The Roman historian Tacitus mentions ‘Christians’ and ‘Christ’. He wrote his Annals in the 110s CE, so his account is one of the very earliest non-Christian reports of Christianity. But his spelling is funny.
Tacitus is talking about the fire of Rome in 64 CE. People wanted a scapegoat, and this was urgent because there were rumours (supposedly) that Nero himself had something to do with the fire. We don’t know if these rumours genuinely existed or were taken seriously, but that’s Tacitus’ story.
ergo abolendo rumori Nero subdidit reos et quaesitissimis poenis adfecit, quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Chrestianos appellabat. auctor nominis eius Christus Tiberio imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat ...
So to quash the rumour, Nero produced suspects, and inflicted the most exquisite punishments on them. These people were despised for their disgraces, and popularly known as Chrestians. The name came from one Christus: during Tiberius’ reign the procurator Pontius Pilate had put him to death.Tacitus, Annals 15.44
This chapter has aroused a lot of debate. Where did Tacitus get his information from? Did Tacitus actually write this? Is it independent evidence that tells us something about the historical Jesus? And so on.
Here we’re just looking at spelling. (But just for reference, the answers are ‘we don’t really know’, ‘yes’, and ‘probably not’.)
To the uninitiated, it looks like we’re seeing two different names. I don’t mean the different endings — Chrestianos (‘Christians’, accusative plural) and Christus (‘Christ’, nominative singular). That’s perfectly normal. It’s the Chrest-/Christ- variation that’s curious.
|Suetonius, Claudius 25.4 (cod. Paris. lat. 6115, 9th cent., fol. 78r): does the Chrestus named in this report of Jewish unrest in Rome have anything to do with Tacitus’ Chrestiani?|
Something similar happens in the gossip-writer Suetonius, who was also active in the 110s CE. In his biography of the emperor Nero, Suetonius refers to Christians as Christiani (Nero 16.2). But elsewhere, when he talks about Claudius expelling Jews from Rome in the 40s or 50s CE, Suetonius mentions public unrest caused by someone called Chrestus (Claudius 25.4).
What’s going on? Why the inconsistency? Which spelling is the authentic one? Does the variation suggest that early Christianity is all fake?
Has someone tampered with the text of Tacitus?
In a sense, yes the text has had an alteration. But probably not the one you were expecting.
The form of the text that I quoted above is the best available reconstruction of what Tacitus actually wrote. It has a key difference from the manuscript as it exists today. At some point, someone scraped away most of the letter e in the manuscript, to turn Chrestianos into Christianos.
That is, Chrestianos is the original reading. It’s Christianos that’s the tampered version.
|The manuscript of Tacitus, Annals 15.44: Biblioteca Laurenziana Plut.68.2, fol. 38r. Highlighted are the words Chrestianos (altered to read Christianos) and Christus.|
In the first highlighted line, the spacing and the letter forms indicate that the scribe initially wrote Chrestianos. There’s too much space for i to be the original text, and the letter sequence ri ought to look quite different (see image below). The letter form is consistent with the left vertical stroke of an e, however, and so is the spacing. The corrector must have believed they were fixing a spelling error: this manuscript is carefully made. Notice the glosses above the lines to explain Tacitus’ wording. In the margin, the deaths of Christian martyrs are commemorated with a large cross, using the same colour ink and pen weight as the glosses.
In the following line, by contrast, Christus is what the scribe meant all along: there’s only enough space for an i there.
It’s all Greek
Take a look at these ancient Christian funerary inscriptions.
Ἰησοῦ Χρειστὲ βοήθει τῷ γράψαντι πανοικί.
O Jesus Chreist, aid the person who wrote this and his whole household.IG XII,3 suppl. 1238 (undated, Melos)
of Jesus Chres[t.]Les oasis d’Égypte 72,17 (undated, Kharga Oasis)
χίου διδασκάλου Χρη-
The resting place of Euty-
chios the teacher, a Chre-
newly baptised ...IG X,2 1 397 (4th cent. or later, Macedonia)
(Underlinings are mine.)
Spelling rules for ancient Greek are a Byzantine and modern phenomenon, not ancient. According to the modern standards, the name ‘Christ’ should be written Χριστός (Christós). But in antiquity, people spelled phonetically. And from around the 1st century BCE onwards, ι, ει, and η all represented the sound /i/. As a result, people in that era swapped between them freely.
That’s why these inscriptions give us Χρειστός (Chreistós) and Χρηστός (Chrestós). For the word ‘Christian’, Χριστιανός (Christianós), the third of these inscriptions gives us two variations at once: Χρηστιανός (Chrestianós) and Χρηστειανός (Chresteianós).
|Note. The curly brackets around Χρηστειανοῦ in the third inscription show that the editor wants to delete the word from the text as an error. Error or not, it’s what the inscriber wrote. Deciding that one version is ‘correct’ means applying anachronistic spelling conventions.|
This kind of variation is widespread: it isn’t confined to words for ‘Christ’ and ‘Christian’. In Roman-era inscriptions we find Posidon as well as Poseidon, Aineas and Aineias, Epaphroditos and Epaphrodeitos. Spelling was phonetic.
|Detail of the Tabula Iliaca Capitolina (late 1st cent. BCE/early 1st cent. CE; Rome, Musei Capitolini, Sala delle Colombe inv. 316). This detail, showing a 6 × 4.5 cm area of the tablet, shows scenes from Iliad book 14 (below) and 15 (above). Circled are the names ΑΙΝΗΑΣ (Ainéas; for Αἰνείας Aineías), ΚΛΙΤΟΣ (Klítos; for Κλεῖτος Kleítos), and ΠΟΣΙΔΩΝ (Posidón; for Ποσειδῶν Poseidón). Elsewhere the tablet refers to the wooden horse as the ΔΟΥΡΗΟΣ ΙΠΠΟΣ (doúreos hippos; for δούρειος ἵππος doúreios hippos).|
The principle of phonetic spelling applies even for the best educated. The Cleopatra autograph — a papyrus with one word that may be written by the hand of Cleopatra herself (P. Berol. 25239) — has the Greek for ‘Let this happen’ written in her hand. Byzantine conventions dictate the spelling γινέσθω (ginéstho), but Cleopatra writes γινέσθωι (ginésthoi). Because both variants have the same pronunciation. She wrote phonetically. Both spellings had the same pronunciation.
Occasionally, a text actually requires a spelling that is non-standard according to modern conventions. A 1st century CE epigram attributed to Leonides of Alexandria draws on a literary device called ‘isopsephy’, where the numerical values of the letters in each couplet add up to the same total (Leonides 32 Page = Anth. Pal. 9.355: both couplets add up to 6,422). In line 1, the word for ‘image’ uses the spelling μείμημα, phonetically equivalent to the Byzantine standard μίμημα. The isopsephy depends on using ει rather than ι.
Sometime before the year 300 CE, a Christian acrostic was devised in which the first letter of each line spells out the phrase Ἰησοῦς Χρειστὸς Θεοῦ υἱὸς σωτὴρ σταυρός, ‘Jesus Chreist, son of God, saviour, cross’ (Sibylline oracles 8.217–250 = (ps.-)Constantine Oratio ad sanctos 18). The line with the ε of Χρειστός is syntactically necessary: again, the poem depends on ει for ι.
This kind of variation is omnipresent in Greek texts of the Roman era, but it’s especially prone to happen with a word like Christós, because it wasn’t normally written in full. Early Christians normally only wrote the first and last letter, Χς, out of respect for its sanctity. Modern palaeographers call this convention a nomen sacrum, ‘sacred name’. As a result, many ancient Christians would have to guess what the first vowel ought to be. How could they be expected to be consistent in spelling it when they only knew the pronunciation?
|A nomen sacrum in the most important ancient copy of the New Testament, the codex Sinaiticus: 1 Corinthians 5.7 καὶ γὰρ τὸ πάσχα ἡ|μῶν ἐτύθη Χς (‘for our paschal lamb, Ch(ris)t, has been sacrificed’). (Cod. Sinait. fol. 269, 4th cent. CE)|
The more familiar spelling conventions came along later. They were designed to reflect a form of classical Attic Greek from roughly the first half of the 4th century BCE. For someone like Plato, the letters ι, ει, and η represented three distinct sounds: ι was /i/ (as in machine), ει was /eɪ/ (as in eight), and η was /e:/ (as in wear).
