The Myth of Nero’s Persecution of Christians

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by Neil Godfrey

Abstract of a recently published article by Princeton University Professor of Classics, Brent D. Shaw:

A conventional certainty is that the first state-driven persecution of Christians happened in the reign of Nero and that it involved the deaths of Peter and Paul, and the mass execution of Christians in the aftermath of the great fire of July 64 C.E. The argument here contests all of these facts, especially the general execution personally ordered by Nero. The only source for this event is a brief passage in the historian Tacitus. Although the passage is probably genuine Tacitus, it reflects ideas and connections prevalent at the time the historian was writing and not the realities of the 60s. 

Brent D. Shaw (2015). The Myth of the Neronian Persecution. Journal of Roman Studies, 105, pp 73-100 doi:10.1017/S0075435815000982

I will attempt to outline some of the points I found of particular interest in his article.

The Torches of Nero, by Henryk Siemiradzki. According to Tacitus, Nero targeted Christians as those responsible for the fire.

Shaw argues that the famous story of Nero burning and in other ways torturing Christians as punishment for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 C.E. never happened. (As usual, bolded font and formatting are my own.)

Nero’s spectacular executions of large numbers of Christians in the aftermath of the fire that raged through the city of Rome in July of 64 is commonly regarded as a foundational event in the history of Christian martyrdom. They were the first executions of Christians performed at the behest of the Roman state. In almost every history of the early Christian Church, the event is marked as a dramatic turning point in the relations between Christians and the imperial government.

Given the surprisingly widespread acceptance of the great significance of this axial event in Christian history, the thinness of the evidence on all aspects of it is quite striking. The paucity and weakness of the data, however, have not prevented acceptance of the historicity of this ‘first persecution’ as an undisputed fact. Indeed, the degree of certainty in the Neronian persecution stands in almost inverse proportion to the quality and quantity of the data. Those who have expressed even modest scepticism about the historicity of the one explicit passage in the historian Tacitus that attests to the executions have been voces clamantium in deserto.

The simple argument of this essay, deliberately framed as a provocative hypothesis, is that this event never happened and that there are compelling reasons to doubt that it should have any place either in the history of Christian martyrdom or in the history of the early Church.

To begin with, there is no evidence that Christians were crucified as a penalty for their faith. The key reference here is Barnes, T. D. 2010: Early Christian Hagiography and Roman History, Tübingen. So much for the late legend of Peter being crucified, let alone crucified upside down. The late tales of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul appear to have been expressions of what second century Christians wanted to believe. In the Gospel of John there was a prophecy that Peter would meet an undesirable fate and it seemed appropriate that he should die by crucifixion as had Jesus. For all we know from the available evidence Peter died in the 50s, in Jerusalem, peacefully in his sleep. Paul, according to Acts, was in trouble not for being a Christian but for being a disturber of the peace.

Robert, Hubert – Incendie à Rome

I will gloss over the details of Shaw’s arguments for the above and move on to the account by the Roman historian Tacitus of Nero’s persecution of the Christians in the wake of the Great Fire of Rome in 64 C.E. Here is Shaw’s translation of the passage, beginning at the beginning:

A disaster followed. Whether it happened by chance or by a malicious act of the emperor is uncertain. Some authors offer the one version, some the other. There now began a more destructive and savage fire than Rome had ever experienced … At the time a rumour had been running about that while the city was burning Nero had mounted his household stage and, in likening the present evils to disasters experienced in distant antiquity, he had sung about the destruction of Troy … Of Rome’s fourteen districts only four remained untouched. Three were burned to the ground. The few remnants of houses in the other seven were reduced to stripped and half-burned ruins. Just to count the grand houses, the apartment blocks, and the temples that had been destroyed would be very difficult.

That’s the start. At this point Tacitus introduces the episode about the Christians. Did the following really happen? Shaw, a classicist, demonstrates a critical approach that is all too seldom encountered among ancient historians and theologians who refuse to “face the questionable quality of their primary sources”.

There is every good reason for historians to have grave doubts about the story of an attack on Christians by Nero that emerged decades after the fire itself.They should be sceptical to the point of dismissing the commonly accepted idea of Nero as a persecutor, indeed the first great persecutor of Christians, specifically in connection with the conflagration that raged through Rome in July of 64.

What seems to make the idea so compelling and impossible to dismiss is that it is based on a high quality historical source of apparently unimpeachable fidelity, the Annales of the historian Tacitus. The historian’s qualities of veracity and accuracy, within the tolerable limits of the sources available to him, are not generally open to serious question.

Shaw notes that from time to time detailed arguments do appear to claim the following passage is a later interpolation in whole or in part. He cites Richard Carrier’s 2014 article, ‘The prospect of a Christian interpolation in Tacitus, Annals 15.44’, in Vigiliae Christianae 68, 264–83 as a recent example and source for many of the earlier studies. Shaw, on the other hand, chooses to “provisionally accept” the genuineness of the passage.

