicist polemicists and online debaters, who are only concerned with making a historian’s reference to Jesus go away, but it should concern any genuine rationalist.
As noted above, we do know that Tacitus consulted many sources and was, by ancient standards, a rigorous and sceptical analyst of them. C.W Mendell highlights the way Tacitus handles his sources with due care:
In the Histories there are sixty-eight instances in which Tacitus indicates either a recorded statement or a belief on someone’s part with regard to something which he himself is unwilling to assert as a fact; in other words, he cites divergent authority for some fact or motive …. [These] would seem to indicate a writer who had not only read what was written by historians …. but had also talked with eye witnesses and considered with some care the probable truth where doubt or uncertainty existed. …. Tacitius assumes the responsibility of the historian to get at the truth and present it. His guarantee was his own reputation. To make this narrative colorful and dramatic, he felt justified in introducing facts and motives which he might refute on logical grounds or leave uncontested but for which he did not personally vouch. There is no indication that he followed blindly the account of any predecessor” (C.W. Mendell, Tacitus: The Man and his Work, 1957, pp. 201-4)
Mendell goes on to note 30 separate instances in the Annals where Tacitus is careful to substantiate a statement or distance himself from a claim or report about which he was less than certain (Mendell, p. 205).
We know Tacitus made use of the work of earlier historians, but we also know from his own references to them that he examined primary documentary evidence, including copies of the Acta Diurna – the daily gazette put up in the Forum and other public places – and the records of the Senate. He makes explicit reference to consulting “the registers of the Senate” (Annals XV.74), “the public records” (XII.20) and “the daily register” (III.3), though it is far from clear that any of these sources would have mentioned the execution of Jesus by Pilatus, let alone that Tacitus found and read this obscure notice – it’s not as though the crucifixion of a minor troublemaker would have been of great concern to the Senate or Pilatus’ master Sejanus back in Rome. So while it is possible Tacitus was drawing on an official record or other documentary source, it cannot be said to be likely.
Several Mythicists who accept the authenticity of all or at least part of the passage claim that Tacitus probably got his information about “Christus” and/or the Christians from his friend Pliny the Younger. It is not clear exactly when the Annals was written, but it is likely to have been either around the time Tacitus was proconsul of Asia (c. 112-13) or a few years after his return to Rome. Pliny was governor of nearby Bithynia-Pontus at around the same time and we know from his surviving letter to the emperor Trajan from this period (see below) that he tried and executed some Christians there. So, it is argued, who better for Tacitus to consult about Christians and their origins. This is a strange argument, since it is hard to see why the governor of one eastern province would need to consult the governor of another on the subject of Christians when it is very likely there were as many if not more Christians in Tacitus’ province as there were in Pliny’s. Both Pliny and Tacitus refer to Christianity as a “superstition” (Tacitus: exitiabilis superstitio – “the destructive superstition”; Pliny: superstitionem pravam and superstitionis istius contagio – “a depraved superstition” and “a contagious superstition”), but that is precisely the term we would expect pious Roman aristocrats to use about a novel cult. Neither Pliny nor Tacitus uses the name “Jesus” and both refer to the focus and founder of the sect as “Christus”, but this seems to have been the most common way he was referred to by both believers and unbelievers. So the idea that Tacitus consulted Pliny is, like the idea he used documentary sources, at least possible, but also too conjectural to be judged likely.
The final possible source of Tacitus’ sparse information is also conjectural, but has a certain logic to it. Tacitus says that the sect of this Christus had its origin “in Judea” (a term he uses elsewhere for all territories of the Jews, including Galilee, not merely the region administered directly by the Romans before the First Jewish War). He therefore seems to know this sect had Jewish origins, so a logical way to find out about it would be to simply … ask some Jews. And there was no shortage of aristocratic Jews in Rome for him to ask, since in the wake of the failed Jewish revolt, various pro-Roman Jewish exiles lived there, with several moving in the same circles as Tacitus at the court of the Flavian emperors and that of Trajan. One was Princess Berenice, the daughter of Herod Agrippa and the mistress and, later, wife of the emperor Titus. And another was the Jewish historian Yosef ben Matityahu, better known by his Latin name, Flavius Josephus.
