It is the 18th of July 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 64.
Christians might instinctively have a little familiarity with this era. It is the time in which the New Testament was being composed, the church was growing, and the relatively new Roman Empire looked to take over most of the known world. Today we will look around the world in the first century.
In the Americas, the Hopewell peoples inhabited much of the eastern portion of North America. The city of Teotihuacan was growing. The Mayan city in modern Mexico would be famous for its buildings and temples, especially the Temple of Quetzalcoatl.
In China, the Han dynasty came to power in the 1st century. Confucianism was the Chinese religion de jure, but Emperor Ming of the Han dynasty was the first to introduce Buddhism to the kingdom.
In Africa, while the Romans had taken the northern coasts. The Kingdoms of Kush and Aksum were growing on the eastern side of the Continent. The first century saw the growth of the Bantu people in the south. In the 1st century, they would be responsible for expanding the African map of known peoples to the south.
The Iranian Parthian empire, at its largest, would extend from modern Turkey to the modern border of Eastern Iran. Their location on the silk road was advantageous for both culture and trade.
In Rome, the story of the first century is the story of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It started with Augustus, the emperor at the time of Christ’s birth, and the dynasty extended through Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and then Nero.
Nero had been adopted by Claudius, who had married Nero’s mother Agrippina the Younger. When Claudius died, possibly having been served poisonous mushrooms, Nero ascended the Imperial throne. While he was initially popular, he became increasingly unhinged, killing his mother as well as his mistress, who was pregnant with his child. And it was on this day, the 18th of July, in 64 AD, that the great fire at Rome broke out. This the famous fire during which Nero supposedly fiddled, then blamed the Christians for the fire and then persecuting and killing them.
Tacitus is one of three relatively contemporary historians who remarked on the great fire. He is the only one to link Christians directly to the persecution. Tacitus wrote: “Nero set up as the culprits and punished with the utmost refinement of cruelty a class hated for their abominations, who are commonly called Christians Christus, from whom their name is derived.”
Tacitus claimed that Nero blamed Christians for the fire that some suggested Nero himself set. He probably didn’t and also probably didn’t play his lyre and sing as Rome burned. However, he did use the scapegoats as human torches. After all, he charged them with arson so that burning would be an appropriate response. He would not have “thrown them to the lions” as that happened later in the coliseum, which was not built yet.
There has been considerable historical and theological damage done by assuming that it must have been Christians lit as human torches by the nefarious Nero. Often, this happens because Nero has been assigned as the “man of lawlessness” from Paul or the Anti-Christ in the book of Revelation to St. John. If Nero knew of this group of Christians, as Tacitus suggests, the anti-Imperial theology of these Christ-followers would undoubtedly get them into trouble for being seditious.
So, what do we know? The fire wasn’t likely set by either Christians or by Nero. Fires were a problematic element of Roman life. Nero, however, wanted to distract from the rumors that he started the fires by finding a scapegoat. According to Tacitus, Christians were the scapegoats. Contemporary to Tacitus, the historians Suetonius and Dio Cassius record the fire with no mention of Christians involved.
What is certain, is that the fire that set Rome ablaze on this, the 18th of July, in the year 64, was a turning point in Roman history. And as the Roman Empire would begin a free fall into decadence and decay, there were faithful Christians who pointed a way out. They pointed to the one true king, and the better kingdom. For this, they would suffer persecution.
The reading for today comes from an early Christian. This is Justin Martyr, writing in 150 AD.
“And when you hear that we look for a kingdom, you suppose, without making any inquiry, that we speak of a human kingdom. Instead, we speak of that which is with God, as can be shown from the confession of their faith made by those who are charged with being Christians, even though they know that death is the punishment awarded to those who so confess. For if we looked for a human kingdom, we would deny our Christ, so that we might not be killed. We would try to escape detection so that we might obtain what we hope for. But since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men cut us off; since death is a debt which must at all events be paid.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 18th of July 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who prefers his mushrooms sautéed with butter, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.