The Book of Hebrews
Fast Facts on the Book of Hebrews
|Author:||Unknown Jewish Christian; perhaps Barnabas or Apollos|
|Date:||prior to 70 AD|
|Place of Origin:||Unknown|
|Purpose:||To convince Jewish converts who were tempted to return to Judaism (or Judaize the gospel) of the supremacy of Christ over the old covenant.|
|Emphases:||Supremacy and sufficiency of Christ, the need for perseverance in the Christian life.|
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Summary of Hebrews
In the King James Version and the English Revised Version the title of this book describes it as "the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews." Modern scholarship has disputed the applicability of every word of this title. Neither does it appear in the oldest manuscripts, where we find simply "to Hebrews" (Grk: pros Hebraious).
This, too, seems to have been prefixed to the original writing by a collector or copyist. It is too vague and general for the author to have used it. And there is nothing in the body of the book which affirms any part of either title. Even the shorter title was an inference from the general character of the writing. Nowhere is criticism less hampered by problems of authenticity and inspiration.
No question arises, at least directly, of pseudonymity either of author or of readers, for both are anonymous. For the purpose of tracing the history and interpreting the meaning of the book, the absence of a title, or of any definite historical data, is a disadvantage. We are left to infer its historical context from a few fragments of uncertain tradition, and from such general references to historical conditions as the document itself contains.
Where no date, name or well-known event is fixed, it becomes impossible to decide, among many possibilities, what known historical conditions, if any, are pre-supposed. Yet this very fact, of the book's detachment from personal and historical incidents, renders it more self-contained, and its exegesis less dependent upon understanding the exact historical situation. But its general relation to the thought of its time must be taken into account if we are to understand it at all.
The Author's Culture and Style
The writer was evidently a man of culture, who had a masterly command of the Greek language. The theory of Clement of Alexandria, that the work was a translation from Hebrew, was merely an inference from the supposition that it was first addressed to Hebrew-speaking Christians. It bears none of the marks of a translation. It is written in pure idiomatic Greek. The writer had an intimate knowledge of the Septuagint, and was familiar with Jewish life.
He was well-read in Hellenic literally (e.g. Wisdom), and had probably made a careful study of Philo (see VI below). His argument proceeds continuously and methodically, in general, though not strict, accord with the rules of Greek rhetoric, and without the interruptions and digressions which render Paul's arguments so hard to follow. "Where the literary skill of the author comes out is in the deft adjustment of the argumentative to the hortatory sections" (Moffatt, Introduction, 424 f). He has been classed with Lk as the most "cultured" of the early Christian writers.
Letter, Epistle or Treatise?
It has been questioned whether Hebrews is rightly called a letter at all. Unlike all Paul's letters, it opens without any personal note of address or salutation; and at the outset it sets forth, in rounded periods and in philosophical language, the central theme which is developed throughout. In this respect it resembles the Johannine writings alone in the New Testament.
But as the argument proceeds, the personal note of application, exhortation and expostulation emerges more clearly (Heb 2:1; 3:1-12; 4:1,14; 5:11; 6:9; 10:9; 13:7); and it ends with greetings and salutations (Heb 13:18 ff). The writer calls it "a word of exhortation." The verb Grk: epesteila (the Revised Version (British and American) "I have written") is the usual expression for writing a letter (Heb 13:22). Hebrews begins like an essay, proceeds like a sermon, and ends as a letter.
Deissmann, who distinguishes between a "true letter," the genuine personal message of one man to another, and an "epistle," or a treatise written in imitation of the form of a letter, but with an eye on the reading public, puts Hebrews in the latter class; nor would he "consider it anything but a literary oration--hence, not as an epistle at all--if the Grk: epesteila, and the greetings at the close, did not permit of the supposition that it had at one time opened with something of the nature of an address as well" (Bible Studies, 49-50).
There is no textual or historical evidence of any opening address having ever stood as part of the text; nor does the opening section bear any mark or suggestion of fragmentariness, as if it had once followed such an address.
Yet the supposition that a greeting once stood at the beginning of our document is not so impossible as Zahn thinks (Introduction to the New Testament, II, 313 f), as a comparison with James or 1 Peter will show.
So unusual is the phenomenon of a letter without a greeting, that among the ancients, Pantaenus had offered the explanation that Paul, out of modesty, had refrained from putting his name to a letter addressed to the Hebrews, because the Lord Himself had been apostle to them.
In recent times, Julicher and Harnack have conjectured that the author intentionally suppressed the greeting, either from motives of prudence at a time of persecution, or because it was unnecessary, since the bearer of the letter would communicate the name of the sender to the recipients.