There is no evidence that Josephus and Tacitus ever met or knew each other, but both were aristocrats, both had been of the priestly caste in their respective (very different) religious traditions, both had connections to the Flavian court and both were scholars and historians. So while we do not have direct indications that Tacitus consulted Josephus, J.P. Meier notes “a number of strong similarities” between the Tacitus reference and Josephus’ account of Jesus in Antiquities XVIII.63-4 and draws attention to four points of overlapping content (Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, 1991, Vol. 1., 101-2, n. 13). Stephen C. Carlson laid out the correspondences in a blog post in 2004 (Hypotyposeis – “A Pre-Eusebian Witness to the Testimonium”):
|Tacitus||Josephus 18.63-64||Josephus 18 (other)|
|Christus, from whom the name had its origin,||18.64 and the tribe of Christians, so named from him,||18.63 [[He was the Christ.]]|
|suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius||18.63 Now about this time||18.33 Tiberius (also named 75 other times)|
|at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus,||18.64 and when Pilate, … had condemned him to the cross||18.35 Pontius Pilate
18.55 Pilate, the governor (ἡγεμών) of Judea
|and a most mischievous superstition,||18.63 a teacher of such people who gladly received the truth|
|thus checked for the moment, again broke out||18.64 those who loved him at first did not cease
18.64 are not extinct to this day.
|18.64 [[for he appeared to them alive again the third day,]]|
|not only in Judæa, 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.||18.63 He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles||18.55 Pilate, the governor (ἡγεμών) of Judea|
As Carlson’s chart shows, all of Tacitus’s information about Jesus is paralleled in Ant. XVIII, if not in the Jesus passage itself, then nearby in the same book. He also notes Meier’s caution that “such similarities are not so startling as to prove the literary dependence of Tacitus on Josephus” but observes that “literary dependence is a very high standard” and is perhaps “inappropriately strict for identifying the sources of historians who rewrite their source material.” It could be added that it is even more strict for identifying information remembered or noted from conversation with Josephus or another Jewish exile very much like him.
Yet again, this is far too conjectural to hang any kind of argument from, especially given the problematic nature of the Ant. XVIII passage, which all scholars agree is, at least, contaminated by later Christian additions. But there is a certain coherence about this last conjecture. A potential counter-argument to the idea that Tacitus consulted Jews about this Jewish sect could be based on his digressions about Jews and Judaism in his History V.1-5, in which he gives a highly scornful account of the origins and nature of the Jewish religion. If he was so virulently anti-Semitic, would he be any more likely to ask Jews about this sect than he would be to accept Christian testimony? A careful reading of the passages in question, however, shows that his scorn is actually for the Jewish religion, which as a Roman aristocrat and priest of the Roman religion, he finds alien, bizarre and quite repugnant. This distaste for the weird monotheistic and iconophobic Jewish faith, with its avoidance of pork and its practice of circumcision, was held by most pagans of Tacitus’ class and this kind of disgusted language is to be expected in an account of Judaism by such a person. This does not mean Tacitus would not have spoken to the most obvious source of information about a sect of this strange religion – other Jews.
The fact remains, however, that wherever Tacitus got his information, the Mythicist assumption that he was “only repeating what Christians claimed” has no solid foundation and is severely undermined by much of what we know about Tacitus’ use of his sources.
“The passage is a later Christian interpolation”
Which brings us, finally, to the Mythicist argument of last resort when all else fails – “interpolation!” And here we find none other than the inevitable Dr. Richard Carrier (PhD.), yet again. Among the surprisingly small corpus of actual academic papers by this unemployed “independent scholar” and full time anti-theism activist is “The Prospect of a Christian Interpolation in Tacitus, Annals 15.44″ (Vigiliae Christianae, 68, 2014, 264-283), in which Carrier seeks to dispose of this reference to Jesus by a highly reliable historian by excising the key sentence (“Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus”) as a later Christian interpolation and arguing that Tacitus was referring to a Neronic persecution of the shadowy “Chrestians” and not Christians at all.
He begins by drawing attention to “a few scholars [who] have argued some or all of Tacitus’ report …. is a 4th century (or later) interpolation and not original to Tacitus” (p. 264). The operative word here is “few”, since no current Tacitus scholar holds this view. Carrier has to go back to 1974 to find any relatively “recent” outlier who has done so (a short article by Jean Rougé; “L’incendie de Rome en 64 et l’incendie de Nicomédie en 303” in Mélanges d’histoire ancienne: offerts à William Seston, Paris, 1974, pp 433-41) though he pads this out with a citation of his fellow Mythicist, the self-published amateur Earl Doherty. When, in 2012, Carrier clashed with Bart Ehrman over whether the authenticity of this passage was in any way a live issue among Tacitean scholars, Ehrman consulted his colleague at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the leading Classicist James Rives. This was Rives’ assessment:
“I’ve never come across any dispute about the authenticity of Ann. 15.44; as far as I’m aware, it’s always been accepted as genuine, although of course there are plenty of disputes over Tacitus’ precise meaning, the source of his information, and the nature of the historical events that lie behind it. There are some minor textual issues (the spelling ‘Chrestianos’ vs. ‘Christianos’, e.g.), but there’s not much to be done with them since we here, as everywhere in Tacitus’ major works, effectively depend on a single manuscript.” (E-mail quoted in Ehrman’s blog article “Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier”, April 25, 2012)
The obvious question that arises from this is, if the sentence in question is so obviously an interpolation, why have so few (barely any, in fact) scholars of Tacitus noticed this? After all, the clear interpolations in Josephus Ant. XVIII.63-64 mean there has long been a lively debate about their nature, how extensive they are and if the whole passage is itself interpolated. Yet the idea of an interpolation in this Tacitus passage is a non-issue. So Carrier is going to have an uphill battle to argue all these thousands of Classicists (with perhaps one exception) have got it wrong. Luckily one thing Carrier definitely doesn’t lack is plucky self-assurance.
He begins with one of his characteristically odd pseudo statistical arguments where he claims that because we know of many various later interpolations in the New Testament texts, Christian texts have a high “base rate” of interpolation. If we add to this the fact that non-Christian references to Jesus includes one that is interpolated (Carrier holds the minority view that Josephus Ant. XVIII.63-64 is a wholesale interpolation) then the probability of this Tacitus reference being an interpolation is not “out of bounds”, in Carrier’s assessment (p. 266). This tangled part of his article does acknowledge the “small sample size” of non-Christian references to Jesus (p. 265), but fails to note the very large sample size of manuscript copies and fragments of New Testament texts. If we had anything like the manuscript evidence for any other ancient text that we have for the New Testament materials we are likely to find their level of later changes and additions is actually not so unusual. That aside, his whole argument is effectively a convoluted way of saying “Josephus Ant. XVIII.63-64 has at least some interpolations so it’s not infeasible that Tacitus Annals XV.44 does as well”, with some numerical estimates of probability thrown in. Carrier seems obsessed with trying to reduce history to statistical probabilities.
He goes on to argue that the letter of Pliny the Younger to Trajan shows that “Christians were extremely obscure, and their beliefs and origins entirely unknown to the highest and most experienced Roman legal authorities”, adding “Tacitus is not likely to have been any better informed, indeed insofar as he was informed at all it would most likely have been through his very friend and correspondent, Pliny” (pp. 267-68). As noted above, the idea that Tacitus must have got any information about Christiansfrom Pliny is conjecture without much basis. But Carrier’s conviction is that Pliny’s letter shows he knew nothing much about Christians when he first encountered them as governor of Bithynia-Pontus, saying “Pliny the Younger tells us he had never attended a trial of Christians and knew nothing of what they believed or what crimes they were guilty of” (p. 267, my emphasis). If we turn to the letter Carrier is drawing on here, however, we find no such thing.
In his letter to Trajan Pliny nowhere expresses that he “knew nothing of what they believed or what crimes they were guilty of”. He says, as Carrier notes, that he has “never participated in trials of Christians” but goes on to say that as a result of this “I therefore do not know what offences it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent“. He is saying he is not clear on exactly what it is Christians are meant to be punished for and which of them exactly should be executed, not that he does not know what they believe. He reports that he has executed those who were non-citizens who refused to give up their “superstition” but does not express the ignorance of what they believed Carrier attributes to him. He simply says “whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished”. This is not saying he does not know the “nature of their creed”, just that, regardless of its nature, they deserved to be punished for their stubbornness. He is not writing to Trajan perplexed at what they believed, but for guidance on which of the many Christians he has uncovered should be executed. His report that those he interrogated told him “they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god” gives no indication that he was learning this for the first time, just that this was what they admitted to doing (and it’s interesting that he says “as to a god”, as this implies he understands this “Christ” was a man). So Carrier overstates the ignorance of Pliny about Christians and then makes a mighty conjectural leap to attribute a similar level of ignorance to Tacitus.
