WHO BURNED ROME?
Last evening on the KCTS we were favored with a program “Secrets of the Dead” about the great fire Rome in July 19, 64 A.D.. Nero blamed the Christians. Tacitus, the historian, writing 50 years afterwards blamed Nero. The program hosted an Italian archaeologist, Clementina Panella, who blamed the Christians.
The substance of the claim rests primarily upon two things. First, Nero’s charge, and second, the fact that Revelation 17:16 predicted the destruction of Rome (cf. 17:9, 18).
Nero, is certainly an unreliable source of authority. He was a tyrannous dictator who all history reviles as a low-life and a liar. We have no records to support his claim and even the Roman officials rejected it.
The first problem with the citation of Revelation 17:16 is that it was written over 25 years after the fire predicting a future event. Even if one discounts it as inspired prophecy, the most that can be gleaned from this is that its having burned became a basis for the Christian hope that it would again be destroyed.
Some may object that Revelation was written before July of 64 A.D. during the reign of Nero and thus became the inspiration for it’s burning. However, the consensus of scholars dismiss such an early date. The evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of it being written around 95 A.D. in the reign of Domitian. For a discussion of this see my article on the Book of Revelation.
Furthermore, it does not take into account the teachings and attitudes of the Christians. Jesus taught non-violence towards enemies (Matt 5:44; 26:52; Luke 6:27). Paul taught non-violence (Rom 12:19-21). Peter taught non-violence, writing the whole letter of 1Peter on the subject (Note especially 1Pet 2:19-23). Even the book of Revelation teaches non-violence (Rev. 13:21-22).
The prophecy of Rome’s destruction gives no encouragement for Christians to do it. It prophecies it being done by “ten Kings” which had not yet come to power (Rev 17:12, 16).
There are no early writings by Christians, either before or after the fire encouraging or approving them doing any such thing, or indicating they did it.
Did the Christians have a reason to do it (from a worldly standpoint)? Yes indeed, after Nero began his persecution. However, it was entirely uncharacteristic of them. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome specifically declared that those in power were to be respected as ministers of God.
Romans 13:1-6 1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same 4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. 5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. 6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
Peter likewise taught obedience and respect for those in power.
1 Peter 2:13-17 13 Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; 14 Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. 15 For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: 16 As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. 17 Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.
The earliest writings of the Fathers, advocated non-violence. Many, such as Polycarp actually courted martyrdom.
Basing the conclusion merely on a possible motive is pretty shaky. Others had just as much reason and far more propensity to put the torch to Rome. While I do not believe they did it, the Jews hated Rome for its oppression. They were inflamed with a passion that was already on a collision path which scarcely five years later resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem.
Nero was accused of doing it to fulfill his ambition to rebuild Rome. He could have done so but if he did, it is likely that the whole thing got out of hand. It seems more likely that it began accidentally and Nero blamed the Christians to offset blame that had fallen upon him.
There is simply no credible evidence that Christians were to blame.
It appears to me that this kind of “scholarship” has a very good reason to suspect its conclusion. Those who attack Christianity are often driven either by their own hostility or greed for notoriety, prestige as a “scholar,” and money from publications.