The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Part 2/Section 2

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The passage in Suetonius leaves it uncertain who Chrestus is, and cannot, therefore, be advanced as a proof of the historicity of Jesus. It is very different with the evidence of Tacitus. In the Annals (xv, 44) Christ is expressly mentioned as an historical personage. The historian has related what measures were taken by Nero to lessen the suffering brought about by the great fire at Rome in the year 64, and to remove the traces of it. He then continues: “But neither the aid of man, nor the liberality of the prince, nor the propitiations of the gods, succeeded in destroying the belief that the fire had been purposely lit. In order to put an end to this rumour, therefore, Nero laid the blame on and visited with severe punishment those men, hateful for their crimes, whom the people called Christians [Ergo abolendo rumori Nero subdidit reos et quaesitissimis poenis affecit quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Christianos appellabat]. He from whom the name was derived, Christus, was put to death by the procurator Pontius Pilatus in the reign of Tiberius [autor nominis ejus Christus, Tiberio imperitante, per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio affectus erat]. But the pernicious superstition, checked for a moment, broke out again, not only in Judaea, the native land of the monstrosity, but also in Rome, to which all conceivable horrors and abominations flow from every side, and find supporters. First, therefore, those were arrested who openly confessed; then, on their information, a great number, who were not so much convicted of the fire as of hatred of the human race. Ridicule was poured on them as they died; so that, clothed in the skins of beasts, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or committed to the flames, and when the sun had gone down they were burned to light up the night [Igitur primum correpti, qui fatebantur, deinde indicio eorum multitudo ingens, haud proinde in crimine incendii quam odio humani generis convicti sunt. Et pereuntibus addita ludibria, ut ferarum tergis contecti laniatu canum interirent, aut crucibus affixi, aut flammandi, atque ubi defecisset dies, in usum nocturni luminis urerentur]. Nero had lent his garden for this spectacle, and gave games in the Circus, mixing with the people in the dress of a charioteer or standing in the chariot. Hence there was a strong sympathy for them, though they might have been guilty enough to deserve the severest punishment, on the ground that they were sacrificed, not to the general good, but to the cruelty of one man.”

(a) Evidential Value of the Passage.—When Tacitus is assumed to have written, about the year 117, that the founder of the sect, Christus, was put to death by the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius, Christianity was already an organised religion with a settled tradition. Even the gospels, or at least three of them, are supposed to have then been in existence. Hence Tacitus might have derived his information about Jesus, if not directly from the gospels, at all events indirectly from them by means of oral tradition. That was the view of Dupuis, who writes: “Tacitus says what the legend said. Had he been speaking of the Brahmans, he would have said, in the same way, that they derived their name from a certain Brahma, who had lived in India, as there was a legend about him; yet Brahma would not on that account have lived as a man, as Brahma is merely the name of one of the three manifestations of the personified god-head. When Tacitus spoke thus in his account of Nero and the sect of the Christians, he merely gave the supposed etymology of the name, without caring in the least whether Christ had really existed or it was merely the name of the hero of some sacred legend. Such an inquiry was quite foreign to his work.”[1] Even J. Weiss observes: “Assuredly there were the general lines of even a purely fictitious Christian tradition already laid down about the year 100; Tacitus may therefore draw upon this tradition” (p. 88). It has been said, on the authority of Mommsen, that Tacitus may have derived his information from the Acts of the Senate and the archives of the State, and it has been suggested that his authority was Cluvius Rufus, who was consul under Caligula. Weiss says, however: “That he or any other had seen a report from Pontius Pilate in the records of the Senate is a hypothesis I should not care to adopt, as it would be complicating a simple matter with an improbability.” “Archival studies,” we read in the Handbuch der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, “are not very familiar to ancient historiography; and Tacitus has paid very little attention to the acta diurna and the records of the Senate.”[2] In fact, Hermann Schiller says, in his Geschichte des Römischen Kaiserreichs unter der Regierung des Nero (1872): “We are accustomed to hearing Tacitus praised as a model historian, and in many respects it may be true; but it does not apply to his criticism of his authorities and his own research, for these were astonishingly poor in Tacitus. He never studied the archives. ”[3] It is, moreover, extremely improbable that a special report would be sent to Borne, and incorporated in the records of the Senate, in regard to the death of a Jewish provincial, Jesus. “The execution of a Nazareth carpenter was one of the most insignificant events conceivable among the movements of Roman history in those decades; it completely disappeared beneath the innumerable executions inflicted by the Roman provincial authorities. It would be one of the most remarkable instances of chance in the world if it were mentioned in any official report.”[4] It is the sort of thing we may expect from a Tertullian, who, in his Apology for Christianity (c. 21), tells one who doubts the truth of the gospel story that he will find a special report of Pilate to Tiberius in the Roman archives. In the mouth of a modern historian such a statement is frankly ridiculous.

There is nothing, then, in the records of the Senate, and of Cluvius Rufus we know next to nothing. As Bruno Bauer ironically observes: “That the founder of Christianity was put to death under Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate must have been discovered by the historian—who was not otherwise a very assiduous searcher of the archives—in the same archive which, according to Tertullian, also gave the fact that the sun was darkened at midday when Jesus died.”[5] In any case the reference in Tacitus is no proof of the historicity of Jesus, because it is far too late; it is almost certain that the Roman historian simply derived it from the Christian legend. Tacitus could in 117 know of Christ only what reached him from Christian or intermediate circles. In such matters he merely reproduced rumours in whatever light his subject seemed to him to demand.[6]

Here we might close our investigation into the profane witnesses. We have reached the same result as J. Weiss: “There is no really cogent witness in profane literature” (p. 92). Weinel comes to the same conclusion when he says that not much importance can be attached by either side to non-Christian witnesses: “As there can be no doubt that at the time when the Annals of Tacitus, the letters of Pliny, and even the historical works of Josephus, appeared, Christianity was widely spread in the Roman Empire and traced its origin to Jesus, the man of Nazareth, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate” (p. 104). Jülicher also, in the above-mentioned essay in Kultur der Gegenwart, denies altogether the evidential value of the Roman profane witnesses.

(b) The Question of the Genuineness ofAnnals,” xv, 44.—It is, however, not superfluous, perhaps, to consider more closely what is regarded as the most important profane witness for the historicity of Jesus—that of Tacitus. Such witnesses still seem to make a great impression on the general public. Even theologians who are themselves convinced of the worthlessness of such witnesses as regards the problem we are considering do not fail, as a rule, to repeat them to “the people” as if they gave some confirmation of their belief in an historical Jesus. That would be prevented once for all if it could be proved that the whole passage is not from the pen of Tacitus at all. However, this statement, which I advanced in the Christ Myth in accordance with the view of the French writer Hochart, has been so vehemently attacked, even by those who, like Weiss and Weinel, admit the worthlessness of the passage as far as the historicity of Jesus is concerned, that it seems necessary to inquire somewhat closely into the genuineness of Annals, xv, 44.

I. Arguments for the Genuineness.[edit]

There can, of course, be no question of any impossibility of interpolating the passage in the Annals on the ground of “the inimitable style of Tacitus,” as defenders of the genuineness repeat after Gibbon.[7] There is no “inimitable” style for the clever forger, and the more unusual, distinctive, and peculiar a style is, like that of Tacitus, the easier it is to imitate it. It would be strange if a monastic copyist of Tacitus, occupied with his work for months, if not for years, could not so far catch his style as to be able to write these twenty or twenty-five lines in the manner of Tacitus. Teuffel, in his Geschichte der Röm. Literature (5th ed. 1890, ii, 1137), commends Sulpicius Severus for his “skill” in imitating Tacitus, among others, in his composition. Such an imitation is not, in his opinion, beyond the range of possibility. Moreover, as far as the historicity of Jesus is concerned, we are, perhaps, interested only in one single sentence of the passage, and that has nothing distinctively Tacitan about it.

