Were Christians really burned for lighting by Nero?

Were Christians really burned for lighting by Nero?

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I presume after fire of Rome Nero persecuted Christians. But it is the form of persecution which interest me since Tacitus writes

Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

What I want to know is it even possible that people can be used as source of light at all? I say this because it really takes a lot of fuel and effort to burn dead people lying down (in cremation) then it can not be the easiest and even effective way to torture, humiliate people and send message to society (who are on tied straight up) which I suppose was the goal of Nero.

In the book The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and His City.' (Da Capo, Cambridge, Mass, 7 September 2010). author Stephen Dando Collins puts forward the theory that the people persecuted by Nero were not Christians, but an Egyptian sect (the priests of Isis).

Part of the reasoning is that Christians were few at the time and relatively unknown, thus providing a poor scapegoat to divert attention away from himself. The Isis followers were more common and not well liked.

Also, the burning and covering with skins at torn by dogs was apparently very unclean to Isis followers (say like wrapping current-day Muslims in pigskins). There's nothing in these punishments that plays on Christian doctrine for sick amusement as opposed to any other Roman.

The theory is that later copyists interpolated Christians back into the text because legends had grown up about Nero's Persecutions.

It is a plausible bit of revisionism in an interesting book.

Were Christians really thrown to the lions?

Dear Cecil:

My friend says Christians weren't actually thrown to the lions in ancient Rome, but when I was at the Colosseum, I saw a big cross there in honor of all the Christians martyred at that spot. He insists this was just made up by the church to perpetuate their religion. What gives?


The story has its suspicious aspects, I guess. According to the historian Tacitus, Christians during Nero’s time (at least) were mainly torn apart by dogs, crucified, or burned alive — no mention of lions. The Romans did throw people to lions on occasion, and Tertullian, writing later, remarks that the Romans were always ready to exclaim “Away with the Christians to the lion!” whenever times got tough. However, Tertullian doesn’t claim he witnessed any martyrdoms-by-lion personally, and anyway he was a Christian himself. Fact is, while the Romans evidently fed Christians to animals, and people to lions, we have no source stating directly that they specifically fed Christians to lions. So theoretically it’s possible the whole Christians-lions thing was a Christian ploy for sympathy.

But probably not. The Romans did a big business in mass slaughter by and of animals, showing great enterprise in arranging dramatic forms of killing, so if they didn’t throw any Christians to the lions, it was likely an oversight. While record keeping at the time wasn’t the best, and many early Christian texts have their implausible moments, here’s what we can say with reasonable certainty:

1. During the early Christian era, the Romans executed some prisoners using animals, sentencing them ad bestias, “to the beasts.” The beasts in question included dogs, bears, boars, and lions.

2. Christians were executed by the boatload during that time, often in cruel and unusual ways, with animals regularly playing a role. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, wrote letters en route to execution in Rome predicting he’d be thrown to the beasts. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was threatened with being thrown to the beasts but as it turned out was finished off by the sword. Possibly no one saw more animal action than the Christian priest Saturus — reportedly he was first tied to a boar (which turned on its handler instead), then exposed to a bear (it proved too cowardly to attack him), and finally killed by a leopard. Speaking of Nero’s persecutions, Tacitus adds the detail that the emperor had Christians dressed in the skins of animals before throwing them to the dogs, possibly to help overcome any performance anxiety on the dogs’ part.

3. Animals weren’t used just for execution in ancient Rome animal combat, usually ending in the animals’ demise, was unfailingly popular. Sometimes armed men fought beasts sometimes the beasts were made to fight one another. Such games, originally held for religious purposes, became ever more lavish and were staged in amphitheaters across the empire. One well-loved event was the venatio, or hunt, often conducted amid elaborately constructed scenery, including real trees, rocky hills, artificial lakes, and the like.

4. Roman executions typically were considered a form of public spectacle. When coinciding with a game day, they usually took place during the midday break between the morning animal hunts and the afternoon gladiator matches. A favored method was exposing an unarmed criminal to lions or bears. Since it’s pretty clear that Christians were at times sentenced to death by beast (see 1 and 2 above), one may surmise that some of them met their end via lion in front of a Colosseum crowd, but we have no sure knowledge of this. The entertainment value of executions was apparently low due to their sheer number — many people found them boring, either leaving for lunch or sticking around and writing letters to friends about the tedium.

