Monday, January 20, 2014

Tacitus the Unwitting Apostle

As part of my ongoing effort to sound more impressive when beginning blog posts, I was recently reading Tacitus' The Annals, where he lays out the history of Rome encapsulated in the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, respectively the second, third, fourth, and fifth Roman emperors.

As recorded by Tacitus, during the reign of the emperor Nero there was a six-day-long fire that devastated Rome.  You may have heard of this particular fire: it's the one during which, supposedly, Nero played the fiddle.

Nero, Emperor of Rome
In the aftermath of the conflagration, public opinion of Nero was abysmal.  A popular rumor went so far as to suggest that he started the fire himself, possibly to make room for a luxurious palace he had been wanting.  Desperate to find a culprit that was not him, he announced that the true cause of the fire were members of this weird foreign mystery cult--you know, Christians.

Almost immediately, there was a citywide pogrom (er...can you use that for non-Jews?).  Christians were crucified along roads and thoroughfares.   They were dressed in animal hides and had dogs sicced on them.  Gruesomely, many were tied to stakes and burned at night to act as nightmarish streetlights for people passing by them.

"Isn't it weird how the horrifying murder-fire streetlights always seem to go out, like, right when you walk underneath them?"
Reading this, it's easy to feel disgusted, or angry, or even just sad.  All of these are understandable and, frankly, reasonable feelings; but there's another level to the story.  While matter-of-factly describing the bloody public outcry, Tacitus also decided to give a quick backstory of the unhappy group for his readers.  He briefly summarized that Christians worshiped Christus, a Jew who received the maximum penalty under the Procurator Pontius Pilate.

Incredibly, by writing that short statement he not only summed up the subjects of his history, he also provided an early second century non-Christian historical source that is in harmony with believers' histories.  Specifically, his mentioning that there was a man referred to as "the Christ" who was sentenced to death by crucifixion (the ultimate Roman penalty) has been accepted by scholars as an authentic "second witness" (Mormon lingo FTW) to the Levantine accounts, especially the works of Josephus.

Now, I don't want to gloss over the gory details, and I certainly don't mean to make Tacitus out as a closet Christian.  Tacitus described the terrible city-wide torture terms.  In fact, he was pretty weirded out by Christians himself, and was honestly kind of a jerk about it:
Christus, from whom the name ["Christians"] had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty...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. (The Annals, 15.44)
Ugh. He would have a neckbeard.
Personal bigotry aside, though, this man provided an invaluable historical record--a Roman corroboration of the life and death of Jesus Christ.  If Tacitus' hateful diatribe can be so redeemed, then perhaps there's hope for us all.