However, Shaw stresses the importance of recognising the passage is “the only source for the involvement of Christians with the fire and their persecution in its aftermath.”

These were the measures devised by human planning [i.e. Nero’s new building code changes after the fire]. Next sacrifices were made to the gods and the books of the Sybil were consulted, according to which supplications were made to Vulcan, Ceres, and Proserpina. And Juno was propitiated by Roman matrons, first on the Capitol and then at the nearby seashore from which water was drawn and sprinkled on the temple and the image of the goddess. And then the women who had husbands celebrated ritual banquets and nightly vigils.

Not by any human resources, not by the benefactions of the emperor, and not by any placating of the gods did the sinister rumour fade by which it was believed that the fire had been ordered.

To get rid of the rumour, Nero found and provided the defendants, and he afflicted with the most refined punishments those persons whom, hated for their shameful acts, the common people were accustomed to call Chrestiani. The originator of this name, Christus [Chrestus?], suffered (capital) punishment in the reign of Tiberius through the agency of the procurator Pontius Pilatus.

At the time, the lethal superstitio was repressed, but it burst out again not only throughout Judaea, the origin of this evil (sickness), but through the City (of Rome) to which everything that is savage and shameful flows from all directions and is actually celebrated.

At first (only) those persons who confessed were arrested, but then because they were pointed out (denounced) by those (i.e. who had already confessed) a very large number were convicted, less on the charge of having set the fire than because of their hatred of humankind.

And to those who were dying mockeries were added. Covered with the hides of wild animals they perished by being torn to pieces by dogs or, fixed to stakes (or, crosses) they were set afire in the darkening evening as a form of night lighting. Nero had reserved his own gardens for the spectacle. He also presented a circus entertainment and in the dress of a charioteer he either mixed with the crowd or stood in his own chariot.

Even if it was for guilty persons who deserved to suffer extreme and exemplary public punishments, there arose a feeling of pity because it was not for the public good but to satisfy one man’s savagery that they were being liquidated.

Shaw asks:

If Tacitus is the only source that connects Christians, their persecution, and the fire, we might usefully ask: what do other sources say about this same matter?

What other sources say

Cassius Dio (ca 155-235 C.E.) writes eloquently about the Great Fire but whispers not a word about Christians in connection with it. Maybe this was because he loathed Christians too much to mention them at all anywhere in his work.

Later sources such as the writing of Sulpicius Severus are useless for our enquiry because they all depend on Tacitus.

So we return to Tacitus’s contemporary, Suetonius, who wrote:

… Christians were afflicted with punishments, a type of men of a new and evil superstitio

Suetonius makes no connection here with the Fire. Indeed, the statement is part of a longer list of legal restrictions introduced by Nero. The phrase “a type of men of a new and evil superstitio“, in Shaw’s assessment, reads very much like Suetonius’s own commentary drawing upon what was known of Christians in his day, in the early second century. Another contemporary, Pliny, shared the same negative view of Christians.

Shaw’s points here are significant. It is very unlikely that in 50s and 50s C.E. Christians were known by the label “Christian”. And the way Suetonius adds a description of these Christians that was shared by his second century contemporaries it appears as if the historian is introducing the term Christian to enable his readers to link a religion they knew about in their day with an earlier group who were previously unknown by that name.

And given that the penalties imposed upon these “Christians” in the days of Nero were associated with a mishmash of other legal restrictions and not with the Fire, we can accept that Suetonius knew nothing of Christians being singled out for dire punishment because of the Fire. Rather, the punishments Suetonius speaks of may well have been one of the occasional banishments from Rome that Jews experienced.

Both Tacitus and Suetonius actually refer to “Chrestiani”, not “Christiani” — a detail indicating that this was the name by which they were commonly known in the early second century.

What seems to have happened under Claudius and then again under Nero is the temporary banishment of some Jewish sectarians from the city of Rome, but not, in any event, persons who would logically have been labelled at the time as ‘a new and evil superstitio’, words which were used only much later by Roman officials to label Christians.

At the time, and indeed up to the decades after 100 C.E., among Roman writers, including Tacitus, it was the Jews rather than the Christians whose beliefs and practices were being labelled a superstitio, albeit not a novel one.

Christian Dirce by Henryk Siemiradzki (National Museum, Warsaw) shows the punishment of a Roman woman who had converted to Christianity.[13] At the Emperor Nero's wish, the woman, like mythological Dirce, was tied to a wild bull and dragged around the arena.
Christian Dirce by Henryk Siemiradzki (National Museum, Warsaw) shows the punishment of a Roman woman who had converted to Christianity.[13] At the Emperor Nero’s wish, the woman, like mythological Dirce, was tied to a wild bull and dragged around the arena.
Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians

Here we read of

certain women who were spectacularly executed, dressed up as Danaids and Dircae. They had been denounced as Christians by their jealous husbands.

