The Jesus Myth: Tacitus


Following on from my two previous entries exploring the myth of Jesus (The Jesus Myth and The Myth of Jesus: Antiquities of Josephus), I thought I would continue the series with another historical figure often cited as providing evidence for the existence of Jesus, through his writings; The great Roman Senator and Historian, Tacitus.

Contemporary Biblical scholars (who some seem oddly convinced, are excellent sources on the subject of history) who use Tacitus as evidence, cannot be considered neutral in the search for the ‘real Jesus‘. The Biblical Scholar, and often cited, Craig Evans uses Tacitus as evidence for Christ. The same Craig Evans once wrote

“The archaeological evidence shows that Jesus grew up in a small village, Nazareth, about four miles from Sepphoris, a prominent city in the early first century C.E.

His body was placed in a tomb, with the expectation that his bones later would be gathered and placed in his family’s tomb. The Easter discovery dramatically altered this expectation.”

- There is of course, no archaeological evidence that Jesus grew up anywhere. It is quite clear that any historical analysis into the existence of Jesus, from Evans and other Biblical scholars, starts from the premise that Jesus existed. The ‘evidence’ is then framed around that premise. It is made to fit the dogma. They manipulate history, to fill in gaps. Scholars of the Qur’an will have a vastly different interpretation of “history” when it comes to Jesus, than a Biblical scholar trying to pass his work off as genuine history. Evans misleads on several occasions, in order to provide tenuous links to Jesus. He ends his piece with:

Just last week, a court in Israel concluded that there is no convincing evidence of fraud in the case of the ossuary bearing the inscription, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

- Misleading, because the court actually said:

“We can expect this matter to continue to be researched in the archaeological and scientific worlds and only the future will tell. Moreover, it has not been proved in any way that the words ‘brother of Jesus’ refer to the Jesus who appears in Christian writings.”

- I would strongly advise mistrusting any ‘scholar‘ who continuously feels the need to say “historians in my field all agree“…. Perhaps point out that Biblical historians tended to agree that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, at one point too, despite all evidence to the contrary. Alfred Loisy, the Catholic Priest was demonised by Catholics at the time, for suggesting that the first five books, were not the work of Moses. Loisy’s work was widely rejected by “Biblical Scholars” keen to hold onto to their myth. This is because most of the ‘scholars‘ are Theologians, they have not trained as historians, and they amplify any piece of data they can use as evidence, regardless of its validity or importance. Why would we give them credit, beyond, say, that of the wonderful J. M. Robertson, who writes a great, eloquent and well reasoned account for his belief that Jesus is a myth, and the art of religious myth making (which can all be read here). The ‘history‘ presented by Theologians, is manipulative, and a conclusion reached before evidence is even begun to be collected and interpreted. Most cite Josephus, despite that source being a quite obvious later Christian addition, as well as most citing Tacitus at least once.

Tacitus, undoubtedly, was a great historian and his Annals are a wonderful commentary on the state of Rome during the first century of the Empire.

The particular passage we are focusing on, is Book 15, Chapter 44, of The Annals. In it, Tacitus states:

“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”.

- This is the passage used by Christians as a non-Biblical, early reference to Jesus. In that sense, they’re right. It is a non-Biblical, early reference to Jesus. And that, is all it is. Nothing more. It simply isn’t credible evidence for the existence of Jesus and to suggest it is, is so horrifically devoid of a sense of an ability to be critical, it pains me. Let’s also note that Tacitus claims that they weren’t arrested for the fire, they were arrested for “hatred against mankind“. Not only are they an “immense multitude” (Which we know there weren’t), that the entire City has named “Christians” (suggesting their faith and creeds are well known throughout the city), Rome, and indeed, the Emperor himself convicts them for hatred of mankind.

Polydor Hochart tells us:

“It is inconceivable that the followers of Jesus formed a community in the city at that time of sufficient importance
to attract public attention and the ill-feeling of the people. It is more probable that the Christians were extremely discreet in their behaviour, as the circumstances, especially of early propaganda, required. Clearly we have here a state of things that belongs to a later date than that of Tacitus, when the increase and propagandist zeal of the Christians irritated the other religions against them, and their resistance to the laws of the State caused the
authorities to proceed against them.”