5. You have to think the killing of animals might have eventually gotten dull as well — it’s estimated that 9,000 beasts were slain during the inaugural games of the Colosseum alone (possibly an exaggeration another source says 3,500 during 26 events). Over time more exotic animals were introduced to hold the crowd’s interest: lions and panthers turned up in 186 BC, bears and elephants in 169 BC, hippos and crocodiles in 58 BC. Pompey brought rhinos to Rome Caesar wowed ’em with giraffes. The ever-growing number and variety of animals required put a considerable burden on the supply chain. In his Natural History Pliny the Elder tells us lions were originally hard to catch (the idea was to chase them into covered pits), but later it was discovered they could be subdued by throwing a cloak over their heads. Elephants were captured and tamed by beatings and starvation. A major source of animals was the Roman army, which had a special rank (venator immunis) for those in charge of animal procurement.

A sorry business for sure, but Roman animal sports did at least provide an answer to one perennial question: Which is tougher, a bull or a rhino? Answer: Never bet against a rhino, which according to the writer Martial had no problem getting its horn under a bull and flipping it like a flapjack.

Impact 360 Institute

“In the first century, Christians were crucified, burned, and thrown to the wild animals simply for proclaiming the name of Christ. This was a period of immense persecution, and if Christians wanted to survive, they had to hide out from the governing authorities.” While there is some truth in this statement, it is certainly an overstatement. Yes, Christians were persecuted, but in the first century, most persecution was local and sporadic.

While there is a temptation to overstate the evidence for persecution in the first century, there is also a pattern of critics who understate the evidence. In my recent book, The Fate of the Apostles, I make the case for the willingness of the apostles to die for their faith, which shows the depth of their sincerity. They really believed Jesus had risen from the grave, and they were willing to give their lives for it. This claim is strengthened if there is evidence that Christians were actually persecuted in the first century. So, what’s the evidence?

  1. Jesus taught that his disciples would be persecuted: Jesus told his disciples to expect persecution and suffering for the sake of righteousness. He even warned them they would be killed, as Israel had killed the prophets. In his massive book A Marginal Jew, John Meier gives multiple lines of reasoning why these teachings go back to the historical Jesus.
  2. Paul taught that Christians should expect to suffer: At his conversion, Paul was told that, as part of his mission, he would suffer explicitly before Jews and Gentiles (Acts 9:15-16), and indeed he suffered. Suffering is a central theme of the letters of Paul. He not only suffered deeply for proclaiming the name of Jesus, but expected other believers to suffer as well (Rom 8:35-36 1 Thess 3:3-4 Phil 1:29 cf. 2 Tim 4:5).
  3. Persecution is a significant theme in the rest of the New Testament: The expectation of suffering and persecution is not unique to the Gospel narratives or the letters of Paul. In fact, the expectation and importance of suffering is a central theme throughout the New Testament.

Historical Evidence not in the Bible

Persecution against Christians began with the religious leaders of the day, as we see in the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1), which caused Christians to scatter throughout Judea. Tacitus reports the first statewide persecution of Christians (AD 115), under emperor Nero:

“Therefore to eliminate this rumor he falsely produced defendants and inflicted the most extraordinary punishments upon those whom, hated for their crimes, the people called Christians. The origin of this name was Christ, whom the procurator Pontius Pilate put to death in the reign of Tiberius crushed for a while, the deadly superstition burst forth again not only throughout Judea, the source of this evil, but even throughout Rome, to which all horrible and shameful things flow from everywhere and are celebrated. Therefore the first persons arrested were those who confessed then on their information, a great multitude was convicted not so much on the charge of setting fire as on hatred of the human race. Mockeries were added to their deaths, so that wrapped in the skins of wild animals they might die torn to pieces by dogs, or nailed to crosses they were burned to death to furnish light at night when day had ended. Nero made his own gardens available for this spectacle and put on circus games, mingling with the people while dressed in a charioteer’s uniform or standing in his chariot. As a result there arose compassion toward those who were guilty and who deserved the most extraordinary punishments, on the grounds that they were being destroyed not for the public good but for the savagery of one man (The Annals 15.44.2-5).”

In her book The Myth of Persecution, Candida Moss questions the extent of the first Roman persecution against Christians and even claims early Christians invented the idea of martyrdom. She suggests caution in using the aforementioned passage by Tacitus since he wrote “at least fifty years after the events he describes.” However, this would be like claiming that no one today can write about what happened in the Kennedy administration. So while caution should be observed with the passage from Tacitus, as with any historical claim, many historical accounts are written over fifty years after the events, including the writings of Moss herself. Additionally, Tacitus’s hostility against Christianity actually weighs in its favor. And furthermore, Suetonius reports a similar passage in Nero 16.2.

Both Christians and non-Christians mention the persecution of Christians in the first century. This is why Paul Maier concludes, “Rarely do both friendly and hostile sources agree on anything, but the persecution of Christians is one of them.”

The persecution of Christians in the first century certainly doesn’t prove Christianity is true. But it does raise the question of why so many people believed when it cost them so dearly. In particular, as I demonstrate in The Fate of the Apostles, the apostles were all willing to suffer and die for their belief that Jesus had risen from the grave. They were not liars. They really believed it. They put their lives on the line to proclaim the risen Lord. What more could they have done to convince us of the depth of their sincerity?

2. Thrown from the Tarpeian Rock

The Tarpeian Rock is a steep cliff on the southern end of the Capitoline Hill in the center of Rome. The cliff is overlooking the Roman Forum, the old city center of Ancient Rome.

It was one of the most favorite spots to execute various criminals and opponents. The method was pretty simple as well as the victims were just thrown off the 25-meter high (80 feet) cliff.

The cliff was named after one of the Vestal Virgins named Tarpeia who had betrayed the Romans by opening up the city gates for an enemy named Titus Tatius. This event supposedly happened in the 8th century B.C.

After the betrayal was discovered, the other Vestal Virgins crushed Tarpeia with their shields and threw her body off the cliff. Therefore, the cliff was named after her, and betrayal (and other criminal offenses) were punished by being thrown from it. The Tarpeian Rock in modern times / Lalupa / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

Did Nero really play the fiddle while Rome burned?

For six days and seven nights the citizens of ancient Rome watched helplessly as their city burned. The great fire that consumed Rome in A.D. 64 spread quickly and savagely. After it was over, 70 percent of the city had been destroyed. "Of Rome's 14 districts, only four remained intact. Three were leveled to the ground. The other seven were reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins," writes the contemporary Roman historian Tacitus. Of the million-person population, an estimated half was made newly homeless by the fire [Montgomery County (Md.) Schools].

As is usually seen in such mass tragedies, rumors began to wind through the devastated streets. Reports emerged that some men seen fanning the flames claimed they were under orders. As a result of the tremendous losses, the Roman people, feeling the effects of paranoia, looked for someone who might be responsible for the fire. They blamed their emperor -- Nero.

Some rumors speculated that Nero himself had set the fire, others that he had ordered it. As Nero rebuilt Rome in a new style more to his liking, some believed he used the fire as an excuse for new construction. But perhaps the most interesting rumor that emerged from the great fire was that Nero had played his fiddle while Rome burned.

In the face of such charges, Nero searched for a scapegoat for the fire. He chose the Christians and persecuted them ruthlessly, torturing and executing them in hideous ways. Despite this public spectacle, Nero still found himself blamed for the fire.

The idea that Nero fiddled while Rome burned is odd. But a mad tyrant who preferred to play music rather than offer succor to his people isn't unbelievable, and Nero was unquestionably cruel. The myth is busted, however, when one realizes that the violin wasn't invented for another 1,500 years after the fire [source: Berkeley]. In other words, it's impossible that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. So where did this idea come from?

Read the next page to find out more about the origins of the fiddling Nero story.

The Great Persecution

After Valerian, the Roman state took no official action against the Christians for more than forty years. In A.D. 303, however, the emperor Diocletian and his junior co-emperor Galerius, both former soldiers who viewed Christianity as a threat to traditional Roman beliefs, initiated what has become known as the “Great Persecution”.

In a series of edicts, the emperors ordered the destruction of churches, the seizure of ecclesiastical property, and the burning of Christian texts. Every opportunity was given to Christians to acknowledge the gods, and the emperors even introduced an amnesty for imprisoned clergy if they performed a sacrifice.

