THE LETTER TO THE HEBREWS
The Letter to the Hebrews is one of the riddles of the New Testament. It is a genuine letter and not a theological treatise, because there are several personal references in the text that indicate that the author is actually writing to a specific group of people, and not writing for a general audience. In addition, the Letter to the Hebrews has a conclusion, standard for the epistolary form used at that time (13:22-25). But, unlike other letters in the New Testament, it does not have an introduction, which would serve to identify the author and the intended readers; it simply begins with the main body of the letter.
1. Who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews?
1.1. Internal Evidence
Because there is no salutation to the letter, there is no internal, direct evidence for authorship. Any conclusion for authorship must derive from internal, indirect evidence.
1.1.1. What can be inferred about the author from Heb 2:3?
In Heb 2:3, the author implies that he was not an apostle or even an eyewitness of the events in Jesus' life. He writes, "Which [salvation] began to be spoken through the Lord was confirmed to us by those who heard him." The author includes himself with the readers as among those who were dependent upon the testimony of the original eyewitnesses and transmitters of authoritative traditions about Jesus.
1.1.2. In Heb 13:23, the author says that he and his readers were acquainted with Timothy: "Take notice that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom, if he comes soon, I will see you." In addition, the author had some connection with "those from Italy" (13:24). The former datum may be relevant since not everyone had an association with Timothy, but the latter datum is not much use in determining the identity of the author, since the identity of "those from Italy" is unknown. In addition, whether "those from Italy" were in Italy or were somewhere else at the time of the writing is unknown. Thus one cannot definitely conclude that the author was in Italy at the time of writing.
1.1.3. The use of the masculine participial form (diêgoumenon) implies the author is a man (Heb 11:32). Of course this does not narrow down the possibilities much.
1.1.4. As will be explained below, the church has sometimes attributed the Letter to the Hebrews to Paul, but the internal evidence supporting such an attribution is weak.
A. There are a few, loose literary parallels between the Letter to the Hebrews and Paul’s letters. See Appendix H: Parallels between Hebrews and Paul’s Letters.
There is also an extended loose parallel between Heb 3:7-19; 12:18-25 and 1 Cor 10:1-11. Both texts draw typological parallels between their respective readers and the experience of the generation of the exodus. There is no enough in common between the two texts, however, to justify the hypothesis of a common author.
Why do these few loose literary parallels not support the conclusion of Pauline authorship for the Letter to the Hebrews?
While there are a few literary parallels between them, there is no enough in common between the Letter to the Hebrews and Paul's letters to justify the hypothesis of a common author. The parallels are loose and imperfect. One would expect many more, closer parallels between them.
B. As already indicated, in Heb 2:3 the author includes himself with the readers as among those who were dependent upon the testimony of the original eyewitnesses and transmitters of authoritative traditions about Jesus. But Paul did not see himself as dependent upon human intermediaries, which suggests that he is not the author (Gal 1:1, 12; Eph 3:2-4). This conclusion is consistent with the fact that the author nowhere in the letter claims to be an apostle or to have ecclesiastical authority over the readers, unlike Paul (see Phil 2:12; 2 Thess 3:4; Philemon 21). In fact, again unlike Paul, the author only once refers to himself in the first person (10:32).
C. Much of the imagery used in the Letter to the Hebrews is unique, not to be found in any of Paul's letters: "to drift away" (2:1); "house" of God (3:2); "to mix faith and with what is heard" (4:2); "rest for the people of God" (4:9); the word of God as a "two-edged sword" (4:12); being "naked and exposed to view to his [God's] eyes" (4:13); "to lay a foundation of repentance from dead works" (6:1); "to crucify again" (6:6); land as either fruitful or barren (6:7-8); hope as an "anchor" (6:19); seeing the promises "from afar" (11:13); covenant as "growing old" (8:13); "a living way" (10:20); hearts "sprinkled" from an evil conscience (10:22); suffering as the "discipline" of a heavenly father (12:7-11); spiritual "lameness" (12:13); "city of the living God" (12:22); "festal gathering" (12:22). What does this suggest about the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews?
Although there are cases where certain imagery only occurs in one of Paul's letters, it seems that the unique imagery of the Letter to the Hebrews is too abundant to attribute the letter to Paul.
D. The vocabulary and style of the Letter to the Hebrews are different from those found in Paul's letters. Because of Paul's practice of using amanuenses, it is precarious to argue non-Pauline authorship based on the vocabulary and style of a given letter, for differences in style and vocabulary between one letter and another may be due to the contributions of different amanuenses. (In the case of Paul, the definition of author must be expanded to allow for the contribution of amanuenses.) What can be said, however, is that, since they are unlike any of Paul's extant letters, the vocabulary and style of the Letter to the Hebrews provide no basis by which to conclude that Paul was its author. The Letter to the Hebrews most closely resembles the style and vocabulary of the Luke's writings, as Clement of Alexandria noticed, but not so much as to suspect Lukan authorship of the former.
The Letter to the Hebrews has 154 hapaxlegomena, words that are found in it but nowhere else in the New Testament. To have so many hapaxlegomena is significant but, given the length of the Letter to the Hebrews and the uniqueness of its subject matter, does not ineluctably point to non-Pauline authorship. Romans has 113 and 1 Corinthians ninety-nine hapaxlegomena, which are fewer than Hebrews has, but not disproportionately so, especially considering that twenty of the hapaxlegomena in Hebrews are found in citations of the LXX. (Only the Pastoral Letters have a greater number of hapaxlegomena relative to their length.)