Overbeck advanced the more revolutionary hypothesis that the letter once opened with a greeting, but from someone other than Paul; that in order to satisfy the general conditions of canonization, the non-apostolic greeting was struck out by the Alexandrians, and the personal references in Heb 13:22-25 added, in order to represent it as Pauline.
A Unity or a Composite Work?:
W. Wrede, starting from this theory, rejects the first part of it and adopts the second. He does not base his hypothesis on the conditions of canonization, but on an examination of the writing itself. He adopts Deissmann's rejected alternative, and argues that the main part of the book was originally not an epistle at all, but a general doctrinal treatise. Then Heb 13, and especially 13:18 ff, were added by a later hand, in order to represent the whole as a Pauline letter, and the book in its final form was made, after all, pseudonymous.
The latter supposition is based upon an assumed reference to imprisonment in 13:19 (compare Philem 1:22) and upon the reference to Timothy in Heb 13:23 (compare Phil 2:19); and the proof that these professed Pauline phrases are not really Pauline is found in a supposed contradiction between Heb 13:19 and 13:23. But 13:19 does not necessarily refer to imprisonment exclusively or even at all, and therefore it stands in no contradiction with 13:23 (compare Rom 1:9-13).
And Timothy must have associated with many Christian leaders besides Paul. But why should anybody who wanted to represent the letter as Pauline and who scrupled not to add to it for that purpose, refrain from the obvious device of prefixing a Pauline greeting? Moreover, it is only by the most forced special pleading that it can be maintained that Heb 1 through 12 are a mere doctrinal treatise, devoid of all evidences of a personal relation to a circumscribed circle of readers. The period and manner of the readers' conversion are defined (2:3 f).
Their present spiritual condition is described in terms of such anxiety and hope as betoken a very intimate personal relation (5:11 f; 6:9-11). Their past conflicts, temptations, endurance and triumph are recalled for their encouragement under present trials, and both past and present are defined in particular terms that point to concrete situations well known to writer and readers (10:32-36). There is, it is true, not in Hebrews the same intense and all-pervading personal note as appears in the earlier Pauline letters; the writer often loses sight of his particular audience and develops his argument in detached and abstract form.
But it cannot be assumed that nothing is a letter which does not conform to the Pauline model. And the presence of long, abstract arguments does not justify the excision or explaining away of undoubted personal passages. Neither the language nor the logic of the book either demands or permits the separation of doctrinal and personal passages from one another, so as to leave for residuum a mere doctrinal treatise.
Doctrinal statements lead up to personal exhortations, and personal exhortations form the transition to new arguments; they are indissolubly involved in one another; and chapter 13 presents no such exceptional. features as to justify its separation from the whole work. There is really no reason, but the unwarrantable assumption that an ancient writer must have conformed with a certain convention of letter-writing, to forbid the acceptance of Hebrews for what it appears to be--a defense of Christianity written for the benefit of definite readers, growing more intimate and personal as the writer gathers his argument into a practical appeal to the hearts and consciences of his readers,
Certain coincidences of language and thought between this epistle and that of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians justify the inference that Hebrews was known in Rome toward the end of the 1st century AD (compare Heb 11:7,31 and 1:3 ff with Clement ad Cor 9,12,36). Clement makes no explicit reference to the book or its author: the quotations are unacknowledged. But they show that Hebrews already had some authority in Rome. The same inference is supported by similarities of expression found also in the Shepherd of Hermas.
The possible marks of its influence in Polycarp and Justin Martyr are too uncertain and indefinite to justify any inference. Its name does not appear in the list of New Testament writings compiled and acknowledged by Marcion, nor in that of the Muratorian Fragment. The latter definitely assigns letters by Paul to only seven churches, and so inferentially excludes Hebrews.
When the book emerges into the clear light of history toward the end of the 2nd century, the tradition as to its authorship is seen to divide into three different streams.
In Alexandria, it was regarded as in some sense the work of Paul. Clement tells how his teacher, apparently Pantaenus, explained why Paul does not in this letter, as in others, address his readers under his name. Out of reverence for the Lord (II, 2, above) and to avoid suspicion and prejudice, he as apostle of the Gentiles refrains from addressing himself to the Hebrews as their apostle. Clement accepts this explanation, and adds to it that the original Hebrew of Paul's epistle had been translated into Greek by Luke.
That Paul wrote in Hebrew was assumed from the tradition or inference that the letter was addressed to Aramaic-speaking Hebrews. Clement also had noticed the dissimilarity of its Greek from that of Paul's epistles, and thought he found a resemblance to that of Acts.
