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Hebrews: Introduction, Argument, and Outline

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I. Introduction

Philip Edgcumbe Hughes opens the introduction to his commentary on Hebrews with some insights into this very enigmatic book:

If there is a widespread unfamiliarity with the Epistle to the Hebrews and its teaching, it is because so many adherents of the church have settled for an understanding and superficial association with the Christian faith. Yet it was to arouse just such persons from the lethargic state of compromise and complacency into which they had sunk, and to incite them to persevere wholeheartedly in the Christian conflict, that this letter was originally written. It is a tonic for the spiritually debilitated.… We neglect such a book to our own impoverishment.1

Hughes goes on to add insights as to the difficulty of working on an introduction to this epistle:

It is true that the Epistle to the Hebrews has been the battleground of discordant opinion and conjecture: its author is unknown, its occasion unstated, and its destination disputed. But these are matters at the periphery, not the heart of the book’s importance. All are agreed on the intrinsic nobility of its doctrine.2

A. The Author

The author of this work does not state his name, though he assumes that the audience knows him (cf. 13:19, 22, 23). Most likely, the reason the author’s name is not appended is because this epistle was published on a scroll. Ancient papyrus scrolls frequently listed author and addressee on the verso side, while the text was written on the recto side. If this letter was written in such a manner, it is easy to see how the author/addressee would not have been copied; in fact, such a “label” could easily have been lost, smudged, etc., shortly after reaching its destination.3 Thus all of our primary evidence for authorship has to come from within the book itself, coupled with heavy conjecture based on what we know about possible candidates.

1. External Evidence

The first author to cite this epistle was Clement (c. 96 CE),4 though he does not say who wrote the book. It is omitted from both the Marcionite Canon and the Muratorian Canon. From the earliest times in church history, there has been great dispute as to authorship. A number of different authors were proposed, though Paul headed the list (so Clement of Alexandria, etc.). Yet Pauline authorship was explicitly denied by Origen, the successor to Clement, who uttered his now-famous agnostic confession: “Whoever wrote the epistle, God only knows for sure.” Other names were suggested. Tertullian was the first to suggest Barnabas; Luther, the first to suggest Apollos. All in all, the external evidence counts for very little. The fact that it finds a place in P46, the earliest MS of the corpus Paulinum (c. 200 CE), ought not to be considered weighty.5

2. Various Suggestions

a. Paul

“Most modern writers find more difficulty in imagining how this Epistle was ever attributed to Paul than in disposing of the theory.”6 It was considered Pauline, however, because it certainly had a Pauline flavor (which even Origen admitted), and because its obvious literary and theological depth caused the early church to elicit a certain authority (viz., Paul) as author in order to preserve it within the canon. Not only this, but (1) the epistle closes in a typically Pauline fashion (13:25); (2) Timothy is associated with the author (13:23); (3) the macro-structure of the epistle is similar to Paul’s style (doctrinal, followed by practical portion); and (4) there are several strong hints both of Paul’s point of view and even his wording in this letter (especially when compared to Galatians).7

The arguments against Pauline authorship, however, are conclusive: (1) this letter is anonymous (or at least lacks the author’s name on the recto side of the papyrus scroll), which goes contrary to the practice in all of Paul’s canonical letters;8 (2) the style of writing is dramatically better than that of Paul (though an amanuensis could have been used); (3) the logical development is much more tightly woven than is Paul’s (could an amanuensis have altered the core of the argument?); (4) the spiritual eyewitnesses are appealed to, while Paul insisted on no intermediaries for his gospel (cf. Gal. 1:12); and (5) Timothy’s imprisonment (Hebrews 13:23) simply does not seem able to fit within Paul’s lifetime, since he is mentioned repeatedly both in Acts and in Paul’s letters and always as a free man.9

