The Persecution in Asia Minor

28 Oct
from Google Images

from Google Images

In my two previous blogposts regarding First and Second Peter, I have argued that Peter, the apostle of Jesus, was the author of both epistles. Moreover, the epistles had to have been written sometime before the persecution that developed surrounding the fire that burnt much of Rome in 64 AD. Therefore, the persecution that Peter mentions, occurring in the five Roman provinces of Asia Minor, must be a different persecution than that begun by Nero at Rome.

The New Testament shows that every persecution that occurred against believers in Jesus throughout the Roman Empire up to time when Paul sailed to Rome (with the exception of the imprisonment of Paul and Silas at Philippi) were all instigated by Jewish authorities—authorities in the local areas where believers were persecuted or authorities from Jerusalem who instigated or commanded such events against believers. All the persecutions were local. Although varying in size and scope, there simply was never an empire-wide persecution of Christians before that conducted by the emperor, Diocletian, in the fourth century AD. What we need to concern ourselves with, as it pertains to Peter’s first epistle, is: what persecution was he speaking of, and what or who was behind it?

It seems logical to assume that any persecution that occurred over a wide area had to have a common source, and that source had to be of some import or have some significant authority to be able to command such an event. Nero’s persecution certainly had the weight of authority behind it, but it didn’t develop into an empire-wide event. Why is that? I believe Nero’s sole reason for instigating the persecution was to cover up his own crime of setting Rome on fire. Once that problem was solved, interest in the persecution fizzled out. After all, Christians were considered by the state as politically harmless. The Jesus Movement didn’t represent a threat to Caesar or his interests. In fact, the Jesus Group was the only Messianic group within Judaism that was not considered a political threat. Every other Messianic movement, no matter how large or small, was sought out and destroyed by Roman authorities.

So, if Rome was not behind the persecution in Asia Minor, who was? Notice that Peter exhorts the elders of the churches in the five different Roman provinces (1Peter 1:1) to feed the flock of God (1Peter 5:1-11). This implies two things. First, that their doing so would combat the fiery trial all the churches were under at this particular time (1Peter 1:6-7; 4:12), and, secondly, that there must have been a common source behind the trial all the churches were enduring at the same time. Who was so powerful, and who in the empire hated the Jesus Movement so much that he would do such a thing?

I believe the only person, beside the Emperor himself, powerful enough to command such event against the Messianic Church, which had become an empire-wide movement, was the high priest at Jerusalem. We need to recall that Pilate wanted to release Jesus, and both Roman governors, Felix and Festus, wanted to release Paul, but it was the high priest, especially the Annas family of priests, who were politically powerful enough in Jerusalem to prevent that from occurring. Annas was the high priest who was behind Jesus’ crucifixion, and, interestingly enough, every persecution of believers mentioned in the New Testament, which occurred in Judea and Jerusalem, took place when a member of the Annas family officiated as high priest.

The first persecution that occurred surrounding the death of Stephen (Acts 7) targeted the Jewish Hellenist believers, and Caiaphas (Annas’ son-in-law) and Jonathan and Theophilus (Annas’ sons) were high priests from the beginning of that persecution to its end. The next persecution targeted the leadership of the believing community at Jerusalem, which culminated not only in the death of the Apostle James but also exiled Peter and the other apostles out of the realm of King Agrippa (Acts 12). Annas’ son, Matthias, officiated the office at that time and probably instigated the whole affair (cf. Acts 12:1-3 where the Jews refers to the Jewish authorities). Paul’s trouble in Jerusalem and imprisonment at Caesarea occurred when Jonathan officiated the office of high priest for a second time, and Jonathan was covertly killed by Felix for meddling in his affairs[1] (presumably to get Paul killed).

Josephus mentions a third persecution that began upon the death of the Roman governor Festus. Ananias, another son of Annas, was officiating as high priest and took advantage of the absence of Roman authority at Jerusalem and had several high ranking Christians killed, including James, the Lord’s brother.[2] This occurred about the year 60-61 AD, while Paul was in Rome under house arrest and awaiting trial. The murder of James, the Lord’s brother, seems to mark the beginning of another Jewish persecution against the Messianic community throughout the Roman world.[3] With the absence of Paul, the Jesus Movement might have been viewed as particularly vulnerable. Notice that Peter mentions in 1Peter 5:1-11 that submitting to one another and the elders taking the oversight of the flock was the way in which this particular persecution was to be combated. In other words, lives were not in jeopardy, generally speaking. It was an assault against the believing community, probably doctrinal in nature or pressure to conform to doctrine more friendly to the Mosaic Law (as Paul combated in his epistle to the Galatians), but it was not necessarily a bloody persecution.

Therefore, it seems to me that the persecution that Peter mentions occurring in Asia minor was probably begun while Paul was in prison at Rome. James, the Lord’s brother, wrote his epistle as an encrypted warning of the coming and perhaps present attack (cf. James 5:1-11) that reached outward in an effort to bring the Messianic movement under the control of the high priest at Jerusalem. His epistle may have brought about his death at the hand of Ananias, high priest and son of Annas. Peter mentioned false teachers being a particular threat in his second letter (2Peter 2:1), so an all out effort may have been made at this time by Jerusalem authorities to bring believers into subjection to them (cf. Galatians 2:4; 5:1-2), putting the writing of both epistles of Peter sometime between 60 to 63 AD.


[1] Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews (20.8.5)

[2] Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews (20.9.1)

[3] Some believe that Paul didn’t preach in the five Roman provinces mentioned by Peter, yet Paul tells us that he preached the Gospel “from Jerusalem and round about to Illyricum” (Romans 15:19), showing the general direction of his evangelistic efforts. He had preached the Gospel in Galatia and north up to Bithynia (cf. Acts 16:7). Nevertheless, he spent three years in Asia (Acts 20:31) and logic tells us that he would have spread the Gospel to all the northern provinces of Asia as well, just as he had gone throughout Illyricum, while he was three years in Achaia.

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Posted by on October 28, 2016 in Epistles of Peter


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