The Emperor Claudius died in 54 CE and was succeeded by his grand-nephew Nero (Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus). It is during Nero’s reign that we come to the first supposed persecution of Christianity. It is a much heralded, much alluded to moment in Christian history, a litmus test in Christian identity, the point at which Christ’s suffering comes to fruition. The image is indelible, the huddled, helpless families in the arena, awaiting their deaths at the hands of wild beasts. But did it ever happen?
For centuries, we have been told it did; not only by apologists but by filmmakers and even scholars. That Eusebius of the 20th century, W.H.C. Frend has in his monumental and influential magnum opus The Rise of Christianity, a chapter entitled “The Neronian Persecution” and almost any history of Christianity you care to look at will makes similar claims. For example, evangelical Bible scholar Ben Witherington III states as fact that after the burning of Rome “Nero launched a limited persecution of Christians, blaming them for the fire.” Frend opens his chapter with that all-too familiar refrain of the apologist, “Why?”: “Why Nero attempted to make the Christians the scapegoats for the disastrous fire on 19 July 64 that gutted entire districts of the city is unknown.”
Why indeed? A great many presuppositions lay behind this single line of text:
That there were Gentile Christians in Rome to persecute
That Nero did blame the fire on them,
That they were innocent of the charges, and,
That they were persecuted as a result
There are great many “ifs” here and they ought to give us pause. Do we have good reasons for making the assumptions Frend does? There certainly ought to be better reasons than simply stating “we know it’s true” which seems to be the motivating factor in apologetics, and sadly, all too often in historiography. First of all, where does our evidence come from? In fact we are not without evidence from the Pagan Roman camp for this event as it is described for us by both Suetonius (born c. 70) and Tacitus (born c. 56), who both grew up in the post-fire Rome, as well as by Dio, writing later. These accounts all have a common (anti-Neronian) source, perhaps Fabius Rusticus. We also have some later sources, which appear to be based on these accounts but which do not qualify as independent witnesses in themselves. All Christian witnesses date from a much later period. We will examine the evidence more fully in due course. A brief review will suffice for now.
Since apologists seem determined to conflate two separate incidents it is important that we look first to what our biographer Suetonius has to say. In his Life of Nero he says “punishment” by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, “adherents of a new and dangerous superstition.” Note that no executions or tortures are mentioned, despite Suetonius’ well known appetite for salacious rumor-mongering. Christian tradition has it that both Peter and Paul died in the persecution along with 977 other Christians. Contrary to the assertions of apologists McDowell and Wilson (1988), who claim that this testimony “verifies” that Christians were “being put to death” for their beliefs, the account of Suetonius only indicates that the Christians were punished by Nero for “mischievous” behavior.
The implication here is that there was a body of Gentile Christians in Rome of great enough size to be persecuted, let alone noticed by the authorities and both of these assumptions, as we shall see, are more wishful than fact-based. Earliest Christianity was a form of messianic Judaism. Jesus himself was executed for sedition and it is unlikely his followers would have been seen in a better light. Indeed, if followers of “Christ” they must be Jewish as Paul only began his mission to the Gentiles in 45 CE and had not preached in Rome. The “Christians” he writes to in the mid-50s (Epistle to the Romans) indicate that his audience had not yet heard Paul’s gospel and the last passages in Acts (28.23-31) show Paul preaching to Jews, not Gentiles. This is assuming that we can trust Acts that Paul reached Rome at all. For that question, read my earlier piece, Whatever Happened to Paul of Tarsus.
Nero’s reputation makes it difficult even today to arrive at the facts. Probably no figure before Hitler was so reviled. When apologists speak of the “first persecution” they not only make a “fact” out of thin air and very little evidence but they take whatever event did happen out of context, that context being the wider Roman world and the escalation of messianic tensions in Palestine in particular. It is up to the historian, if not the theologian, to remember the “when” and the “where” and these when added to the equation change our entire perspective. With Messianic expectation at a fever pitch in Palestine, we are no doubt justified in saying, to paraphrase Juvenal, that like the Orontes, the Jordan had overflowed into the Tiber, bringing the woes of the provinces to the heart of the empire.
Any emperor would be quick to react to this sort of trouble, and obviously Nero, whatever his faults as a ruler, attempted to do just that, just as Claudius and Tiberius had before him. So let us here at least, rather than condemn out of hand, give Nero his due and see what ailed his empire, examine what processes may have been at work and what actions he may have taken in response to them.