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Response to Christopher Jones: The Historicity of the Neronian Persecution

  • Brent D. Shaw (a1)


In the Journal of Roman Studies of 2015, I argued that the evidence in Tacitus for a state-directed punishment of Christians in Rome in 64 ce was too weak to sustain the historical interpretation of it as a persecution. In a reply in this journal last year, Christopher Jones argued that knowledge of Christians under that name could well have reached Rome by the mid-60s, that the vulgus of the city could well have accused such persons, and that the Tacitean account is therefore generally credible. While admitting the justice of some of his criticisms, I attempt in this reply to clarify some of my arguments and to restate my original claim that a persecution of Christians by the emperor Nero in connection with the Great Fire of 64 seems improbable given the context of the relations between officials of the Roman state and Christians over the first century ce.



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I express my thanks to Edward Champlin, Paula Fredriksen, Candida Moss and Shauna Shaw for looking at drafts of this reply.



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1 The original is Shaw, B. D., ‘The Myth of the Neronian Persecution’, JRS 105 (2015) 128 ; for the response in this journal, see Jones, C. P., ‘The Historicity of the Neronian Persecution: A Response to Brent Shaw’, NTS 63 (2017) 146–52.

2 For example, Rives, J., ‘The Decree of Decius and the Religion of Empire’, JRS 89 (1999) 135–54 has interpreted Decius as only intending to compel the subjects of the empire to make a public demonstration of piety to the traditional deities of the state. The entrapment of Christians was therefore an accidental side effect of the state's actions; they were just collateral damage. I do not find the argument persuasive, but this is not the place for a detailed reply.

3 See, for example, the studies of a new papyrus fragment of Acts: Parker, D. C. and Pickering, S. R., ‘P.Oxy. 4968: Acta Apostolorum 10–12, 15–17’, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, vol. lxxiv (Graeco-Roman Memoirs 95; London: Egypt Exploration Society, 2009) 145 ; for a study: Gäbel, G., ‘The Text of P127 (P.Oxy. 4968) and its Relationship with the Text of Codex Bezae’, NT 53 (2011) 107–52.

4 There seems to be a consensus, for example, that 16.17–10 and 16.25–7 in Paul's letter to the Romans are such later interpolations: Jewett, R., ‘Romans’, The Cambridge Companion to St Paul (ed. Dunn, J. D. G.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 91104, at 91.

5 The different textual clusters have been grouped under the headings ‘western’ and ‘eastern’, although these terms tend to be avoided now. Some have come to the conclusion that there were in fact several free-floating versions of Acts: see Parker and Pickering, ‘P.Oxy. 4968’, 6–8, a view shared by others, as e.g. Gäbel, ‘P.Oxy. 4968’, 150–1.

6 See Pervo, R. I., Dating Acts: Between the Evangelists and the Apologists (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2006), at exhaustive length, considering just about every contextual piece of evidence; and, more briefly, Acts: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009) 57 : the general force of the sum of his arguments stands, I think, despite the obvious objections that can be posed to each of them individually: see the survey of opinion in Keener, C. S., Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, vol. i (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012) 383–401, esp. 394–400.

7 Ignatius of Antioch, Magnesians 4.1: Πρέπον οὖν ἑστιν μὴ μόνον καλεῖσθαι Χριστιανούς; 10.1: μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ γενόμενοι, μάθωμεν κατὰ Χριστιανισμὸν ζῆν, cf. 8.1–2 and 10.3: ὁ γὰρ Χριστιανισμὸς οὐκ εἰς Ἰουδαϊσμὸν ἐπίστευσεν, ἀλλ᾿ Ἰουδαϊσμὸς εἰς Χριστιανισμόν. 1 Pet 4.16 is perhaps a near-contemporary use, but the dating is uncertain in the extreme: Achtemeier, P. J., A Commentary on First Peter (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996) 43–9; others appear to be later.

8 When he mentions the identity of being a Christian, Romans 3.2: ἵνα μὴ μόνον λέγωμαι Χριστιανὸς, he also makes a brief allusion to Peter and Paul (4.3); otherwise, in his exhortations and prayers on martyrdom, he never once appeals to the example set by the Roman Christians.

9 de Ste. Croix, G. E. M., ‘Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted?’, Christian Persecution, Martyrdom, and Orthodoxy (ed. Whitby, M. and Streeter, J.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) 105–52 [reprint of Past & Present 26 (1963) 6–38], at 110–13, has not been surpassed in having established this basic fact; on the relation of the name to the behaviour, see Bowersock, G. W., Martyrdom and Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 6 .

10 See the lengthy summary of almost all possible perspectives in Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, 258–319 (ch. 8, ‘Speeches in Acts’), who is somewhat of an optimist in these matters. He still does not hold much more than that the writers of ‘Luke’ acted more or less like most historians of their time: they felt free to use rhetoric to effect and, at best, preserved ‘the gist’ of what might have been demanded by the occasion (while admitting that it is extremely improbable that they could have had anything like access to conversations held ‘behind closed doors’).