Even that’s a simplification, because η actually represented a merging of at least three different archaic sounds — but that is another story and shall be told another time. The point is, by the second half of the 4th century BCE, epigraphic evidence shows that ι and ει started to be interchangeable, indicating that by that point they were merging into the sound /i/. η kept a separate sound for a bit longer (or rather, as a separate group of sounds).
What does this have to do with Tacitus and Suetonius? They were writing in Latin. And in Latin, i and e never got confused. There was never any point at which Chrestus and Christus could be interchangeable in Latin.
Unless, that is, you were taking a Greek name and turning it into Latin. There were standard Roman conventions for transliterating Greek names, and those conventions were established before Greek ι, ει, and η finished merging into /i/.
Here are the conventions. The Romans traditionally transliterated both ι and ει as i, as in Πίνδαρος > Pindarus and Χείρων > Chiron. But because η kept its separate sound for longer, the Roman convention was to transliterate η as e, as in Περικλῆς > Pericles.
To clarify, here’s a tabulation.
|manuscript form||expanded form||pronunciation||phonetic Latin||conventional Latin|
As we’ve seen, manuscripts used the nomen sacrum in the first column. Inscriptions used any of the three spellings in the second column interchangeably, because they all represented the same sounds.
Phonetic transcription turned all three variants into Christus in Latin, because that’s how all three were pronounced. But if a Roman writer saw a written version of the name, the conventions for transliteration produced two variants. Χριστός or Χρειστός would become Christus in Latin, while Χρηστός would become Chrestus.
What this indicates, then, is that Tacitus is relying on at least two distinct written sources for his account of Christians in Annals 15.44. One of those written sources transliterated the Greek word Χρηστιανοί as Chrestiani. The other transliterated Χριστός or Χρειστός as Christus.
Simlarly with Suetonius there are fairly strong grounds for inferring that his report of Christians in his life of Nero, with the spelling Christiani, was based on a source that was transliterated from Greek Χριστιανοί or Χρειστιανοί, while his report of the Jewish expulsion in Claudius’ reign, with the spelling Chrestus, was based on a source with the spelling Χρηστός.
OK, yes, there’s some wriggle room for doubt that Suetonius’ Chrestus had anything to do with Christianity. But the New Testament texts Acts and Romans give good support to the idea of a robust Jewish-Christian community in Rome in the 50s. It looks like pretty good odds to me.
And to conclude: none of the spelling variations suggest there’s anything wrong with the modern conventional spelling Χριστός Christós. There’s never been any doubt that that name is based on a gerundive form of χρίω ‘anoint’, and that it originated as a translation into Greek of Hebrew māšīyaḥ ‘anointed one, Messiah’. The fact that χρηστός is also a moderately common word (meaning ‘good’) is at most a lucky coincidence. It’s possible that confusion with χρηστός helped to encourage the alternate spellings, if some people interpreted Χριστός as having a meaning related to χρηστός. But reinterpretations like that aren’t enough to undermine the most obvious origin for the name.
- Allen, W. S. 1968. Vox graeca. A guide to the pronunciation of classical Greek. Cambridge. [Internet Archive]
- Potter, D. S. 2012. ‘Tacitus’ sources.’ In: Pagán, V. E. (ed.) A companion to Tacitus. Wiley-Blackwell. 125-140.
- Klingner, F. 1958. ‘Tacitus und die Geschichtsschreiber des 1. Jahrhunterts n. Chr.’ Museum Helveticum 15: 194–206. [E-Periodica | JSTOR]
- Syme, R. 1982. ‘Tacitus: some sources of his information.’ Journal of Roman Studies 72: 68–82. [DOI | JSTOR]