Frequently-used words in Paul's writings that are also found in the Letter to the Hebrews include: hagiasmos (holiness); apolutrôsis ("release"; "redemption"); epaggelia ("promise"); epouranios ("heavenly"); metanoia ("repentance"); suneidêsis ("conscience"); aggelos ("angel"); aiôn ("age"); hamartanô ("to sin"); hamartia ("sin"); hamartôlos ("sinful"); gê ("earth"); eirêrê ("peace"); elpis ("hope"); elpizô ("to hope"); ergon ("work"); hêgeomai ("to lead"); kardia ("heart"); katargeô ("nullify," "abolish"); klêronomeô ("to inherit"); klêronomia ("inheritance"); klêronomos ("heir"); martureô ("to witness"); martus ("witness"); menô ("to remain"); peirazô ("to test"); peirasmos ("testing"; "trial"); sôtêria ("salvation"); huios [of Christ] ("son"). This shared vocabulary, however, is not enough to support the conclusion that Paul wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, because there are also many differences in vocabulary that are unexplained on the hypothesis of Pauline authorship. Now it is true that the unique subject matter of the Letter to the Hebrews could be responsible for the existence of its hapaxlegomena and the absence of certain Pauline words and phrases not needed to express that unique subject matter. Nonetheless, there are some words and phrases that are either found in Paul's letters but unexpectedly absent from Hebrews or present in Hebrews but surprising not found in Paul's letters. For example, the frequently used Pauline phrase "Christ Jesus" does not occur in Hebrews, whereas the use of the absolute use of the term "son" to refer to Jesus in Hebrews (1:2; 5:8; 7:28) is foreign to Paul's letters. (More frequently than in Paul's letters, in the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is referred to simply as "Jesus," with no accompanying title.) Similarly, in Hebrews God is never referred to simply as "father," except in a quotation from Ps 2:7 (1:5) and in the phrase "father of spirits" (12:9), whereas Paul frequently refers to God as "father." The term euaggelion ("gospel") never occurs in Hebrews, unlike its many occurrences in Paul's letters. The same is true of the distinctively Pauline words such as apokalupsis ("revelation") and apokaluptô ("to reveal"), gnôsis ("knowledge"), mustêrion ("mystery"), plêroô ("to fulfil"), dikaioô ("to declare righteous"), phroneô ("to think"), to name a few. Conversely, the Letter to the Hebrews has words that do not occur in Paul's writings or occur infrequently as compared to the former: to hagion ("the sanctuary"), kreittôn ("better") teleioô ("to perfect"), hiereus and archiereus ("priest" and "High Priest"). More examples could be cited.
As Origen pointed out, the style of the Letter to the Hebrews is more literarily polished and therefore is "better Greek in the framing of its diction" (sunthesei tês lexeôs 'Ellênikôtera) than Paul's letters and does not have Paul's typical "awkwardness of speech" (to en logô idiôtikon). Unlike Paul, the author of Hebrews makes copious use of complicated participial constructions. Also, his use of particles is different from Paul's. A particle is a part of speech, such as a preposition or conjunction, which functions to connect other parts of speech; an author's use of them tends to constitute a stylistic distinctive independent of the particular subject matter of a text. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews uses the particle hothen ("whence," "for this reason") six times (2:17; 3:1; 7:25; 8:3; 9:18; 11:19), whereas the same particle does not occur in Paul's letters. The same is true of the particles eanper (if indeed) (3:14; 6:3). The particle mêpote ("lest") occurs four times in Hebrews (2:1; 3:12; 4:1; 9:17) but only in 2 Tim 2:25. On the other hand, many of Paul's frequently used particles or combinations of particles do not occur at all in Hebrews, such as arti ("now"), ge ("even," "at least"), êdê ("now," "already"), epeidê ("when," "since"), pote ("once"), eite ("if"), eige ("if indeed"), ei tis (if anyone), ei de kai ("but if," "if even"), ektos ei mê ("unless"), mê pôs ("lest"), mêketi ("no longer"), nai ("yes"), dioper ("therefore"), men oun ("so then"), eiper ("if indeed"), sun ("with").
Also, typically Pauline rhetorical expressions are absent from the Letter to the Hebrews: ti oun; ("What then?"), ti gar ("What therefore?"), all' erei tis... ("But someone will say..."), ti oun epoumen; ("What shall we say?"), epeis oun ("So you say"), mê genoito ("May it never be"), ara oun ("So therefore"), ouk oidate; (Do you not know?), touto de phêmi ("But I say this"). The author of Hebrews, however, has his own unique rhetorical devices: "About this we have much to say" (Heb 5:11); "Now the point of what we are saying is this" (Heb 8:1); "What more shall I say? Time would fail me" (Heb 11:32). He also uses the literary technique of alliteration in Heb 11:28: pistei prpoiêken to pascha kai tên prosuchusin tou haimatos ("By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood"). In addition, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews introduces his quotations from the Old Testament with the formula "The Holy Spirit says" (legei to pneuma to hagion) (3:7) or "He [God] says" (legei) (1:6, 7; 5:6; 8:5, 10), whereas Paul introduces his quotations by the formulas "It has been written" (gegraptai) or "The scripture says" (legei hê graphê). Finally, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews scatters his exhortation sections throughout the letter, whereas Paul tends to keep doctrinal and exhortation sections separate, placing the latter at the end of his letters before the conclusion. These stylistic differences detract from the hypothesis that Paul wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, or at least someone else had a hand in its composition.
E. Whereas fewer than half of the Old Testament quotations in Paul’s letters are from the LXX, all quotations from the Old Testament in the Letter to the Hebrews with the exception of Heb 10:30 are from the LXX. Why does this datum support the view that Paul did not write the Letter to the Hebrews?
This datum suggests that the author of the latter was not Paul, for it is inexplicable that Paul would depart from his normal procedure.
F. Another indicator of non-Pauline authorship is the different exegetical use made of Hab 2:4 (see 10:37-38; Rom 1:17 / Gal 3:11). While it is not impossible, it seems improbable that an author would use an Old Testament text in two different ways. This is even more true of Paul because he interprets Hab 2:4 in the same way in two different letters, so that this Old Testament text seems to have the status of programmatic text for him. The same could also be said the use of 2 Sam 7:14 by both authors (Heb 1:5 / 2 Cor 6:18).
