What Was the Nature of the Persecution Mentioned in the Epistle to the Hebrews?


The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes, “But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (10:32-34).[1]  This picture of suffering painted against the obscure background surrounding the Hebrew epistle leaves many scholars baffled as to the nature of the persecutions referenced in this passage.

Persecution broke out against Christians at various times, to varying degrees across Roman Empire in the first century.  Pinning Hebrews 10:32-34 to a historically recorded outbreak of persecution, however, proves to be a difficult task due to the limited amount of data concerning the general context of the Epistle to the Hebrews.   It is the purpose of this post to examine historical and textual evidence and propose the probable scenario behind the persecution mentioned in Hebrews 10:32-34.

WHAT IS THE NATURE OF THE PERSECUTION MENTIONED IN THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS?

The general context of the Epistle of Hebrews is difficult for scholars to agree upon.  The epistle itself does not give very many clues as to who wrote it, who received it, the occasion for which the epistle was written, or even when it was written.  Donald Guthrie notes the complex nature of pinning down the context, “Many of the questions which the investigator is bound to ask cannot be satisfactorily resolved.”[2]

What can be deduced internally is that the first recipients were a specific community with a specific history. [3] Craig R. Koester summarizes the data in three points:

Firstly the readers’ community was established when the message of salvation led to conversion and was confirmed by experiencing miracles and a sense of the Spirit’s presence. Secondly, during a time of persecution conditions became more difficult but the community remained steadfast in the wake of abuse, dispossession, and imprisonment and was not pressured into relinquishing their commitments. During the third stage, conditions within the community seemed to deteriorate as ongoing friction with non-Christians and the demands of mutual support within the Christian community evidently moved some to exhibit diminished commitment to the faith and to neglect the community’s gatherings.[4]

Beyond the internal evidence about the nature of the community that received the Epistle to the Hebrews the debate about the nature of the persecution centers both on the location of the recipients and the date of the book.  Once these two criteria are estimated, one may compare the text of Hebrews 10:32-43 with known persecutions fitting the established criteria.  A conclusion to the probable nature of the persecution referenced in Hebrews 10:32-34 can then be made.

The Recipients of the Epistle to the Hebrews

The title “To Hebrews” appears to be a scribal gloss added sometime around the second or third century and is unreliable in determining either the location or ethnic background of the intended recipients.[5]  However, some scholars claim that the title was added because of the apparent ethnic theme that is displayed throughout the book.[6]  One such scholar notes, “It is probable that the author also expected his readers to recognize allusions to the OT deuterocanon, though he does not quote these as scripture.  Moreover, the argument of Hebrews is marked at many places by typical if not uniquely rabbinic procedures, such as the argument from the silence of scripture, and extrascriptural traditions such as the role of angels as intermediaries in the giving of the Law.”[7]

Some New Testament Theologians have made the case that the letter to the Hebrews was written to the church in Jerusalem.[8]  However, it appears peculiar that the letter to the Hebrews would bare so much discussion of Jewish cultic practices apart from the Temple.[9]  Carson, Moo and Morris, write, “The epistle is written in polished Greek, and none of the Old Testament quotations and allusions unambiguously depends on the Hebrew or Aramaic; from this we must conclude either that the author knew no Semitic tongue or that his readers, if in Jerusalem were all expatriots, Greek speakers choosing to live in Jerusalem or the surrounding area.”[10]

One theory supposes that the recipients were formerly from Jerusalem but had since migrated to another location.  The theory suggests that a community of Hellenized Jews, perhaps associated with Stephen had a past acquaintance with the city but were now scattered out from the city due to the persecution that befell Christians after the martyrdom of Stephen.[11]  Bruce writes, “Those Hellenists scattered in many directions, carrying the gospel wherever they went; one can easily think of the readers of this epistle as one of the communities of new believers founded at that time.”[12]

Some scholars theorize that this fledgling church running from persecution in Jerusalem may have ended up as a house church in Rome.  Bruce attributes the wide spread theory of a house church in Rome to the theologian Adolf Harnack.[13]  He also credits William Mason with deriving a theory of a house church in Rome linked back to the world mission theology and subsequent martyrdom of Stephen.[14]  Mason’s work seeks to radically reinterpret Hebrews along the lines of world mission.  Mason suggests:

 “The community of Christians established at Rome by the world-mission was predominantly Jewish-Christian in composition and character, rather than Gentile-Christian.  Separatist tendencies within the Church inclined to the Jewish rather than the Gnostic or Hellenistic side.  The minority of the group to which Hebrews was addressed was definitely Jewish-Christian.”[15]

Other cities of interest have been put forward as possible locations.  Alexandria, Antioch, Bithynia and Pontus, Caesarea, Colossae, Corinth, Cyprus, and Samaria are some of the places that various scholars have put forward. [16] Rome, however gathers a larger amount of support.[17]

The evidence for a Roman church is largely dependent upon how one reads the closing remarks.  The author of Hebrews writes, “Those who come from Italy send you greetings” (13:24).  Guthrie comments, “The most natural way to understand this expression is of people whose home is in Italy, but who are living elsewhere and are desirous of sending greetings home.”[18] Unfortunately these vague clues alone are not enough to definitively specify an audience.

The internal evidence taken along with external evidence does provide a plausible but not definitive argument for Rome being the intended destination of the epistle.  Hagner suggests that since the first external evidence and reference to Hebrews appears in writing by Clement of Rome that the Epistle was already familiar in Rome.[19] This evidence alone, however, does not provide conclusive evidence for Rome as the destination of the Hebrew Epistle. Many New Testament scholars conclude that Rome is the most likely destination for the letter, but suggest that any variety of other locations is also possible.[20]

Dating the Epistle to the Hebrews

Pinning a date on the book of Hebrews is difficult.  F. F. Bruce notes, “In the absence of any clear evidence for the identity of the recipients or the author, the date of the epistle is also uncertain.”[21] Though nailing down a certain date is seemingly impossible, scholars are able to pin the time of the authorship to sometime within the first century.[22]

Scholars are quite certain that the book of Hebrews was written after Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection and therefore the book of Hebrews was written sometime after AD 30.[23]  The author of Hebrews writes “It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard” (3:2).  This can be understood to mean that the Hebrew community was a second generation Christian community.  When they received the gospel they did so with joy, even embracing persecution (10:32). However, their zeal and commitment had begun to wane and they were in danger of drifting from what they had been taught (2:1) and the writer had expected them to grow spiritually beyond what they had, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers” (5:12).  While it is impossible to ascertain a definite time frame for these events to occur, it is sufficient to surmise that a reasonable amount of time would have passed between the resurrection, the Hebrew community receiving the gospel, persecution, and subsequent temptation to drift and lack of reasonable growth.[24]  New Testament theologian, Luke Timothy Johnson notes, “A date earlier than 45 would seem, in light of this evidence, highly unlikely.”[25]

Figuring out the latest possible date is difficult as well.  If the Timothy mentioned in Hebrews 13:23 is the companion of Paul, it seems clear that the epistle was written during his lifetime.[26]  However, given the limited information that scholars have regarding the life of Timothy this does not narrow down the time frame.

The epistle of Hebrews is first alluded to in 1 Clement which traditionally has been understood to have been written around 96 AD.[27]  The reasoning behind this early date of 1 Clement is in large part due to the interpretation of the phrase, “The successive and calamitous events”[28] as being a veiled reference to the persecution under the emperor Domitian.[29]  Some scholars, however, argue for a later date for the epistle of 1 Clement suggesting that it may have been written as late as 140 AD.[30] Thus they would view Clement of Rome’s dependence upon the book of Hebrews in writing 1 Clement as an unworthy guide to dating the epistle.[31]

Some scholars claim the date for the book of Hebrews should be set prior to A.D. 70 when the temple was destroyed in Jerusalem.[32]  This is in large part due to the present tense nature of the language referring to cultic practice.[33] Lane dismisses this idea and notes:

The argument, however, is untenable. The writer of Hebrews shows not interest in the temple in any of its forms not in contemporary cultic practice. In 9:1-10, for example he concentrates his attention upon the tabernacle of the Israelites in the wilderness rather than upon the temple… That the argument in Hebrews is developed in terms of the tabernacle indicates that the present tenses in the account should be taken as “timeless,” rather than as a reflection of a continuing temple liturgy in Jerusalem.[34]

Guthrie however is not as quick to dismiss the tabernacle motif as a sure sign that the temple could have already been destroyed.  He writes:

The present tenses, used for instance in 9:6-9 would have more point the Temple ritual was still being observed.  The distinction between the tabernacle and Temple may not have been as sharp to the original readers as appears to the modern reader.  On the whole this line of evidence is more in favor of a date before rather than after AD 70, especially if weight is given to the strange omission of any mention of the catastrophe if it had already happened.  It would have been a valuable historic confirmation of the major thesis of the epistle – the passing of the old to make way for the new.[35]

Taking the arguments into account New Testament Theologian Donald Hagner places the date of Hebrews somewhere around “the early sixties.”[36]  Likewise Paul Ellingworth[37] and F. F. Bruce[38] also date the letter in the early sixties in view of the persecution that broke out in Rome around 64 AD.[39] Other New Testament scholars prefer to leave the date a bit more open.  Luke Timothy Johnson states, “Although such arguments provide nothing more than probability, the cumulative effect of the three lines of argument I have proposed lead to the likely date for Hebrews being between 45 and 70, with a date between 50 and 70 quite possible.”[40] John Paul Heil summarizes it best, “Perhaps the most that can be said with relative certainty is that Hebrews was written sometime in the latter half of the first century.”[41]

The Textual Evidence for Persecution

            Pinning the date of the persecution within the possible dates of the authorship of Hebrews is an ardent task.  If the persecution referred to is Roman in nature, then scholars have two immediately viable persecutions.  The first major persecution against Christians occurred under Nero following the burning of Rome in 64 AD.[42]  The second followed several years later under the reign of Domitian. [43]

The persecution under Nero began following the burning of Rome on 19 July 64 AD.[44]  The fire had consumed the larger portion of the city and left thousands of people homeless.  Rumors began to spread quickly that Nero had intentionally set Rome on fire.  In an attempt to direct hostilities away from himself Nero indicated the Christians were to blame and unleashed his own peculiar rage against them in a tidal wave of persecution which resulted in the death of many believers in and around Rome.[45]  Though the fury of the emperor was hottest in Rome, there is no reason to conclude that only Christians in geographical proximity to Rome were the only ones to suffer.  Harold Parker, Jr. suggests, “While the Neronian persecution had been confined to Rome, it would not be difficult indeed to project that experience to any city in the Empire, such as the riot at Ephesus suggests (Acts 19:21-41), or the turmoil in Jerusalem (Acts 21:27-40).”[46]

Persecution later would break out under the reign of the Emperor Domitian.  Scholars face a great deal of difficulty in determining the reasons for persecution under Domitian.  Unlike the Neronian persecution there does not appear to be a significant catalyst for renewed zeal in the persecution of Christians.[47]  However, hostilities toward the Jews and Christians alike were on the rise in the Roman Empire over a perceived lack of patriotism toward the emperor by way of the imperial cult.[48] Harold Parker, Jr. writes, “There are several additional reasons why Domitian could have prompted the persecutions against the adherents of the new faith.  Without question was the emergence of the imperial cult, a condition arising when Domitian required that he be addressed as Lord and God.”[49]

However, in both the persecutions under Nero and Domitian it is certain that more than the seizure of property and public shame was taking place.  Christians were perceived to have been martyred for their faith.  The writer of Hebrews does not mention martyrdom in Hebrews 10:32-34, he merely speaks of public shame and dishonor.  In chapter twelve the author challenges the recipients to look to Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:2-4).  This statement, “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood,” (12:4) if taken literally would indicate that the persecution suffered by the community was a lesser form of persecution than death.[50]

If the martyrdom had not yet occurred in the Hebrews community, then it is possible to rule out the Jerusalem church as a location as Stephen and James had most likely already been martyred there.[51]  If a community in Rome was the intended audience then the letter must have been written sometime before 65AD when persecution took shape under Nero.[52]  The conclusions drawn off of a literal reading of Hebrews 12:4 have scholars scouring the historical data for other potential persecutions.

