Hebrews—A Book of Warnings, The Book of Better Things (Introduction)

Author and Canonicity:  Although one of the most elegant and theologically deep books of the Bible, Hebrews is also one of the most obscure.  While the last 4 verses of this book indicate it was an epistle and are somewhat similar to the close of Paul’s letters, the similarity to Paul’s or the other New Testament epistles ends there.  Most notably lacking is the characteristic greeting indicating both the author and the recipients.  Even the title is late and only inferred from its contents.

Because of its obscurity Hebrews was late in being accepted into the canon of Scripture.  When spurious writings began to appear, one of the requirements the early church set forth for acceptance into the canon was apostolic authority.  Thus, although its inspiration was recognized before the end of the first century as indicated by it being quoted by Clement of Rome, its anonymous authorship was problematic.  In Alexandria a tradition grew up that it was in some sense the work of Paul, perhaps as written down by one of his disciples (possibly Luke or even Clement of Rome), and that he left it anonymous to the Hebrews since God had called him as an apostle to the Gentiles which caused much opposition from the Jews to his ministry.  From there it became accepted in the Eastern church as one of the “fourteen” epistles of Paul.  In Africa Barnabas was put forth as the potential author.  Eventually in the 4th century it was accepted as canonical in the Western church upon the authority of Jerome and Augustine, principally upon the argument (to establish apostolic authority) that it was the work of Paul.  Thus from 400-1600 a.d. Paul was credited as the author.  The title in the KJV derives from this tradition: “The Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews”.

However, during the Reformation, the Pauline authorship of Hebrews was challenged by many of the reformers.  Today, most scholars (conservative, Bible-believing scholars included) join with them in concluding that Paul was not the author of Hebrews for the following reasons:

  1. The book does not claim to be written by Paul, as was his uniform experience elsewhere.
  2. Heb 2:3 indicates that the author was a second-generation Christian (the gospel message “was confirmed to us by those who heard”).  In light of Paul’s assertion in Gal 1:11-12 that he did not receive the gospel he preached from man but by direct revelation from Christ, and how he vigorously defended his apostleship (see 1 Cor 9:1-2, 2 Cor 11:22-23, 12:11-12, Gal 2:6-9) it is unlikely he could or would have written this statement.
  3. While the text reveals a Pauline influence, the Greek language and argumentation used in Hebrews is substantially different from that found in the Pauline epistles.  The style is much more polished and refined than Paul’s; such an excellent command of the Greek language and style of logic indicates a greater Greek cultural influence than Paul had.
  4. Paul knew both Hebrew and Greek and in his established letters quoted freely from both the Hebrew text of the Jewish Scriptures as well as the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament).  However, the author of Hebrews quotes exclusively from the Septuagint, even when it varies significantly from the Hebrew, indicating that the author did not know Hebrew (as was very common among Jews living outside of Israel, and the reason why the Greek translation was necessary).

If Paul was not the author, then who?  Besides those already mentioned, Luther suggested Apollos “an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man” who was “mighty in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24).  This actually fits the internal evidence best.  Unfortunately though, there is no tradition before Luther to support it.  We must conclude then that, as always, the safest and most sure solution is to simply accept the Scripture at face-value.  And since the book makes no claim to authorship and the author chose to remain anonymous, we must, in the words of the third-century theologian Origen, accept that “who it was that really wrote the Epistle, God only knows.”

Recipients, Background and Purpose:  In addition to its unknown authorship, the recipients are equally unknown.  Unlike Paul’s epistles, the book doesn’t even begin like a letter with specific recipients but as a treatise.  According to one description it “begins like an essay, proceeds like a sermon, and ends as a letter”.  The author himself refers to it as a “word of exhortation” (Heb 13:22).  And yet from the ending and the exhortations throughout it is clear that it did have recipients and that the author was known to them (see Heb 13:22-25).  That they were Jewish believers or perhaps “God-fearers” from among the Gentiles who were well-acquainted with the law (cf. Acts 16:14, 17:4,17, 18:7) seems clear from the contents.  While in times past they had “endured a great conflict of sufferings” even to the seizure of their property (Heb 10:32-34), they had become lax in their devotion and not matured in their faith.  They were still babes in need of spiritual milk and untrained in discernment (Heb 5:12-14).  As a result they were giving in to temptations of disobedience (see Heb 2:18, 4:6,11,15-16) and becoming hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb 3:7-8,13,15, 4:7, 10:26, 12:1).  They were in danger of drifting away from the faith (Heb 2:1), falling away from the living God (Heb 3:12) and shrinking back to destruction (Heb 10:39).