b. Barnabas

The candidate put forth originally by Tertullian has still found some favor among modern writers. The arguments for Barnabas are as follows:10 (1) he was a Levite and would therefore have an interest in the Jewish sacrificial system; (2) there might perhaps be a play on his “word of consolation” (13:22) and the fact that he was called “the son of consolation” (Acts 4:36), though this probably speaks more of the ingenuity of those who dug up this parallel than any intention on the author’s part; (3) since Barnabas was from Cyprus, he would most likely have had strong interaction with Alexandrian and hellenistic thought which is found throughout this letter; (4) again, his possible contacts with Alexandria might well explain why his Greek is so polished; (5) Barnabas was converted shortly after Pentecost and could, therefore, have been impacted by Stephen’s instruction (and it should be noted, for what it is worth, that there are parallels with Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 seen throughout the epistle); (6) Barnabas was a mediator between Jewish Christians and Paul in Acts 9; perhaps he continued in this capacity afterward as well; and (7) although Barnabas had accompanied Paul on his first missionary journey, there is nothing to suggest that he felt compelled to continue with the Gentile mission after the split-up over John Mark. Overall, “the strongest basis for this claim is the certainty that Barnabas as a Levite would have been intimately acquainted with the temple ritual.”11

Against this identification is the fact that the work is both anonymous and its authorship was so quickly forgotten. “The fact that the name of the prominent Barnabas should have been so thoroughly lost from an epistle he actually wrote (when it was falsely attached to an apocryphal one) . . . argues against assigning the authorship to him.”12 Nevertheless, this argument can be countered by the fact that whoever wrote this epistle was a man of great literary power and theological insight—yet his name has been forgotten in the annals of church history! Thus if Barnabas is excluded so are virtually all other bona fide candidates.

c. Apollos

There are six main arguments in behalf of Apollos:

Apollos’ close acquaintance with Paul, thus accounting for Pauline influences.

His connection with Alexandria, which would account for the Alexandrian colouring.

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

His eloquence, which well suits the oratorical form of the epistle.

His contacts with Timothy.

His considerable influence in various churches.13

According to Guthrie, although “there are no data which can be brought against” this view, “the most that can be said is that this is a plausible conjecture…”14 We believe he is overlooking one item: the audience. If Apollos had worked so much with Paul (at Corinth and Ephesus especially), and thus was committed to the Gentile mission, why would he write to Jewish Christians?15 Although there is nothing against this supposition in itself, there is a certain longtime familiarity between the author and recipients (cf. 13:19, 23). There are some questions as to whether such a man as Apollos could have this kind of association with such an audience.

d. Other Possibilities

Several other names have been suggested which are much less likely, including Clement (who quotes from Hebrews, but takes an entirely different slant than this epistle in his letter to the Corinthians); (2) Luke (based on the similarities in the polished Greek style of Luke-Acts and Hebrews)16; (3) Priscilla (Harnack’s suggestion, due to the enigma of anonymity)17; (4) Silas (because he was an associate of Paul’s and perhaps functioned as the amanuensis of 1 Peter which bears some literary affinities with this work); (5) Philip (so William Ramsay thought); etc.

e. Conclusion

Origen’s agnosticism is certainly to be applauded. Still, there is one possibility which, to my knowledge, has not been suggested. It is possible that this is a work of dual authorship. This is based on the fact that “we” is used throughout to signal the author (cf. 2:5; 5:11; 6:9, 11; 8:1; 9:5; 13:18). To be sure, the author(s) uses “we” repeatedly throughout the epistle—in both an exclusive and inclusive way, that is, both to distinguish himself/themselves from the audience and to identify with the audience. But in two of the above references, an “editorial ‘we’” (i.e., plural used to refer to a singular author) is quite unlikely. In 6:11 “we desire each one of you to know” blurs the author while itemizing the audience (and is quite uncharacteristic of the editorial ‘we’ as used elsewhere in the NT); in 13:18 the author(s) urge(s) the audience to “pray for us”—followed immediately by “I urge you the more earnestly to do this.” Both the use of the first person plural in an oblique case and the juxtaposition of the first person singular are highly irregular for the editorial ‘we.’18

But there is a second argument based on the “we.” In all of Paul’s letters—even those where associates are mentioned in the salutation—before half way through the letter the “we” always and permanently reverts to “I.” Not so in Hebrews. Only in 11:32 and five times in chapter 13 (vv. 19, 22, 23) does the author use the first person singular. From my cursory examination of the non-literary papyri, this phenomenon does not parallel any uses of the editorial “we” common in the hellenistic period.

In light of these data, we propose that this work was co-authored, though one writer was more prominent than the other. The credentials of Barnabas and Apollos have always been the most impressive, though it is quite difficult to tell which one would be the leading spokesman. This is answered largely by the question of audience—which in itself is disputed. At this stage, our best guess is that Barnabas was the main author with Apollos as the assistant.

B. Date

The terminus a quo of this epistle must surely be the death of Paul (summer of 64 CE), as can be inferred from 13:7 and 23.19 Further, these are now second generation Christians (2:3). The terminus ad quem is surely 1 Clement which quotes so extensively from Hebrews. Normally this is dated c. 96 CE, but it is possible that this date is much too late. Robinson, for example, presents evidence that it was written before c.70 CE. If so, then Hebrews must be dated even earlier. Nevertheless, if we side with the broad stream of NT scholarship, the range is c. 64-95 CE.

But there is another piece of evidence which more and more scholars are seeing as quite decisive, especially stimulated as they are by the work of J. A. T. Robinson. Throughout Hebrews the entire levitical system is spoken of in the present tense (cf. especially 5:1-4; 7:20, 23, 27, 28; 8:3, 4, 13; 9:6, 13; 10:2-3, 11). Although these have usually been downplayed by scholarship as bearing no weight (since many of them could easily be customary presents), “in some passages at least the writer is appealing to existing realities, whose actual continuance is essential to his argument.”20 After quoting 10:2-3 in his own translation (“these sacrifices would surely have ceased to be offered, because the worshippers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any sense of sin. But instead, in these sacrifices year after year are brought to mind”) Robinson makes the cogent point that “Had the sacrifices in fact ceased to be offered, it is hard to credit that these words could have stood without modification or comment. For their termination would have proved his very point.”21 Thus, it is not just the use of the present tense, but the incredible fact that the author does not point out the ruins of the temple in Jerusalem as vindication of his argument which argues for a date before 70 CE.

Finally, the total lack of awareness of eschatological fulfillment concerning the cult argues that the events of the Olivet Discourse had not yet begun to take shape. To be sure, the author warns of impending persecution—but this is better accounted for as Neronic (especially in light of Paul’s recent death!) than directly related to the destruction of Jerusalem. Thus 65 CE seems to be the best date. We can add further that the spring or summer of 65 is most probable, because in 13:23 the senior author indicates that he will come visit his audience, with Timothy at his side, “if he arrives soon.” Travel would be quite difficult (overseas, virtually impossible) during the winter, hence this note of some urgency would be most appropriate if there were enough time both of the audience to hear of his travel plans and for him to make the trip before winter.

C. Destination

As disputed as authorship of this epistle is, the issue of destination takes the “agnostic” prize for introductory matters! So many places have been suggested, in fact, that there almost seems to be none left on the map. Somewhere in Palestine and Rome are the most popular suggestions. But others have been made: Alexandria, Colossae, Ephesus, somewhere in Asia Minor, Cyrene, Antioch, Syria in general, Corinth, and Cyprus.

In spite of the popularity of Rome and Palestine, we believe that these are among the least likely candidates. Against Rome is the following evidence. (1) A natural reading of 13:24 (“those from Italy send you their greetings”) is that the author is somewhere in Italy. (2) Furthermore, the coupling of 12:4 with 13:7 suggests that some of their leaders had died (Paul, at least), though there was no immediate danger of them shedding blood. It is doubtful that this could be said of Christians in Rome shortly after Paul had been beheaded! These two notes rather sound as if the leadership of the church had been removed from the region and then killed, while these believers are not yet in that kind of danger. (3) Not only this, but in our reconstruction of the historical background, Timothy was in prison in Rome (13:23; cf. 2 Tim. 4:9, 21). If so, why would the senior author say “if he arrives soon, I will come with him to see you” (13:23)? Would Timothy immediately leave Rome only to return immediately? Furthermore, it would be needless even to inform them that Timothy had been released recently—in fact, they would know it before the author would, if Rome were the destination! (4) As subtle and cumulative as is the internal evidence, the external evidence is equally blunt: the West was the last place to accept Hebrews, into the canon. If Hebrews had a Roman destination, why did the Romans take so long to accept it? Though not decisive, we regard this evidence as quite compelling.