The trope of the jealous spouse delating his wife to Roman authorities in the city of Rome is also found in the writings of Justin Martyr who was probably writing in the mid-second century. The two narrative lines look too similar to be independent of one another.

Prior to this episode the letter notes in very general terms that

Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church] have been persecuted and put to death.

No names; no date; no place. But the following passage speaks of Paul:

Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. . . . Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. Thus was he removed from the world . . . 

Again, there is no connection with Nero or with the Fire.

The problems here are almost overwhelming. No specifically identifiable author can be fixed for these letters. [Shaw in fact introduces him as “Pseudo-Clement”.] The third or fourth bishop of Rome has been proposed, but there are numerous pseudepigraphical texts attached to his name and no certain provenience or date can be established for the text.

It is possible that a Christian writer of second-century date intended this passage to refer to events connected with Nero and the fire. Presuming this much to be true, one might then further speculate about what was happening to the women concerned.

But between such hypotheses and the text there are considerable unfillable gaps in the evidence. Therefore, unless one simply presumes, in a complete void of supporting data, that the words in the pseudo-Clement must have some relationship to the fire in 64 C.E., there is nothing in the text that would lead any reasonably critical reader to connect the two events.

It is best dismissed from serious consideration of this problem as yet another one of the parasitic texts that have come to be attached to the fire and the first persecution under Nero in the assiduous hunt for any possible evidence that might strengthen the general argument.

Tacitus and context

Modern statue representing Tacitus outside the Austrian Parliament Building
Modern statue representing Tacitus
outside the Austrian Parliament Building

Tacitus presents no problems for Shaw until he gets to that part where Nero feels forced to deal with rumours relating to responsibility for the fire. Tacitus does not believe the Christians were guilty, but at the same time he never tells us who he thinks were culpable.

Shaw accepts the high likelihood that rumours about who was responsible for the fire were rife. But then when explaining whom Nero scapegoated Tacitus enters the realm of anachronism.

Notice that he says that those whom Nero rounded up “were called Christians/Chrestians”. This is quite improbable. The name of Christian was not applied so early as the identifier of this Jewish sect. Then notice Tacitus explaining to his readers that these Christians were just as people in his own day thought of them — the harbingers of a new and degraded form of superstitio.

[H]is words are structurally parallel to the near contemporary sentence found in Suetonius: (a) a certain people were punished who were Christians, and (b) this is who these people were: a distinctive kind of people who embodied a new and evil superstitio (meaning, basically, a bad or unacceptable religion).

Tacitus and Suetonius speak elsewhere of the Jews as representing a pernicious religion, of expulsions of Jews from Rome, of corrupt practices coming from the east, including Judea. The Roman satirist Juvenal, another contemporary, wrote in the same vein of the Jews. The fears and loathing were all set in the late first and early second century among these literary elite. Further, Tacitus’s friend Pliny also described Christians in the same terms (the same words), seeing them as a plague spreading throughout the countryside of his province.

Tacitus describes the Christians in the same way, as a plague or contagion, and likewise emanating from Judea. He is expressing the knowledge and judgments of his own time.

He then returns to the events of Nero’s time.

At first those who confessed were taken away for punishment; subsequently others who were denounced by others were rounded up. This second group were singled out because others believed they had a general “hatred for humankind”. Up until the time of Tacitus this expression had been used of an ethnic group to refer to the Jews.

Tacitus composed this passage approximately at the end of the second decade of the second century, perhaps assembling notes and other research earlier in the years after 110 C.E. when he had completed his Histories. It betrays some modernizing or up-dating of the facts, among them calling Pontius Pilatus, the governor of Judaea, a procurator. The rank was true of Tacitus’ own time, but not of Pilatus’ own when praefectus was the title held by the governor of Judaea. The historian certainly knew the difference between governors who were praefecti and those who were procuratores, and elsewhere he notes the distinction.

Such modest modernizings occur outside of this particular passage, however, and so are typical of the writer.

For example, when Tacitus says that there arose a distaste towards Nero for his executions because they were perceived to be a concession to the emperor’s bestiality and not a contribution to the utilitas publica of the state, he is surely echoing a dominant ideology not of the 60s but of his own age. Another move of this kind, as we have just noted, is the transfer of the ‘hatred of humankind’ label to Christians, probably made in parallel with the use of the specific name of Chrestiani for them.

As mentioned above, Tacitus’s applying the term of Christian to the time of the 60s was another anachronism. It would take a separate article to cover the evidence for this word not being generally known among the elites of the likes of Tacitus, Juvenal, Pliny and Suetonius until the early second century. Perhaps I might write that later.

