Tacitus’ Fragment 2: The Anti-Roman Movement of the Christiani and the Nazoreans

Abstract: There is little consensus as to the historical nature of the sect identified by Tacitus in Annales 15.44 as the Christiani. Nor is there any firm consensus on the authenticity and historicity of all of that fragment known as Tacitus’ fragment 2 (= Sulpicius Severus Chronica 2.30.6-7), whose references to “Christiani” are widely suspected of being later Christian interpolations. Much of this fragment is thought, nevertheless, to be from the lost portion of the fifth book of Tacitus’ Historiae.

A solution can be found to both of these problems by adducing from fragment 2 new evidence indicating that this fragment indeed represents a primary historical source. This new evidence takes the form of the discovery of a significant statistical relationship among the following three words: (1) The metaphor stirps (branch, descendants) used to describe the Christiani in fragment 2, (2) and (3) NazwraîoV and NazarhnóV (Nazorean), describing the New Testament sect associated with the Cristianoì of Acts 11.26. The connecting link among, as well as the common source for, the three words_listed above appears to be the Hebrew netser (branch, descendants — apparently influenced by Isa 11.1), which both translates into stirps and transliterates into NazwraîoV/NazarhnóV.

It is mathematically extremely unlikely that this link with netser represents a random coincidence. Also, it appears that a later Christian redactor of fragment 2 or his target audience would not have known of this connection. Because of this and other contextual explanations, the possibility is largely eliminated that fragment 2 could have been significantly redacted by a later Christian. We are thus left with the substantial probability that this fragment constitutes a primary historical source, most likely via Tacitus. In turn this source supplies us with a probable solution to the problem of the Christiani’s identity by depicting them in fragment 2 as being major participants in the first Jewish revolt against Rome in 66-73 CE.


In the well-known section of Annales 15.44, Tacitus refers unmistakably to “Christiani.” We shall presently take a fresh look at another passage thought to be at least partly Tacitean and which also mentions a sect called “Christiani.” In so doing, this will demonstrate how much historical data can be successfully concealed in one brief passage. As will be seen, when it comes to these “Christiani,” things are not at all as they have seemed. The second passage in question is commonly known as Tacitus’ fragment 2, much of which is generally considered to have once been part of the now lost portion of the fifth book of Tacitus’ Historiae. Fragment 2 was preserved by the Christian historian Sulpicius Severus in his Chronica 2.30.6-7 (ca. 400-403 CE).

This fragment will enable us to demonstrate who the Christiani really were, and, as we shall see, they were not Christians. Here as elsewhere in this paper I am using “Christians” (as opposed to “Christiani”), “Christianity,” and “the Church” to refer to the Pauline version only.

The present study demonstrates that frag. 2 is a primary historical source that in all probability correctly identifies frag. 2’s “Christiani” as the Latin name for a group of major participants in the first Jewish revolt against Rome of 66-73 CE. In addition, we shall see that the Hebrew name for at least a portion, if not all, of this group was probably “Netsarim” (Nazoreans).

Let us now turn to frag. 2 and see why it shows the Christiani to have been major opponents of the Romans. This fragment gives the details of the debate within a high-level military council of war called by the Roman army commander Titus just prior to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in Jerusalem in 70, near the end of the first Jewish revolt against Rome. The debate was over whether or not the Roman army should destroy the Temple. For our purposes here, the last half of frag. 2 (= Severus’ Chronica 2.30.7) is the most relevant because it specifically mentions “Christiani”:

(2.30.6) It is reported that Titus first deliberated, by summoning a council of war, as to whether to destroy a Temple of such workmanship. For it seemed proper to some that a consecrated Temple, distinguished above all that is human, should not be destroyed, as it would serve as a witness to Roman moderation; whereas its destruction would represent a perpetual brand of cruelty.

(2.30.7) But others, on the contrary, disagreed — including Titus himself. They argued that the destruction of the Temple was a number one priority in order to destroy completely the religion [per Severus. Tacitus or another classical author would have used the word superstitio (alien religious belief). Compare Hist. 5.8 and Ann. 15.44 (exitiabilis superstitio)] of the Jews and the Christiani: For although these religions [i.e., superstitiones] are conflicting, they nevertheless developed from the same origins. The Christiani arose from the Jews: With the root removed, the branch [stirps] is easily killed.1

The discovery that the Christian historian Severus took most of frag. 2 from a now-lost portion of Tacitus’ Historiae was first made in 1861 when Jacob Bernays published his seminal study2 demonstrating that the fragment is reasonably Tacitean in style. He also showed it is apparently fairly accurate historically,3 as against Josephus’ parallel account of the same council of war in Bell. 6.236-243, which Bernays termed a whitewash of Titus. Bernays’ finding that frag. 2 is for the most part Tacitean has been generally accepted by the editors of the various critical editions of the Historiae and the Chronica.4 Momigliano sums up the consensus by stating there is no question Severus depended, at least in part, on Tacitus: “Sulpicius Severus uses Tacitus elsewhere, and this particular passage shows traces of Tacitean style under the early fifth-century veneer. It is therefore reasonable to conclude with Bernays that Sulpicius Severus depended on Tacitus. His conjecture has indeed been generally accepted.”5

Nevertheless, a number of writers have expressed the opinion that the last half of frag. 2 with its references to “Christiani” represents in large part a “Christianizing” redaction by either Sulpicius Severus himself or some other later Christian.6 Momigliano remarks, “This passage has undergone Christian modification, but this modification affects only the reasons for Titus’ decision and not the decision itself.”7 However, the proponents of this theory (see note 6 above) demonstrate only that Severus had a motive to Christianize this passage and that he might have done so, not that he did. Another hypothesis8 holds that Sulpicius or a later redactor may have interpolated an actual historical account of Titus’ council of war from a non-Tacitean but classical eyewitness source such as Marcus Antonius Iulianus. In that case though, as Momigliano observes in “Jacob Bernays” (167), the net effect would be simply to replace “the name of Tacitus as the source of Sulpicius by the name of the man who was probably the source of Tacitus, Antonius Iulianus: no gain and greater obscurity.”