Origen starts with the same tradition, but he knew, moreover, that other churches did not accept the Alexandrian view, and that they even criticized Alexandria for admitting Hebrews into the Canon. And he feels, more than Clement, that not only the language, but the forms of thought are different from those of Paul's epistles. This he tries to explain by the hypothesis that while the ideas were Paul's, they had been formulated and written down by some other disciple. He found traditions that named Luke and Clement of Rome, but who the actual writer was, Origen declares that "God alone knows."
The Pauline tradition persisted in Alexandria, and by the 4th century it was accepted without any of the qualifications made by Clement and Origen. It had also in the same period spread over the other eastern churches, both Greek and Syrian. But the Pauline tradition, where it is nearest the fountain-head of history, in Clement and Origen, only ascribes Hebrews to Paul in a secondary sense.
In the West, the Pauline tradition failed to assert itself till the 4th century, and was not generally accepted till the 5th century. In Africa, another tradition prevailed, namely, that Barnabas was the author. This was the only other definite tradition of authorship that prevailed in antiquity. Tertullian, introducing a quotation of Heb 6:1,4-6, writes: "There is also an Epistle to the Hebrews under the name of Barnabas .... and the Epistle of Barnabas is more generally received among the churches than that apocryphal `Shepherd' of adulterers" (De Pudicitia, 20).
Tertullian is not expressing his mere personal opinion, but quoting a tradition which had so far established itself as to appear in the title of the epistle in the MS, and he betrays no consciousness of the existence of any other tradition. Zahn infers that this view prevailed in Montanist churches and may have originated in Asia. Moffatt thinks that it had also behind it "some Roman tradition" (Introduction, 437).
If it was originally, or at any time, the tradition of the African churches, it gave way there to the Alexandrian view in the course of the 4th century. A Council of Hippo in 393 reckons "thirteen epistles of the apostle Paul, and one by the same to the Hebrews." A council of Carthage in 419 reckons "fourteen epistles of the apostle Paul." By such gradual stages did the Pauline tradition establish itself.
Rome and the West: Anonymous
All the evidence tends to show that in Rome and the remaining churches of the West, the epistle was originally anonymous. No tradition of authorship appears before the 4th century. And Stephen Gobarus, writing in 600, says that both Irenaeus and Hippolytus denied the Pauline authorship. Photius repeats this statement as regards Hippolytus. Neither he nor Gobarus mentions any alternative view (Zahn, Intro, II, 310).
The epistle was known in Rome (to Clement) toward the end of the 1st century, and if Paul's name, or any other, had been associated with it from the beginning, it is impossible that it could have been forgotten by the time of Hippolytus. The western churches had no reason for refusing to admit Hebrews into the Pauline and canonical list of books, except only that they did not believe it to be the work of Paul, or of any other apostle.
It seems therefore certain that the epistle first became generally known as an anonymous writing. Even the Alexandrian tradition implies as much, for it appears first as an explanation by Pantaenus why Paul concealed his name. The idea that Paul was the author was therefore an Alexandrian inference. The religious value of the epistle was naturally first recognized in Alexandria, and the name of Paul, the chief letter-writer of the church, at once occurred to those in search for its author.
Two facts account for the ultimate acceptance of that view by the whole church. The spiritual value and authority of the book were seen to be too great to relegate it into the same class as the Shepherd or the Epistle of Barnabas. And the conception of the Canon developed into the hard-and-fast rule of apostolicity. No writing could be admitted into the Canon unless it had an apostle for its author; and when Hebrews could no longer be excluded, it followed that its apostolic authorship must be affirmed. The tradition already existing in Alexandria supplied the demand, and who but Paul, among the apostles, could have written it?
The Pauline theory prevailed together with the scheme of thought that made it necessary, from the 5th to the 16th century. The Humanists and the Reformers rejected it. But it was again revived in the 17th and 18th centuries, along with the recrudescence of scholastic ideas. It is clear, however, that tradition and history shed no light upon the question of the authorship of Hebrews. They neither prove nor disprove the Pauline, or any other theory.
The Witness of the Epistle Itself
We are therefore thrown back, in our search for the author, on such evidence as the epistle itself affords, and that is wholly inferential. It seems probable that the author was a Hellenist, a Greek-speaking Jew. He was familiar with the Scriptures of the Old Testament and with the religious ideas and worship of the Jews.
He claims the inheritance of their sacred history, traditions and institutions (Heb 1:1), and dwells on them with an intimate knowledge and enthusiasm that would be improbable, though not impossible, in a proselyte, and still more in a Christian convert from heathenism. But he knew the Old Testament only in the Septuagint translation, which he follows even where it deviates from the Hebrew. He writes Greek with a purity of style and vocabulary to which the writings of Luke alone in the New Testament can be compared.
