Christianity Knowledge Base

Nero Claudius Cæsar Augustus Germanicus (December 15, 37June 9, 68) was the Roman Emperor.

Jewish tradition[]

At the end of 66, conflict broke out between Greeks and Jews in Jerusalem and Caesarea. According to the Talmud, Nero went to Jerusalem and shot arrows in all four directions. All the arrows landed in the city. He then asked a passing child to repeat the verse he had learned that day.

The child responded "I will lay my vengeance upon Edom by the hand of my people Israel" (Ez. 25,14). Nero became terrified, believing that God wanted the Temple in Jerusalem to be destroyed, but would punish the one to carry it out. Nero said, "He desires to lay waste His House and to lay the blame on me," whereupon he fled and converted to Judaism to avoid such retribution. Vespasian was then dispatched to put down the rebellion. The Talmud adds that the sage Reb Meir Baal HaNess, a prominent supporter of the Bar Kokhba rebellion against Roman rule, was a descendant of Nero.

Roman and Greek sources nowhere report Nero's alleged conversion to Judaism, a religion considered by the Romans especially as extremely barbaric and immoral. It seems unlikely that such sources – almost universally hostile towards the emperor – would have passed up the opportunity to denigrate Nero even further by mentioning this alleged conversion to a barbarian religion. Neither is there any record of Nero having any offspring who survived infancy: his only recorded child, Claudia Augusta, died aged 4 months. The legend recorded in the Talmud thus cannot be relied upon as a historical source for facts on Nero's life.

Christian tradition[]

Christian tradition and secular historical sources hold Nero as the first major state sponsor of Christian persecution, and sometimes as the killer of Apostles Peter and Paul. Fourth century theologians, among others, recorded their belief that Nero would return, in some manner, as "the Anti-Christ."

First Persecutor

The non-Christian historian Tacitus describes Nero extensively torturing and executing Christians after the fire of 64. Suetonius also mentions Nero punishing Christians, though he does so as a praise and does not connect it with the fire.

The Christian writer Tertullian (c. 155- 230) was the first to call Nero the first persecutor of Christians. He wrote "Examine your records. There you will find that Nero was the first that persecuted this doctrine". Lactantius (c. 240- 320) also said Nero "first persecuted the servants of God" as does Sulpicius Severus. However, Suetonius gives that "since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [the emperor Claudius] expelled them from Rome" ("Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit"). These expelled "Jews" may have been early Christians, although Suetonius is not explicit. Nor is the Bible explicit, calling Aquila of Pontus and his wife, Priscilla, both expelled from Italy at the time, "Jews."

Killer of Peter and Paul

The first text to suggest that Nero killed an apostle is the apocryphal Ascension of Isaiah, a Christian writing from the 2nd century. It says the slayer of his mother, who himself this king, will persecute the plant which the Twelve Apostles of the Beloved have planted. Of the Twelve one will be delivered into his hands.

The Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 275- 339) was the first to write that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero. He states that Nero's persecution led to Peter and Paul's deaths, but that Nero did not give any specific orders. Several other accounts have Paul surviving his two years in Rome and traveling to Hispania.

Peter is first said to have been crucified upside-down in Rome during Nero's reign (but not by Nero) in the apocryphal Acts of Peter (c. 200). The account ends with Paul still alive and Nero abiding by God's command not to persecute any more Christians.

By the 4th century, a number of writers were stating that Nero killed Peter and Paul.

The Antichrist

The Ascension of Isaiah is the first text to suggest that Nero was the Antichrist. It claims a lawless king, the slayer of his mother,...will come and there will come with him all the powers of this world, and they will hearken unto him in all that he desires.

The Sibylline Oracles, Book 5 and 8, written in the 2nd century, speaks of Nero returning and bringing destruction. Within Christian communities, these writings, along with others, fueled the belief that Nero would return as the Antichrist. In 310, Lactantius wrote that Nero suddenly disappeared, and even the burial-place of that noxious wild beast was nowhere to be seen. This has led some persons of extravagant imagination to suppose that, having been conveyed to a distant region, he is still reserved alive; and to him they apply the Sibylline verses.

In 422, Augustine of Hippo wrote about 2 Thessalonians 2:1–11, where he believed Paul mentioned the coming of the Antichrist. Though he rejects the theory, Augustine mentions that many Christians believed that Nero was the Antichrist or would return as the Antichrist. He wrote, so that in saying, "For the mystery of iniquity doth already work," he alluded to Nero, whose deeds already seemed to be as the deeds of Antichrist.

Most Biblical scholars such as Delbert Hillers (Johns Hopkins University) of the American Schools of Oriental Research and the editors of the Oxford & Harper Collins study Bibles, contend that the number 666 in the Book of Revelation is a code for Nero, a view that is also supported in Roman Catholic Biblical commentaries. When treated as Hebrew numbers, the letters of Nero's name add up either to 616 or 666, representing the two devil numbers given in ancient versions of Revelation and the two ways of spelling his name in Hebrew (Nero vs. Neron Caesar). נ ר ו ן ק ס ר : Nun=50 + Resh=200 + Waw=6 (+ Nun=50) + Qof=100 + Samekh=60 + Resh=200 = 666 (616).

The concept of Nero as the Antichrist is often a central belief of Preterist eschatology.

Roman Emperors[]

Claudius | Nero | Galba

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