Jesus Outside the Bible: Part 3 – Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius

Pliny

There are three Greco-Roman pagan passages extremely important to the defenders of the Christian myth. They are the works of three major non-Christian writers of the late 1st and early 2nd centuries – Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger.

Let’s closely examine these passages and see why they cannot serve us as justification for reliable evidence for a historical Jesus.

Pliny the Younger, Roman Official and Historian (61-112 CE)

Pliny the Younger (c. 61 – c. 112), the provincial governor of Pontus and Bithynia, wrote to Emperor Trajan c. 112 concerning how to deal with Christians, who refused to worship the emperor, and instead worshiped “Christos”.

“Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ — none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do — these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshiped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.” [1]

First things first, “Christ” is a title, not Jesus’s last name. If Pliny’s letter is genuine it would serve only to demonstrate that there were people termed “Christians” who were singing hymns to a god with the title of “Christos” around the beginning of the second century. Neither Pliny’s letter nor the response by Trajan mention anything about this god having a life on Earth; nor do they even call him “Jesus”.

In reality, the epithet “Christos” is used 40 times in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, centuries before the Christian era, as applied to a variety of characters, including in several references to “the Lord’s anointed”. [2] Indeed, in 1 and 2 Samuel the first King of Israel, Saul, is repeatedly referred to as “Christos” at least a couple of hundred years before Jesus was given the same title. By the end of 2 Samuel (23:1), it was David who was called “Christ”. In 2 Chronicles 6:42, David’s son Solomon becomes God’s Christ, and at 2 Chronicles 22:7 it is Jehu who is the Lord’s anointed. As can be seen, there have been many Christs! [3]

From the foregoing facts, it can be asserted that Pliny provides no useful information either as to who Jesus was or even whether or not he existed.

Tacitus, Roman Politician and Historian, (c. 56-117 CE)

Tacitus (c. 56–c. 117), writing c. 116, included in his Annals a mention of Christianity and “Christus”, the Latinized Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah”. In describing Nero’s persecution of this group following the Great Fire of Rome c. 64, he wrote:

“Nero fastened the guilt of starting the blaze and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians [Chrestians] 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 Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center 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. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.” [4]

The Tacitean passage next states that these fire-setting agitators were followers of “Christus” (Christos), who, in the reign of Tiberius, “was put to death as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate.” The passage also recounts that the Christians, who constituted a “vast multitude at Rome,” were then sought after and executed in ghastly manners, including by crucifixion. However, the date that a “vast multitude” of Christians was discovered and executed would be around 64 CE, and it is evident that there was no “vast multitude” of Christians at Rome by this time, as there were not even a multitude of them in Judea.

Oddly, this brief mention of Christians is all there is in the voluminous works of Tacitus regarding this extraordinary movement, which allegedly possessed such power as to be able to burn Rome. In his well-known Histories, for example, Tacitus never refers to Christ, Christianity or Christians. The Neronian persecution of Christians is unrecorded by any other historian of the day and supposedly took place at the very time when Paul was purportedly freely preaching atRome (Acts 28:30-31). Early Christian writers such as Tertullian, Lactantius, Sulpicius Severus, Eusebius and Augustine of Hippo do not refer to Tacitus when discussing the subject of the Christian persecution by Nero.

Also, this passage constitutes the only Pagan reference that specifically associates Pontius Pilate with Christ. Moreover, even though it was the passion and duty of Church historian Eusebius to compile all non-Christian references to Jesus in his History of the Church, he failed to mention the Annals passage. All in all, the passage smacks of being a late Christian interpolation or at the least a redaction. Tacitus Annals does not appear in the literary record until the 14th century, while the earliest extant manuscript possessing book 15 dates only to the 11th century. Hence, the authenticity and value of the Annals remain dubious.

An interesting question is: Why would Tacitus – a Roman senator – make such derogatory remarks about Rome, calling it the city “to which all that is horrible and shameful floods together and is celebrated”?

Professor R. T. France (New Testament scholar and Anglican cleric) concludes that the Tacitus passage is at best just Tacitus repeating what he has heard through Christians. [5]

Suetonius, Roman Historian (c. 69-c. 122 CE)

Moving through the standard list of defenses, we come to the Roman historian Suetonius. The passage in Suetonius’s Life of Claudius, dating to around 110 CE, states that the emperor Claudius “drove the Jews out of Rome, who at the suggestion of Chrestus were constantly rioting.” The passage goes as follows:

“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [ Claudius ] expelled them [the Jews] from Rome” [6]

Occasionally this passage is cited as evidence for Jesus’s historicity. However, there are serious problems with this interpretation. We see that the reference is to “Chrestus,” not “Christus.” “Chrestus” is the correct Latin form of an actual Greek name, and is not obviously a misspelling of “Christus”, meaning Christ.

In any case, Claudius reigned from 41-54 CE, while Christ was purported to have been crucified around 30 CE, so the great Jewish sage could not have been in Rome at that time. Even the eager believer must admit that Christ himself couldn’t have been at Rome then [since “he” was well and dead by Claudius’s time]. The natural meaning of the remark is that a disturbance was caused by a Jew named Chrestus living in Rome at the time.

Even if Suetonius is referring to Christians in Rome, this only confirms the existence of Christians, not the existence of Jesus. There is no doubt that there were Christians in Rome during the first century CE–this of course does not imply that Jesus actually lived during the first half of this century.

Thus, Suetonius also fails to confirm the historicity of Jesus.

Conclusion

Like those of the Jewish writer Josephus, the works of the ancient historians Pliny, Suetonius and Tacitus do not provide proof that Jesus Christ ever existed as a “historical” character.

These “references” no more prove the existence of Jesus Christ than do writings about other gods prove their existence. In other words, by this same argument we could provide many “references” from ancient writers that the numerous Pagan gods also existed as “real people.”

To take one example, examine the evidence for Hercules of Greek mythology and you will find it parallels the “historicity” of Jesus to such an amazing degree that for Christian apologists to deny Hercules as a historical person belies and contradicts the very same methodology used for a historical Jesus.

Note that Herculean myth resembles Jesus in many areas. The mortal and chaste Alcmene, the mother of Hercules, gave birth to him from a union with God (Zeus). Similar to Herod who wanted to kill Jesus, Hera wanted to kill Hercules. Like Jesus, Hercules traveled the earth as a mortal helping mankind and performed miraculous deeds. Similar to Jesus who died and rose to heaven, Hercules died, rose to Mt.Olympus and became a god. Hercules gives example of perhaps the most popular hero in Ancient Greece and Rome. They believed that he actually lived, told stories about him, worshiped him, and dedicated temples to him.

Likewise the “evidence” of Hercules closely parallels that of Jesus. We have historical people like Hesiod and Plato who mention Hercules in their writings. Similar to the way the gospels tell a narrative story of Jesus, so do we have the epic stories of Homer who depict the life of Hercules. Aesop tells stories and quotes the words of Hercules. Just as we have a brief mention of Jesus by Joesphus in his Antiquities, Joesphus also mentions Hercules (more times than Jesus), in the very same work (see: 1.15; 8.5.3; 10.11.1). Just as Tacitus mentions a Christus, so does he also mention Hercules many times in his Annals. And most importantly, just as we have no artifacts, writings or eyewitnesses about Hercules, we also have nothing about Jesus. All information about Hercules and Jesus comes from stories, beliefs, and hearsay. Should we then believe in a historical Hercules, simply because ancient historians mention him and that we have stories and beliefs about him? Of course not, and the same must apply to Jesus if we wish to hold any consistency to historicity.

Of course a historical Jesus may have existed, perhaps based loosely on a living human even though his actual history got lost, but this amounts to nothing but speculation. However we do have an abundance of evidence supporting the mythical evolution of Jesus. Virtually every detail in the gospel stories occurred in pagan and/or Hebrew stories, long before the advent of Christianity. We simply do not have a shred of evidence to determine the historicity of a Jesus “the Christ.” We only have evidence for the belief of Jesus.