Against a Palestinian destination is the following. (1) What evidence is there that Timothy was well known anywhere in Palestine? (2) The statement in 2:3 could not easily apply to the audience, for many of them had probably heard Jesus in the flesh. (3) The authors refer to the sacrificial system only in terms of the tabernacle. This would have more significance to an audience whose Judaism was based on the OT more than personal experience, since the Herodian temple was in Jerusalem. (3) But the coup de grace against the Palestinian view is that the Jerusalem church had already lost a number of its members to persecution (Stephen [Acts 8:59-60], James, the brother of John [Acts 12:2], and probably James, the brother of the Lord [died c. 62 CE, shortly after Acts was published]). Could the statement in 12:4 be said of them?

The issue of destination is still very much up for grabs. But for what it is worth, I shall suggest two places which, it seems to me, deserve more consideration.

(1) Corinth. Not only was Timothy known there, but so was Apollos. In fact, there is the possibility that Apollos (with Barnabas playing second-fiddle) was writing to a faction within the Corinthian congregation (13:24 [“Greet all your leaders and all the saints”] certainly indicates that something less than an entire church was being addressed22), perhaps even “the party of Apollos.”23 Furthermore, there was a strong ascetic-Jewish element which had infiltrated the Corinthian church. This group could easily be weaker brothers who had withdrawn from the main congregation because of increasing scruples over keeping the Law. But whether there would be a specifically Jewish sect within the church at Corinth is doubtful.

(2) A Non-Pauline Church in the Lycus Valley. Asia Minor was fraught with Jewish settlements. And there would certainly be churches which were largely Jewish in nature (cf. the introduction to James). The audience knew of Timothy (though 13:23 does not necessarily indicate that they had had a personal acquaintance with him), and had had a long-time relationship with the senior author. If Barnabas did not continue with the Gentile mission per se, but did continue to minister in Asia Minor, he would be a likely candidate.

It is necessary to sum up. Without developing it further in this paper, it is our tentative conclusion that Barnabas (as senior author), together with Apollos, wrote to a house-church somewhere in the Lycus Valley. This house-church had been heavily influenced by Judaizers and had consequently split off from the main body of believers (cf. 10:25; 13:17). More of this possibility will be discussed under “occasion and purpose,” as well as the implications for interpretation.

D. Readers

Although scholarship has challenged even the Jewishness of this book, this seems to me to be settled. The audience must almost certainly be Jewish. Not only is the title “To the Hebrews” found as early as the middle of the second century, but “only those who were already convinced of the greatness of Judaism would see the point of the author’s attempts to show the supreme worth of Christianity by means of its superiority to Judaism.”24 By way of contrast, the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians does not refer to the Galatians’ defection as a “regression” but as chasing after a “different” gospel, while Hebrews presupposes that the audience had come out of Judaism (cf. 13:13, etc.). Clearly, the audience is Jewish.

E. Occasion and Purpose

1. Occasion

The occasion for this epistle may well be the influence of Judaizers on the Jewish Christians whom Barnabas had evangelized in the Lycus Valley. These Judaizers had almost certainly gained strength after the death of Paul and arrest of Timothy, for their influence, based as it was in Ephesus, had a powerful effect on all of Asia Minor. Although Barnabas’ churches were perhaps largely Jewish, his gospel was the same as Paul’s. With Paul’s death, however, the Judaizers could attack with a vengeance—even to the point of claiming that the Gentile mission had no basis at all.25

Barnabas needed to prove that Christ was the end of the Law. What was at stake was whether the Gentile mission would be perceived as having a sociological basis26 or a theological one. If it were merely a sociological basis, then salvation by grace was a fluke, an ingenious concoction of a powerful mind. But now that he was dead, the “real” gospel of the Judaizers could take root.

Thus the occasion for the final publication of this epistle was the urgent situation which was facing one of the Jewish house-churches in the Lycus Valley. This church had already separated themselves from the main body of believers and were beginning to defect back into Judaism. The pressure was on—not just from the Judaizers, but also from the reports from Rome about Nero’s pogrom against Christians.

2. Purpose

We agree with the majority of scholars that the purpose of this letter was to warn Jewish Christians against apostasy to Judaism. However, this in our view is only one of the two purposes for this epistle. As we suggested in our discussion of occasion, the author(s) needed to demonstrate that the Gentile mission (and hence, salvation by grace alone) had a theological basis, not just a sociological one.