Next Carrier turns to the lost history of Pliny’s uncle and adoptive father, Pliny the Elder, and argues that it cannot have mentioned any persecution of Christians in its eye-witness account of the Great Fire because “Pliny the Younger was an avid admirer and reader of his uncle’s works and thus would surely have read his account of the burning of Rome, and therefore would surely have known everything about Christians that Pliny the Elder recorded.” (pp. 268-9) Unfortunately, this argument depends on Carrier’s strange reading of Pliny’s letter to Trajan as expressing some great ignorance of Christianity, rather than its actual expression of ignorance of the legal way Christians should be handled. His further point that “no one else ever mentions, cites, or quotes Pliny the Elder providing any testimony to Christ or Christians (as likely Christians or their critics would have done, if such an invaluably early reference existed)” (p. 269) also carries no weight. Carrier himself correctly notes that Pliny the Elder’s only surviving mention of the Great Fire in his Natural History XVII.1.5 shows “Pliny believed Nero had started the fire deliberately” (p. 268), which means Pliny would have no incentive to talk about alternative accusations or other potential culprits and little incentive to talk about any scapegoats. So it would not be surprising that he would have kept the focus on the guilt of Nero and not mentioned any Christians at all. It’s also interesting to note Carrier’s reference here to “an invaluably early reference” to Jesus that therefore should have been mentioned by Christians if it existed. Here and in many other places Mythicists speak as though Christians were desperate to prove Jesus existed and were therefore motivated by this to interpolate mentions of him or destroy works that fail to note him. This assumption is weird, given that there were no Jesus Mythicists in the first centuries of Christianity; in fact there were none for the first 1790 years or so of the faith’s existence. That fact that modern Mythicists like Carrier are convinced early Christians were desperately shoring up the evidence against an objection to Jesus that was not going to be made for another millennium and half is another of their argument’s many oddities.
Carrier goes on to make a related point when he argues “mentions of Christ seem to have been a motive for preserving texts in general: the works of Josephus and Tacitus may have survived the Middle Ages for precisely that reason” (p. 269). Josephus may have been preserved in part because of his mentions of Jesus, but the fact that all of his works, particularly Antiquities, refers to a range of people and events from both testaments of the Christian Bible means his corpus is likely to have been widely read and copied anyway. And contrary to Carrier’s claim, most Tacitus scholars agree that we have such a paltry and fragmentary manuscript record for Tacitus precisely because Tacitus was not popular in the Middle Ages, probably because of the scornful and disparaging way the Annals XV.44 passage speaks of Jesus and Christianity. Finally, the idea that works only “survived the Middle Ages” if they were conducive to Christian needs is an overstatement, given that we have plenty of Greek and Roman works that served no apologetic purpose or were even directly contrary to key Christian doctrines, but which were preserved by Christian scholars anyway. Indeed, if Carrier can read any Classical writers at all, he has a succession of Christian (and Muslim) scholars down many centuries to thank for that privilege.
Moving on to Suetonius, Carrier writes:
“Suetonius attests to a persecution of Christians under Nero, but is evidently unaware of this having any connection to the burning of Rome …. [his reference] confirms that Suetonius, a prominent and erudite Latin author and imperial librarian, knew nothing of any connection between Christians and the burning of Rome” (p. 269-70)
But the fact that Suetonius does not mention any such connection between Christians and the Great Fire does not necessarily mean (i) none was made or even (ii) that Suetonius was not aware of any such connection. Again, like the older Pliny, Suetonius believed that Nero was responsible for starting the fire, stating directly that the emperor sent out “his chamberlains …. with tow and fire-brands” (Suetonius, Nero, XXXVIII) to do so. Suetonius makes Nero the outright villain of his account and so has little rhetorical incentive to distract from this narrative by mentioning alternative theories or even Nero’s scapegoating an unpopular sect. Similarly, if we turn to the other major account of the Great Fire – in Cassius Dio, Roman History, LXII.16-18 – we find the same thing; Dio places the blame for the fire squarely on Nero. It is only in Tacitus’ that we find some scepticism about this blame, with the historian noting “whether [the fire was] due to chance or to the malice of the sovereign is uncertain – for each version has its sponsors”. Tacitus certainly notes that Nero was blamed by many for the fire, but refers to this as “rumour” and makes no overt case for its truth or falsity. This means that the more sceptical and neutral Tacitus does have the rhetorical room to discuss how the blame was put on Christians and to highlight Nero’s cruel nature by describing something he seems sure did happen (the execution of the Christians) rather than something about which he was uncertain (Nero starting the fire).