Arthur Drews, drawing on Hochart, says:

The interpolator, Hochart thinks, transferred to the days of Nero that general hatred of the Christians of which Tertullian speaks. Indeed, the French scholar thinks it not impossible that the phrase ” odium humani generis ” was simply taken from Tertullian and put in the mouth of Tacitus. Tertullian tells us that in his time the Christians were accused of being “enemies of the human race”.

It’s also important to note that the original Tacitus Annals Books 11 – 16 are lost. We only have copies, written centuries later. To suggest they are the exact word for word copies of the original, cannot be even close to confirmed. Especially given that those centuries, were Christian centuries, and involved a lot of other Christian forgeries.

There is however, certainly a more credible argument for it being that of Tacitus than the passage by Josephus. But it still isn’t definite. There are some tricky elements not quite reconciled, as Hochart and Drews point out. We must however note that the passage is most certainly written in Tacitus’s style, and it mentions Christians in such a harsh manner, it is unlikely to have been inserted by Christians at a later date. Whereas Josephus, inexplicably lavishes praise on the Christians, and insists Jesus is divine whilst he himself is a devout Jew. Which suggests, among other reasons, that he didn’t write it. Tacitus doesn’t. He is far more damning of the Christians. They were “hated for their abominations“, “a most mischievous superstition“, “hatred against mankind“. These are pretty vicious claims about the Christians. It’s doubtful that a Christian would have inserted this passage later. Though, not impossible. And closer examination seems to suggest the vicious language, is well masked. You will note that Tacitus exonerates the Christians from starting the fire. They are innocent according to Tacitus, and it is Nero who frames them. Suddenly, we have innocent Christian martyrs, persecuted by a crazed and immoral Pagan sect. And that’s exactly as history has perceived them. This may seem like an anti-Christian passage, but it has had the opposite effect entirely.

Forgery in the early Church was rampant. It was especially used to glorify early Christians. The German Theologian David Strauss wrote that the earliest Christian communities reworded the Gospels to suit certain local prejudices. Hegel noted that Christian doctrine continuously changed over the years to suit certain power structures. There is also, of course, debate over whether even Peter managed to reach Rome at all, let alone authored the First and Second Epistles of Peter (which, it is almost certain, he didn’t). There is also a lot of controversy over what St Paul actually said, what he wrote, what was forged under his name, where he preached, and how he died. Rewriting Christian history to suit a narrative is not new. Forgery is certainly not new in Christian history. Eusebius appears to have been a master at this.

There are some issues with the plausibility of the Tacitus reference, as being genuine. Like with the passage from Josephus, no early Christian writer, even those well versed in Tacitus, mention this passage at all. Eusebius, putting together all early sources on the life of Jesus, searching Pagan documents including Tacitus, (and my chief suspect in forging the Josephus passages, and suspiciously, the first to mention that Paul was killed in the persecution under Nero) did not mention Tacitus. Neither does Tertullian, a student of Tacitean works. Drews noted:

“none of the works of Tacitus have come down to us without interpolations”.

Secondly, the word “Christians” was not used in Rome, at that point in their history. They were often referred to as “the way“, but most popularly as “Saints” and “Disciples“. Acts 1:15 is testament to that:

“And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples.”

Others (including Eusebius) note that early Christians were known as Nazerenes. If we discount Josephus’s passages as inserted later by Christians, the first mention of the term “Christians” outside of the Bible, is Tacitus. At a time when it is unlikely they would be known by the name “Christians“. Christianity and Judaism did not have a relevant and noticeable split until the 2nd Century. It is also not true that “an immense multitude” of Christians existed in Rome at the time of the burning. There was barely a Christian multitude at all in Judea, let alone Rome. Given how widespread and dangerous the Christians apparently were, Nero’s Minister, Seneca, doesn’t mention them at all. In fact, for such a widespread movement apparently operating in Rome, that the city had already named ‘Christians‘, and openly hated, Tacitus doesn’t mention them anywhere else, at all, only briefly in the passage above. And no other early historian links the Christians to the burning of Rome.