Equally invalid is the claim that the way in which Tacitus speaks of the Christians excludes all idea of a Christian interpolation. Von Soden thinks that Christians “would certainly have put early Christianity in a more favourable light, as they always did when they falsified the story of the rise of Christianity in the historical works they read.” He overlooks the fact that the injurious epithets on the new religion and its adherents would probably, in the opinion of the forger, tend to strengthen its chances of passing as genuine. They are just what one might suppose to be in harmony with the disposition of Tacitus. The expressions, moreover, are at once enfeebled by the reference to the sympathy that the Romans are supposed to have felt for the victims of Nero's cruelty. It is a common occurrence in the accounts of the Christian martyrs for the pagan opponents of Christianity to find their hostility changed into sympathy, and recognise the innocence of the persecuted Christians. We need quote only the description of Pilate in Matthew and Luke—his “I find no blame in him” and “I am innocent of the blood of this just man”—and the supposed words of Agrippa when Paul is charged before him: “This man doeth nothing worthy of death or of bonds.”[8] So Pliny the younger condemns the Christians in his letter to Trajan, although he acknowledges their innocence. This, it is true, is not the case with Tacitus; he seems rather to regard the Christians as guilty, whether or no they were the authors of the fire. But he allows the spectators to be touched with pity for the executed Christians, and thus awakens a sympathetic feeling for them in the readers of his narrative.

It is said, however, that Tacitus, “on account of the difficulty of his style and his whole attitude, was not generally read by Christians,” so that his text is, “in the general opinion of experts, the freest from corruption of all the ancient writings.” So at least von Soden assures us (p. 11). In this, however, he is merely repeating the opinion of Gibbon. As a matter of fact, none of the works of Tacitus have come down to us without interpolations. This supposed “purity of the text of Tacitus as shown by the oldest manuscripts” exists only in the imagination of Gibbon and those who follow him. It is, further, not true that the Christians did not read Tacitus. We have a number of instances in the first centuries of Christian writers who are acquainted with Tacitus, such as Tertullian, Jerome, Orosius, Sidonius Apollinaris, Sulpicius Severus, and Cassiodorus. It is only in the course of the Middle Ages that this acquaintance with the Roman historian is gradually lost; and this not on account of, but in spite of, the passage in Tacitus on the Christians. This testimony of the Roman historian to the supposed first persecution of the Christians would be very valuable to them for many reasons.

Are there, however, no witnesses to the genuineness of the passages of Tacitus in early Christian literature? There is the letter of Clement of Rome belonging to the end of the first century. According to Eusebius,[9] it was sent by Clement, the secretary of the Apostle Peter, and the third or fourth bishop of Rome, to the community at Corinth, in the name of the Roman community; as is also stated by Hegesippus (c. 150) and Dionysius of Corinth.[10] The point is so uncertain, nevertheless, that such distinguished authorities as Semler, Baur, Schwegler, Zeller, Volkmar,[11] Hausrath,[12] Loman,[13] Van Manen, Van den Bergh van Eysinga,[14] and Steck,[15] have disputed the genuineness of the letter; and it was reserved for the modern believers in Jesus to discover grounds for regarding it as genuine. Volkmar puts the letter in the year 125; Loman, Van Manen, and Steck do not admit its composition earlier than the year 140. The letter cannot, therefore, be regarded as a reliable document on that account.

But what do we learn about the Neronian persecution from the letter of Clement? “Out of jealousy and envy,” he writes to the Corinthians, “the greatest and straightest pillars were persecuted and fought even to death”; as in the case of Peter, “who, through the envy of the wicked, incurred, not one or two, but many dangers, and so passed to his place in glory after rendering his testimony,” and Paul, “who showed the faithful the way to persevere to the end; seven times was he imprisoned, he was banished, stoned, he went as a herald to the east and the west, and he reaped great glory by his faith. The whole world has attained to a knowledge of justice; he went even to the farthest parts of the west, and gave his testimony before them that held power. Then was he taken out of the world and went to the holy place, the greatest model of patience.”[16]

It is clear that we have here no reference to the persecution of the Christians under Nero. It is not even stated that the apostles named met with a violent death on account of their faith, as the word “martyresas” (“after rendering his testimony”) need not by any means be understood to mean a testimony of blood, because the word “martyr” originally means only a witness to the truth of the Christian faith in the general sense, and is equivalent to “confessor,” and was only later applied to those who sealed their faith by a violent death.[17] If the expression in the above text is usually taken to refer to the execution of the apostles under Nero, it is not because Clemens says anything about this execution, but merely because, according to Christian tradition, Peter and Paul are supposed to have been put to death at the time of the Neronian persecution. This tradition, however, is not only relatively late, but extremely doubtful in itself. That Peter was never in Rome, and so did not meet his end there under Nero, must be regarded as certain after the research of Lipsius.[18] As regards Paul, the tradition is, according to Frey,[19] certainly not earlier than the end of the fifth century; before that time it was certainly said that he and Peter died under Nero, but not that Paul was a victim of the Neronian persecution.[20] How, then, could the Roman Clemens about the end of the first century connect the death of the two apostles with the Neronian persecution? That he does so is supposed to be shown by the succeeding words, in which he says: “These men were accompanied on the heavenly pilgrimage by a great number of the elect, who have given us the noblest example of endurance in ill-treatment and torment, which they suffered from the envious. On account of envy women were persecuted, Danaids and Dirces, and had to endure frightful and shameful illtreatment; yet they maintained their faith firmly, and won a glorious reward, though they were feeble of body.” “These words,” says Arnold, in his work Die Neronische Christenverfolgung (1888), which supports the genuineness of Annals, xv, 44, “are seen at a glance to be a Christian complement of the description of Tacitus; he also speaks of ‘most exquisite tortures,’ of the shame and derision with which the victims were treated when they were put to death, and of the satisfaction it gave to the crowds' lust for spectacles.”[21] But would Tacitus, with his well-known taste for spectacular stories of that kind, have refrained from giving us the ghastly picture of the Dirces torn on the horns of oxen? And what is the meaning of these Danaids, in whose form Christian women are said to have been shamed and put to death? Can anyone seriously believe that the patient water-drawing daughters of Danaos would provide a fitting spectacle for the satisfaction of the crowd's lust for display and blood? Or does the writer of the letter merely intend by the words “Danaids and Dirces,” which have no connection with what precedes and follows in the text, to set the Christian women-martyrs in contrast to the frivolous performers of the ancient myth? Further, what does he mean when he says that these numerous men and women were ill-treated “out of jealousy and envy,” and puts the lot of the Christians in this respect on the same footing as that of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and the Egyptians, Aaron and Miriam, Dathan and Abiram, and David and Saul? Renan suggests the hatred of the Jews for the Christians; but Joel has successfully defended his coreligionists against such a charge, and Tacitus does not give it the least support. Arnold suggests “denunciations by Christians with party passions.”[22] According to Lactantius, it was Nero's jealousy at the success of their propaganda that induced the emperor to persecute the Christians. But is it not possible that the writer of the letter had seen the Acts of Peter and other apocryphal writings, according to which Simon the magician, who had entered upon a struggle with Peter out of jealousy, may have been the cause of the persecution of the Christians? And may not the whole ambiguous passage, with its rhetorical generalities, not really refer to the Neronian persecution, but rather throw back upon the time of Nero the martyrdoms that Christian men and women had suffered in later persecutions? In any case, it does not follow from the letter of Clemens that the “number of the elect” who “had endured shame and torture on account of jealousy,” and been “added to the company” of the apostles Peter and Paul, died at the same time as they. This assumption arises simply from an association of ideas between the death of the apostles and the supposed Neronian persecution—an association that in all probability did not exist in the time of Clemens. How could the supposed Clemens, about the year 95, make Peter and Paul die under Nero, when the former had never been in Rome, and the latter did not die until after 64? And how can the very scholars who dispute the presence of Peter in Rome and do not admit the death of Paul in the Neronian persecution regard the letter of Clemens as genuine, and as establishing the Neronian persecution?

This, then, is the situation: either the letter of Clemens was really written about the year 95, and in that case the supposed reference to the Neronian persecution must, if it really is such, be regarded as a later interpolation; or this reference is an original part of the letter, and in that case the letter cannot have been written until the tradition as to the death of the apostles in the Neronian persecution had taken shape—that is to say, not before the middle of the second century. In either case, the so-called letter of Clemens is no evidence of the fact of a considerable persecution of the Christians under Nero.[23]

The belief that the Neronian persecution of the Christians belongs to the realm of fable is further confirmed by the fact that the other witnesses that are quoted for it are just as vague and indecisive. What propagandist material would not the details of this first persecution of their faith have furnished to the early Christians! Yet what trace of it do we find in them? Let us take the evidence of Melito of Sardis. In his writing to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, in which he endeavours to explain to the Emperor how beneficial Christianity had been to Roman power, we read: “The only emperors who, seduced by evil-minded men, sought to bring our religion into evil repute, were Nero and Domitian, and from their time the mendacious calumny of the Christians has continued, according to the habit of people to believe imputations without proof.” In these words, which, moreover, are only known to us from Eusebius,[24] there is no question of a general persecution of the Christians under Nero; it is merely stated that Nero tried to bring the Christians into bad repute. Dionysius of Corinth (about 170) also, and the presbyter Caius, who lived in the time of the Roman bishop Zephyrinus (about 200), affirm only, according to the same Eusebius,[25] that Peter and Paul died the death of martyrs “about the same time” at Rome,[26] which does not necessarily mean on the same day or the same occasion, or that the “trophies of their victory” are to be seen on the Vatican and the road to Ostia. Of the Neronian persecution they tell us nothing. In Tertullian's Apologeticum[27] we read that Nero, cruel to all, was the first to draw the imperial sword against the Christian sect which then flourished at Rome. He thinks it an honour to himself and his co-religionists to have been condemned by such a prince, since everyone who knows him will see that nothing was condemned by Nero that was not especially good. But there is nothing in his words to show that he was thinking of anything besides the death of the apostles Peter and Paul. Indeed, he says expressly that the apostles, scattered over the world at the master's command, after many sufferings at length shed their blood at Rome through the cruelty of Nero, and he urges the pagans to read the proofs of this in their own “Commentaries”; which is much the same as when Tertullian refers to the Roman archives those who doubt the gospel narrative of the execution of Jesus.[28] We read much the same in the same writer's Scorp., ch. xv: “Nero was the first to stain the early faith with blood. Then was Peter (according to the word of Christ) girded by another, as he was fixed to the cross. Then did Paul obtain the Roman right of citizenship in a higher sense, as he was born again there by his noble martyrdom.”[29]

There remains only the witness of Eusebius and of Revelation. Eusebius, however, merely reproduces[30] the statement of Tertullian that Nero was the first of the emperors to become an open enemy of the divine religion. He writes: “Thus Nero raged even against the apostles, and so declared himself the first of the arch-enemies of God. It is recorded that under him Paul was beheaded at Borne and Peter was crucified under him.” In proof of this he points to the fact that the names of Peter and Paul have remained until his time on an inscription in the burying-place at Rome. As to Revelation, the commonly assumed connection between it and the Neronian persecution is so little proved that Arnold speaks of it as “a most unhappy suggestion” to associate the “great crowd” of Christians executed under Nero, according to Tacitus, with the vision of John, in which the seer beholds a vast multitude, whom no man can count, of all nations, peoples, and tongues, bearing palms and clothed in white garments before the throne of the Most High.[31] The Christian parts of the so-called Sybilline Oracles, which are supposed to have been written in part shortly after this event, have, as Arnold says, no relation to the Neronian persecution, even where there would be the greatest occasion. They speak often enough of the return of Nero and his cruelties, but he is never represented, as he is afterwards in Eusebius, as the enemy of God and Christ and the persecutor of the early community. It seems very doubtful if the poets knew anything whatever of such an occurrence.[32] Hence the idea that Revelation is the Christian “counter-manifesto to the Neronian persecution” is of no value. Ecclesiastical tradition assigns Revelation to the year 96 A.D. When recent theological scholarship assigns it to the year 65, it is assuming that the work refers to the burning of Rome in 64. In that case it is clearly a vicious circle to infer the historicity of the Neronian persecution from the fact that Revelation was written shortly after 64. How little was definitely known of such a persecution in the first Christian centuries may be gathered from the fact that Eusebius puts it in the year 67. Justin, in spite of his praise of the courage and steadfastness of the Christians in their martyrdoms, does not say a word about it. Even the later Acts of Peter are silent about it, while other writings go so far as to make Nero a friend of the Christians, and say that he condemned Pontius Pilate to death for the execution of Christ. Origen (185-254) says in his work against Celsus[33] that, instead of the “multitude ingens” of Tacitus, the number of those who suffered death for the faith was inconsiderable!

But does not Suetonius speak in his Life of Nero (ch. xvi) of a chastisement of the Christians by the emperor as a class of men full of a new and criminal superstition (genus hominum superstitionis novae ac maleficae)? It is to be noted that he in no way connects this event with the burning of Home, but with other misdeeds that were punished by Nero. Arnold has pointed out[34] that this biographer does not follow a chronological order in his work or observe the internal connection of events, but classes the deeds of the emperor as good or bad, and so puts the burning among the latter and the punishment of the Christians among the former. However that may be, no reason is given why Nero should punish the Christians on account of their religion. It is expressly allowed by historians[35] that the Roman emperors of that time were extremely tolerant of foreign religions. Suetonius himself says that Nero showed the utmost indifference, even contempt, in regard to religious sects.[36] Even afterwards the Christians were not persecuted for their faith, but for political reasons, for their contempt of the Roman State and emperor, and as disturbers of the unity and peace of the empire.[37] What reason, then, can Nero have had to proceed against the Christians, hardly distinguishable from the Jews, as a new and criminal sect?

Schiller also thinks that the Roman authorities can have had no reason to inflict special punishment on the new faith. “How could the non-initiated know what were the concerns of a comparatively small religious sect, which was connected with Judaism and must have seemed to the impartial observer wholly identical with it? Apart from Jerusalem, hardly any community at this time had so pronounced a Judaeo-Christian character as that of Rome.”[38] If, moreover, it were supposed that by the “Christians” of Suetonius we must understand the Jews excited by messianic expectations—“Messianists” who, with their belief in the approaching end of the world and its destruction by fire, made light of the burning of Rome and so incurred the hatred of the people—the connection between them and the historical Jesus would be called into question, and the evidential value of the passage of Suetonius for the existence of Jesus would be destroyed. In fact, this supposition is negatived by the complete silence of Josephus as to any such misfortune of his co-religionists, though he does not otherwise spare the misdeeds of the emperor. Paulus Orosius also, the friend and admirer of Augustine, relies expressly on Suetonius for the expulsion of the Jews from Rome under Claudius, and even mentions the Neronian persecution, which, according to him, spread over every province of the empire,[39] but for this does not quote the witness of either Tacitus or Suetonius. When we further reflect that neither Trajan nor Pliny mentions the Neronian persecution of the Christians in his correspondence, although there was every occasion to do so, since they were discussing the judgment and treatment of the Bithynian Christians, we can hardly do otherwise than regard the passage in Suetonius's Life of Nero as a later interpolation.

II. Arguments against the Genuineness.[edit]

(a) General Observations.—As regards the passage in Tacitus, the simple credulity with which it had hitherto been accepted led to a sceptical attitude, not only abroad, where the Frenchman Hochart,[40] the Dutchman Pierson,[41] the English author of Antiqua Mater, Edwin Johnson, the American William Benjamin Smith in Ecce Deus (1911), and others assailed its genuineness, but also in German science. Besides Bruno Bauer,[42] H. Schiller has drawn attention to certain difficulties in the Tacitean tradition that had been overlooked; and even Arnold acknowledges, though he endeavours to show the unsoundness of the critical view of the passage, that “this reference, which had hitherto been regarded as quite simple and easy to understand, has been very little understood.”[43] According to Hochart the passage contains as many insoluble difficulties as it does words.[44] This is especially true of the sentence: “Igitur primum correpti, qui fatebantur, deinde indicio eorum multitudo ingens, haud proinde in crimine incendii quam odio humani generis convicti sunt.” Schiller calls this sentence “one of the most difficult in this sententious writer,” and adds: “One could almost believe that he deliberately left a riddle to posterity which he had failed to solve himself.”[45]

We have first the “multitudo ingens” of the Christians. Even Arnold sees a “rhetorical exaggeration” in these words; it is opposed to all that we know of the spread of the new faith in Koine at the time.[46] The question is, who exaggerated—Tacitus, who would scarcely take any interest in the number of the Christians, or a later Christian interpolator, who would naturally have such an interest, in order to demonstrate the rapid spread and marvellous attractiveness of the religion of Jesus?

