By Daniel W. Petty
The first known persecution of Christians by the Romans came at the hands of the emperor Nero, according to ancient historians. Before this, the Jews seem to have been the source of all persecutions of the Church, as recorded in the New Testament.
In the books of Acts, the Christians had little to fear from the Roman government. Roman magistrates and soldiers often saved Paul from the wrath of Jews and pagans alike. From the Roman perspective, Jews and Christians were indistinguishable in the early years, the latter generally thought to be but a sect of Judaism. Since Judaism was held to be a religio licita (“legal religion”), Christianity naturally enjoyed the same status.
Nero became emperor in AD 54, at first a reasonable ruler who was fairly popular. Becoming increasingly infatuated by his dreams of grandeur and lust for pleasure, he lost this popularity, so that by AD 64 he was despised by the people; rumor had it that he was mad.
In June of AD 64, a great fire broke out in Rome. Though it seems that he was away at the time, it was rumored that Nero himself started the fire so as to rebuild the city according to his fancy. The Roman historian Tacitus seems to believe the fire was an accident. But no matter. The rumor spread, and more and more the people suspected the emperor. One of the rumors, which Nero tried to allay, was that he played his lyre during the fire atop a tower. But the rumors continued, and Nero knew that he needed someone else to blame for the fire. Two areas not burned had a high population of Jews and Christians; since the Christians were not popular, he decided to blame them.
Tacitus tells the story (Annals 15.44):
But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome,. . . Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty [of being Christians, DP]; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred of mankind [they abstained from most social activities, since these were so connected with pagan worship, DP]. 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. . . . It was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
Peter was written very near the time of this persecution. It is clear from the epistle that they were facing various trials (1:6). They were being falsely slandered as evil-doers (3:16); they were being tested by a “fiery ordeal” (4:12). Peter was urging his readers to submit their souls to God in their suffering (4:19), and to be sure their suffering was for righteousness’ sake – “as a Christian” – and not for ungodly conduct (3:13; 4:15-16). They were to be encouraged by the facts that in their sufferings, they shared in the same experiences as brethren throughout the world (5:9), and in the sufferings of Christ Himself (4:12-14).
The popular indignation endured by the Christians made them Nero’s natural scapegoats. All kinds of slanderous reports about Christians had been circulating. The Lord’s Supper gave rise to rumors that they held secret cannibalistic meetings where they ate someone’s body and drank his blood. Christians were despised because they refused to participate in the wicked pagan festivals of the Gentiles.
The attitude of the Roman government toward the Church gradually changed from indifference to hostility. They had come to see that Christianity and Judaism were different. Christianity came to be regarded as a religio illicita (“prohibited religion”). It is clear that though in AD 64 the Christians were charged with arson, soon they were being persecuted for the mere fact of being Christians, and for the supposed abominations connected with that name.
Peter and Paul soon became martyrs under the reign of Nero, according to early tradition. It is likely that this persecution was limited to the city of Rome. Most persecutions were isolated and local until just before AD 250, when the first “general persecutions” would begin. Even so, the gateway to persecution had been opened, and ever after Christians were to live under threat. The slanderous rumors multiplied, and popular hatred and distrust of Christians led to many a persecution. Besides the Neronian persecution, the first century also witnessed the persecution of Christians under the reign of Domitian (AD 81-96). It was this later persecution that probably provided the background for the message for the Book of Revelation.
“By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God” (1 Pet. 4:15-16).
For further reading: W.H.C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1965).
Guardian of Truth XXX: 20, pp. 617, 633
October 16, 1986