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Bible Q

Is Nero the “devil who prowls around like a roaring lion”? (1 Peter 5:8)

1 Peter 5:8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

The first thing to say is that the interpretation “the devil as a lion is Nero” is a big improvement on the popular (at least in earlier days) idea that this verse refers to a literal fallen angel who literally prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

The identification of 1 Peter’s lion with Nero dates back to the time of the Reformation, 16thC, and comes from the connection of the lion ( i.e. Christians being thrown to lions), plus a dating of 1 Peter that puts the letter after the AD64 fire of Rome which, according to Tacitus, Nero had blamed on the Christians. In addition, the similar passage from Paul may well refer to Nero:

2 Timothy 4:17 But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.

This is sometimes supported by a reference to an earlier emperor as a lion in Josephus:

Now Marsyas, Agrippa’s freed-man, as soon as he heard of Tiberius’s death, came running to … and said, in the Hebrew tongue, “The lion is dead;” Josephus Antiquities of the Jews Book 18, Ch. 6

However the first problem is that Peter is writing to those suffering persecution “in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1Peter 1:1) and there is no specific evidence for a persecution by Nero of Christians in that area.  And the second is that Peter only says “prowls around like a roaring lion” which, even if the end result may be being thrown to the lions, is more descriptive of the role of a denouncer or accuser, rather than the Roman authorities who (with the brief exception of the attempt to scapegoat Christians for the AD64 fire of Rome) were not generally “prowling” seeking to devour Christians. The picture of the Roman government given in the New Testament — Pilate, Gallio, Felix,  Festus, etc. — is simply of bureaucrats with no particular axe to grind, although Revelation certainly contains negative references to Rome, such as Rev.17:9 where the “seven mountains” are an explicit and common reference to Rome’s geography and its Festival of Seven Hills.

A more concrete problem is that Peter calls the enemy in 1Pe.5:8 “the devil” (Greek diabolos, accuser). In the plural, this word can mean nothing more than “gossips” — as in 1Tim.3:11 and Titus 2:3 where Paul uses the plural (diaboloi) to say the wives of deacons and older women must not be “slanderers” (literally “devils”). However, “the devil” is still a very strong word to use of a particular individual. In the Greek Old Testament the only time the word “devil” (diabolos) is used of a man, it is Haman, the accuser of the Jews in Esther. More normally in Greek, “devil” (diabolos) is the word for Satan; since the Old Testament Hebrew ha-satan, accuser, (in the heavenly court of Job 1:6 and Zech.3:1) was in the Greek Old Testament used by Jews outside Judea translated as diabolos. Likewise in the 30+ uses in New Testament, the only time diabolos refers to a man is Judas Iscariot:

John 6:70 Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil (diabolos).”

Even in John 6:70 the “devil” does not just mean “a slanderer”, but indicates that Judas, like Haman, the diabolos in the Greek version of the Book of Esther, is out to secretly betray Jesus, a diabolical action.

So the suggestion offered is this. No, the “devil” in 1 Pe.5:8 is what it normally is in the New Testament — a personification of the individual’s response to external temptation, not an external temptation itself. Yes it’s possible that Nero’s officials were seeking an occasion to slander the Christians of Pontus. It’s even more likely that the synagogue leaders in the cities of these mainly Jewish converts to Christianity in Pontus were seeking opportunities to slander them to the Roman officials.

In particular the common meaning of “adversary” (antidikos) here as “opponent” in a court case, may give the word a legal context. The  other 3 NT uses of antidikos are all related to court cases, as are most uses of “antidikos” in classical texts. But then again disproportionate number of classical legal texts have survived, and in the Greek Old Testament “antidikos” can just means “oppenent” (1 Sam.2:20)

But either way, formal court case and the penalty of being thrown to lions or not, ultimately if Peter meant the Jews or Romans he could have said

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversaries [the Jews / the Romans] prowl around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (sic)

For a threat to be personified as “the devil” it has to already not be a person. That is the whole point of personification. And also not be a fallen angel. The “devil” in the New Testament is something more subtle, and infinitely more dangerous. This is why Paul warns:

Eph.6:10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Jews and Romans are “flesh and blood.” The “whole armour of God” won’t help. And in the case of a fallen angel with supernatural powers, Paul’s advice above is even less meaningful. For all the talk of “spiritual warfare” (a popular term today) by those who see read verses like Eph.6:12 as talking about fallen angels, the reality is that the only place where a man or woman can ever really “resist the devil” is in his or her own heart:

James 4:7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

Nero won’t flee. A fallen angel isn’t going to flee (why should he?). But sin, weakness, doubt — these things can flee.  So in conclusion, whatever the background of persecution, and whatever the allusion to Christians being thrown to the lions,  “the devil” in 1 Peter 5:8 is most likely the same as in Eph.4:27, and is in the heart of any believer.

It would be nice if “the devil” in the New Testament was simply Jews, Romans, other people. Or even nicer still if a fallen angel could be blamed. But unfortunately the enemy of the New Man or Woman in Christ is a lot closer to home, and that is likely the point of Peter’s warning.

One Reply to “Is Nero the “devil who prowls around like a roaring lion”? (1 Peter 5:8)”

  1. As compared with the works of Josephus, the Acts of the Apostles was written in reverse of chronoloical order with the last supper first and the shipwreck last. This has a bearing on the decision of Berenice and Agrippa to send Paul to see Nero in Acts ch22. Paul never seems to meet Nero until it is recognised that Gallio in Acts ch18 is probably Nero.