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Introduction to the Book of Hebrews

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Author

The identity of the author of the Book of Hebrews is one of the great mysteries of the New Testament, as no author is named in the book. The traditional view of Paul being the author is stated in the King James Version, where the book has the title, "The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews". A similar title is found in a few early manuscripts.

Internal evidence

There are a few clues from within the book itself. The author states that he had heard the gospel from the apostles who had heard Jesus (2:2-3). This means that he was not a first hand witness of Jesus, so he could not have been one of the twelve disciples. It also makes it unlikely that Paul was the author, as he made a strong claim to be have received the gospel directly from the resurrected Jesus (Gal 1:12), and not from any human source. The author was familiar with the situation his readers were facing, both in the present and in the past (6:10, 10:32, 12:4, 13:2), he had spent time with them and was hoping to see them again (13:19). He also knew Timothy well (13:23).

The style and language is quite different from Paul. There are also differences in theological emphasis: Paul focuses on the cross and resurrection of Christ, while Hebrews speaks about his exaltation. For Paul, redemption and justification is emphasised, while Hebrews has a focus on Christ's cleansing, sanctifying and perfecting work, and on Jesus as the high priest. Paul gives an emphasis on the tension between the flesh and the Spirit, and between grace and the law, while Hebrews particularly looks at the differences between the old and new covenants.

Whoever the author was, he was eloquent in Greek style and vocabulary, and knew the Hebrew Scriptures extremely well.

External evidence

The early church fathers did not consider Paul to be the author. This view was first popularised by Augustine. The Muratorian Canon, which is one of the earliest lists of books in the New Testament, from AD 170, does not include Hebrews in the list of letters written by Paul. Other suggestions through the period of church history have been: Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Luke, Silas, Aquila and Priscilla (because the author refers to himself in the plural), and Apollos.

Eusebius makes this comment that some have disputed whether Hebrews should be included in the New Testament, because it was not written by Paul.
"Paul's fourteen epistles are well known and undisputed. It is not indeed right to overlook the fact that some have rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews, saying that it is disputed by the church of Rome, on the ground that it was not written by Paul". (Ecclesiastical History 6:20:3)

Possibility of Barnabas

Barnabas was suggested as the author by Tertullian, and by some other of the early church fathers. He was a Levite and would therefore be familiar with the temple ritual. His name meant "Son of encouragement" (Acts 4:36), and the writer referred to the letter as “a word of exhortation” (Heb 13:22).

This is what Tertullian wrote
"For there is extant withal an Epistle to the Hebrews under the name of Barnabas - a man sufficiently accredited by God, as being one whom Paul has stationed next to himself in the uninterrupted observance of abstinence: “Or else, I alone and Barnabas, have not we the power of working?” (On Modesty 20)

Jerome reports that the suggested author is Barnabas, or otherwise Luke, or Clement of Rome
"The epistle which is called the Epistle to the Hebrews is not considered his (Paul’s), on account of its difference from the others in style and language, but it is reckoned, either according to Tertullian to be the work of Barnabas, or according to others, to be by Luke the Evangelist or Clement afterwards bishop of the church at Rome, who, they say, arranged and adorned the ideas of Paul in his own language, though to be sure, since Paul was writing to Hebrews and was in disrepute among them he may have omitted his name from the salvation on this account. He being a Hebrew wrote Hebrew, that is his own tongue and most fluently while the things which were eloquently written in Hebrew were more eloquently turned into Greek and this is the reason why it seems to differ from other epistles of Paul." (Lives of Illustrious Men 5)

Possibility of Luke

Some people have noted some verbal and stylistic similarities between Luke / Acts and Hebrews. However, the Book of Hebrews is very Jewish, so it is difficult to imagine that it was written by a Gentile. In writing quoted by Eusebius, Clement of Alexandria (150 - 215) suggested that Luke had translated Paul's original letter from Hebrew into Greek
"He (Clement of Alexandria) says that the Epistle to the Hebrews is the work of Paul, and that it was written to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language; but that Luke translated itcarefully and published it for the Greeks, and hence the same style of expression is found in this epistle and in the Acts." (Ecclesiastical History 6:14:2)

The author was unknown even by the late second century. Eusebius also quotes writing by Origen (180-253) who thought that Paul wrote it, and Luke translated it into excellent Greek, but concluded "Only God knows".

In addition he (Origen) makes the following statements in regard to the Epistle to the Hebrews in his Homilies upon it: "That the verbal style of the epistle entitled 'To the Hebrews,' is not rude like the language of the apostle, who acknowledged himself 'rude in speech,' that is, in expression; but that its diction is purer Greek, any one who has the power to discern differences of phraseology will acknowledge. Moreover, that the thoughts of the epistle are admirable, and not inferior to the acknowledged apostolic writings, any one who carefully examines the apostolic text will admit." Farther on he (Origen) adds: "If I gave my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle (Paul), but the diction and phraseology are those of some one who remembered the apostolic teachings, and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher. Therefore if any church holds that this epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this. For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul's. But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows. The statement of some who have gone before us is that Clement, bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, and of others that Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts, wrote it." But let this suffice on these matters. (Ecclesiastical History 6:25)

