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Epistle to the Hebrews
For long the early church doubted the canonicity of Hebrews, largely because of uncertainty regarding its author. Although it was not written by Paul, nobody today would deny its authenticity of content and spiritual worth. Its author remains unknown, the best guess still being Apollos or his spiritual twin. Its readers, also unknown, who may have lived in Italy, were in danger of losing their earlier Christian zeal, or even perhaps of giving up their faith, partly through the pressure of persecution. Possibly they were being tempted to retreat into Judaism. Their spiritual ennui occasioned this unique document, which is more of a written sermon than a letter (except in ch. 13), a brilliant piece of rhetoric with a carefully wrought theological argument, mingling doctrine and exhortation in alternating sections.
The basic theme is the finality of the Christian revelation, God's last word, to turn aside from which is spiritual suicide. Christians are called to a persevering faith, similar to that of OT saints, but with the added incentive of already enjoying the partial fulfillment of the promises. The writer offers an elaborate proof of the superiority of the Christian revelation to the OT revelation, and in particular of Jesus to the angels, Moses, and the Jewish high priests. The OT system of worship, valid for its time, was inherently defective, only a reflection of the true spiritual reality; it has now been superseded by the coming of Jesus, the, as high priest to offer Himself once-for-all as the perfect sacrifice in the heavenly tabernacle. Stressing that the old has given place to the new, the writer brings out the continuity between the old and new covenants and the oneness of God's pilgrim people in all ages.
This argument could scarcely have been addressed to other than “Hebrew” (Jewish) Christians, although the case for a Gentile Christian audience is not lightly dismissed. The author's developing theology suggests a late rather than a very early writing; it antedates 1 Clement (c. a.d. 96), and the absence of indication that the Jerusalem temple no longer exists points to a date before a.d. 70. The author's theology here leaves some gaps, such as the lack of teaching on faith- union between the believer and the Lord, but nothing can diminish the worth of this noble witness to the Jesus who is the same unchanging Savior, yesterday, today, and forever.
W. Manson, The(1951); R. Williamson, Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews (1970); commentaries by B.F. Westcott (2nd ed., 1892), J. Moffatt (1924), F.F. Bruce (1964), H.W. Montefiore (1964), J. Héring (1970), G.W. Buchanan (1972).
HEBREWS, EPISTLE TO THE. The longest of the non-Pauline letters in the NT. Traditionally it follows the thirteen Pauline letters; in the great uncials it comes between Paul’s nine letters to churches and his four to individuals; in P46, the oldest MS of the corpus Paulinum (end of 2nd cent.), it comes second among the letters to churches, next after Romans. (This was its original position in the Syrian textual tradition; in Sahidic it follows 2 Corinthians; in the archetype of B it followed Galatians.)
In spite of traditional ascriptions and brilliant guesses, its authorship is unknown. At Alexandria it was ascribed to Paul from the second half of the 2nd cent. onward, although difficulties in this ascription were acknowledged by Clement and Origen: “God knows the truth of the matter,” said the latter (Euseb. Hist. vi. 25.14). Tertullian ascribed it to Barnabas (De pudicitia 20). Luther’s ascription to Apollos has commended itself to many; Harnack’s ascription to Priscilla seems to be ruled out by the masculine participle in
The document does not name those for whom it is intended any more than the man who composed it. The title “To (the) Hebrews” goes back to the last quarter of the 2nd cent. a.d., but it cannot be determined if it corresponds to the original truth of the matter or, if so, what “Hebrews” precisely means. From internal evidence it may be inferred that they were Hel. Jews who had embraced the Gospel. Gentile believers who were disposed to backslide would not be greatly moved by an argument that began “Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood...” (
Occasion, purpose and date.