The types of penalties inflicted on Christians depended on provincial governors who were charged with enforcing imperial will. Some were tortured and then burned to death. Others were mutilated and then sentenced to the copper mines in Egypt. However, Lactantius tells us that some governors did not spill Christian blood, indicating that persecution was not uniformly enforced.

Nor did all the emperors agree with the policy. Constantius, the father of Constantine, who became emperor in Gaul, Spain and Britain in A.D. 305, refused to put any Christians to death. The eastern provincials had to endure a series of waves of persecution until A.D. 313. Freedom of worship was permitted in the east that same year in the so-called “Edict of Milan”. This was neither an edict, nor from Milan, but a letter from Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius to eastern governors.

The Romans were horrible, bloodthirsty people in many ways. But the treatment of Christians by the Roman imperial state was more complex than we might at first think. Persecution of Christians was carried out on the local level, and usually initiated by provincial mobs.


Previous recorded fires in Rome Edit

Fires in Rome were common, especially in houses [6] but fires that had occurred previously in Rome and destroyed parts of major buildings include:

  • AD 6, which led to the introduction of the Cohortes Vigiles[7]
  • AD 12 which destroyed the Basilica Julia[6]
  • AD 14 at the Basilica Aemilia[6]
  • AD 22 at the Campus Martius[6]
  • AD 26 at Caelian Hill[6]
  • AD 36 at the Circus Maximus[6]

Nero Edit

Nero was proclaimed emperor in AD 54 at the age of 17. [2] His rule has commonly been associated with impulsiveness and tyranny. Early in his reign he was heavily advised, but he slowly became more independent. In 59 AD, encouraged by his mistress Poppaea, Nero murdered his mother. His leading adviser, Seneca, was discharged and forced to commit suicide. After the Great Fire of Rome occurred in July, AD 64, it was rumoured that Nero ordered the fire to clear space for a new palace. [8] [ page needed ] At the time of the fire Nero may not have been in the city but 35 miles away at his villa in Antium, [9] and possibly returned to the city before the fire was out. [10]

Tacitus Edit

Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and historian of the Roman Empire. His exact birth date is unknown, but most sources place it in either AD 56 or 57. His two main works, the Annals and the Histories, covered the history of the empire between AD 14 and AD 96. However, much of the work has been lost, including the books covering events after AD 70. He was only 8 years old at the time of the fire, but he was able to use public records and reports to write an accurate account. [11]

Vigiles Edit

After the fire in AD 6, the Cohortes Vigiles was introduced by Augustus. The Cohortes Vigiles, run by freedmen, were tasked with guarding Rome at night while the Cohortes Urbanus were tasked with guarding Rome during the day. [7] By the time of the Great Fire of Rome, there were thousands of Vigiles in the city and they had gone to work trying to stop the flames by pouring buckets of water into buildings, trying to move flammable material from the fire's path, and even demolishing buildings to attempt to make a fire break. [12] In 22 BCE Augustus funded a fire brigade. [13]

Rome's water system Edit

Before the fire, Rome's water was brought in by nine aqueducts which were not set up with equipment to fight fires. Carrying out repairs to the aqueducts was an ongoing task for the Water Commissioner of Rome. Rome's Water Commissioner was also in charge of investigations into those who were illegally piping water away without paying a license fee to the state. [14] Firefighters relied on blankets, buckets of water, vinegar, and demolition of buildings to put fires out. [15]

According to Tacitus, the fire began in shops where flammable goods were stored, in the region of the Circus neighboring the Caelian and Palatine Hills of Rome. The night was a windy one and the flames rapidly spread along the full length of the Circus. The fire expanded through an area of narrow, twisting streets and closely located apartment blocks. In this lower area of ancient Rome there were no large buildings such as temples, or open areas of ground, to impede the conflagration. It then spread along the Palatine and Caelian slopes. The population fled first to areas unaffected by the fire and then to the open fields and rural roads outside the city. Looters and arsonists were reported to have spread the flames by throwing torches or, acting in groups, hindering measures being made to halt or slow the progress of the flames. Some groups responsible for throwing torches and stopping those from fighting the fire were reported to have claimed they were under orders to do so. The fire stopped after six days of continuous burning. However, it soon reignited and burned for another three days. [16]

