Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius:
No Proof of Jesus
by D.M. Murdock/Acharya S
Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled
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"
Pliny the Younger, Roman Official and Historian (62-113 CE)
In addition to the palpably bogus passage in the Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus called the "Testimonium Flavianum" is another of the pitiful "references" dutifully
trotted out by apologists to prove the existence of Jesus Christ: To wit, a short passage in the works of the Roman
historian Pliny the Younger. While proconsul of Bithynia, a province in the northwest of Asia Minor, Pliny
purportedly wrote a letter in 110 CE to the Emperor Trajan requesting his assistance in determining the proper
punishment for "Christiani" who were causing trouble and would not renounce "Christo" as their god or bow down to
the image of the Emperor. These recalcitrant Christiani, according to the Pliny letter, met "together before
daylight" and sang "hymns with responses to Christ as a god," binding themselves "by a solemn institution, not to
any wrong act." Regarding this letter, Rev. Robert Taylor remarks:
If this letter be genuine, these nocturnal meetings were what no prudent government
could allow; they fully justify the charges of Caecilius in Minutius Felix, of Celsus in Origen, and
of Lucian, that the primitive Christians were a skulking, light-shunning, secret, mystical,
freemasonry sort of confederation, against the general welfare and peace of society.
Taylor also comments that, at the time this letter was purportedly written,
"Christians" were considered to be followers of the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis and that "the name of Christ
[was] common to the whole rabblement of gods, kings, and priests." Writing around 134 CE, Hadrian purportedly
"The worshippers of Serapis are Christians, and those are devoted to the God Serapis,
who call themselves the bishops of Christ. There is no ruler of a Jewish synagogue, no Samaritan, no
Presbyter of the Christians, who is not either an astrologer, a soothsayer, or a minister to obscene
pleasures. The very Patriarch himself, should he come into Egypt, would be required by some to worship
Serapis, and by others to worship Christ. They have, however, but one God, and it is one and the
self-same whom Christians, Jews and Gentiles alike adore, i.e., money."
It is thus possible that the "Christos" or "Anointed" god Pliny's "Christiani" were
following was Serapis himself, the syncretic deity created by the priesthood in the third century BCE. In
any case, this god "Christos" was not a man who had been crucified in Judea.
Moreover, like his earlier incarnation Osiris, Serapis—both popular gods in the Roman Empire—was
called not only Christos but also "Chrestos," centuries before the common era. Indeed, Osiris was styled
"Chrestos," centuries before his Jewish copycat Jesus was ever conceived....
In any event, the value of the Pliny letter as "evidence" of Christ's existence is worthless, as
it makes no mention of "Jesus of Nazareth," nor does it refer to any event in his purported life. There is not even
a clue in it that such a man existed. As Taylor remarks, "We have the name of Christ, and nothing else but the
name, where the name of Apollo or Bacchus would have filled up the sense quite as well." Taylor then casts doubt on
the authenticity of the letter as a whole, recounting the work of German critics, who "have maintained that this
celebrated letter is another instance to be added to the long list of Christian forgeries..." One of these German
luminaries, Dr. Semler of Leipsic provided "nine arguments against its authenticity..." He also notes that the
Pliny epistle is quite similar to that allegedly written by "Tiberianus, Governor of Syria" to Trajan, which has
been universally denounced as a forgery.
Also, like the Testimonium Flavianum, Pliny's letter is not quoted by
any early Church father, including Justin Martyr. Tertullian briefly mentions its existence, noting that it refers
to terrible persecutions of Christians. However, the actual text used today comes from a version by a Christian
monk in the 15th century, Iucundus of Verona, whose composition apparently was based on Tertullian's
assertions. Concurring that the Pliny letter is suspicious, Drews terms "doubtful" Tertullian's "supposed reference
to it." Drews then names several authorities who likewise doubted its authenticity, "either as a whole or in
material points," including Semler, Aub, Havet, Hochart, Bruno Bauer and Edwin Johnson. Citing the work of Hochart
specifically, Drews pronounces Pliny's letter "in all probability" a "later Christian forgery." Even if it is
genuine, Pliny's letter is useless in determining any "historical" Jesus.
Tacitus, Roman Politician and Historian, (c. 56-120 CE)
Turning next to another stalwart in the anemic apologist arsenal, Tacitus, sufficient
reason is uncovered to doubt this Roman author's value in proving an "historical" Jesus. In his Annals,
supposedly written around 107 CE, Tacitus purportedly related that the Emperor Nero (37-68) blamed the burning
of Rome during his reign on "those people who were abhorred for their crimes and commonly called Christians."
Since the fire evidently broke out in the poor quarter where fanatic, agitating Messianic Jews allegedly
jumped for joy, thinking the conflagration represented the eschatological development that would bring about
the Messianic reign, it would not be unreasonable for authorities to blame the fire on them. However, it is
clear that these Messianic Jews were not (yet) called "Christiani." In support of this contention, Nero's
famed minister, Seneca (5?-65), whose writings evidently provided much fuel for the incipient Christian
ideology, has not a word about these "most-hated" sectarians.