In any event, however, a straightforward reading of the last half of frag. 2 supports the view that the Romans considered destroying the Temple in an attempt to cripple Judaism and eliminate the base of operations of a group known as “Christiani.” If we accept frag. 2 as a primary historical source (and as we shall presently see, this course of action is logically justifiable), there can be no doubt that the Christiani were a Jewish group who, along with those referred to as “the Jews,” were major participants in the first Jewish revolt against Rome. These Christiani are also distinguished in frag. 2 from those who were presumably, from the Roman perspective at least, more normative Jews: the Christiani and “the Jews,” though on the same side against the Romans, are depicted as having religious beliefs that are conflicting. According to frag. 2 then the Christiani were major participants in the war and Titus burned the Temple primarily to destroy them by crippling Judaism – thus destroying the Christiani’s base of operations in Israel.

This point of view in frag. 2 is consistent with the other extant references by classical Roman historians to “Christiani” of the Second Temple period. We may note Tacitus’ description in Annales 15.44 of the “Christiani’s” superstitio as dangerous (exitiabilis), sinister (atrocia), an evil (malum), etc. and Suetonius’ portrayal of the “Christiani” in Nero 16.2 as following a “new and dangerous [malefica] superstitio.”

There are a number of arguments that demonstrate frag. 2 to be a primary historical source. The first of these points was made by Bernays and others; the rest are new to this study. This paper will focus on the more relevant portion of the fragment, the second half. Here then is the criticism, primarily literary/statistical, in favor of the classification of frag. 2 as a primary historical source:

1. The second half of frag. 2, like the first, is reasonably Tacitean in style. This is particularly true with respect to (A) quippe used instead of nam before the expression of explanatory and contrasting opinions in a subordinate sentence,
9 (B) the use of the typically Tacitean at contra,10 and (C) the fact that everything else in the last half of this fragment other than the Severean word religio appears either Tacitean or in any event not non-Tacitean.11

2. The clear impression given in frag. 2 of the “Christiani” as opponents of the Romans is even more strongly reinforced by something Bernays did not mention. There can be little doubt the Roman general staff under Titus is portrayed in the final part of frag. 2 (“…they nevertheless developed from the same origins. The Christiani arose from the Jews: With the root removed, the branch [stirps] is easily killed”; see note 1 above) as quoting from Isa 11.1 in describing frag. 2’s “Christiani” by using the Latin word stirps (branch, descendants), one of whose Hebrew equivalents from Isa 11.1 (Heb./Aram., netser) just happens to transliterate into the two names (NazwraîoV and NazarhnóV [i.e., “Nazorean”]) in the Greek New Testament for what would have been, to Severus or any other later Christian redactor, virtually the same sect as “Christiani.” As will be shown, the odds of this being a random coincidence are so remote (along with the likelihood Severus or his readers would even have been aware of this connection) that as a result we may virtually eliminate Severus as the primary source for most of the last half of frag 2.

As will be shown more clearly, frag. 2’s “Christiani” are portrayed, after Isa 11.1, as a “branch” of Jesse — father of David — growing out of Jesse’s Jewish “roots” (radix).12 This is exactly how we would expect a Jewish resistance movement to be described and is entirely consistent, as we have seen, with the manifest content of frag. 2.13

Stirps would have been a good choice in frag. 2 with which to translate netser from Isa 11.1 since each of these substantives meant both “branch” and “descendants” (in this case, presumably, of David).14 For instance, stirps was used by Jerome to translate netser in Isa 14.19 (Vg).15

The branch metaphor in frag. 2, stirps, is one of relatively few Latin words with a Hebrew equivalent (netser) that can be transliterated into “NazwraîoV” (Matt 2.23, 26.71, Luke 18.37, John 18.5, 7, 19.19, Acts 2.22, 3.6, 4.10, 6.14, 22.8, 24.5, 26.9) and “NazarhnóV” (Mark 1.24, 10.47, 14.67, 16.6, Luke 4.34, 24.19) – two words describing the sect that is associated also with the New Testament’s “Christiani” (“Cristianoí”: Acts 11.26). The first three Semitic consonants of netser can be transliterated into the first three Greek consonants of either NazwraîoV or NazarhnóV.16 It is almost impossible this is a coincidence since there are altogether relatively few words we know of today that might have been used as substantives in Hebrew or Aramaic in first-century Israel and could also have been transliterated this way into NazwraîoV or NazarhnóV — and netser (= stirps) just happens to be one of them. I am including only substantives here since the metaphor actually used in frag. 2 was couched in terms of a noun (stirps).

These few Semitic words (from biblical Hebrew, Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, and Talmudic Aramaic [the latter included for reasons given below]) containing only the consonants N-TS-R or N-Z-R are listed as follows, together with all their known meanings: (1) From the Hebrew, by root (see Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon; also James H. Charlesworth, Graphic Concordance to the Dead Sea Scrolls [Tübingen: J. C. B Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1991]): nezer (crown; a priest’s miter [Lev 8.9]; [a woman’s] hair; a consecration [Lev 21.12]; a Nazirite’s consecrated hair [Num 6.19]; a separation [Num 6. 8, 12, 13]), nazir (one consecrated or crowned [e.g., a prince, ruler, etc.]; a Nazirite; an untrimmed vine [like the Nazarite’s untrimmed hair – see Lev 25.5, 11]), natsar (one who watches; the preserved [of Israel – see Isa 49.6]); a secret thing [Isa 48.6]; a secret place [Isa 65.4]; the besieged [Ezek 6.12]; a besieger [Jer 4.16]; those observing [Torah: Ps 119.2, Prov 28.17]; one tending [a fig tree – Prov 27.18]; one who is crafty [Prov 7.10]), and netser (branch; shoot; descendants). (2) From the Aramaic (see Marcus Jastrow, Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature [1903; repr., New York: Pardes, 1950]; also Michael Sokoloff, A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period [Ramat-Gan, Israel: Bar Ilan Univ. Press, 1990]): Notseri (a Christian or Nazorean [= Lat., Christianus; see note 17 below]), nezirah (a nobleman; a Nazarite’s vow), Nezirah (a man’s name [Gen Rab. 12.6, etc.]), natsir (a fetus), netser (a cricket; willow), and nitsrah (a wicker basket).

