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Nero and the Christians

December 14, 2015

A recent article mounts a “full-on” challenge to the widely-accepted report of a Neronian pogrom against Christians in Rome in 64 AD, after the fire that destroyed a goodly part of Rome:  Brent D. Shaw, “The Myth of the Neronian Persecution,” Journal of Roman Studies 105 (2015):  73-100.  It’s a large and complex analysis and argument, and will justify more space than I can give it here.  So I’ll simply comment briefly on a few matters that left me a bit puzzled.

The key and most specific witness to Nero’s pogrom against Christians is the Roman writer, Tacitus, in his extended description of the fire in Annals 15.38-44 (composed ca. 110-120 AD).  This report has enjoyed widespread acceptance among historians, but Shaw claims “compelling” reasons to doubt that Nero used Christians as scapegoats for the fire.  Essentially, Shaw goes at the question like a diligent defence attorney, seeking to question the prosecution’s case, and even posing an alternative account.  He certainly shows that any judgment in the matter must involve weighing various factors and assessing probabilities, and that is one reason that his article is a worthwhile read.  I don’t (at least not yet) find Shaw’s case “compelling,” however, largely because of his handling of relevant evidence.

Shaw’s basic claims are that Tacitus’ report reflects what he honestly thought was historical fact; but Tacitus was mistaken.  Instead, Shaw urges, Nero probably did execute some people blamed for the fire, but there is no reason to think that he went after Christians in particular.  So, why did Tacitus report otherwise?  Here is Shaw’s explanation:

“. . . Tacitus had at his disposal, in either written or oral sources, what he believed to be credible and compelling grounds to accept the stories that linked the Christians, Nero, and the fire at Rome as elements of a true narrative. Parts came from written records about the fire, and oral recollections; others came from contemporary cognizance of imperial administrators about such an identifiable and threatening group, and still others were further contemporary sources that linked the Christians with Nero.” (p. 96)

This all seems a bit vague and hazy to me, however:  Somehow, although Nero never went against Christians in connection with the fire, the story developed that he had done so, and Tacitus accepted it.  Granted, Shaw’s focus is more on attacking the bases for the more traditional view, but his own proposal for how it came to expression influentially in Tacitus seems to me just a bit less than worked out adequately, and so less than persuasive.

Shaw’s efforts to set aside the body of material typically invoked in support of the traditional view likewise seem to me curious at points.  For example, he cites Acts of the Apostles as a rather straightforward account of things when it seems to suit him (whereas a good many NT scholars would be more hesitant to use Acts quite so confidently), but then queries it when he must for his own case.  In particular, Shaw takes as anachronistic the statement in Acts 11:26 that the term “Christians” was first applied to members of the Jesus-movement in Antioch.  But Shaw’s reason seems to be the odd notion that Acts portrays here “The first use of the name Christianos as a mode of self-identifcation” (p. 88), whereas, surely, the Acts text refers to the first use of the term by outsiders.  From this external usage, the term came to be used thereafter by Christians themselves (as reflected, e.g., in 1 Peter 4:16), but an earlier and originating usage by outsiders such as portrayed in Acts, perhaps even as early as the 50s, still seems to me entirely plausible.[1]

Also, Shaw curiously refers to the term “Christiani” (and the Greek, Christianoi) as connoting fictive sons/daughters of someone, whereas one more frequently sees analogies to the labels of various political parties (e.g., Herodiani, Sullani, Neroniani, Caesariani, et alia).  In that light, the originating use of the term “Christiani/oi” by outsiders likely designated people as adherents or partisans of “Christ.”

Suetonius mentions Nero inflicting punishments on Christians (The Twelve Caesars: Nero 16), but doesn’t link this directly to the fire.  So, Shaw points to this as working against the report in Tacitus.  But each of these ancient writers had his own purposes and emphases, and neither felt obliged to back up the other.  Can we so readily take the absence of confirming evidence in Suetonius as reason to doubt Tacitus’ account?

