Friday, November 30, 2007

Oh Nero, You Rascal!

I've been doing a little reading on Nero, and I thought I would share a few snippets regarding the rationale (besides hermeneutics) of why many Christians believe that Caesar Nero was the Antichrist.

Nero reigned from 54AD to 68AD. Not only was he infamous for his torture and hatred of Christians who refused to bow down and worship him as God, but he also killed the Apostles Peter and Paul, and he instituted the first large-scale persecution of Christians. If Nero were alive today, doing these things, these acts alone would have Pat Robertson and Hal Lindsey speculating that Nero is the Antichrist (contemporary events have a way of seeming more exciting and immediate than history, don't they?). Additionally, there is an interesting reference in the book of Revelation to a number, by which the beast could be identified by his contemporaries: 666.

Now, I am no Hebrew scholar, but I will do what I can, here. Every letter in the Greek and Hebrew alphabets also has a numerical value.

The Name "Neron Qe[i]sar" transliterated, in Hebrew as נרון קסר adds up numerically in this way:

Resh: 200
Samekh: 60
Qoph: 100
Nun: 50
Waw: 6
Resh: 200
Nun: 50
TOTAL: 666

I might touch on the textual variations of 666 (namely 616) as further evidence, but I don't want this post to be all numbers. So chew on this one for awhile. Also, I was tired of using the word "contemporary" and feared I might use it again.

PS: An amazing resource I just came across offers not only a good overview of Preterist Eschatology, but a decent exegetical apologetic for the position.


  1. I considered w. preterism once upon a time. A couple things here. Nero didn't claim himself to be a god--he claimed to be like Augustus and Apollo, but that's a different thing, and like Augustus probably permitted Greeks to worship him if the wanted, as Augustus did. But you don't find that in the imperial biographies. He also didn't persecute Christians for not worshipping him as a god--he persecuted many people groups in the later period of his reign, including Christians and Jews for various reasons (particuarly after 59). But his generally despotic character is what earned him an assassination and damnatio memoriae in the next generation.

    On the Hebrew letters: one question that needs to be solved is when Hebrew letters start being regularly used as numerals. I'm not sure, but the earliest I know of is the Mishnah, which is compiled 2 centuries after the Apoc. Also, it's worth noting that in Hebrew and Aramaic texts that speak of "caesar," they also often put in an additional yodh: קיסר. The use of mater was very fluid, and that raises some important questions about the viability of the author doing it this way. There is indeed papyrological evidence that Nero was spelled as נרון, though again, given the mater point, we could also find נרן or נירון. That doesn't rule out the possibility though.

    For me, the biggest reasons telling against the Neronian reading are (1) it seems odd to me that the author of the Apoc would write in Greek and assume his authors would interpret the Greek-rendered 666 in light of a Hebrew numerical system (that's a tall order--esp. given unstable mater); more importantly (2) Nero's attacks on Christianity were localized to the city of Rome and were not a defining aspect of his character; (3) there were worse emperors than Nero, and emperors more hostile toward Christianity (e.g. Domitian [who Irenaeus thinks was the 666] or Marcus Aurelius), (4) we don't see early Christians interpreting Nero as the anti-Christ of the Apoc. (5) The overall character of Nero make it very difficult for me to believe that any 1st c. Christian would think Nero was the anti-Christ--even if he were living in Rome.

    The easier reading, which I prefer, simply recognizes that 666 is short of 777.

  2. I appreciate your input, and I will consider what you've said.

    I do want to point out, though, that Augustine was at least aware of a Christian belief which endured even to his time, that Nero was the antichrist.

    I take the following chunk directly from Wikipedia: [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.[156];]

    So your statement that "we don't see early Christians interpreting Nero as the anti-Christ of the Apoc." isn't exactly spot-on.

  3. That's an interesting point on Augustine. Do you have the exact reference by chance?

    I would certainly agree that Nero embodied certain general qualities of the antichrist--though I would also want to add other emperors to the list. I can't help but wonder whether Augustine did so because Nero had burned such a memory in the collective consciousness in early Christianity through his persecutions. But even still, unless I'm reading that quote incorrectly, Augustine inevitably rejects that hypothesis. Though I'd admit that even though he doesn't own the idea, he probably wasn't the first to come up with it. So you win there :)

  4. The Augustine Reference:

    Augustine of Hippo, City of God XX.19.3

    Augustine does reject the notion that is Nero was the antichrist, but my point (which I think you understood) was that Christians had an apparently longstanding tradition that such was the case.

    I would suggest that with the passage of time, the urgency of the great tribulation (circa 70 AD) passed, and as such, commentators in the church continued to look to the future for a fulfillment of Revelation, forgetting that the book already found fulfillment within the generation of those to whom the book was actually written to: the first century churches of Asia Minor. We tend to read our Bibles like that too, I think.


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