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Hebrews: Overview

Author

The author of Hebrews is unknown. No author’s name is mentioned in the letter, nor is any author mentioned by the earliest sources that cite the book. The first person to cite this epistle was Clement (c. 96 AD), though he does not say who wrote the book. It is omitted from both the Marcionite Canon and the Muratorian Canon (early collections of the New Testament). From the earliest times in church history, there has been great dispute as to authorship.2

The authorship may be unknown because the letter was published on a scroll. Ancient papyrus scrolls frequently listed author and addressee on the reverse side of the text. If this letter was written in such a manner, it is easy to see how the author/addressee would not have been copied; in fact, such a “label” could easily have been lost, smudged, etc., shortly after reaching its destination.2

Some scholars have suggested that the authorship was kept secret intentionally, perhaps because the letter was authored by a woman, or another controversial figure in early church history. Thus, there was a sort of “intentional collective forgetfulness” regarding the letter’s origins.

A few candidates have been put forward:

Paul: The well known apostle was cited most often as the letter’s author in the first few centuries of the church, but this was largely in an effort to legitimize it’s place in the New Testament. However, the arguments against Pauline authorship are conclusive: (1) this letter is anonymous, which goes contrary to the practice in all of Paul’s canonical letters; (2) the style of writing is dramatically better than that of Paul; (3) the logical development is much more tightly woven than is Paul’s; (4) the spiritual eyewitnesses are appealed to, while Paul insisted on no intermediaries for his gospel (cf. Gal. 1:12); and (5) Timothy’s imprisonment (Hebrews 13:23) simply does not seem able to fit within Paul’s lifetime, since he is mentioned repeatedly both in Acts and in Paul’s letters and always as a free man.2

Barnabas: Tertullian (155 – 240 AD) was the first to suggest Barnabas as the author. The arguments for Barnabas are as follows: (1) he was a Levite and would therefore have an interest in the Jewish sacrificial system; (2) there might perhaps be a play on his “word of consolation” (13:22) and the fact that he was called “the son of consolation” (Acts 4:36); (3) since Barnabas was from Cyprus, he would most likely have had strong interaction with Alexandrian and hellenistic thought which is found throughout this letter; (4) again, his possible contacts with Alexandria might well explain why his Greek is so polished; (5) Barnabas was converted shortly after Pentecost and could, therefore, have been impacted by Stephen’s instruction (and it should be noted, for what it is worth, that there are parallels with Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 seen throughout the epistle).2

Apollos: Martin Luther (1483 – 1546 AD) was the first to suggest Apollos. The arguments for Apollos are as follows: (1) Apollos’ close acquaintance with Paul, thus accounting for Pauline influences; (2) His connection with Alexandria, which would account for the Alexandrian coloring in the language; (3) His knowledge of the Scriptures, which would explain the biblical content of the argument and the use of the LXX (Septuagint, or Greek version of the Old Testament); (4) His renown eloquence, which well suits the oratorical form of the epistle; (5) His contacts with Timothy. (6) His considerable influence in various churches.2

Priscilla: Adolf Von Harnack (1900’s AD) considered Priscilla to have been the author of the epistle and supported it in view of (1) its anonymity, since a woman would not have been regarded will as an authority source, (2) her association with Paul, (3) her instruction of Apollos, (4) and the inclusion of women in Hebrews 11.One argument against Priscilla is that the author uses a masculine participle to refer to himself in the text in Heb. 11:32 (“And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I speak…).2

Other Authors: Other scholars and church historians have suggested: (1) Clement (who quotes from Hebrews); (2) Luke (based on the similarities in the polished Greek style of Luke-Acts and Hebrews); (3) Silas (because he was an associate of Paul’s and perhaps functioned as the scribe of 1 Peter which bears some literary affinities with this work); (4) Philip.2

Although the author is anonymous to us, he seems to have been well known to the readers (13:19, 23).

Date

The letter is generally thought to have been written around 64 to 68 AD. Sometime after the death of Paul (c. 64 AD) and before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (70 AD).

Some historical markers help date this book:

  1. Hebrews is known and cited by Clement of Rome in 1 Clement (AD 95).3
  2. Hebrews bares no mention of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by Titus, which would’ve greatly aided his discourse on the superiority of Christ and the obsolesce of animal sacrifice.3
  3. The writer of Hebrews speaks of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament in the present tense. 3
  4. Hebrews was written during the lifetime of Timothy, whom the author knew personally.3

Audience

The audience is Jewish Christians who are struggling with maintaining their belief and are in danger of going back to Judaism. They may have endured some persecution for their faith, and were considered “immature” by the author in their understanding of the Scriptures.4

The scholarly debate tends to center around the location of the congregation that this letter was addressed to. Several locations have been suggested:

Palestine: The testimony of the ancient church was uniform on this location. Also, since early times it has been called the “Letter to the Hebrews”, a term that generally denoted  “Jews in Palestine,” in contradistinction from foreign Jews, who were called “Hellenists.” The author also presupposes a familiar acquaintance with the Jewish rituals, which may not have been as well known to those outside of Palestine. Lastly, the letter doesn’t focus on the obligation of circumcision, and the distinction of meats and drinks, which occupied so much of the attention of the apostles and early Christians in other letters to other, more Hellenistic places.8

Corinth. Not only was Timothy known there, but so was Apollos. In fact, there is the possibility that Apollos (perhaps in conjunction with Barnabas) was writing to a faction within the Corinthian congregation, perhaps even “the party of Apollos.” Furthermore, there was a strong ascetic-Jewish element which had infiltrated the Corinthian church. This group could easily be weaker brothers who had withdrawn from the main congregation because of increasing scruples over keeping the Law.2

Other Locations: Some think that the letter was written to the Hebrew part of the churches in Galatia; and that the Epistle to the Galatians was addressed to the Gentile part of those churches. Others say the churches in Macedonia, and particularly to the church of Thessalonica. Some have even suggested churches in Spain or Rome.8

Historical Context

An Ancient Sermon

The author speaks of the epistle as a “message of exhortation” (13:22) which is what First Century Jews would’ve called a sermon that would likely have been preached in a synagogue.4 It is most likely that the book summarized a speech that the author typically gave in synagogues, and was subsequently turned into a letter for circulation.