I have eliminated Semitic meanings that are duplicative. For the statistical reasons, see below. There are thus a total of only 29 distinct meanings of Semitic words that could have been transliterated into either “NazwraîoV” or “NazarhnóV.”17

The odds of this verbal relationship among stirps, netser, and NazwraîoV/NazarhnóV being a coincidence can be calculated mathematically roughly as follows: Working backwards from the Greek “NazwraîoV” and “NazarhnóV” (the end results of the putative transliterations), we have already noted above the 29 different meanings of the only Semitic words this author is aware of that could conceivably have been transliterated into the two Greek words in question. If we then make the very generous assumption that for each of the 29 Semitic meanings there were as many as 10 nouns in Latin which could originally have expressed each meaning, we arrive at a total figure of 290 (= 29 x 10) Latin nouns that could originally have been used to express these 29 Semitic meanings by the Roman general staff (or a later redactor of frag. 2). Thus, in theory any one of these 290 Latin nouns could have been chosen randomly as a metaphor for the Christiani by the Romans or a later redactor and still given us Semitic translations that could ultimately have been transliterated into NazwraîoV and NazarhnóV. We are assuming here for the sake of argument that the Romans or a later redactor picked their “Christiani” metaphor completely at random — and not with any preexisting knowledge of the Christiani’s Semitic name, if any. All we have to do at this point then is divide 290 by the total number of nouns in the Latin language to obtain the probability of the Romans or anyone else having randomly arrived at a metaphor which happened to correctly transliterate ultimately into the two Greek names for the sect the New Testament also associates with the “Christiani” of Acts.

To simplify this calculation and at the same time ensure reasonable accuracy, we shall eliminate from consideration all Latin proper nouns, since these refer mainly to people and places outside of Israel and it is most unlikely the Christiani would have chosen their Semitic name, if any, from such a list (for the effect of this on our calculation, see below). Therefore, we shall consider only Latin common nouns. An estimate based on a representative sampling of common nouns from the Oxford Latin Dictionary (1982) indicates there were approximately 18,000 common nouns in Latin. This gives us, therefore, an estimated probability of randomness in this case of 290 divided by 18,000, or 1.61%. Subtracting this fraction from 100% to obtain a probability of non-randomness gives us 98.39%.

It is quite possible, of course, that some first-century Semitic words and meanings that are unknown to us today have been inadvertently omitted from this analysis. In the present author’s opinion, however, this particular problem has been more than adequately compensated for by the very generous use of 10 Latin common nouns for every Semitic meaning as well as the inclusion of Semitic words and meanings from Talmudic Aramaic. In addition, the failure to consider the use of metaphors or similes involving Latin proper nouns (see above) may also understate the probability of non-randomness — by drastically limiting the total number of Latin words under consideration to just 18,000.

In any event, the overall results indicate a probability of non-randomness well within the range of statistical significance (i.e., > 95%). Q.E.D.18 We may also note that the apparent presence in frag. 2 of a paraphrase of Isa 11.1 (one of only four passages in the Hebrew Bible containing the rarely-used word netser [the other three being Isa 14.19, 60.21, and Dan 11.7]) provides further confirmation of this high probability of non-randomness.

There is a statistical relationship here that is almost certainly not random. This virtually eliminates Severus or another later Christian as the source for this material since a later Christian redactor almost certainly could not have arrived at the choice of stirps simply by accident, as we have seen. Nor probably would Severus (or another later Christian) even have known anything of this verbal relationship. Furthermore, had he known, writing about it in such an utterly oblique way would have been pointless; his readers would not for the most part have understood the connection. This can be inferred by the absence of references to it in Christian and other literature.19

Thus, by process of elimination we are almost certainly left with a classical source, probably Tacitus (see above at note 4), for frag. 2, demonstrating that frag. 2 is in all likelihood a primary historical source. In addition, since frag. 2 is probably Tacitean, its Christiani can now probably be identified with the Christiani of Tacitus’ Annales 15.44.

3. Moreover, in Rom 11.16-24 Paul seems to derive from the Hodayot of the Dead Sea

Scrolls (1QH 14[6].14-17, 15[7].18-19, 16[8].4-11) a root-branch metaphor that originally compared the Qumran community to a tree or planting established by God. All three of these passages from the Hodayot employ netser and thus all were apparently influenced in turn by the parallel Isa 60.21 (one of only four passages in the Hebrew Bible to contain netser), and perhaps Isa 11.1 as well.20 In Romans, Paul deliberately reapplies this metaphor to the Christian community. We can infer Paul’s selection of the word “branch” (kladoV) in Rom 11.16-24 was deliberate for the same statistical reasons we were able to infer the Roman general staff in frag. 2 did not just choose their branch metaphor at random either: For the mathematical reasons mentioned above, the odds are overwhelmingly against any random selection by anyone of a branch metaphor for the Nazoreans and, to a somewhat lesser extent, for any other group such as the early Christians who were reportedly linked to them.21 This principle applies equally well to any direct description of a Nazorean leader such as Jesus as a descendant (= netser) or “branch” of David as, for instance, by Paul in Rom 1.3. We can thus infer that in Rom 1.3 Paul was consciously following Isa 11.1 — in part, moreover, because the word netser appears rarely in the Hebrew Bible and only once in connection with David (Isa 11.1), so there can be little doubt under the circumstances as to what exactly Paul was referring to. Compare also the numerous other examples of “son of David” applied to Jesus in the New Testament in one form or another: Matt 1.1-17, 15.22, 20.30-31, 21.9, 15, Mark 10.47-48, Luke 2.4, 3.31, Acts 13.22-23, Rom 15.12, Rev 3.7, 5.5, 22.16, etc. We may note also in Justin Apol. 32 and Dial. 86-87 the portrayal of Jesus as fulfilling the prophecy in Isa 11.1. These parallel phenomena indicate the existence of an important tradition involving a convergence of opinions (including frag. 2’s) connecting the Nazoreans with Isa 11.1.

