In this introductory article we consider the historical context of this New Testament letter and its sustained argument. Put in another way, how does God reveal Himself in this letter as it focuses on the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ? Later articles will focus on the various topics identified in this introduction, but the emphasis throughout all these studies will be doctrinal rather than purely expository. We will also seek to understand its import and application to us as believers for today.
This letter is different from most other New Testament texts in that whilst it ends like a conventional letter, 13. 22, it does not have an opening salutation. In this respect we can compare the opening verses of John’s first letter, 1 John 1. 1-4. Some scholars think that the letter is principally a word of encouragement,1and this is probably how we should interpret the letter overall.2 It also includes five warnings for believers who were in danger of rejecting the basic principles of their Christian faith and relapsing into Judaism.3While we give some background information relating to these warnings in this article, two separate articles will deal with them in more detail later.
As the letter has no opening salutation, it makes it very difficult to determine who wrote it, and the problem is compounded by the fact that in most early English translations of Hebrews, e.g., KJV, RV, authorship has been ascribed to the Apostle Paul, whilst later translations simply have the superscription, ‘The Letter to the Hebrews’, e.g., NIV, ESV. It is highly unlikely though that Paul wrote this letter, because the internal evidence suggests that the writer and the recipients were second-generation believers, see for example chapter 2 verse 3; both had received the message of salvation through the witness of others. This was clearly not Paul’s experience.4 If we also compare this letter to Paul’s letters there are few Pauline themes that can be identified.5 Only once is there a reference to ‘resurrection’, the word ‘gospel’ is never used, and rarely does the writer speak of ‘righteousness’. Although, for example, Paul uses the verb ‘to justify’ and the noun ‘righteousness’ almost exclusively in Romans and Galatians, it should be acknowledged that the presence or absence of phrases or words in particular Pauline letters are not the only determining factors in establishing Pauline authorship. The purpose of the letter would undoubtedly order the subject matter and the themes to be emphasized.6 Some scholars have suggested that the title of this letter ‘To the Hebrews’ is an editorial label as it only occurs in manuscripts in the last quarter of the second century AD and was therefore simply included for convenient reference. Clement of Rome7 (AD 96) and Hermas (in Shepherd) both quote from this letter at the end of the first century, but not under the title ‘To the Hebrews’. Authorship was important when the letter was challenged as to authenticity and canonicity in the early church, but as the text itself does not disclose the name of the author, and this would be unprecedented if the Apostle Paul had written it, nothing now turns on this matter. What this all suggests, however, is that there are as many valid reasons for arguing that Paul wrote this letter as there are that another individual wrote this letter, but in our view the anonymity of the author as directed by the Holy Spirit is deliberate. He does not wish to detract from the main objective of His letter, which is to present the greatness of the person and work of Christ.8
Two other issues should be mentioned before we set out the doctrinal argument of Hebrews. This relates to the date of the letter and its recipients. Hebrews was certainly written in the first century and, most probably, before the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Titus in AD 70. This would mean that the
Jewish sacrificial system was still a reality to the recipients of this letter, even though the writer majors on the tabernacle in the wilderness and not the Second Temple, i.e., the temple built to replace Solomon’s temple and in existence in the post-exilic period from 516 BC to its destruction in AD 70. Nevertheless, if the writer is attempting to convince his readers of the inferiority of the Mosaic system, and dissuading them from returning to Jewish practices, an obvious argument would have been to mention the cessation of the temple sacrifices, if they were, in fact, no longer taking place.9 The eventual destruction of the Second Temple became the watershed of Jewish history, especially in terms of national identity and religious worship.
The recipients of this letter are named ‘Hebrews’, which, according to T. W. Manson, ‘would mean one thing in Palestine and another outside. As the addressees are Christians, it would mean, if the document was sent to Palestine, Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians, natives of the land as opposed to Greek-speaking ‘Hellenists’, i.e., Christian Jews of the Diaspora’.10 In our view, the frequent use of the Septuagint (LXX) suggests that the recipients of this letter were Hellenistic Jews living somewhere in the Dispersion11 rather than in Israel.12 They would have understood the letter’s many citations and allusions to the Old Testament and shared in the writer’s frequent use of the Septuagint (LXX),13 as their common language was Greek. While the expression ‘They of Italy salute you’ in Hebrews chapter 13 verse 24 is somewhat ambiguous, it could mean that the author of the letter was living in Italy at the time of writing.
In terms, then, the letter is written to Christians who are in imminent danger of abandoning their Christian faith and returning to Judaism with all its intrinsic failings. Even though the writer takes time to build up his argument, there is an emphasis throughout the letter on the calamitous consequences of neglecting the fundamentals of the Christian faith. It is against this backdrop that our writer proceeds to show the ineffectiveness of Judaism as compared with the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Barnabas Lindars states, ‘It is an appeal to particular people to revise their understanding of their Christian faith and to abandon action which is incompatible with it. There must be an intended effect on the readers’.14The letter is not therefore timewarped, but must have an attendant effect upon us as we read it, and ‘join the struggle in defence of the faith, the faith which God entrusted to his people once and for all’, Jude 3 NEB. The title given by W. E. Vine to his commentary on Hebrews (Christ all Excelling) captures the essential argument of this Christ-centred letter to which we now turn.
2. 1; 3. 13, 14; 6. 1-12; 10. 22-39; 12. 1-29; 13. 13, 22. The comment in Hebrews chapter 13 verse 22 led Tertullian to say that Barnabas was the author because he is described in Acts 4. 36 as ‘The son of encouragement’.
F. F. Bruce commenting on Hebrews chapter 13 verse 22 states that, ‘The word of exhortation refers to the whole of the preceding epistle. In Acts 13. 15 … any “word of exhortation” … clearly denotes a homily; it is thus a very suitable description for this epistle, which is a homily in written form’. [The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New London Commentary on the New Testament, pg. 413].
2. 1-4; 3. 7-4. 13; 6. 4-12; 10. 26-39; 12. 14-29.
As confirmed by Galatians chapter 1 verse 12, and other similar texts.
The letter ends with a benediction like those found in other New Testament letters, especially those written by the Apostle Paul, but again this is not conclusive as to Pauline authorship. See, for example, the Apostle Peter, 2 Pet. 3. 18, and the Apostle John, Rev. 22. 21, which is the exact expression used by Paul in many of his letters, e.g., Rom. 16. 27; Phil. 4. 23; 1 Thess. 5. 28; 2 Thess. 3. 18.
Martin Luther originally assumed the letter was Pauline, but later he ascribed the letter to Apollos - see his Preface to Hebrews (1522). T. W. Manson also argued that the author was Apollos suggesting, among other reasons, that the letter was characterized by Alexandrian exegesis in the manner of Philo on the Jewish side, and Origen later on the Christian side. [The Problem of the Epistle to the Hebrews, BJRL, Vol. 32 no. 1 (1949), pg. 16].
The earliest manuscript that includes Paul’s letters is the papyrus P46, which is around AD 200. This codex is partly located at the University of Michigan, the rest in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland. The letter to the Hebrews is included in this collection, and the title shown above the letter is ‘to the Hebrews’. Hebrews follows directly after the letter to the Romans, and the argument for Pauline authorship of Hebrews is that it was not necessary to state that in the letter as it is likely that the codex contained a fuller title, such as ‘The Epistles of Paul’, at the end of the codex, which is now lost.
We might concur therefore with the early church father Origen’s judgement that ‘Who actually wrote the epistle, in truth God knows’. Professor D. T. Black, however, observes in his review of Origen’s comments on the letter to the Hebrews that Origen believed that the thoughts in Hebrews are Pauline, but the style and diction are to be credited to someone else.
Hebrews chapter 8 verse 13 seems to support this view. David Gooding writes on this verse, ‘Do you notice the exactness of the expression? The writer does not say that the old covenant and all that pertains thereto has vanished away … Then he adds, now that which is old and aged is nigh unto vanishing away - it has not yet vanished, but it soon will. History tells us that the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70. Again if we read carefully in chapter 9 (R.V.) of this letter, where the writer for the sake of example refers to the services in the temple and tabernacle, we shall observe that he consistently uses the present tense, for all the time when this letter was written the temple still stood at Jerusalem and the Jewish priests were still carrying on their services in the temple’. [An Unshakeable Kingdom, pg. 11].
The Problem of the Epistle to the Hebrews, BJRL, Vol. 32 no.1 (1949), pg. 4.
The Greek word ‘Diaspora’ has quite a complex meaning in Judaism, but in simple terms it relates to Jews living outside of Israel by reason of exile, with its roots stretching back to the Babylonian captivity circa 597 BC.
Some scholars think, however, that because of the Jewish Hellenistic character of Hebrews, it can be linked to the group around Stephen mentioned in Acts chapter 6 verse 7. This seems highly unlikely in the circumstances of the letter.
The writer quotes over thirty-five times from the Septuagint (LXX).
Barnabas Lindars, The Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews, pg. 135.