Pliny’s evidence

Statue of Pliny the Younger on the façade of Cathedral of S. Maria Maggiore in Como.
Statue of Pliny the Younger on the façade of Cathedral of S. Maria Maggiore in Como.

Recall Pliny’s second century letter to the emperor Trajan confessing that he had little idea on how to judge the Christians who were being brought before him. He lamented the lack of any known precedents for how this group ought to be treated. Yet a man in Pliny’s position could not have failed to have known that Christians had been condemned to death by torture had such an event really happened. He certainly knew of the Great Fire. He and Tacitus were junior senators in the time of Domitian when the fire was still being commemorated on public boundary markers.

The gaps are striking lacunae in the knowledge of a senator from Italy, frequently resident in or near the imperial capital, who was well informed on these matters, if in fact Christians had been found guilty of a monstrous crime against the Roman state in the mid-60s.

Furthermore, the routine fashion in which Pliny phrases his ignorance presumes that the emperor himself did not expect Pliny or any other high-ranking Roman to possess such obvious knowledge of the Christians.

How, then, Shaw asks, was this new information about the Christians circulating among the governing officials at the time? By informal exchanges, in the course of their many known personal communications. It is most likely that Tacitus and Pliny exchanged information on these Christians who, as Pliny records, appeared to be becoming a noticeable social nuisance.

The punishments inflicted

Often enough punishments that in some way mimicked the crime were imposed. That those accused of starting the fire that destroyed a large segment of Rome were set alight as human torches is an example of this practice. What is missing in the punishments described, however, is anything suggesting a Christian association. There were no crucifixions, for example.

What actually happened

Shaw’s conclusions:

  • Shaw accepts that Tacitus was a relatively reliable historian not given to outright invention
  • Tacitus sincerely thought he had, in the late 110s and early 120s, evidence that a new sect known as Christians had been accused of being responsible for starting the fire, and that they were punished by Nero in order to deflect suspicions directed at himself.

The historian composed his narrative accordingly and, as has been frequently noted, he did it with a consummate art and skill that wove together themes of impending disaster, a final conflagration, and a tyrannical emperor.

And this evidence, focusing its special emphasis on the Christians and the execution of their leader under Pontius Pilatus in the reign of Tiberius, appears to have come to his attention after he wrote the Histories. Even given that the surviving part of the Histories under consideration was setting up the subsequent war and was a set-apart programmatic ethnography of the Jews in Judaea, two things are striking.

  • In the Annales, Tacitus lays stress on the execution of Jesus by Pontius Pilatus under Tiberius. The origins of a terrible affliction that was to erupt again later and to threaten the Empire are located by him in Judaea and in the reign of Tiberius.
  • Yet in the Histories he had nothing to say about any of this. His sole remark, in just three words, is that everything in Judaea was just fine under Tiberius: ‘sub Tiberio quies’.

Despite the historian’s different agenda in the Histories, that silence, I would argue, suggests that a different kind of information had come to the historian’s attention in the years after he wrote the Histories.

Evidently two developments had taken place prior to his writing the Annales:

  1. Nero had somehow come to be connected with the Christians;
  2. Christians were linked to those who were punished after the Great Fire.

These developments were arbitrary, matters of choice, and not inevitable. This conclusion is based on subsequent Christian writings, in particular that of Lactantius. Lactantius wrote accounts of the wrongful persecutions of Christians by Roman rulers yet he omits any mention of a fire in the time of Nero. The reason for Nero attacking the Christians (including the deaths of Peter and Paul), according to Lactantius, was the same as we read of in Pliny’s correspondence: the pagan cults were being abandoned because of the success of Christian preaching.

It is hard to believe that Lactantius was wholly unaware of Tacitus. He nevertheless does not subscribe to the historian’s account of Nero’s reign. The entirety of his focus in condemning Nero concentrates on the preaching of Peter and Paul at Rome and the effects of their ideas in the city. The absence is doubly striking since it was precisely a fire at Nicomedia (two of them, in fact) that caused Galerius and Diocletian to turn on the Christians in the Great Persecution of 303 C.E. Deliberately to overlook and to ignore such a parallel with an earlier known tyrant whom Lactantius himself accepts persecuted Christians, and thereby to miss the opportunity to tie together the first and the last of the persecutors, is almost inexplicable unless he was unaware of the connection or had discounted it for some reason.

The lack of connection is all the more striking since Lactantius was well aware of the tradition that Nero was a persecutor of Christians and of the rumours that Nero was going to return to earth, in some form, to renew the persecution.

Around the turn of the century, then, an identifiable group, disruptive to the social order and known as Christians, were coming to the notice of the ruling classes. The danger they presented to society meant that they could be punished for being a Christian.