Then there is the word “fatebantur.” Theological writers like Renan, Weizsäcker, etc., refer the expression to the belief of those who were captured, and so make them out to have been persecuted on account of their Christianity. Von Soden also translates it: “All who openly confessed Christianity were at once arrested,” etc. (p. 11). Schiller, however, rightly holds that it is not probable, in view of the close life of the Christians at the time, that some of them, apart from all the others, “had openly professed a doctrine that was not yet a peculiar creed, and would be intelligible to nobody.”[47] Others, therefore, such as Arnold, think that the word “fatebantur” refers rather to the crime of setting fire to Rome. In that case, there would, as many historians, such as Neumann, admit, be no question of a persecution of Christians as such, but merely of a police procedure.[48]

In the next place, however, the Christians are not so much “convicted” of the fire as of “hatred of the human race.” Holtzmann (in Sybel's Historischer Zeitschrift) has translated this phrase as “completely devoid of any humane and political culture,” “so that they might be relieved of considerations of humanity in dealing with them.” Schiller sees in it a reference to the custom of the Christians to withdraw from all intercourse with the world, celebrate forbidden festivals in secret meetings, and never sacrifice to the genius of the emperor.[49] Arnold conceives the expression as “an opposition on principle to the omnipotence of the Roman State.”[50] But, as Hochart rightly asks, could Tacitus, who never took seriously the faith of the Jews, and presented the Jewish and, according to Tertullian, even the Christian God to his readers as a deity with an ass's head, regard the existence of a Jewish sect, which differed in no respect from the Jews in the eyes of the Romans, as so menacing to the welfare of the empire that he must call down on it the full anger of the gods of Olympus? “It is inconceivable that the followers of Jesus formed a community in the city at that time of sufficient importance to attract public attention and the ill-feeling of the people. It is more probable that the Christians were extremely discreet in their behaviour, as the circumstances, especially of early propaganda, required. Clearly we have here a state of things that belongs to a later date than that of Tacitus, when the increase and propagandist zeal of the Christians irritated the other religions against them, and their resistance to the laws of the State caused the authorities to proceed against them.”[51] The interpolator, Hochart thinks, transferred to the days of Nero that general hatred of the Christians of which Tertullian speaks. Indeed, the French scholar thinks it not impossible that the phrase “odium humani generis” was simply taken from Tertullian and put in the mouth of Tacitus. Tertullian tells us that in his time the Christians were accused of being “enemies of the human race” (paene omnes cives Christianos habendo sed hostes maluistis vocare generis humani potius quam erroris humani).[52] And even the “Thyestean meals” and “Oedipodic minglings,” of which Arnold is reminded by the circumstance that Tacitus ascribes those horrors and scandals to the Christians, hardly suit the age of Nero, and have all the appearance of a projection of later charges against the Christians into the sixties of the first century—supposing, that is to say, that the writer was thinking of them at all in the expression quoted. It cannot be repeated too often that charges of this kind, if, as is usually gathered from similar expressions of Justin and Tertullian, they were really put forward by the Jews,[53] have no ground or reason whatever in the historical relations between the two during the first century, especially before the destruction of Jerusalem. The schism between Jews and Christians had not yet taken place, and the hatred of the two for each other was as yet by no means such as to justify such appalling accusations.[54] If, on the other hand, they are supposed to be brought by the pagans against the Christians, there is a complete absence of motive.[55]

(b) The Criticisms of Hochart.[56]—No one has more decisively attacked the belief in the persecution of the Christians than Hochart, and it is therefore advisable to give a summary here of the critic's arguments.

In the first place, he regards it as wholly improbable that the charge against Nero, of setting fire to the city himself, was made at all. The whole conduct of the emperor during and after the fire, as it is described by Tacitus, could not possibly have led to such a feeling among the people. Even Suetonius, who is so bent on throwing the blame of the fire on Nero, knows nothing of such a rumour, and, according to the account of Tacitus, the emperor suffered no loss of popularity with the people. Then the aristocrats, who were in conspiracy against him, did not venture to take any step against him, and the people were very far from disposed to take the part of the conspirators when they were tried. Hence the persecution of the Christians has no adequate motive, and cannot in any case have been due to the cause alleged in Tacitus. In this Schiller agrees with Hochart. In agreement also with Adolph Stahr, he regards the rumour that Nero was the author of the fire as utterly incredible. If any rumour of the kind arose, it would, he believes, have been confined to the members of the aristocratic party, with whom Tacitus was in sympathy, and would not be found among the people, who considered him innocent.[57] There was, therefore, according to Schiller, with whom even Arnold agrees on this point,[58] no reason why Nero should accuse the Christians of causing the fire.[59] In any case there can be no question of a Neronian “persecution of the Christians,” even if Tacitus has discovered a statement handed down that, on the occasion of the fire, a number of Jewish sectaries, possibly including some Christians, were put to death on the charge of causing it.[60]

The expression “Christians,” which Tacitus applies to the followers of Jesus, was by no means common in the time of Nero. Not a single Greek or Roman writer of the first century mentions the name: neither Juvenal nor Persius, Lucian or Martial, the older Pliny or Seneca. Even Dio Cassius never uses it, and his abbreviator, the monk Xiphilinus, sees no reason to break his silence, but speaks of the Christians who were persecuted under Domitian as followers of the Jewish religion.[61] The Christians, who called themselves Jessaeans, or Nazoraeans, the Elect, the Saints, the Faithful, etc., were universally regarded as Jews. They observed the Mosaic law, and the people could not distinguish them from the other Jews. That Tacitus applied the name, common in his time, to the Jewish sectaries under Nero, as Voltaire and Gibbon believe, is very improbable. The Greek word Christus (“the anointed”) for Messiah, and the derivative word Christian, first came into use under Trajan, in the time of Tacitus. Even then, however, the word Christus could not mean Jesus of Nazareth. All the Jews without exception looked forward to a Christus or Messiah, and believed that his coming was near at hand. It is, therefore, not clear how the fact of being a “Christian” could, in the time of Nero or of Tacitus, distinguish the followers of Jesus from other believers in a Christus or Messiah.[62] This could only be at a time when the memory was lost of the many other persons who had claimed the dignity of Messiah, and the belief in the Messiah had become a belief in Jesus, not as one, but the Messiah, and Christ and Jesus had become equivalent terms.[63] Not one of the evangelists applies the name Christians to the followers of Jesus. It is never used in the New Testament as a description of themselves by the believers in Jesus, and the relevant passage in Acts (xi, 26), according to which the name was first used at Antioch, has the appearance of a later interpolation, belonging to a time when the term had become a name of honour in the eyes of some and a name of reproach in the eyes of others.[64] With this is also connected the peculiar way in which Tacitus speaks of the execution of Christ under the procurator Pontius Pilate. He does not know the name Jesus—which, we may note incidentally, would be impossible if he had had before his eyes the acta of the trial or the protocols of the Senate—takes Christ to be a personal name, and speaks of Pilate as a person known to the reader, not as an historian would who seeks to inform his readers, but as a Christian to Christians, to whom the circumstances of the death of Christ were familiar.

The Jews at Rome had gone there voluntarily in order to make their fortune in the metropolis of the empire, and on the whole they prospered. They may have been held of little account, or even despised, but no more so than the other oriental foreigners who endeavoured to make money at Rome by fortune-telling, domestic service, or trade. In any case there is so little question of a general “hatred” of the people for them that the Jewish historians, especially Josephus, do not make much complaint of the treatment accorded to their countrymen at Rome.[65] It is incredible that the Jessaeans or Nazoraeans amongst them, who must in any case have been few in number at the time of the fire, were the object of an especial hatred, and so would be likely to bear the blame of the fire in the eyes of the people.

