There has been some debate as to whether or not two passages found in both Suetonius and Tacitus are legitimate when they mention Christians or Christ. In this article, I take the position that both are authentic. While they may contain copyist errors, they cannot mean anything other than what they plainly appear to mean. Tacitus does not make sense without the name “Chrestus” in relation to the “Chrestians.” Suetonius is consistent with Tacitus, although approaching the events from a different angle as will be obvious at first glance. I will also seek to examine Richard Carrier’s claims to the contrary, hopefully addressing his mishandling of the Latin language and the incomplete information he produces.
The texts with which we deal read as follows:
… Since the Jews were continually making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome (Suetonius, Vita Claudii, XXV).
… Nero… punished with the utmost refinement of cruelty a class hated for their abominations, who are commonly called Christians. Christus, from whom their name is derived, was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius (Tacitus, Annales, XIII)
With respect to Tacitus, the allegation is that, since the earliest extant manuscript we have dates to around the 11th century, the word Christians was actually Chrestians. Below is a snapshot of the manuscript.
Notice the space between “chri” and “stianos,” (the “s” looks like “f”). The claim (by Richard Carrier and others) is that the “e” was destroyed by erasure and instead made to look like an “i.” This has lead Carrier to believe that Tacitus is referring to a group other than the Christian church, the Chrestians not the Christians.
After chrestianos comes the name “christus.”
Carrier, who has written an academic article on this alleged issue, says:
The first clue it might not be [authentic] is that our one manuscript containing this passage had originally spelled the persecuted group as the “Chrestians,” not the Christians, and this was subsequently corrected by erasure. To explain this, it is more likely that Tacitus originally wrote chrestianos, “Chrestians,” than that this was produced by subsequent error from “Christians” and then corrected back again. And if that’s the case, it’s not believable that Tacitus would have explained the name “Chrestians” using the name “Christus.” Instead, obviously, he would use “Chrestus.” Which may also have been the original reading here, corrected earlier in the text’s transmission history. I think it’s more likely that Tacitus had already explained who the Chrestians were in his account of the Chrestus riots (those also recorded by Suetonius), which would have appeared in his section of the Annals for the early years of the reign of Claudius, now lost. If that is the case, then what would become the Testimonium Taciteum was originally about the sect of Jewish rebels first suppressed under Claudius, who were at that time led by their namesake Chrestus and were thereafter named for him (whether he was still alive or not). Several scholars have suggested this possibility (Vigiliae Christianae. 2014, Vol. 68 Issue 3, p262-283).
But all the endeavors of men, all the emperor’s largesse and the propitiations of the gods, did not suffice to allay the scandal or banish the belief that the fire had been ordered. And so, to get rid of this rumor, Nero set up as culprits and punished with the utmost refinement of cruelty a class hated for their abominations, who are commonly called Christians (or Chrestians).
But fifth, and most convincingly, there is no evidence that this event happened. The burning of Rome itself is well attested, by both literary and physical evidence. But no one seems to have ever known Christians were in any way connected with it, until late in the 4th century.
First, the text flows logically and well with the line removed. Second, the notion that there was “a huge multitude” (multitudo ingens) of Christians in Rome to persecute, though not impossible, is somewhat suspect; whereas, by contrast, Jews were present by the tens of thousands, and there were already enough Chrestus-followers under Claudius to result in a city-wide action against them. Third, it is not clear why Tacitus, much less the general public (as he implies), would regard the Christians as “criminals who deserved the most extreme punishments” merely for being in thrall to a vulgar superstition (which was actually not even a crime, much less a capital one). But if these were the Chrestians who were already hated for their previous urban violence (which Tacitus would have recounted in an earlier book, when he treated the Chrestus riots also mentioned by Suetonius), their deserving of extreme punishments would be a more intelligible sentiment. Fourth, Tacitus says the people “called” them Chrestians, vulgus Chrestianos appellabat, notably the past tense. Why would he not use the present tense if he believed the group was still extant, as Christians were? In fact, Tacitus makes no explicit mention of this group still being extant in his own day (notably unlike the Testimonium Flavianum, which does). So it would appear this was a group that Tacitus believed no longer existed (probably having been expunged or disbanded since the Jewish War, if not already decisively ended by Nero’s mass executions).
I will address these one-by-one.
- The text flows logically and well with the line removed: Here, Carrier is talking about the line: “Christus, from whom their name is derived, was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberias.” Carrier suggests this line was an interpolation. According to Carrier, these words were not in Tacitus originally, but were added by scribes at a later date. If one were to remove this line, he thinks, the text continues to flow normally. But nothing could be further from the truth. After this line, Tacitus writes, “Checked for a moment, this pernicious superstition again broke out…” What superstition?