Old Testament Scripture

The author also uses thirty-five quotations from a Greek translation of the Old Testament and thirty-four allusions work to support the development of Hebrews’ argument. In addition, the writer offers nineteen summaries of Old Testament material, and thirteen times he mentions an Old Testament name or topic, often without reference to a specific context.4

A Paradigm Shift from First Century Messianic Expectations

Three decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection there were many who had begun to doubt whether Jesus could really be the Messiah for whom they were waiting, because they believed the Messiah prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures was to come as a militant king and destroy the enemies of his people. Jesus, however, came as a mere man who was arrested by the Jewish leaders and who suffered and even died under Roman crucifixion. And although he was seen resurrected, he still left the earth and his people, who now face persecution rather than victory.6

Also, the temple was still standing. The morning and evening sacrifice was still offered. The splendid rites of that imposing religion were still observed. The authority of the law was undisputed. Moses was a lawgiver, sent from God, and no one doubted that the Jewish form of religion had been instituted by their fathers in conformity with the direction of God. Their religion had been founded amidst remarkable manifestations of the Deity – in flames, and smoke, and thunder; it had been communicated by the ministration of angels; it had on its side and in its favor all the venerableness and sanction of a remote antiquity; and it commended itself by the pomp of its ritual, and by the splendor of its ceremonies.8

On the other hand, the new form of religion had little or nothing of this to commend it. It was of recent origin. It was founded by a man of Nazareth, who had been trained up in their own land, and who had been a carpenter, and who had had no extraordinary advantages of education. Its rites were few and simple. It had no splendid temple service; none of the pomp and pageantry, the music and the magnificence of the ancient religion. It had no splendid array of priests in magnificent vestments, and it had not been imparted by the ministry of angels. Fishermen were its ministers; and by the body of the nation it was regarded as a schism, or heresy, that enlisted in its favor only the most humble and lowly of the people.8

How could Jesus possibly be greater than all of the history of Judaism? How could a simple man with simple followers possibly inaugurate the Kingdom of God?

Major Themes

Superiority of Jesus

The author of Hebrews argues that belief in Christ should eclipse the readers’ understanding of the old covenant, and that his authority has no challenger. He shows this in several ways:

  • Christ is superior to the OT prophets (1:1-4) in that they were mere servants or spokesmen (1:1), while the quality of the mediator of God’s revelation has now stepped up to the level of sonship (1:2-4).2
  • Christ is superior to the angels (1:5–2:18). The author transitions into the section on angels by showing that, as God’s Son (in contrast to the prophets), Christ “has obtained a more excellent name than [the angels]” (1:4).2
  • Christ is superior to Moses (3:1–4:13). The author points out that Moses, like Christ, was faithful to God (3:1-2). But unlike Christ, Moses was merely part of the house which Christ built (3:3-4), and a mere servant in the house while Christ was the Son over the house (3:5-6a).2
  • Christ is superior to Aaron (4:14–7:28). The author shows that Jesus is the true high priest. Christ, our high priest, is sympathetic with the weaknesses of our flesh (4:14-16).2
  • Christ is superior to the old covenant (law), the temple and the sacrificial system (8:1–10:18). The author states that, “When there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the Law as well.” Christ thus fulfills the law, becomes a new temple and is the ultimate sacrifice.2

The Dangers of Apostasy

The author saw the addressees in danger of apostasy from their Christian faith. This danger was due to persecution from outsiders, a weariness with the demands of Christian life and a growing indifference to their calling (Heb 2:1; 4:14; 6:1–12; 10:23–32). He exhorts them to remain faithful on their seemingly long pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem (11:10; 12:1–3, 18–29; 13:14).5

Living As A Community of Believers

The  readers are exhorted in very pragmatic areas with respect to the community of believers (13:1-17). They are instructed to:

  • Show love for one another (13:1-6).2
  • Respect and obey the leadership of the church (13:7-17).2
  • Get back into the fold  (13:15-16).2

Overall Thoughts

  • The author of Hebrews pits Jesus against the established religion of his readers. In what ways should we still see Jesus in opposition to our own religion? Where has our belief in Jesus been blended with nationalism vs. an “everyone is included” kingdom theology? Where has his nature as a humble and suffering servant been replaced with a victory-seeking, power hungry leadership mindset? How have we restricted access to God by confining him to a building on Sundays? How have we defined cleanliness before God by means of our own efforts (or “works”) vs. the grace of Jesus’ sacrifice? Where have we created religion vs. having a relationship?
  • Many people struggle with the “angry” God of the Old Testament and the “nice” Jesus in the New Testament. The author of Hebrews says they are one in the same. In fact, he claims that Jesus is the complete picture of God, not just a partial picture, or just the “good side.” How does this fit your understanding? How have you reconciled the two?
  • Hebrews constantly reminds us that Jesus is “greater than” this or that. What things in your life do you need to be reminded that Jesus is greater than?

References

  1. Colburn’s commentary
  2. Wallace’s commentary
  3. Malick’s commentary
  4. Deffinbaugh’s commentary
  5. NABRE introduction
  6. Epistle to the Hebrews overview
  7. Gill’s commentary
  8. Barnes’ commentary

 

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