Tests into how fires spread have shown that large fires are able to create their own wind and this, combined with embers being blown to new buildings, could have caused the fire to spread further and could account for witnesses claiming that random fires started in houses that were away from the flames. [17] As well as wind playing a factor in fire spread, those who had claimed to be under orders to stop people from fighting the fires never named the one who ordered them and they were also reported to have looted buildings. [18]

According to Tacitus, Nero was away from Rome, in Antium, when the fire broke out. Nero returned to the city and took measures to bring in food supplies and open gardens and public buildings to accommodate refugees. [19] Of Rome's 14 districts, 3 were completely devastated, 7 more were reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins and only 4 completely escaped damage. The Temple of Jupiter Stator, the House of the Vestals, and Nero's palace, the Domus Transitoria were damaged or destroyed. Also destroyed in the fire was the portion of the Forum where the Roman senators lived and worked. However, the open space in the middle of the Forum remained a shopping/meeting centre. [20] The accusations of Nero having started the fire were further exacerbated by his quickness to rebuild burned neighbourhoods in the Greek style and to launch construction of his new palace.

For the city's reconstruction, Nero dictated new and far-sighted building rules, [21] intended to curb the excesses of speculation (most likely it was the speculators who caused the fire, perhaps fueling a previous accidental fire) and trace a new urban plan, which still can be discerned from the city layout today. [22] He rebuilt much of the destroyed area, and had the ostentatious building complex known as Domus Aurea (Golden House) built, his personal residence (replacing the Domus Transitoria and including an extension of about 2.5 km 2 ), which came to include the Palatine, the slopes of the Esquiline (Opium) and part of the Celio. [23] This cannot have been a possible motive for the fire, as he could have requisitioned the necessary land anyway and most was already in his possession. [22]

Debris from the fire was used as fill for the nearby malaria-infested marshes. [24]

The varying historical accounts of the event come from three secondary sources—Cassius Dio, Suetonius and Tacitus. The primary accounts, which possibly included histories written by Fabius Rusticus, Marcus Cluvius Rufus and Pliny the Elder, do not survive. At least six separate stories circulate regarding Nero and the fire:

7 Things You May Not Know About Nero

The Roman emperor Nero is considered one of history’s greatest criminals. His name has become synonymous with evil, as historic accounts have accused him of killing his stepbrother, his wife and his mother, as well persecuting Christians and instigating the devastating Great Fire of Rome. This is the judgement that is passed in history from one generation to the next, but are these accounts of Nero’s reign accurate? New scientific discoveries and a closer examination of the ancient texts written about Nero cast a different light on the Roman emperor and the accusations leveled against him. Secrets of the Dead: The Nero Files follows internationally renowned criminal psychologist Thomas Müller and a team of scientists and historians as they investigate the new evidence in order to discover the truth about the controversial emperor.

Here are seven things you may not know about Nero:

1. Nero was adopted by his great-uncle, the emperor Claudius
Nero’s father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, died when he was only 2 years old. After Nero’s mother married Emperor Claudius, Nero was adopted to become his heir and successor. In 53 AD, Nero’s mother arranged for her son to marry Claudius’ daughter Octavia. After Claudius’ sudden death the following year (possibly after being fed poisoned mushrooms by Agrippina), Nero acceded to the throne at the age of 16 or 17.

Bust of Emperor Claudius, between 41 and 54 AD, Current location: Naples National Archaeological Museum, Author: Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011).

2. Fearing his younger step-brother might claim the throne, Nero had him murdered.
Shortly after Claudius’s death, Nero’s 13-year-old step brother Britannicus died suddenly. According to the ancient writer Tacitus’s account, Nero and Agrippina intentionally poisoned Britannicus to make way for Nero to take over the emperorship. Though much of this testimony has been disputed and even scientifically discredited, the accusation has contributed to Nero’s insidious reputation.

Nero and Britannicus. Image courtesy of Interspot Film.