Death by fire was not a form of punishment inflicted at Rome in the time of Nero. It is opposed to the moderate principles on which the accused were then dealt with by the State. The use of the Christians as “living torches,” as Tacitus describes, and all the other atrocities that were committed against them, have little title to credence, and suggest an imagination exalted by reading stories of the later Christian martyrs. The often quoted statements of Juvenal and Seneca have no bearing on this; they are not connected with the Christians, and need not in the least be regarded as references to the members of the new sect sacrificed by Nero.

The victims cannot possibly have been given to the flames in the gardens of Nero, as Tacitus says. According to his own account, these gardens were the refuge of those whose homes had been burned, and were full of tents and wooden sheds. It is hardly probable that Nero would incur the risk of a second fire by his “living torches,” and still less probable that he mingled with the crowd and feasted his eyes on the ghastly spectacle. Tacitus tells us in his life of Agricola that Nero had crimes committed, but kept his own eyes off them. The gardens of Nero (on the present Vatican) seem to have been chosen as the theatre of the deed merely to strengthen the legend that the holy of holies of Christianity, the Church of St. Peter, was built on the spot on which the first Christian martyrs had shed their blood.[66]

Finally, there is the complete silence of profane writers and the vagueness of the Christian writers on the matter; the latter only gradually come to make a definite statement of a general persecution of the Christians under Nero, whereas at first they make Nero put to death only Peter and Paul. The first unequivocal mention of the Neronian persecution in connection with the burning of Rome is found in the forged correspondence of Seneca and the apostle Paul, which belongs to the fourth century. A fuller account is then given in the Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus (died 403 A.D.), but it is mixed with the most transparent Christian legends, such as the story of the death of Simon Magus, the bishopric and sojourn of Peter at Rome, etc. The expressions of Sulpicius agree, in part, almost word for word with those of Tacitus. It is, however, very doubtful, in view of the silence of the other Christian authors who used Tacitus, if the manuscript of Tacitus which Sulpicius used contained the passage in question. We are therefore strongly disposed to suspect that the passage (Annals, xv, 44) was transferred from Sulpicius to the text of Tacitus by the hand of a monastic copyist or forger, for the greater glory of God and in order to strengthen the truth of the Christian tradition by a pagan witness.[67]

But how could the legend arise that Nero was the first to persecute the Christians? It arose, says Hochart, under a threefold influence. The first is the apocalyptic idea, which saw in Nero the Antichrist, the embodiment of all evil, the terrible adversary of the Messiah and his followers. As such he was bound, by a kind of natural enmity, to have been the first to persecute the Christians; as Sulpicius puts it, “because vice is always the enemy of the good.”[68] The second is the political interest of the Christians in representing themselves as Nero's victims, in order to win the favour and protection of his successors on that account. The third is the special interest of the Roman Church in the death of the two chief apostles, Peter and Paul, at Rome. Then the author of the letters of Seneca to Paul enlarged the legend in its primitive form, brought it into agreement with the ideas of this time, and gave it a political turn. The vague charges of incendiarism assumed a more definite form, and were associated with the character of Antichrist, which the Church was accustomed to ascribe to Nero on account of his supposed diabolical cruelty. He was accused of inflicting horrible martyrdoms on the Christians, and thus the legend in its latest form reached the Chronicle of Sulpicius. Finally a clever forger (Poggio?) smuggled the dramatic account of this persecution into the Annals of Tacitus, and thus secured the acceptance as historical fact of a purely imaginary story.

We need not recognise all Hochart's arguments as equally sound, yet we must admit that in their entirety and agreement they are worthy of consideration, and are well calculated to disturb the ingenuous belief in the authenticity of the passage of Tacitus. It seems as if official “science” is here again, as in so many other cases, under the dominion of a long-continued suggestion, in taking the narrative of Tacitus to be genuine without further examination. We must not forget what a close connection there is between this narrative and the whole of Christian history, and what interest religious education and the Church have in preventing any doubt from being cast on it. Otherwise how can we explain that no one took any notice during the whole of the Middle Ages of a passage of such great importance for the history and prestige of the Church? No one, in fact, seems to have had the least suspicion of its existence until it was found in the sole copy at that time of Tacitus, the Codex Mediceus II, printed by Johann and his brother Wendelin von Speyer about 1470 at Venice, of which all the other manuscripts are copies.[69] Our historians as a rule are content to reproduce the narrative of Tacitus in somewhat modified terms, without making any close scrutiny of Annals, xv, 44; thus does Domaszewski, for instance, in his History of the Roman Empire (1909), to say nothing of the numerous popular manuals of history. But our whole science of history is still, as regards the origin of Christianity, under the mischievous influence of theology, and is content to reproduce its statements without inquiry. In regard to the question of the origin of the Christian religion and the historicity of Jesus it has almost entirely abdicated its function, and is actually pleased that it need not deal with this delicate theme, as Seeck candidly admits when he says in his Geschichte des Untergangs der antiken Welt (iii, 1900): “We have no intention of depicting the human personality of Jesus and telling the story of his life, since these problems are, in the present state of tradition, perhaps insoluble, but at all events not yet solved. Every question relating to the origin of Christianity is so difficult that we are glad to avoid it altogether.”[70] It is true that Seeck regards the hesitation in regard to the genuineness of the writings admitted in theology as “in most cases without foundation.” He accepts tradition in regard to the Tacitus narrative, and believes in the Neronian persecution of the Christians. What is the use of this, however, when he has made no close inquiry into these things,, and therefore gives his verdict solely in accordance with a general belief which is possibly a mere prejudice? Assuredly we do not envy the “historical sense” and the good taste of men who would persuade themselves and others that it would be just as easy to deny the historicity of Socrates, Alexander, Luther, Goethe, Bismarck, etc., as that of Jesus, although this is shown in a very different way than the historical existence of the “god-man” of the gospels.[71]

(c) The Possibility of Various Interpretations ofAnnals” xv, 44.—So much as to the possible spuriousness of Annals, xv, 44. We have now to examine the evidential value of the passage, supposing it to be genuine, and apart from all that we have said of its historical value.

In opposition to Hermann Schiller, Neumann, and other historians, Harnack regards it as “certain” that the persecution mentioned by Tacitus was really a persecution of the Christians. He believes, nevertheless, that the passage is “not altogether intelligible” in the sense that it first ascribes the invention of the name “Christiani” to the “people,” and then goes on to say that “the author of the name” was Christ. “If that is so, the people acted quite reasonably in giving the name of Christians to the followers of Christ. Why, then, does Tacitus call the title ‘Christians’ a ‘name imposed by the people’?” The circumstance is really very curious. “In order to put an end to the trouble, Nero laid the blame on those whom, hateful for their crimes, the people called Christians.” However, Andresen has made a fresh study of the Tacitus manuscript, and shown that the word was at first “Chrestianos,” and was later altered to “Christianos”; whereas it is written “Christus,” not “Chrestus.” “Now it is quite clear,” says Harnack, “Tacitus says that the people call the sect Chrestiani; he, however—relying on more accurate knowledge, as Plinius has already written ‘Christiani’—quietly corrects the name, and rightly speaks of the author of the name as Christ.”[72]

The expression “Chrestiani” is usually regarded as a popular version of “Christiani” (compare Vergil and Virgil), just as, on this account, Suetonius is supposed to have written Chrestus instead of Christus. But, as we observed before, Chrestus was not only a familiar personal name; it was also a name of the Egyptian Serapis or Osiris, which had a large following at Borne, especially among the common people. Hence “Chrestiani” may be either the followers of a man named Chrestus, or of Serapis. The word “Chrestus” means “the good.” Thus the Chrestiani were likely to attract the name of “the good,” and it is presumed that the people gave this name to those whom they detested on account of their evil deeds. Possibly this name was given to them precisely because they were hated for their crimes. The Latin sentence, “quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Christianos appellabat,” admits this interpretation, and it is often found. How came the people to give the name of “the good” to men who were in their eyes notoriously bad? Clearly, the expression must, when we examine their way of thinking, be regarded as ironical; the Roman people called the followers of Serapis-Chrestus “good” because they were precisely the contrary. We might therefore regard the name “Chrestiani” as equivalent to “the clean brethren,” just as it is customary to call the scum of Paris the “Apaches.”[73]

