Most of what we learn about Jesus and early Christianity comes from the New Testament. This is not a big shock. But what does come as a shock to some is that we can also learn a lot from non-Christian sources. There are some hostile sources from the first century from whom we can glean a lot. One of them is from a guy named Tacitus.
Who is Tacitus?
Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56-120 AD) is his full name, and that’s as Roman as it gets. Tacitus was a Roman senator and is also considered to be one of the greatest Roman historians. His works – The Annals and Histories gives us a lot of info on Roman politics and history.
Tacitus was no friend of Christians. You’ll see from what he says that he thinks Christianity is a hateful superstition. He seems rather unmoved about the Christians who were “covered with the skins of beasts and torn by dogs”. He seems like a really nice guy.
To give some background, when Tacitus was only 8 years old, there was a huge fire in Rome. This is one of those things that would have led the news on all networks in our day. There are some rumors that Nero himself may have been responsible for the fire. What an emperor to do when you burn down a big part of the capital? Blame these newfangled Christians, that’s what.
Here’s what Tacitus had to say:
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 center 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.
There are seven facts that stand out here that tell us a good deal about Jesus and the early church. A lot of these are external confirmations about what we already know about the New Testament.
1. There was a group of people called Christians.
Now you might say “OK, big deal.” But this does confirm what Luke tells us in Acts 11:26. The church was called “The Way”. It was in Antioch that they were first called Christians. Scholars estimate this was in the 40’s when Christians first were called Christians, and here that’s confirmed from events that happened in the 60’s.
2. That their name came from “Christus”.
Some people will tell you that Jesus isn’t referenced anywhere else but the Bible. And you can’t use the Bible, because it’s a biased source. First of all, we don’t discount history because of biased sources. If we did, we wouldn’t know much. But here’s a hostile source that tells us that there was a man named “Christus”. Christ means anointed one, and refers to him being the Messiah. So we see that 30 something years after his death he’s known as the Messiah. This is another external confirmation of what we already read in the New Testament.
3. That Christ was executed under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius Caesar.
There are some wackos in dark corners of the internet that say Jesus isn’t a real historical person. It’s very odd then to say he was sentenced to death by a Prefect that we have evidence that exists. We learn about Pilate not only here, but also in Philo and Josephus.
If that wasn’t enough, we have a pretty amazing archaeological find. It’s called the Pilate stone, and I’ll let you read more about it here.
This has led even the most skeptical of Jesus scholars to conclude that the crucifixion is a sure thing. The Jesus Seminar is antithetical to modern Christianity. They believe most of what we have in the Gospels is a legend. Yet their leader, John Dominic Crossan has this to say about the crucifixion:
“That he (Jesus) was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be”.
He’s not alone, this is what all serious scholars believe. This fact militates against the Muslim belief that Jesus never died. And it goes against others who say that Jesus only appeared to have died, but he recovered and that somehow explains the resurrection appearances. Serious historians don’t believe that nonsense.
4. The Romans saw Christians as superstitious.
When Paul preached in Athens, they were all ears. Until he got to the part about Jesus’ resurrection. (Acts 17:32) Paul also talks about preaching Christ crucified, which is to the Gentiles “foolishness”. (1 Corinthians 1:23) Saying that God became a man, died like a humiliated criminal and came back to life would sound weird. Especially to Roman ears who worshiped their emperors and saw power as a big deal. That a crucified man could be the Lord of the universe sounded quite strange.
5. The Romans hated Christians – they believed they performed abominations.
The Romans thought Christians were gross. There are a few reasons for this. First, they misunderstood communion. When Jesus said that his bread was his body, and the wine was his blood, the Romans got wind of this. (Mark 14:22-24, John 6:54) And they thought it was creepy.
Early Christian apologists like Minucius Felix said the Romans thought they were cannibals. They also thought the Christians were into incest. You know, because they called each other brother and sister, and greeted one another with a holy kiss. (Romans 16:16) (Side note: I’m an introvert. I have a hard enough time during the greeting time in church. I’m glad we don’t practice this today.)
The Christians also got up very early every Sunday and met in houses to allegedly do this stuff. You know, what’s with these secret incest cannibal meetings? Or so the Romans thought. We gotta get rid of these sickos.
6. The movement started in Judea and spread to Rome.
Again, this confirms what we know from Acts. The church started in Jerusalem and spread out in the face of persecution. This is a pretty interesting external confirmation. The reason being is that it confirms they were preaching Jesus in Judea. The very place where Pilate had Jesus crucified.
We know that Christianity spread to Rome early. This is because Paul wrote his magisterial epistle to them in 56 AD, a church that he never yet met but longed to see.
We’re also told that Paul was beheaded in Rome in around 64-68 AD. Peter was crucified upside-down around the same time. So this was probably part of the persecution of Nero.
7. That Christians were said to hate “all mankind”.
Why would the Romans think this? Didn’t Jesus preach love? He did. But he also told them that if he was persecuted, so would his followers. (John 15:19) Because he claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life – to the exclusion of all others. (John 14:6, Acts 4:12) This exclusive message is no more popular now than it is today.
In fact, it was probably was even less popular back then. Christians were not saying that Jesus was another god, like Jupiter, Diana or Ares. They were saying that he was the one true God, and everything else was a mere idol.
Summing it up:
We learn a lot about Jesus and the early church from just a paragraph. And all this from someone who thought the Christians had it coming to them. But there’s no doubt that Tacitus is a first-rate historian.
We knew a lot of these things already from reading the Bible. But you’ll always run into that one guy who says “the Bible stinks as a source”. That’s a bad argument for various reasons. But you can use sources outside the Bible to confirm what the Bible already says and see what they think. I’m not saying that this proves Christianity, but it is definitely an interesting part of the puzzle. Our faith isn’t without historical basis.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.