In Need of a Savior (Judges 1)

In the book of Judges, the nation of Israel has entered the promise land. They have had two outstanding leaders, Moses and Joshua. Joshua stood in the Land and declared, “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15). The people of Israel responded with an overwhelming sense of, “We are with you!” It seemed like the young nation’s future was bright.

Judges

They still had one task to finish; they had to push the Canaanites out of the land. Some people read this and they are concerned. It’s important to know that God wanted the Canaanites pushed out, not simply because they were in the territory that He wanted to give Israel, but because their sins had become so great. You see the Canaanites worshiped the false gods of Baal and Ashtoreth, and sometimes Moloch. It can be helpful to know how they worshiped these false gods. If you were sick and wanted to get better you would take a child and place him in the hands of Moloch and offer its life for yours. In essence you were saying, “I want to live a more comfortable and disease free life, take the life of this child so I can have the life I want.” You would then be appeasing the gods by giving the child’s life for your own.[1]

The temples for worship were full of pornographic art in the form of idols and carvings. The way they worshiped was through prostitution and perverse sexual acts that could even involve family members. It’s too gross and ugly to describe in detail here. It’s enough to know that many of the ways that these people would worship is against the law here in America and punishable by serious time in prison. [2]

God had commanded the nation of Israel to push the Canaanites out. First, for justice in the case of those who had been oppressed, injured and even murdered as part of the pagan worship practices.  And second, so that the nation of Israel would not be tempted to worship false gods and follow the Canaanite ways.

That’s the background. Take a moment to read Judges 1:1-2:6. Read the whole thing and then come back and we will look at some important details togetehr. For the sake of brevity I’m just going to reference parts of the this passage as we talk about it and so I want it open before you and in the back of your mind as we discuss everything. So go ahead and take a moment to read. This page will still be here.

It is important for the nation of Israel to obey the Lord and push the Canaanites out of the land. They are in the middle of the task when Joshua dies and a crisis emerges. Joshua was a brilliant military leader who walked with God. Now that he is gone, there is no clear leader and no clear way forward. What do you do when you lose the leadership of someone you love and trust as a godly leade

You may lose a leader, but you won’t lose the Lord.

I think at this point it is important for us to draw on the fact that all godly leaders always point to the One greater than themselves… they point us to Jesus. In my case I had a great and godly dad but a stroke really changed his personality. Just because I lost my dad’s leadership didn’t mean that the Lord stopped caring about me. I might have lost a leader, but I didn’t lose the Lord. In fact my dad’s mission as a godly father was to point me to the Lord. He was like a shadow. The real leader was Jesus and my dad was evidence of what it looks like when God moves in someone’s life.

A couple of years ago, my son asked why he couldn’t see God. (It’s been a long standing rule in our family that you don’t draw God).  I explained that God is like the wind.[3] You don’t see wind; all you see are its effects.  It fills a sail and moves a boat. It blows a hat off a man. It pushes a windmill. There are lots of ways to see the wind move even though you can’t see it. It’s the same with God; there are lots of ways to see Him move, even though you don’t see him with your naked eye. There are miracles of healing, there are miracles of reconciliation that take place in our families, there are changes in your temperament and attitude as you continue to submit your life to God. Each one of these things are finger prints, evidence of God’s work.

Godly leaders are one of those things that God gives us that point to Him. We see God move in their life and our lives our better because of it. They bring the best out in us. They point us to the scriptures. They challenge us. They help our faith grow. Leaders like this are like shadows. Their substance, their influence, their weight isn’t rooted in who they are, but in who God is. Their whole life, their whole existence is to point us to the greater reality… God. When we lose a godly leader to sickness, death, or even God’s call to go somewhere else it can seem like God has abandoned us, but when this occurs it is important to remember, “we may have lost a leader, but we haven’t lost the Lord.”

It seems like at first the nation of Israel totally gets this. Joshua dies, they seek the Lord, they get directions and they start to finish the job of pushing the Canaanites out.  We get a snapshot of the conquest. They are kicking booty and taking names. All is good in the land of Israel.

Not long into the conquest, the nation starts to make compromises. Instead of looking fiercely different than the people they are kicking out, they start to behave like them. Then they allow them to live in the land. Finally we have a land of Canaanites and Israelites. This mix of people leads to a mix of worship. It isn’t long before the people of Israel are lead into the worship of false gods and a wicked kind of worship which I described earlier.

Today’s Compromise is tomorrow’s Corruption! Put another way. Your children will practice in excess what you do in moderation.

Along the way some unsightly things happen. They torture a guy but cutting of his thumbs and toes before killing him. It’s important to know that they weren’t looking for information! The city had been captured. They were having a little bit of sport at his death. This wasn’t God’s design; it was how the Canaanites did things. Indeed this poor guy understands and thinks it is alright for his captors to do this because he has done the same thing to seventy other kings (Judges 1:6-7).[4]

Then when they see an enemy that has superior battlefield technology known as the iron chariot, they choose not to fight (Judges 1:19). This is actually in direct violation of one of God’s commands to his people as they enter the land. It was spelled out for them in very clear terms by Moses:

“When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the LORD your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 20:1 ESV)

The people in Joshua’s time went up against unbeatable odds and won. They took down the wall of Jericho just by marching around it for a week and yelling at the top of their lungs. The people of the land were afraid of the Israelites because God was giving them amazing victory after victory in the land. Yet here Israel stops and their knees knock together and they pee their tunics because in their heart they think that there is no way they can take on an army with chariots. They have forgotten that the Lord can take care of any challenge that comes their way.

They make further compromises by allowing a guy to live if he just tells them where the secret entrance to his city is (again they are dealing with their own military brilliance rather than relying on God). He tells them and so they let him and his family go. He goes down the road a little way and then sets up shop, builds a homestead and names a town the same name as the one the Israelites have just destroyed (Judges 1:22-26).

Each compromise is worse than the one before until they are finally the nation of Israel is able and powerful enough to kick out the Canaanites, but they decide to make them slaves instead (Judges 1:35). They had the power and dominance to kick these folks out just as God had commanded but instead they make them slave laborers. This is in total defiance to God’s command.

Imagine that you have cancer and the doctor has to go in to operate? He has to remove a tumor from your body and it is very important that he get all of it. In fact they go ahead and set up a chemo or radiation schedule for after the surgery just in case one tiny bit accidentally gets left behind. Cancer is BAD and they are willing to put you through some rough stuff just to nuke it.

Now imagine that you have had the surgery and the doctor comes in to tell you about the operation. He says that he has tickets to the Alabama game on Saturday and while he could have taken more time to make sure he got the entire tumor it was more convenient for him to be done so he could get on the road.  He’s pretty sure that he got at least half of the tumor but there is a pretty big amount still left… How would you feel?

Cancer isn’t a joke!!!  And neither was the conquest of the land of Canaan. By leaving the Canaanites there in the land, not only have they disobeyed God, but they have also left a dangerous cancer of Baal worship. It is a cancer that spreads and will plague Israel for generations.

      Disobedience in Deadly

So I’m sure the people of the nation of Israel were patting themselves on the back. They had successfully conquered the land… sort of. I mean they did leave a lot behind but it looked pretty good at the moment.

Our old house is for sale and I recently mowed the lawn. Right now the lawn looks amazing. My front yard is made up of mostly weeds and a little bit of grass. The thing I like about mowing is that for a short while the lawn looks semi decent because all the weeds are cut down to the same height as the grass. But give my yard a week and it will look like a jungle again. You see by mowing my weeds down, I haven’t taken the time to really deal with them. I’ve just made them look alright for a while. If you really want to deal with a weed you have to get to its root; either drop in some poison that will kill it down to the root or pull the whole thing out, roots and all. There is no way to effectively deal with weeds without dealing with the root.

It was the same way with the Baal worship in the land of Canaan. They settled for a good mowing back rather than a total removal. Their children would be plagued by the people they failed to remove. The Lord even appears to them again and says that since they didn’t remove the altars to the false gods that they would become a snare to their children (Judges 2:1-5).

You see our sin always affects more than just us. You may think that your private habit of looking at dirty pictures doesn’t affect anyone, but it changes your attitude, it changes how you see other people. Those private moments aren’t so private when they affect the way you treat your spouse, your sister, your mother, your girlfriend, your daughter, your neighbor.

Your gossip goes beyond your friends. It gets back eventually. You can’t be trusted even by your friends anymore because they are afraid you will gossip about them. It’s ruining your friendships. Those lies you tell, they’ll be found out. People will see you as a liar, but what’s worse is they will feel betrayed because they trusted you.

