What Does the Roman Historian Tacitus Tell Us About Early Christianity?

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It would seem odd that a movement should continue to grow after the main figurehead of that movement was publicly humiliated and executed — especially if the person who was executed had promised to bring about a new kingdom. It would be even more odd if the followers of this now-dead leader continued to follow him, and tirelessly labor to gain new followers in the face of significant persecution. But, for some reason or another, this is exactly what we find even in the secular history of early Christianity.

I re-read the second chapter of Paley’s Evidences of Christianity today, and this is exactly what that chapter is focused on.

One of the most prominent writers on Jesus and early Christianity was Tacitus who wrote in Annals 15.44 that Nero, still under scrutiny for the fire of Rome, blamed everything on the Christians. Tacitus was writing about 70 years after Jesus died, and the events on which he wrote occurred roughly 40 years after Jesus’death.

The significance of this is that Christianity had spread from Judaea to Rome in under 40 years, and there had to have been enough Christians to draw the attention of the emperor himself.

But Tacitus goes on to describe the followers of the “pernicious superstition” centered around a man named Christ from Judaea who was tried and executed during the reign of Tiberius under the authority of Pilate.

Tacitus was obviously no friend of Christianity (I don’t know many Christians who would call their own religion a “pernicious superstition”). So he had no emotional investment of some sort in believing that Jesus lived or died. Yet, he clearly believed that such a man did indeed live in Judaea, died a notable death, and that the religion had somehow managed to gain prominence as far away as Rome by that time (and even farther given the early church fathers that lived as far as Carthage and France).

So even if for some reason we wanted to toss out everything we know about Christianity from “Christian” texts (such as the Gospels and Acts), Tacitus (and other ancient writers) give us sufficient reason to believe that there was a historical Jesus, that He was executed, and something motivated His followers enough to go to great lengths in spreading their message.

Kyle Huitt
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Kyle Huitt

Part of the multitude that has lost their faith, but part of the few that has returned to it. This blog is my attempt to describe why I returned to the faith, and to maybe prevent somebody else from leaving it in the first place. Studying philosophy and history at Hillsdale College. Member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Kyle Huitt
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