There are three Greco-Roman pagan passages extremely important to the defenders of the Christian myth. They are the works of three major non-Christian writers of the late 1st and early 2nd centuries – Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger.
Let’s closely examine these passages and see why they cannot serve us as justification for reliable evidence for a historical Jesus.
Pliny the Younger, Roman Official and Historian (61-112 CE)
Pliny the Younger (c. 61 – c. 112), the provincial governor of Pontus and Bithynia, wrote to Emperor Trajan c. 112 concerning how to deal with Christians, who refused to worship the emperor, and instead worshiped “Christos”.
“Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ — none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do — these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshiped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.” 
First things first, “Christ” is a title, not Jesus’s last name. If Pliny’s letter is genuine it would serve only to demonstrate that there were people termed “Christians” who were singing hymns to a god with the title of “Christos” around the beginning of the second century. Neither Pliny’s letter nor the response by Trajan mention anything about this god having a life on Earth; nor do they even call him “Jesus”.
In reality, the epithet “Christos” is used 40 times in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, centuries before the Christian era, as applied to a variety of characters, including in several references to “the Lord’s anointed”.  Indeed, in 1 and 2 Samuel the first King of Israel, Saul, is repeatedly referred to as “Christos” at least a couple of hundred years before Jesus was given the same title. By the end of 2 Samuel (23:1), it was David who was called “Christ”. In 2 Chronicles 6:42, David’s son Solomon becomes God’s Christ, and at 2 Chronicles 22:7 it is Jehu who is the Lord’s anointed. As can be seen, there have been many Christs! 
From the foregoing facts, it can be asserted that Pliny provides no useful information either as to who Jesus was or even whether or not he existed.
Tacitus, Roman Politician and Historian, (c. 56-117 CE)
Tacitus (c. 56–c. 117), writing c. 116, included in his Annals a mention of Christianity and “Christus”, the Latinized Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah”. In describing Nero’s persecution of this group following the Great Fire of Rome c. 64, he wrote:
“Nero fastened the guilt of starting the blaze and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians [Chrestians] by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.
Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.” 
The Tacitean passage next states that these fire-setting agitators were followers of “Christus” (Christos), who, in the reign of Tiberius, “was put to death as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate.” The passage also recounts that the Christians, who constituted a “vast multitude at Rome,” were then sought after and executed in ghastly manners, including by crucifixion. However, the date that a “vast multitude” of Christians was discovered and executed would be around 64 CE, and it is evident that there was no “vast multitude” of Christians at Rome by this time, as there were not even a multitude of them in Judea.
Oddly, this brief mention of Christians is all there is in the voluminous works of Tacitus regarding this extraordinary movement, which allegedly possessed such power as to be able to burn Rome. In his well-known Histories, for example, Tacitus never refers to Christ, Christianity or Christians. The Neronian persecution of Christians is unrecorded by any other historian of the day and supposedly took place at the very time when Paul was purportedly freely preaching at Rome (Acts 28:30-31). Early Christian writers such as Tertullian, Lactantius, Sulpicius Severus, Eusebius and Augustine of Hippo do not refer to Tacitus when discussing the subject of the Christian persecution by Nero.
Also, this passage constitutes the only Pagan reference that specifically associates Pontius Pilate with Christ. Moreover, even though it was the passion and duty of Church historian Eusebius to compile all non-Christian references to Jesus in his History of the Church, he failed to mention the Annals passage. All in all, the passage smacks of being a late Christian interpolation or at the least a redaction. Tacitus Annals does not appear in the literary record until the 14th century, while the earliest extant manuscript possessing book 15 dates only to the 11th century. Hence, the authenticity and value of the Annals remain dubious.
An interesting question is: Why would Tacitus – a Roman senator – make such derogatory remarks about Rome, calling it the city “to which all that is horrible and shameful floods together and is celebrated”?
Professor R. T. France (New Testament scholar and Anglican cleric) concludes that the Tacitus passage is at best just Tacitus repeating what he has heard through Christians. 
Suetonius, Roman Historian (c. 69-c. 122 CE)
Moving through the standard list of defenses, we come to the Roman historian Suetonius. The passage in Suetonius’s Life of Claudius, dating to around 110 CE, states that the emperor Claudius “drove the Jews out of Rome, who at the suggestion of Chrestus were constantly rioting.” The passage goes as follows:
“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [ Claudius ] expelled them [the Jews] from Rome” 
Occasionally this passage is cited as evidence for Jesus’s historicity. However, there are serious problems with this interpretation. We see that the reference is to “Chrestus,” not “Christus.” “Chrestus” is the correct Latin form of an actual Greek name, and is not obviously a misspelling of “Christus”, meaning Christ.