3. According to ancient texts, Nero killed his own mother
Three ancient writers, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, dictate most of what the modern world knows about Nero’s reign. According to their accounts, his mother Agrippina was a ruthless and ambitious woman who schemed and murdered to get her son on the throne. When it finally paid off, she had no intention of fading into the background. However, five years into his reign, Nero and Agrippina became locked in a brutal power struggle. In Baiae, he plotted the murder of his own mother by inviting her as a guest of honor to a sumptuous banquet at his villa. Nero had planned for his mother’s ship to sink, and depending on the writer’s account, Agrippina either died at sea, or survived the incident only for Nero to send soldiers to her villa to finish the job.

Agrippina’s final moments. Image courtesy of Interspot Film.

4. There is no proof Nero actually played the fiddle while Rome burned
The Great Fire of Rome broke out one night between July 18 and 19 in the year 64 AD. It is uncertain if it was an accident or arson however, the fire burned for several days and nights, destroying most of the city. Rumors quickly spread that Nero started the fire to clear land for an expanded palace, and that he played music in his own palace while the city burned. However it is possible that those accusations are simply rumors with no basis.

Nero looks on while Rome burns. Image courtesy of Interspot Film.

5. The coastal resort of Baiae was one of Nero’s prized indulgences
Nero spent a fortune on banquets in Baiae, located along the Gulf of Naples, but his gatherings there weren’t just about food they also featured sex and debauchery. Nero felt a strong connection to Baiae, and he began to covet the villas of others there, including those of his family.

6. Nero participated in the Olympic Games
Nero competed in the Olympic Games in 67 AD in order to improve relations with Greece. He even raced a ten-horse chariot and nearly died after being thrown from it.

7. Nero’s reign ended when he committed suicide at the age of 30
Ultimately, Nero’s murderous and debauched lifestyle in Baiae caught up with him. In 68 AD, after a turbulent 13-year reign, the Roman senate ran out of patience and declared Nero a public enemy. Nero then fled, and on June 9, 68 AD, at the age of 30, he committed suicide. His death ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Nero and the Flame of Persecution

Today marks the date when flames ravaged Rome, and a wave of persecution began to ravage the Roman church. People like to say that Nero played his fiddle while Rome burned. While that is most likely inaccurate, it is true that some suspected that Nero himself started the blaze that raged for several days. The massive fire, which either started on July 18 or 19 in A.D. 64, destroyed a large portion of Rome.

No matter how much he denied the charges, the emperor Nero could not shake the rumors that he had started the blaze. To shift suspicion away from himself, Nero had to find another culprit. Since the area of the city that did not burn contained a large number of Christians, the emperor cast blame upon them.

Christians were an easy target during this time since they were despised by so many Romans. Rome was known to be a hub of pagan worship, as well as licentious behavior, so the early church’s abstention from some important aspects of Roman culture was not viewed favorably. The Christ-followers were viewed as oddities, at best. For some, the Christian religion was seen as a danger to the very fabric of Roman culture.

Nero’s response was to blame the Christians and to unleash a ferocious wave of persecution against the believers there. This is how the pagan historian Tacitus describes their treatment:

Before killing the Christians, Nero used them to amuse the people. Some were dressed in furs, to be killed by dogs. Others were crucified. Still others were set on fire early in the night, so that they might illumine it. Nero opened his own gardens for those shows, and in the circus he himself became a spectacle, for he mingled with the people dressed as a charioteer, or he rode around in his chariot. All of this aroused the mercy of the people, even against these culprits who deserved an exemplary punishment, for it was clear that they were not being destroyed for the common good, but rather to satisfy the cruelty of one person.

It was actually during Nero’s persecution that the apostles Paul and Peter likely faced martyrdom. This intense hostility towards the church lasted until Nero was deposed around A.D. 68.

The persecution under Nero was just one of many examples throughout church history of Christians suffering under the reign of a wicked ruler. Suffering is not an anomaly for the Church. It’s the norm. God has ordained that a normal part of his redemptive plan would be for his people to glorify him through joyfully suffering for the sake of Christ.

As we remember the persecution that began on this date long ago, and as we hear about the persecution taking place in the world today, there are a couple of truths we can take to heart.

What can we learn from persecution?

First, no human ruler—no matter how wicked or how hard they try—can thwart God’s saving plan for the nations. Neither Nero nor the current Chinese leadership can stop the Kingdom’s expansion. The sovereign Lord of the universe is not moved by the futile rage of rulers. The cross is the supreme example that what heinous men mean for evil, the Lord uses for his glory and the good of his people.

