R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Tacitus and the Christians – revised

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I have revised 18th January to include a comparison with Doherty’s treatment of Tacitus.

By now we’re getting the picture.
Bruce writes:

Pilate’s execution of Christ, and any report that he may have sent to Rome about it, would never have been heard of again, if in fact that execution had put an end to the movement which Christ began. (p.23)

If the aim of Bruce here is to offer independent evidence of the existence of the historical Jesus this logic here is of course entirely circular. He is arguing that because Jesus existed and started the Christian movement that spread like wildfire to Rome then this is evidence that Rome’s “police” would have kept records that they would not normally have kept, and that Tacitus would have used these! No hint that this passage of Tacitus (ca.115-117 c.e.) implicating the Christians in the Fire of Rome in Nero’s reign (64 c.e.) raises more questions and problems, if indeed historical, than one can throw matches at.

But Bruce does belie some sense that he is aware of the circularity and hollowness of his argument since he goes on to cover himself with the most tentative “perhaps”, “possiblies”, “who knows?”, “would have”, “if indeeds”:

[W]here did [Tacitus] go [for his information]? To some official record, perhaps — possibly to Pilate’s report; who knows? Tacitus had an official stnading which would give him access to such archives, if indeed they survived to his day.(p.23)

Pilate, he concedes, is not mentioned in any other pagan document known to us, thus underscoring further the complete unlikeliness that Tacitus would indeed have found such records in Rome in his day. This passage, he admits, is a most unlikely one — one based on “records” that would not normally make their way to Rome. Rather than prompt other questions of historical evidence and alternative explanations this “unlikely” fact (and a fact that assumes the historical existence of Jesus that this passage is meant to be supplying additional evidence for) merely increases the dramatic irony in Bruce’s eyes.

Why does Bruce insist that these admittedly unlikely police records had to have been Tacitus’ source? Because, he explains,

from the contemptuous and hostile tone which he adopts towards the Christians, we may gather that he did not seek his information from them. (p.23)

One would not have thought a historian had to be on friendly terms with Christians to have had some knowledge of their claims and beliefs. Such assertions by Bruce indicate a naivety about methods historical that surely place his book more comfortably among other confessional writings for the choir.

Compare Bruce’s and Doherty’s discussions of Tacitus

While Bruce treats Tacitus as “a source” Doherty seeks for the source that Tacitus himself used.

While Bruce is content to repeat the Eusebian model of Church history (fanning out with spirit-like rapidity throughout the empire from the time of Jesus’ death), Doherty makes note of the fact that modern historians are being forced to limit the initial impact of Jesus given, amongst other factors, the degree of silence about Jesus in the contemporary record. This silence makes it even less likely that Tacitus ever had bureaucratric records of any particular one of countless thousands of crucifixions and executions benighting the empire decades earlier.

While Bruce is content to assume that Tacitus searched police records for his information about Jesus (on the grounds that this is the only alternative given that his unfriendly tone tells him he could not have been informed by Christians themselves), Doherty notes that Tacitus was not in the habit of consulting original documents. In support of this is the fact that Tacitus gets Pilate’s title wrong. This, of course, ought to have informed Bruce that he was being too cavalier in his discussion.

Doherty’s suggestion that Tacitus’s source was most likely picked up directly or more likely indirectly from what Christians themselves were saying in his time is by far more economical than Bruce’s presumptions of what Doherty says would have been an unheard of scale of record-keeping even for the Romans. Doherty leaves it open whether the information derived from Roman Christians or those in the province of Asia where Tacitus had earlier governed.


Bruce’s conclusion is that this passage from Tacitus presents history with “an irony” — so notable that it places the sole reference of a pagan writer to Pilate in a “hand to hand” moment with “the ancient Christian creed: ‘. . . suffered under Pontius Pilate’.” It does truly appear that Bruce’s interest in dramatic presentation of his confessional interest has caused him to view this passage from but a single — apologetic — view.

Again, there is no discussion of the historical problems involved (except to express the unlikelihood of such records normally existing in Rome). No explanation — not even any mention of — the silence of the early Church Fathers on this record. It does not do to say that an “argument from silence” in this case means anything since the arguments for and against the silence of the Josephan TF among early Church Fathers are admitted as vital in many scholarly discussions. It is unthinkable that there could be no references to this passage of a presumably most salient historical event among those early Christians given their regular cravings for all records, good and bad, of the treatment of early Christians. Doherty discusses this aspect persuasively and in depth.

But in this case it is not only the silence of the early church writers that begs for explanation. It is also the correspondence only 50 years later between emperor Trajan and his governor Pliny — neither Roman official knows of any precedent for how to handle Christians! And they were in ignorance just 50 years after Christians were slaughtered by imperial edict over the fire that destroyed a third of Rome? Yeh, right!

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

11 thoughts on “R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Tacitus and the Christians – revised”

  1. Quite frankly I don’t think Tacitus wrote a word about Christians. I am persuaded that the passage referred to in Annals is more probably a late insertion than original. See, for example, http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/josephus-etal.html and http://vridar.org/2012/04/23/5-earl-dohertys-response-to-bart-ehrmans-case-against-mythicism-a-roman-trio/ . . .