So, whilst the text itself is a little stronger than Josephus, it isn’t set in stone as genuine. But even if it were, that is completely irrelevant.

The main problem with Tacitus used as evidence for the existence of Jesus begin prior to this passage and prior to the writing of the Annals.
It starts with Tacitus’s birth.

Tacitus was born 56ad. Probably in Southern France, known then as Gallia Narbonensis. So, in looking for contemporary sources for the existence of Jesus; anything written by Jesus, anything written from the time by people who supposedly flocked to see Jesus, anything written by social commentators at the time, and place in which Jesus was performing amazing, reality altering miracles, anything from contemporary Romans about this World changing preacher….. Tacitus was not. He was in fact born 20 years after Jesus supposedly died, 2000 miles away. So, another non-contemporary “source” working on hearsay.
Johannes Weiss, the German Theologian, once stated:

“Assuredly there were the general lines of even a purely fictitious Christian tradition already laid down about the year 100; Tacitus may therefore draw upon this tradition”

- There is no reason to believe Tacitus was doing anything but drawing upon an established tradition. Three of the four Gospels were quite possibly already written at that time. That Christianity existed, is not in question. Tacitus seems only to be reaffirming that Christianity existed.

Hearsay; because being non-contemporary, means he could only know about Jesus, second hand, at best. And it is at best, because the Annals was Tacitus’ final work before he died in 117ad. Which means, over a century after Jesus was supposedly born. It is unlikely at that time, that Tacitus would have spoken to disciples of Jesus, or any contemporary source that knew Jesus, being over 70 years later. If he did speak to disciples, we have no evidence for it. It is more likely that he knew the Christian story, from the Christian sects that were in Rome at that time. His statements are quite clearly statements of what the Christians believe, not a statement of fact.
Consider the following. Tacitus writes:

“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.”

- How is this any different, and any more credible a source for the existence of Jesus, than me, sitting in front of my laptop in 2013, commenting on the early days of Mormonism:

“Mormoni, from whom the Mormons derive their origin and name, visited Joseph Smith during the Presidency of John Quincy Adams.”

- I have never even visited Palmyra in New York, I was born about 3000 miles away, I wasn’t born at the time it happened, I have never spoken to those who knew Joseph Smith. I am simply writing a narrative that I’ve heard from others. As long as it is clear that Tacitus was not a contemporary of Jesus, nor spoke to or knew any of his disciples, nor, crucially, does he mention the crucifixion of St Peter, it is quite obvious that Tacitus can only base his passage referring to Jesus, on hearsay, from people who themselves, heard it from others.
This is more evident, given that the Romans didn’t keep crucifixion records, and so Tacitus’ mention of Jesus crucifiction, came from hearsay also. He was not working from an original source. It is all story and no fact.

Tacitus, writing ‘Histories’ Book 5, and specifically Chapters 8 – 10 describe Judea at the supposed time of Jesus. They make no mention of the crucifixion of Jesus as mentioned in Annals. They make no mention of Christians at all. They make no mention of miracles, or the dead rising from the ground, or Jerusalem in uproar at the arrival of Jesus.
Absolutely no mention of Christians, Christianity, or Jesus at all. What was happening in Judea according to ‘Histories’?

“Antony gave the throne to Herod, and Augustus, after his victory, increased his power. After Herod’s death, a certain Simon assumed the name of king without waiting for Caesar’s decision. He, however, was put to death by Quintilius Varus, governor of Syria; the Jews were repressed; and the kingdom was divided into three parts and given to Herod’s sons. Under Tiberius all was quiet.”

- Nothing. Turns out it was pretty quiet.

One writer attempting to refute the myth idea, says this:

No one is suggesting that a reference in Tacitus written at the end of 116 CE about events of 64 CE can be considered a clincher for the historical Jesus. However neither Tacitus nor Suetonius later, nor Celsus, nor Josephus if he mentions Jesus at all, raise the slightest doubt that Jesus was a flesh and blood character from their recent past.