4. To the extent that Severus or any other later Christian may have redacted the second half of frag. 2 by Christianizing it, he would have had to mimic successfully Tacitus’ style and vocabulary. This would have had to be done with sufficient expertise to deceive both people in his own time who were fluent in Latin and future generations of scholars (see note 4 above). But in so doing, the redactor would have risked exposure by his contemporaries because the complete Historiae were still extant during the early fifth century.22 If Severus had simply introduced such interpolations in his own style into, say, the secondpart of the fragment – without making a hopeless attempt to pass them off as Tacitus’ — his credibility would not have suffered; but this was not done. Therefore, frag. 2 as we have it today could probably not have been significantly redacted by Severus or any other later Christian since in so doing the redactor would have been exposed by his contemporaries, including his peers in the Church.

For this reason it is almost equally unlikely that Severus would have, had he possessed any caution at all, (1) inadvertently or subconsciously copied Tacitus’ style in the second part of frag. 2 or (2) consciously attempted to interpolate just one or two of the passage’s key words – such as “Christiani” — while leaving the others relatively undisturbed. Furthermore, any such hypothetical interpolations of “Christiani” into frag. 2 would almost certainly had to have been made before 418 CE when the entire fifth book of Tacitus’ Historiae was still available (see note 22 above). This follows from the fact that in his parallel account of Titus’ destruction of the Temple in Hist. adv. Pag. 7.9.4-6 (ca. 418) Paulus Orosius almost certainly emulated but Christianized the wording of the last half of frag. 2 by changing “Christiani” to “Ecclesia Dei” and “stirps” to “germinante.”23 Assuming therefore a Christian interpolation of the word “Christiani”into frag. 2, then by 418 Orosius was almost certainly aware of it.

Having largely ruled out Severus or another Christian as the source for the last half of frag. 2, let us note that the classical author of this fragment, presumably Tacitus, was a historian or eyewitness observer who was in all likelihood accurately quoting the majority opinion of the Roman general staff; an opinion in this case involving a description of the Christiani as a “branch” that exactly matches the opinion of all the various authors of the canonical Gospels writing in Greek, and which is therefore almost certainly not a random coincidence. We have a number of sources who appear to have had the same very particular idea about the Christiani as a “branch.” Since it is obvious that the Roman generals during the first Jewish revolt did not get their ideas from the Gospels and since it is also unlikely that the authors of the Gospels would have turned primarily to historical accounts of the Roman generals for subtle suggestions as to what to call the Nazoreans, then it is clear all parties must have derived their information on netser from a common source. This source must have been a very reliable one, or the Roman general staff would not have used it in any form at their high-level meeting. Surely the Romans would have known the proper names of their enemies. The alternative would be too fantastic. Ultimately, this reliable common source could only have been the Christiani’s actual Semitic name, derived from netser. This name in Hebrew would have been, presumably, “Netsarim” (i.e., Nazoreans), that is to say, “followers of the branch (= descendant) of David.”24

It may also be noted that in Isa 60.21 (see above) the branch (netser) God plants represents the righteous of Israel. Thus, the name “Netsarim” would most likely have carried the additional meaning in Hebrew (a meaning presumably grasped and perhaps even implied in frag. 2 by the Roman high command) describing those who belonged to this “big branch,” i.e., the Christiani (see also Lewy, Jewish Hellenism, 192).25

As to what else the Roman general staff might have meant by their root-branch metaphor in frag. 2, Lewy provides several examples in Jewish Hellenism (192-3) of the words stirpitus, radicitus, and exstirpare used to describe the uprooting of foreign religions by the Romans. However, to the best knowledge of this author, the explicit use of a root-and-branch metaphor in its entirety is to be found nowhere else in classical literature other than in frag. 2 and is otherwise unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition. This provides additional evidence that the Roman general staff’s precise choice of metaphor in frag. 2 was influenced by the Jewish culture in which they found themselves and in particular, as has been demonstrated by the statistical inferences above, by the distinctive Semitic name and identity of their opponents.

As we have seen, a straightforward reading of the last half of frag. 2 supports the view that the Romans considered destroying the Temple in an attempt to cripple Judaism and eliminate the base of operations of a Jewish group they called “Christiani.” The Christiani must have been major participants in the revolt against Rome in order to have had the Roman general staff focus on them and destroy the Temple. The razing of the Temple could only have been justified by Titus’ council of war, with its keen eye on history and public opinion, if this action would have undermined Rome’s main opponents in Israel. The destruction of the Temple can also be seen in this light as an extension of the tortures inflicted on the Christiani six years earlier by Nero in Rome, as described by Tacitus in Ann. 15.44.