We know from history what an evil repute the Egyptian people, which consisted mainly of Alexandrian elements, had at Rome. While other foreign cults that had been introduced into Rome enjoyed the utmost toleration, the cult of Serapis and Isis was exposed repeatedly to persecution. This was due, as we learn from Cumont, not merely to political considerations, the hostility of Rome to Alexandria, but also to moral and police reasons. The lax morality associated with the worship of the Egyptian gods and the fanaticism of their worshippers repelled the Romans, and excited the suspicion that their cultus might be directed against the State. “Their secret associations, which were chiefly recruited from the poorer people, might easily, under the cover of religion, become clubs of agitators and the resort of spies. These grounds for suspicion and hatred [!] contributed more, no doubt, to the rise of the persecution than purely theological considerations. We see how it subsides and flames out again according to the changes in the condition of general politics.”[74]

In the year 48 B.C. the chapels devoted to Isis were destroyed by order of the Senate, and their images of the gods broken. In 28 A.D. the Alexandrian divinities were excluded from the limits of the Pomoerium—a proscription which Agrippa extended seven years afterwards to a sphere a thousand paces from the city. In fact, in the year 49 the feeling against the Egyptians ran so high, on account of a scandal in which Egyptian priests were involved, that the most drastic proceedings were taken against the followers of Serapis. On this occasion the maltreatment fell upon the Jews also, because some of their compatriots had behaved in a similar manner; this was not due to any general hatred of the Jews, but to the fact that the Roman Jews, who mostly came from Egypt and Alexandria, were confused with the Alexandrians, and even with that Alexandrian rabble the “Chrestiani.” We read in Tacitus[75] that at that time the proscription of the Egyptian and Jewish religious practices was discussed, and the Senate decided to send four thousand men infected with their superstitions, of the class of freedmen, to the island of Sardinia, to fight the bandits, in the hope that the unhealthy climate of the island would make an end of them. Josephus also says this in his Antiquities.[76] A few years later, under Claudius, “the Senate decreed the expulsion of the mathematicians from Italy, though the decree was not put in force.”[77] The mathematicians—that is to say, astrologists—are the Egyptians and Egyptian Jews, the followers of Chrestus, as we read in Fl. Vopiscus in the letter of the Emperor Hadrian to his brother-inlaw Servius: “Those who worship Serapis are the Chrestians, and those who call themselves priests of Chrestus are devoted to Serapis. There is not a high-priest of the Jews, a Samaritan, or a priest of Chrestus who is not a mathematician, soothsayer, or quack. Even the patriarch, when he goes to Egypt, is compelled by some to worship Serapis, by others to worship Chrestus. They are a turbulent, inflated, lawless body of men. They have only one God, who is worshipped by the Chrestians, the Jews, and all the peoples of Egypt.”

It is true that this letter is often regarded as spurious, a fourth-century forgery, on account of its absurd and confused expressions on Christianity and the Christians. In any case, it shows the close connection between the Alexandrian Jews and the Egyptians, since both are described as mathematicians and Chrestians. And is it not possible that the reference to Chrestus and the Chrestians has been too hastily applied to Christus and the Christians? And may not the absurdity be due simply to the fact that the writer of the letter could see no clear distinction between the two religions and their deities? The passage in Tacitus may, in that case, be due to a similar misunderstanding. The “Chrestiani,” who were detested by the people for their crimes, and to whom the historian ascribes all the abominations that have invaded the metropolis, are not Christians at all, but followers of Chrestus, the scum of Egypt, the “apaches” of Rome, a “multitude ingens,” a real “object of hatred to the human race,” people on whom Nero could very easily cast the suspicion of having set fire to Rome, and whose admission that they had done so is not in the least unintelligible. Hence the “people” rightly called them “Chrestians,” which was, as we saw, an ambiguous name, and a not uncommon epithet in Rome at the time. Tacitus, about the year 117, confuses them with the Christians of his time, just as the Emperor Hadrian does in his letter to Servius fourteen years afterwards. Having done so, he felt compelled to add the explanatory words, “autor nominis ejus Christus,” etc., and describe them as coming from Judaea, confusing the Alexandrian Jews, who were identified with them, with the Jews of Palestine. In this way the expression “appellabat” (instead of “appellat”), which seems to Harnack “remarkable,” becomes intelligible. Possibly there is question of some popular phrase used in Nero's time which Tacitus himself did not understand; possibly, however, the sentence in which Christus is said to have been the author of the name of Christians and the whole reference to Judaea do not come from the pen of Tacitus at all, but are due to a later Christian, who identified the Chrestians of Tacitus with the Christians; and thus the whole Neronian persecution and the supposed confirmation of the historicity of Christ by the Roman historian are based upon a monstrous misunderstanding. If that is so, a new light is thrown also on the “Chresto impulsore” of Sulpicius. Chrestus was not only the name of the god, but, as frequently happened in ancient religions, also of his chief priest. May it not be that the tumults of the “Jews” under Claudius really refer to rebellious and criminal elements of the Egyptian rabble in the metropolis, under the influence of their chief priest, ending in the expulsion of the Jews from Rome? This, of course, is not the only plausible explanation of the passage. We need only say that it is a possible interpretation of what happened. In that case, the passage of Tacitus might remain substantially unquestioned, without proving what it is generally supposed to prove—namely, the fact of a Neronian persecution and the existence of an historical Jesus. In this way, at all events, we find the simplest solution of all the difficulties connected with the passage in Tacitus.

Those who do not find this interpretation of Annals, xv, 44, plausible have still to solve the problem whether the Chrestians or Christians of the Roman historian were really Christians in our meaning of the word or were distinct from them. Edwin Johnson regards the Chrestians as followers of the “good god” (Chrestus), as the Gnostics called their god in opposition to Jahveh, whom they looked upon as the perversely conceived creator of the Jews. He thus traces the name to a sect, the founder of which he considers to have been Simon the Magician, flourishing in Rome in the time of Claudius, whose members, as representatives of a spiritualised Judaism, were very obnoxious to the traditional Jew.[78] He supposes that Tacitus transferred to the time of Nero the hatred of the Christians which animated the Jews of his own time, and thus the Chrestians (Gnostics) were confused with the real Christians. Possibly, however, the name is only another expression for Messianists, and the Chrestians of Tacitus are Jews exalted by eschatological ideas, living in expectation of a speedy end of the world by fire, and so contracting the suspicion of having set fire to the city. They may have formed a “multitude ingens” and incurred “the hatred of the human race” by being led in their fanaticism to express their satisfaction at the burning of the metropolis; possibly they even took part in it. However that may be, there is not the least proof in any case of a Neronian persecution of the Christians. Even in this case, Tacitus' s reference to Christ as the founder of the sect rests on a misunderstanding—namely, a confusion of the most confident of the Jewish Messianists with the followers of the Christus who, as Tacitus had heard, had been crucified under Pontius Pilatus.[79]

In regard to the significance of Pilate in Tacitus, a remarkable hypothesis has recently been put forward by Andrzej Niemojewski in his work, Gott Jesus im Lichte fremder und eigener Forschungen samt Darstellung der evangelischen Astralstoffe, Astralszenen, und Astralsysteme (1910). According to this, the Pilate of the Christian legend was not originally an historical person; the whole story of Christ is to be taken in an astral sense, and Pilate represents the constellation of Orion, the javelin-man (pilatus, in Latin), with the arrow or lance-constellation (Sagitta), which is supposed to be very long in the Greek myth, and appears in the Christian legend under the name of Longinus, and is in the Gospel of John the soldier who pierces the side of Jesus with a spear (longche, in Greek). In the astral myth, the Christ hanging on the cross, or world-tree (i.e., the Milky Way), is killed by the lance of “Pilatus.” Hence, according to Niemojewski, the Christian populace told the legend of a javelin-man, a certain Pilatus, who was supposed to have been responsible for the death of the Saviour. This wholly sufficed for Tacitus to recognise in him the procurator in the reign of Tiberius, who must have been known to the Roman historian from the books of Josephus “On the Jewish War,” which were destined for the imperial house.[80] In point of fact, the procurator Pontius Pilate plays a part in the gospels so singularly opposed to the account of the historical Pilate, as Josephus describes him, that we can very well suspect a later introduction of an historical personage into the quasi-historical narrative.