Along this line, Ben Witherington has demonstrated the influence of Galatians on Hebrews.27 He points out, for example, that

... one cannot but be struck at how many points his discussion of the relationship of Abrahamic promises, Mosaic covenant, and the new covenant parallels Paul’s discussion of the same especially in Galatians. To be sure the author of Hebrews is interested especially in the Levitical portions of that Law in a way Paul is not, but in his hermeneutics, particularly in the way he sees the Old Covenant related to and in various ways superseded (cf. especially Heb 7.12 and Gal 3.24ff.) by the New Covenant he sounds very much like Paul indeed.28

Witherington goes on to say that “His entire argument, like Paul’s, is based on the premise not only that Christ offers something better, but also something that eclipses the old covenant, as good as it was in its day.”29 One of his concluding questions is: “Could it be that Hebrews provides for us the earliest example of an interpretation of Paul for a later and perhaps different audience?”30 Witherington has clearly touched on something.31

In our view, Barnabas employed Galatians in the writing of this letter, recognizing the cogency of its argument. Further, he received help from Apollos, for not only did Apollos work with Paul much more recently than did Barnabas, but he was an eloquent man. Barnabas wrote, then, to a Jewish house-church which was in danger of defecting from the gospel. But he wrote for a larger audience as well, recognizing the need for a polished, written statement on the theological (not just sociological) legitimacy of Paul’s gospel. Thus, he attempted a refinement of Paul’s statements about the law (especially with regard to the abrogation of its cultic aspect by the death of Christ) as an intentional vindication of Pauline Christianity.

One of the things that makes this twin purpose attractive—indeed, virtually compelling—is the fact that ostensibly this tome was sent under urgent conditions, yet its eloquence seems to deny such urgency. Except for a few telltale signs of a definite congregation in view in the body of the epistle (e.g., 10:25), as well as the concluding chapter, there is every evidence that this epistle may have been a “sermon-in-waiting.” Once these few references are evacuated from the epistle, it can be seen how much this book was intended as a theological vindication of Pauline theology for all Jewish Christians everywhere. Indeed, in light of both the urgency of the situation of the readers and the beautiful logic of the epistle, it is quite difficult to see how this work could have been composed ad hoc. It was a homily waiting for an occasion.

In an ironic twist of history, Peter, the apostle to the Jews, writes to Paul’s churches,32 while Barnabas and Apollos, two of Paul’s companions, write to Jewish Christians. Both Peter and Barnabas/Apollos had become convinced of the legitimacy of the Gentile mission, causing each to cross bounds of what we normally perceive to be their ministry.

F. Theme

The theme of Hebrews, quite simply, is “the absolute supremacy of Christ—a supremacy which allows no challenge, whether from human or angelic beings.”33

II. Argument

The epistle to the Hebrews, which is really a homily with some final epistolary material tacked on to the end, divides naturally into two parts. First is the doctrinal section in which the author(s) detail(s) the theological basis for Christ’s superiority over the Old Testament (1:1–10:18). Second is the pragmatic section in which the practical effects that Christ’s superiority should have in the believer’s life are enumerated (10:19–13:17).

Throughout the epistle, however, the writer(s) punctuate(s) the argument with warnings to the readers. After all, this letter is not a mere piece of academia: it is written to a Jewish house-church which is in danger of defection from the gospel of grace. In many respects, then, these warnings are what the author(s) wish(es) to get to; they are his climax, application. Because of the wording of these warnings, coupled with the author’s use of Galatians and our historical reconstruction, it seems evident that the warnings are not dealing with loss of reward (contra Zane Hodges in BKC), but are addressing the possibility of not obtaining a professed salvation.

The first section, the theological basis for Christ’s superiority (1:1–10:18), involves five parts. First, Christ is seen as superior to the OT prophets (1:1-4) in that they were mere servants or spokesmen (1:1), while the quality of the mediator of God’s revelation has now stepped up to the level of sonship (1:2-4).

Second, Christ is superior to the angels (1:5–2:18). The author transitions into the section on angels by showing that, as God’s Son (in contrast to the prophets), Christ “has obtained a more excellent name than [the angels]” (1:4). This is demonstrated by a catena of OT quotations (1:5-14).

At this point the author inserts his/their first warning passage (2:1-4), which addresses the superiority of the message of Christ over that of angels. In essence, the point is, “Don’t drift” (2:1). Whoever rejects the proofs of the message of salvation (2:3-4) in favor of an inferior message of judgment mediated through angels (2:2) will, in fact, face even worse judgment than what was described by angels (2:3).