G. There are some theological commonalties between Paul's letters and the Letter to the Hebrews, but these tend to be too general to be significant. Christ the Son as the pre-existent agent of creation (see Col 1:16 and Heb 1:2) and the idea of the new covenant occur in both (see 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6, 14; Gal 4:24 and Heb 8-10). Also both agree that with the death and resurrection of Christ the Law has been abrogated, but each makes a different application of this. In fact, there are more differences in theological emphasis between the Letter to the Hebrews and Paul's letters than there are commonalties. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews makes extensive use of typology relating to the tabernacle, the Day of Atonement and the high priesthood, which is absent from Paul's letters. Unlike Paul, he interprets Jesus as a High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek who enters the heavenly sanctuary to offer his own blood as an atoning sacrifice. Absent from Paul's letters also is the idea of perfection or to perfect as applied both to Jesus and believers, so prevalent in Hebrews (Paul's use of "to be perfected" in Phil 3:12 is not quite the same as that found in Hebrews, since it refers to eschatological perfection.) Likewise, unlike many of Paul's letters, there is no interest in the Letter to the Hebrews in addressing the question of how a person is declared righteous (dikaioô and dikaiosunê), the status of the Law and its relation to being declared righteous or how faith and works relate to each other. In fact, in Hebrews, the term "righteousness" (dikaiosunê) is used in an ethical sense not Paul's forensic sense. As already indicated, the author uses Hab 2:3-4 to make a different theological point as compared to Paul (Heb 10:37-38; Gal 3:11; Rom 1:17). (The phrase in Heb 11:7 "the righteousness according to faith" does not have a Pauline meaning.) Unlike Paul, the Letter to the Hebrews says nothing about gentiles and the church, nor is the uniquely Pauline distinction between the Spirit and flesh to be found in the letter. Paul's idea of spiritual union with Christ expressed by the phrase "in Christ" (or a synonym) does not occur in Hebrews. Now some of the omissions of typical Pauline theological ideas may be attributable to the intended readership and purpose but probably not all, given the length of the Letter to the Hebrews. Thus, these data suggest that Paul did not write the Letter to the Hebrews.
1.2. External Evidence
Given the indeterminate nature of the internal evidence concerning the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews, it is necessary to turn to the external, direct evidence.
1.2.1. Eusebius records the following information about the views of Clement of Alexandria on the composition of the Letter to the Hebrews (in the latter's Hypotyposeis), who seems to be dependent on Pantaenus (died c. 190): "As for the Epistle to the Hebrews, he [Clement] says that indeed it is Paul's, but that it was written for Hebrews in the Hebrew tongue, and that Luke, having carefully translated it, published it for the Greeks; hence, as a result of this translation, the same complexion of style is found in this Epistle and in the Acts: but that the [words] 'Paul an apostle' were naturally not prefixed. For, he says, 'in writing to Hebrews who had conceived a prejudice against him and were suspicious of him, he very wisely did not repel them at the beginning by putting his name'" (H.E. 6.14.2-3). Clement quotes from the Letter to the Hebrews in his own writings, sometimes attributing the text to Paul (Strom. 5.10.62; 6.8.62). How did Clement of Alexandria explain the non-Pauline character of the Greek style of the Letter to the Hebrews and the absence of any salutation?
Clement explained the non-Pauline character of the Greek style of the Letter to the Hebrews by claiming that Luke translated an original Hebrew work by Paul. This would also explain why the Letter to the Hebrews has affinities in style and vocabulary with the Lukan writings. The absence of a salutation to the letter Clement explains as Paul's attempt to conceal his identity.
Eusebius then quotes Clement's statement about the elder Pantaenus' view of the authorship of Hebrews: "But now as the blessed elder used to say [Pantaenus], since the Lord, being the apostle of the Almighty was sent to the Hebrews, Paul through modesty, since he had been sent to the gentiles, does not inscribe himself as an apostle of the Hebrews, both to give deference to the Lord and because he wrote to the Hebrews also out his abundance, being a preacher and apostle of the gentiles" (H.E. 6.14.4). Why, according to the elder Pantaenus, did Paul not identify himself as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews?
According to Pantaenus, Paul did not identify himself as the author because he was not the apostle of the Hebrews (or Jews), but of the gentiles.
1.2.2. In the third century in the eastern church, Origen, also from Alexandria, in his Homilies, as quoted by Eusebius (H.E. 6. 25. 11-14) wrote: "That the character of the diction of the epistle entitled 'To the Hebrews' has not the apostle's awkwardness of speech, who confessed himself awkward in speech, that is, in style, but that the epistle is better Greek in the framing of its diction, will be admitted by everyone who is able to discern differences of style. But again, on the other hand, that the thoughts of the epistle are admirable and not inferior to the acknowledged writings of the apostle, to this everyone will consent as true who has given attention to reading the apostle....But as for myself, if I were to state my own opinion, I should say that the thoughts are the apostle's, but that the style and composition belong to one who called to mind the apostle's teaching and, as it were, made short notes of what his master said. If any church, therefore, holds this epistle to be Paul's, let it be commended for this also. For not without reason have the men of old handed it down as Paul's. But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows. Yet the account which has reached us [is twofold], some saying that Clement, who was bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, others that it was Luke, he who wrote the Gospel and the Acts." How did Origen explain the composition of the Letter to the Hebrews? Which other possibilities for its authorship had he heard?
Origen proposed that someone who was influenced by Paul's theology wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. He has heard the opinions that Clement of Rome wrote Hebrews and that Luke was the author.
In another of his works, Origen attributes fourteen letters to Paul (Seventh Homily on Joshua, PG 12.857) and in other texts introduces a quotation from Hebrews with "The apostle says" (Commentary on John 1.20) and "Paul says" (De Prin. 1.5.1).
Since the third century, beginning with Clement of Alexandria and Pantaenus, the eastern church in general has accepted Pauline authorship of the letter. Origen gives evidence that many in the eastern church accepted the Pauline authorship of the letter: "For not without reason have the men of old handed it down as Paul's" (H.E. 6. 25. 13). Eusebius, representing the position of the eastern church writes in the fifth century: "And the fourteen letters of Paul are obvious and plain" (H.E. 3.3.4). Yet he also concedes that this judgment is not universally held, in particular by the church in Rome: "Yet it is not right to ignore that some dispute the Letter to the Hebrews, saying that it was rejected by the church at Rome as not being by Paul" (H.E. 3.3.4).
1.2.3. In the Latin or western church, the situation is somewhat different. Eusebius reported that in the western church the Letter to the Hebrews was not universally accepted as being written by Paul. Early evidence for the rejection of Pauline authorship comes from a certain Gaius (c. 200); Eusebius referred to a work called Dialogue of Gaius, in which the author mentioned only thirteen letters of Paul, excluding the Letter to the Hebrews. Eusebius concluded, "Seeing that even to this day among the Romans there are some who do not consider it to be the apostle's (H.E. 6.20.3). Also, Tertullian held that the letter was not written by Paul, but by Barnabas; he mentioned this only once in his writings (de pudic. 20). This is not to say that the authority and canonicity of the Letter to the Hebrews was rejected in the western church, for its influence is clearly evident upon Clement of Rome, who wrote his two letters as early as the late first century (1 Clem. 36.2-5 = Heb 1:3-4; 1 Clem. 36.1, 12 = Heb 2:18; 3:1; 1 Clem. 19.2 = Heb 12:1-2; 1 Clem. 21.9 = Heb 4:12. Subsequent writers from the Western church also bear the influence of the Letter to the Hebrews.
1.2.4. What contribution does the external evidence make in the determination of the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews?
The fact that there is so much uncertainty about the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews indicates that the early church was not sure about the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. For some reason, the author did not identify himself and a knowledge of his identity was not retained in the collective memory of the early church.
1.3. From all the evidence considered, what do you conclude about the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews?
From all the evidence considered, it is impossible to conclude anything very firmly about the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews, except the general characteristics that he was not an eyewitness or an apostle. Thus, he was probably not the apostle Paul, contrary to the view of the eastern church.
Because there is no salutation, there is no internal, direct evidence for the intended readership. Most commentators agree that the intended readers are Christians, whom the author urges not to apostatize (see Heb 2:1, 3; 3:6, 12-19; 4:1, 3, 11; 6:6; 10:29, 39). The fact that the title "To the Hebrews" (pros Hebraious) is attached to the letter in the oldest manuscripts (p46, , A, B), however, means at least that the early church believed that the intended readers were Jews. The Greek term Hebraios was commonly used to denote Jews in contrast to gentiles. It is also used in to distinguish Palestinian Jewish believers from their Hellenistic counterparts (Acts 6:1; 2 Cor 11:22; Phil 3:5), but this does not seem to be the meaning in the title "To the Hebrews." Rather the term means Jewish Christians generally (Tertullian gave the letter the same designation, although he attributed it to Barnabas: Barnabae titulus ad Hebraeos [de pudic. 20].)
2.1. Internal Evidence
A partial identification of the intended readers can be made from an examination of the internal, indirect evidence.
2.1.1. History of the Readers
What do the following passages imply about the history of the intended readers that might serve to identify them further?
A. Heb 10:32-34; 12:3-13
The intended readers have undergone persecution in the past (Heb 10:32-34) and seem to be undergoing some sort of persecution in the present (Heb 12:3-13). Details concerning this most recent persecution, however, are not forthcoming from text, except, perhaps, that their persecution has not yet consisted of the shedding of blood (Heb 12:4). Which persecution the intended readers have undergone and are undergoing is impossible to determine, since there is a lack of historical detail.
It is possible, however, that the persecutions to which the author refers are not otherwise found in the historical sources, unlike, for example, the persecution of the church by Herod Agrippa I (see Acts 12), Nero and Domitian. It is even conceivable that the persecution of the readers is the result of the rise of an aggressive and uncompromising Jewish nationalism about this time, which eventually led to the Jewish war with Rome (War 2.457-80; Justin, Dial. Tryph. 16; Epiph., Haer. 29.9).
B. Heb 5:11-14; 6:9-10; 10:32; 13:19-23
The intended readers seem to know the author personally, and therefore to have had previous contact with him. In Heb 10:32, the author refers to the "former days", and seems to have a detailed knowledge about this time period. Likewise, in Heb 13:19-23, he states his intention to revisit the readers. In Heb 13:18, the author asks the readers to pray for him, implying some sort of relationship, and in Heb 5:11-14; 6:9-10, he claims to know the readers' present state of mind, implying a close relationship. But since the author's identity is unknown, knowing that the intended readers know the author personally does not help much in identifying the former.
2.1.2. Group within a Group
The intended readers could be a part of a larger group. The author distinguishes the readers from their "leaders" and "the rest of the saints" (Heb 13:24); the implication is that the readers are a sub-group of the church in the city where they reside. What distinguishes them from their leaders and other believers presumably are the issues dealt with in the letter. The author may view the readers as the potential leadership of the larger Christian community to which they belong (Heb 5:12; 10:25). But the readers have not reached their potential as teachers (Heb 5:12), and have separated themselves off from those they should have been teaching (Heb 10:25).
2.1.3. "Those from Italy"
Since the author sends greetings from "those from Italy" (hoi apo tês Italias) (Heb 13:24). What might this imply about the identity of the intended readers?
It is possible that the readers are compatriots of this group known as "those from Italy." It would seem natural that those who share a common nationality with the readers would take a special interest in them. If so, then the readers may be living in Italy and possibly in Rome. But such a conclusion is by no means certain because the group known as "those from Italy" could have had other significance for the readers other than being their compatriots.