At the same time a Nero myth was maturing among the lower classes. Nero was seen as a benefactor of the poor and common persons and a future restorer of a golden age. Myths that Nero would one-day return to overthrow his enemies had circulated. In Jewish apocalyptic mythology Nero was depicted as a bestial figure, no doubt because the war that ended with the destruction of the Temple was commenced under his reign. (Later still Jewish mythology concocted scenarios where Nero converted to Judaism and kept divine vengeance at bay.) The Roman elites, meanwhile, came to remember Nero as a malicious villain.

Christians, like the Jews, came to think of Nero as an evil apocalyptic figure, the one who had supposedly killed Peter and Paul and was the first persecutor of the Christians.

Tacitus himself was well aware of these developments. He wrote of one of several episodes of people in the East gaining following by falsely claiming to be Nero returning to re-claim the empire. He himself loathed Nero.

Shaw is not suggesting Tacitus knowingly concocted the story of the Neronian persecution.

When he wrote these words, he firmly believed (I believe) that there was good evidence that linked these events in a single coherent narrative. The connections were such that 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.

The result is “a few phrases in a single passage” testifying to the Neronian persecution of Christians because of the fire of Rome and it is constructed from anachronisms.

There is thus no good evidence, Shaw concludes, that Nero was the first persecutor of the Christians, or that he had Christians rounded up for punishment in connection with the fire of Rome.

It’s an interesting hypothesis. It’s worth comparing in detail with the alternative arguments that the entire passage is a later forgery.

All images from Wikimedia commons.


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16 thoughts on “The Myth of Nero’s Persecution of Christians”

  1. Well, I essentially said all of this and presented all of this evidence (and more) in my 2009 book “Jesus: Neither God Nor Man”. I think I was the first to present a comprehensive case (587-630) for the whole Neronian persecution as a consequence of the Great Fire, let alone the idea of any Christian responsibility for it, as being a later myth.

    I would also like to point out one serious flaw in Shaw’s argument, relating to his desire to keep the Tacitean passage as essentially authentic, but constituting a misinterpretation by Tacitus’ time about a Neronian event. He says:

    “Evidently two developments had taken place prior to his writing the Annales:
    Nero had somehow come to be connected with the Christians;
    Christians were linked to those who were punished after the Great Fire.”

    But if Tacitus was picking up on an initial development of that myth in the interval between Nero in 64 CE and himself (writing only a decade or so into the 2nd century), it is virtually impossible to believe that Christians themselves would not have picked up on this development (they would hardly have remained ignorant of it for so long) and embraced it as a prime example of the establishment’s persecution of their new faith. Yet not only do Christian commentators not breathe a word of such a myth (and that includes prime martyrologists like Tertullian and the historian Eusebius) until the beginning of the 400s, some of their documents actually say things which make it impossible that they could have been aware of or subscribed to such a myth, as in the Acts of Paul, and the Acts of Peter.

    Even later Roman historians do not reflect the myth, such as Suetonius and Cassius Dio, and Shaw’s suggested reasons for this are hardly adequate. Shaw’s article is valuable for casting such doubt on a supposedly key Christian martyr tradition, but his particular case is seriously flawed. My own take on how the myth later developed, to appear full-blown in the writings of Sulpicius Severus, sees it as a combination of both Roman and Christian thinking in regard to the Fire and the “blame the Christians” tendency. (The latter is a phenomenon which Tertullian is one of the earliest to focus on, yet without appealing to any Great Fire controversy.)

    1. Note what Arthur Drews said about the relationship of the Sulpicius Severus passage (‘Chronicle’ 2.29.1-4a) and the Tacitus passage (‘Annals’ 15.44) –

      “We are therefore strongly disposed to suspect that the passage (Annals, xv, 44) was transferred from Sulpicius to the text of Tacitus by the hand of a monastic copyist or forger, for the greater glory of God and in order to strengthen the truth of the Christian tradition by a pagan ‘witness’.[67]”

      67 In his ‘De l’Authenticity des Histoires et des Annales de Tacite’, Hochart points out that, whereas the Life of St. Martin and the Dialogues of Sulpicius were found in many libraries, there was only one manuscript of Sulpicius Severus’s ‘Chronicle’, probably of the eleventh century, which is now in the Vatican. Hence the work was almost unknown throughout the Middle Ages, and no one was aware of the reference in it to a Roman persecution of the Christians. It is noteworthy that Poggio Bracciolini* seems by some lucky chance to have discovered and read this manuscript (work quoted, p. 225). cf. ‘Nouvelles Considerations’, pp. 142-72.


    2. It is worth noting that Tacitus’ Annals 15 derives from a single manuscript, found in the derives from a single manuscript found in a monastery at Monte Cassino in the 13 or 14th century, that also found its way into the hands of Poggio Bracciolini.