11 For the text as I accept it, see Metzger, B. M., A Textual Commentary on the New Testament (London/New York: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft/United Bible Societies, 1994 3) 439 .

12 Griffin, M., ‘The Lyons Tablet and Tacitean Hindsight’, CQ 32 (1982) 404–18 is a sufficient exposition.

13 See e.g. the NA28 text at Acts 24.1–9 for 24.6b–8a in the apparatus criticus. The additional lines do not logically cohere with the main text of which they are part; in fact, they constitute a further ‘layering’ that is usually rejected by modern editors.

14 On which, as far as I can see, the most recent detailed analysis of the evidence outside the New Testament, especially in the important epigraphical texts, is Jones, C. P., ‘ Epigraphica ’ (Part i: ‘Χρηματίζειν’), ZPE 139 (2002) 108–16, at 108–11 (I must confess here, a very important study that somehow escaped my notice).

15 See Bickerman, E., ‘The Name of Christians’, HThR 42 (1949) 109–24, esp. 113 n. 27 =  Studies in Jewish and Christian History, vol. iii (Leiden/Boston, Brill, 1986) 139–51, at 142–3 nn. 27–8; re-looking at his proof passages, I must admit that I am no longer as convinced by them as I first was at the time of the writing of my original article.

16 It might be useful to refer the reader here to my original words (Shaw, ‘Myth’, n. 71) in discussing the positions held by Bickerman (internal ascription) and Taylor (external labelling): ‘My interpretation is interstitial between these two polarities: that the word was probably used first by persons who were hostile to the Christians as a formal legal-like term that they could use to specify such persons before Roman officials (hence the Latinized form) and which was then adopted by the Roman officials as a mode of identifying such accused persons (as, for example, with Pliny, later).’

17 It should be noted, however, that there are other possibilities that have been canvassed:  see e.g. Townsend, P., ‘Who Were the First Christians? Jews, Gentiles and the Christianoi ’, Heresy and Identity in Late Antiquity (ed. Irichinschi, E. and Zellentin, H. M.; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008) 212–52: mainly used at first to distinguish non-Jewish groups of Jesus followers, as at Rome.

18 Jones, ‘Χρηματίζειν’, 111, continuing: ‘Perhaps the question mattered less to him than that it first came into use at Antioch, the fruit of Paul's and Barnabas’ success as teachers of the Word.’

19 Matt 2.23, explaining the epithet's origin as specifically linked to Nazareth; 26.71; Luke 18.37; John 18.5 & 7; Mark 1.24 (having identified Jesus at 1.9 as Ἰησοῦς ἀπὸ Ναζαρὲτ τῆς Γαλιλαίας) consistently uses Ναζαρηνός instead, but with the same significance; cf. Mark 10.47, 14.67 and 16.6.

20 See Acts 3.6 and 4.10.

21 See Acts 17.6–9 and 18.12–17; this seems concordant with the run of the evidence: see de Ste. Croix, ‘Why were the Early Christians Persecuted?’, 107–8.

22 Acts 22.8: ἐγώ εἰμι Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος.

23 It is not certain that the epithet is derived from the village of Nazareth (unattested before the gospel accounts and not found in Josephus): see the discussion in Fitzmyer, J. A., The Gospel according to Luke x–xxiv (New York/London: Doubleday, 1985) 1215 . I take it that some of the same dynamic lies behind the creation of Christianus – namely that there were so many Yeshuas that one selected instead an identifier peculiar to the person and added the -ianus suffix to it. Similarly in Roman instances it was often the specificity of the cognomen that was exploited, as in the Pisoniani and Caesariani of the SC de Cn. Pisone patre (lines 55–6).

24 See John 18.5–7; 19.19 (the last two items admittedly found only in the Gospel of John).

25 Paul's actions at Cenchreae in Acts 18.18, and statements at Acts 21.20–4, seem to be connected with the accusatory term in Acts 24.5–18; the connection of the term ‘Nazorean’ either to the village or to the sect seems undecidable on the basis of the present evidence; perhaps it had links with both: see Fitzmyer, Gospel according to Luke, 1215–16.

26 Rom 1.5–6: ἐν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν … ἐν οἷς ἐστε καὶ ὑμεῖς; cf. 1.13–14: Paul hoped to work ‘among you’ as he had done καὶ ἐν τοῖς λοιποῖς ἔθνεσιν.

27 The word is frequently mistranslated as ‘crimes’, but flagitia were not formal charges; they were part of popular moral judgements on the behaviour of others: for the full range of meanings, see TLL vi.839–43 s.v. flagitium.

28 See e.g. Livy 39.13.10, 14.8, 16.5, 17.7; as often, historically speaking: Moore, B., Moral Purity and Persecution in History (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 2000 .

29 See Justin, 1 Apol. 26; 2 Apol. 12; and, still later, Minucius Felix, Oct. 8.4 (probably Severan in date).

I express my thanks to Edward Champlin, Paula Fredriksen, Candida Moss and Shauna Shaw for looking at drafts of this reply.


Response to Christopher Jones: The Historicity of the Neronian Persecution

  • Brent D. Shaw (a1)


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