Thanks for reading,

Notes:

  1. Pliny, Letters 10.96-97: http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/texts/pliny.html
  2. 1 Sam 12:5, 16:6, 24:7, 24:11, 26:9, 26:11, 26:16; 2 Sam 1:14, 16; Lam 4:20, etc. These citations are from the Septuagint, which varies considerably in some places from the Hebrew or Masoretic Old Testament
  3. Murdock, D.M.; “Who Was Jesus – Fingerprints of the Christ”, Stellar House Publishing, 2007
  4. Tacitus, Annals 15.44: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/tacitus-annals.txt
  5. For example R. T. France, writes “The brief notice in Tacitus Annals xv.44 mentions only his title, Christus, and his execution in Judeaby order of Pontius Pilatus. Nor is there any reason to believe that Tacitus bases this on independent information-it is what Christians would be saying in Rome in the early second century … No other clear pagan references to Jesus can be dated before AD 150, by which time the source of any information is more likely to be Christian propaganda than an independent record.” The Gospels As Historical Sources For Jesus, The Founder Of Christianity, Truth Journal http://www.leaderu.com/truth/1truth21.html
  6. Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Claudius:http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Claudius*.html
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23 thoughts on “Jesus Outside the Bible: Part 3 – Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius

  1. RiRl

    Of course what this article fails to note is that the paucity of non Christian accounts is exactly what we would expect if the traditional account of the origins of Christianity is true. Furthermore, where there is good evidence — such as most historians find for the case of Josephius — this is taken as an argument against the existence of Jesus. Regardless of what you do with what the church claims about Jesus, you have to engage in tortured analysis such as these to deny his existence.

    1. Ignorant comment. The paucity which you incorrectly mention is actually on the Christian side. Please review the list below of the many historians/writers that lived in and around the time of “Jesus”. Quite the contrary to your statement, if the traditional account of the origins of Christianity is true, surely someone from the list below would have said something:

      Aulus Perseus (60 CE)
      Columella (1st cent. CE)
      Dio Chrysostom (c. 40 – 112 CE)
      Justus of Tiberius (c. 80 CE)
      Livy (59 BCE – 17 CE)
      Lucanus (fl. 63 CE)
      Lucius Florus (1st – 2nd cent. CE)
      Petronius (d. 66 CE)
      Phaedrus (c. 15 BCE – 50 CE)
      Philo Judaeus (20 BCE – 50 CE)
      Phlegon (1st cent. CE)
      Pliny the Elder (23 – 69 CE)
      Plutarch (c. 46 – 119 CE)
      Pomponius Mela (40 CE)
      Rufus Curtius (1st cent. CE)
      Quintilian (c. 35 – 100 CE)
      Quintus Curtius (1st cent. CE)
      Seneca (1 BCE – 65 CE)
      Silius Italicus (c. 25 – 101 CE)
      Statius Caelicius (1st cent. CE)
      Theon of Smyrna (c. 70 – 135 CE)
      Valerius Flaccus (1st cent. CE)
      Valerius Maximus (fl. c. 20 CE)

      The silence is singularly outstanding, in consideration of the repeated assertions in the gospels that Christ was famed far and wide, causing a fracas with the local and imperial authorities, and, upon his death, creating astonishing and awesome miracles and wonders the world had never seen before, including not only an earthquake and the darkening of the sun and moon, but also dead people rising from their graves and visiting people in town! [Matthew 27:50-53]

      These “great crowds” and “multitudes”, along with Jesus’s fame, are repeatedly referred to in the gospels, including in the following:

      Matthew 4:23-45, 5:1, 8:1, 8:18, 9:8, 9:31, 9:33, 9:36, 11:7, 12:15, 13:2, 14:1, 14:13, 14:22, 15:30, 19:2, 21:9, 26:55
      Mark 1:28, 10:1…etc
      Luke 4:14, 4:37, 5:15, 14:25…etc
      1 Corinthians 15:3-7

      One would think that if all these things happened, someone somewhere would have written about them or otherwise recorded them for prosperity. But, inspecting the literary, historical and archaeological record of the time produces nothing.

      As for Josephus, he is easily dismissed for this subject, as his has been for hundreds of years. Here is a quick overview why: https://elpidiovaldes.wordpress.com/2011/04/25/jesus-outside-the-bible-part-2-%E2%80%93-flavius-josephus/

      And your last comment on engaging in “tortured analysis such as these to deny his existence”…These analysis are, of course, not necessary. A simple history of religion text book can tell you all you need to know about the subject at hand. The “tortured analysis” is only for the religious brainwashed which may need a little more aid in understanding the facts and to the many young minds that are still trying to know the truth. Nothing more, nothing less.