Without the commentary about Christus who was executed by Pilate, there is no superstition spoken of by Tacitus in the near-context, only a group of people who are blamed for Nero’s fires. The superstition couldn’t be Nero’s lie, that the Christians started the fires in Rome, because Tacitus tells us where this superstition came from, “Judaea, the source of the evil.” Tacitus would be virtually unintelligible here unless of course there was really a referent for the word “superstition,” (i.e. Christus who was executed by Pilate).Carrier may object by raising his speculative claim. The first volume of the Annals has been lost to history (this is true). Tacitus must talk about these rowdy Jews in there, thus proving he’s not talking about Christians! While we do not have that volume, could Tacitus simply be referring to a superstition he talked about prior to the volume we have in our possession? Well, I’d say the likelihood of that is very slim. Tacitus doesn’t even mention the Chrestians and Chrestus until ch. 14 of his volume. It would be odd for a historian to record something a whole volume ago and then refer to it as if he’s just described what it is without giving any referential context. It would make perfect sense, however, if Tacitus wrote about Christ, who was crucified by Pontius Pilate, only to call it a superstition a sentence later. That works perfectly. Not only this, but he mentioned where the superstition came from, Judaea. I guess the so-called Jewish cult would have come from Judaea also, but the Jewish diaspora had been scattered around the Greco-Roman empire for centuries up to this point already. Jews would have been nothing new to the Romans.
- The notion of there being a large population of Christians in Rome at that time is suspicious: Not really. Paul was already writing to a church in Rome between 55-58 A.D. This means that Christianity had certainly arrived in the city of Rome before Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans and was growing enough to warrant the Apostle’s visit around 58 A.D. The Christian population didn’t even have to be significant for Nero to have addressed it. All Christianity had to do was represent a potential future threat to the Roman political landscape.
- It was not a crime to be a Christian in Rome under Nero: In a footnote, Carrier notes, “Christians came to later be policed for violating general laws against illegal assembly and, ultimately, treasonously refusing to bless the emperor’s guardian spirit (the Roman equivalent of a Pledge of Allegiance), as reported in Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96-97 (compare 10.34)” But, what does Pliny (62-c. 113) say? He writes, “I was never present at any trial of Christians; therefore, I do not know what are the customary penalties or investigations, and what limits are observed (Epp. X).” Pliny, then, indicates that there were punishments for Christians, and he proceeds to self-deliberate in his letter to Trajan a great deal about how to be ethical in the case of Christian trials.
- The term “called” is in the past tense. Tacitus would have used present tense if the group about which he spoke still existed: For a peer reviewed paper, this mistake is quite surprising. The term used for called, in Latin, is appellabat. It is a verb meaning to address or to call upon. When Tacitus uses the term “called,” even in the English, he appears to use it to indicate something happening in the present. He says, “who are commonly called Christians (Chrestians).” But, in the Latin it’s quite a bit stronger than that because it’s a 3rd person singular imperfect active indicative. It’s in the imperfect tense which is used to indicate a past action or state which has happened in the past, and continues to happen frequently. It’s normal, Tacitus says, for these people to be called Chrestians, both in the past and at present.
After his fifth reason, briefly mentioned above, Carrier notes that if the fire really were blamed on Christians, then some tradition surely would have risen out of it within the Christian community. he says, “The third of these possibilities can be ruled out on the grounds that there would very likely have been a strong and widely-referenced Christian tradition deriving from it, widely enough in fact to be evident in extant literature.” But this is just an assumption. In fact, on a historical-doctrinal front, early Christians didn’t just take on traditions in the wake of startling events. Scripture actually doesn’t allow the random adopting of “Christian tradition” and so when the church began to heavily engage in this type of behavior in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, they became inconsistent with dogma revealed in the accepted canon. The early church would have encountered this problem to a much lesser degree, understandably so. Moreover, the persecution of the early church by Rome is mentioned much earlier than the 4th century (the attendees of the Council of Nicaea were still maimed from Diocletian).
Not every instance of persecution was recorded by the church, at an early date at least. Many, if not most Christians, didn’t even know how to write. Few regarded such persecution as being out of the norm. They accepted it as part of everyday life since the time of Christ and thus knew nothing else. It would have been odd if they, for some reason, regarded their persecution during the Roman fire as something special. They did, however, regard times of peace as something special, because times without persecution were out of the norm (cf. Christian praise for Constantine and his policies; Eusebius).