Let’s begin our inquiry with a passage that historian Edwin Yamauchi calls „probably the most important reference to Jesus outside the New Testament.“ Reporting on Emperor Nero’s decision to blame the Christians for the fire that had destroyed Rome in A.D. 64, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote:
„Nero fastened the guilt … 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 … 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 …“
What can we learn from this ancient (and rather unsympathetic) reference to Jesus and the early Christians? Notice, first, that Tacitus reports Christians derived their name from a historical person called Christus (from the Latin), or Christ. He is said to have „suffered the extreme penalty,“ obviously alluding to the Roman method of execution known as crucifixion. This is said to have occurred during the reign of Tiberius and by the sentence of Pontius Pilatus. This confirms much of what the Gospels tell us about the death of Jesus.
But what are we to make of Tacitus‘ rather enigmatic statement that Christ’s death briefly checked „a most mischievous superstition,“ which subsequently arose not only in Judaea, but also in Rome? One historian suggests that Tacitus is here „bearing indirect … testimony to the conviction of the early church that the Christ who had been crucified had risen from the grave.“ While this interpretation is admittedly speculative, it does help explain the otherwise bizarre occurrence of a rapidly growing religion based on the worship of a man who had been crucified as a criminal. How else might one explain that?