On October 6, 1536, William Tyndale was burned at the stake. He was only forty-two years old or so at the time, but the work he had already accomplished in those four decades of life would change the world. You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker: “If you can read, thank a teacher.” Another bumper sticker—or Bible sticker, perhaps—would be every bit as appropriate: “If you can read the Bible in English, thank William Tyndale.”Continue reading.
The fire raged six days before being brought under control. When the smoke cleared on July 23, seven of Rome’s fourteen districts had been partly destroyed and three districts were completely obliterated. Then came the rumors that changed everything.
How the Persecution Began
In the aftermath of the inferno, the Emperor Nero had—according to the Roman historian Tacitus—
food brought from Ostia and neighboring towns, and the price of corn was reduced. … Yet these measures, for all their popular character, earned no gratitude. For a rumor had spread that, while the city was burning, Nero had gone on his private stage and…had sung of the destruction of Troy.
Unable to stop the spread of rumors that he had sung about Troy while his henchmen torched the city, the Emperor Nero—again, in the words of Tacitus—
falsely charged … and punished … the persons commonly called “Christians,” who were already despised. … Those who confessed they were Christians were arrested; … a vast multitude was convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city as on the charge that they were “odious to the human race.” In their deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and mauled by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned as torches for the evening lights. … A feeling of compassion arose towards the sufferers because—though they were indeed guilty and deserving of exemplary capital punishment—they seemed to be being executed not for the good of the public but because of the ferocity of one man.
Why Nero Couldn’t Have Fiddled While Rome Burned (and Probably Didn’t Play the Lyre Either)
The saying that survives from the accusations leveled against Nero is that the emperor “fiddled while Rome burned.”
But Nero couldn’t have fiddled while Rome burned.
The violin wasn’t invented until the sixteenth century, so not even someone as crazy and corrupt as Nero could have played a violin while his city smoldered.
Nero probably didn’t play the lyre or flute during these events either. According to the most reliable reports, Nero was miles away, in Antium, when the fire broke out. Soon after hearing about the fire, Nero headed to Rome. After he reached the city, Nero “opened the Field of Mars and even his own gardens for the relief of the homeless,” according to Tacitus.
The persecution of Christians that resulted from Nero’s false accusation was severe—but it seems to have remained limited to the city of Rome. Later persecutions of Christians broke out in other areas of the Roman Empire for more than two centuries. These persecutions erupted and faded in a variety of places all the way into the fourth century AD. That’s when the Emperor Constantine claimed to have become a Christian. It was Constantine’s confirmation of Galerius’ edict of toleration that finally brought the imperial persecutions to an end.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Christianity, take a look at the book and video series Christian History Made Easy.
Discuss in the Comments:
Watch this video about Emperor Nero and the fire in Rome. What did you learn about the early history of Christianity that you didn’t know before?
Why does it matter if Christians know the history of their faith?
Well, imagine trying to sustain a marriage with total amnesia, never fully aware of all the past experiences that you and your spouse have shared. Sure, it’s possible sustain such a relationship—and many people whose husbands or wives suffer from dementia valiantly do so—but there will always be a dimension missing when one person in a relationship doesn’t remember the past events that you have experienced together.
It’s sort of like that with church history and the Christian life.
Sure, you can live the Christian life without ever knowing the history behind your faith, but there will always be a dimension that’s missing. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, there is an amazing story that you share with Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world and throughout the past two thousand years. The more that you know about the past that you share, the better you will be able to live alongside this “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). History matters because it’s the story of how God has worked among his people in his world.
To find out more about why church history matters, watch the first nine minutes of this video.
30 Days through Church History: Day 1
Whenever I meander a museum, I look for living history.
I look for people who may have been alive during the time period that’s on display, and I try to listen. I want to know not only what’s on the plaque beside the glass case–I can find that information in any decent history book–but also how this moment in history felt. I want to hear the stories of these men and women so that the tiny details of these times are not forgotten.
