Lecture 44: Hebrews - Introduction
Lecture: Hebrews - Introduction
The Book of Hebrews is an anonymous book. It makes no claim of authorship. Therefore, please note, orthodoxy can’t be based on our presuming an author for a book with no claims on who wrote it. It’s not like 1 Timothy, where you have Paul actually claiming the letter. And if deny that Paul wrote this (1 Timothy), you’re going against something explicitly said in the text. That’s different. Here (in Hebrews), there’s no claim of authorship. And, very early, the church fathers (Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and the Muratorian Canon) denied that Paul had written this. They said this is not Pauline. In general, the western church (from Rome to Spain) denied Pauline authorship; the eastern church (Greece, Syria) affirmed that it was Pauline. Now, in the fourth century, the Pauline view wins out. In the counter-reformation council (The Council of Trent), the Roman Catholics were now commenting in light of what was going on in the Reformation. They argued that there were 14 Pauline letters in the New Testament (which indicates that they understood Hebrews as being Pauline). Melanchthon, Calvin, and Beza denied that it was Pauline, however. The last really major attempt to argue for Pauline authorship was in 1828, by a man named Bleck. And I think the arguments against Paul being the author of this book are really quite convincing.
First of all, there is no normal Pauline salutation. You don’t have “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the church of so-and-so, Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Instead, we have, “In many and various ways, God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” This is very, very unlike the normal Pauline salutation. It doesn’t claim, as I said, to be Paul. The arrangement of the work tends to be very un-Pauline. Usually, he had a salutation, a word of blessing, and the body of the letter, followed by exhortations. In the Book of Hebrews, there are exhortations scattered throughout the letter. We go back in forth in this letter from doctrine to exhortation, to doctrine, to exhortation. It’s very unlike the normal organization of Paul.
The style and vocabulary is not Pauline. This is the best Greek that we find in the New Testament. Paul wrote good Greek, but it doesn’t match the literary quality of this book. And it’s interesting for instance that in the opening 2 verses, “In many and various ways, God of old spoke to the Fathers by the prophets….” In v. 1 you have alliteration. “Many” begins with a pi or p in Greek; “various” begins with a pi; “of old” starts with a pi; “fathers” begins with a pi; and “prophets” begins with a pi. These all begin with the letter pi, or p, so we have alliteration here that as it was read out loud, people would be impressed with. It shows great style.
The theological emphasis of this book is also quite different than Paul. There are similarities – the pre-existence of Christ, his death for sins, the importance of faith, and the use of Old Testament quotations. But I’ve also listed here some very significant differences. Hebrews emphasizes mostly the exaltation of Christ at the right hand; Paul tends to emphasize the resurrection. Hebrews emphasizes that Christ brings purification and perfection and sanctification; Paul talks about Christ bringing justification and reconciliation. The key emphasis in Christology is the High Priest-hood of Jesus in Hebrews; whereas in Paul, it is ant Lordship of Jesus Christ. There’s little emphasis about justification in this book. The expression “in Christ” is not found much. The dichotomy between flesh and spirit is lacking. And when you look at Paul, Paul doesn’t talk about Mechizidek anywhere (nobody talks about Melchizidek in the New Testament, except the writer of the Book of Hebrews).
I think the strongest argument against Pauline authorship is found in 2:3, (starting with v. 1) “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him ….” Notice where the author of this book places himself. We have Christ, those who met the Lord and preached, and “we” now, a generation after that. So you have Jesus, the eyewitnesses, and us. And, the author places himself not with the eyewitnesses, but in the “us” category. Paul would never do that. In Galatians 1:12, “For I did not receive it from any men, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” I was not taught this; it came through a revelation directly from Christ Jesus. The writer of Hebrews says, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared first by the Lord, and it was attested to us [we were taught it] by those who heard him.” Paul says, on the other hand, that he did not receive it from men, but directly from Christ. And in 1 Corinthians 9:1, you have another statement that just doesn’t seem that Paul could’ve said, “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Christ Jesus our Lord?” He’s seen Jesus, he’s an eyewitness, and the whole defense of Paul’s apostleship in the Book of Galatians is that he did not receive his teaching from men; he was not commissioned through men; but he had a direct revelation. He met the Lord on the Road to Damascus; he has seen the risen Lord; therefore he is a true apostle. This writer denies that. I can’t believe that Paul would ever have said that. Therefore, I believe that the Book of Hebrews was not written by Paul.
Who, then, wrote it? There have been all sorts of suggestions. Luke has been suggested by some. In fact, there was a doctoral dissertation given not too long ago here at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. A Ph. D. student tried to argue for Lucan authorship because there are some similarities in the vocabulary and terminology used in those two books. Origen said it was Clement of Alexandria who was the first person to quote from this book. Luther, Zahn, and others say it might have been Apollos, since Apollos came from Alexandria, and he would have good Greek (he was an “intellectual” mentioned in 1 Corinthians.) It could have been Barnabas, according to Tertullian; Priscilla and Aquila (Henry Alford); Priscilla (Adolf von Harnack), etc. I think Origen is more correct when he says that only God knows who wrote it. I think that’s true. It’s an anonymous book, and speculation as to who wrote it is legitimate, but I don’t know how profitable it ultimately is.
So, here we have a book, part of the Bible, and we’re going to look at it, talk about it. On authorship, the only real thing I know for sure about the author is that it’s not Paul. We have a lot of books in the Old Testament whose authors are unknown (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, etc.). We have all sorts of books whose authorship we do not know. When we come and talk about the Canon of Scripture we’ll discuss that. Make sure you’re there. Briefly, I should say that, not only was apostolic authorship one of the main issues that determined whether the books were accepted and recognized as canonical, but you had the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But we’ll talk more about that.
Now with regard to authorship, we’ve been trying to argue that Paul is not the author of this book, and that this is not a matter of orthodoxy or lack of orthodoxy; it’s simply a statement that the author makes no claim as to who wrote the book. As to dating the book, this book is quoted in 1 Clement 36. This is the letter that Clement of Rome wrote to the church in Corinth in AD 96. So the earliest reference that we have to the Book of Hebrews is in AD 96, which means it could not have been written after AD 96. Hebrews 13:23 also refers to Timothy as being alive, “You should understand that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom I shall see you if he comes soon.” So, Timothy is still alive and ministering, but he may have lived to a very old age, so this doesn’t narrow down our timeline. He might have been only 20 in AD 49, so he could still be alive up until the time of 1 Clement easily. So that doesn’t help us a great deal. Some have argued that the persecution referred to in the letter (the letter does speak of persecution) suggests a time either when Nero was the Emperor or when Domitian was the Emperor, because at the end of their lives (Nero AD 64; Domitian AD 81-96), we do have periods of persecution that the church notably went under and went through. And therefore, this would be a suggestion for either AD 81-96 or in the time of Nero. I think the clearest suggestion as to a date in this letter has to do with the various Jewish rituals being described here.
The main argument of the book seeks to show the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. And therefore Jewish Christians should not go back to something that was inferior, and give up their Christian faith. When he describes this, he describes for instance the superiority of the Christian sacrifice over the Jewish sacrifices. In 9:7, ff., we read,
“… into the second tent only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic of the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. [We’ll continue with v. 13.] For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify us for the purification of the flesh, how much more …?”
What tense are these sacrifices in the temple being described in? They’re present tense. Now, what does that suggest? That the temple is still going on. Let’s look at another example of that in 10:1-4,
“Since the law was but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered [and they still are being offered, you see], since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats should be taken away.”
Now, that again looks like it is referring to a present sacrificial system. If you look quickly at the second main argument (“Jesus is a better sacrifice”), it seems incredible to me it would be written after AD 70, which was when the temple was destroyed, which meant that there were no more priestly sacrifices, there was no more Holy of Holies to enter. If all of that is gone, and you’re trying to show the superiority of the Christian sacrifice in Jesus Christ over that of the Old Testament, think how much your argument could have been advanced if you’d simply said, “Oh, and by the way, you don’t have any more sacrifices at all anymore. You don’t have any more temple. You don’t have any more high priests.” Nothing like that ever comes up. And in a whole argument that Jesus is superior to the Old Testament sacrifices, it doesn’t make sense if they were written after AD 70, because you could argue so much more strongly that now you lack a sacrifice. Now you have no High Priest. Now you have no Holy of Holies to go into anymore. And ours did it once and for all. But the argument instead is that, these sacrifices are inferior for various reasons. And therefore, the fact that the end of the sacrificial system in AD 70 is never referred to, suggests to me that the book couldn’t have been written after AD 70. It’s incredible, if he wrote after AD 70, not to refer to the destruction of the Temple, and the end of the sacrificial system completely. It’s strange. I know that some people have a late date for this book, and this fact causes some real problems for their theory. But I don’t know how else to deal with it.
As to the audience, they look like they are Christian believers who are wavering in some way or other, 3:1, “Therefore, holy brethren, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession …”; 6:9-12, “Though we speak thus, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things – things that belong to salvation. For God is not so unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” It seems that they are believers, and they really have to have been Jewish believers. I can’t imagine that Gentiles, even if they had become Proselytes, would have been as familiar as Jewish Christians to the Old Testament imagery and to the arguments on the superiority of the new order over the old. And as to the audience that is being addressed, the strongest suggestion as to whom the letter is addressed (since there’s no salutation) is 13:24, where you have the writer saying “Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those who come from Italy send you greetings. ”Most likely, you’d make a reference as to the Italians who are with the writer if it were addressed to the people who were in Italy, so you’d say, “Some of you who are here from your own country (from Italy) send greetings.” So it looks like it’s addressed written to a church in Italy. And that would make sense, that Clement, the Bishop of Rome, where this letter would have gone, would have been the first one to quote the letter.
As to the letter itself, it may very well have been written as a kind of sermon. In 13:22, he refers to it that way, “Therefore I beg of you, brethren, bear with my word of exhortation.” In 2:1, he says, “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard.” In 2:5, “For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking.” In 5:11, “About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.” And in 6:9, “though we speak thus ….” Sometimes Paul in his letters talks about what he “writes” in this particular way, “… though he has written this …”; here, however, the writer is using the word “speaking”. We see another one in 9:5, “Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak [not write, but speak] in detail.” And 11:32, “What more shall I say?” It may very well have been that this was intended to be understood as a sermon. Clearly, it was understood as something to be read aloud. But on the other hand, every book of the New Testament assumes that. But there are enough references here to think that it was particularly shaped as a kind of sermon to be read to the congregation.