In any case, Claudius reigned from 41-54 CE, while Christ was purported to have been crucified around 30 CE, so the great Jewish sage could not have been in Rome at that time. Even the eager believer must admit that Christ himself couldn’t have been at Rome then [since “he” was well and dead by Claudius’s time]. The natural meaning of the remark is that a disturbance was caused by a Jew named Chrestus living in Rome at the time.
Even if Suetonius is referring to Christians in Rome, this only confirms the existence of Christians, not the existence of Jesus. There is no doubt that there were Christians in Rome during the first century CE–this of course does not imply that Jesus actually lived during the first half of this century.
Thus, Suetonius also fails to confirm the historicity of Jesus.
Like those of the Jewish writer Josephus, the works of the ancient historians Pliny, Suetonius and Tacitus do not provide proof that Jesus Christ ever existed as a “historical” character.
These “references” no more prove the existence of Jesus Christ than do writings about other gods prove their existence. In other words, by this same argument we could provide many “references” from ancient writers that the numerous Pagan gods also existed as “real people.”
To take one example, examine the evidence for Hercules of Greek mythology and you will find it parallels the “historicity” of Jesus to such an amazing degree that for Christian apologists to deny Hercules as a historical person belies and contradicts the very same methodology used for a historical Jesus.
Note that Herculean myth resembles Jesus in many areas. The mortal and chaste Alcmene, the mother of Hercules, gave birth to him from a union with God (Zeus). Similar to Herod who wanted to kill Jesus, Hera wanted to kill Hercules. Like Jesus, Hercules traveled the earth as a mortal helping mankind and performed miraculous deeds. Similar to Jesus who died and rose to heaven, Hercules died, rose to Mt.Olympus and became a god. Hercules gives example of perhaps the most popular hero in Ancient Greece and Rome. They believed that he actually lived, told stories about him, worshiped him, and dedicated temples to him.
Likewise the “evidence” of Hercules closely parallels that of Jesus. We have historical people like Hesiod and Plato who mention Hercules in their writings. Similar to the way the gospels tell a narrative story of Jesus, so do we have the epic stories of Homer who depict the life of Hercules. Aesop tells stories and quotes the words of Hercules. Just as we have a brief mention of Jesus by Joesphus in his Antiquities, Joesphus also mentions Hercules (more times than Jesus), in the very same work (see: 1.15; 8.5.3; 10.11.1). Just as Tacitus mentions a Christus, so does he also mention Hercules many times in his Annals. And most importantly, just as we have no artifacts, writings or eyewitnesses about Hercules, we also have nothing about Jesus. All information about Hercules and Jesus comes from stories, beliefs, and hearsay. Should we then believe in a historical Hercules, simply because ancient historians mention him and that we have stories and beliefs about him? Of course not, and the same must apply to Jesus if we wish to hold any consistency to historicity.
Of course a historical Jesus may have existed, perhaps based loosely on a living human even though his actual history got lost, but this amounts to nothing but speculation. However we do have an abundance of evidence supporting the mythical evolution of Jesus. Virtually every detail in the gospel stories occurred in pagan and/or Hebrew stories, long before the advent of Christianity. We simply do not have a shred of evidence to determine the historicity of a Jesus “the Christ.” We only have evidence for the belief of Jesus.
Thanks for reading,
Jesus Outside the Bible: Part 1 – Historical Silence
Jesus Outside the Bible: Part 2 – Flavius Josephus
- Pliny, Letters 10.96-97: http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/texts/pliny.html
- 1 Sam 12:5, 16:6, 24:7, 24:11, 26:9, 26:11, 26:16; 2 Sam 1:14, 16; Lam 4:20, etc. These citations are from the Septuagint, which varies considerably in some places from the Hebrew or Masoretic Old Testament
- Murdock, D.M.; “Who Was Jesus – Fingerprints of the Christ”, Stellar House Publishing, 2007
- Tacitus, Annals 15.44: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/tacitus-annals.txt
- For example R. T. France, writes “The brief notice in Tacitus Annals xv.44 mentions only his title, Christus, and his execution in Judeaby order of Pontius Pilatus. Nor is there any reason to believe that Tacitus bases this on independent information-it is what Christians would be saying in Rome in the early second century … No other clear pagan references to Jesus can be dated before AD 150, by which time the source of any information is more likely to be Christian propaganda than an independent record.” The Gospels As Historical Sources For Jesus, The Founder Of Christianity, Truth Journal http://www.leaderu.com/truth/1truth21.html
- Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, The Life of Claudius:http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Claudius*.html
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