Thursday, June 28, 2012
The Vision (6/28/12): Tacitus and Independence Day
In the recent course I’ve been teaching on New Testament and Early Christianity, I did a survey of the handful of extra-biblical historical references to Christianity in the first few centuries of the Christian movement. One comes from around the year 115 A. D. in the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus (in his Annals, xv.44). In describing the reign of the Emperor Nero he includes a reference to how this cruel and profane man blamed and persecuted Christians for a fire in Rome c. 64 A. D.:
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 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.
This brief reference is important on many levels. First, it provides a historical reference to Jesus (“Chrestus”) outside of (and consistent with) the Gospels, including his death under Pontius Pilate while Tiberius was Emperor. This is useful information to rebut the occasional quack who comes along and claims that Jesus was only a mythical figure and not a historical reality. Second, it tells us how some pagans saw Christianity as “a most mischievous superstition” and as “haters of mankind.” It also reminds us that many of our spiritual forebears were willing to place their lives on the line for their faith. When Hebrews 11 describes the believing martyrs it calls them those “of whom the world was not worthy” (v. 38).
Next week we will celebrate the Independence Day of our nation. We can thank the Lord that for more than two centuries this nation has provided a safe haven of religious liberty for many. May the Lord be pleased to extend our freedom, despite the church’s and our nation’s many faults and struggles, even as he prepares us to be willing to lose all for him, when we are called upon to do so.
Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle