Roman documents make up the third category of ancient sources testifying that Jesus really lived. Before considering examples from this group, however, it is important to note why we should not expect to find many references to Jesus in Roman sources. Imagine you are a preacher for a small country congregation in Oklahoma. If you stayed there for three years, how often do you suppose your name would appear in the Washington Post or the New York Times? That is more in keeping with the level of expectation we should have when it comes to reading about Jesus in ancient Roman writings. An obscure carpenter with few friends, from a remote town thousands of miles from Rome, would hardly make front-page news in the capital city of the world! Even His death on the cross was commonplace in that age of extreme cruelty. Nonetheless, some references were made to Jesus.
Three authors stand out. First, Suetonius (an author who wrote biographies of the first twelve Roman emperors) referred to Christ and Christians in A.D. 120. Second, Pliny the Younger, a governor of Bithinia, sent a letter to the Emperor Trajan in A.D. 112 asking for advice on what to do with Christians. Among other things, he wrote that they "were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god...." [quoted in The Verdict of History: Conclusive Evidence for the Life of Jesus by Gary Habermas (Nashville: Nelson, 1988), p 95)]
Third, perhaps the most outstanding Roman writer who mentioned Jesus was the historian Cornelius Tacitus. In his Annals, written about A.D. 116, Tacitus said this about Nero's attempts to avoid being blamed for the burning of Rome:
"Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts' skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night." [quoted in He Walked Among Us by Josh McDowell and Bill Wislon (San Bernardino, CA:, Here's Life Publishers, 1988), p 49)]This is an important citation, since Tacitus is almost universally praised as one of the world's greatest ancient historians. He was not a follower of Jesus, nor did he like Christians. He simply recorded the facts as he knew them. Among those facts were that a man known as Christus [an apparent corruption of the "Christ"] died at the hands of Pontius Pilate, and that he had a following of people that reached as far as Rome. Tacitus even told of the horrible way Christians were treated. This is very important in itself. Remember, this persecution occurred less than 40 years after the death of Christ. These early Christians obviously believed that Jesus was much more than a myth. They were willing to die for Him.