      Thanks,

      1. Erm, you do realise that Livy was dead when Jesus began his public ministry. It would be hard for him to thus write about Jesus don’t you think?

      2. Surely you understand the phrase “lived in and around the time of ‘Jesus'” don’t you? Never did I say “Jesus’s ministry”.

        But for entertainment sake, I will point out why Livy is on the list:

        Someone, such as Livy, with such extensive connections and writing abilities would have surly mentioned a very crucial episode in Jesus’s life: “The Massacre of the Innocents”, where Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi.

      3. Robert vann

        Your list of silence means nothing. Just silence. Fact is Tacitus, Pliney, Josephus and others are not silent. Funny for a man that is just myth; he sure has caused an abundance of controversy. That is proof enough for me he existed. Look you are dogging him. Anybody talking smack about Zeus or Hercules? No. Jesus was no myth or nobody would still be talking about him. Can you give any historians of antiquity that actually say Jesus and Christianity never existed. Didn’t think so. Silence means nothing. I ate breakfast to day. My historical account is true even though not one historian will write about. Your an embarrassment to academic history.

      4. Hi Robert,

        The silence that I referred to in my previous comment is in fact quite meaningful. Surely, there is absolutely no reason to doubt that you had breakfast today regardless if there is a written record or not. However, if you would have said that you had breakfast with Elvis Presley it would be quite another matter. You can get away with an undocumented everyday breakfast because it does not defy the rules of logic or physics. If you had breakfast with Elvis, you would be required to explain yourself by every person on Earth. See the difference?

        Read my comment regarding the silence of history one more time. I’m talking about dead people rising from their graves and visiting people in town! [Matthew 27:50-53] This is a phenomenon that defies all logic and natural law. Surely, some Roman would have mentioned this incredible moment. Interestingly enough, only the person who wrote this statement into the Gospel felt it important enough to mention it. The rest of the known world did not bother with it. ‘Cause, you know, these Night-of-the-Living-Dead episodes happen all the time 🙂

        Contrary to your statement, the world of academia would surely not dismiss it as “nothing”. It is precisely this silence that should give us pause.

        Of course a historical Jesus may have existed, perhaps based loosely on a living human even though his actual history got lost, but this amounts to nothing but speculation. However we do have an abundance of evidence supporting the mythical evolution of Jesus. Virtually every detail in the gospel stories occurred in pagan and/or Hebrew stories, long before the advent of Christianity. We simply do not have a shred of evidence to determine the historicity of a Jesus “the Christ.” We only have evidence for the belief of Jesus.

        Thanks,

  2. AAPP

    Is this another Internet mythicist popularizer? This is literally one of the most radical positions that exists on ancient history! There isn’t a bona fide historian who accepts it, not even the most radical and naturalistic ones. Some people just enjoy being on the fringe. Especially when facts have significant implications.

    1. Hi AAPP,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m afraid you’re completely incorrect. Off the top of my head, I can easily come up with the following names who have spent their entire careers in comparative religion, anthropology, psychology, etc. and all hold this theory:

      Sir James George Frazer
      Joseph Campbell
      Otto Rank
      Carl Jung
      Thomas Paine

      As you should be able to tell right away, these men are GIANTS in their respective fields. They are not “some people” who “enjoy being on the fringe”, as you stated. I do commend your willingness to engage in debate; however, please ensure that your comments are factual because, as you so you correctly stated, they “have significant implications”.

      Thanks,

      1. I think this commenter is correct, are any of these people you have quoted Professors of Ancient History at a real university? It’s all well and good to be a GIANT in your field, but to then stray into another field betrays academic trespass. i.e. I can be an expert in Physics, but then to make definitive comment on biology would to be over-reaching a little wouldn’t you suggest?

      2. While you’re rationale on the Physics versus Biology is sound, you fail to mention the flaw in the assumption that 1) you have to be a Professor and 2) the field of study must be Ancient History. Surely, you can see they are not prerequisites for the subject of religion.

