"Christ, 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 centre and become popular."
Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman Senator and historian who recorded several different events from history, including the reign of several emperors and facts about Jesus and His followers. Although not a Christian himself, Tacitus provided some of the earliest writings about Jesus and early Christians. In his book “The Annals,” Tacitus described events from AD 14 to 68, specifically referencing Christ and the persecution Christians faced under Emperor Nero’s rule.
Tacitus wrote, “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 at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus... 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.”
Tacitus named Christ as the founder of the Christian movement and confirmed the gospel story that Christ, or Jesus, suffered “the extreme penalty” (crucifixion) under Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Tacitus also explained the horrific fire in Rome. Tacitus wrote that Nero arranged the fire, yet he blamed the Christians for it, and Nero punished them for his own work in cruel and terrible ways.
Tacitus stated, “Mockery of every sort was added to their [Christians’] 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 non-Christian writings of Tacitus point to Jesus as the origin of Christianity and confirm much of the Gospel story as it is recorded in the Bible. These include facts like Jesus was crucified at the hands of Pontius Pilate; Jesus was resurrected and He was the center and origin of the Christian movement; Christians were persecuted for their beliefs; and the Christian faith was spreading drastically.
Medician manuscript of Annals
A copy of the second Medicean manuscript of Annals, Book 15, chapter 44, the page with the reference to Christians Tacitus
The Fire of Rome
The Fire of Rome, 1861 According to Tacitus, Nero targeted Christians as those responsible for the fire. Artist: Carl Theodor von Piloty, CC by SA 3.0
Portrait of Tacitus