Moral Lethargy and the Epistle to the Hebrews -- By: Thomas E. Schmidt

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 54:1 (Spring 1992)
Article: Moral Lethargy and the Epistle to the Hebrews
Author: Thomas E. Schmidt


Moral Lethargy and the Epistle to the Hebrews

Thomas E. Schmidt

The consensus of scholars working on Hebrews has been that the letter was written either to prevent some form of schism—usually Judaistic or Essene—or to prevent apostasy under the pressure of some external threat.1 And it is of course possible to combine these explanations. Another theory worthy of consideration is that the threat perceived by the author came primarily from within rather than from without the community and that the immediate danger was primarily moral laxity or passivity rather than reversion or diversion to unorthodox belief. Moral lethargy, I will contend, accounts for the dominance of moral exhortation in the epistle and the peculiar vocabulary for apostasy/perseverance employed by the author.2

I. Community Persecution

With so few details of background available for the epistle, it is inadvisable to adduce in support of any theory of Sitz im Leben particular conditions that cannot be supported by direct reference to the text. There are, however, internal indications that a comparatively uneventful period in the history of the community was taking a toll on its members. We can deduce from references like 5:12, 6:10, and 10:32 that the group has a past of significant duration. Furthermore, we can infer from 10:32 (in “the former days…you endured a hard struggle with sufferings”) that dramatic experience is far enough past to require reminder. It is noteworthy that chap. 10 is the location of the author’s reference to the Parousia, “For yet a little while …” (v. 37). Without an intervening comparison of the past to the present, this may imply not that they

must respond to a renewal of these hardships but that the memory of those times must sustain them through the wait. “You managed then,” he argues, “surely you can last a little while longer.”

Still this paragraph in chap. 10 is often adduced to support the notion of current persecution. In 10:36, believers are said to have need of endurance (ὑπομονῆς). This word, following on the heels of the reference to their past endurance (ὑπομείνατε, v. 32), may imply that they are suffering the hardship of pers...

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