Cornelius Tacitus (56-118 AD) was procunsul in Asia (112-113 AD) and wrote Annals and Histories. Historian Stephen Benko, who is Professor of History at California State University at Fresno, called Tacitus a “painsataking researcher, interested in minute details, he wrote with brevity and candor, making his subjects come alive”. [ Stephen Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986), 14.] In Annals 15.44, Tacitus mentions Jesus and the Christians:
… Nero … inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians 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 Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre 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.
As with other works of antiquity, historians wish we had more manuscripts of his work available because we only have two manuscripts for Tacitus and they only contain half his writings.
New Testament scholar Mark Allen Powell spoke on this: “Unfortunately, the portion of Tacitus’s Annals dealing with the years 29-31 C.E. is missing from our manuscripts. We don’t know for sure whether he described the life or death of Jesus further in the missing portion of his book”. [Mark Allen Powell, Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 187.]
Nonetheless, when all the factors are weighed, almost all non-Christ Mythicist scholars concur with the opinion of John P. Meier on Tacitus: “[the] passage is obviously genuine. Not only is it witnessed in all the manuscripts of the Annals, the very anti-Christian tone of the text makes Christian origin almost impossible.” [Meier, A Marginal Jew, 90.]
So what is the problem? In this passage on Jesus, Tacitus referred to Pilate as a procurator, which was not the technical term for Pilate’s Judean post. Prefect is the more precise title. Those seeking to deny the historicity of Jesus leap on this anachronism and claim the passage is phony or Tacitus has not done his homework and is simply parroting Christian belief. Therefore, this passage simply leads to arguing in a circle and is not valid attestation to the existence of Jesus.
It is true Tacitus using procurator is an anachronism because prior to Agrippa, who ruled Judea from 41-44, Roman governors held the rank of prefect. Tacitus made use of procurator, though, because it was more common when he wrote instead of praefectus.
NOTE: On the variant of spellings of CHRISTUS, see Elsa Gibson, The Christians for Christians Inscriptions of Phrygia: Greek Texts, Translation and Commentary Harvard Theological Studies 32 (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1978) 15-17. Gibson reproduces and analyzes forty-five inscriptions and only six have correct spelling. Take note of the errors on this gravestone: “Christians for Chrestians”.