This construction of frag. 2 also harmonizes with the meaning of the name “Christiani” given in Ann. 15.44 as describing the ideological supporters of a certain Christus, executed several decades earlier by Pontius Pilate in Judea. The name “Christus” refers presumably to “the anointed one [of God],” i.e., the king of Israel. (Justin Dial. 86; Tertullian Apol. 3.5; Ad nat. 1.3; Adv. Prax. 28; Lactantius Inst. 4.7.4; and Elias J. Bickerman, “The Name of Christians,” HTR 42 (1949) 109-24, esp. 119 (repr., Studies in Jewish and Christian History, vol. 3 [Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986] 139-51): “…’Christus’ is, of course, a literal…rendering of the Hebrew Mashiah (Aramaic: Meshiah), meaning ‘Anointed’…” See, e.g., Ps 2.2, 2 Sam 22.51, etc.) Tacitus describes Christus as “the source for the [Christiani’s] name” (auctor nominis eius).(Ann. 15.44. “The formation of such a name from ‘Christus’ is in accordance with late Latin usage (cp. ‘Augustiani’ [Ann.] 14.15,8, ‘Tertullianus,’ etc.)…,” Henry Furneaux, ed., Cornelii Taciti: Annalium ab excessu Divi Augusti libri [The Annals of Tacitus], vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1891) 528. Cf. esp. the parallel “Caesariani”: C. Spicq, “Ce que signifie le titre de chrétien,” Studia Theologica 15, no. 1 (1961) 68-78, esp. 74-5. See also Harold B. Mattingly, “The Origin of the Name Christiani,” JTS, n.s., 9 (1958) 26-37; J. le Coultre, “De l’étymologie du mot chrétien,” Revue de Théologie et de Philosophie 40 (1907), 188-96, esp. 188-90; Bickerman, “Name of Christians,” 109-24; and Henry J. Cadbury, “Names for Christians and Christianity in Acts,” in F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake, eds., The Beginnings of Christianity. Part I: The Acts of the Apostles, vol. 5 (1933; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979) 375-92, esp. 383-6. Pauline Christians would arguably have been regarded as the followers of the resurrected: Baruch Lifshitz, “L’origine du nom des chrétiens,” VC 16 (1962) 65-70.) Thus, the meaning of “Christiani” in Latin parallels the first definition of “Netsarim” given above, as referring to the followers of Isa 11.1’s royal branch of David. The extant evidence suggests, however, that after the overwhelming defeat of Israel and the Jewish resistance in the 70’s the name “Christiani” was used largely to designate Pauline Christians (Pliny Ep. 10.96-97; Ignatius Rom. 3.2; Martyrdom of Polycarp 10.1, etc.), who had presumably stepped into the historical vacuum left by the decimation of the earlier Jewish Christiani.

We are now in a position to adduce some additional evidence demonstrating that stirps (= netser) in frag. 2 leads us to Isa 11.1: (1) Isa 11.1 is the one primary reference in ancient Jewish literature to use netser in a way most consistent with both the warlike context and the root-branch metaphor in frag. 2. Compare the three other uses of netser in the Hebrew Bible: Isa 14.19, 60.21, and Dan 11.7. (2) It is quite likely that a Jewish group as Temple-based as the Christiani would have received their Semitic name from the Hebrew Bible. (3) On 17 of the 18 occasions in which Tacitus uses stirps elsewhere in his works he refers to descendants or descent, particularly royal or noble.26 All told, we are led to consider Isa 11.1 as an almost certain basis for the root-and-branch metaphor underlying the last part of frag. 2.

The Christiani’s Judaism most likely included, as may be deduced in part from their founder’s title of Christus, a messianic/royalist component. Tacitus reports in Ann. 15.44 that their teachings had spread as far as Rome: exitiabilis superstitio rursum erumpebatper urbem etiam (“…the dangerous superstitio broke out again…throughout Rome also”). It was the Empire’s opposition to the Christiani’s teachings that explains Titus’ proposal in frag. 2 to destroy not only the Christiani themselves (the “branch” of Judaism) but the Temple that in his view sustained their belief in monotheism and their anti-Romanism. The Romans felt that as long as the Temple stood those who stood against Rome were assured of a rallying point (Josephus Bell. 6.239).

In conclusion, out of all the myriads of different metaphors utilizing substantives which anyone, whether Roman general or later Christian redactor, could have employed to describe the Christiani in frag. 2, the branch metaphor just happens to match up, via netser, with (1) the identical sounding Greek words for “Nazorean” in the New Testament for what would have been virtually the same sect as “Christiani” to a Christian redactor and (2) what appears strongly therefore to be a parody of Isa 11.1, implicitly containing netser, embedded in frag. 2. This entire correlation is further confirmed by a consistent tradition in other sources (Rom 1.3, Justin Dial. 86-87, b. Sanh. 43a, etc.) linking the Nazoreans to Isa 11.1. Since under the given circumstances the odds that all these phenomena are a coincidence are extraordinarily low, it is clear that frag. 2 is too highly detailed to have been substantially redacted by a later Christian. It thus represents almost certainly a primary historical source, probably via Tacitus, portraying the Christiani as a major Jewish group acting in opposition to Rome and in defense of Israel. bismika-tombstone Tacitus' Fragment 2: The Anti-Roman Movement of the Christiani and the Nazoreans

The author is based at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. This article is reprinted from Vigiliae Christianae 54, no. 3 (2000) 233-47.


  1. fertur Titus adhibito consilio prius deliberasse, an templum tanti operis everteret. etenim nonnullis videbatur, aedem sacratam ultra omnia mortalia illustrem non oportere deleri, quae servata modestiae Romanae testimonium, diruta perennem crudelitatis notam praeberet. at contra alii et Titus ipse evertendum in primis templum censebant, quo plenius Iudaeorum et Christianorum religio tolleretur: quippe has religiones, licet contrarias sibi, isdem tamen abr auctoribus profectas; Christianos ex Iudaeis extitisse: radice sublata stirpem facile perituram. C. Halm, ed., Sulpicii Severi libri qui supersunt, CSEL, vol. 1 (Vienna, 1866). Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own. []
  2. “Über die Chronik des Sulpicius Severus,” in Jahresbericht des jüdisch-theologischen Seminars Fraenckelscher Stiftung (Breslau, 1861) 1-72, esp. 48-53, 57-61, reprinted in Jacob Bernays, Über die Chronik des Sulpicius Severus: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der classischen und biblischen Studien (Berlin, 1861; repr., Berlin, 1862) and also in H. Usener, ed., Gesammelte Abhandlungen von Jacob Bernays (1885; repr., Hildesheim: Olms, 1971) 2.81-200, esp. 159-67, 174-81. The publishing history is derived in part from Jean Bollack, “Un homme d’un autre monde,” in John Glucker and André Laks, eds., Jacob Bernays: Un philologue juif, Cahiers de philologie, série Apparat critique, vol. 16(Villeneuve d’Ascq, France: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 1996) 168 n. 111. All references to page numbers in Bernays are from the original Breslau edition.

    For more recent commentary on frag. 2, see Brian W. Jones, The Emperor Titus (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984) 54-5; Yochanan H. Lewy [Johanan Hans Levy], Studies in Jewish Hellenism (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1960) 190-4 [Hebrew]; T. D. Barnes, “The Fragments of Tacitus’ Histories,”Classical Philology 72, no. 3 (1977) 224-31; G. K. van Andel, The Christian Concept of History in the Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus (Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1976) 33-4, 43-8, 51-2; Hugh Montefiore, “Sulpicius Severus and Titus’ Council of War,” Historia 11 (1962) 156-70; Arnaldo Momigliano, “Jacob Bernays,” Mededelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, afd. letterkunde, n.s., 32, no. 5 (1969) 151-78, esp. 167; Flaminio Ghizzoni, Sulpicio Severo (Rome: Bulzoni, 1983) 207-9; and André Lavertujon, La Chronique de Sulpice Sévère, vol. 2 (Paris, 1899) 69, 394-400. []

  3. “Chronik,” 48-53, 59-61. Most recent historians have largely agreed with Bernays on this point, at least with respect to those portions of frag. 2 they do not consider to have been redacted. See esp., Jones, Titus, 55, 55 n. 69; also, Zvi Yavetz, “Reflections on Titus and Josephus,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 16, no. 4 (1975) 416-8 passim; Lavertujon, Chronique, 394-400; Barnes, “Fragments,” 226-7; and Momigliano, “Jacob Bernays,” 167. []
  4. Historiae: Kenneth Wellesley, ed., Historiarum libri, vol. 2, pt. 1, Cornelii Taciti libri qui supersunt (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1989); H. Heubner, ed., Historiarum libri, vol. 2, pt. 1, P.Cornelii Taciti libri qui supersunt (Stuttgart: B. G. Teubner, 1978); E. Koestermann, ed., Historiarum libri, vol. 2, pt. 1 of P. Cornelii Taciti libri qui supersunt (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1969); Rudolf Till, ed., Cornelius Tacitus Historiarum libri, Heidelberger Texte, Lateinische Reihe, vol. 33 (Heidelberg: F. H. Kerle, 1963); Caesar Giarratano, ed., Cornelii Taciti Historiarum libri (Rome: Reale Officina Poligrafica, 1939); C. D. Fisher, ed., Cornelii Taciti Historiarum libri (1911; repr., Oxford: Clarendon, 1967); G. Andresen, ed., P. Cornelii Taciti libri qui supersunt, 5th ed., vol. 2 (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1914); C. Halm, ed., Historiae et libri minores, vol. 2, Cornelii Taciti libri qui supersunt, 4th ed. (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1901), etc. See also Clifford H. Moore, trans., Tacitus: The Histories, vol. 2, Loeb Classical Library (1931) and additional bibliography in Wellesley, Historiarum libri, xi-xx. Chronica: Ghislaine de Senneville-Grave, ed., Sulpice Sévère, Chroniques, SC, no. 441 (Paris: Cerf, 1999) 41, 294-5, 429; Lavertujon, Chronique, 69, 394, 398; and Halm, Sulpicii Severi libri, 85. For additional discussion, see Barnes, “Fragments,” 224. []
  5. “Jacob Bernays,” 167. []
  6. See particularly Montefiore, “Council of War,” 156-70, esp. 164 (citing other sources); van Andel, Chronicle, 33-4, 43-8, 51-2; and Lewy, Jewish Hellenism, 190-4. []
  7. “Rebellion within the Empire,” CAH 10.862 n. 1. []
  8. Montefiore, “Council of War,” 162-3. []
  9. Bernays, “Chronik,” 59. See also A. Gerber and A. Greef, Lexicon Taciteum (1877-1903; repr., Hildesheim: Olds, 1962) 2.1327-9 and Clarence W. Mendell, Sentence Connection in Tacitus (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1911) 133-5: “Certe, nimirum, quippe, scilicet, serve rather the purpose of italics in English: they emphasize the word with which they are used and in so doing bring out strongly some contrast which is already present without the addition of the adverb. Further than this, they regularly mark the clause in which they stand as explanatory in some way of a statement, either uncertain or unusual, in the preceding sentence…quippe [has] a serious tone…Quippe is used more frequently by Tacitus and in more various ways than the other similar adverbs…” []
  10. Barnes, “Fragments,” 227 n. 13. []
  11. Bernays, “Chronik,” 58; also, 57 n. 75 (on plenius as non-Severean). []
  12. The similarity between frag. 2 and Isa 11.1 is even more striking in the LXX, Targum, Syriac, and the Vulgate, as against the MT. See John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33 (WBC 24; Waco, Word, 1985) 168 n. 1. With regard to the Vulgate, however, see n. 19 below. []
  13. It is not necessary to assume Titus’ generals were religious scholars in order to believe they could have known something about the origin of their enemy’s name. In addition, the Roman generals had a large staff, including military intelligence units, to delegate such research to. []
  14. Cf. the parallel use of netser to mean “[royal] descendants” in Dan 11.7. []
  15. Roger Gryson, ed., Esaias, vol. 12, pt. 1, fasc. 6 of Vetus Latina: Die Reste der Altlateinischen Bibel (Freiburg: Herder, 1991) 410. []
  16. H. H. Schaeder, “NazwraîoV, NazarhnóV,” TDNT 4.879; also, Fausto Parente, “NazarhnóV – NazwraîoV: An Unsolved Riddle in the Synoptic Tradition,” Scripta Classica Israelica 15 (1996) 185-201, esp. 192. []
  17. There may be 30 if we consider that Notseri may have two distinct meanings (see below). However, both of these, as far as we know, translated into Latin as the same word, “Christianus” – which makes the difference in their Semitic meanings statistically unimportant, as will be seen. []
  18. The author wishes to express his gratitude for a review of the mathematics and attendant logic in this paper to Robert T. Gorman, Ph.D. (statistics), Blue Hen Consultants, Elkton, MD (former assistant professor, Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Delaware). []
  19. Nor would Jerome’s Isa 11.1 (Vg) from the Hebrew Bible or the Old Latin translations of Isa 11.1 that we know of today have helped Severus’ readership (or Severus) identify stirps in frag. 2 as a quote from Isa 11.1. These translations into Latin consistently rendered netser from Isa 11.1 as flos (Gryson, Esaias, vol. 12, pt. 1, fasc. 5 of Vetus Latina [1990] 339) which, unlike stirps, meant neither “branch” nor “descendants” but “flower.” []
  20. See, e.g., S. Wagner, “Neser,” TDOT 9.549-51 and Ray A. Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988) 14 n. 14; also, James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16 (WBC 38B; Dallas, Word, 1988) 659-60. []
  21. Cf. also the Talmud’s more direct application of netser from Isa 11.1 to the Nazoreans. b. Sanh. 43a (MS Munich). []
  22. It is well known that in his Historiarum adversum Paganos libri septem (ca. 418) the Christian writer Paulus Orosius, for instance, had access to and made use of these now lost portions of the Historiae. Barnes, “Fragments,” 224, 227-8 passim; and Bernays, “Chronik,” 55, 58 n. 77. []
  23. See, e.g., C. Zangemeister, ed., Pauli Orosii Historiarum adversum Paganos libri VII: Accedit eiusdem liber apologeticus, CSEL, vol. 5 (1882; repr., New York: Johnson Reprint, 1966) 460 n. While there is a remote possibility that Orosius and Severus could have independently arrived at similar-sounding language at the same point in their narratives, this is extremely unlikely. Cf. Barnes, “Fragments,” 228. []
  24. Cf. the parallel construction describing the adherents to one of Josephus’ “four philosophies,” the Tseduqim or Saddoukaioi (Sadducees) of Bell. 2.119, 164, 166, Ant. 13.171, 173, 293, 296-8, 18.11, 16, 20.199, and Vita 10; see also b. Sanh. 33b, b. Yoma 19b, 53a, etc. The Tseduqim appear to have been the followers of David and Solomon’s priest Tsadoq and his descendants (2 Sam 8.17, 1 Kings 2.35, Ezek 44.15, etc.). See generally, R. Meyer, “Saddoukaioi ,” TDNT 7.35-54; and EncJud, s.v. “Sadducees.” []
  25. Note, too, the parallel construction to Netsarim, used in this second sense, of other similar denominative nouns such as Yehudim, Yisre’eli (2 Sam 17.25 [MT]), etc. GKC § 86.2.5. []
  26. Gerber and Greef, Lexicon Taciteum, 2.1547-8. []

1 Comment


    On pages 169-170 of Bart Ehrman’s book, ‘Misquoting Jesus’ we read the

    “It is interesting to note, however, that in some of our earliest
    witnesses-including the Alexandrian manuscript Codex Sinaiticus*-there is
    an addition to the text. 10 After it indicates that “here moved from
    them,” in these manuscripts it states “and he was up into heaven.” This
    is a significant addition because it stresses physicality of Jesus’s
    departure at his ascension (rather than the he was removed”). In part,
    this is an intriguing variant because same author, Luke, in his second
    volume, the book of Acts, again narrates Jesus’s ascension into heaven,
    but explicitly states that place “forty days” after the resurrection
    (Acts 1:111).”

    A powerful appeal is here made to Codex Sinaiticus as it is one of the
    ‘oldest mss’ and therefore considered [rightly or wrongly] as amongst the
    most reliable. However, Codex Siniaticus does not contain the addition
    that Ehrman here claims?

    Comments welcomed



    I’m on the last part of the book, and having spent several hours reading
    it, I’ll comment.

    This man never claims anywhere that the book he has just written is
    inspired. There are several typos and inaccuracies. I am not a
    professional at any of this, and am in fact a member of the target
    audience (rank neophytes in the area of textual criticism), and I spotted
    a few as I read.


    The issue has nothing to do with inspiration, as if I were suggesting his
    book should be error free but rather to do with questioning his attention to
    detail in matters that to him should be like breathing. Both errors I have
    demonstrated are basic textual criticism issues that no competent scholar
    who was careful in their work would make, let alone make and then form and
    state a position from as he does with the Nomina Sacra example.

    The point he is making comes through loud and clear. He could have made
    many more errors than he did and it would still be damning to the sort of
    biblical inerrancy I grew up with.

    1. That his point is made is of course disputed by many individuals who
    consider that point is based on fallacious reasoning, misrepresentation,
    exaggeration and selective inclusion of material.
    2. I have read critical reviews and replies from inerrantists as well as
    from errantists. Both consider him to have failed in his arguments and
    provide reasons why.

    I’m left, near the end, with the question remaining: If we cannot trust
    the words, if we do not in fact have the actual words, then how do we know
    what is the “Word” and what is not?

    The answer to your question is to be found in the field in which you are
    beginning to study, i.e. textual criticism which fortunately doesn’t seek to
    present an agenda as does Ehrman’s, ‘Misquoting Jesus’.

    I asked you this, Matt, before all this stuff started, and you cannot
    answer the question.

    No. Your question was how did I know the inerrant from the errant. That has
    nothing to do with textual criticism because even if could give us 100% of
    the original text [rather than the 90+ it does] your question would still
    remain since you rejected the answered provided to you.


