Lecture 01: Background
A. Personal Introduction:
I want our class to be very active as we deal unit by unit and verse by verse of the book and then talk about the practical implications of it. So we will talk about how to bring this truth to bear on how we live today in the 21 st century. We have a lot of ground to cover so you are going to have to listen careful to get everything that is being covered. I am a professor at Union University in Jackson Tennessee. This is a broadly evangelical school established in the early 18th century. I have also co-pastored a church that I helped found ten years ago. I love oriental food and I enjoy being with my family. My son and I are doing a mini-basketball camp. While I am here, he and I will be practicing basketball every afternoon after class. You are welcome to come and join us in that. I broke my ankle last year climbing a tree to get a cat. This was an exercise in humility by admitting that; my brother told me if that happens again; I should just shoot the cat and since then I have heard all kinds of jokes about a dead cat.
B. Studies in Hebrews:
My involvement with Hebrews started when I was a PhD student want to be. I was taking German at the time and was assigned to translate an article by August Strobel on the Hebrews chapter 5:7-8 where it talks about Jesus crying and shedding tears. Strobel raised the question as to where this came from because we don’t see it in the Gospel account. He was dealing with the psalm basis of some of this material. So, I became interested in Hebrews and the use of the Psalms in Hebrews. When I went to Trinity Divinity School to do a Masters of Theology, I focused my thesis on the use of Psalms 110:1 in the Book of Hebrews. It is used five times and quoted once in Hebrews 1:13 and alluded to four other times. As I studied those different usages through Hebrews I point out that they were spread throughout the book. So, when you ask the question as to how this functions in Hebrews, you are studying a structure question, a complete discourse question. You have to look at the whole discourse in order to answer that. I looked at the structure of the book. I found that this was a very difficult question as there was a lot of discussion about this. So, I expanded that research and did my PhD on the structure of
Hebrews. So, that was my dissertation which was later published. It was eventually republished by Baker books to sell for seventeen dollars.
In the last few years, I have done various things such as the Hebrew section in the illustrated background commentary for Hebrews. I also did the NIV Application Commentary; I wanted to take some of the rigorous study I did on Hebrews and bring it down to address the Christian life and the church. This last spring and summer, I did the study notes for the NLT Study Bible. Tyndale is going to come out with a second version of the New Living Translation and a number of study tools that will go with it. One of which will be the NLT Study Bible. I did the introduction and study notes for that. More recently, I have been working on a commentary on James and currently working to finish a commentary on the use of the Old Testament. I am passionate about the Book of Hebrews. In the past year I have been studying things like echo’s in Hebrews; I have felt the joy of discovery all over again about things that I have never seen before in Hebrews. I am excited about the deepness and richness of God’s work. It isn’t something that you will ever totally understand as there is always a lot more to study.
You can read the course description and objectives. The textbook and supplemental reading materials include the New NIV Application Commentary and then also there is Lane’s Commentary. You will need Lane’s Commentary as there are certain assignments in reading. Lane is one of the two best commentaries out there on Hebrews which you can use again and again. Lane was a wonderful evangelical scholar and Godly person. He included a section on my work in his book which I had just finished at the time. He was the outside reader for my dissertation. Please not that I want you to do your reading before coming to class; there will be an overlap from what you read in the commentary and the class material. Also, in the Biblical Greek Exegesis book, I want you to follow a good solid process of exegesis. I want us to interact individually about your paper that you have to do. There will be a final exam at the end of the course. There will also be translation work every day in regards to syntax issues so you need to be in the Greek text yourself. Hebrews isn’t easy Greek as it uses a lot of participles, etc. Your paper can include motifs such as high priests, blood sacrifices, faith etc. In the exegesis paper, you need to choose a passage of no more than four to six verses. Normally in a Masters course, any paper should be 15-20 pages. Exegesis is identifying what the text means; from there you move to appropriate application of the passage. For example, the Old Testament form of worship is no
long valid; so you have to take something like this and move to an appropriate application of a New Covenant context. This needs to be in cooperated into your paper as well. We have the course schedule which we will try to follow as close as possible. Note that for me, the concept of community is very important. So I hope we can build community over the next two weeks which will include you talking to me as much as possible. Some say that we need lots of grace in Christian community, but that is sometimes forming as well as forgiving. So, I do want to hear what is going on your life.