Some scholars conclude that Hebrews 10:32-34 references a local outburst of rather than a systemic tide of persecution and the action may have been mob oriented rather than governmentally sanctioned.[53] Craig Koester writes, “Since confiscation was normally done alongside other punishments, and Hebrews implies that property was lost even by those who were not imprisoned, it seems likely that the seizures were not fully legal, but that they might have been tolerated by the authorities.”[54] Koester goes on to note that the text is not clear on whether the persecution was instigated by Jews or Gentiles.[55] Though at various times Jews were ousted from their synagogue for their Christian practices and beliefs, it appears that more is at stake in Hebrews 10:32-34 as some even suffer imprisonment.[56]  Thus the government is involved at least mildly in past persecution.

DeSilva hypothesizes what is at stake in the Hebrews 10:32-34 passage is honor and shame.  He writes:

“While the believers were once content to lose  their place in society (with the confiscation of their property, their subjection to trial and disgrace, 10:32-34), with the passing of time these longings resurface and pressure some of the believers at least to withdraw from the associations that marginal low-status group, which would undermine their own status in society.  This accounts for the withdrawal of some from the gathered worshiping community (10:25) as well as the perceived need on the part of the author to reinforce the importance of showing solidarity with the imprisoned and tortured (10:34; 13:3).[57]

The question remains, do scholars have a historical account of a local outburst against Christianity that would have resulted in the seizure of property and possible jail time?  Some scholars think they have found the answer.  However, the account is not crystal clear and leaves room for a more open interpretation.

The Roman Emperor Claudius expelled several Jews from Rome in the year 49 AD and Christians were known to be among them.[58]  Indeed, this expulsion from Rome is what took Aquila and Pricilla to Rome where they would later meet the Apostle Paul.[59] Manson notes, “Though the confiscation of property and imprisonments occurred in the pogrom at that time, there had been no loss of Christian lives.”[60]

The minor persecution under Claudius also appears to have a small, but significant link to the Christian message.  The Roman writer Suetonius wrote that the expulsion was due to disturbances caused by “Chrestus.”[61] Davidson writes:

The “Chrestus” he mentions may have been a Jewish troublemaker of whom we otherwise know nothing.  Alternatively, Suetonius may have misunderstood the spelling of “Christus” (possibly because the word could be pronounced “Chrestus”), and he may be saying that the riots occurred at Rome when the message of Christ was spread among the city’s Jews.  Either way, it looks as if there was no singling out of Christians for particularly hostile treatment, even if it was the name of their Savior that provoked the disputes.  Jesus’ followers were removed from the capital as part of a wider constituency of Jews whom the authorities regarded as undesirables. [62]

CONCLUSION

Textual and historical evidence simply interpreted are inconclusive concerning the nature of the suffering referenced in Hebrews 10:32-34.  Circumstantial evidence does support the viable possibility that the suffering referenced in Hebrews 10:32-34 took place in Rome under the Emperor Claudius.  However, this position is built on a framework of suppositions that are tenable, but unable to be completely grounded by historical data.  While the scenario fits, it is not conclusive.

For the persecution to have taken place under the Emperor Claudius, the audience of the Epistle to the Hebrews would have had to have been a church in Rome during the year 49 AD.  This assumes that the location of the church was Rome.  While this claim is viable it is not definitively provable beyond any kind of reasonable doubt.  Indeed across the spectrum of scholarship there are many hypothesis on where the original audience of the epistle of Hebrews might have been located.

The above scenario also assumes the persecution that took place was one available in the historical records.  While it is true to assume that a stay in jail would have involved the government, there is enough historical precedent across the Roman empire to logically conclude that persecution may have been a localized dispute similar in nature to the many that surrounded Apostle Paul on his journey, most notably Ephesus (Acts 19:21-41).  A localized persecution of a similar and perhaps smaller nature is just as viable as a Roman persecution in the absence of information regarding the original recipients of the letter.

When scholars set about to draw conclusions based on a particular text, context plays a key part.   Like putting a puzzle together the pieces already assembled give shape to the missing piece and provide evidence for the shape of the missing piece.  By studying the pieces that surround a missing piece of evidence scholars are able to provide tenable theories as to the shape and size of a missing piece.

However when one comes to the book of Hebrews it quickly becomes apparent that scholars are not dealing with just one missing piece of evidence, they are dealing with several.  Little is truly verifiable concerning the context of the Epistle to the Hebrews. For scholars to conclude a location, more evidence is needed.  For Scholars to conclude the nature of the audience, more evidence is needed.  For scholars to conclude the authorship of the book of Hebrews, more evidence is needed.  When working from the inside out, any puzzle piece in solidarity looks like the right piece and any proposition is valid until it comes in sharp contrast with verifiable data.

What scholars do know is that the recipients of the Epistle to the Hebrews did suffer a mild form of persecution that resulted in the loss of property and the imprisonment of a few of their members.  It is likely that this persecution was never severe enough for a member of the community to be martyred.  The community had since drifted and some in the community were in danger of abandoning the community and perhaps even their faith.  This may have been due to a sense of shame associated with the former loss of status and possessions.  Fortunately the broader theological argument throughout the Epistle to the Hebrews is not tied to the nature of the persecution mentioned in Hebrews 10:32-34.

 

 


[1] All Scripture quotations in this paper, unless noted otherwise are from the The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2006).

[2] Donald Guthrie, The Letter to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 15.

[3] Donald A. Hagner, Hebrews. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1990), 4.

[4] Craig R. Koester, “Conversion, persecution, and Malaise: Life in the Community for which Hebrews was Written,” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 61, No. 1&2 (2005), 231.

[5] John Paul Heil, Hebrews (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2010), 20.

[6] Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 33-34.

[7] Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1993), 23.

[8] Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An introduction to the New Testament, 400-401.

[9] Fredrick F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 10.

[10] Carson, Moo and Morris, An introduction to the New Testament, 400-401.

[11] Bruce, 10.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 13-14.

[14] Ibid.

[15] William Manson. The Epistle to the Hebrews. (London: Hodder and Stoughton LTD., 1949), 24.

[16] Carson, Moo and Morris, 400-401. and Guthrie, 27.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Guthrie, 27.

[19] Hagner, 5.

[20] Guthrie, 27. Hagner, 6-7.

[21] Bruce, 20-21.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Johnson, 38.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Bruce, 21.

[27] N. Clayton Croy, Endurance in suffering (Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 1998), 5.

[28] 1 Clement 1

[29] Ellingworth, 29-30.

[30] William L. Lane. Hebrews. (Dallas: Word Books, 1991), lxii-lxiii.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Bruce, 21.

[33] Ibid., 21-22.

[34] Lane, lxiii.

[35] Guthrie, 28.

[36] Hagner, 8.

[37] Ellingworth, 33.

[38] Bruce, 21.

[39] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, (Peabody: Prince Press, 1999), 33-36.

[40] Johnson, 40.

[41] Heil, 20.

[42] Gonzalez, 33-36.

[43] Ivor J. Davidson. The birth of the church. (Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2004), 195.

[44] Ibid.,191.

[45] Davidson, 191-193.

[46] Harold M. Parker, Jr. “Domitian and the epistle to the Hebrews.”  Iliff Review 36, No. 2 (Spring 1979), 34.

[47] Gonzalez, 36.

[48] Davidson, 194-195.

[49] Parker 34-35.

[50] Bruce, 21.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Koester, 240.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid., 241.

[56] Ibid.

[57] David Arthur DeSilva. “Despising Shame: A Cultural-Anthropological Investigation of the Epistle to the Hebrews.” Journal of Biblical Literature 113, No. 3 (Fall 1994), 440.

[58] Davidson, 190.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Manson, 163.

[61] Davidson, 191.

[62] Ibid.

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