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Nero & the Christians: Jones contra Shaw

December 20, 2016

Christopher Jones has a new article just out refuting Brent Shaw on Nero’s pogrom against Christians in Rome in AD 64:  “The Historicity of the Neronian Persecution:  A Response to Brent Shaw,” New Testament Studies 63 (2017): 146-52.  (See my earlier posting on Shaw’s article here.)

Jones shows (cogently to my mind) the flaws in Shaw’s argument.  For example, Shaw contended that it was unlikely that “Christian(s)” as a self-designation as early as the 60s.  As Jones argues, however, the term likely arose and was used initially, not as an in-group designation, but as a label coined and used by outsiders.  So, the absence of the term from Paul’s letters, for example, tells us nothing about whether it was used by outsiders.

Jones also shows the flaw in Shaw’s contention that there couldn’t have been a sufficient number of Christians in Rome in AD64 for Nero to blame them for the fire.  As Jones notes, Paul’s letter to Roman ekklesias, written several years earlier asserts of the Roman believers that “your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (1:8).  Allowing for exaggeration, this still suggests a sufficient body of believers in Rome by the date of the letter for them to be known, at least among other ekklesias elsewhere.

Finally, Jones notes the error in Shaw’s linking of the Neronian pogrom and the executions of Paul and Peter as one event that stands or falls together.  The martyrdoms of these two figures have to be assessed historically separately from the pogrom, and the lack of direct evidence of the martyrdoms can’t count against the pogrom as a historical event.

Jones gives a concise and closely argued case.  Looks to me that we can continue to take the Neronian pogrom as the first major action by Roman imperial authorities against people they called “Christians”.

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