- This is a complete straw man. (Though, Josephus doesn’t actually mention Jesus, so throwing that name into the bag is irrelevant, and Suetonius is even more dubious than Josephus) No one is suggesting Tacitus knew Jesus was not a real person. That is neither my argument, nor is it the intention of Tacitus’ writings. If it were, we may look into his other works for similar patterns and come to similar conclusions. For example, along with also suggesting that the mythical Romulus actually really did rule Rome, Tacitus tells us:

“Mankind in the earliest age lived for a time without a single vicious impulse, without shame or guilt, and, consequently, without punishment and restraints. Rewards were not needed when everything right was pursued on its own merits; and as men desired nothing against morality, they were debarred from nothing by fear. When however they began to throw off equality, and ambition and violence usurped the place of self-control and modesty, despotisms grew up and became perpetual among many nations. Some from the beginning, or when tired of kings, preferred codes of laws. These were at first simple, while men’s minds were unsophisticated. The most famous of them were those of the Cretans, framed by Minos; those of the Spartans, by Lycurgus, and, subsequently, those which Solan drew up for the Athenians on a more elaborate and extensive scale. ”

- Here, it seems pretty convincing for anyone, using “Tacitus is sure Jesus is a real, living human being” logic, that Tacitus also didn’t question the reality of Minos, the son of Zeus and Europa. He also doesn’t question the reality of Lycurgus, whom plenty of ancient historians doubt existed historically. He believes those two to be great law givers. He presents them, like he present Jesus, as actual historical figures. The question of whether the figure is real or not, is unimportant to Tacitus. That isn’t what he’s trying to prove.

The important aspect to apply to the Annals of Tacitus, with regard the mention of the Christians, is that it is hearsay. It is something Tacitus does throughout his work. Tacitus draws and myth, and presents them simply as stories – neither fact nor fiction – in a lot of his writings, not least in his apparent (and dubious) reference to Christians.

The fact remains; None of the historians and cultural writers living at the same time as Jesus, ever wrote about Jesus. I will again point to Philo as being the most damning source for Christians, in my view. Writing at the exact time Jesus apparently existed, writing about the exact places Jesus apparently performed all sorts of wondrous miracles; and does not mention him once, yet mentions plenty of other less impressive, and far more mundane anecdotes. It is clear that Josephus, also, does not mention Jesus once, despite his beloved father living in and around the area Jesus was supposedly causing shock waves.

Whether the Tacitus reference is genuine or not, is irrelevant. And that is because it is written too late to be considered contemporary evidence for the existence of Jesus. If, whether a source is genuine or not is irrelevant, then there really is no reason to consider it at all. It cannot reasonably be considered evidence for the existence of Jesus.

Tacitus, born two decades later, writing five decades after that, relying on second (at best) hand information, and even then the passage is suspicious, is evidence for nothing except that Christians may have existed in Rome at the time of the Great Fire.

If you are reduced to looking for even the briefest of mentions, by a man who wasn’t there, or in fact, alive at the time, writing 100 years after the birth of the figure you’re trying to prove, in which he simply references a group of people in Rome at the time through rumours and hearsay; i’m afraid your search for the historical figure you’re arguing for, is baseless.

I want evidence. Show me distinct, obvious, uncompromised evidence. Evidence that is not based on hearsay accounts or ambiguous and slightly dubious sources. Evidence that is not just being moulded to fit a narrative that is devoid of any contemporary evidence. Then I will change my opinion. Until then, I remain firm in my belief that Jesus Christ never existed.

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3 Responses to The Jesus Myth: Tacitus

  1. Woody says:

    Rather than quoting Evans and allowing him to be a straw man for you why don’t you quote Ehrman? I studied Ancient history at Oxford and no literally no academic who thinks Jesus didn’t exist. Sure they doubt the gospel version but Jesus didn’t exist, seriously? You point out that Biblical scholars all accept Jesus’ existence and ok there may be a vested interest there but where are the ancient historians who disagree?

  2. Woody says:

    sorry “know literally no academic”

  3. Yourlogicisflawed says:

    So Biblical scholars are dismissed as biased based off your opinion, but a non-Christian and known hater of Christians is considered accurate?

    Not only should the source you’re agreeing with be dismissed using your own logic concerning bias, but it has weaker credibility to begin with anyways.

    This read is worthless.

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