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An Introduction To The Book Of Hebrews

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I. AUTHORSHIP:1 It is not possible to be certain about who authored the Book of Hebrews:

A. External Evidence: The external evidence offers some support for Pauline authorship, but it is not unanimous nor definitive:

1. Marcion Canon (c. AD 140): It was excluded from Marcion’s Canon, but he would not have liked the continuity between the OT and the NT

2. Muratorian Canon (c. 170): It was omitted from the Muratorian Canon, but this may be due to the corrupt state of the of the text of that Canon; but it was not included with the Pauline epistles

3. In The East: In the East the epistle was regarded as Pauline:

a. Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150-215)2

b. Origen (c. AD 185-254)3

c. Chester Beatty Papyrus (c. AD 200): In the Chester Beatty papyrus (P46) places the letter among the Pauline Epistles after Romans4

4. In The West: The epistle was generally considered to be Pauline

a. Tertullian: Tertullian (c. AD 150-220) attributed it to Barnabas5

b. The Roman Church: The Roman Church disputed Pauline authorship, and this led others to reject the Epistle (Muratorian Canon, Roman Canon; African Canon)

c. Hilary: Hilary considered Hebrews to be canonical, but not Pauline

d. The Western Church: The later Western Church was influenced by the Eastern Church in that although they were not convinced of Pauline authorship, they compromised and proclaimed Pauline authorship in a unanimous way until the time of the Reformation6

e. Reformation: In the Reformation Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin all questioned Pauline authorship of Hebrews7

B. Internal Evidence: Although there are several things which can be known about the author of Hebrews, and several have been suggested as possible candidates for author of this book, it is not possible to draw any definitive conclusion about who the author of Hebrews is

1. What Is Known: Several things are known about the author of Hebrews, but these are not enough to identify this person:

a. The book makes no direct reference to the author

b. The author was probably a Jew:

1) The author was very familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures

2) The author was familiar with the practices of First Century Jews

3) The author may have been familiar with the hermeneutics of the first century (midrash and pesher)

2. Various Suggestions: Many have been suggested as possible authors of the book of Hebrews, but it is not possible to be definitive in one’s conclusion:

a. Paul: While many of the arguments could be weighed either way, it seems unlikely that Paul was the writer of Hebrews in view of Hebrews 2:3-4:8

1) Anonymity: Nowhere in the letter does the writer identify himself as Paul; this is very unlikely in view of Paul’s other letters. Apostolic authority is not mentioned either

2) Difference in Style: The Greek style is not typical of Pauline abruptness and digressions; it is more classical9

3) Absence of Pauline Spiritual Experience: The author does not place his experience into the letter as Paul is noted for doing in his writings

4) Theological Similarities and Differences:

a) There are theological similarities in this letter with Paul’s other writings:

(1) Faith is an important topic

(2) The use of Habakkuk 2:4 is only by Paul elsewhere in the New Testament10

b) There are theological differences11 in this letter with Paul’s other writings:

(1) The exaltation of Christ rather than resurrection is emphasized

(2) The redemptive aspects of Christ's work rather than the sanctifying aspects of Christ's work are emphasized

(3) The high priesthood of Christ is nowhere else emphasized by Paul12

5) Historical Difference: Unlike Paul who emphasizes that he did not receive the gospel from men (Gal. 1--2), this writer seems to have received the gospel from others13

6) Outside of Apostolic Circle: The writer of Hebrews seems to place himself outside of the Apostolic circle14

b. Barnabas:15 While there is some early support for Barnabas as the author of this epistle and some corresponding evidence in favor of Barnabas, the evidence is not determinative:

1) Early Support: Other than the suggestion of Paul, Barnabas is the only other suggestion which has early ecclesiastical support, but this is primarily restricted to the Western Church

2) A Levite: Some consider the fact that Barnabas was a Levite (Acts 4:36) to be support for his having written so much in the letter which concerns temple ritual16

3) Son of Encouragement: It is possible that a literary motif is being offered with the correlation that Barnabas was called the “Son of Consolation” (Acts 4:36) and the author notes that this work is a work of “consolation” (Heb. 13:22)17

4) Hellenistic Characteristic: Because of the Hellenistic character of the letter, some question whether Barnabas with his connections with Jerusalem and Cyprus would have been able to write with such an “Alexandrian slant;” but this may be saying too much since Hellenism had penetrated Cyprus by this time

5) Hebrews 2:3: Some question whether Barnabas would have described his introduction to the gospel they way which he did in Hebrews 2:3; but this is not determinative since 2:3 need not describe a second generation, and the Acts narrative does not specifically state how Barnabas learned about the gospel