His mind is imbued with that combination of Hebrew and Greek thought which is best known in the writings of Philo. His general typological mode of thinking, his use of the allegorical method, as well as the adoption of many terms that are most familiar in Alexandrian thought, all reveal the Hellenistic mind. Yet his fundamental conceptions are in full accord with the teaching of Paul and of the Johannine writings.
The central position assigned to Christ, the high estimate of His person, the saving significance of His death, the general trend of the ethical teaching, the writer's opposition to asceticism and his esteem for the rulers and teachers of the church, all bear out the inference that he belonged to a Christian circle dominated by Pauline ideas. The author and his readers alike were not personal disciples of Jesus, but had received the gospel from those who had heard the Lord (Heb 2:3) and who were no longer living (Heb 13:7). He had lived among his readers, and had probably been their teacher and leader; he is now separated from them but he hopes soon to return to them again (Heb 13:18 f).
Is it possible to give a name to this person?
Paul not the Author
Although the Pauline tradition itself proves nothing, the internal evidence is conclusive against it. We know enough about Paul to be certain that he could not have written Hebrews, and that is all that can be said with confidence on the question of authorship. The style and language, the categories of thought and the method of argument, all differ widely from those of any writings ascribed to Paul. The latter quotes the Old Testament from the Hebrew and Septuagint, but He only from Septuagint. Paul's formula of quotation is, "It is written" or "The scripture saith"; that of Hebrews, "God," or "The Holy Spirit," or "One somewhere saith."
For Paul the Old Testament is law, and stands in antithesis to the New Testament, but in Hebrews the Old Testament is covenant, and is the "shadow" of the New Covenant. Paul's characteristic terms, "Christ Jesus," and "Our Lord Jesus Christ," are never found in Hebrews; and "Jesus Christ" only 3 times (10:10; 13:8), and "the Lord" (for Christ) only twice (2:3; 7:14)--phrases used by Paul over 600 times (Zahn).
Paul's Christology turns around the death, resurrection and living presence of Christ in the church, that of Hebrews around His high-priestly function in heaven. Their conceptions of God differ accordingly. In Hebrews it is Judaistic-Platonistic, or (in later terminology) Deistic. The revelation of the Divine Fatherhood and the consequent immanence of God in history and in the world had not possessed the author s mind as it had Paul's. Since the present world is conceived in Hebrews as a world of "shadows," God could only intervene in it by mediators.
The experience and conception of salvation are also different in these two writers. There is no evidence in Hebrews of inward conflict and conversion and of constant personal relation with Christ, which constituted the entire spiritual life of Paul. The apostle's central doctrine, that of justification by faith, does not appear in Hebrews. Faith is less the personal, mystical relation with Christ, that it is for Paul, than a general hope which lays hold of the future to overcome the present; and salvation is accomplished by cleansing, sanctification and perfection, not by justification.
While Paul's mind was not uninfluenced by Hellenistic thought, as we find it in Alexandria (as, e.g. in Col and Eph), it nowhere appears in his epistles so clearly and prominently as it does in Hebrews. Moreover, the author of Hebrews was probably a member of the community to which he writes (Heb 13:18 f), but Paul never stood in quite the relation supposed here to any church. Finally, Paul could not have written Heb 2:3, for he emphatically declares that he did not receive his gospel from the older disciples (Gal 1:12; 2:6).
The general Christian ideas on which He was in agreement with Paul were part of the heritage which the apostle had left to all the churches. The few more particular affinities of Hebrews with certain Pauline writings (e.g. Heb 2:2 parallel Gal 3:19; Heb 12:22; 3:14 parallel Gal 4:25; Heb 2:10 parallel Rom 11:36; also with Ephesians; see yon Soden, Hand-Commentar, 3) are easily explicable either as due to the author's reading of Paul's Epistles or as reminiscences of Pauline phrases that were current in the churches. But they are too few and slender to rest upon them any presumption against the arguments which disprove the Pauline tradition.
The passage that is most conclusive against the Pauline authorship (Heb 2:3) is equally conclusive against any other apostle being the author. But almost every prominent name among the Christians of the second generation has been suggested. The epistle itself excludes Timothy (Heb 13:23), and Titus awaits his turn. Otherwise Luke, Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Silas, Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila, Philip the Deacon, and Aristion have all had their champions.
Luke and Clement
The first two, Luke and Clement, were brought in through their connection with Paul. Where it was recognized that a direct Pauline authorship could not be maintained, the Pauline tradition might still be retained, if the epistle could be assigned to one of the apostle's disciples. These two were fixed upon as being well-known writers. But this very fact reveals the improbability of theory. Similar arguments from language and thought to those derived from the comparison of Hebrews with the Pauline writings avail also in the comparison of Hebrews with the writings of Lk and Clement. Both these disciples of the apostle adhere much closer to his system of thought than Hebrews does, and they reveal none of the influences of Alexandrian thought, which is predominant in Hebrews.
Barnabas; Priscilla and Aquila; Philip; Aristion; Apollos
Of all the other persons suggested, so little is known that it is impossible to establish, with any convincing force, an argument for or against their authorship.
Barnabas was a Levite of Cyprus (Acts 4:36), and once a companion of Paul (Acts 13:2 ff). Another ancient writing is called "the Epistle of Barnabas," but it has no affinity with Hebrews. The coincidence of the occurrence of the word "consolation" in Barnabas' name (Acts 4:36) and in the writer's description of Hebrews (13:22) is quite irrelevant. Tertullian's tradition is the only positive argument in favor of the Barnabas theory. It has been argued against it that Barnabas, being a Levite, could not have shown the opposition to the Levitical system, and the unfamiliarity with it (Heb 7:27; 9:4), which is supposed to mark our epistle.
But the author's Levitical system was derived, not from the Hebrew Old Testament, nor from the Jerusalem temple, but from Jewish tradition; and the supposed inaccuracies as to the daily sin offering (7:27), and the position of the golden altar of incense (9:4) have been traced to Jewish tradition (see Moffatt, Introduction, 438). And the writer's hostility to the Levitical system is not nearly as intense as that of Paul to Pharisaism. There is nothing that renders it intrinsically impossible that Barnabas was the author, nor is anything known of him that makes it probable; and if he was, it is a mystery why the tradition was confined to Africa.
Harnack has argued the probability of a joint authorship by Priscilla and Aquila. The interchange of "I" and "we" he explains as due to a dual authorship by persons intimately related, but such an interchange of the personal "I" and the epistolary "we" can be paralleled in the Epistles of Paul (e.g. Romans) where no question of joint authorship arises. The probable relation of the author to a church in Rome may suit Priscilla arid Aquila (compare Rom 16:5 with Heb 13:22-24), but even if this interpretation of the aforementioned passages were correct, it is possible and probable that Luke, Barnabas, Apollos, and certainly Clement, stood in a similar relation to a Roman church.
Harnack, on this theory, explains the disappearance of the author's name as due to prejudice against women teachers. This is the only novel point in favor of this theory as compared with several others; and it does not explain why Aquila's name should not have been retained with the address. The evidences adduced of a feminine mind behind the epistle are highly disputable. On the other hand, a female disciple of Paul's circle would scarcely assume such authority in the church as the author of Hebrews does (13:17 f; compare 1 Cor 14:34 f).
And nothing that is known of Priscilla and Aquila would suggest the culture and the familiarity with Alexandrian thought possessed by this writer. Acts 18:26 does not prove that they were expert and cultured teachers, but only that they knew and could repeat the salient points of Paul's early preaching. So unusual a phenomenon as this theory supposes demands more evidence to make it even probable. (But see Rendel Harris, Sidelights on New Testament Research, 148-76.)
Philip the Deacon and Aristion, "a disciple of the Lord" mentioned by Papias, are little more than names to us. No positive knowledge of either survives on which any theory can be built. It is probable that both were personal disciples of the Lord, and they could not therefore have written Heb 2:3.
Apollos has found favor with many scholars from Luther downward. No ancient tradition supports this theory, a fact which tells heavily against it, but not conclusively, for someone must have written the letter, and his name was actually lost to early tradition, unless it were Barnabas, and that tradition too was Unknown to the vast majority of the early churches. All that is known of Apollos suits the author of Hebrews. He may have learned the gospel from "them that heard" (2:3); he was a Jew, "an Alexandrian by race, a learned (or eloquent) man," "mighty in the Scriptures," "he powerfully confuted the Jews" (Acts 18:24 ff), and he belonged to the same Pauline circle as Timothy and Titus (1 Cor 16:10-12; Tit 3:13; compare Heb 13:23).
The Alexandrian type of thought, the affinities with Philo, the arguments from Jewish tradition and ceremonial, the fluent style, may all have issued from "an eloquent Jew of Alexandria." But it does not follow that Apollos was the only person of this type. The author may have been a Gentile, as the purity of his Greek language and style suggests; and the combination of Greek and Hebrew thought, which the epistle reflects, and even Philo's terms, may have had a wide currency outside Alexandria, as for instance in the great cosmopolitan cities of Asia. All that can be said is that the author of Hebrews was someone generally like what is known of Apollos, but who he actually was, we must confess with Origen, "God alone knows."