When we take account of these many possible interpretations of Annals, xv, 44, all of which are as probable as, if not more probable than, the customary Christian explanation, the narrative of Tacitus cannot be quoted as a witness to the historicity of Jesus. We may say, indeed, that history has hitherto treated the passage, in view of its importance, with an absolutely irresponsible superficialness and levity. “The non-Christian witnesses,” says von Soden, “can only be quoted in favour of, not against, the historicity of Jesus” (p. 14). The truth is that they prove nothing either for or against; they prove nothing at all.[81] J. Weiss is perfectly correct when he says, as we saw previously: “There is no such thing as a really convincing witness in profane literature.” It is true that he is able to console himself for this. “What,” he asks, “could Josephus or Tacitus do for us? They could at the most merely show that at the end of the first century not only the Christians, but their tradition and Christ-mythos, were known at Rome. When it originated, however, and how far it was based on truth, could not be discovered from Tacitus or Josephus” (p. 91). The orthodox pastor Kurt Delbrück adds: “What does it matter whether or no Tacitus wrote it? He could only have received the information, a hundred years after the time, from people who had told it to others. It matters nothing to us, therefore, whether the passage is genuine or not. The historical personality of Jesus Christ is proved only by the fact [?] that the earliest Christian community recognised its Saviour in him whom it had once seen alive. We have no further historical documents.”


