Scared to Death: Clues to the Circumstance of the First Readers of the Book of Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews contains abundant references to death but the theme has been surprisingly underdeveloped in New Testament studies. Its argument includes statements about dying, killing, martyrdom, and blood that may seem unremarkable in isolation, but through repetition throughout the discourse, they constitute a primary theme. This paper will first locate the references that are related to death by using the semantic domains that are associated with death and dying. Second, this paper will examine models the author offered the readers of those who successfully faced death: the exemplars in chapter 11, and the example of Christ who was one who faithfully endured in the face of suffering and the threat of death. Third, this paper will reconstruct the situation of the first readers through the author's descriptions of the readers’ circumstances combined with a consideration of the relevance that the specific references to death could have had for the readers. It will suggest that the readers are facing a lethal threat. Furthermore, it will suggest that the purpose of the Book of Hebrews was to help the readers navigate their life-threatening situation. Fourth, this paper will examine the range of possible threats that the readers could have faced, including persecution, martyrdom, and military destruction. It will be seen that the text offers abundant evidence that the Book of Hebrews was written to meet the needs of a church community that was threatened with destruction, a threat to which they probably succumbed.