        Frazer basically wrote the book on comparative religion not to mentioned he was one of the founding fathers of modern anthropology having taught in Cambridge and other schools around England.

        Campbell took Frazer’s work to new levels and brought it to the mainstream, not to mentioned that he taught comparative religion in New York for over 35 years.

        Rank and Jung need no introduction. They are monsters in the field of psychology, a field with great insight on the study of religion. They basically make the case that if it’s not actually history, then what is it? Highly complex answers not worthy of this comment.

        Paine is just there to bring the point home. While many may not recognize the names above, one will surely not consider one of the heroes of the American revolution some guy on the “fringes” of history.

        Just to circle back on your Physics vs. Biology comment, you can surely see science at work: Taking results from various experts in their respective fields and seeing how they draw similar conclusions.

        Physics, Chemistry, Biology, etc. all work because they all work together!

  3. peter

    Wow, you’re awesome. You’ve devoted so much time to rebut the evidence for Christ. God loves you so much =) (I’m not being sarcastic here, I really mean it). Here’s your contemporaneous evidence for Christ. Next closest thing to the disciples who walked with Jesus 😉



    God bless ya, He really does love you so much =)

    1. peter

      woop, sorry, have to correct myself. I have used “contemporaneous” incorrectly. Let’s change that to contemporary then haha 😉

    2. So, let me get this straight: I put forward a well researched article full of references and you respond with YouTube videos? Should I take that as an admission that you don’t have anything to say on the subject of this post? Or, the more likely scenario, that facts and history have no place in the Christian religion so please divert your attention to these entertaining images?

      Standing by,

      1. Guessing isn’t necessary. I watched the videos. That’s how I know that none of them touched on the subject of this post. Sharing videos unrelated to the contents of this article only confirm your capacity.

        Thanks,

      2. Peter Bong

        Awesome to hear that you watched the videos! I stand corrected!

        Purpose of sharing them was to show evidence for Jesus. Your research is great. But there are so many variables in history unaccounted for, eg why would a small sect called “Christians” get air time from the religious / social elite? In our minds, we would think there would be a lot to document about them, but even today, very few miracles actually get put out in the media or are reported. Doctors can’t put on their documents “cured by Jesus” lol.

        Anyway, I’m not one to argue anymore. The video’s show that Jesus is alive. The video’s show what Jesus spoke about when He said in John 14:12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father”. And as Paul said “For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” as seen on third vid.

        At the end of the day, we can’t discount the evidence that we have today, of people walking as Jesus walked in light of our interpreted historical evidence.

        God bless ya bro =)

      3. You can’t be serious!? Is a video of a Santero performing similar “miracles” evidence that Chango exists? Is a video of a Hindu priest performing similar “miracles” evidence that Ganesh exists?

        You’re welcomed to submit video evidence; however, it will have to be evaluated along with all the other religions with similar evidence. I’ve met many healers from different faiths. They too have YouTube videos. Your proposition immediately lumps your religion with all the other ones, making the belief in Jesus indistinguishable from the belief in Hunaman, the Hindu monkey god.

        Your comment on “why would a small sect called “Christians” get air time from the religious / social elite?” doesn’t mean anything. Throughout history and in all parts of the world “small sects” have triumphed against seemingly impossible odds. Basically every culture and/or people that we know of today were at one time a small sect.

        Your line: “Doctors can’t put on their documents ‘cured by Jesus'” is especially comical considering that if a patient dies, no one writes “NOT cured by Jesus”. I would stay away from this logic given all that this Jesus of yours does not accomplish.

        Thanks,

  4. Dilip Kumar

    Your argument “Also, this passage constitutes the only Pagan reference that specifically associates Pontius Pilate with Christ.” is a bad argument. Please read the works of historian like Timothy McGrew and Paul L. Maier. Their work on historical work is extensive and they have come to conclusion which is diametrically opposed to your conclusions. Linking one such video presentation by Timothy McGrew: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAPG3eECaxw

    1. Hi Dilip,

      Kindly find me another pagan reference that specifically associates Pilate with Christ and I will happily consider your argument. Otherwise, the proposition holds true and your comment ends embarrassingly ignorant.

      Standing by,

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