    Doherty writes:

    In regard to Tacitus, it is, however, another matter entirely when one recognizes that no Christian writer before the 5th century appeals to the key 15:44 passage of the Annals in which a Neronian persecution of Christians as accused arsons in the Great Fire of Rome is recounted, along with mention of their founder “Christus crucified by Pilate.” That includes Tertullian who had a fixation on the topic of martyrdom, and Eusebius who was concerned with recounting the martyrdoms of renowned figures like Peter and Paul and James the Just. That silence, the centuries-long period of non-attestation to the Christians/Christus passage in the Annals, should indeed go a long way to spelling its non-existence over that period. And in fact, even in the 5th century, the appearance of something resembling the Tacitus account in Sulpicius Severus does not cite Tacitus as its source, nor does it include the reference to Christus crucified by Pilate. There is thus scope for postulating that the Severus passage was not drawn from the Annals but from some Christian invention which subsequently served as the basis for an interpolation into 15:44. Clear attestation to this alleged ‘non-Christian witness to Jesus’ can be dated no earlier than the 9th century.

    But I know most people don’t buy that, though, so I will usually write as the devil’s advocate as if it were genuine.

    If it were genuine, I doubt Tacitus would have got his info from Pliny. Tacitus expresses a much more negative view of Christians than we find in Pliny’s letter. But who knows — friends can have different outlooks on third parties they talk about. Tacitus could have picked up his information from common talk about Christians in his own day.

  2. Thanks for the reply and the links.
    I’ll read them before responding to the idea that some absences are, after all, evidence.
    Any chance Tacitus obtained his information from the Imperial archives or the Acta Senatus?

    1. None at all. Surely no-one can seriously imagine Tacitus rummaging through state archives to find the name of the bloke who killed Jesus. What he says was common Christian testimony and readily ascertained by Christians. The topic was simply not big or important enough for him to go through archives. He is far more interested in smearing Nero’s reputation and bad-mouthing the Christians.

      1. Neil: What he says was common Christian testimony and readily ascertained by Christians.

        Or he could have learned it from Pliny the Younger, which would make it information he learned from a friend who had questioned (tortured) Christians living in a province near the Black Sea, about 80 years after the supposed death of Jesus.

        After all, we know Pliny wrote letters to Tacitus.


        1. Here’s a summary of 1 CE to 100 CE:


          I’ve seen allusions to lost bronze documents in both the fire of 69 CE and 80 CE in various places.

          For example:


          (see p. 52)

          69, of course, was the Year of the Four Emperors, so things got a little crazy in the city.

          There’s also an interesting chapter endnote in Ehud beN Svi’s History, Literature and Theology in the Book of Chronicles on p. 73:

          Cf. Josephus’ references to sources, and in particular to the texts of documents to be found engraved on bronze tablets in the Capitol (Ant. 14.187-89, esp. 188; cf. Ant. 14.266). Incidentally, not only is it very unlikely that he accessed these documents, but in all likelihood he could not have done that, because of the fire of December 19, 69 CE. See, for instance, H.R. Moering, ‘The Acta pro Judaeis in the Antiquities of Flavius Josephus: A Study in Hellenistic and Modern Apologetic Historiography’, in J. Neusner (ed.), Christianity, Judaism and Other Greco-Roman Cults: Studies for Morton Smith at Sixty. Part Three Judaism before 70 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1975), pp. 124-58, esp. 131; on this and general matters associated with citations of documents in Josephus, see, among others, M. Pucci Ben-Zeev, Jewish Rights in the Roman World – The Greek and Roman Documents Quoted by Josephus Flavius (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr/Siebeck, 1998), pp. 381-408 and esp. 394-99; idem, ‘Josephus’ Ambiguities: His Comments on Cited Documents’, paper presented at the 2003 Josephus’ Seminar . . .

          [Note, that last paper used to be available for free, but is now behind a paywall.]

  3. A good point.
    In the introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Tacitus, edited by A. J. Woodman, the author gives an example of how Tacitus relied on Pliny’s memory and accounts of a trial in 93.

    How likely is it Tacitus wouldn’t reply on Pliny for information about Christian beliefs and the reported trial of their founder back in the 30’s?

  4. As far as we can tell Pliny knew nothing about Jesus being put on trial or crucified. The Christians he knew did worship Christ before dawn on a fixed day of the week and that’s all he seems to know about their beliefs. Maybe the Christians he knew of did not worship a crucified Christ.

    As for the Piso comparison, there is no comparison. Tacitus knows and writes graphic details about Piso’s life and trial — there is no comparison with the passing mention that Christ had been tried and crucified. The latter reads like a Christian confessional statement and nothing more.

    Woodman is right — ancient historians rarely lived up to the methods they said they were following. Too much of Tacitus’s history is renowned for being more like a vindictive gossip rag against emperors he did not like than being seriously researched material.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading