The Book of Hebrews
The book of Hebrews may have been the most profound book written in the New Testament period. It is also one of the most difficult books for modern people to understand. A recent commentary described Hebrews as "a delight for the person who enjoys puzzles" (Lane, WB, xlvii). The literary form of the book is uncertain. The author and time of writing are unknown. The logic and flow of thought are unusual for most modern people.
Despite the many areas of uncertainty the book of Hebrews yields rich results to the person who will study it patiently and carefully. It is a rich resource for Christology and practical Christian guidance. It breathes the air of the Old Testament, but blows the fresh wind of the Spirit making all things new. Hebrews is a study in pastoral care for a church under pressure. It is the rich literary and theological testimony of an author who has found Christ to be the fulfillment of all the hopes of the Old Testament. Hebrews leads a pilgrim people down the path of faithfulness and confident trust.
The traditional method by which modern Biblical scholarship studies a book leads to frequent frustration for those studying Hebrews. Normally, a student seeks to learn all that can be determined about the author, the date, the place of writing, the audience, the literary form, and the purpose of the book. Most of these areas lead scholars to dead ends. Though clear answers to these questions are not always available, the process of asking them can lead to helpful information about the book.
The King James Version of the Bible usually places a heading over Hebrews with the words, "The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews." Unfortunately (perhaps) those clear words were not part of the original document of Hebrews, but were added several hundred years later by scribes copying the book who believed Paul to be the author. Unlike the thirteen letters of Paul there is no mention of the author by name in Hebrews. In fact, every book normally thought of as a letter in the New Testament begins with the author's name as the first word except Hebrews and 1 John.
Uncertainty about the author of Hebrews goes back to the earliest references to the book. By the early A.D. 200's church fathers in Alexandria, Egypt, were describing Paul as the author. However, they recognized that the Greek style of the book was very different from the style of Paul. Some thought that Paul had written the book in Hebrew and Luke had translated it into Greek. The great scholar Origen knew that Paul was not the author, but supposed that a student of Paul had written Paul's thoughts in his own style and words. He mentioned that others in the church believed the author of Hebrews to have been either Clement of Roman (who wrote a letter to Corinth about A.D. 95) or Luke, the author of Luke and Acts. Other ancient writers suggested Barnabas as a possible author of Hebrews.
It was not until about A.D. 400 that the idea of Pauline authorship of Hebrews became widespread in the church. However, that opinion was never completely accepted. Throughout the history of the church analytical Bible scholars who knew the uncertain tradition of Pauline authorship offered their opinions about the identity of the author. Calvin repeated the ancient view that Luke or Clement were the most likely authors. In the 1500's Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Reformation, suggested that Apollos was the most likely author among those persons mentioned in the New Testament. Apollos has remained a popular candidate through the last four centuries. Priscilla and Aquila, Silas, Jude, Aristion, Phillip, and even the Virgin Mary are other Biblical persons who have been mentioned as a possible author of Hebrews.
The case for Pauline authorship in the early church rested on the reference to Timothy - well known as an associate of Paul - in Hebrews 13:23 and the general similarity of the theology of Hebrews to orthodox Christianity (supposedly developed by Paul). However, there are a number of details that speak against the assumption that Paul wrote Hebrews. The author of Hebrews was much more trained and skilled in the use of the Greek language than was Paul. Some of the most sophisticated Greek to be found in the New Testament is in the book of Hebrews. The only book that matches the powerful Greek style in the New Testament is Luke and Acts - thus the idea by both early and modern Christians that Luke might have been the author.
The flow of thought and the logic of the argument of Hebrews is very different from anything we encounter in the known letters of Paul. The way in which the Old Testament is quoted and used by the author of Hebrews is very different from the way Paul appealed to the Jewish Scriptures. The author describes himself (or herself) in Hebrews 2:3 as a step removed from the original apostles. Galatians 1:12 and 1 Corinthians 9:1 show that Paul expressed his awareness of the historical life of Jesus in very different terms. There are virtually no reputable scholars today who would argue that Paul wrote the book of Hebrews.
The bottom line of the discussion of the authorship of Hebrews is that we do not know the author's name. There is still no better conclusion than that drawn by Origen near A.D. 200 when he wrote, "As to who actually wrote the epistle, God only knows." Attempts to give the author a name are fruitless.
However, that does not mean that we know nothing about the author. We know a great deal about him (or her), we just don't know his (or her) name. The author was a Jew who was born and educated in the Greek-speaking world. He had a broad vocabulary and powerful training in logic and rhetoric. It is likely that he attended the finest schools available in the first century. He had an architectural mind that was capable of ordering numerous details to produce a well-structured argument. He was a deeply spiritual person whose commitment to Christ called forth all his "being's ransomed powers" in service to the church. He has also been described as a pastoral theologian. This author shaped the common Christian teaching by the genius of his own training to meet the needs of a group of people who desperately needed a message from God.
Not only does Hebrews not mention the author, it does not contain the traditional mention of the addressees. The traditional title and superscript to the book To the Hebrews was not part of the original text of the book and it appears to represent an early (and insightful) guess as to the audience. It is almost universally accepted that the original audience was a group of Jewish Christians. There have been scholars in the twentieth century who advanced arguments in favor of a Gentile audience, but these scholars are appropriately in the small minority. It is not likely at all that the book of Hebrews would have been written as it was if the original audience had been Gentiles. Modern gentile Christians who have a long heritage of Christianity have a difficult time understanding Hebrews.
The original readers were Jewish in their background. It is equally clear that they were part of what is called Hellenistic Judaism. That means they were Jews who were born and bred with Greek as their native language and the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint) as their version of the Bible. These Hellenistic Jews did not live in Palestine, but in one of the great metropolitan cities of the Mediterranean world. After the Babylonian captivity described at the end of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, not all the exiles returned to Jerusalem and Palestine. In the five hundred years from the end of the Babylonian Exile until the time of Christ, the descendants of those Jewish captives spread across the ancient world. They became businessmen and mercenary soldiers and congregated in the great cities. The largest Egyptian city, Alexandria, was thought to have about a quarter of its population to be Jews.
It is not possible to be sure in which large city of the ancient Mediterranean world the original audience of Hebrews lived. Hebrews 13:24 sends greetings to the readers of the book from "those of Italy." The phrase could be understood in two different ways. It could mean that the author was in Italy, writing to people in a city outside Italy, sending greetings from all the Italian people around him. Or it could be that the audience was in Italy (Rome would be the great metropolitan city), the author was outside Italy, but all his Italian (Roman) friends wanted to send greetings to their friends back home in Rome.
For several reasons this second view is more likely. The first writer of the early Christian fathers to quote Hebrews was Clement of Rome. The circumstances reflected in Hebrews can best be found in Rome in the middle of the decade of the A.D. 60's. Hebrews implies that the first readers of the book were Jewish Christians, but not the only Christians in their city. Other New Testament writings (especially Romans) suggest that the church at Rome was composed of several congregations or "house-churches," one of which was a congregation of Jewish believers. The question of the identity of the original audience is closely connected to the question of the date and the purpose of Hebrews.
Since Clement of Rome quoted the book of Hebrews in a letter which he wrote in approximately A.D. 95, Hebrews must be earlier than that. Since Hebrews 13:23 mentions Timothy's release from prison, the book would have been written after A.D. 50 when Paul summoned the then-young Timothy into traveling Christian service.
Hebrews 12:4 states that the readers had not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. This suggests that the community was facing some kind of persecution. Other passages in Hebrews are consistent with the view that the readers were either being persecuted or being threatened by the possibility of persecution soon. Hebrews 10:32-34 indicates that the community had suffered persecution in an earlier period. It is possible that either or both of the times of persecution mentioned in Hebrews were minor events that are not known in the larger flow of history.
However, most scholars attempt to date Hebrews by connecting these two persecutions to times in which the church at Rome was known to have been persecuted. The first persecution was in A.D. 49 when the emperor Claudius evicted all the Jews (believers and those who did not accept Christ as the Messiah) out of Rome apparently because of disruptive arguments over the Messiah. It was because of this persecution that Aquila and Priscilla came to Corinth, according to Acts 18: 1-2. Several years later Claudius relaxed the eviction edict and Jews (both Christians and those who rejected Christ) began to return to Rome. (Many Bible scholars now believe that Romans was written to counter problems in the church that arose when the evicted Jewish Christians returned to Rome to discover that leadership in the church had been taken over by Gentile believers.)
The best known period of persecution of the church by the Romans was around A.D. 65 near the end of the reign of Nero. The great fire had destroyed much of Rome in A.D. 64. Nero was a prime suspect and apparently to deflect suspicion and hatred from himself, he publicly blamed the Christians for the fire. From then until his death in A.D. 68 Nero was involved in periodic persecution and/or harassment of the church.
The next major outbreak of persecution in Rome occurred in the reign of the emperor Domitian between A.D. 81 and 96. Though some scholars argue that the earlier persecutions of Hebrews 10:32-34 took place under Nero and the book was written during the persecution of Domitian, that view has not won general acceptance. The majority of scholars believe that Hebrews 10:32-34 refers either to a period just a few years earlier but still in the Neronian period or to the persecution connected with the eviction edict of Claudius. In either case, the book of Hebrews is thought to have been written during the Neronian persecutions sometime between A.D. 64 and A.D. 68.
The other issue that enters into the question of the date has to do with whether or not the temple of Jerusalem was still standing when Hebrews was written. The temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman armies in A.D. 70. It was such a traumatic event in Jewish history that it is hard to imagine a Jewish author writing after the event and making no reference to it. The book of Hebrews does not refer to the temple at all. The most typical conclusion drawn from that fact is that the book was written before A.D. 70. This point of view is underscored by the argument of Hebrews. Repeatedly the author shows how Christ has superseded the persons and institutions of Judaism. Surely he would have argued that Christ was a better temple if he had known that the Jewish temple lay in ruins. The suggestion that Hebrews was prior to A.D. 70 fits in well with a situation during the persecution of Nero in A.D. 65.
The book of Hebrews was probably written to Jewish Christians in Rome who were facing persecution under Nero. Judaism was a legal and recognized religion at that time. Jews who did not believe in Christ were not in danger of persecution from Nero at that time. Christians were in that danger. It would have been a very tempting thought to Jewish Christians who were being persecuted to down play their commitment to Christ. If they would deny their faith in Christ and present themselves only as Jews (and not as Jewish Christians) they would be safe from the persecution. Then, perhaps at a later and safer date, they could pick up their commitment to Christ again. Hebrews makes best sense as an argument to prevent the first readers from being enticed into following such a tempting course of action.
Hebrews has traditionally been described as an epistle or letter. It appears in the New Testament in the middle of the collection of letters. It functions as a hinge connecting the 13 Pauline letters and the 7 general or Catholic epistles. However, Hebrews lacks the basic ingredients that identified ancient letters. There is no mention of author, no mention of addressees, no greeting, no thanksgiving section and no prayer for the readers in the opening lines. The closing verses of Hebrews 13 do reflect the traditional way in which a letter should close.
If Hebrews was not a letter, what was it? Various kinds of spoken and written discourses have been suggested. But the most common (and most likely) suggestion has been that Hebrews follows the form of a sermon or homily developed for the Hellenistic Jewish synagogues. The writer describes his work in Hebrews 13:22 as a "word of exhortation." The exact same phrase was used in Acts 13:15 to describe Paul's sermon to the synagogue at Antioch of Psidia. Though some scholars argue that we do not know the exact structure of Hellenistic Jewish sermons, the book of Hebrews fits all the criteria that are commonly suggested. It is most likely, then, that the original literary form of the book was a sermon or homily.
This is an important conclusion. It means that the author of Hebrews believed that his interpretation of the Scripture would produce a message that could be especially helpful to those readers needing to persevere under the pressure of persecution. It means that the book was not for the purpose of speculative theology, but was a practical approach to a serious problem. People who were facing persecution, perhaps death, for their faith needed encouragement and reinforcement of their faith.
Modern Christian readers differ from the first readers in a couple of ways. First, most modern readers are not Jewish in background. This means that the constant references and allusions to the Old Testament are not always understood. Second, most modern Christians are not facing the same kind of persecution as the first readers of Hebrews faced. Though in some parts of the world the threat of death because of one's Christian faith is very real, most Western Christians face temptation and pressure to return to the secular world rather than to a previous religious haven like Judaism. The sermon that is the book of Hebrews urged the first readers to stay true to Christ and not return to Judaism. Part of the power of the sermon is that it still speaks words of encouragement. The message of Hebrews is still a call to persevere under pressure. That message is just as pertinent today as it ever was.
The Role of the Old Testament
It does not take long before one discovers that the Old Testament plays an extremely significant role in Hebrews. A major part of the technical analysis of Hebrews is now devoted to the way in which the author made use of the Old Testament. Every chapter of Hebrews makes either a direct quotation from the Old Testament or refers to an Old Testament person or concept that the author assumes the reader will immediately recognize.
Part of the difficulty for modern Christians in understanding Hebrews is the lack of an adequate Old Testament background to recognize the way it constantly shapes the author's argument. Scholars are beginning to recognize that the very outline of Hebrews is built around quotations from the Old Testament. Quotations from Psalms 8, 95, 110, Jeremiah 31, Habakkuk 2, and Proverbs 3 form the anchor points for the major sections of the book of Hebrews.
The author used a variety of techniques for interpreting the Old Testament passages that were so influential in his book. Several Jewish techniques of exegesis appear on the pages of Hebrews. This is part of the evidence that the author is a highly trained scholar. Like most New Testament writers, however, the author will frequently "see" Jesus in an Old Testament passage. When that happens the author immediately interprets the passage in light of the purpose of God to reveal Christ. It is an important model for us to be aware of when we attempt to interpret the Old Testament.
The Message Of Hebrews
The message of Hebrews can be summed up in three words, "Christ is better." The book seems to un-fold the message in a crescendo of arguments. Christ is better than the angels who revealed the first covenant (Hebrews 1:1-2:18). Christ is better than Moses who was the mediator of the first covenant (Hebrews 3:1-19). Christ was better than Joshua (Hebrews 4:1-13).
But the heart of the argument comes in Hebrews 4:14-10:18. There the language of the priesthood, altar, and sacrifice comes to the forefront. Christ is a better priest that the Aaronic priests of Judaism. Christ offers a better sacrifice. He is a better tabernacle. He is a better altar. His priestly work is superior to that of the Old Testament. One is left with the conclusion that a decision to abandon faith in Christ and to return to Judaism would be the worst mistake a person could make. This was obviously the conclusion the author of Hebrews hoped his readers would draw.
Exhortation is another common element in the message of Hebrews. Exhortations not to slip or not to neglect the superiority of Christ appear regularly in the opening nine chapters. However, it is in the final four chapters that exhortation becomes the dominant motif. The great faith chapter in Hebrews 11 lists numerous examples of Jewish heroes who had looked forward to their Messiah. The author reacts in horror to the idea that their descendants would turn their backs on the long-hoped-for Messiah to return to the security the heroes had hoped to escape.
Another theme that moves through the book of Hebrews is the concept of a pilgrim people. Recent scholars have emphasized the fact that Hebrews understands both the Old Testament community of Israel and the new community of the church as people on the journey of faith. The model of Israel in the Old Testament is foundational. Israel was on a two-fold journey. The first and most obvious journey was the journey out of Egypt and into the promised land. The climax of that journey was the conquest of the land under Joshua. However, there was a second pilgrimage for Israel and that was the journey through history toward the coming of the Messiah.
The pilgrimage motif offers the author of Hebrews several exciting possibilities for spiritual instruction. He is able to challenge them to understand their own spiritual experiences in terms of a journey. This provides a way of explaining the persecution. There are always difficult times as well as the easier times on a journey. The persecution that they were experiencing represented the difficult portions of a pilgrimage. Even if the pressure the readers were feeling was guilt rather than persecution (as Barnabas Lindars argues), the pilgrimage motif holds.
However, in a true pilgrimage (as opposed to just a trip) the goal is the most important thing. Here, the author is able to play the second pilgrimage, the journey through history toward the coming of the Messiah, against the present experiences of his readers. Just as old Israel continued on through thick and thin hoping for the Messiah, the readers of Hebrews must press on, persevering under pressure because Messiah has already come. The final perfection of heaven must become their goal. They have many more resources for their journey than old Israel had.
