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Nero, Tacitus, the Fire, and Christians

February 11, 2018

A newly-published article addresses again the recently raised question about the reports of Nero’s pogrom against Roman Christians, blaming them for the fire of Rome:  Birgit Van der Lans and Jan N. Bremmer, “Tacitus and the Persecution of the Christians:  An Invention of Tradition?” Eirene.  Studia Graeca et Latina 53 (2017): 301-33.

A couple of years earlier, Brent Shaw had challenged the evidence, contending that the Neronian pogrom was likely a Christian invention, and that Tacitus (our primary source for the event) had unwittingly been influenced (somehow) by this tradition:  Brent D. Shaw, “The Myth of the Neronian Persecution,” Journal of Roman Studies 105 (2015): 73-100.

Christopher Jones then responded briefly to Shaw’s article, contending that Shaw’s argument was flawed and that the traditional view was still valid:  Christopher P. Jones, “The Historicity of the Neronian Persecution:  A Response to Brent Shaw,” New Testament Studies 63 (2017): 146-52.

Van der Lans and Bremmer go farther and offer a fresh contribution to the analysis of the sources, as well as an answer to the question of whether the report in Tacitus is reliable.  Van der Lans examines the “pagan” sources that report on Nero, the fire and his treatment of Christians, contending cogently that each source is shaped by the literary/rhetorical objectives of its author, and that this explains why there are the variations among the sources in how these matters are handled.

As well, the article includes a fresh analysis of the pre-150 CE Christian sources, showing that the tradition of a Rome-based persecution, and more specifically one connected to Nero, is very early, and so (contra Shaw) not likely a Christian invention of the second century CE.

As a further contribution, Bremmer gives a fresh discussion of the origins and earliest usage of the term “Christians,” concluding (rightly, I think) that it was initiated among outsiders (non-Christians) and was only across time adopted as a group self-designation.  The range of evidence surveyed by Bremmer is impressive, and I think must now be consulted by anyone on the question.

The journal may not be held in some libraries, which is unfortunate.  But Van der Lans has put a copy up on her pages in  Highly recommended.

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  1. Thanks for highlighting this really interesting article. I had been in a dialogue with someone about this very issue a few weeks back.

    I did want to add another possible source that the authors might use to support their case. In the records of his remarks (dated to have been made around 110-115 C.E.) the philosopher Epictetus, Diss. IV.7, appealed to his students for them to behave like the Galileans (Γαλιλαῖο) when they were faced with an absolute ruler (τύραννος) who comes at them with a swords (μάχαιραι) and δορυφόροι, a word that can mean generic spearmen, but came to be more often associated specifically with the bodyguards of the rulers, and so the Praetorian Guards (e.g. Plu.Galb.13, Hdn.5.4.8). The Galileans that Epictetus refers to is almost always understood to be the early Christians. Epictetus was a boy living in Rome during the reign of Nero (and was a slave of one of Nero’s inner circle), but was afterwards expelled by Domitian and he lived in Nicopolis, across the Adriatic from Rome (where Titus refers to Paul wintering). The persecution of Christians by tyrants and their guards must have been reasonably familiar an idea for Epictetus to bring to his students’ attention. There is no known example of Emperor led persecution of Christians until the 200’s A.D. It is plausible to suggest, or at least footnote, his remarks to be alluding to Nero’s persecution of Christians.

    At the least it is important verification of the awareness on the trope of Christians facing a crackdown from Roman authorities (apparently by the Emperors) during the late first/early Second century. It is surprising how infrequently it is highlighted. Even by Candia Moss in her book on the topic, this was missed, which struck me as particularly odd. Anyway. Just a side-note. Thanks again for bringing attention to this important article.

  2. George Edmundson’s 1913 “The Church in Rome in the First Century” available on Archive . com lecture 5 (page 123) should be required reading… Have you read it? Wenham described it as “magisterial”.

    • No. Haven’t read it. A good bit dated by now, don’t you think? The “go to” book on early Roman Christianity is now Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians At Rome in the First Two Centuries, trans. Michael G. Steinhauser (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).

      • Thanks for the Peter Lampe reference. Looks amazing!

        I’m curious to know if any of the following is new information to you, sir.

        Edmundson made several important points in 1913:
        1) That the Vatican Fete wasn’t right after the July 64 C.E. fire, but likely the following year, Spring or summer, 65.
        2) That Nero’s humanitarian efforts towards some 400,000 newly homeless citizens, and massive reconstruction efforts preceded the persecution.
        2) That the Christians weren’t so much blamed for the setting the fire, (perhaps at first) but their interrogation, and persecution amounted to an effort to deflect attention from the belief that Nero was behind it all.
        4) That during interrogation, the already-hated, non-emperor worshiping Christians beliefs were then on display, and that their belief that the sinful world (esp Rome) would be consumed by fire at the coming of Jesus added to the rumors ( of oedipal intercourse, cannibalism) about the sect which served to implicate them as a whole as enemies of the State.

        Many read Tacitus’ famous passage and conclude that the Christians were blamed for starting the fire and then punished for doing so. But, on further reflection, that’s not quite what happened.

        Edmundson’s “Bampton Lectures” is worth studying in depth.

      • No, these proposals have been out there in circulation for some time, among the others proposed from time to time.

  3. Timothy Knowlton permalink

    Thank you for this Professor Hurtado!

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