Monday, December 14, 2009

Tacitus on Jesus

Fictitious portrait of the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus.The Roman historian Tacitus wrote concerning the Great Fire of Rome, in book 15, chapter 44 of his Annals (c. 116) including an account of how the emperor Nero blamed the Christians in Rome for the disaster and initiated the first known persecution of early Christians by the Romans. This has become one of the best known and most discussed passages of Tacitus' works. Although partly aimed at showing the inhumanity of the emperor, Tacitus' remarks have been studied more by modern scholars for information about his own religious attitudes and about the early history of Christianity:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and 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 Caesar 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.
Tacitus then returns to the topic of Nero's reputation and the effect on it of these events:
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.

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