Matthew 5:10 in detail,  blessed are the persecuted

1. The historical context

Persecution within the Hebrew Bible

Deuteronomy 30:1-7 establishes persecution as typical of the experience of those within an apostate Israel. Moses, having reviewed the blessings and curses associated with the Covenant of Moab, addresses what Israel should do once they find themselves in exile. When they remember the blessings and curses and turn back to God, then he will restore them as a nation, they will experience the blessings and the curses will be visited upon those who persecuted them.

Outside the Pentateuch, the Hebrew Bible is replete with examples persecution. Amongst them:

In the so-called roll-call of faith, the author of Hebrew’s 11 looks back on Israel’s history, notes the glorious acts of God’s servants, but then concludes by emphasising just how many of them suffered for their faith:

32What more shall I say? For the time would fail me if I told of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets;  33who, through faith subdued kingdoms, worked out righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, grew mighty in war, and caused foreign armies to flee. 35Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.  36Others were tried by mocking and scourging, yes, moreover by bonds and imprisonment.  37They were stoned. They were sawn apart. They were tempted. They were slain with the sword. They went around in sheep skins and in goat skins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated  38(of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts, mountains, caves, and the holes of the earth.

(Heb 11:32-38 WEB)

In the Apocryphal literature

Sirach proclaims that God is the avenger of the persecuted (Sir 5:3), whilst Baruch advocates suffering persecution patiently in the knowledge that God will bring deliverance (Baruch 4:24-5)

The second-century B.C.E. persecution of Jews under the Seleucids is well known, with Antiochus Epiphanes proclaiming a death penalty for any who were seen to follow the Law of Moses (1 Macc. 1:44-51, 4 Macc 4:23) and torturing those who refused to eat unclean meats (4 Macc 4:26). Ultimately it triggered the Maccabean revolt.

Gore (1904, 21) notes the attitude that the writer of the Wisdom of Solomon, a late first-century B.C.E. text (Winston 1996, 6:120), expected outsiders to have toward the righteous:

10 Let us oppress the righteous poor;
Let us not spare the widow,
Nor reverence the hairs of the old man grey for length of years.
. . .
12 But let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
Because he is of disservice to us,
And is contrary to our works,
And upbraideth us with sins against the law,
And layeth to our charge sins against our discipline.
    . . .
15 He is grievous unto us even to behold,
Because his life is unlike other men’s,
And his paths are of strange fashion.
16 We were accounted of him as base metal,
And he abstaineth from our ways as from uncleannesses.
The latter end of the righteous he calleth happy;
And he vaunteth that God is his father.
17 Let us see if his words be true,
And let us try what shall befall in the ending of his life.
18 For if the righteous man is God’s son, he will uphold him,
And he will deliver him out of the hand of his adversaries.
19 With outrage and torture let us put him to the test,
That we may learn his gentleness,
And may prove his patience under wrong.
20 Let us condemn him to a shameful death;
For according to his words he will be visited.

(Wis 2:10–20 Charles)

All of these, taken together with the Deuteronomy passage (Deut 30:1-7), contributed to a corporate sense that during times of foreign domination, Israel’s righteous were a persecuted people.

Oppression in the time of Jesus

In the early first-century the picture one gets is not so much one of systematic persecution, but one of oppressive leadership that built resentment. That at least some sections of the Jewish nation felt oppressed is clear, both from the periodic eruption of violence and from the ruthlessness with which their leaders felt they needed to deal with dissent.

Herod the Great was prone to the persecution of his political enemies, and Josephus reports: “as for those that could no way be reduced to acquiesce under his scheme of government, he persecuted them all manner of ways” (Josephus Ant 15:368 Whiston). Amongst those rivals were those who resented Herod’s approach toward Rome. For example, when Herod erected the Roman eagle over a gate to the temple courts, the prominent Bible teachers Judas and Matthias incited their students to remove it (Wead and Scott 2002, 288-289). Whereupon, Herod executed both forty of the students and their two tutors. Elsewhere Josephus describes Herod’s reaction to the suspicion of any plot against him:

“These confessions did so terrify Herod, that he durst not immediately publish them; but he sent spies abroad privately, by night and by day, who should make a close inquiry after all that was done and said; and when any were but suspected [of treason] he put them to death, insomuch that the palace was full of horribly unjust proceedings. for everybody forged calumnies, as they were themselves in a state of enmity or hatred against others; and many there were who abused the king’s bloody passion to the disadvantage of those with whom they had quarrels, and lies were easily believed, and punishments were inflicted sooner than the calumnies were forged. He who had just then been accusing another, was accused himself, and was led away to execution together with him whom he had convicted; for the danger the king was in of his life made examinations be very short.” 

(Wars 1:492-3 Whiston)

The massacre at Bethlehem (Matt 2:16), though small enough to have escaped wider historical record and considered apocryphal by some, would have been typical of the ruthless behaviour of Herod toward potential political rivals. 

Whilst Herod’s successor, his son Archelaus, initially promised to adopt a milder approach toward his people, he was still opposed by traditionalists who continued to be inspired by the actions of Judas and Matthias (Braund 1996, 367). This unrest culminated at a passover, when a faction of those attending Passover openly opposed Archelaus’ authority and Archelaus responded by sending in his army who massacred some 3000 of the assembled worshippers (Josephus Ant, 17.216-18).  The first-century Jewish historian Josephus suggests that Archelaus “used not the Jews only, but the Samaritans also, barbarously; and this out of his resentment of their old quarrels with him” (Wars 111 Whiston).

Whilst from the Roman perspective the actions of Herod and Archelaus would have looked like peacekeeping, albeit of a brutal form. However, from the perspective of the traditionalists it would have surely seemed as if they were being persecuted for trying to preserve their faith. In Matthew’s Gospel we are reminded of Archelaus reputation and find Jesus’ family numbered amongst those who perceived him as a threat (Matt 2:22).

The periodic Roman taxation census had been a feature of life since the republican era (Villers & Pelser 1998, 6.1.7), but when, in 6 C.E. Caesar Augustus extended it to introduce an inheritance tax, Quirinius’ attempt to collect it triggered rebellion (c.f. Acts 5:37). Josephus reports the event: “yet there was one Judas, a Gaulonite, of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty” (Josephus Ant 18.4).

Throughout the time of the Herodian dynasty the Romans had allowed Judea to govern itself.  However, Archelaus was not a popular leader (Josephus Ant, 17.341-2) and eventually, in an attempt to quell the unrest, Rome sent him into exile and imposed direct rule (Braund 1996, 368). Following this, direct rule from Rome was imposed, leaving sections of the Jewish population feeling that their way of life was once again under threat. Valerius Gratus governed Judea on behalf of Rome for seven years, following which Pontius Pilate took over as prefect (Schwartz 1996, 396). The available evidence for Pilate’s term of office, from both Josephus and Philo, gives an impression of a very turbulent period characterized by hostility and violence between the governor and his subjects (Schwartz 1996, 398) 

Later, in C.E. 26, Pontius Pilate became prefect of Judea. To devout Jews many of his acts were interpreted as directly subversive to their Jewish cult, and his violence in defense of them was therefore seen as persecution of their respective groups e.g.:

Eventually it was his forceful suppression of a religiously motivated Samaritan rally that proved his downfall (Josephus Ant 18.85-89).

Schwartz makes a reasonable case that Pilate’s record is exaggerated by a superficial reading of the available evidence (Schwartz 1996, 398-9). Be that as it may, these ancient authors seem to be tapping into a perception that was strong enough to to give rise to frequent insurrections (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19, Acts 5:34-7). Clearly, throughout the rule of the Herodian Dynasty and the subsequent Roman oversight of Judea, those opposed to these arrangements thought of themselves as an oppressed people and there is always a thin line between oppression and persecution.

Jesus’ personal experience of persecution

The massacre at Bethlehem (Matt 2:16) and the holy family’s reluctance to return there have already been mentioned. However, there is a much more immediate example of persecution impinging upon Jesus’ life. Matthew’s Gospel makes it clear that the imprisonment of John the Baptist preceded the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 4:12).    