D. Research Projects:
A research paper is normally twelve to fifteen pages. That should be a minimal; however don’t do much more than twenty pages. You have to economize and use your space well and if you only do twelve to fifteen pages, you should do it well. The more you talk this through with me, the better. I can tell you almost immediately if you are on track with what you are doing. If you are dealing with historical background as a part of an introduction, normally you will try to set the context in some ways. If you are dealing with historical and literary context; in literary context you are saying where a passage fits in a book. Historical context can involve the problem of the authorship of Hebrews, but I wouldn’t advise this. Instead you want to only address the historical backdrop as it touches on the passage with which you are dealing. If you are dealing with blood sacrifice, you only want to do a brief introduction to the context of the sacrificial system in Judaism and Old Testament. The author of Hebrews is mostly oriented to the Old Testament text. Don’t go into a treatment of the date and authorship. You don’t have space to do this in this course. In regards to translation, write out notes that will help you to think through the syntax of the passage. Just show that you did a good job of interacting with the Greek text. I want you to end up with a smooth translation with notes that show me that you interacted with the text in a significant way. Don’t do a paraphrase of the New American Standard. I do understand that all of
you will be at different levels in terms of your Greek ability. You don’t have to type this up; I am more interested in a written out translation.
Lord, help us in this project to keep things in perspective. It isn’t just about an academic exercise; it is about the exercise of the heart and community and the church. Help us to learn how to live well in Christian community in these days.
F. Background of Hebrews:
First, I want to give you another source article which I wrote for a book called the Face of New Testament Studies. This involves recent research on the Book of Hebrews called Hebrews in its 1 st century context. This includes a look at the whole Greco-Roman world and broader Judaism and emergent Christianity. I talked about research in Hebrews that fit these contexts. So, I want you to have this as a resource as it gives you some up-to-date research that has been done.
We want to look at the authorship and recipients of Hebrews. So, I want to give a sort of fictional reading that pulls together what Hebrews might have been. This story talks about a person named Antonius sitting in a second story apartment in a slum in Rome. There was a storm and the place
had grown dark. Antonius had lit a small oil lamp. There were cockroaches running into the darkness. Next door, a baby cried with the father screaming obscenities at the mother. A couple of business partners walked past the door going downstairs. In the muddy street below, Roman soldiers marched
under sharp orders. Antonius’ employer, a person named Brutus, who was a shop owner begin to ridicule Antonius who was a young Christian. Brutus was big, obnoxious and cruel. Antonius cringed against the man’s emotional blows. He nursed his pride in not responding and asked the Lord’s forgiveness for his thoughts. Persecution of the church in Rome had yet to result in martyrdom, but since the expulsion of Jews under the emperor Claudius, Christians had continued to be harassed to various degrees by both Jews and pagans. Upon the expulsion, some had suffered imprisonment, beatings and seizure of their property. That was almost fifteen years ago now. Antonius had not been part of the Christian church since hearing about that. His own grandfather, ruler of the synagogue of the Augustans had been one of the most outspoken opponents of the Christians. At seventeen, Antonius converted to Christianity and the old man almost died declaring his son dead. Abuse of the church had in increased in recent months approved by the emperor, himself. Now, emotional fatigue was increasing. There were footsteps in the hall and a scream at night.
There were meaningless events that caused Antonius’ heart racing. He had been told the cost of following the Messiah, but somehow his experience was different than he expected. In the beginning he thought that his joy would never be broken and that he would always feel the presence of God. He had
been taught that the Lord, the righteous judge would vindicate the New Covenant people. Didn’t the Scriptures say that God had put all things in subjection under his feet? However, the church had taken a great beating lately; members of its various house groups had become discouraged and were questioning whether Christ was really in control. In their hearts, they wondered whether God had closed his ears against their cries for relief. Some, in their disillusion doubted and left the church altogether. Antonius Bar David remembered the traditions of the synagogue and the support of the Jewish community and the joy of the festivals and the celebrations of the Jewish calendar. He appreciated the fellowship of the community of Christ but genuinely missed the traditions of his ancestors. He also missed members of his family. He watched them from a distance as they walked together to the market by the Tiber River. Some of them still wouldn’t speak to him and passed him on the street as if he was a gentile. That was very difficult and today his loneliness closed in around him like a dark damp blanket. To make matters worse, he was one of the poorer members of the church. When Antonius became a Christian, he lost his job as a tailors apprentice in the Jewish quarter. He had spent his days in rotting produce sweeping the floor and swaddling flies and receiving orders from obnoxious Roman slaves shopping for rich mistresses. He stumped so low as to take pieces of rotten fruit home to supplement his food supply. Even rich men’s slaves were treated better. Early in the week, Gaius, the kitchen slave of an equestrian who lived in the area handled him some overripe figs and criticized him for being a Christian; to be poor and also a Christian invited doubled portions of ridicule.
Antonius had missed the weekly meal and worship for the past two weeks and his heart had somewhat cooled toward the little house group. A spiritual itch warned him, cautioning him about his loss of perspective. Yet, in recent days, he began not to dwell on these thoughts. Antonius bitterness over his
current circumstances was growing and slowly obscuring the truth. That night the believers were going to meet for worship and encouragement. Rumors had it that they had received a document from back east somewhere and so his curiosity was aroused. He traveled the short distance to the neighborhood house in which the fellowship was to meet. Entering the room, he greeted several friends who also looked tired from the day’s work. The hostess offered something to drink and friendly talk, but yet he had nothing but rejection in his heart. The group’s leader, a good and Godly person of almost seventy years of age arrived. This person, Joseph, was somewhat out of breath, having come from a meeting of leaders halfway across the city. He was visible moved as he stood smiling before the group of about twenty people. His hand was shaking slightly from advancing age. After a few words of introduction, Joseph began to explain that he had the first reading of the scroll. I believe that you will find this quite relevant. He read, in the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.
Hopefully what this reading does; it pulls you in a bit to what may have been the original situation of Hebrews. It is very hard when we deal with background kinds of issues to be dogmatic about a book like Hebrews. As the book itself doesn’t tell us specifically who wrote it, when it was written and to whom it was written. We have to look for clues within the book in order to find out the possible backdrop of the book. Hebrews wasn’t simply written as a theological treatise. It is that, but it is also very deep and rich and highly theological in its orientation, but it simply wasn’t written as such a treatise that would be interesting to people. It wasn’t merely meant for us two thousand years later to dissect and try to come up with a concise overview of the theology of the Book. It was written as a pastoral situation; it was written out of a motive to give strong encouragement to those who were struggling in the Christian life. Now, if we don’t tune into that, we will miss the impact of Hebrews. Some have suggested that they weren’t struggling with falling back into mainstream Judaism. This was just a rhetorical thing that the author was doing; I don’t think so. I think the author is dealing with a group of people who are struggling spiritually. When you minister in a church, you are not able to look into the hearts of everybody there. Some of the people are walking with the Lord in a solid way and being used in ministry. They have a dynamic sense of closeness with the Lord; they are in the Word and people of prayer, while there are others at the lower end of the spectrum that are teetering on the edge on walking away from the church and even Christianity. I think that is the situation that the author of Hebrews is dealing with. He is dealing with a very real pastoral kind of situation.
This is one of the main background issues. Most of the New Testament books as you know tell us who the author is. Hebrews doesn’t; it starts with God right from the very beginning. The early church fathers had mixed opinions about who the author was. Eastern scholars based in Alexandria, Egypt often suggested that Paul wrote the book. The book actually circulated with the Pauline Epistles earlier in the church. The ending of Hebrews sounded very Pauline; there are some dynamics that have connections with similar theology of Paul. However, from the very beginning, there were western scholars who argued against Paul being the author. Even those who held to Pauline authorship, like Clement of Alexandria and Origen recognized that the style of the book differs very sharply from Paul’s writings. So, even among those who said that the book was Pauline, they recognized that the writing style of book
wasn’t. It seemed to be something very different indeed. Today, very few scholars hold to Pauline authorship of the book, however there are a few exceptions such as David Black at Southeastern Seminary who pushes Pauline authorship. There was a symposium there a few years back where one
person defended Pauline authorship. A person by the name of David Allen defended Luke’s authorship. I was to defend the Apollos position but I didn’t think that we could be that dogmatic about it being Apollos. The difficulty in both of their approaches; first, all the parallels between Hebrews and Paul was shown, of which there are many. David Allen did the same thing with Luke. But what must be done instead of just lining up parallels? The question that needs to be asked is why are these parallels there? What are some possibilities?
a. Against Pauline Authorship:
God obviously inspired these words. There might be a common background in terms of rhetoric; rhetorical kinds of training and education. So you might find certain types of rhetorical devices that they share. There may have been access to similar documents, a broader background in regards to the Jewish Synagogue. Was the author of Hebrews somehow involved in Paul’s mission in some way and so you would expect overlap for instance in terms of theology. There are over thirty parallels between Hebrews and 1 st Peter. Do you think Luke also wrote 1 st Peter? So, you have to ask, what are other possible explanations? Some of the main reasons why people don’t hold to Pauline authorship are that many of the theological motifs and images and terms are not Pauline. You don’t find Christ as the high priest anywhere in the New Testament other than in Hebrews. There are 169 words in Hebrews not found elsewhere in the New Testament. The second reason has to do with the author using the Old Testament somewhat differently than Paul. Specifically, he introduces his quotations differently than Paul. Paul introduces a quotation by saying, ‘it is written.’ The author of Hebrews uses forms such as God says or the Holy Spirit says. This is a common introduction that was used in sermons in the Greek Jewish synagogues. So, he says is used rather than it is written as his most common way of introducing a passage. The third most decisive point is that the author of Hebrews depicts himself as having received
the Gospel from original witnesses commissioned by the Lord. This is found in chapter 2:3. Paul often makes an insertion to the contrary. If you look at passages like Romans 1:1, 1 st Corinthians 15:8, and Galatians 1:11-16, you will find Paul saying that he did not receive the Gospel from the Apostles. He said that he received the Gospel directly from the Lord.
b. Other Possible Authors:
Through the centuries, there have been other names mentioned as to the authorship of Hebrews. They are Luke, Clement of Rome, Barabbas, Jude, Apollos, Sylvanias, and even Pricilla. The problem with Pricilla; chapter 11:32 you have the author using masculine forms in referring to himself. The author of Hebrews is also using very advanced rhetorical techniques showing advanced education which a woman of that day would not have had. From the book we know that the author was a dynamic preacher who knew the Old Testament very well. He was also trained in the forms of interpretation common to the Jewish Synagogue. The book is packed full of the Old Testament. There are about thirty-five quotations from the Old Testament in these thirteen chapters. There are another thirty-four allusions and other places where the author references some aspect of the Old Testament but doesn’t hint as to the specific place he has in mind. With all of these quotations, it is improbable that the author had the scrolls available at the time. He obviously had access to some scrolls. Of course, there were no chapter and verse divisions at that time nor were there spaces between the words. The author had obviously committed these things to memory to a great extent. This was a person who was immersed in the Old Testament; it was second nature to him to talk in the language of the Old Testament. Apart from the Book of Revelation, there is no other book in the New Testament that is more permeated with the Old Testament. And of course, Hebrews does it quite differently than the Book of Revelation. Revelation does not overtly quote from the Old Testament but instead goes forward mainly on allusions.
So this person was mainly a dynamic preacher. Most scholars today thing that Hebrews was originally a sermon. Back in the fifties, a man by the name of Hearting Thyen did a book on the form of the Jewish synagogue homily; the Hellenistic Greek speaking Jewish synagogue homily. He found that Hebrews had a lot of characteristics in common with Jewish sermons of the day. Many scholars today think that Hebrews was not meant to be a letter like the other New Testament letters. It was crafted as a sermon and then had an epistle type of ending attached to it so it could be sent to the church. Not only was the
author a great preacher, he was highly educated. This means that the person had advanced training in rhetoric. These involved taking traditional materials and bring it in way with force that would convince an audience to do certain things. The author uses lots of rhetorical devices and effort into crafting how this book would fit together. The third point about what we know of the author, he served as a Christian leader of the church and exhibits a deep concern for the spiritual state of the recipients of the book. He brings all of this rich background of training in the synagogue and schools of rhetoric to bear in the task of challenging this group of Christians to stay the course in living for Christ. So any suggestion of authorship of the book is a best guess. I think that best guess is Apollos which was originally suggested by Martin Luther. If you look at Acts chapter 18:24-24, Luke describes Apollos as a native of Alexandria who had come to Ephesus. He was a learned person with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord and spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the Synagogue. We do see some verbal parallels and allusions to Filo of Alexandria. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a direct connection because Filo was read throughout the Hellenistic world, but it is a connection. As far being learned, the Greek term is sometimes translated as eloquent. Alexandria was one of the primary centers for training in rhetoric of the day. Apollos strongly refuted the Jewish teachers of the day. He was so powerful in his ability to argue from the Old Testament.
Some who have suggested that Barnabas or Luke might be the author of Hebrews need to consider that Barnabas is described as taking a back seat to Paul in terms of public proclamation. He never found that Luke was put forward as a powerful speaker. It is hard for me to imagine that they would have been the ones who crafted this powerful oratory we have in the Book of Hebrews. We can’t be dogmatic about any of this. Only God knows the author of Hebrews. Interestingly, Hebrews uses very clear and standard forms in dealing with the Old Testament. We will see that the author uses an argument of lessor to greater in Hebrews. He also uses verbal analogy, very common with the rabbis; it is where you take two Old Testament passages that have a common phrase or word and you pull them together to interpret them in light of each other. You have the author using a number of these types of techniques which were very common to the religious arguments of that day and time. There are also issues of worship and theology that come out in the book which again seems to be a person who had a very strong orientation to the synagogue. Additionally, there are some in scholarship who have talked about the theological connection between the Book of John and the Book of Hebrews. Of course, you are dealing with a different John there, not John the Baptist. When he says that he only knew the baptism of John; this shows that John the Baptist’s ministry had a very broad impact which had staying power. This was decades after the ministry of the John the Baptist. Luke’s emphasis on the import of it here includes the understanding of the call to repentance issued by John but had not clearly grasped the implications of Jesus. Some want to make connections between John the Baptist and Qumran and also the Book of Hebrews and Qumran. I don’t think those approaches have been very productive.
The recipients seem to have a background in the synagogue as well. The author seems to assume a very broad understanding of the Scriptures. He uses theological concepts that were popular in the Greek speaking synagogues of the day. An example would be a special veneration of Moses, angels as mediators of the Law in chapter 2:1-4. It seems that some have abandoned the Christian faith and perhaps returned to mainstream Judaism while others were struggling as to whether to do the same. I don’t want to make a sharp distinction between Christianity and Judaism. Emergent early Christianity saw
itself as Judaism. It went along with Judaism of the 1 st century. So, when we talk about returning to Judaism, this is not the way early Christians would have thought of this. They would have thought of it as abandoning the proper form of Judaism and returning to an outdated form. This group seemed to have been struggling with abandoning the faith. We will discuss the theological implications of this in chapter 3 and chapter 6. This begs the question as to what do you do with people today who turn their backs on the Christian faith?
The church that is addressed here is likely to be in the city of Rome. It was perhaps a church or group of house churches. Rome had about a million inhabitants of which forty to sixty thousand were Jews. There were Jews from Rome there at Pentecost. The Roman church was founded by those at Pentecost returning to Rome. Hebrews 13:24; those from Italy send you their greetings. Even though the statement is ambiguous, they are people from Rome but away from there at the time. The author of Hebrews is writing back to Rome saying that those from Rome with him send you their greetings. A second point in regards to Roman destination has to do with the earliest documented use of Hebrews in the early church. This is from 1 st Clement which was written by Clement of Rome. It was first quoted in a book from the end of the 1 st century which had it origin in the city of Rome. A third point in favor of a Roman destination; Hebrews uses a term ‘leaders’ to refer to those who governed the church. It doesn’t use elders or overseers which is the most common terms in the New Testament. This is the designation for church leadership that you find in 1 st Clement and the Shepherd of Hermes. Both of which were associated with the church in Rome. I believe that perhaps the author crafted this sermon specifically with the Roman Christians in mind. Remember that oral presentation of documents was the common form as to the way things were presented in that day and time. So, the author had had a lot of ministry among them and was away at the time, detained and unable to get back to Rome at the time. Note that the end of the book is really united with the rest of the book, not separate; you also have throughout the Book of Hebrews very personal addresses like chapter 10:32 and following. It says to remember the former days when you stood strong in the faith.