...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. Also, 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), facts that cast strong doubt on whether or not it actually
happened. Drews concludes that the Neronian persecution is likely "nothing but the product of a Christian's
imagination in the fifth century." Eusebius, in discussing this persecution, does not avail himself of the Tacitean
passage, which he surely would have done had it existed at the time. Eusebius's discussion is very short,
indicating he was lacking source material; the passage in Tacitus would have provided him a very valuable
Even conservative writers such as James Still have problems with the authenticity of the Tacitus
passage: For one, Tacitus was an imperial writer, and no imperial document would ever refer to Jesus as "Christ."
Also, Pilate was not a "procurator" but a prefect, which Tacitus would have known. Nevertheless, not willing to
throw out the entire passage, some researchers have concluded that Tacitus "was merely repeating a story told to
him by contemporary Christians."
Based on these and other facts, several scholars have argued that, even if the
Annals themselves were genuine, the passage regarding Jesus was spurious. One of these authorities was Rev.
Taylor, who suspected the passage to be a forgery because it too is not quoted by any of the Christian
fathers, including Tertullian, who read and quoted Tacitus extensively. Nor did Clement of Alexandria notice
this passage in any of Tacitus's works, even though one of this Church father's main missions was to scour the
works of Pagan writers in order to find validity for Christianity. As noted, the Church historian Eusebius,
who likely forged the Testimonium Flavianum, does not relate this Tacitus passage in his abundant writings.
Indeed, no mention is made of this passage in any known text prior to the 15th century.
The tone and style of the passage are unlike the writing of Tacitus, and the text "bears a
character of exaggeration, and trenches on the laws of rational probability, which the writings of Tacitus are
rarely found to do." Taylor further remarks upon the absence in any of Tacitus's other writings of "the least
allusion to Christ or Christians." In his well-known Histories, for example, Tacitus never refers to Christ,
Christianity or Christians. Furthermore, even the Annals themselves have come under suspicion, as they themselves
had never been mentioned by any ancient author....
In any event, even if the Annals were genuine, the pertinent passage itself could easily be an
interpolation, based on the abundant precedents and on the fact that the only manuscript was in the possession of
one person, de Spire. In reality, "none of the works of Tacitus have come down to us without interpolations."
Regarding Christian desperation for evidence of the existence of Christ, Dupuis comments that
true believers are "reduced to look, nearly a hundred years after, for a passage in Tacitus" that does not even
provide information other than "the etymology of the word Christian," or they are compelled "to interpolate, by
pious fraud, a passage in Josephus." Neither passage, Dupuis concludes, is sufficient to establish the existence of
such a remarkable legislator and philosopher, much less a "notorious impostor."
It is evident that Tacitus's remark is nothing more than what is said in the Apostle's Creed—to
have the authenticity of the mighty Christian religion rest upon this Pagan author's scanty and likely
forged comment is preposterous. Even if the passage in Tacitus were genuine, it would be too late and is not from
an eyewitness, such that it is valueless in establishing an "historical" Jesus, representing merely a recital of
decades-old Christian tradition.
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 in Latin is as follows:
Claudius Judaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantes Roma expulit.
We see that the reference is to "Chresto," not "Christo." In any case, Claudius reigned from
41-54, while Christ was purported to have been crucified around 30, so the great Jewish sage could not have been in
Rome personally at that time. Even such an eager believer and mesmerized apologist as Shirley Jackson Case must
admit that Christ himself couldn't have been at Rome then, that the "natural meaning" of the remark is that "a
disturbance was caused by a Jew named Chrestus" living in Rome at the time, and that Suetonius's "references
to Christianity itself are very obscure."
It is possible that these diasporic Jews—a mixture of Hebrew, Jewish, Samaritan and Pagan
descent—revered their god under the epithet of "Chresto." Or, as Eisenman suggests, the incident may record Jews
agitating over the appointment of Herod Agrippa I as king of Judea by his friend Claudius in 41 CE. In this regard,
Agrippa I is called "chrestos" by Josephus.
In his Life of Nero, Suetonius refers to "Christiani," whom he calls "a race of men of a
new and villainous, wicked or magical superstition," who "were visited with punishment." This passage, although
establishing that there were people called "Christiani" who were a fairly recent cult in Suetonius's time,
obviously does not serve as evidence that Jesus Christ ever existed.
Regarding these "references," if they were genuine they would 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." In this case, Jesus would be merely a johnny-come-lately in a long line of "historical" godmen.
In the final analysis there is no evidence that the biblical character called "Jesus Christ"
ever existed. As Nicholas Carter concludes in The Christ Myth: "No sculptures, no drawings, no markings in
stone, nothing written in his own hand; and no letters, no commentaries, indeed no authentic documents written by
his Jewish and Gentile contemporaries, Justice of Tiberius, Philo, Josephus, Seneca, Petronius Arbiter, Pliny the
Elder, et al., to lend credence to his historicity."
For more information, including citations, see Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled. See also Who Was Jesus? Fingerprints of The Christ.