6) Pauline Association: Some of the Pauline concepts and phrases could be explained on the basis of Barnabas’ close relationship to Paul (Acts 11; 13--14)

c. Luke: Although there are some early ascriptions which connect Luke with this book and literary affinities which may show a connection, it is not possible to be certain of Lucan authorship in view of the present evidence:

1) Early Ascriptions: Some in Origen’s day considered Luke to be the author of the epistle; Clement of Alexandria thought that Luke translated the epistle from Paul’s Hebrew18

2) Literary Affinities: Some have considered Hebrews to have literary affinities with Luke’s writing (e.g., Acts and especially Stephen’s Speech in Acts 7),19 however, it may also be that the author was aware of Luke’s writings and was influenced by them

3) Nationality: Some have suggested that Luke was a Jew, however, this is not possible to know for sure; he may well have been a Gentile who was familiar with Jewish thought through his relationship with the Apostle Paul

d. Clement: The parallels with Clement’s epistle have led to the notion that he was either author or translator of the work; but the differences outweigh the similarities; also, the similarities may be accounted for by Clement being aware of this epistle

e. Silvanus: Silvanus was a member of the Pauline circle20and was associated with the writing of 1 Peter21 which has some similarities with Hebrews; but the differences outweigh the similarities

f. Apollos: The positive evidence can not be argued against, but it is not determinative, and the negative evidence consists of mostly arguments from silence, but they bare consideration; this not an impossible hypothesis:

1) Luther has been very influential in affecting the opinion of others concerning this view

2) Support for Apollos as author of Hebrews:22

a) Apollos’ close acquaintance with Paul, thus accounting for the Pauline influences

b) His connection with Alexandria, which would account for the Alexandrian coloring

c) His knowledge of the Scriptures, which would explain the biblical content of the argument and the use of the LXX version

d) His eloquence, which well suits the oratorical form of the Epistle

e) His contacts with Timothy

f) His considerable influence in various churches

3) Weakness for Apollos as author of Hebrews:

a) There is no early tradition to support this theory

b) There is no evidence of literary activity on his part

g. Philip: Although Ramsay considered this letter to have been written by Philip the deacon to commend Paulinism to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, there is no certain evidence, this does not explain the Hellenistic approach in the letter as well as why there is not a greater emphasis upon Pauline thought in the letter

h. Priscilla: Harnack considered Priscilla to have been the author of the epistle23 and supported it in view of its anonymity since a woman would not have been regarded will as an authority source, her association with Paul, her instruction of Apollos, the inclusion of women in Hebrews 11, as well as other supposed signs of femininity, but these points are not determinative24

i. Jude: Dubarle25 considered Jude to be the author because of the similarities of vocabulary, syntax, stylistic processes, mentality and culture between Hebrews and the Epistle of Jude, but these may be due to the two author’s common Jewish Christianity

II. DATE OF THE BOOK: Sometime Between AD 68 and 95 (probably AD 68-69)26

A. Hebrews is known and cited by Clement of Rome in 1 Clement (AD 95)27

B. Hebrews bares no mention of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by Titus in AD 7028

C. The writer of Hebrews seems to regard the sacrificial system of the Old Testament to still be in operation29

D. Hebrews was written during the lifetime of Timothy whom the author knew30

III. RECIPIENTS OF THE BOOK: Although the recipients were most probably Jewish, it is not possible to be absolutely certain about which particular community of Jews the letter was written; Perhaps it was to those in the Palestine area

A. Jewish: All understand that this letter was probably written to Jews;31the question is what kind of Jews were they and where did they live.

B. Support for a Particular Community:32

1. Hellenistic Jews: Some believe that it was sent to Hellenistic Jew because all of the quotations came from the LXX and related texts, but this is not a strong argument because the LXX was in common use at this time throughout the Greek speaking world--including Palestine

2. North Africa or Cyprus:33

a. The Alexandrian coloring has suggested an Alexandrian destination, but the church at Alexandria never laid claim to the letter; rather, they assumed that it was addressed to the Hebrew people of Palestine by Paul

b. It has been suggested that the people lived in North Africa or in Cyprus, people who had an ascetic lifestyle similar to the Qumran community’s lifestyle. Evidence from Qumran suggests that the Qumran community had a highly developed doctrine of angels which would fit in very nicely with the thought of the author of Hebrews34

3. Rome:

a. The letter seems to have been first known in Rome (since it was probably there for a while before Clement cited it in his Corinthian Epistle in AD 95

b. The closing Salutation in 13:24 ( οἰ ἀπὸ ᾿Ιταλίας) describes those who are away from Italy sending greetings home rather than those from Italy (in say Palestine) sending greetings to others; yet, it could go either way

c. Timothy (13:24) was known to the Roman Christians (Col. 1:1; Philemon 1--both of which are written from Rome)

d. The description of the leaders in 13:7, 17, 24 is similar to that in 1 Clement 1:3

e. The generosity of the readers in 6:10ff; 10:32ff would match that which was true of the Romans

f. The reference to meats in 13:9 my be similar to Romans 14 (hard to be sure)

g. The spoilation of goods referred to in 10:32 could be explained by either Claudius’ edict in AD 59, or Nero’s persecution (which would probably be too late)

h. But 2:3 would be difficult, the particular troubles in 10:32 are difficult to pin point, and there is no mention of Gentiles (yet this could have been to a group of Jews in Rome)35

4. Palestine:

a. This would be in the area of Palestine and possibly Jerusalem in particular

b. This is supported by the existence of the temple

c. The sense that the crisis is imminent thereby suggesting the coming siege of Jerusalem (1:2; 3:13; 10:25; 12:27)

d. The former suffering (10:32; 12:4) would relate to the persecution of the Jerusalem Jews in the Acts account (Acts 5; 7; 12)

e. There is no mention of the Gentile-Jewish controversy

f. The objections to this position (the way the author addressing them in 2:3; the discrepancy between generosity of 6:10; 10:34; 13:6 and the poverty of Jerusalem, the use of the LXX, the statement that the church had not yet suffered martyrdom in 12:4) are removed if the destination was Palestine rather than Jerusalem in particular

C. Spiritual Condition of the Community--Two Main Views:

1. A Mixed Audience: Some maintain that the recipients were Jews who were a mixed group. There were true believers and there were “professors”--those who said that they were really believers, but were not. The warning sections in this view would be to those who were not really believers in that a lapse back into Judaism would show that they really did not have faith in Jesus Christ (2:3; 3:12-14; 4:1; 10:25, 26, 29).

2. Believers: Some maintain that these are believers who are being tempted to go back under the umbrella of Judaism. The various warning sections would then be to refrain from putting themselves back under the bondage of Judaism (3:1; 4:6; 5:12; 6:4; 10:19, 32; 12:7; 13:1, 20-22)

IV. THEOLOGICAL CONTRIBUTIONS:

A. The Incarnation

B. Jesus’ Substitutionary Death

C. Jesus’ Priesthood

D. The Relationship between the New Covenant and the Old Covenant

E. The Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New Testament

F. The Life of Faith

V. PURPOSES OF THE BOOK:36

A. Positive: To provide a “word of exhortation” (encouragement) to his readers to go on in maturity in their faith in Christ (13:22)

B. Negative: To warn his readers against the dangers of lapsing back into Judaism37

C. To instruct his readers about the superiority of Christ38

D. To instruct his readers through a letter (or better a sermon or homily)39


1 While this kind of background information is helpful, it’s absence does not impede the interpreter’s ability to understand the meaning of the Book of Hebrews since meaning resides in the words of the text in their context and not behind the text in the author’s mind.

2 Eusebius, HE, 6.14.

3 Although Origen considered the contents to be Pauline, he was not actually certain about who penned the book. He thought that one of Paul’s pupils might have written the book, yet mentions that some thought that Clement of Rome, or Luke might have been the author. His famous quote is significant, “But who wrote the Epistle God only knows certainly” (Guthrie, NTI, p. 686).

4 Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, second edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 37-38. Guthrie writes, “IN the majority of early Greek manuscripts it is placed after 2 Thessalonians and before the personal letters of Paul (NTI, p. 686).

5 De pudicitia, 20.

6 Guthrie, NTI, p. 687.

7 Luther relegated Hebrews to the end of his NT with the other books which he deemed questionable (e.g. after 3 John with James, Jude and Revelation). His own theory was that Apollos wrote it.

8 Nevertheless, Childs may have made an important canonical observation when he writes concerning the conclusion of Hebrews that, “The ending does not propose a direct link with Paul by attributing to him the authorship. Rather, it offers an indirect relationship through Timothy with whom the unknown writer shares a common ministry.” Later he writes, “The effect of the canonical ending, which has greatly influenced the usual positioning of the letter within the New Testament either before the Pastorals or after Philemon, is not to propose an easy harmonization with Paul, but to establish a context in which the different approaches to the great theological issues, shared by these authors, are viewed together as comprising the truth of the one gospel” (The New Testament as Canon, p. 417-418).

9 There is less of a burning passion and more of a literary control in the style of the letter. This is a weak and subjective argument, however. It is also possible that Paul employed an emanuencis.

10 See Galatians 3:11 and Romans 1:17.

11 Note that these are not disagreements but differences with Paul’s other writings.

12 Nevertheless, there is no necessary contradiction implied.

13 See Hebrews 2:3, “It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, ....”

14 Ibid.

15 See Zane Hodges, “Hebrews” in BKC, pp. 777-778 for a fuller discussion of this option

16 Guthrie makes a very important point, however, when he writes, “Nevertheless this detail must not be overstressed since the author’s main obsession seems to be the biblical cultus rather than contemporary ritual procedure” (NTI, p. 691).

17 The common work is παρακλήσεως.

18 Guthrie, NTI, p. 603.

19 “both contain reviews of Hebrew history; both stress the call of Abraham and mention Abraham’s non-possession of the land; both describe the tabernacle as divinely ordered; and in both the tradition that the law was mediated by angels finds a place” (Ibid.).

20 Acts 15:22, 27, 32, 40.

21 1 Peter 5:12 reads, “By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God;” (RSV). Nevertheless, it is difficult to be sure of the precise part which Silvanus played in 1 Peter.

22 The following comes directly from Guthrie, NTI, p. 695.

23 ZNTW 1 (1900): 16-41.

24 See a fuller discussion in Guthrie, NTI, pp. 696-697.

25 Revue Biblique, XLVIII (1939): 506-529.

26 For a more detailed discussion involving several options see Guthrie who concludes, “In view of all the data available, it would seem reasonable to regard this Epistle as having been sent either just before the fall of Jerusalem, if Jerusalem was the destination, or just before the Neronic persecutions if it was sent to Rome” (NTI, p. 718).

27 Hebrews 11:7 (cf. 1 Clement 9:4; 11:1); Hebrews 1:3f (cf. 1 Clement 36:1f). Therefore, it must have been written at least by this date.

28 This would have supported his thesis that the “old cultus” has passed away, and something better has been inaugurated.

29 See 8:4, 13; 9:6-9; 10:1-3.

30 “Take notice that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom, if he comes soon, I shall see you” 13:23. We know that Timothy was still alive when Paul was about to be martyred in AD 68 (cf. 2 Timothy 4:9ff), but we do not know the later history of Timothy.

Hebrews 2:3 does not need to be understood to be referring to a second generation.

31 Note that some of them were inclined to remain in Judaism (13:13), and that they were well acquainted with the Old Testament and with rituals (cf. 7:11; 9:15; 13:13).

Not only this, but the title “ΠΡΟΣ ΕΒΡΙΑΟΥΣ” speaks of the book’s destination even though it may be late in nature (e.g., second to early third Century). It may have been added as part of the canonical process of joining the letter to the larger corpus. Further, as Childs suggests, “The title does not therefore refer to any specific historical referent, whether aramaic- or Greek-speaking Jews, but to those of the old covenant who form the major subject-matter of the epistle in contrast to those of the new covenant. In other words, the term is a theological construct in which an historical anachronism functions as a theological referent” (Brevard S. Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 414; For another discussion of this topic see Guthrie, NTI, pp. 698-703).

32 The reason one moves toward a particular community is because the book writes to a people who seem to have a definite history (2:3; 6:9-10; 10:32-34; 11:4; 13:7), a definite link with the writer (13:18, 19, 23) and are a section of a larger community (5:12; 10:25). See Guthrie, NTI, pp. 698-700 for a more detailed discussion.

33 See Zane Hodges, “Hebrews” in BKC, pp. 779-780 for a fuller discussion of this option.

34 See Herb Bateman’s ThD dissertation soon to be placed in Turpin Library at DTS.

35 Guthrie says it best when he writes, “All that can safely be claimed, however, is that we know that it was used in Rome in the first century, but insufficient literature is preserved from other districts to enable us to pronounce more confidently on any alternative theory” (NTI, pp. 714-715).

36 See Guthrie for some other proposed purposes of the book of Hebrews (NTI, pp. 704-710).

37 It seems that a central issue revolves around the atonement. The Jewish system would say that Christ is not the atonement, whereas the Christian system would say that Christ is the atonement. Therefore, going back to the Jewish system is to say that Christ is not the atonement but that the “lamb” is your atonement.

38 The term “better” is used thirteen times in the book. Also, Childs is correct when he writes, “The canonical significance of the interchange between doctrinal and paraenetic sections is in reminding the reader that the christological discussions of the letter have an immediate effect on the believer” (The New Testament as Canon, p. 416).

39 Note that even though there is a conclusion and there are personal allusions, there is no introductory greeting and address as is the case with the form of letters in the NT. It has been suggested that this letter was originally a spoken sermon which was then written down (see Guthrie, NTI, pp. 725-727; Childs, The New Testament as Canon, p. 415).

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines