December 15, 2019
Emperor Nero stood on top of his palace as he watched his city burn. Strumming his harp, his lips slowly formed a smile. It was a smile that only a madman could make, one that would end in his death by his own hand four years later.
Born December 15, 37 AD, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus lost his father when he was just two years old. His mother, Agrippina the Younger, married his great-uncle, Claudius, following the death of her second husband, of which she is believed to have arranged. She compelled Claudius to adopt Lucius when he was 13, officially changing his name to Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Further conducting her son's life, she helped orchestrate his marriage to Claudius' daughter, Octavia, in 53 AD. This marriage helped Agrippina convince Claudius to officially name Nero his successor over his own son, Brittanicus. The following year, 17-year-old Nero became emperor upon Claudius' sudden death, rumored to be caused by poisoned mushrooms given to him by Agrippina.
The next several years Nero ruled under the thumb of his mother. Gaining a reputation of a more fair emperor as other close advisors performed the real government duties, Nero gave his attention to his own interests such as theater and music. One advisor, Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, encouraged him to break from his mother's grip. She responded to his rejection by throwing her support behind the rightful heir, Brittanicus, and objecting to Nero's affair with a friend's wife. Yet Nero proved to truly be his mother's son. Brittanicus died soon after under questionable circumstances. In 59, Agrippina survived a plot to drown her only to be attacked and stabbed to death in her home, with both events organized by Nero. Completely free from his mother’s oversight and criticism, Nero immediately turned barbaric and cruel. After exiling Octavia and ordering her execution, Nero married his mistress in 62. Three years later, she died after Nero kicked her in the stomach.
Early in the morning of June 19, 64 AD, fire broke out in several Roman shops around the Circus Maximus area. The flames quickly spread and burned for nine days. Over 70% of Rome was destroyed as Nero watched from his palace roof singing theatrical songs while dressed as a performer, prompting the saying, “Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned,” the genesis of the modern day phrase, “He’s just fiddling around.” As a result, rumors spread as fast as the fire that Nero purposely started the blaze so as to make room for an expanded palace. Regardless of whether the rumors were true or not, Nero desperately needed to deflect his involvement. Therefore, he did what people have been doing since Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he blamed someone else. (see ) He had a ready-made group: the Christians.
Immediately following Christ’s death, Christians were persecuted by primarily Jewish elders even though society considered the followers of 'the way' a sect of Judaism. The Bible records the Jewish leaders’ oppression of Christ's followers with their insistence in the arrests of Peter, John, and Paul. Believing he would receive a fairer trial as a Roman citizen under the emperor, Paul appealed to Caesar. That Caesar was Nero. Despite Nero's lack of humanity, Paul knew that God planned for him to speak to Caesar, so he was ready to witness to Christ in Rome regardless of who the emperor was. (Acts 25:10-12)
Paul traveled to Rome around 60-61 AD, which he records in several of his letters in the New Testament. After two years of imprisonment in Rome, Paul finally has his day in front of Nero, receiving the acquittal he was looking for, as some of his letters indicate a journey to Asia after his time in prison.
However, everything changed for believers because of The Great Fire of 64 AD. After the blaze, Nero initiated the first major persecution of the Christian religion, making them the target of torture and entertainment.
Following the fire, several of those captured by the Romans quickly gave up the names of faithful Christians they knew. As the Romans collected more and more believers, Nero devised more and more ways to torment them. While some were simply crucified as Christ was, others experienced horrendous pain and suffering for their faith. Dressed in shirts of wax or other flammable material, Christians were placed on crosses and set on fire as human torches to illuminate Nero’s gardens, public arenas, and streets leading to Rome. Others were covered in animal skins and turned over to packs of dogs to be torn apart alive. As pure entertainment for Nero and the citizens, Christians were tossed into the arenas to face the fangs of hungry lions.
The existence of Christ and the martyrdom of his followers were recorded by several non-believing historians. Roman Senator Tacitus, who was a child during Nero's rule, chronicles the reigns of the first century Roman emperors in his Annals, which includes eyewitness accounts of events of the time. Not only does he record Nero's persecution of the Christians, he matter-of-factly reports the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Josephus, a Jewish apologist and historian, was born in Jerusalem roughly the same time Nero was born. He records Jewish history during the first century until his death in roughly 100. His writings give readers valuable insight to the emperors from before the time of Christ through his own lifetime. This information corresponds with the rulers and atmosphere faced by Christ and his earliest followers. Josephus' archives also confirm Herod threw John, known as the Baptist, in jail.
It is estimated roughly 100,000 Christians were martyred under Nero. The Greek word martyr was originally defined as “witness.” Following the barbaric execution of Christ’s witnesses, the word took on the meaning of one dying for their faith, which includes several figures from the New Testament with the most prominent being Paul and Peter, as recorded by historian Eusebius. Condemned to crucifixion, Peter insisted on being hanged upside down, not feeling worthy of dying as Christ did. While Paul's Roman citizenship probably saved him from unspeakable torture, it did not spare him from illegally being beheaded outside the city walls.
During his second imprisonment in Rome after its fire, Paul writes to Timothy, “At my first defense, no one stood with me, but everyone deserted me. May it not be charged against them. But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message would be fully proclaimed, and all the Gentiles would hear it. So I was delivered from the mouth of the lion. And the Lord will rescue me from every evil action and bring me safely into His heavenly kingdom. To Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” (2 Timothy 4:16-18)
While the streets ran with the blood of Christians, Nero depleted the city’s treasury to construct his “Golden House,” or Domus Aurea. His actions and behavior soon led to a revolt of the Senate, which voted for his execution by beating in the Spring of 68 AD. Realizing his death was imminent, Nero took his own life with the help of his secretary, Epaphroditos, on June 9, 68 AD, ending the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Following a Jewish uprising two years later, the Romans fully suppressed the Jews in Jerusalem, which resulted in the complete destruction of the second temple in 70 AD. (see ) This began the official split between Judaism and Christianity. However, the “new religion” continued to spread throughout the Roman Empire despite endless persecution by the Roman government and others as believers lost their protection of the Judaism umbrella, thus becoming an illegal faith. That changed around 325 AD, when Emperor Constantine I became a follower of Christ and declared Christianity the state religion of Rome. (see )
Over time, critics who want to dismiss Jesus ignore such historians as Josephias, Tacitus, and Eusebius, some even claiming these men never mentioned Jesus or his followers despite their own words to the contrary. Atheists argue the Bible is just a book of made-up stories designed to coincide with historical facts, such as the Roman emperors.
The churches started by the disciples and apostles immediately after Christ's ascension received letters from Paul, Peter, James, John and other disciples. The leaders shared these letters with others, which were later included in the New Testament along with the Gospels. We know Christ and his followers were referenced in secular histories of the time, therefore they could not have been written later. The letters and Gospels of the New Testament had to have been written in real time.
In Acts 5, the Sadducees consider killing the apostles out of jealousy when Gamaliel reminded them of other men who called themselves great and gained a following. After their deaths, their followers dispersed. Therefore, Gamaliel told them, "'So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!' So they took his advice." (Acts 5:38-39)
If Christianity was fake, or an invented religion as some have claimed, logic would dictate that followers would fall away as Christ, the apostles, and fellow believers met their deaths. Paul tells the Corinthians in his first letter to them, “After that, He [Christ] appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” (15:6) If these eyewitnesses were lying, common sense tells us they would have started recanting. Instead, the church continued to grow.
Liberty, secular history and the Bible are not contradictions of each other, or meant to be mutually exclusive, as unbelievers contend. Honest examinations actually show how congruent they really are. Faith given to us by the Holy Spirit reveals to us that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God without needing any other confirmation. However, as humans, we desire to have visible proof, just like Thomas did. Though we shouldn't need it, we are comforted when we find reconciliation between secular and Biblical documents, as there will always be Nero fiddling away to destroy the Christian faith as they set fire to their own destruction.
That’s my 2 cents.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF