The Prospect of a Christian Interpolation in Tacitus, Annals 15.44

In: Vigiliae Christianae

Some scholars have argued that Tacitus’ reference to Christ in connection with the burning of Rome under Nero is a 4th century (or later) interpolation. It is here argued that their arguments can be met with no strong rebuttal, and therefore the key sentence in Tacitus referring to Christ should be considered suspect.

  • 1

    For surveys see Robert Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 42-43; and Herbert W. Benario, “Recent Work on Tacitus (1964-1968),” The Classical World 63.8 (April 1970), pp. 253-66 [see pp. 264-65] and “Recent Work on Tacitus (1974-1983),” The Classical World 80.2 (Nov.-Dec. 1986)], pp. 73-147 [see p. 139]. The two most recent (and most important) examples are Jean Rougé, “L’incendie de Rome en 64 et l’incendie de Nicomédia en 303,” Mélanges d’histoire ancienne offerts à William Seston (Paris: E. de Boccard, 1974), pp. 433-41; and Earl Doherty, Jesus: Neither God nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus (Ottawa: Age of Reason Publications, 2009), pp. 596-630.

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  • 3

    Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, pp. 19-134 adduces only nine, and two of those are not certain to contain mentions of Jesus (Suetonius and Mara bar Serapion), one is non-existent (Thallus; we almost certainly have a direct quotation of his original words, from which we can confirm Thallus did not mention Jesus: see Richard Carrier, “Thallus and the Darkness at Christ’s Death,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 8 [2011-2012]: 185-91), and two are certain to have suffered some degree of interpolation (Josephus: the longer passage in whole or in part: Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, pp. 81-103 and James Carleton Paget, “Some Observations on Josephus and Christianity,” Journal of Theological Studies 52 [2001]: 539-624; and the shorter passage, in relevant part: see Richard Carrier, “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20.4 [Winter 2012]: 489-514). That leaves only six passages, two of which have suffered interpolations, for an apparent base rate of interpolation equal to 1 in every 3 passages. The survey of non-Christian references to Jesus in the first three centuries in Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), pp. 63-124, does not expand on the list in Van Voorst.

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  • 5

    Pliny, Letters 10.96. See Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, pp. 23-29; Theissen and Merz, The Historical Jesus, pp. 79-83; and Bradley Peper and Mark DelCogliano, “The Pliny and Trajan Correspondence,” in Amy-Jill Levine, Dale C. Allison, Jr., and John Dominic Crossan, eds., The Historical Jesus in Context (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006), pp. 366-71.

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  • 9

    Tacitus, Annals 13.20, 15.61; Agricola 10.3.

  • 10

    Tacitus, Annals 1.69, 13.20, 15.53; Histories 3.29; Pliny the Younger, Letters 6.16.

  • 11

    Pliny the Elder, Natural History 17.1.5.

  • 12

    See Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, pp. 29-39; Theissen and Merz, The Historical Jesus, pp. 83-85.

  • 13

    Suetonius, Nero 16.2.

  • 14

    Argued by Stephen Dando-Collins, The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and His City (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2010), p. 6; and Doherty, Jesus: Neither God nor Man, pp. 616-18. The language of the line as we have it is certainly not in Suetonian style and reflects a Latin idiom that arose after his time: see K. R. Bradley, “Suetonius, Nero 16.2: ‘afflicti suppliciis Christiani’,” The Classical Review 22.1 (March 1972): 9-10. Although Bradley argues that this means the text was corrupted and should be restored to align with a paraphrase of Orosius and the known style of Suetonius, an interpolation would explain the same evidence. And if we must emend this passage, as Bradley says, to guarantee its authenticity, we could just as soon emend Christians to Chrestians as well.

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  • 15

    Suetonius, Claudius 25.4. See commentary in J. Mottershead, Claudius / Suetonius (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1986), pp. 149-57 (Appendix 2).

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  • 17

    Dio Cassius, Roman History 60.6.6 (translation by Earnest Cary, Loeb Classics edition). The fifth century Orosius, in A History against the Pagans 7.6.15-16, claims Josephus reported this expulsion, but there is no mention of this in Josephus’ extant works (Orosius is probably confusing this with an expulsion incident under Tiberius, which is mentioned by Josephus); see Leonard Victor Rutgers, “Roman Policy towards the Jews: Expulsions from the City of Rome during the First Century C.E.,” Classical Antiquity 13.1 (April 1994): 56-74. Orosius also produces Christus instead of Chrestus in his quotation of Suetonius here, and thus assumes Suetonius was speaking of riots over Christianity.

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  • 20

    Tacitus, Annals 15.44. See Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, pp. 39-53; and Theissen and Merz, The Historical Jesus, pp. 79-83.

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  • 21

    On the date: in Tacitus, Annals 2.61 and 4.4-5 allusions are made to Trajan’s annexation of Parthian territories in 116 a.d. but not their loss a year or two later. On this being the earliest reference to Jesus: the two references to Jesus in Josephus would be earlier (dating to just after the year 93 a.d.), if they were authentic, but that is doubtful (see Carrier, “Origen, Eusebius”).

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  • 24

    Robert Renehan, “Christus or Chrestus in Tacitus?” La Parola del Passato 122 (1968): 368-70.

  • 27

    Most convincingly by Jean Rougé, “L’incendie de Rome,” and in a different respect by Saumagne (see previous note). Earl Doherty, an undergraduate in classics, also details a respectable argument to the same conclusion, in line with Rougé (see first note). A similar case for interpolation, suggesting it may have begun as a marginal gloss later inserted accidentally, has also been made online by Roger Viklund, “Tacitus as a Witness to Jesus—An Illustration of What the Original Might Have Looked Like,” Jesus Granskad (2 October 2010) at http://rogerviklund.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/. On accidental interpolation as a general phenomenon see Carrier, “Origen, Eusebius,” pp. 490-91.

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  • 32

    Dio Cassius, Roman History 62.16-18 recounts the event of the fire but omits any mention of who was punished or blamed (other than Nero); Pliny the Elder, Natural History 17.1.5 mentions Nero burning the city and assumes he was to blame for it. For other evidence (including epigraphic and archaeological) see: Edward Champlin, Nero (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 122, 125, 178-200, with corresponding endnotes.

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  • 36

    Tertullian, Apology 5.3 and 21.25. That Tertullian knew the works of Tacitus is demonstrated in Tertullian, Apology 16 and Ad Nationes 1.11 and 2.12.

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  • 37

    Tertullian, Ad Nationes 1.7.8.

  • 38

    Tertullian, Antidote for the Scorpion’s Sting 15.

  • 39

    Eusebius, History of the Church 2.25 (where he cites Tertullian as a source); cf. also 2.22, 3.1, and 4.26 (for Eusebius’ knowledge of other sources).

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  • 40

    Lactantius, On the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died 3.

  • 42

    Eusebius, History of the Church 8.6.

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