The identity of the first readers of Hebrews is, if possible, more obscure than that of the author. It was written to Christians, and to a specific body or group of Christians (see I above). The title "to Hebrews" might mean properly Palestinian Jews who spoke the Hebrew language, but the fact that the epistle was written in Greek excludes that supposition. It therefore meant Christians of Jewish origin, and gives no indication of their place of residence.
The title represents an early inference drawn from the contents of the document, and the tradition it embodies was unanimously accepted from the 2nd century down to the early part of the last century. Now, however, a considerable body of critics hold that the original readers were Gentiles. The question is entirely one of inference from the contents of the epistle itself.
General Character of the Readers
The readers, like the writer, received the gospel first from "them that heard" (Heb 2:3), from the personal disciples of the Lord, but they were not of their number. They had witnessed "signs and wonders" and "manifold powers" and "gifts of the Holy Spirit" (Heb 2:4). Their conversion had been thorough, and their faith and Christian life had been of a high order. They had a sound knowledge of the first principles of Christ (Heb 6:1 ff).
They had become "partakers of Christ," and had need only to "hold fast the beginning of (their) confidence firm unto the end" (Heb 3:14). They had been fruitful in good works, ministering unto the saints (Heb 6:10), enduring suffering and persecution, and sympathizing with whose who were imprisoned (Heb 10:32-34). All this had been in former days which appeared now remote. Their rulers and ministers of those days are now dead (Heb 13:7). And they themselves have undergone a great change.
While they should have been teachers, they have become dull of hearing, and have need again to be taught the rudiments of the first principles of the gospel (Heb 5:12), and they are in danger of a great apostasy from the faith. They need warning against "an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God" (Heb 3:12). They are become sluggish (Heb 6:12), profane like Esau (Heb 12:16), worldly-minded (Heb 13:5). Perhaps their religion was tending toward a false asceticism and outward works (Heb 13:4,9).
And now that this moral dulness and spiritual indifference had fallen upon them, they are being subjected to a new test by persecution from outside (Heb 10:36; 12:4), which renders the danger of their falling away from the faith all the more imminent. The author apparently bases his claim to warn them on the fact that he had been a teacher among them, and hoped soon to return to them (Heb 13:18 f). The same might be said perhaps of Timothy (Heb 13:23). Both author and readers had friends in Italy (Heb 13:24) who were with the author when he wrote, either in Italy saluting the readers outside, or outside, saluting the readers in Italy. In all this there is little or nothing to help to fix the destination of the letter, for it might be true at some time or other of any church.
Jews or Gentiles?
The old tradition that the readers were Jews claims some more definite support from the epistle itself. The writer assumes an intimate knowledge of the Old Testament and of Jewish ceremonial on their part. The fathers of the Hebrew race are also their fathers (Heb 1:1; 3:9). The humanity that Christ assumed and redeemed is called "the seed of Abraham" (Heb 2:16). All this, however, might stand in reference to a Gentilechurch, for the early Christians, without distinction of race, regarded themselves as the true Israel and heirs of the Hebrew revelation, and of all that related to it (1 Cor 10:1; Gal 3:7 ff; 4:21 ff; Rom 4:11-18).
Still there is force in Zahn's argument that "Hebrews does not contain a single sentence in which it is so much as intimated that the readers became members of God's people who descended from Abraham, and heirs of the promise given to them and their forefathers, and how they became such" (Intro to New Testament, II, 323). Zahn further finds a direct proof in Heb 13:13 that "both the readers and the author belong to the Jewish people," which he interprets as "meaning that the readers were to renounce fellowship with the Jewish people who had rejected Jesus, to confess the crucified Jesus, and to take upon themselves all the ignominy that Jesus met at the hands of his countrymen" (ibid., 324-25).
But that is too large an inference to draw from a figurative expression which need not, and probably does not, mean more than an exhortation to rely on the sacrifice of Christ, rather than upon any external rules and ceremomes. Nor were the "divers and strange teachings" about marriage and meats (13:4,9) necessarily Jewish doctrines. They might be the doctrines of an incipient Gnosticism which spread widely throughout the Christian churches, both Jewish and gentile, toward the end of the 1st century.
There is otherwise no evidence that the apostasy, of which the readers stood in danger, was into Judaism, but it was rather a general unbelief and "falling away from the living God" (3:12).
It is the whole argument of the epistle, rather than any special references, that produced the tradition, and supports the view, that the readers were Jews. The entire message of the epistle, the dominant claims of Christ and of the Christian faith, rests upon the supposition that the readers held Moses, Aaron, the Jewish priesthood, the old Covenant and the Levitical ritual, in the highest esteem.