At an air and space museum in Alabama, I met a veteran who flew thirty missions as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator, and I heard how it felt flying in that bulbous glass nose on descent toward target.
In an elderly woman’s home in rural Missouri, I heard rhymes that children sang during the 1918 influenza epidemic.
And, a while back, I shared a meal with my wife’s great uncle in Virginia, and I listened to his story of the Second World War.
Q: Why is the average person in the pew largely uninformed about church history?
A: I think there are at least a couple of reasons: 1) Particularly among American evangelicals, there has long been a tendency to seek and to value whatever is newest and trendiest, and to separate ourselves from the wisdom of the past. If there’s any reference to church history at all, it typically takes the form of decontextualized illustrations and quotations from those in the past. 2) In school, most church members have experienced history poorly taught – history that centers on isolated facts instead of focusing first on the stories that link us with people long-past. The result of poorly taught history is that people perceive history – all history, even church history – as boring, dry, irrelevant. History isn’t boring, of course, but it’s difficult to change people’s minds when they’ve experienced years of boring history in school.
Q: So you probably believe history is as exciting as a popular fiction book.
A: I think it should be, but if often isn’t presented that way.
Q: There are a lot of people who will say, “I had a history class back in high school, and it wasn’t as exciting as a fiction book.”
A: I think the reason that church history is not as exciting for many people as a good fiction book is because we don’t tell it the right way. We don’t tell it as a story; we tell it as isolated facts. And I think one of the things that we can do in teaching and telling church history is to tell the stories first and make the stories primary. Because that is where we are able to connect with earlier believers in our common humanness, in our common experiences as believers in Jesus Christ – the stories of how God works through them. And I think if we tell the stories first, we help people connect the stories to the names, the dates, the facts.
Q: How did the way you view history and how you want it taught affect how you wrote the book Christian History Made Easy?
A: It completely shaped it, because when I wrote the book, the way I structured it was I laid out the framework of all the names, dates, facts that had to be mentioned. I made that the skeleton, and then I thought, “What stories do I fit in to all of this?” So I could lead into the stories, so that the stories were primary in it.
Q: Why did you write the book, and how did you get interested in church history?
A: I thought church history was boring all the way until I was in my master’s degree, and I took some church history courses and I realized, “This really matters.” This was in the mid-1990s, and I was a pastor, and I wanted my people in the church to understand some of these really important things. I started looking for a church history textbook to use in a study, and I couldn’t find one that covered church history that wasn’t boring. And so I started writing it myself. I wrote it for my people at Green Ridge Baptist Church in Green Ridge, Mo. It started off as a course at this rural church in central Missouri. Rose Publishing, in 1999, published it as a black and white book. And even then, I envisioned a full-color version of this book, but Rose Publishing, budget-wise, couldn’t do it. And so finally, in 2009, they were able to go back to the drawing board of the book, and I was able to re-write significant portions of it and bring it up to date as a full-color book.
Q: How did it get into a DVD curriculum?
A: Rose Publishing has begun doing DVD curriculum, and I had always wanted to be able to teach this in a much broader format – in essence, do what I did back in that little church in the 1990s and do make it available to a broader audience.
Q: What’s the audience for the curriculum?
A: I and two Ph.D. students wrote the curriculum. We really wrote it with laypeople in mind, and we really tried to aim at an eighth-grade reading level. I want it to be used by high schoolers and adults, and laypeople with no theological education. Everything was written with a strong focus on: How can we make it interesting, enjoyable, spiritually deepening for people?
Q: Rose Publishing took great strides in making the curriculum more than just a lecture. They incorporated animation. It’s not just you standing at a podium talking for 30 minutes.
A: One of the things I wanted was animation. They did a great job. They went all out and did everything I wanted. The animations tell different episodes of church history in about three minutes in a really funny and fun way. Interspersed throughout the lectures are complicated subjects reduced in a fun animation that has a good sense of humor but is always historically accurate.
Click here for the rest of the interview.