In Matthew’s Gospel the message of Jesus’ earliest ministry is succinctly portrayed as the same as that of John the Baptist (Matt 3:2, 4:17). Furthermore, John effectively proclaims Jesus as his successor (John 1:30), whilst Jesus accepted a part in John’s movement by submitting to his baptism (Matt 3:13-15). According to Luke, John and Jesus were closely related (Luke 1:36). The imprisonment of John the Baptist (Luke 1:36; Matt 4:12; Josephus, Ant. 18:116-119) therefore provides the Sermon on the Mount with a particularly personal backdrop of persecution, for it involved:

Jesus himself seems have interpreted this as an act of violence against the kingdom, at least to judge from his observations following the arrival of a message from John (Matt 11:12). Moreover, this move against John appears to have prompted Jesus’ move to Galilee (Matt 4:12), traditionally a safer-haven for dissenters (c.f. Acts 5:37).

Indirect evidence that Jesus saw himself as part of a displaced and persecuted people may also be found in: 

Whilst assigned a later place in Matthew, Luke places into this early ministry context the rejection and attempted murder of Jesus at Nazareth (Luke 4:28-30, cf. John 4:43-44). It seems that Luke, at least, was concerned to emphasise that Jesus’ ministry had attracted persecution from the outset.

The audience’s anticipation of persecution

Some of those present at the Sermon were certainly with John (John 1:35-37) before they began to follow Jesus (John 1:39). Indeed that was probably the case for all of Jesus’ twelve closest disciples (cf. Acts 1:21-22). Therefore, supporters of John’s agenda were well represented amongst the Sermon’s audience. With John’s arrest Jesus effectively became operational leader of the new movement, or at least a regional part of it. Thus, John’s arrest, coupled with the authorities’ history of moving against both leaders and their followers, brought the prospect of persecution or even martyrdom to the doorstep of these disciples.

Jesus appears to have assumed that Israel’s prophets had consistently been persecuted and that the same persecution continued:

 29“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and decorate the tombs of the righteous,  30and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we wouldn’t have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’  31Therefore you testify to yourselves that you are children of those who killed the prophets.  32Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers.  33You serpents, you offspring of vipers, how will you escape the judgment of Gehenna?  34Therefore, behold, I send to you prophets, wise men, and scribes. Some of them you will kill and crucify; and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city;  35that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zachariah son of Barachiah, whom you killed between the sanctuary and the altar.  36Most certainly I tell you, all these things will come upon this generation.

(Matt 23:29-36 WEB)

This passage uses the “Jewish interpretive technique of combining key words to coalesce two Zechariahs, referring to one and alluding to the other” (Keener 1993, Mt 23:35). Given the Hebrew Bible’s order of books, Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest (2 Chr 24:22) is sequentially the last prophet to be Martyred, whilst considering the prophets chronologically Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, (Zech 1:1) is the last. Jesus was suggesting that throughout the history of Israel and throughout their scriptures, prophets have always been persecuted.

From the period that followed the Sermon there is ample evidence of continuing persecution, for example in the crucifixion of Jesus (Matt 26:4), the early martyrdoms that pre-dated the conversion of Paul (Acts 7:58-59, Gal 1:13), and the High Priest Ananus’ execution of James (Josephus Ant. 20.200)

The parallel with the time of Elijah

In Elijah’s day God’s faithful servants became a remnant, whom persecution forced into hiding (1 Kgs 18:13, 19:14-18), a group to whom Paul directly likens the followers of Jesus (Rom 11:4-5). Jesus, by insisting on baptism by John (Matt 3:14-15), had accepted the authority of this Elijah like leader (cf. Matt 11:14) and joined the embryonic remnant. Jesus’ perception of the ministry of John the Baptist as Elijah-like (Matt 11:14), provides sufficient historical context for expecting persecution (1 Kgs 18:14, 19:2-3), even had none yet materialised. Indeed, that prophets attracted persecution is precisely Jesus’ point in Matt 5:11.

From the period that followed the Sermon there is ample evidence of continuing persecution, for example in the crucifixion of Jesus (Matt 26:4), the early martyrdoms that pre-dated the conversion of Paul (Acts 7:58-59, Gal 1:13), and the High Priest Ananus’ execution of James (Josephus Ant. 20.200)

2. The biblical precedent

The passage from Deuteronomy (Deut 30:1-7) , whilst not specifically mentioning the way of righteousness, nevertheless provides a  precedent for this beatitude, in promising a blessing  to those who turn back to God, i.e. adopt again the way of righteousness. Those who do that, it promises, will exchange persecution at the hands of others for a restored kingdom of God.