It is the coming together of these three themes that gives the book of Hebrews its great strength and ability to be used throughout the history of the church. The modern world in which we live is very capable of understanding life as a journey. We understand a little bit of the sweep of history and the idea of progress always influences the way we think. We are aware that those who have gone before us overcame tremendous obstacles.
But the obstacles we face intimidate us. We are overwhelmed by uncertainty. The journey was easy enough long enough that we don't know how to handle the pressures and choices that lie in front of us on the journey. Our generation especially needs to hear the basic message of Hebrews again. We need a word of exhortation, a word of encouragement, even a word of prodding that tells us to keep on the journey. We need constant reminders of the superiority of Christ. Few of us are tempted to turn back to Old Testament style Judaism. We are tempted to combine Christ with a system of psychology or a theory of economics. We are tempted to believe that faith is easy when life is easy and faith is hard when life is hard. We need to be reminded that life is a journey toward the final goal of heavenly and perfect relationship with God in Christ. We need to be reminded that no price is too expensive to pay; no effort is too much to give in order to gain the final goal.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you begin each day pray that the Lord would speak to you through his Holy Spirit as you open yourself to his word.
First Day: Read the notes of Introduction to Hebrews. Look up the Scripture references that are given.
1. Identify one or two new pieces of information that seemed important to you for understanding and appreciating the book of Hebrews.
2. Select one or two insights that had spiritual potential. Describe the possibilities of spiritual growth that came to your mind from those insights.
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to challenge you to grow spiritually as you study Hebrews and to strengthen your own desire to persevere in the faith even when you are under pressure.
Second Day: Read Hebrews 1. Focus in on Hebrews 1:1-4.
1. List the characteristics or activities of Christ according to these focus verses. What overall picture of Christ emerges immediately?
2. What is the spiritual condition of human beings that is implied by these verses? In other words, why was it necessary for Christ to be revealed the way these verses say that he was revealed?
3. What spiritual desires for relationship with Christ or Christlikeness do these verses awaken in your heart?
Third Day: Read Hebrews 1. Focus your attention on Hebrews 1:5-9.
1. How do you discover that most of the words in the focus verses are quotations from the Old Testament?
2. Verse 5 quotes from Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14. Find those verses and read the surrounding verses. What other insights into Christ to you receive from those Old Testament passages?
3. If, as verse 6 states, angels worship Christ what should our daily response to Jesus be? Jot down a few ways in which that daily response can become a pattern in your life.
Fourth Day: Read Hebrews 1. Focus on Hebrews 1:5-12.
1. Verses 8 and 9 quote from Psalm 45. Read Psalm 45 and discover the verses there that are quoted. What does the author of Hebrews find in Psalm 45 that causes him to apply it to Christ?
2. What common elements do you discover between Psalm 45 and Isaiah 61:1-11?
3. As you compare Hebrews 1:8-9, Psalm 45, and Isaiah 61 what character of life is the Spirit calling for from you? What changes will you need to make in your life for that character of life to take shape in you?
Fifth Day: Read Hebrews 1:1-2:4.Especially focus on Hebrews 1:10-14.
1. Hebrews 1:10-12 quote from Psalm 102:25-28. Read Psalm 102. What other elements in the psalm seem to apply to the life of Christ?
2. The idea that Christ was the agent of creation is also found in John 1:1-5 and Colossians 1:15-20. Read those passages and think about why it was important for the New Testament to describe Jesus as being involved in the Creation of the world. Jot down some of your ideas.
3. If the role of angels is to serve, what role do you suppose we are called to fulfill? Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to open up to your mind new avenues of service that you can offer to others and to him.
Sixth Day: Read Hebrews 1:1-2:4. Now focus in on Hebrews 2:1-4.
1. What warning does the author give in Hebrews 2:1-4?
2. What argument does the author use to show how serious the danger was? Is the danger equally dangerous for us today? Why?
3. What activities and disciplines could help you to not drift away from what you have heard? Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you incorporate those disciplines into your life so that you can stay true to Christ and grow in his grace.