  1. Ursprung der Gottesverehrung, p. 223; cf. also p. 227.
  2. viii, 2 Abt., Heft 2, under “Tacitus.”
  3. Work quoted, p. 7.
  4. Weiss, work quoted, p. 92.
  5. Christus und die Cäsaren, p. 155.
  6. Schiller, work quoted.
  7. Decline and Fall, ch. xvi.
  8. Acts xxvi, 31.
  9. Eccl. Hist. III, 16.
  10. Op. cit. iv, 22, 1-3; iv, 23.
  11. See his essay on “Clement of Rome and the Subsequent Period,” Tübinger Theol. Jahrbücher, 1856, 287-369.
  12. Neutestamentl. Zeitgesch., III, 99, Anm. 5.
  13. “Quaestiones Paulinae,” in Theol. Tijdschrift, 1883, p. 14, etc.
  14. Onderzoek naar de achtheid van Clemens' ersten brief aan de Corinthers, 1908.
  15. Der Galaterbrief nach seiner Echtheit untersucht, 1888, p. 294, etc.
  16. Neutestatamentl. Apokryphen, edited by Hennecke, 1904, ch. v.
  17. See Hochart, Études au Sujet de la Persecution des Chretiens sous Neron, 1885.
  18. See his Chronologie der Röm. Bischöfe, p. 162, and Die Quellen der Röm. Petrussage, 1872.
  19. Die letzten Lebensjahre des Paulus: Bibl. Zeit- u. Streitfragen, 1910.
  20. Loc. cit. p. 8; see also Neutestamentl. Apokryphen, p. 365.
  21. Work quoted, p. 37.
  22. Work quoted, p. 69.
  23. As the reference of the part quoted to the Neronian persecution is the only detail for fixing the date of the letter, if we refuse to admit the passage the date of the letter is altogether uncertain, and it may belong to the fourth century just as well as the first—the “great century of literary forgeries” (Antiqua Mater, p. 304). The reference in I, 1, where there is question of perils and hardships that have suddenly come upon the Roman community, to the Domitian persecution in the year 93 is anything but certain. It is by no means proved that the so-called Domitian persecution was a persecution of the Christians. The text of Dio Cassius (67, 14) which is relied upon points at the most to a persecution of those who, like Flavius Clemens, the emperor's cousin, leaned to “atheism” or the Jewish faith. “If we rely on Roman sources, we find no persecution of the Christians under Domitian; if we rely on Christian sources, the persecution goes far beyond Rome, as, according to Hegesippus, the grandsons of Judas, being relatives of Christ, were brought from Palestine to Rome and condemned, and, according to Eusebius and, possibly, Irenaeus, the apostle John was then banished to Patmos. In this case it cannot be said that Rome alone was affected by the persecution, and so there is no analogy with the description given in the letter” (Steck, work quoted, p. 297). It seems, then, that it was the imagination of the apologists and fathers of the Church, who wanted to make the sufferings of Christianity begin as early as possible, that deduced from the letter this persecution of the Christians as such. (Br. Bauer, work quoted, p. 238; also see Joel, work quoted, II, 45.)
  24. Ecclesiastical History, VI, 33.
  25. Ibid. II, 28.
  26. In this connection it may be observed that all these references in Eusebius must be regarded with the greatest suspicion. This man, whom Jakob Burckhardt has called “the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity,” acts so deliberately in the interest of the power of the Church and the creation and strengthening of tradition that far too much notice is taken of his historical statements. “After the many falsifications, suppressions, and fictions which have been proved in his work, he has no right to be put forward as a decisive authority; and to these faults we must add a consciously perverse manner of expression, deliberate bombast, and many equivocations, so that the reader stumbles upon trapdoors and pitfalls in the most important passages.” (J. Burckhardt, Leben Konstantins, 2nd ed. 1860, pp. 307, 335, 347.)
  27. Ch. v.
  28. Ch. xxi.
  29. See also De Praescriptione, cap. 36, and Adversus Marcion, iv, 5.
  30. Ecclesiastical History, ii, 28.
  31. Revelation vii, 9.
  32. Work quoted, pp. 75-86.
  33. iii, 8.
  34. Work quoted, p. 38.
  35. See H. Schiller, Geschichte der Röm. Kaiserzeit, i, 441.
  36. Cap. 46.
  37. Arnold, work quoted, p. 74.
  38. Work quoted, p. 585.
  39. Adversus Paganos Historiae, vii, 4.
  40. Études au sujet de la persecution des chretiens sous Neron, 1885; De l'Authenticité des Annales et des Histoires de Tacite, 1890; Nouvelles Considerations au sujet des Annales et des Histoires de Tacite, 1897.
  41. Bergrede, p. 87.
  42. Christus und die Cäsaren, p. 150.
  43. Work quoted, vi.
  44. Études au sujet, etc., p. 220.
  45. Work quoted, p. 435.
  46. Work quoted, p. 40. See also Schiller, work quoted, p. 436, note.
  47. Work quoted, p. 435.
  48. See also H. Schiller, Geschichte der röm. Kaiserzeit, I, 446-50.
  49. Work quoted, p. 436.
  50. Work quoted, p. 23.
  51. Hochart, work quoted, p. 214.
  52. Apol. 37. How just this charge against the Christians was in the time of Tertullian may be gathered from Hausrath's excellent essay on “The Church Fathers of the Second Century” in his Kleine Schriften religionsgeschichtlichen Inhalts (1883), especially p. 71. It is enough to recall the words of a pious Father of the Church in his work On Spectacles (cap. 30), where he addresses a pagan fellow-citizen, in a sweet foretaste of vengeance: “Spectacles are your chief delight; wait, then, for the greatest of all spectacles, the final and eternal judgment of the world. How I shall admire, how I shall laugh and be delighted, when I hear so many proud Caesars, whom men had turned into gods, whining in the deepest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates, who persecuted the name of the Lord, melting in a more furious fire than any they had lit for the Christians; so many wise philosophers, who taught their pupils that God cared about nothing, burning in the glowing flames; so many esteemed poets standing and shivering before the judgment-seat, not of Rhadamanthus or Minos, but of Christ! Then will the tragedians roar louder than on the stage, and the player coo more seductively when he is softened by the flames, and the chariot-driver be seen careering red as fire on the flaming wheel. But I will not look at these; rather will I turn my insatiable gaze upon those who made sport of the person of the Lord.…….From seeing and rejoicing over these no praetor, no consul, no quaestor, and no priest can prevent us. These things, by our faith in the spirit and our imagination, we already have ever present to us.” “It must be admitted,” Hausrath observes on this, “that this kind of 'Christian charity' has an unmistakable resemblance to the 'odium humani generis' with which the pagans reproached the new sect” (work quoted, p. 92). If Roman justice proceeded with severity against people of this temper, we can hardly blame it, any more than we should blame a modern State for its severe punishment of anarchists. In any case, the number of the martyrs has, as Hausrath shows, been fearfully exaggerated on the ecclesiastical side. It appears that during the first three Christian centuries there were no more than 1,500 people put to death on account of their faith (?), whereas Duke Alba slaughtered more than 100,000 Protestants in the Netherlands, and the St. Bartholomew massacre was responsible for 2,000 deaths in Paris and more than 20,000 in the whole of France, to say nothing of the savagery of the Inquisition and the crusades against heretics, such as the Albigenses. Moreover, many of these Christians often sought death out of religious fanaticism, irritated the authorities to proceed against them when they had no need to do so, and provoked, by their own behaviour, the cruelties of the persecutors which were afterwards so loudly deplored by Christian critics. See J. M. Robertson's Short History of Christianity (1902), p. 130.
  53. See, to the contrary, Joel, work quoted, p. 15.
  54. See also Graetz, Gesch. der Juden, IV, 104.
  55. See Antiqua Mater, p. 23. Bruno Bauer also says: “The picture given in Tacitus can only be understood in connection with the influences of the age in which he wrote his Annals—the age of Trajan, the second decade of the second century. At that time there were Christian elements in Rome, and he might have heard of Christ and his fate under Pontius Pilate, and supposed that the unhealthy state of things that was suppressed by the death of Christ may have broken out again and reached Rome, the place to which everything unclean went. The same influences of the time and of Tacitus are seen in Suetonius's biography of Nero (cap. 16 and 17), which mentions the punishment of the Christians, as people having a new and shameful superstition, among the police measures of the emperor” (p. 155). Lublinski has recently put very clearly the contradiction involved in the passage of Tacitus (Das werdende Dogma vom Leben Jesu, 1911, p. 59): “The Christians suffered a punishment that was clearly regarded as a penalty of their crimes; the murderous incendiaries were burned. Nevertheless, they are said to have been condemned, not on account of the fire, but for hating the human race. Strange to say, they could not be convicted of complicity in the fire, though they had made a 'confession.' In other words, people acknowledged themselves guilty of arson, yet could not be convicted of it; but they were nonetheless executed for arson in order to punish severely their hatred of the human race. Could anything be more confused and contradictory?”
  56. Études au sujet de la persecution des chretiens sous Neron, 1885; De l'Authenticity des Annales et des Histoires de Tacite, 1890; Nouvelles Considerations au sujet des Annales et des Histoires de Tacite, 1897.
  57. Work quoted, p. 425. In the same way might be explained the testimony of the Praetorian leader, Flavius Subrius, who, in order to cut Nero as deeply as possible, called him, according to Tacitus (Annals, xv, 67), the murderer of his mother and wife, a charioteer, a comedian, and an incendiary. Bruno Bauer rightly observes on this: “Is it not possible that Tacitus, or, rather, his interpolator, merely put these words into the mouth of the brave officer? Dio Cassius, who, like Tacitus and Suetonius, represents the prince as the deliberate author of the fire, has preserved the answer of Flavius Subrius in what is probably an older and more reliable form (lxii, 24): 'I will not serve a charioteer and zitherplayer'” (work quoted, p. 153).
  58. Work quoted, p. 41.
  59. Gesch. der röm. Kaiserzeit, p. 359.
  60. Arnold, work quoted, p. 34; Schiller, work quoted, p. 449.
  61. See Joel, work quoted, p. 98.
  62. On the other hand, Arnold has attempted to ascribe to Tacitus a close acquaintance with the Christians from the fact that Sulpicius Severus used him as his authority in his description of the destruction of Jerusalem, and that his statement that Titus deliberately furthered the destruction of the temple in order to destroy at once the Christian and the Jewish religion was taken from the last conclusion of the fifth book of Tacitus's Histories (work quoted, p. 46). No less an authority than Jakob Bernays (Über die Chronik des Sulpicius Severus, 1861, p. 57) has seen in this reference of Sulpicius a literal agreement with the statement of Tacitus in the Annals (xv, 44), that Judaea was the birthplace of the Christian religion, and concluded from this that Sulpicius had Tacitus before his eyes. Bruno Bauer has, however, observed that the ecclesiastical teachers of the fourth century were so firmly convinced of the hostility of all the emperors after Claudius to the Christians that the pupil of the Saint of Tours could easily penetrate the secret design of Titus without any inspiration from the Histories of Tacitus (Christus und die Caesaren, p. 216). Hence the inference that Sulpicius possibly took the statement from Tacitus is anything but convincing, and thus the idea that Tacitus had any close acquaintance with the Christians falls to the ground.
  63. This general acceptation of the name Christian can, according to Harnack, only be traced to the end of the reign of Hadrian and that of Pius (Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christenthums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten, 1902, p. 296).
  64. See also 1 Peter iv, 16, and Acts xxvi, 28.
  65. See also Joel, work quoted, p. 106.
  66. Cf. Hochart, Nouvelles Considerations, 160 ff.
  67. In his De l'Authenticity des Histoires et des Annales de Tacite Hochart points out that, whereas the Life of St. Martin and the Dialogues of Sulpicius were found in many libraries, there was only one manuscript of his Chronicle, probably of the eleventh century, which is now in the Vatican. Hence the work was almost unknown throughout the Middle Ages, and no one was aware of the reference in it to a Roman persecution of the Christians. It is noteworthy that Poggio Bracciolini seems by some lucky chance to have discovered and read this manuscript (work quoted, p. 225). Cf. Nouvelles Considerations, pp. 142-72.
  68. Compare Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., ii, 28.
  69. Hochart, De l'Authenticite, etc., p. 50.
  70. Work quoted, p. 173.
  71. Compare Steudel, Wir Gelehrten vom Fach, etc. (p. 6), and Lublinski, work quoted, p. 47. In the controversy about the Christ-myth an attempt has been made even lately to revive the much-ridiculed argument that there never was such a person as Napoleon, by which Perez fancied he could refute Dupuis, and the argument of Von der Hagen against Strauss, “that there was never any such person as Luther,” in the year 1837, in order to show how one may deny the existence of any great man on “Drews' method.” That such arguments rely upon the thoughtlessness of the majority of people to have any effect throws equal light upon the general intelligence, and on the frame of mind of men who can make use of such arguments.
  72. Mission und Ausbreitung, p. 296.
  73. Compare Louis Ganeval, Jesus devant l'histoire n'a jamais vecu, 1875.
  74. Die orientalischen Religionen im römischen Heidentum, by Gehrich (1910), p. 98.
  75. Annals, ii, 85.
  76. xviii, 3, 5.
  77. Annals, xii, 52.
  78. Antiqua Mater, pp. 279-292.
  79. See Joel, work quoted, p. 144; also Whittaker, The Origins of Christianity (2nd ed., 1909), p. 21.
  80. Work quoted, p. 129.
  81. Characteristic of the conduct of our opponents is the way in which Otto Schmiedel treats the Roman witnesses. “Tacitus,” says this representative of historical theology, “mentions in his Annals about the year 116 the execution of Jesus [?] under Pontius Pilate, and the spread of his [?] superstitious sect in Judaea and even Rome. A passage in Suetonius written about the year 120 ('Nero,' ch. xvi) is to the same effect [!?]; and the younger Pliny, Governor of Bithynia, in 112 or 113, describes in a letter (Ep. x, 96) to the Emperor Trajan the wide spread of the Christians in his province and the hymns they sing to their Christ as a god [!]. The violent opponent of Christianity, the philosopher Celsus, is already [sic] acquainted with the whole literature of the New Testament before the year 180, and this literature is unintelligible without the person of Christ, with which it is entirely concerned.” (Die Hauptprobleme der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, 2 Aufl., 1906, p. 13). Notice the highly-coloured phrases (the execution of Jesus, the person of Christ!) and the word “already,” by means of which he tries to convey the impression that the witnesses quoted were remarkably early, and therefore deserve unlimited confidence.