Here is what sin unchecked in your life does! It festers and grows. Anger begets anger, lust begets more lust, a sharp tongue only grows sharper.  You tell yourself that it will get better over time and that you will outgrow it, but the truth is without serious intervention you will repeat the same sins over and over. In fact you will perfect the  sins you dabble in. Unchecked, you will practice them until you don’t even think about what you are doing. Your conscience no longer pricks you when you berate your children, stare at someone elses spouse, or still from your employer.  Sin grows. It doesn’t die unless you rip it out by the root and ripping it out by the root is work.

One of the famous dead guys I like to read goes by the name of John Owen once wrote, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” The point is that apart from some serious intervention and honest reflection before God that the small sins in your life today will be full blown nightmares tomorrow.

So how do you kill sin? The answer is you can’t do it on your own. You must seek the Lord. He’s the only one who can truly take care of your sin for you. The nation of Israel should have trusted God to take on the iron chariots in the valley and you also to need to trust God and take on the sin in your life.  It begins with confession. You agree with God that you have sin in your life that needs dealt with. It progresses toward genuine repentance. Real repentance is turning from your sin and to God. So if you have stolen, you give stuff back. If you are a liar, you start telling the truth. If you look at porn you get accountability, You haven’t repented until you have turned from sin to God.

Don’t get lost here. Don’t start down the path and stop. That’s like mowing the weeds. It will come back. You press into Jesus! You take every thought captive! You know the word of God so when a false guilt or shame arises you can say, “That’s not who I am anymore.”

The amazing thing is that he takes you as you are! He does all the real work! All you do is run to him and never look back. Are you there today? Are you ready to lay aside these things that have been holding you back and press into Jesus?

————————————————————————————————————————————-

[1] I think here it is important to note that we in America practice something similar. There are 1.5 million abortions performed each year. 1 in 6 women have had an abortion. To cause an abortion a provider may injects a baby with poison or  inserts a surgical instrument into the baby and tears it apart, or provides a poison for the mother to ingest which causes the baby to starve and suffocate to death.

[2] I think at this point it’s worth noting that the false gods/ idols that the people of the land of Canaan served required a lot of gross and immoral things at their hands including the burning children alive, child molestation, incest, sexual acts with animals, homosexuality, and necromancy  (see Leviticus 18:6-30, Deuteronomy 18:9-14). The Canaanites primarily worshiped Baal. Baal was a weather god. To a culture that depended on rain for crops, weather mattered. They believed that when Baal was aroused to make love with Ashtoreth (another Canaanite god) that it rained. To get Baal to do his thing, they would demonstrate perverse sexual acts in hopes that he would get the idea. The Canaanites believed the god’s must be manipulated into compliance. This type of worship of this false god destroyed lives.

[3] Actually I first explained that God is not visible to the human eye because he isn’t made of a material substance and thus not bound by the laws of physics, but the fact that physics exists is a sign of his existence. Then I went with the wind analogy.

[4] More than likely this is a slight exaggeration on his part.

THE SERVANT KING (from the Jesus StoryBook Bible).

We love reading this Storybook Bible to the kids. Here is another animated story from The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd Jones.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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.

The Lost Letters of Pergamum (Review)

Lost Letters of Pergamum, The: A Story from the New Testament World by Bruce W. Longenecker is a great read for anyone fascinated by the cultural settings of early Christianity.  Written as a fictitious exchange of letters, primarily between a nobleman named Antipas and Dr. Luke, the writer of Luke’s gospel.  The book is written in a way that is engages the imagination, yet maintains a level of historical accuracy that is seldom demonstrated in historical novels.

If you want to know more about the world in which the New Testament was written, but have a hard time getting excited about a text-book, this book is for you.  However, if you are a fan of fiction (and not a fan of history) you may quickly become bored.  The book is written to be a collection of letters and therefore reads as the voice of two or three narrators, thus leaving out the action, metaphors, etc. that normally accompany great fictional works.

If you are looking to get a broader picture of the customs and manners of the New Testament world in a way that is more engaging than a regular text-book, then  this book is for you.  The retail price of The Lost Letters of Pergamum is $17.99 (Paperback), and is available around the web in places like Amazon.com for $12.23. I gave it four stars.

 

Disclosure of Material Connection:  Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”