Question: "Who was Tacitus?"
Answer: Tacitus (circa AD 56—120) was a Roman historian, orator, and politician. He is best known for his historical writings, including Annals, Histories, and Germania. Tacitus’ Annals is one of the earliest non-Christian sources verifying Jesus’ crucifixion. Tacitus also recorded the false accusation that Nero made against Christians when he blamed them for the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64.
All that is known about Tacitus’ personal life comes from the writings of his contemporary, Pliny the Younger. Nothing is known for certain about Tacitus’ family, since Tacitus never mentioned them in his writings, but we do know he was raised in a wealthy home with many privileges and that he was well-educated. Tacitus studied rhetoric and literary composition in preparation for a career in public office. Working his way up the rungs of public office, Tacitus eventually won popularity as a lawyer and orator. Later in life, Tacitus devoted himself to writing histories and is considered by many scholars to be the greatest Roman historian.
Of particular interest to Christians is the fact that Tacitus mentions Jesus and Christians. This reference, coming as it does from a non-Christian source, lends credibility to the fact of Jesus’ existence. In Annals book 15, chapter 44, Tacitus mentions Christus, which is Latin for “Christ,” and His execution at the command of Pontius Pilate. This reference correlates with Scripture, which states that Pilate gave in to the requests of the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus (Matthew 27:22–26; Mark 15:15; Luke 23:23–25; John 19:14–16). Although Scripture is sufficient in providing an accurate testimony to Jesus’ life and crucifixion (1 Corinthians 15:1–8), the fact that a pagan Roman historian referenced Jesus’ crucifixion provides further evidence to those inclined to doubt Jesus’ existence.
In the same chapter of his Annals, Tacitus also states that Nero blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome. Tacitus referred to Christianity as an “evil” superstition that started in Judea and spread like a disease to Rome (Annals, 15.44). Although he acknowledged that Nero carried out his persecution against Christians to fulfill his own cruel passions, Tacitus described Christians as hated and therefore deserving of their terrible punishment. Tacitus obviously did not understand those who followed Jesus. Persecution under Emperor Nero is part of the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy that His followers would experience persecution (John 15:20). As Jesus told His disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18, ESV).
From Tacitus’ perspective, he was merely recording the events of history in the Roman Empire. Some of the details he recorded are of great interest to us today. For skeptics, Tacitus’ reference to Jesus provides evidence, without “Christian bias,” of Jesus’ historical existence. For believers, Tacitus’ Annals affirms the Bible’s witness.