However, a close look at the language of this passage is rewarding, as it contains a subtle play on words. Moreover, this clever verbal construct reveals that “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matt 5:10),  is an essential part of Jesus’ argument, with all that implies for its echo in “for my sake” (Matt 5:11). The dual meaning of a word was allowing him to play with pursuit of the cause of righteousness to make it imply persecuted because of righteousness.

The Greek of this verse uses the roots διώκω (dioko, persecute or pursue) and δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosune, righteousness).  Elsewhere in the New Testament διώκω clearly refers to either persecution (e.g. in Acts 9:4, 22:4; Gal 1:23) or pursuit (e.g. 1 Cor 14:1). It occurs with δικαιοσύνη only in the epistles, and then rarely. The two words are normally juxtaposed when speaking of the pursuit of righteousness (Rom 9:30-31, 1 Tim 6:11, 2:22). The only exception being Phil 3:6, a passage where Paul, contrasting his zealous persecution of the church with his blameless pursuit of righteousness under the law, appears to play on this more normal usage. 

The singling out of this combination for use when describing the pursuit of righteousness probably owes its inspiration to the widespread use of the Septuagint, where the combination appears even more rarely. If one excludes Amos 6:12, where the words appear in different couplets, there is only Pr 15:9, where God’s hatred of the way of the wicked is contrasted with his love of those who pursue righteousness: “The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but he loves him who follows after [διώκοντας] righteousness [δικαιοσύνην]” (Prov 15:9  HNV). 

The uniqueness of Prov 15:9 in the Greek is less apparent in the Hebrew, as the pairing translates for רדף (radaph, pursue or persecute) and צדקה (tsâdaqah, righteousness). However, there are still only three verses, all in Proverbs, that combine these, Pr 11:19, Pr 15:9, and Pr 21:21, of which only Pr 11:19 and Pr 15:9 continue the theme of the way of righteousness, and only Pr 15:9, and Pr 21:21 juxtapose the words in the same order a the Sermon. Hence, Pr 15:9 continues to be singled out as the most likely reference of Matt 5:10’s unusual combination of words.

Moreover, when considered with the following verse, Pr 15:9-10 provides a timely warning to those who might consider forsaking the way: “There is stern discipline for one who forsakes the way: whoever hates reproof shall die” (Prov 15:9-10 WEB)

Between them Pr 15:9-10 and Pr 21:21, provide a stark life and death contrast between the way of righteousness and the way of the wicked, a contrast that Jesus would return to toward the end of the Sermon, as the contrast between the broad and narrow ways in Matt 7:13-14

3. Its place in the sequence

France (1995, 111) notes the way in which this beatitude rounds off the series by echoing the opening beatitude. However, it should also be noted that Deut 30:1-7 is the foundational promise upon which all the other beatitudes promises are built. Also that Pr 15:9-10 provides about as concise a statement of the relative outcomes of the two ways, of wickedness and righteousness, as one can get.  As such it serves as a summary of all that has already been taught, much as the Golden Rule summarises Jesus’ later teaching.

4. Related New Testament texts

The author of 1 Peter echoes a very similar sentiment when he writes “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed” (1 Pet 3:14 WEB).

5. Some church perspectives

In what Matt 5:10 calls simply persecution, Vermes (2004, 314-5) chooses to see the spectre of martyrdom, which, to him, helps mark this beatitude out as a late-first-century Christian alteration.  He suggests, “there was no hint of actual persecution whilst Jesus was amongst his followers. Hence the notion of Martyrdom alluded to in Matthew 5:10, though incontestably a Jewish concept, had better be associated not with the apostles in the time of Jesus, but with the ill treatment suffered by Christian missionaries in the later decades of the first century” (Vermes 2004, 315). I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that with one hand Vermes assigns evidence of violence against followers of the Way to the category of Christian additions, whilst with the other he cites the lack of such evidence as part of his justification for doing so.  

6. The idea in later Judaism

It is sometimes suggested, on the basis of the The Talmud’s “Be rather of the persecuted than of the persecutors” (Baba Kamma 93a), that Jesus was plagiarising a Rabbinic source. However, the Talmud attributes this saying to one R. Abbahu (279-310 C.E.), who taught in the third and fourth centuries  C.E. (Einspruch 1920, 17). The Rabbi was probably drawing upon the same sources available to Jesus, i.e. the implications of Deut 30:1-7 and general Jewish attitudes toward the role of persecution.