The people to whom the letter was sent were in danger of losing their initial enthusiasm. When first they became Christians, their exhilaration was such that they rejoiced amid persecution, endured plunder and outrage without complaint, and were unstinting in their service of fellow believers, esp. those who were imprisoned. With the passing of the years their earlier zest waned. The parousia, which they had ardently expected, seemed as distant as ever; the Jewish establishment and the fellowship of the synagogue, which they had given up for Christianity, continued to flourish and to offer the protection of a religion whose practice was licensed by the Rom. state. Their original impetus slackened off; they were tempted to look backward instead of forward. Hence the urgency with which the author exhorts them, using a variety of metaphors, not to drift downstream but to row hard against the current, not to flag in the race but to persevere in faith. It may well be, as William Manson has argued, that he wanted to see them play their part in the advance of the Christian world-mission with other fellow believers instead of remaining in a backwater. To do this they must be prepared to burn their boats and sever their links with the old order. To ignore the forward call would be worse than negligence; it would be outright apostasy, “falling away from the living God” (
As for the date of the letter, a terminus ad quem is provided by the references to it in Clement of Rome (c. a.d. 96). A terminus a quo is indicated in that author and readers alike received the Gospel from men who had heard the Lord. No completely definitive answer can be given to the question whether the letter was written before or after the destruction of the in a.d. 70. The sacrificial ritual is referred to in the present tense and the “old covenant” under which that ritual was instituted is said to be “ready to vanish away” (
If the people addressed were Rom. Christians, a date not later than a.d. 64 is indicated by
The letter is described by the writer as a “word of exhortation” (
Relation to the apostolic preaching.
Because Hebrews represents a distinct school of thought within the NT, it is the more interesting to compare the Gospel that is presupposed as common ground between author and readers with the Gospel as presented in other NT documents, and to discover that in basic essentials it is the same Gospel.
It has often been said that in Hebrews the older eschatology of the two ages has been combined (if not overlaid) with the Platonic scheme of the two worlds—the upper world of eternal reality and the lower world characterized by material and temporary copies of that reality. Something of this sort is indeed recognizable in chs. 8 and
On this basis the writer establishes the finality of the Gospel as God’s perfect revelation to man. The Gospel is contrasted in this regard with everything that preceded it, esp. with the levitical ritual. By emphasizing the completeness of the work of Christ and the perfection of His person, he presents the Gospel as the one way that secures unimpeded access to God.
The writer finds this perfect sacrifice predicted in
What the readers needed in their present situation was to cultivate patient endurance and hold fast their confession to the end. They should not be discouraged by hope deferred; the coming One would come (
Canonicity and authority.
Hebrews may be said to have received canonical recognition first of all when a 2nd cent. editor (prob. in Alexandria) incorporated it into the corpus Paulinum. Certainly from the time of Pantaenus (c. a.d. 180) its canonicity was unanimously acknowledged by Alexandria; whatever Origen’s doubts on its authoriship might be, he had none on its canonical quality. The example of Alexandria was followed by the eastern churches generally. included Hebrews (reckoned by him as a Pauline letter) among the books whose canonicity was “obvious and plain,” although he did not overlook the fact that “some have set it aside on the ground that it was rejected by the Rom. church as non-Pauline” (Euseb. Hist. iii. 3. 5). Ephrem (c. a.d. 350) and the other Syr. fathers accepted it without question as canonical (and as Pauline); unlike some of the catholic epistles, it was included in the Peshitta (early 5th cent.) from the beginning.
In the W the situation was quite different. Although the epistle was known at Rome before the end of the 1st cent., it was not regarded as canonical there until the 4th cent. presumably because it was known not to be the work of an apostle. At last the Rom. church, with no great enthusiasm, decided not to remain out of step with the eastern churches in this regard, being moved particularly by the persuasiveness of Athanasius, who spent his second exile (a.d. 340-346) in Rome. Even Irenaeus of Lyons (c. a.d. 180), despite his belonging to proconsular Asia, had reservations about Hebrews; he may have given it a deutero-canonical status comparable to that of Wisdom (Euseb. Hist. v. 26).
The difficulty felt by the Rom. church was largely due to the tradition by which canonical authority and apostolic authorship went hand in hand. Jerome and Augustine were content to accept Hebrews as a Pauline letter on this ground rather than from considerations of literary criticism. It was included in the canon promulgated by the Synods of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) in this form: “Of Paul the apostle, thirteen epistles; of the same to the Hebrews, one.”
When the question was reopened by the Reformers, the canonicity and apostolic authorship of Hebrews were clearly distinguished. Luther rejected its Pauline authorship and relegated it to a deutero-canonical position because it contained as he thought, some “wood, hay and stubble”; Calvin equally denied its Pauline authorship but affirmed: “I class it without hesitation among the apostolic writings”—“apostolic” in doctrine and authority, not in authorship. Of its inherent worth he said: “There is no book of Holy Scripture which speaks so clearly of the priesthood of Christ, which so highly exalts the virtue and dignity of that only true sacrifice which he offered by his death, which so abundantly deals with the use of ceremonies as well as their abrogation, and, in a word, so fully explains that Christ is the end of the law. Let us therefore not allow the church of God or ourselves to be deprived of so great a benefit, but firmly defend the possession of it” (Commentary on Hebrews, introduction).
It is all to the good that canonicity and authorship should be thus distinguished by the recognition of the right of an anonymous work to a place within the NT because of its essential quality. The abiding authority of the epistle can be found in its insistence on the inwardness of true religion and its relegation of externalities to a place of relative unimportance. (Even sacraments may have been included by the author among such externalities; it is not without significance that the one statement about Melchizedek in
A. B. Davidson, The(1882); B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (1892); A. B. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The First Apology for Christianity (1889); W. Milligan, The Theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews (1899); M. Dods, The Epistle to the Hebrews, EGT (1910); A. Nairne, The Epistle of Priesthood (1913); E. Riggenbach, Der Brief an die Hebräer (1913); A. S. Peake, The Epistle to the Hebrews (1914); J. Moffatt, The Epistle to the Hebrews, ICC (1924); O. Michel, Der Brief an die Hebräer, Meyer (1949); G. H. Lang, The Epistle to the Hebrews (1951); W. Manson, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Historical and Theological Reconsideration (1951); C. Spicq, L’Épître aux Hébreux, EB (1952); J. Héring, L’Épître aux Hébreux (1955); A. C. Purdy, The Epistle to the Hebrews, IB (1955); C. K. Barrett, “The Eschatology of the Epistle to the Hebrews,” in The Background of the NT and its Eschatology, ed. W. D. Davies and D. Daube (1956), 383ff.; G. Vos, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews (1956); A. Snell, New and Living Way (1959); S. Kistemaker, The Psalm Citations in the Epistle to the Hebrews (1961); M. Luther, Lectures on the Epistle to the Hebrews, trans. J. Atkinson in Luther: Early Theological Works, Library of Christian Classics XVI (1962), 19ff.; T. W. Manson, Studies in the Gospels and Epistles (1962), 242ff.; J. Calvin, The Epistle...to the Hebrews and the...Epistles of St. Peter, trans. W. B. Johnston (1963); F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, NIC (1964); H. W. Montefiore, The Epistle to the Hebrews (1964).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
1. The Author’s Culture and Style
2. Letter, Epistle or Treatise?
3. A Unity or a Composite Work?
III. THE AUTHOR
(1) Alexandrian: Paul
(2) African: Barnabas
(3) Rome and the West: Anonymous
2. The Witness of the Epistle Itself
(1) Paul not the Author
(2) Other Theories
(a) Luke and Clement
(b) Barnabas; Priscilla and Aquila; Philip; Aristion; Apollos
1. General Character of the Readers
2. Jews or Gentiles?
3. The Locality of the Readers
1. Terminal Dates
2. Conversion and History of the Readers
3. Doctrinal Development
4. The Fall of Jerusalem
6. Two Persecutions
1. Summary of Contents
2. The Main Theme
3. Alexandrian Influences
4. The Christian Factor
In theand the English 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" (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.
II. Literary Form.
1. 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, 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 Lu as the most "cultured" of the early Christian writers.
2. Letter, Epistle or Treatise?:
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 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
3. 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
III. The Author.
Certain coincidences of language and thought between this epistle and that of
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.
(1) Alexandrian: Paul
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.
(2) African: Barnabas
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
(3) 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.
2. 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
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 (
Is it possible to give a name to this person?
(1) 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," 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 . Paul’s characteristic terms, "Christ Jesus," and "Our Lord ," 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 (
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.
(2) Other Theories
The passage that is most conclusive against the Pauline authorship (
(a) 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 Lu 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.
(b) 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.
(i) Barnabas was a Levite of Cyprus (
(ii) 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
(iii) 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
(iv) 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" (
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.
1. General Character of the Readers:
2. 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 (
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.
3. 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 (
Rome has lately found much favor. We first learn of the existence of the letter at Rome. The phrase "they of Italy salute you" (
1. Terminal Dates:
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.
2. 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 (
3. Doctrinal Development:
The doctrinal development represented in Hebrews stands midway between the system of the later
4. 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 (
6. Two Persecutions:
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" (
1. Summary of Contents:
|| I. The Revelation of God in His Son (
1. Christ the completion of revelation (
2. Christ’s superiority over the angels (
(1) Because lie is a Son (
(2) Because His reign is eternal (
3. The dangers of neglecting salvation through the Son (
4. The Son and humanity (
(1) The lowliness and dignity of man (
(2) Necessity for the Incarnation (
(a) To fulfill God’s gracious purpose (
(c) That the Saviour may sympathize with the saved (
II. The Prince of Salvation (
1. Christ as Son superior to Moses as servant (
2. Consequences of Israel’s unbelief (
3. Warning the "Hebrews" against similar unbelief (
4. Exhortations to faithfulness (
(1) Because a rest remains for the people of God (
(2) Because the omniscient God is judge (
III. The Great
1. Christ’s priesthood the Christian’s confidence (
2. Christ has the essential qualifications for priesthood (
(1) Sympathy with men (
(2) God’s appointment (
3. The spiritual dulness of the Hebrews (
(1) Their lack of growth in knowledge (
(2) "Press on unto perfection" (
(3) The danger of falling away from Christ (
(4) Their past history ground for hoping better things (
4. God’s oath the ground of Christ’s priesthood and of the believer’s hope (
5. Christ a priest after the order of Melchizedek (
(1) The history of Melchizedek (
(2) The superiority of his order over that of Aaron (
(3) Supersession of the Aaronic priesthood (
(4) Superiority of Christ’s priesthood (
(5) Christ a priest befitting us (
6. Christ the true high priest (
(1) Because He entered the true sanctuary (
(2) Because He is priest of the New Covenant (
(3) A description of the old tabernacle and its services (
(4) Ineffectiveness of its sacrifices (
(5) Superiority of Christ’s sacrifice (
(6) The Mediator of the New Covenant through His own blood (
(7) Weakness of the sacrifices of the law (
(8) Incarnation for the sake of sacrifice (
(9) The one satisfactory sacrifice (
IV. Practical Exhortations (
1. Draw near to God and hold fast the faith (
2. The responsibility of Christians and the judgment of God (
3. Past faithfulness a ground for present confidence (
4. The household of faith (
(1) What is faith? (
(2) The examples of faith (
(3) The triumphs of faith (
5. Run the race looking unto Jesus (
6. Sufferings as discipline from the Father (
7. The duty of helping and loving the brethren (
8. Comparison of the trials and privileges of Christians with those of the Israelites (
9. Various duties (
(1) Moral and social relations (
(2) Loyalty to leaders (
(3) Beware of Jewish heresies (Heb 13:9-4).
(4) Ecclesiastical worship and order (
10. Personal affairs and greetings (
(1) A request for the prayers of the church (
(2) A prayer for the church (
(3) "Bear with the word of exhortation" (
(4) "Our brother Timothy" (
(5) Greetings (
(6) Grace (
2. The Main Theme:
The theme of the epistle is the absoluteness of the Christian religion, as based-upon the pre-eminence of Jesus Christ, the one and only mediator of salvation. The essence of Christ’s preeminence is that He fully realizes in His own person the principles of revelation and reconciliation. It is made manifest in His superiority over the Jewish system of salvation, which He therefore at once supersedes and fulfils. The author’s working concept is the Logos-doctrine of Philo; and the empirical data to which it is related is the religious history of Israel, as it culminates in Christianity. He makes no attempt to prove either his ideal first principles or his historical premises, and his philosophy of religion takes no account of the heathen world. The inner method of his argument is to fit Judaism and Christianity into the Logos-concept; but his actual is related to the ideal in the way of Plato’s antithesis, of shadow and reality, of pattern and original, rather than in Aristotle’s way of development, although the influence of the latter method may often be traced, as in the history of faith, which is carried back to the beginnings of history, but is made perfect only in the Christian consummation (
3. Alexandrian Influences:
4. The Christian Factor:
(1) Commentary by A. S. Peake, Century Bible; A.B. Davidson, Bible Handbooks;, Expositor’s Greek Test.; T.C. Edwards, Expositor’s Bible; F. Rendall (London, 1888); Westcott3 (1903); von Soden, Hand-Commentar; Hollmann, Die Schriften des New Testament.
(2) Introductions by Moffatt, Introduction to the Lit. of the New Testament; A. B. Bruce in HDB; von Soden in EB; Zahn, Introduction to the New Testament; H.H.B Ayles, Destination, Date, and Authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews; Harnack, "Probabilia, uber die Addresse und den Verfasser des Hebraerbriefes," ZNTW, I (1900); W. Wrede, Das literarische Ratsel des Hebraerbriefes (1906).
(3) Theology: Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews; Milligan, The Theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews; Menegoz, La theologie de l’epitre aux Hebreux. For fuller list, see Moffatt, in the work quoted