Continuing with his analysis of Suetonius, Carrier draws attention to his reference to Claudius’ expulsion of Jews from Rome mentioned above, dismisses the idea that its mention of a “Chrestus” could be in any way connected to the “Christus” of Christianity and says “this incident was more likely city-wide violence ginned up by a Jewish demagogue named Chrestus (a common name in Rome at the time) (pp. 271-72). As already discussed, this is certainly possible, but there is no real way to determine if it is the most “likely” way to explain this episode. The fact that Suetonius’ reference to Nero’s punishment of Christians (Nero, XVI) means he understood Christians to be a distinct sect does not automatically mean that he, or his source, understood that any dispute among “Jews” over this “Chrestus” was purely among Jews or among Jewish Christians and other Jews. But Carrier has plumped for the idea that there was “a Jewish demagogue named Chrestus” largely because he needs to utilise this in the next part of his argument.
Turning to the Tacitus passage, Carrier begins to make his case that the key sentence mentioning Jesus is an interpolation by arguing that the passage was originally talking about these supposed “Chrestians” and not Christians, as discussed above. He notes that M.II originally had “chrestianos” rather than “christianos” and argues “it is more likely that Tacitus originally wrote chrestianos, ‘Chrestians,’, than that this was produced by subsequent error from ‘Christians’ and then corrected back again.” (p. 273) But Carrier does not bother to explain how this is “more likely”, he simply asserts it. Anyone who has tried any calligraphy projects or who has experimented with copying from an exemplar text using a medieval book hand (as I have) can assure Carrier that this kind of simple error happens all too easily when the scribe’s attention to the form of the script means their attention on the content wanders, so it is entirely possible that the original M.II spelling is simply a scribal error. Carrier also does not bother to look at alternative reasons why Tacitus may have written “chrestianos” and still have been referring to Christians. If this spelling was original to Tacitus, he says that this sect was one which “the crowd styled ‘Chrestians'” (vulgus Chrestianos appellabat) and then follows this by talking about “Christus, from whom the name has its origin” (auctor nominis eius Christus). Adolf von Harnack and several later scholars have read this as Tacitus subtly noting that “the crowd” was making an error in calling them “Chrestians” and corrects it by noting that the founder was called “Christus”. There is certainly evidence of some confusion about the pronunciation of the name, as Tertullian noted later in the second century:
“Now then, if this hatred is directed against the name, what is the guilt attaching to names? What accusation can be brought against words, except that a certain pronunciation of a name sounds barbarous, or is unlucky or abusive or obscene? But ‘Christian,’ as far as its etymology goes, is derived from ‘anointing.’ And even when it is incorrectly pronounced by you ‘Chrestian’ (for not even is your acquaintance with the name accurate), it is formed from ‘sweetness’ or ‘kindness.’ In innocent men, therefore, even an innocent name is hated.” (Apology, III)
So with these alternative possibilities in mind, it is hard to accept Carrier’s assertion that it is “most likely” Tacitus was not referring to Christians. Carrier has a bad habit of asserting the interpretation that leads to his conclusion as “more likely” without bothering to address or even mention alternatives.
Not only does Carrier’s argument depend heavily on the idea that the word “chrestianos” is original to Tacitus, but it also requires that there actually be this otherwise unattested sect of “Chrestians”, based on the supposition that the “Chrestus” of Suetonius Claudius, XXV was actually a Roman Jewish person who founded a sect, which is, yet again, far from certain. But Carrier continues blithely despite this, and goes on to pile supposition on supposition:
“I think it’s more likely that Tacitus had already explained who the Chrestians were in his account of the Chrestus riots (those also recorded by Suetonius), which would have appeared in his section of the Annals for the early years of the reign of Claudius, now lost. If that is the case, then what would become the Testimonium Taciteum was originally about the sect of Jewish rebels first suppressed under Claudius, who were at that time led by their namesake Chrestus and were thereafter named for him (whether he was still alive or not).” (p. 273)
No-one could accuse him of timidity when it comes to speculations, all bolstered with his favourite phrase “more likely”. He then makes a number of arguments to justify the removal of the key line (“Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus”):
“First, the text flows logically and well with the line removed.” (p.274)
Considering the line is fairly short and represents a digression, this is hardly surprising.