      * Poggio Bracciolini “served under four successive popes (1404–1415); first as scriptor (writer of official documents), soon moving up to abbreviator, then scriptor penitentiarius, and scriptor apostolicus. Under Martin V he reached the top rank of his office, as Apostolicus Secretarius, papal secretary. As such, he functioned as a personal attendant (amanuensis) of the Pope, writing letters at his behest and dictation, with no formal registration of the briefs, but merely ‘preserving’ copies.”


      1. Some time I’d like to set out all the points of the various arguments — Doherty’s, Carrier’s, Shaw’s, (and Drew’s and others) — and (preferably in collaboration with others) apply them all to a Bayesian analysis.

        I know certain arguments in isolation do seem very persuasive, such as the forgery one. And Doherty’s point about the failure to reference Tacitus’s passage until very late, too — I’d like to assess it carefully against the alternative proposed by Shaw.

  2. Ancient history is obviously less verifiable than recent history, and open to speculative revisions of various sorts, including the use of some presumed “legends” and “forgeries” against others, according to taste. Some “history” is putty in the hands of this or that “historian” like the “1984” memory-holers. (A white Muslim convert I knew well in Norwich once said to me, “We don’t make your distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’!).

    My I quote, without being accused of irrelevant trolling, from A.N. Wilson’s TLS (11 December) review of J.D. Crossan’s “Jesus and the Violence of Scripture” (SPCK 2015), a passage re Nero, not because I support either of these writers in their views of HJ but because it rang a bell regarding the transmission of the (divine?) hero concept in European and Jewish “mythology”, and his (“apocalyptic”?) return to rescue his nation/people &c. This persists even in the bizarre sci-fi cult-fiction of the cryogenic Adolf in Antarctica.

    “….The Sybilline Oracles believed the legend that Nero…was a Once and Future King…a villain in the West but a hero in the East…who would one day return at the head of the Parthian armies to destroy the Roman Empire. Now turn to the Book of Revelation, and we find that the Nero-like figure who is coming to destroy and kill on a cosmic scale is none other than Christ…”

    I shall not attempt to suggest why Jews or Christians might have thought badly of this imperial Apollo, especially as in currently predominant fashion the former could never have done wrong and the latter can never do right; and trust also that this doesn’t provoke a tedious academic Armageddon over the “real identity” of “666”.

  3. Hurtado’s view on the article.

    According to Hurtado:
    1) Acts 11:26 gives a historical kernel and is not anachronistic.
    2) “Christiani/oi” designated people as adherents or partisans of “Christ,” and not the fictive sons/daughters of someone.
    3) 1 Clement is authentic ”therefore” confirms the Paul’s death under Nero.
    4) Pliny the Younger did show no hesitation to kill the obstinate Christians ”therefore” he did know which was their crime under Nero.

    I find the point 2 particularly biased and apologetical: impliciter, he is winking at those who say that the Romans coined the term ‘Christian’ because they were historicists: the ”Christians” were followers of a historical human leader.

    1. Yes, I had read Hurtado’s piece but my post was too long for me to include reference to what he had said. His views are at bottom mere apologetics, anyway — as you yourself comment with respect to point 2.

      I once attempted to engage him in a discussion on Acts but was rebuffed as if I was a tool of Satan out to destroy Christianity because I questioned his assumptions — even though I did so from the perspective of another relatively conservative scholar.

      I like Hurtado’s works on Christology, but at the same time I have to be alert to the fact that he has conveniently found arguments that support his personal Christian beliefs so one does need to read his critics at the same time.

  4. A technical comment regarding Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians:

    As far as I remember (also from Earl Doherty’s texts), the expressions “put to death” (in “most righteous pillars [of the Church] have been persecuted and put to death”) and “suffered martyrdom under the prefects” do not correspond to the Greek text (which gives no indication of violent deaths).

  5. Note what Arthur Drews said in ‘The Roman Witneses; Tacitus’ in “The ‘Witnesses’ to the Historicity of Jesus:, Chicago, The Open Court Publishing Co. (c1912) –

    “Finally, there is the complete silence of profane writers and the vagueness of the Christian writers on the matter; the latter only gradually come to make a definite statement of a general persecution of the Christians under Nero, whereas at first they make Nero put to death only Peter and Paul. The first unequivocal mention of the Neronian persecution in connection with the burning of Rome is found in the forged correspondence of Seneca and the apostle Paul, which belongs to the fourth century. A fuller account is then given in the Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus (died 403 A.D.), but it is mixed with the most transparent Christian legends, such as the story of the death of Simon Magus, the bishopric and sojourn of Peter at Rome, etc. The expressions of Sulpicius agree, in part, almost word for word with those of Tacitus. It is, however, very doubtful, in view of the silence of the other Christian authors who used Tacitus, if the manuscript of Tacitus which Sulpicius used contained the passage in question. We are therefore strongly disposed to suspect that the passage (Annals, xv, 44) was transferred from Sulpicius to the text of Tacitus by the hand of a monastic copyist or forger, for the greater glory of God and in order to strengthen the truth of the Christian tradition by a pagan witness.[67]”


    1. Drews then says –

      “But how could the legend arise that Nero was the first to persecute the Christians? It arose, says Hochart, under a threefold influence. The first is the apocalyptic idea, which saw in Nero the Antichrist, the embodiment of all evil, the terrible adversary of the Messiah and his followers. As such he was bound, by a kind of natural enmity, to have been the first to persecute the Christians; as Sulpicius puts it, “because vice is always the enemy of the good.”[68] The second is the political interest of the Christians in representing themselves as Nero’s victims, in order to win the favour and protection of his successors on that account. The third is the special interest of the Roman Church in the death of the two chief apostles, Peter and Paul, at Rome. Then the author of the letters of Seneca to Paul enlarged the legend in its primitive form, brought it into agreement with the ideas of this time, and gave it a political turn. The vague charges of incendiarism assumed a more definite form, and were associated with the character of Antichrist, which the Church was accustomed to ascribe to Nero on account of his supposed diabolical cruelty. He was accused of inflicting horrible martyrdoms on the Christians, and thus the legend in its latest form reached the Chronicle of Sulpicius. Finally a clever forger (Poggio?) smuggled the dramatic account of this persecution into the Annals of Tacitus, and thus secured the acceptance as historical fact of a purely imaginary story.

      “We need not recognise all Hochart’s arguments as equally sound, yet we must admit that in their entirety and agreement they are worthy of consideration, and are well calculated to disturb the ingenuous belief in the authenticity of the passage of Tacitus. It seems as if official “science” is here again, as in so many other cases, under the dominion of a long-continued suggestion, in taking the narrative of Tacitus to be genuine without further examination. We must not forget what a close connection there is between this narrative and the whole of Christian history, and what interest religious education and the Church have in preventing any doubt from being cast on it.”

  6. I have just sent this letter to the New York Review of books. I don’t know if they will print it, because it relates to a secondary subject within the review in question.


    To the Editors:

    In his review of books relating to Roman history, “Inside the Emperors’ Clothes” (Dec. 17), G. W. Bowersock makes mention of the recent article by Prof. Brent Shaw (“The Myth of the Neronian Persecution”) who calls into question the historical actuality of the tradition presented by Tacitus about a vast and cruel slaughter of Christians by the emperor Nero, accused of being responsible for the Great Fire in Rome in 64 CE. Bowersock, somewhat chagrined, admits to being taken aback by Shaw’s “carefully reasoned” case that such an established tradition could suddenly be undercut, revealing “cracks in an edifice we thought we knew well.”

    The presumed authenticity of Tacitus’ passage (Annals 15:44) has long been a key plank in the case for the existence of an historical Jesus, within the long but lately resurgent question (now popularly referred to as “Jesus mythicism”) as to whether Jesus actually existed or is a fictional/allegorical character. Attached to the account of Nero’s atrocities against the Christians is an explanation of the derivation of their name, making reference to a man who had suffered the “extreme penalty” at the hands of Pontius Pilate. Many points in the passage have been closely debated, but as a whole does it reflect reliable history?

    Modern historians have tended to defend Tacitus’ reliability in general, superior to so many others in his ancient field, and Prof. Shaw’s desire to lean toward that direction produces the one notable flaw in his case. Overlooked or downplayed in the longstanding debate over the Tacitus passage has been the stark fact that no Christian commentator for over three centuries ever refers to a general anti-Christian pogrom by Nero (beyond the legendary executions of Peter and Paul, which are never linked to the fire). Not just in reference to a Tacitus account of such an event, but in any discussion of the tradition of martyrdom in their own history, something which Christian writers were continually fixated upon, from Clement to Tertullian to Eusebius. (There have been dubious attempts to force some of these writers into supposedly “alluding” to such an event.)

    The Neronian persecution first appears full-blown in Sulpicius Severus, a Christian historian writing around 400 CE. Thus Shaw’s contention, as Bowersock puts it, that “Tacitus’s version of the fire derives from a fiction, Christian or otherwise, that was devised and disseminated at some point between 64 and the time when he was writing, more than five decades later,” fails to take into account the silence of three long centuries (including in all Roman historians as well).

    For how could Christians not have known and embraced such a prime example of their experiences of martyrdom, given their intense focus and fascination on their sufferings for the faith? Moreover, Shaw ignores the effect of certain writings by Christians later than Tacitus who not only show ignorance, they present a picture which has to rule out any Neronian pogrom. One of the plainest examples is the Acts of Peter (probably from the 180s) which tells of Nero’s persecution of Peter in Rome, but states that he was forced to keep his hands off Peter’s Christian followers due to a threatening vision from heaven. The writer concludes: “Thereafter the brethren kept together with one accord, rejoicing and exulting in the Lord.” No Tacitean horror spectacle there.

