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Maybe Christians Did Burn Rome
May 1, 2018
by William P. Meyers

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Apocalyptic Vision Just Couldn't Wait?

The Roman Emperor Nero famously fiddled while Rome burned, then unfairly persecuted the early Christian community of Rome for the arson. History, as written by Christians, commonly accepts that the fire was set by Nero's order, or in any case Christians could not have done it.

I was reminded of the story only because I am reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbons for the second time. I know much more about people, religion, and history than I did when I first read the book, and so I am noticing some things, and re-analyzing some things, including the mysterious origin of the fire.

Nero Claudius Caesar was Roman emperor from 54 to 68 A.D. The burning of the city of Rome took place in 64 A.D. Academic Christian scholars guess Jesus was alive from 4 B.C. to about 30 A.D. The community of Christians in Rome is likely to have been quite small in 64 A.D.

Historians were in plentiful supply in first century Rome, but history was already colored by politics, including the tendency to praise an Emperor in power, while trashing the same Emperor later once a new man had seized the throne. A revolt against Nero made Galba emperor, followed in quick succession by two more rulers, until the buck stopped at Vespacian, who ruled for ten years and founded a new dynasty. To legitimize the new dynasty the old one had to be made to appear evil, which perhaps it had been. While no extant historical record clearly refutes those who accused Nero of having the fire set himself, our most neutral source, Tacitus, says that Nero blamed the Christians, and others blamed Nero, and did not claim to know which story was true.

A Roman Emperor purposely burning Rome seems a bit of a leap for all but the most gullible. And yet I never bothered to dispute it until now. What tipped me to the suspicious side was the recent massacre in Toronto combined with re-reading about how apocalyptic the early Christians were. Add that to the apocalyptical vision shared today by Islamic radicals, Christian evangelicals, environmentalists, and Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and I feel a re-think is in order.

First, Nero did not play a violin during the conflagration. His detractors at the time accused him of "singing to his lyre the destruction of ancient Troy." [Gibbon, page 456 of Volume I of the Modern Library edition]

Rome burning

Why assume Christians were innocent? Making that assumption eliminates a likely suspect. Also consider that perhaps a small and particularly fanatical group of Christians, or even an individual, may have set the fire.

Consider that the Christians of that time were under considerable pressure to produce their Apocalypse. They claimed that Jesus said "This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." That is, after a bunch of bad things happen: "And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." [Matthew chapter 24]

Thus instead of being a Messiah who would help the Jews rule over the nations of the earth, Jesus prophesied he would return to bring an end to the world.

Early Christians were converted mainly on two ideas: that they would be resurrected, and that Jesus would return to the world in triumph.

Another key to the scriptures is the story of Ananias and Sophia, who were killed by the early disciples for not turning their wealth over to the church. This was recorded as a real event while the original group of Apostles were alive.

At the time of the burning of Rome it would appear that Christian martyrs were few and far between. Possibly the only Christians killed by the government or angry crowds before then had been Stephen, stoned to death for Blasphemy not long after Jesus died; the brother of Jesus, James who led the sect in Jerusalem until his death around 62 A.D.; and possibly Paul.

If the original disciples were around Jesus's age, or slightly younger, which is likely, they would have been quite old in 64 A.D. when the Roman fire occurred. More than likely most were dead. Which meant the prophecy was proving to be false.

So how do you make a prophecy come true? Perhaps it takes some human action. Rome was seen as the home of evil both by Jews and early Christians. Perhaps burning it down would be a signal for the return of Jesus.

In later years Christians got used to the idea that maybe it was wrong to interpret the Gospel of Matthew as saying Jesus would return before the last of his original 12 apostles had died. Someone wrote the Book of Revelations, setting the Apocalypse at a less definite time. As Christians were about to take over the government of the Roman Empire and force their beliefs on everyone, an advisor to the Emperor put forward what would become a popular theory. His name was Lactantius and he invented, or at least popularized, the idea that Jesus would return after 1000 years. When that did not happen various sects proposed to know he would return at later dates.

Even today, despite the disappointments from past cancellations of The Jesus Show, many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians expect the Apocalypse and favor public policies that might bring it about, like re-establishing the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. If Alek Minassian, for almost no reason, could slaughter people in Toronto, copying Islamic State fanatics who also have an agenda of triggering the Apocalypse (and believe Jesus will come and fight on their side) . . .

Why couldn't a crazy Christian, or group of them, have tried to burn down Rome? And why is it so hard to believe that the police of Rome traced the deed back to the Christian group?

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