We need not feel the grip of fear if persecution comes our way. Oppression of believers is not the oppression of God’s plan. He has been, he is, and he will always rule over the nations. That should give us hope to face whatever might come our way.

Second, persecution still occurs today, so we should diligently pray for our brothers and sisters who are risking everything for Christ. Just because God is sovereign over persecution does not mean that it is easy to endure. It is still suffering, and there are still men and women who face the daily threat of losing their life or their family’s lives for the gospel. As those in the West who face virtually no persecution, we should regularly lift up our brothers and sisters in Christ who, like our brother Paul, bear the marks of Jesus (Gal. 6:17).

If you want a great resource for how to pray for the persecuted Church today, check out the World Watch List from Open Doors, an organization that supports persecuted Christians around the world. The World Watch List tracks the most hostile countries in the world, and it gives you ways you can pray for the believers there. Let us always remember those who are faithfully testifying to the reality of the gospel in the most difficult of circumstances.


“Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life”
(Revelation 2:10).

Augustus Caesar was the emperor of Rome from 27 B.C. until 14 A.D. He ordered the census that involved Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1). He was followed by Tiberius Caesar, who reigned from A.D. 14 to 37. Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead during his reign (Luke 23:2).

Some Christians were killed by the Romans during the reigns of the emperors Caligula (37-41 A.D.) and Claudius (41-54 A.D.). But most of the persecution Christians experienced during that early period came from the non-Messianic Jews, which is described in the Book of Acts.

Early in his reign the Emperor Claudius had been favorable to the Jews and their religion. But he later outlawed their attendance at synagogues and, finally, expelled them from Rome. Claudius is mentioned by name twice in the Book of Acts. Please turn to Acts 11:28.

“And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth [famine] throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar” (Acts 11:28).

In his Antiquities of the Jews, the historian Josephus spoke of this famine, which occurred under the reign of Claudius.

Claudius is mentioned a second time in Acts 18:2. Please read Acts 18:1-2.

“After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth And found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome:) and came unto them” (Acts 18:1-2).

Priscilla and Aquila were Jews who had come to Corinth from Rome when Claudius expelled the Jews during the ninth year of his reign. Suetonius gave the cause of their expulsion, “As the Jews were indulging in constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus, he (Claudius) banished them from Rome.” Most scholars believe that Suetonius, writing seventy years after the event, mistook Chrestus for Christ, not realizing that the dispute in the Jewish community at Rome was between those who believed Christ to be the Messiah and those who rejected His Messiahship. Since Priscilla and Aquila were not classed as Paul’s converts to Christianity, it is believed that they had become Jewish converts to Christianity at Rome, before they met Paul. In Romans 16:3-4, Paul said that they had risked their lives for him. Paul considered them loyal friends and assistants. They attended the local synagogue with Paul, where they spoke to both Jews and Gentiles about Christ. It was during the reign of Claudius that the Apostle Paul made his three missionary journeys, throughout much of the Roman Empire.

Nero became the fifth Roman Emperor in A.D. 54. He ruled fourteen years, until A.D. 68. Nero began his reign with the promise that he would return to the policies of Augustus (31 B.C. – A.D. 14). He did so for several years under the guidance of two of his advisors, Burrus and Seneca. During this time he extended the borders of the Roman Empire and incorporated some of the good qualities of Greek culture.

When the Apostle Paul was arrested in Jerusalem in A.D. 60 for preaching the Gospel, he appealed his case to Nero. Please turn in the Bible to Acts 25:10-12.

“Then said Paul, I stand at Caesar's judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest. For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar. Then Festus, when he had conferred with the council, answered, Hast thou appealed unto Caesar? unto Caesar shalt thou go” (Acts 25:10-12).

The Caesar mentioned here was Nero. As a Roman citizen Paul expected fair treatment from the Emperor. This was in A.D. 60. Paul was sent to Rome, where he was kept under arrest, awaiting trial.

But a few years later, in A.D. 64, Rome was set on fire. Nero was blamed for starting the fire, which lasted for nine days. But Nero diverted the anger of the people against him by accusing the Christians of setting the city aflame. As a result, the pagan citizens of Rome hunted out the Christians and killed great numbers of them in a terrible persecution that lasted four years, for the rest of Nero’s reign. Many Christians, including Peter and Paul, lost their lives during this, the first general persecution of Christianity.

Nero used all kinds of punishments against the Christians. He had some sewed up in the skins of wild beasts, and then turned savage dogs loose on them until they were chewed to pieces. Other Christians were dressed in shirts dipped in wax, tied to poles, and set on fire in Nero’s garden. Many were shot with arrows, and many others were thrown into the arena, where they were killed by savage lions and other wild beasts.

The secular historian, Tacitus, wrote that the city of Rome was destroyed by fire, and rumors were widely circulated that Nero himself had caused the fire. Tacitus said,

To stifle the report, Nero provided others to bear the accusation, in the shape of people who were commonly called “Christians,” in detestation of their abominable character. These [Nero] visited with every refinement of punishment. First they were arrested who confessed [that they were Christians], and then, on receiving information, an immense number were convicted, not so much on the charge of arson but on the charge of ill-will toward mankind in general. Their deaths were turned into a form of amusement. They were wrapped in the skins of wild beasts to be torn to pieces by dogs, or were fastened to crosses to be set on fire, and, when the daylight came to an end, were burned for an illumination at night. Nero threw open his own gardens for the spectacle, and made it the occasion of a circus exhibition…Sympathy was eventually felt for the sufferers…people felt that they were being destroyed not for the benefit of the public but to serve the cruel purpose of one man – Nero (Tacitus, Annals, xv. 44).

Among those who died during Nero’s persecution were several people named in the New Testament, including Erastus, the chamberlain of Corinth Aristarchus, the Macedonian Trophimus, an Ephesian Barsabas and Ananias of Damascus. In the last year of Nero’s reign, Peter was crucified with his head downward, because he said he was unworthy to die the same way Christ did. Also in that year the Apostle Paul was beheaded at Rome. Dionysius wrote that both Peter and Paul “suffered martyrdom at the same time.”

It is possible that Paul was kept in prison due to his association with the Christians during the burning of Rome. He spent time in Rome’s Mamertine prison before he wrote Second Timothy. The Mamertine prison still exists, just as it was when Paul was chained in it. My wife and I have been in that dungeon on two occasions.

It was now illegal to be a Christian, since the “new religion” was no longer protected by Roman law as part of Judaism. Paul had two hearings before Nero. At the first hearing, he was “delivered out of the mouth of the lion” (II Timothy 4:17). Nothing is known of the second hearing. Nero died in A.D. 68, so Paul was beheaded before that date. As a Roman citizen, it seems that he was spared from the excessive torture endured by his fellow martyrs. Tradition tells us that Paul was decapitated with a sword by an imperial Roman executioner just outside of Rome, and buried nearby. This fulfilled his desire “to depart, and to be with Christ which is far better” (Philippians 1:23).

The cruelty and injustice of Nero eventually caused the indignation of pagans such as Tacitus. Many people became Christians because they saw how patiently these martyrs behaved when they were tortured for Christ. Rather than destroying Christianity, this persecution strengthened it. Tertullian said later that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christianity. The word “martyr” originally meant simply “witness,” but as these early witnesses for Christ sealed their testimony with their own blood, the first meaning merged into the second – dying for Christ. It is a serious thing, even today, to become a Christian. But it is well worth it. Christ died in your place, to pay for your sin. He rose from the dead to give you life. When you come to Christ by faith, His Blood cleanses you from all sin and you receive eternal life in Him.

Let us stand and sing hymn number eight on our song sheet. This hymn does not necessarily refer to our earthly fathers. It is a reference to our fathers in the faith, like the Apostle Paul, and the thousands who died with him in the first great persecution under the Emperor Nero. Sing it with feeling!

Faith of our fathers! living still
In spite of dungeon, fire and sword:
O how our hearts beat high with joy
When e’er they hear that glorious Word!
Faith of our fathers, holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death!
(“Faith of Our Fathers” by Frederick W. Faber, 1814-1863).

You can read Dr. Hymers' sermons each week on the Internet
at www.realconversion.com. Click on "Sermon Manuscripts."

Scripture Read Before the Sermon by Dr. Kreighton L. Chan: Revelation 2:8-11.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:
“Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” (by Henry F. Lyte, 1793-1847).