Moreover, as the gospel spread more and more to the Gentiles, it was opposed more and more by the Jews, so that with the passage of time the Christian faith came to be recognized as distinct from the Jewish religion from which it emerged and which had religio licita status in the Roman empire[1].  In 64 a.d. a great fire destroyed a large part of Rome which many blamed upon the emperor Nero who had grandiose designs for a more modern, beautiful city.  To deflect criticism from himself he targeted the Christians as scapegoats claiming the Roman gods were not pleased because of the growing number of Christians who refused to worship them.  The Christian faith thus became a religio illicita and the first state-sponsored persecution of Christians was instituted.

Prior to this time persecution against Christians arose primarily from unbelieving Jews and was restrained by their Roman overlords’ enforcement of the Pax Romana (see for example Acts 18:12-16, 21:30-32,35-36, 23:10, etc…).  Thus for the most part such affliction was relegated to “being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations” (Heb 10:33), especially outside of Judea.  However, with their faith being declared a religio illicita that was now opposed by the Roman state the likelihood and potential consequences of persecution had increased to a frightening new level.  Especially in the environs of Rome Christians were branded as evildoers and accused of every wickedness imaginable.  A decree was issued that “if any one confesses that he is a Christian, he shall be put to death, without further trial, as a convicted enemy of mankind”[2].

To confess Christ thus became a crime against the Roman state and to be labeled a Christian was to bear the stigma of a criminal.  And while enforcement of the edict varied throughout the empire and was most severe in Rome, the threat of a fearsome death[3] tempted many to fall away, especially such as those addressed in this letter who were already lax in their faith and had not pressed on to maturity (see Mat 13:21).  Especially tempting was to simply retreat back into the Jewish religion which still enjoyed religio licita status and whose protagonists had continued to court the favor of those who had previously been attached to their synagogues (cf. Acts 13:43-45, 17:4-5,13).  For these reasons the author wrote what we know as Hebrews, to both warn the recipients of the great danger of falling away, and to exhort them that in every way their Christian faith is superior to the Jewish faith from which it emerged: Christ Himself is superior to both the angels who mediated the giving of the Law and to Moses who received the Law.  His continuing ministry as high priest according to the order of Melchizedek and mediator of the New Covenant is also superior to the priesthood of Aaron and the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant, which were only a shadow of the substance found in Christ.

Date and Location: Due to the obscurity of the author and recipients, the date and location are equally difficult to establish.  Because it was quoted by Clement of Rome in 95 a.d. it must have been written before that.  The book also fails to mention the destruction of the Jewish temple which took place in 70 a.d.  Since this would have crowned the author’s argument that “whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear” (Heb 8:13), the book was most likely written before that as well.  From the contents it is clear that the cost of following Christ was increasing so that the recipients were tempted and in danger of falling away and/or reverting back to Judaism.  However, the author’s comment in Heb 12:4 that “you have not yet resisted to the point of blood” would seem to indicate that while perhaps the edicts against Christians had already or were about to be issued, the full-scale horrors of Nero’s persecution had either not yet occurred or had not yet reached as far as the recipients.  All this argues for a date between 63 and 70 a.d.

Locations from Rome to Greece to Macedonia to Asia to Jerusalem and even to Spain have been proposed for the recipients of the letter, and perhaps only slightly less for the location of the author.  The most traditional view is that the recipients were Hebrew Christians living in Jerusalem or Judea.  However, militating against this view is the somewhat elitist attitude Palestinian Jews held towards Jews of the Diaspora who didn’t speak Hebrew and were not familiar with the culture and customs of their ancestral home.  Thus believers in the Jewish heartland would have been less persuaded and perhaps even put off by the Hellenist author’s thoroughly Greek style of reasoning and use of the Septuagint.  The author’s statement in Heb 2:3 that the gospel message “was confirmed to us by those who heard” would also seem to better fit a location outside of Judea to where the gospel went forth than a location within Judea from where it originated (cf. 1 Cor 15:5-8).

A clue to the location of either the recipients or the author is the author’s statement found in Heb 13:24: “Those from (apo) Italy greet you”.  On the basis of this statement and the view that Paul was the author, it has also traditionally been held that he was writing from Rome, perhaps shortly after his first Roman imprisonment.  The problem with this view is that the Greek preposition used in Heb 13:24 (apo) means properly “out of, or away from”.  The previous verse (Heb 13:23) also mentions that “our brother Timothy has been released.”  However, given Timothy’s timid nature to avoid conflict (cf. 1 Tim 4:12, 2 Tim 1:7-8, 2:3-6) and the historical record of Acts, Paul’s prison epistles (written from Rome) and the Pastorals (written after Paul’s first Roman imprisonment), there is no indication that Timothy was ever in custody in Rome prior to Nero’s persecution.  Further, if Nero’s persecution had in fact broken out and Timothy was apprehended in Rome, it is unlikely he would have been released from there.  (Consider from 2 Tim 1:16-18 and 4:6-8, written during Paul’s second Roman imprisonment after Nero’s persecution had broken out, that Paul expected neither his own release nor that of Onesiphorus, who seems to have been imprisoned for coming to the aid of the apostle.)

This has led others to propose that the recipients of the letter were in Rome and the author in Heb 13:24 is passing along greetings from Italians who were away from home.  However, this does not seem to fit with the author’s comment in Heb 12:4 that “you have not yet resisted to the point of blood” since the persecution that was tempting the recipients to revert back into the safety of the religion of the Jews broke out and was most intense in Rome; i.e., outside of Judea, the Christians in Rome were among the first who resisted to the point of blood.

For these reasons it is perhaps better to take the statement to mean that the author was in the company of those Christians who were fleeing the outbreak of persecution in Rome, and is writing to others with whom he was closely associated who had heard of the emperor’s edicts and were wavering in their faith.  News of the persecution was spreading throughout the Roman empire causing great consternation, especially among those who were not mature in their faith, so that they were being tempted to fall away or retreat back into the safety of the Jewish religion which still enjoyed religio licita status.  Where exactly the author and recipients of this letter resided in the empire cannot be determined, except that it was most likely in an area of considerable Greek cultural influence, such as Alexandria in Egypt or the regions of Greece, Macedonia and Asia where Paul had ministered.

General Outline:  Like Romans, Hebrews is one of the most systematic and well-organized books in the New Testament.  In light of the temptation facing the recipients to renounce their Christian faith for the safety of the Jewish religion from which it emerged, the author masterfully weaves together his arguments for the superiority of Christ with his warnings against falling away from the substance back into the shadow.  While not entirely precise, the following outline briefly summarizes the smooth flow of the author’s eloquent progression:

Hebrews 1-2               Christ better than the angels; first warning.
Hebrews 3-4               Christ better than Moses; second warning.
Hebrews 5-7               Christ’s better priesthood; third warning.
Hebrews 8-10             Christ’s better covenant; fourth warning.
Hebrews 11-12           Final plea for persevering faith; fifth warning.
Hebrews 13                 Concluding exhortations.

 


1. Due to services rendered unto Julius Caesar by Hyrcanus the son of Alexander, the high priest and governor of the Jews, c. 50 B.C.  See Josephus, Antiquities, 14:189-212.

2. See Martyr’s Mirror, pgs 78-79.

3. Either by crucifixion, or in the arena to be torn to pieces and devoured by wild beasts, or if one was fortunate enough to be a Roman citizen (as was Paul), by beheading.  Still others were nailed to a stake, had a flammable substance like molten pitch or wax poured over their bodies and were then set on fire as lanterns for the Romans to see by night.

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