It should be noted that the phrase hoi apo tês Italias could also mean "those in Italy," in the sense of those who reside in Italy, as opposed to designating place of origin, in which case the author would be writing from Italy and the readers would be elsewhere.
2.1.4. Readers as Greek-Speaking
The author wrote to the intended readers in Greek, which means naturally that they were Greek-speaking, and perhaps only spoke Greek, as opposed to Aramaic the vernacular of Palestine. The assertion of Clement of Alexandria that the Letter to the Hebrews was originally written "for Hebrews in the Hebrew tongue, and that Luke, having carefully translated it" seems to be mere supposition, unsupported by the evidence. That the Letter to the Hebrews was originally written in Greek is suggested by the fact that the vast majority of Old Testament quotations in the work are taken from the Septuagint (LXX) even when the LXX differs from the Hebrew text (see the exception in Heb 10:30). Of the thirty-eight quotations from twenty-two Old Testament passages, only six do not agree with LXXA or LXXB. (How to explain these six discrepant passages is a problem for the exegete.) To argue that the translator of the alleged original Hebrew or Aramaic text simply used the LXX version of Old Testament when translating the letter into Greek, however, does not seem possible, because, in some cases, the author's argument depends upon the LXX reading, on "peculiarities of the LXX" (e.g., Heb 1:10-12; 10:5-10; 12:26-27). Examples include:
In addition, the argument about the necessary connection between the ratification of a covenant and death in Heb 9:16-17 depends upon the dual meaning of the Greek diathêkê: "covenant" and "last will." The fact that the author's argument only works in Greek, insofar as he depends on the dual meaning of diathêkê (covenant and last will), which is not possible if he were writing in Hebrew or Aramaic, confirms that the original language of composition was Greek.
It should be stressed that being Greek-speaking does not necessarily exclude a Palestinian readership, because there were Greek-speaking Jews who lived in Jerusalem, as witnessed by the existence of Greek-speaking synagogues in the city (Acts 6:9). Such Jews would no doubt have been immigrants to Palestine from the Greek world (In the case of the synagogue in Acts 6:9, they came from Cyrenaica, Cilicia Asia and the city of Alexandria.) Thus it is possible that the author was wrote to Hellenistic Jews living in Jerusalem.
2.1.5. Readers as Jewish
In addition to the general conclusions above, it seems further that from the contents of the letter the intended readers were Jewish. The most obvious reason for concluding this is the fact that, in the author's opinion, the readers are in danger of reverting to participation in the Levitical sacrificial system, which would only be possible for Jews. The author intends to forestall such an apostasy by explaining to them the full salvation-theological significance of Christ's death and resurrection / exaltation. Moreover, the inclusion of ritual purifications ("baptisms") as part of the theological "foundation" of the readers certainly implies that they are Jewish believers.
Since the intended readers were probably a sub-group of a particular church, it is possible that what distinguishes them from the "the rest of the saints" (13:24) is the fact that they are Jewish Christians, which means that the latter are gentile converts. This is only a hypothesis, however.
2.1.6. Readers in or near Jerusalem
The fact that the author attempts to convince his readers not to revert to participation in the Levitical sacrificial system implies that they are in or near Jerusalem because Jews farther away from the Temple would not have the same opportunity to take part in the Temple cult. (Only when they visited the city would they, but this could be very infrequent.)
2.2. External Evidence
There is no reliable external evidence by which to determine the intended readership of the letter.
2.2.1. It may be noteworthy that the term "Hebrew" (Hebraios) in the New Testament seems to have the meaning of a Palestinian Jew or a Jew with Palestinian roots, as opposed to a diasporan or Hellenistic Jew (Acts 6:1; 2 Cor 11:22; Phil 3:5). Similarly, Eusebius says that the church in Jerusalem was exclusively composed "of Hebrews" (ex Hebraiôn) (H.E. 4.5.2), and in the Clementine Homilies, James is said to be the one "to whom was entrusted to administer the church of the Hebrews in Jerusalem (en Ierousalêm tên Ebraiôn...ekklêsian). The fact that the early church gave the letter the title "To the Hebrews" as early as the early third century (p46) is evidence that the intended readers was the Jerusalem church or at least churches in Palestine. This argument, however, is weak.
2.2.2. As already indicated, Clement of Alexandria believed that the intended readers of the Letter to the Hebrews were Jews ("Hebrews"). Eusebius wrote about Clement's view that "As for the Epistle to the Hebrews...it is Paul's, but that it was written for Hebrews in the Hebrew tongue," and quoted Clement as follows: "In writing to Hebrews who had conceived a prejudice against him [Paul] and were suspicious of him, he very wisely did not repel them at the beginning by putting his name" (H.E. 6.14.2-3). What were Clement of Alexandria’s views about the intended readers? How trustworthy do you think Clement’s testimony is?
that Paul wrote for "Hebrews." Even though it agrees
with the internal evidence, probably, Clement's conclusion about the
conditions of the production of the Letter to the Hebrews is based on
conjecture, either his or that of a predecessor. The fact that
he wrongly claims that the original language of the letter was Hebrew
or Aramaic undermines his reliability in the matter. Thus,
there is no reliable external evidence by which to determine the intended
readership of the letter.
3. When was the Letter to the Hebrews written?
3.1. Internal Evidence
3.1.1. It is clear that some time has passed between the conversion of the intended readers and the composition of the Letter to the Hebrews: the readers are exhorted not to forsake their Christian confession (Heb 3:12), told that they have become dull of hearing and should be teachers by now (Heb 5:11-12) and it is said of them that they have ceased meeting together (Heb 10:25). The intended readers have a history of service to their co-religionists (Heb 6:10; 10), and have suffered persecution for their faith in the past (10:32-34). How much time has passed, however, between their conversion and when the author sent his letter to them is impossible to determine. Likewise, when they became believers in Christ is not known.
3.1.2. Timothy is referred to as being alive at the time of the writing of the letter (Heb 13:23). According to a fourth century source called Acts of Timothy (Acta Timothei), which may or may not be correct, Timothy died in 97. If this tradition is true, then the Letter to the Hebrews must have been written before Timothy died in 97. But this is not a significant finding, since all the New Testament writings were written before then.
3.1.3. There are reasons to believe that the Jerusalem Temple was still standing when the Letter to the Hebrews was written, which would mean that it was written before 70.
Nothing is said about the destruction of the Temple when it would have been to the advantage of the author to do so. (By contrast, in Letter of Barnabas 16, the author did use the fact of the Temple's destruction as part of his argument that the Levitical sacrificial system was obsolete.) In particular, what the author writes in Heb 10:2-3 implies that the Temple has not yet been destroyed:
If the Levitical sacrifices have ceased at the time that the author writes his letter one would expect that he would have made use of this fact in support of his argument. He no doubt would have said something to the effect that the fact that the sacrifices have ceased proves that they were ineffective, for otherwise God would not have allowed their cessation. Moreover, his statement in Heb 8:13 that the fact that God has called the new covenant “new” “has made the first one obsolete and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear" implies that participation in the Temple cult is still possible. If the Temple has already been destroyed, the author would probably have written that the old covenant "has disappeared," not "will soon disappear," since the Temple was so central to the Mosaic covenant.
B. The author refers to the tabernacle and its operations in the present tense: Heb 7:8; 8:3-5; 9:6-7, 8-9, 13; 10:1-3; 13:10 (see also 9:25; 10:11-12). The use of the present tense may imply that the Temple is still in existence at the time of writing, thereby placing the date of the Letter to the Hebrews before 70. This argument is convincing, however, only when one assumes that the author intends to refer to the Temple when he describes the tabernacle in his letter. It is argued that the reason that he uses the tabernacle in his argument is because the Old Testament never gives instructions for the building of a Temple, but the design of every Temple that was built, including that of Herod, is based on the instructions given for the construction of the tabernacle. Yet, it must be stressed that the present tense in Greek does not always or necessarily refer to the present time, for the use of the “historical present” is common in Greek. There are examples of authors writing after the destruction of the Temple who use the present tense in describing the Temple and its operations (see 1 Clem. 41; Diogm. 3). Similarly, when describing the tabernacle and its furnishings (Ant. 3.102-50) as well as the vestments of the high priest (Ant. 3.151-87), Josephus alternates between the past and the present tenses. In addition, the author may use the tabernacle simply because he seeks to give a biblical basis to his argument, and this may imply nothing about whether the Temple is still in existence or not.
C. The option to return to the Levitical sacrificial system, the undesirability of which the author attempts to convince his readers, would not have been available to Jewish Christians after 70. After that date, the status of the Temple and the Levitical sacrificial system could not longer be a live issue. This implies that the Temple was still standing when the Letter to the Hebrews was written.
D. The manner in which the author speaks of Jerusalem in Heb 13:14 implies that the city has not yet been destroyed by the Romans: "For we do not have here an enduring city but we seek one that is to come." Such a statement would be difficult to make if there was no longer any "earthly" Jerusalem, because what is implied is that the city that does not endure nevertheless still exists for the time being at least. If he were writing after 70, the author would probably have said that something to the effect that the now-destroyed Jerusalem was certainly not an enduring city, proof of which is the fact of its destruction, but "we are looking for the city that is to come."
What does the probability that the Jerusalem Temple was still standing when the Letter to the Hebrews was written imply about the date of the composition of the Letter to the Hebrews?
It implies that the Letter to the Hebrews was written before 70, the year in which the Romans destroyed the Temple.
3.2. External Evidence
Clement of Rome, writing c. 95, made clear allusions to the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 11:7 and 1 Clement 9:4; 12:1; Heb 1:3-4 and 1 Clement 36:1-2). What does this imply about the terminus ad quem of the composition of the Letter to the Hebrews?
It implies that the Letter to the Hebrews was written no later than the early 90's.
3.3. What do you conclude about the date of the composition of the Letter to the Hebrews?
internal and external suggest that the Letter to the Hebrews was written
before the 90's and probably also before the destruction of the Temple
4. Where was the Letter to the Hebrews written?
It is impossible to determine place of origin of the Letter to the Hebrews. The only clue is found in Heb 13:24, where the author sends greetings to the intended readers from "the ones from Italy" (hoi apo tês Italias). What may this verse indicate about where the letter was written?
This could imply that the author was writing from Italy, and perhaps Rome, so that the phrase means "the ones in Italy." But it could be that he was sending the letter to some Jews who knew some Italian believers living outside of Italy, in which case the phrase "the ones from Italy" means "the Italians" who wish to send greetings, wherever they happen to be. If so, then this datum is of no use in determining provenance.
5.1. Religious-Historical Background of the Letter
Until the discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it was generally accepted that the religious-historical background of the Letter to the Hebrews was some form of Hellenistic Judaism influenced by the Platonic distinction between the ideal or spiritual and the material realms. The fact that the author writes in Greek and uses the LXX as his scriptures would seem to support this hypothesis or, at least, gives no support to the hypothesis that the intended readers were Palestinian Jews. Not surprisingly, scholars sought affinities between the Letter to the Hebrews and the writings of Philo of Alexandria, who was viewed religious-historically as closest to the author and his readers, since Philo was a Jew. The goal was to use Philo's writings to supply the background to the theological concepts of the Letter to the Hebrews. (For this reason, the author and the readers were sometimes identified as being Alexandrian Jewish Christians.)
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has necessitated a fundamental shift in the approach to the interpretation of the Letter to the Hebrews. Religious terminology in the letter once thought to express concepts adapted from Hellenistic Judaism were discovered to exist in these Palestinian Jewish texts from the second-Temple period; thus in many cases it was no longer necessary and indeed actually misleading to interpret the author's assertions exclusively against a Hellenistic religious-historical background, and especially Jewish adaptations of Platonism. The strong eschatological thread that runs through is thoroughly consistent with Palestinian Jewish thought, as represented by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Such an interest in salvation-history militates against an interpretation of the Letter to the Hebrews in exclusively Platonic terms. This is not so say that the author never made use of Hellenistic Jewish ideas, but only that his basic orientation is not Hellenistic, if spite of writing in Greek. (Although he does occasionally use concepts and terms from Hellenistic Judaism, the author gives no evidence of a direct dependence on the works of Philo of Alexandria. It is possible to reconstruct the views of the readers by negating the clearly polemical statements of the author (a method known as "mirror reading"). Most of the reconstructed points have parallels in the one of more of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It seems more probable that the Letter to the Hebrews should be interpreted against the conceptual world of Palestinian Judaism, especially as it finds expression in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This means that the intended readers, whose erroneous views on various matters the author attempts to correct, should be understood as Greek-speaking Jewish Christians who were largely non-Hellenistic in their theological outlook.
5.2. Literary Structure of the Letter
In the Letter to the Hebrews, the smaller literary units, which could be called paragraphs, and some larger units composed of these paragraphs are easily identifiable; there are few scholarly disputes about this. The general theme—the superiority of the person and work of the Son—is likewise not in dispute, nor is the fact that the Letter to the Hebrews is consists of a mixture of discourse and exhortation. What is not so obvious, however, is the overall structure of the book, how all the smaller literary units and the few larger units are related to one another. Attempts have been made to analyze the Letter to the Hebrews according to its surface structure (form) and its deep or semantic structure (contents). But unanimous agreement so far has eluded New Testament scholars. It seems that no proposed literary structure is able completely to account for all the data.
All attempts to determine the structure of the Letter to the Hebrews presuppose that there is an over-arching literary structure that is clearly-identifiable literary structure. This is probably not true. In other words, the Letter to the Hebrews may simply be a collection of thematically-related paragraphs and a few larger literary units. Put positively, one could say that there are numerous, mutually-compatible literary structures. Not only is there room for both surface structure and deep structure analyses, but also different versions of each. Organizing the smaller units of Hebrews is different ways may serve to illuminate aspects of meaning of the letter, and may be complementary to one another. But to insist on one literary structure as the "intended" or correct one may lead to a skewing of meaning. It is best to extract from the letter the theological ideas without regard for its larger literary structure.
This represents the main body of the letter
The author argues that the revelation through the son is superior to the older revelation. He says about the son that he is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of God's being. Having made purification for sin, the son sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high, becoming much superior to angels.
The author attempts to prove that the Son's is superior to angels. To this end, he shows that what is said to or about the son in the scriptures is superior to what is said to or about angels (Ps 2:7; 2 Sam 7:14; Deut 32:43; Ps 104:4; Ps 45:6-7; Ps 102:25-27; Ps 110:1).
The author exhorts his readers not to neglect such a great salvation.
Exegeting Ps 8:4-6, the author affirms that God has placed all things under Jesus' feet, unlike the angels. Jesus for a time was made lower than the angels, but is now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death; by the grace of God he tasted death for everyone.
The author says that God made Jesus, the author of salvation, perfect in suffering. He adds that Jesus is not ashamed to call those who are made holy brothers, quoting Ps 22:22; Isa 8:17; Isa 8:18. Jesus shared in their humanity in order to destroy the devil, who has the power of death, and to become a merciful and faithful high priest, making an atonement for sins. Because Jesus suffered when tempted, he can help those who are being tempted.
The author argues that Jesus is superior to Moses, being over the house rather than a servant in the house.
The author exhorts his readers not to yield to unbelief, using the generation of the exodus as an illustration that punishment follows unbelief; to this end he quotes Ps 95:7-11. He points out that only the one who holds firmly to the end has come to share in Christ. The author also exhorts his readers to be sure to enter the rest that the wilderness generation was unable to because of unbelief. This rest is the same as the Sabbath rest into which God entered after creating the world (Gen 2:2), and remains open for them to enter.
The author compares the word of God to a sharp sword, and adds that nothing is hidden from God, before whom the author and his readers must stand and give an account.
Based on the fact of Jesus' high priestly ministry, the author exhorts his readers to hold fast to their faith. Jesus as high priest can sympathize with their weaknesses, because he was tempted in every way, but without sin.
The author describes Jesus' high priesthood, claiming that God has appointed him high priest (Ps 2:7; Ps 110:4). Jesus learned obedience as a son from what he suffered, and being made perfect, is now the source of eternal life. He is a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
The author exhorts and warns his readers about the dangers of apostasy and spiritual immaturity.
The author exhorts readers not to remain spiritually immature.
The author warns that there can be no restoration for those who apostasy, because they are crucifying the son of God again and subjecting him to public shame.
The author exhorts readers to persevere in faith and patience in order to inherit what has been promised.
The author explains that the steadfastness of God's promise and the hope that believers have are confirmed by the fact that God swore an oath by himself. The hope is the salvation that Jesus the great high priest accomplishes.
The author develops further the ideas that Jesus' high priesthood is of the order of Melchizedek and is superior.
The author makes the general statement that Jesus is a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek
The author gives information about Melchizedek, the king and priest. He says that Melchizedek was without parents and genealogy; like the son of God he remains a priest forever.
The author describes the greatness of Melchizedek is described in comparison to Abraham. Abraham tithed to Melchizedek and received a blessing from him, the inferior from the superior. In a sense, it was Levi who did these things, because Levi was in the loins of Abraham.
The author argues that the Levitical priesthood is imperfect and another priesthood in the order of Melchizedek, not Aaron, is required to be established. Proof of this is Ps 110:4, in which God appoints Jesus a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. A change in priesthood, however, means a change in law (Torah).
The author says that Jesus' priesthood is superior because it was established by an oath (Ps 110:4); Jesus becomes the guarantee of a better covenant.
The author adds that Jesus' priesthood is superior because it is permanent, for he never dies, unlike the Levitical high priests.