Possibility of Apollos

Luther was probably the first person to suggest that Apollos was the author of Hebrews. In the Book of Acts, Apollos was described as an Alexandrian Jew, an eloquent man, well versed in the scriptures, who had been instructed in the way of the Lord and was fervent in spirit, who spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus (Acts 18:24-28). He went to Achaia where he greatly helped the disciples and powerfully confuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Christ was Jesus (Acts 18:27-28). The book of Hebrews certainly makes great use of O.T. scripture to show the deity of Jesus. As a Jew, he would know the Scriptures and Jewish concepts well, which form such a large part of this book. Alexandria was a great centre of Jewish learning, where there was also influence from Greek thinking, particularly from Plato. It has been suggested that Greek concepts of the visible world being the shadow of unseen realities, taught by Plato, are also seen in the Book of Hebrews (8:5).

Original Readers

The title, "To the Hebrews" is not from the text, but is deduced from the contents. The earliest title is from the early third century. There is a small hint of the origin of the book, "Those from Italy send you greetings" (13:24). However, this can be read in two different ways: either the letter written from Italy, or otherwise some people from Italy who were with the author were sending greetings to fellow Italians at home. So the book could either be written from Italy, or to Italy. If the readers were in Italy, then it was possibly written to one of the Jewish house churches in Rome, forming part of the larger community of the church in Rome.

Date of writing

It was written during Timothy's lifetime (13:23), but we don't know when Timothy died. There is a tradition that he was clubbed to death in AD 81. If true, then the book must be dated before then. Clement of Rome mentions this letter in a letter he wrote from Rome to Corinth in AD 96.

There is no mention of the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. If this event had already happened, the author would surely have included it as evidence that the Old Covenant and its sacrifices had passed away. The author possibly alludes to it as a future event, “In speaking of a new covenant, he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” (8:13).

Historical setting

If the letter was written to Jewish Christians in Rome, it is possible to re-construct the situation quite well. In AD 49, Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome. The Jewish believers in Jesus would have had to leave as well, including Aquila and Priscilla, who met Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:2). The Jews were not allowed to return until Nero came to the throne in AD 54.

The first persecution of the church in Rome was during the reign of Nero, following the fire of Rome in AD 64. The writer refers to a previous time of persecution (Heb 10:32-35), perhaps referring to the time when the Jews were expelled from Rome by Claudius. When the letter was written they are being persecuted again; this probably being Nero's persecution. In AD 49, they were persecuted and expelled from the city for being Jews. This time they are being persecuted for being believers in Jesus. There was no persecution of the Jews in the time of Nero, which would explain the temptation of the readers to return to the safety of Judaism while they were suffering as Christians. So a good date for the book would be sometime following AD 64.

The Spiritual situation of the readers

The spiritual situation of the readers is easier to determine, and is more helpful than the geographical or historical situation in interpreting this book.

The readers have been believers for some considerable time already, and are not new converts (5:12, 10:32). However the author now describes them as lazy (5:11, 6:12), and are losing heart (12:3,12), as they are growing weary under persecution (2:18, 10:32, 13:3). They have lost their initial enthusiasm and confidence in their faith (3:6,14, 4:14, 10:23,35), and therefore need a strong word of exhortation (13:7). The author considers that they have failed to grow or progress in their faith, so they are seriously deficient in their spiritual understanding and discernment (5:12-14), therefore they easily get led astray (13:9). They are now failing to meet together for fellowship (10:25), perhaps because of the persecution. They are not being loyal to their leaders (13:17), and are in danger of being in unbelief (3:12). The author sees a greater threat, that they are in danger of completely abandoning their faith, which he calls apostasy (3:12, 10:26), probably because they are tempted to return to their old religion, Judaism, to avoid persecution. They want an easy way out from the fight of faith, and are seeking temporary relief, like Esau did (12:16-17).

The readers are probably Jews who have come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, but who have now become disappointed with their new faith, because it has brought no visible earthly kingdom, but instead it has brought persecution from Gentile governments and reproach from the other Jews. Their great temptation therefore is to return to the security of Judaism - to leave fellowshipping with the believers in Jesus, and return to the safety of the synagogue.

The basic question addressed in the book is the hiddenness of salvation, appearing hidden as a result of persecution. To combat the threat of apostasy, the author stresses that they must stand in the reality of the new covenant, in spite of appearances to the contrary. He stresses the assurance of salvation, warning that if that is lost, there is no hope. The book is an exhortation to hold fast to the faith through God's apparent silence.

The author’s approach was that the Old Covenant was good, but limited. He never criticises the Old Covenant. However, the New Covenant is better, and the only way. He shows that Jesus is superior in every way to the Old Covenant. He exhorts them to remain in faith, and warns of dreadful spiritual consequences if they fall away.

What kind of literature?

The Book of Hebrews does not follow the standard structure of a first century letter. No author is named, no readers are addressed, and there is no prayer, thanksgiving or greeting at the beginning. He launches directly into his main topic right from the start of the letter. The only standard parts of a letter are the personal greetings at the end.

The author describes it as, "a brief word of exhortation" (13:22). This would be similar to the word of exhortation that Paul spoke to the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:15). It has some of the qualities of a sermon, and could have been spoken (2:5, 9:5b, 11:32).

In the book, there are three strands of exposition, exhortation and warning, forming a powerful triple interchange, as the author alternates between them. The exposition, or teaching, passages show that Jesus is “better than” all aspects of the Old Covenant. These are interspersed with the exhortation passages, where the readers are urged to respond in faith; and the warning passages in which the terrible spiritual consequences of falling away are described.

The exhortations and warnings are placed within the teaching sections, forming carefully constructed digressions so the author brings his messages back to his main teaching. The letter still makes perfect sense if the exhortations and warnings are omitted.

There are five major teaching sections, in which Jesus is shown to be “better than” all aspects of the old covenant.

1:1-4 Jesus is a better revelation from God
1:5-14, 2:5-18 Jesus is better than the angels
5:1-10, 7:1-28 Jesus is a better priesthood
8:1-13 Jesus brings a better covenant
9:1 - 10:18 Jesus made a better sacrifice

There are five main exhortation sections, often indicated by the words, “let us” (4:1,11,14,16, 6:1,10:22,23,24, 12:1, 13:13,15)

3:1-6 To consider Jesus as having more glory than Moses
4:14-16 To hold fast, and approach the throne boldly
10:19-25 To draw near to God by faith
12:1-14 To respond to the discipline of the Lord
13:1-25 To suffer with Jesus outside the camp

There are also five main warning sections, addressed to those who are tempted to fall away

2:1-4 Warning not to drift away
3:7 - 3:13 Warning from the wilderness not to harden your hearts
5:11 - 6:20 Warning to press on to maturity and not fall away
10:26-39 No sacrifice available, but only judgement
12:15-29 God is a consuming fire

Main themes of the book

The main theme is the superiority of Christ. The word "better" used thirteen times. He is more excellent than angels (1:4), bringing a better covenant (7:22, 8:6), a better hope (7:19), based on better promises (8:6), through better sacrifices (9:23), leading to a better possession (10:34), a better country (11:16), and a better resurrection (11:35).

The book brings a strong call to endurance, resisting the temptation to return to Judaism, which would be apostasy. They will loose everything if they go back. They are called to hold fast to their confession of faith (3:1, 4:14, 10:23,35, 13:15).

There is also an important theme of perfection and having access to God. This does not mean moral perfection, but is used to describe having access into the presence of God. The word translated into English as “perfect” is based on the Greek word "telos", meaning "end", and is found eighteen times (2:10, 5:9, 7:11,19,28, 9:9,11, 10:1,14, 11:40, 12:23). The word has a wide range of meaning including: to execute fully, to reach the end of something, to finish, to consummate, to reach the goal, or to become qualified. The goal for us is the eschatological reality of coming into the presence of God, which we have in a limited way now, but in a complete way at the second coming.

Characteristics of the book

1. The book has many quotations from the Old Testament.

The quotations come from the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (LXX). There are a total of forty-one quotations, nineteen of these come from the Psalms.

Some of these quotations are repeated for emphasis. These include the prediction of the new covenant (Jer 31, quoted twice, in 8:8-12, and 10:16-18). The warning from Psalm 95 is made five times (3:7-11,15, 4:3,4,7), the prediction of Jesus the Son from Psalm 2 is quoted twice (1:5, 5:5), and the eternal priesthood from Psalm 110 five times (5:6,10, 6:20, 7:17,20).

2. Many important titles of Jesus are used

He is the heir of all things (1:2), the One seated at the right hand of God (1:3), the firstborn (1:6), the Son (1:8). He is God (1:8), Lord (1:10) and Son of man (2:6). He is the apostle (3:1), the living God (3:12), the Great high priest (4:14) and the Son of God (4:14). He is described as the forerunner (6:20), the minister in the true sanctuary (8:2), the mediator (9:15) and the better sacrifice (9:23). He is the one who is invisible (11:27), the pioneer and perfector (12:2), and the great shepherd of the sheep (13:20).

The author simply refers to Jesus as: "Jesus, Lord or Christ", compared with Paul who calls him "Lord Jesus Christ".

The book also gives a great picture of the humanity of Jesus during his incarnation: He was made for a little while lower than the angels (2:9), partaking of same nature as us of flesh and blood (2:14). He was tempted in every way, but without sin (4:15). In the days of his flesh, he offered prayers with tears (5:7-9), a reference to the Garden of Gethsemane. He makes great emphasis on Christ's single offering on the cross (10:14-18), as well as his endurance of hostility from sinners (12:3), and suffering outside the city (13:12).

The author shows the superiority of Jesus by using many familiar themes from the Old Testament, including the wilderness wanderings, the Sabbath rest, the tabernacle, the covenants, and the priesthood and sacrifices, all of which are seen as a shadow, compared with the reality achieved by Jesus.

For a deeper study, I have written a book on Hebrews called "Press On or Give Up". Details are on the Julian's Books page.


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