I think that Shaw exaggerates the nature of the ignorance that Pliny the Younger professed in his famous letter to Trajan (pp. 90-91), taking Pliny’s somewhat coy opening statements without noting their rhetorical purpose.[2]  Actually, what Pliny seems unsure about is, more specifically, what to do with former Christians and with those who apostasized (obeying his commands to do so).  Indeed, Pliny’s letter indicates that he knew of trials of Christians earlier than his own, and he certainly had no hesitation about how to treat those who refused to recant according to his demands:  Execution or (in the case of Roman citizens) dispatching them to Rome for trial.  Note also that Trajan’s response confirms the propriety of Pliny’s actions.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that there was at that point a formalized Roman judicial policy, but it does mean that Christians as such weren’t really entirely new on the radar screens of Roman judicial authorities.

Shaw also questions traditional notions of the deaths of Paul and Peter.  He grants that Paul was likely executed in Rome sometime in the 60s, but doubts that it was connected to Nero.  As for Peter, Shaw opines that he likely died in his bed in Judaea (but see now Timothy Barnes’s recent essay).[3]  One of the witnesses cited for the two apostles being executed in Rome is the account in 1 Clement 5, which is commonly taken as a letter sent from the church in Rome to the Corinthian church sometime ca. 95-97 AD.  Shaw, however, refers to 1 Clement as “Pseudo-Clement” (pp. 84-85, a strange label, given that the text nowhere claims to be written by Clement, and so hardly is pseudonymous), and seems to lump it together with the other texts that, with considerably less validity, have been linked to Clement (2 Clement, and the later Clementine literature).  But a good deal of work has been done on all these texts over a century or more (noting especially, J.B. Lightfoot’s classic work on the “Apostolic Fathers”), and the result more generally has been a differentiation between the confidence placed in 1 Clement (as a genuine letter from the Roman to the Corinthian church) on the one hand, and, on the other hand, any of the other texts.  Shaw’s blithe dismissal of 1 Clement, therefore, though convenient (perhaps even necessary) for his case, seems to me to require more by way of justification.

But, even if I am not convinced by Shaw’s case, I think it is very much worth the attention of anyone seriously interested in questions about the situations of early Christians, and specifically their relationship with Roman authorities.  I trust that his article will receive the further scholarly analysis that it deserves.

[1] Among recent discussions of the likely origins of the term, see David G. Horrell, “The Label χριστιανος:  1 Peter 4:16 and the Formation of Christian Identity,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, no. 2 (2007): 361-81; Townsend Philippa, “Who Were the First Christians?  Jews, Gentiles and the Christianoi,” in Heresy and Identity in Late Antiquity, ed. E. Iricinischi and H. M. Zellentin (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 212-30.  Similar phenomena are commonly pointed to, such as the positive adoption of the term “Mormon,” “Quaker,” and “Methodist,” from initially somewhat critical and outsider uses.

[2] Pliny’s letter and Trajan’s response are available in a number of publications, including: A New Eusebius:  Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church to A.D. 337, ed. J. Stevenson (London:  SPCK, 1974), 13-17.

[3] Timothy D. Barnes, “’Another Shall Gird Thee’:  Probative Evidence for the Death of Peter,” in Peter in Early Christianity, eds. Helen K. Bond and Larry W. Hurtado (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2015), 76-95.  In the same volume, note also Peter Lampe’s large study, “Traces of Peter Veneration in Roman Archaeology,” 273-317.

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8 Comments
  1. Larry, don’t you think that the historians mockery of Nero had its origins in the jealousy of later emperors who of course could influence others with a heavy hand?

    • How could later emperors be jealous of Nero?? He hardly had a good reputation to be jealous of! When you have multuple “bad-guy” reports, it’s hard simply to write them off.

  2. Michael Gould permalink

    Professor Hurtado,

    I found that an interesting piece. I have not had a chance to read the article you discuss though I did read an article on a similar subject-matter last year: The Prospect of a Christian Interpolation in Tacitus, Annals 15.44. by: Carrier, Richard. Vigiliae Christianae. 2014, Vol. 68 Issue 3, p262-283
    Carrier concludes:
    “..we should conclude the suspect line (“The author of this name, Christ, was executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.”) was probably not written by Tacitus, and was most likely interpolated into its present position sometime after the middle of the 4th century A.D. More likely Tacitus was originally speaking of the Chrestians, a violent group of Jews first suppressed under Claudius, and not the Christians, and accordingly did not mention Christ.”

    As an interested layman rather than an academic, I get the impression that though such articles are interesting, they end up requiring acceptance of a rather more unlikely sequence of conjecture and hypotheses than simply accepting that writers in antiquity probably referred to what most present day readers would assume they were referring to?

    • There is no attestation of “Chrestians, a violent group of Jews” anywhere! Carrier imagines/invents them from the report of Jews being expelled from Rome over agitations about “a certain Chrestus.” Most (I think) still take this “Chrestus” to be a familiar alternate spelling of “Christus” (Latin). But “Chrestus” was a name used, and so this could have been some other fellow. But, again, no reference there to “Chrestians”.
      Carrier seems naïve to the widespread evidence of the spelling interchange between the Greek iota and eta in Koine Greek (attested in number variant spellings).
      Likewise, he has no sound case in alleging an interpolation in Tacitus’ account of Jesus’ execution under Pontius Pilate. Carrier, of course, has a party line to tow, but those who don’t have that party line are free to see things otherwise.

  3. I’ve read the extant portions of the Annals and Histories. Arguing for error on Tacitus’ part hardly seems credible. Given his cautious treatment of the rumor of Nero’s initiation of the fire it hardly seems credible to argue for error in the account of Nero’s treatment of Christians.

    Tacitus was married and living in Rome by his early twenties and held several public offices during his career. He would have had broad exposure to living memories of the event, starting within fifteen years of its occurrence. He composed his works much later, but absent some compelling contradictory evidence from the immediate environment, I see no reason to doubt his account.

  4. Bobby Garringer permalink

    On one idea expressed in your post:

    Acts does not actually indicate that outsiders gave the designation, Christians, to the disciples at Antioch.

    My New Testament Greek professor noted that the clause “and the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” is stated with a sense of climax to the report of the extended teaching ministry of Barnabas and Saul in the city. He also noted that there is nothing in the passage about opposition to the young church, just as there is nothing here about – any – reaction by people who were not believers.

    The professor argued that, grammatically, the implication is that Barnabas and Saul were the first to identify the followers of Christ as “Christians”, while there is nothing in the context to suggest that the term was given by someone else in order to mock, denigrate – or just identify – the church.

    I would say that, although Barnabas and Saul may not have bestowed the title, it seems to be very clear that it came as a result of their one-year stay as teachers. Perhaps the believers at Antioch used “Christian” as a term of self-identification, because of the emphasis of their teachers on OT passages and Messianic expectations that preceded Jesus’ life and ministry. They may have decided to call – themselves – Christians (or “Messianists” as the word would have been understood by Jews who heard it).

    • Bobby: The phrase in Acts 11:26, χρηματισαι τε πρωτως εν Αντιοχεια τους μαθητας Χριστιανους, employs the form of the verb that is attested as having the sense of a name or title applied to someone. The active form of the verb used in effect with a passive sense. Examples given in Moulton & Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, 692. Indeed, the M&M examples cited suggest that this term may even have “denoted an official description.” It is highly improbable that Acts meant to ascribe the term to Barnabas and Paul!!

      • Michael Gould permalink

        Professor Hurtado,

        This is partly what makes your blog so fascinating – it leads one on to do a little wider reading and see certain connections. I took out my second volume of “Christianity in The Making” by James Dunn – “Beginning from Jerusalem” and on page 303 under the heading “The First “Christians”” I am informed that previously this new movement had been described as “The Way” and “the sect of the Nazarenes” (as viewed from a Jewish perspective):

        “But the term used here was a new coinage – Christianoi, Christians. More important, Christianoi is a Greek form of the Latin Christiani: that is, the name was almost certainly coined by a Latin-speaker or one accustomed to the Latin formation. This implies that it was coined by the Roman authorities in Antioch on the analogy of Herodians (Herodianoi) or Caesarians, the party of Caesar, or possibly members of Caesar’s household (Kaisarianoi). The Christians were so-called then, because they were perceived to be partisans of “Christ”, followers of “Christ”, members of the Christ-party.

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