“Second, the notion that there was “a huge multitude” (multitudo ingens) of Christians in Rome to persecute, though not impossible, is somewhat suspect” (p. 274)
Given that there is no definition of a “multitudo” that quantifies exactly how large a number of people it represents, this argument can carry little weight. Writing as early as c. 57-58 AD Paul wrote to a community of Christians in Rome that was sufficiently large to justify him visiting them. How large this community was seven years later is unknown, but if, as Carrier himself notes, the Jewish population of the city was in the tens of thousands, a Christian population of up to or even over one thousand hardly stretches credulity. Even if we don’t allow Tacitus some rhetorical exaggeration, the execution of even a small proportion of this group could qualify as a “multitude”.
“Third, it is not clear why Tacitus, much less the general public (as he implies), would regard the Christians as ‘criminals who deserved the most extreme punishments’ merely for being in thrall to a vulgar superstition (which was actually not even a crime, much less a capital one)” (p. 274)
This argument is strange, given that Tacitus tells us that the accusation of arson brought about the punishment and that it was seen as justified because of the Christian’s “hatred against mankind”. Their “vulgar superstition” is not directly mentioned as the reason for their persecution, though clearly Tacitus understood it to entail beliefs that he saw as a “hatred against mankind”. It is not hard to see how pious pagan Romans would see a cult that refused to sacrifice to the gods for the good of the Empire and which looked forward to some apocalyptic cleansing of the earth would “hate mankind”.
“Fourth, Tacitus says the people “called” them Chrestians, vulgus Chrestianos appellabat, notably the past tense. Why would he not use the present tense if he believed the group was still extant, as Christians were?” (p. 275)
This is another strange argument. Tacitus is talking about events in the past, so it makes sense he should use the past tense here. I can say “Germans in the 1930s nicknamed them ‘the Nazis’” despite the fact there are still Nazis today. This also makes even more sense if the common people in Tacitus’ time were more familiar with Christians than the Roman crowd fifty years earlier and knew they were called “Christians” rather than “Chrestians”. Tacitus is therefore possibly drawing attention to the erroneous appellation used by “the crowd” a generation earlier.
“But fifth, and most convincingly, there is no evidence that this event happened.” (p. 276)
From this point Carrier embarks on the difficult business of making an argument from silence. He notes that it is only this passage in the textus receptus of Tacitus that connects the Great Fire with any persecution of Christians and goes on to argue that this is because there was no such persecution – it was the shadowy and hypothetical “Chrestians” Tacitus was talking about before the key line about “Christus” and Pontius Pilatus was inserted. The first difficulty is that while the Fire is reasonably well-attested, we only have three detailed descriptions: in Tacitus, Cassius Dio and Suetonius. As already noted, the latter two put the blame on Nero and the lost account of Pliny the Elder would have done so as well, so none of these three writers had any strong incentive to mention any scapegoating of Christians. Only the more judicious and sceptical Tacitus is interested in exploring the question of who was to blame and who was blamed. Carrier draws attention to the lack of mentions of this episode in Christian writings, saying:
“The first direct attestation to the Testimonium Taciteum is usually said to be the 5th century text of Sulpicius Severus, Chronicle 2.29-30, which certainly draws on this passage from Tacitus, but notably it does not attest the suspect line.” (pp. 276-77)
This is true, but a comparison of the account by Sulpicius Severus and the one by Tacitus he is clearly drawing on shows that it contains the same information, but minus the insults against Christians, so it makes perfect sense that Sulpicius would leave out the derogatory reference to Jesus’ execution. And unlike Tacitus, Sulpicius was writing for a mostly Christian audience and so had no need to digress to explain the origin of Christianity and its name anyway. Carrier goes on to rule out the idea that there was any persecution connected to the Great Fire on the grounds that “there would very likely have been a strong and widely-referenced Christian tradition deriving from it, widely enough in fact to be evident in extant literature. But no such Christian tradition exists.” (p. 277) But this does not actually necessarily follow. We have Suetonius saying that Nero persecuted Christians, though not in the context of blame for the Great Fire. And we have two references to Nero persecuting Christians in Tertullian as well:
“Study your records: there you will find that Nero was the first to persecute this teaching when, after subjugating the entire East, in Rome he especially he treated everyone with savagery. That such a man was author of our chastisement fills us with pride. For anyone who knows him knows him can understand that anything not supremely good would never have been condemned by Nero.” (Cited in Eusebius, Defence V; and see also Scorpiace, XV)
Carrier queries why Tertullian would not have connected this persecution to the charge of arson and argue that the charge was false. It is not hard, however, to see why Tertullian may have been reluctant to draw attention to the arson accusation, since it may have given his pagan opponents reason to suspect the persecution was actually justified. Gerhard Baudy goes so far as to argue that the arson accusations actually had at least some foundation, linking Christian apocalyptic literature with its thinly veiled threats of destruction made against Rome to speculation that if Christians did not actually start the Great Fire, some of their more radical elements may have had a strong incentive to help it along once it got going. This is highly conjectural, but there is no doubt that Christian apocalyptic contains no shortage of derogatory references to Rome and gloating predictions of its destruction. Although it was probably written around 30 years after the Fire, Revelation depicts Rome as the Great Whore of Babylon, “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” (Rev 17:18) who sits on “seven hills” (Rev 17:9), is “drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus” (Rev 17:6) and which will eventually “burn … with fire” (Rev 17:16). All this was most likely written in the reign of Domitian and probably reflects some level of persecution of Christians in his time, but the fact that “the Beast” of Rev 13:15-18 has “a human number” that is most likely the the numeric form of “Nero Caesar” indicates that these ideas and this imagery go back further.
And Christian traditions also preserve other accusations of arson. The Gospel of Peter has Peter describing his situation after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus:
“But I with the companions was sorrowful; and having been wounded in spirit, we were in hiding, for we were sought after by them as wrongdoers and as wishing to set fire to the sanctuary. In addition to all these things we were fasting; and we were sitting mourning and weeping night and day until the Sabbath.” (gPeter 26-27)
So even if Baudy’s speculation is entirely wrong, it is not hard to see why a sect that was liberal with threats of a coming fiery apocalyptic retribution against Rome might not only be accused of arson but also be very wary of drawing attention to those accusations.
Finally Carrier asks why Tacitus’ account itself is not referred to directly by early Christian writers:
“In the final analysis, given the immensity of the persecution Tacitus describes, its scale in terms of the number of victims, its barbarity, and the injustice of it being based on a false accusation of arson to cover up Nero’s own crimes, what are the odds that no Christian would ever have heard of it or made use of it or any reference to it for over three hundred years?” (p. 282)
There are several problems here. Firstly, while Carrier seems to be under the impression that Tacitus’ works were widely copied and read, it is actually hard to know how well known his histories were. They do seem to have enjoyed a brief vogue during the (very) short reign of his namesake in the third century, with the ill-fated emperor Tacitus (d. 276) apparently having copies made thanks to a claim he was descended from the historian and out of concern they may be lost (Historia Augusta, X.3), so we may even have this partially to thank for the survival of Tacitus’ books at all. But more importantly, even if the Annals and the passage was known to early Christian writers, it is not hard to see why a passage that links their sect to arson and which calls it “a most mischievous superstition …. evil …. hideous and shameful …. [and with a] hatred against mankind” would not be one they would highlight.
Overall, Carrier’s argument boils down to the fact no-one else connects any Neronic Persecution directly to an accusation of arson. Attempts by some Mythicists to claim there was no Neronic Persecution at all, depending largely on some strained arguments by Candida Moss (see The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, 2013), is hard to sustain given clear and direct references to it in both pagan (Suetonius) and Christian (Tertullian) sources and the strong and early Christian tradition that depicted Nero as the archetypal pagan persecutor. But as noted above, the other three accounts of the Great Fire apart from Tacitus are focused on blaming Nero and Christian writers would have had even less incentive to draw attention to the accusation of Christian arson. So the argument from silence for an interpolation is very hard to sustain and seems yet another example of Carrier’s ideologically-driven motivated reasoning.
The other three arguments for dismissing the passage as a reference to Jesus are even weaker. The claim it only refers to Christians and does not mention Jesus is simply factually wrong. The claim that the passage is about some other sect and so some other “Christus” is absurd. And the claim that Tacitus was merely repeating Christian hearsay goes against everything we know about him as a historian and is merely speculation presented as conclusion. What we are left with is a direct reference to Jesus as a historical person, detailing the who, what, when and where of his execution, by one of the most competent, sober, careful and sceptical historians of the ancient world. Tacitus makes literally hundreds of similar passing mentions of minor figures which are accepted without question as testament to the existence of these people, however fleeting. There is no rational reason to treat this one any differently.