The author then says that Jesus' priesthood is superior because he is holy and does not need to offer sacrifices for himself, unlike the Levitical priesthood.
The author affirms that Jesus as high priest serves at the heavenly tabernacle, the true one, of which the earthly one is a copy. Proof that there is a heavenly tabernacle is found in Exod 25:40). Thus, Jesus' ministry is superior to that of the Levitical priesthood.
The author adds that Jesus' is the mediator of a new covenant, founded on better promises, which is better than the old covenant (Jer 31:31-34); new implies that the old is obsolete.
The author says that the regulations for worship under the old covenant were ineffectual; the fact that priests repeatedly offered sacrifices and year after year the high priest was required to make sacrifices on the Day of Atonement indicated that these sacrifices were not able to cleanse the conscience. Jesus' ministry as high priest, however, offering his own blood at the heavenly tabernacle is effective.
The author affirms that, through his high priestly work, Jesus has become a mediator of a new covenant. Covenants are instituted through blood, both the old covenant and the new covenant, through Jesus' own blood. Jesus died as a ransom to release those who sinned under the first covenant.
The author argues that, in the same way that blood is required in the earthly sanctuary for cleansing and forgiveness, so Jesus entered the heavenly sanctuary to offer his own blood as sacrifice for sin. He will appear a second time to bring salvation to those who are expecting him.
The author describes Jesus' once and for all sacrifice.
The repeated sacrifices of the Levitical system cannot make the offerer perfect; it is impossible for blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
Using Ps 40:6-8, the author argues that Jesus came to offer himself once and for all as a sacrifice for sin. By one sacrifice Jesus makes perfect those who are being made holy. When Jesus made his sacrifice he sat down at the right hand of God, where he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.
Quoting Jer 31 again, the author says that Jesus' death established the new covenant, bringing forgiveness. Where there is forgiveness there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.
The author admonishes his readers, being cleansed of conscience and having their bodies washed with pure water, to approach God through the blood of Jesus, the new and living way opened up through the curtain, that is, Jesus' body. He also encourages them to hold fast to hope.
The author also exhorts his readers to spur one another to good deeds and not to give up meeting together.
The author warns that continual and deliberate sin will not be forgiven.
The author admonishes his readers to persevere in their persecution in light of their previously successful endurance. He quotes Hab 2:3-4 to make the point that God is pleased only with those who do not shrink back.
The author gives numerous examples of faith--meaning hopeful belief resulting in perseverance--from history as encouragement to his readers to persevere.
As an example of perseverance, the author exhorts readers to look to Jesus, who endured opposition from sinful men.
The author encourages his readers to bear their present suffering as the discipline of God. To this end he cites Prov 3:11-12: God is disciplining them as beloved sons. Their discipline will produce a harvest of righteousness and peace.
The author gives various exhortations to persevere and to avoid sin.
The author expresses again the superiority of the new covenant mediated by Jesus; Mt. Sinai and Mt Zion are symbolically contrasted as representatives of the two covenants.
The author warns his readers not to refuse God who speaks to them, because they will fall under the judgment of God.
The author speaks of God's promise to shake the earth once again (Hag 2:6), which he interprets as the removal of all created things; afterwards an unshakable kingdom will appear.
The author gives various
moral and practical instructions to his readers.
This represents the conclusion of the letter.
The author asks for prayer and then gives a doxology.
The author makes a personal
appeal, gives information about Timothy, sends greetings and concludes
with a benediction.
6. Why was the Letter to the Hebrews written?
6.1. What does Heb 13:22 imply about the author’s intentions in writing? (“Word of exhortation” is the term used in Acts 13:15 for the homily given in the synagogue after the reading of the scriptures.)?
In Heb 13:22, the author says that he is writing a "word of exhortation," which implies that he has reason to exhort. (“Word of exhortation” is the term used in Acts 13:15 for the homily given in the synagogue after the reading of the scriptures.)
6.2. From the fact that the author constantly warned his Jewish readers against apostasy, what was his purpose in writing his “word of exhortation”?
From the fact that the author constantly warned his Jewish readers against apostasy, he wrote to "exhort" Jewish Christians who were tempted to return to Judaism—including the Temple sacrifices—not to do so. The author sets out to prove that the Mosaic covenant has been superceded by the new covenant of which Jesus is the mediator, and therefore that the Temple and its operations has been rendered obsolete by Christ's death. It should be added that the persecution that the readers were undergoing may have been a factor in their temptation to return to Judaism. If the persecutors were Jews, obviously it would cease if the readers recanted their Christian beliefs. But even if the persecutors were gentiles, relief from the persecution could be obtained by returning to Judaism, since Judaism was an officially sanctioned religion (religio licita), whereas Christianity was not.
6.3. In order to convince
his readers of the undesirability of returning to a participation in
the Levitical sacrificial system, the author must correct their misunderstanding
of the salvation-historical significance of Christ. To do so required
a refutation of those theological views that are incompatible with his
assumption of the salvation-historical supremacy of Christ. Although
he does not explicitly state the views that he is refuting, on the assumption
that he is indeed refuting such views, one can reconstruct those deficient
views that the readers held or were inclined to hold by negating the
author's own affirmations (the so-called method of "mirror-reading").
These views may relate to the salvation-historical role of angels, including
Melchizedek, the nature of work of the Davidic Messiah and the expectation
of a priestly Messiah, the Davidic Messiah's status relative to Moses,
the Levitical priesthood and its connection to the angelic priesthood
and whether the Law is eternal. The views that the readers probably
held or were moving towards are consistent with Second-Temple Judaism.
It must be kept in mind, however, that the author argues extensively
from typology. In typological interpretation a person, place, thing
or event in the Old Testament is used to foreshadow an eschatological
reality to which it is analogically or functionally similar. Unless
the author's typological approach is appreciated, the interpreter may
wrongly assume that the author is making literal statements about the
salvation-historical significance of Christ.
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