A Short Note on the Use of Tacitus as a Historical Source for Jesus

A. It would have been impossible for Tacitus (56 CE – ca 118 CE) to have had any firsthand knowledge of a Historical Jesus since Jesus would have already been dead for at least 23 years before Tacitus was born (assuming the latest date of April 33 CE for the crucifixion).

B. The fire in Rome happened on June 19, 64 which would have made Tacitus only 8 years old at the time. At such an age, Tacitus would have likely been much too young to have recorded anything (if he was literate at that age) especially for a child living in Gaul.

C. The distance from Gaul (setting Paris as the central city) to Jerusalem (by land) is about 3,695 miles. How could Tacitus, who was only 8 years old at the time, have any firsthand knowledge of either the Christians in Roman Palestine or even the fire in Rome over 700 miles away?

D. Tacitus published his first work (Agricola) in 98 CE and his Annals around 114 or 115 or 59 years after the fire in Nero’s Rome and 82 years after the death of the so-called Historical Jesus. Thus, the information about “Christus”  (a hapax legomenon) suffering under Pilate shows a confessional belief and not any historical event he knew about. If Jesus is the Christus meant here, then we would expect the Latin “Iesum Christum”.  However, Tacitus is likely simply repeating an established tradition as we learn nothing more than that which is not already stated by Josephus and forms the basis for the Apostles Creed: “ . . . passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus, . . . “(suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried;).

 Reference: The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3 rd ed., edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (Oxford University Press, 1996)