    That’s because your “answer” was mumbo jumbo. Whenever you begin to flounder, you revert to lots of big words and nonsense. You say vague things that have no substance.

    The whole point of textual criticism is determining the “inerrant” from the errant. Were there no issue like that, there would nothing to talk about. I don’t think scholars sit around spending their whole lives trying to determine if we have all of exact stuff Homer wrote (assuming there was somebody named Homer and that he actually wrote anything). It’s no big huge deal because there is no claim of inspiration from God about Homer, and people don’t blow up abortion clinics because Zeus or Hera told them to.

    The reason is that there is no answer. If the Bible is riddled with
    typos, inaccuracies and mistakes (way more than exist in “Misquoting
    Jesus”), and nobody is seriously disputing that, then how can we believe
    that it is God’s word? That we have the gist of what the writers were
    trying to say is without question. But that’s not the point. I’ve
    endured sermons – long sermons – based on one single word in a single
    verse. What if that word wasn’t there at all?

    As stated Misquoting Jesus deals in exagerration, duplicity and
    misrepresentation. Textual criticism gives us over 90+ of the text and there
    is no substantive matter that remains unsolved. Forget Ehrman, focus on
    textual criticism.


    Why don’t you follow your own advice? You’re the one focusing on nitpicking his book. I make no claim about the book one way or another (except that I think it’s a super introduction to the subject for fundies who have no idea there is such a thing as questioning the authenticity of the bible), and accept fully that it might have boo-boos in it. I already said that I wished it were more scholarly.

    Again, I ask you, if there is “no substantive matter that remains unsolved” – how do you know that? You cannot know it. Even if you’re right, and somehow we “knew” that we had 90% of the “original text” – that leaves 10%. And maybe that 10% is the most important. Maybe the part that got left out was the part that told us that another prophet was coming, and his name would be Mohammed. How do you know?

    If anything at all was changed, everything could have been changed. If God “preserves” his message to us, then he preserves the whole damn thing. All or nothing. I fail to see how it can be any other way, and you have never given any answer that made any sense to that. It’s not a question of me “rejecting” the answer – it’s that your “answer” is gibberish, which you often resort to when you get painted into a corner.

    This whole thing reminds me a lot of evolution. Here we are, living in a world that quite obviously is old, and surrounded by life that quite obviously evolved over millions of years. Yet, YECs spend their lives trying to find tiny little flaws in the theory of evolution so they can say, “Aha! See. There’s a boo-boo. The evolutionists are wrong.”

    We have this ancient document, a cobbled together bunch of legends, myths, stories, and sometimes outright lies, that has been changed and copied and changed and copied over and over again. I say again, it’s exactly what you would expect to find from human beings. There is no “mark of God” on it. It’s no more inspired than Homer. Yet, you spend inordinate amounts of time finding errors in the writing of biblical critics and then saying, “Aha! See. There’s a boo-boo. Ehrman is wrong, therefore God exists.”

    My view is that if God wants to communicate with me, he needs to do a better job of it than this. Doesn’t it ever bother you that you’ve been left sitting in the weird position of searching for answers to questions that should be basic and simple? You are literate. You have access to data beyond the wildest dreams of people even just a few decades ago. If God were really there, and really loved people, and really wanted people to have what was best for them, and all that blather, why did he make it so damn hard? Why did he make it look like he isn’t there at all? Everyone can’t study this stuff in depth. Some people just get up and go to work every day. They work hard. They don’t have the time, energy, education, or access to information that is required to delve into all this. Sometimes they don’t live a full life span, so they quite literally do not have time to study all this stuff. Yet God expects them to figure it out?

    I think your situation is sad, frankly. If you’re sincere, you’re in a hell of a mess. Are you one of the elect? Or are you damned? Which words in your “errant but true” bible are a message from god himself, and which are not? How can you tell?

    If you’re not sincere, and you just like to argue, it’s still sad.

    The problem is that in the whole history of the Bible and biblical textual
    criticism, we find exactly what we would expect to find in a manuscript
    written by human beings, hand copied by human beings, no different than
    any other ancient manuscript. Where is the “evidence” of inspiration?

    It’s not up to us as nonbelievers to disprove inspiration. It’s up to you
    who believe in it to prove that it’s inspired. Exactly what do you have
    to present to us that would tend to support that position?

    Personally, I wish Ehrman’s book were a bit more scholarly, and better
    proofread, but that’s not the point. I’m not out to pass judgment on the
    man one way or the other. I wish the book had existed ten years ago. It,
    along with a few other popular books on atheism on the market today, might
    have shortened my path out of Christianity, and that would have been a
    good thing.

    His target audience is American fundamentalist Christianity and he’s hit
    them right between the eyes. Bull’s-eye. I know because I was one. This
    book is great for those in that world who are seeking. It counters the
    claim spouted from pulpits time and again that the Bible has all these
    authors and is so seamless and never has had a mistake verified and is
    therefore inspired, every single word. It’s certainly an easy to read
    introduction to the subject of textual criticism.

    Are you interested in figuring out the truth or do you just like to pick
    nits? Sometimes I think it’s the latter.

    Figuring out the truth about Ehrman’s book involves a lot more than reading
    it. It involves checking the claims made within it. It involves testing its
    objective with responses to it. In short it involves adopting as much of a critical examination of his book as any other book. That kind of truth I am interested in.



    I suspect, frankly, that what you’ve done is totally the “lot more than reading it.” I am a very fast reader, and I could not have read that book in the time you claimed to have read it. You just skimmed it lightly (VERY lightly) and then claimed to have read it, and began to search for criticism. I suppose that you felt that you could do that because you are so brilliant and so well studied and you know so much more than anyone else, and this “beginner” level book is beneath you. That is certainly the attitude that you project.

    I repeat, where is the evidence of inspiration, Matt?

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