The author's argument is: You will grant the Divine authority and greatness of Moses, Aaron and the Jewish institutions: Christ is greater than they; therefore you ought to be faithful to Him. He assumes an exclusively Jewish point of view in the minds of his readers as his major premise. He could scarcely do that, if they had been Gentiles. Paul, when writing to the mixed church at Rome, relates his philosophy of the Christian revelation to both Jewish and Gentilepre-Christian revelation. Gentile Christians adopted the Jewish tradition as their own in consequence of, and secondary to, their attachment to Christianity.
Even Judaizing GentileChristians, such as may be supposed to have belonged to the Galatian and Corinthian churches, adopted some parts of the Jewish law only as a supplement to Christianity, but not as its basis.
Von Soden and others have argued with much reason that these Christians were not in danger of falling back into Judaism from Christianity, but rather of falling away from all faith into unbelief and materialism, like the Israelites in the wilderness (Heb 3:7 ff), or Esau (Heb 12:16). With all its references to Old Testament sacrifice and ceremonial, the letter contains not a single warning against reviving them, nor any indications that the readers were in danger of so doing (Hand-Commentar, 12-16). But it has been too readily assumed that these facts prove that the readers were not Jews.
The pressure of Social influence and persecution rendered Jews and Jewish Christians, as well as GentileChristians, liable to apostatize to heathenism or irreligion (The Wisdom of Solomon 2:10,20; 2 Macc 4; 6; 7; Philo, De Migratione Abrahami, XVI; Mt 24:10,12; Acts 20:30; 1 Cor 10:7,14; 2 Thess 2:4; 1 Jn 2:18; 5:21; Pliny Epistle X, 96). Von Soden's argument really cuts the other way. If the writer had been dealing with Gentile Christians who were in danger of relapsing into heathenism or of falling into religious indifference, his argument from the shadowy and temporary glories of Judaism to the perfect salvation in Christ would avail nothing, because, for such, his premises would depend upon his conclusion.
But if they were Jewish Christians, even though leaning toward heathenism, his argument is well calculated to call up on its side all the dormant force of their early religious training. He is not arguing them out of a "subtle Judaism" quickened by the zeal of a propaganda (Moffatt, Introduction, 449-50), but from "drifting away" in Heb (2:1), from "neglect" (2:3), from "an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God" (3:12), from "disobedience" (4:11), from "a dulness of hearing" (5:11), but into "diligence .... that ye be not sluggish" (6:11 f), into "boldness and patience" (10:35 f), and to "lift up the hands that hang down, and the palsied knees" (12:12); and this he might well do by his appeal to their whole religious experience, both Jewish and Christian, and to the whole religious history of their race.
The Locality of the Readers
The question of the locality of these "Hebrews" remains a matter for mere conjecture. Jerusalem, Alexandria, Rome, Antioch, Colosse, Ephesus, Berea, Ravenna and other places have been suggested. Tradition, since Clement of Alexandria, fixed on Jerusalem, but on the untenable ground that the letter was written to Aramaic-speaking Jews. The undisputed fact that it was written in Greek tells against Jerusalem.
So does the absence of all reference to the temple ritual, and the mention of almsgiving as the chief grace of the "Hebrews" (6:10). Jerusalem received rather than gave alms. Nor is it likely that all the personal disciples of the Lord would have died out in Jerusalem (2:3). And it could not be charged against the mother church that it had produced no teachers (5:12). These points also tell with almost equal force against any Palestinian locality.
Alexandria was suggested as an alternative to Jerusalem, on the supposition that those references to Jewish ritual which did not correspond with the Jerusalem ritual (Heb 7:27; 9:4; 10:11) might refer to the temple at Leontopolis. But the ritual system of the epistle is that of the tabernacle and of tradition, and not of any temple. The Alexandrian character of the letter has bearing on the identity of the author, but not so much on that of his readers. The erroneous idea that Paul was the author arose in Alexandria, but it would have been least likely to arise where the letter was originally sent.
Rome has lately found much favor. We first learn of the existence of the letter at Rome. The phrase "they of Italy salute you" (Heb 13:24) implies that either the writer or his readers were in Italy. It may be more natural to think of the writer, with a small group of Italian friends away from home, sending greetings to Italy, than to suppose that a greeting from Italy generally was sent to a church at a distance. It is probable that a body of Jewish Christians existed in Rome, as in other large cities of the Empire.
But this view does not, as von Soden thinks, explain any coincidences between Hebrews and Romans. A Roman origin might. It could explain the use of Hebrews by Clement. But the letter might also have come to Rome by Clement's time, even though it was originally sent elsewhere. The slender arguments in favor of Rome find favor chiefly because no arguments can be adduced in favor of any other place.
The latest date for the composition of Hebrews is clearly fixed as earlier than 96 AD by reason of its use by Clement of Rome about that time. There is no justification for the view that Hebrews shows dependence on Josephus. The earliest date cannot be so definitely fixed. The apparent dependence of Hebrews on Paul's Epistles, Galatians, 1 Corinthians and Romans, brings it beyond 50 AD.
Conversion and History of Readers
But we have data in the epistle itself which require a date considerably later. The readers had been converted by personal disciples of the Lord (Heb 2:3). They did not, therefore, belong to the earliest group of Christians. But it is not necessary to suppose a long interval between the Lord's ascension and their conversion. The disciples were scattered widely from Jerusalem by the persecution that followed the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1). "We may well believe that the vigorous preaching of Stephen would set a wave in motion which would be felt even at Rome" (Sanday, Romans, xxviii).
They are not, therefore, necessarily to be described as Christians of the 2nd generation in the strict chronological sense. But the letter was written a considerable time after their conversion. They have had time for great development in Heb (5:12). They have forgotten the former days after their conversion (10:32). Their early leaders are now dead (13:7). Yet the majority of the church still consists of the first converts (2:3; 10:32). And although no argument can be based upon the mention of 40 years (3:9), for it is only an incidental phrase in a quotation, yet no longer interval could lie between the founding of the church and the writing of the letter. It might be shorter. And the church may have been founded at any time from 32 to 70 AD.
The doctrinal development represented in Hebrews stands midway between the system of the later Pauline Epistles (Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians) and that of the Johannine Writings. The divers and strange teachings mentioned include only such ascetic tendencies about meat and marriage (Heb 13:4,9) as are reflected in Paul's Epistles early and late. There is no sign of the appearance of the full-blown heresies of the Ebionites, Docetists, and Gnostics, which became prevalent before the end of the 1st century. On the other hand the Logos-doctrine as the interpretation of the person of Christ (Heb 1:1-4) is more fully thought out than in Paul, but less explicit, and less assimilated with the purpose of Christianity, than in the Fourth Gospel.
The Fall of Jerusalem
It has been argued that the letter must have been written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, because in writing to a Jewish community, and especially in dealing with Jewish ritual, the writer would have referred to that event, if it had happened. This point would be relevant, if the letter had been addressed to Jerusalem, which is highly improbable. But, at a distance, an author so utterly unconcerned with contemporary history could easily have omitted mention of even so important a fact.
For in fact the author never mentions the temple or its ritual. His system is that of the tabernacle of the Old Testament and of Jewish tradition. The writer's interest is not in historical Judaism, and his omission to mention the great catastrophe does not prove that it had not occurred. The use of the present tense of the ritual does not imply its present continuance. "The present expresses the fact that so it is enjoined in the law, the past that with the founding of the New Covenant the old had been abolished" (Peake, Hebrews, 39).
A point of contact with contemporary history is found in the fact that Timothy was still living and active when Hebrews was written (13:23), but it does not carry us far. Timothy was a young man and already a disciple, when Paul visited Galatia on his 2nd journey about 46 AD (Acts 16:1). And he may have lived to the end of the century or near to it. It cannot be safely argued from the mere mention of his name alone, that Paul and his other companions were dead.
Two incidents in the history of the readers are mentioned which afford further ground for a somewhat late date. Immediately after their conversion, they suffered persecution, "a great conflict of sufferings; partly, being made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, becoming partakers with them that were so used" (Heb 10:32 f). And now again, when the letter is written, they are entering upon another time of similar trial, in which they "have need of patience" (Heb 10:36), though they "have not yet resisted unto blood" (Heb 12:4).
Their leaders, at least, it would appear, the writer and Timothy, have also been in prison, but one is at liberty and the other expects to be soon (Heb 13:19,23). It has been conjectured that the first persecution was that under Nero in 64 AD, and the second, that in the reign of Domitian, after 81 AD. But when it is remembered that in some part of the Empire Christians were almost always under persecution, and that the locale of these readers is very uncertain, these last criteria do not justify any dogmatizing.
It is certain that the letter was written in the second half of the 1st century. Certain general impressions, the probability that the first apostles and leaders of the church were dead, the absence of any mention of Paul, the development of Paul's theological ideas in a new medium, the disappearance of the early enthusiasm, the many and great changes that had come over the community, point strongly to the last quarter of the century. The opinions of scholars at present seem to converge about the year 80 AD or a little later.
Bible Commentaries on Hebrews
Bible Commentaries on Hebrews (link goes to Amazon)
Outlines of the Book of Hebrews
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From catholicdoors.com click here.