    If the weight of evidence forces us to conclude that the passage in Tacitus about a whole Christian community suffering at the hands of Nero for setting the fire is entirely spurious, a later invention, the accompanying reference to a man executed by Pontius Pilate cannot be salvaged as authentic to Tacitus. Prof. Shaw’s case undermining the historicity of the Tacitus account and its supposed witness to Jesus is an important one, but it could have been much more conclusive and also more supportive to Jesus as myth. In any case, Bowersock’s unease is well founded.

    1. Hi Earl,

      The following is from a review of H. Dixon Slingerland’s Claudian Policymaking and the Early Imperial Repression of Judaism at Rome reviewed by Erich S. Gruen, University of California, Berkeley


      “Slingerland proceeds to take on the notorious crux in Suet. Claud. 24.4: Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma [Claudius] expulit. His treatment, although unnecessarily prolix, argues quite powerfully against the widespread conviction that “Chrestus” is Christ. As Slingerland points out, more fully than any predecessor, the name appears with reasonable frequency in the epigraphic evidence, encompassing persons of freedman or free born status, some of lowly origin, some of relatively prominent station. Nothing suggests Jesus Christ here. The passage indeed implies that Chrestus the impulsor was in Rome when these events transpired. And it will not do to save the Christian hypothesis by postulating Suetonius’ ignorance. Nor does Acts 18:1-3 help the cause, for its reference to Jews expelled from Rome who joined Paul in Corinth does not suggest that they were Christians when they left Rome. Orosius’ interpretatio christiana rests on no evidence independent of Suetonius. Slingerland reaches a proper and salutary conclusion: the burden of proof rests with those who wish to identify Chrestus with Christ, not those who distinguish them (pp 169-217).

      Slingerland’s own proposal for the identity of “Chrestus” is imaginative and novel. He offers the suggestion that Chrestus might be one of the freedmen advisers to the emperor Claudius, using as analogy the anti-semitic Helicon, counselor to Gaius Caligula. And he brings into play the unnamed freedmen referred to by Josephus, Ant. 20.135, who served Claudius and advised him to side with the Samaritans in their dispute against the Jews (pp. 232-241). This is ingenious but highly speculative, as Slingerland himself concedes.

  7. I’ve been watching PBS’ Secrets of the Dead: The Nero Files. This video claims that the Christians took blame for the fire themselves (whether they did or not). They thought this might serve their purpose. The Christians were expecting the end of the world by fire and they thought this might be it. This made the Christians infamous throughout Rome where they hadn’t been known of before. The video says that Nero, by law, had to act and burned a bunch of Christians at the stake. And for him the issue was settled and there is no record that he ever persecuted the Christians again.

    1. Candida Moss has established the Christian penchant for claiming imaginary persecutions and per the “Great Fire of Rome” 64 CE and persecution of Christians, “the thinness of the evidence on all aspects of it is quite striking” (Shaw, 2015).

      I am skeptical of any persecution alleged to early Christians, especially when the historicity of the ‘first persecution’ under Nero, hinges on “the preposterous reference to Pontius Pilate’s execution of someone called Christus” (Allen, 2015).

      Therefore it is likely that Tacitus attests the persecution of the “Chrestien Jews” noted by Suetonius, given that most classical scholars do not identify Chrestus with Christ.

      Per Porter, Stanley E.; Pearson, Brook W.R. (2000). “Why the Split? Christians and Jews by the Fourth Century”. Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism (JGRChJ). 1. Sheffield Phoenix Press. ISBN 1-905048-0-68.

      [T]he name Chrestus is a very common one, no ancient source makes the identification with Christians, certainly not Suetonius… —(p. 102)

      • Slingerland, Howard Dixon (1997). Claudian Policymaking and the Early Imperial Repression of Judaism at Rome. Scholars Press. pp. 151–168. ISBN 978-0-7885-0425-9.

      • Shaw, Brent D. (2018). “Response to Christopher Jones: The Historicity of the Neronian Persecution”. New Testament Studies. 64 (2): 231–242. doi:10.1017/S0028688517000352.

      [A] persecution of Christians by the emperor Nero in connection with the Great Fire of 64 seems improbable given the context of the relations between officials of the Roman state and Christians over the first century CE. —(p. 231)

      • Allen, N.P.L. (2015) Clarifying the Scope of Pre-Fifth-Century C.E. Christian Interpolation in Josephus’ Antiquitates Judaicae (c. 94 C.E.). Unpublished Philosophiae Doctor thesis, Potchefstroom: North-West University. available online @ http://dspace.nwu.ac.za/handle/10394/14213

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