The argument about Christ’s superiority over angels is resumed in 2:5-18. Christ is seen as superior to the angels by his humanity (as opposed to the view which the ascetic-Jewish heretics were teaching). This is demonstrated by the scriptures which describe his exaltation over the angels (2:5-9), and it is even shown by the necessity of his suffering (2:10-18), for by this he brings us salvation.

Third, Christ is superior to Moses (3:1–4:13). The author bridges the topic by showing how, by Christ’s humanity, he has become a sympathetic high priest (2:17-18). But before he can get to a comparison with the high priest, Aaron, he must first deal with his brother, Moses.34 The author, not wishing to alienate his audience, points out that Moses, like Christ, was faithful to God (3:1-2). But unlike Christ, Moses was merely part of the house which Christ built (3:3-4), and a mere servant in the house while Christ was the Son over the house (3:5-6a).

This discussion about Moses leads naturally into the second warning based on Israel’s wilderness experience (3:6b–4:13). The point essentially is, “Don’t defect.” The author(s) is quite tactful here: only once, and only in a subtle way, does he implicate Moses in Israel’s unbelief in the wilderness (3:16). The audience should draw its own conclusions as to who was more faithful! Unlike the first warning—which dealt with Christ’s superiority to the angels’ message—this warning has to do with the nation’s failure to believe in God (3:6b-11). The readers are urged to believe in the promise of God to give them the Sabbath rest which the nation never obtained (3:12–4:11). What is at stake, however, is not an earthly, transient rest, but an eternal rest—rest from the works which are not based on faith. This warning is concluded with a somber note about God’s piercing Word (4:12-13), illustrating the fact that though some may profess faith, God knows those who possess faith.

Fourth, Christ is superior to Aaron (4:14–7:28). The transition from the cold steel of God’s Word (4:12) to Christ’s superiority over Aaron is made by way of a gentle reminder: whereas God’s word is sharp and harsh, cutting through the flesh to the intentions of the heart, Christ our high priest is sympathetic with the weaknesses of our flesh (4:14-16). At this point the author(s) begin(s) what will become a characteristic motif throughout the book. Immediately after a strong warning section, he softens his tone so as to encourage the readers. The point of this softening seems to be that he is not expecting an unwavering faith in order for salvation to take place (as such might be the misunderstanding from 4:12-13). But he is expecting the readers to know in whom they should place their faith.

The priesthood of Aaron is first mentioned (5:1-5), followed by scriptural proof (based especially on Psalm 110) for the priesthood of Christ (5:6-10) after the order of Melchizedek (5:6, 10)—proof which is necessary since Jesus Christ was not from the tribe of Levi.

The third warning then commences (5:11–6:8): “Don’t degenerate.” Dealing with such subtle typology may be too much for the readers, for they are still immature in the faith (5:11-14). They are to move forward in their spiritual growth (6:1-3) if the seed of salvation is ever to take root. In light of the tremendous exposure they have had to the truths of salvation, it had better take root—or else they are in danger of apostasy (6:4-8). In this passage the author may well be thinking of the parable of the sower (6:7-8) in which good works (productivity) are the evidence of genuine faith (6:7; cf. 5:14; 6:10). Further, he may have in mind someone such as Judas who would clearly fit his description in 6:4-6. If any of his readers, who had been in such a growing congregation and had seen the evidence of God’s Spirit working in their lives (6:4-5), fall away, they “crucify afresh the Son of God” (6:6), making it impossible for them to obtain the salvation which they had professed.35

Again, as in 4:14-16, the author(s) softens his tone after a strong warning section. In 6:9-20 he reminds them of the promises of God, and points out his confidence that they are among the productive seed (6:9-10).

The discussion about the Aaronic priesthood is then resumed with an elaboration on the order of Melchizedek (7:1-28). Not only was Melchizedek greater than Abraham—and by implication, all his descendants including the tribe of Levi (7:1-10), but his priestly order is greater than the Aaronic order (7:11-28), by virtue of the fact that its necessity was predicted while the levitical order was in effect (7:11, 17). Its superiority is seen in various other ways: it involves one priest while the levitical priesthood involved many, since death prevented them from continuing (7:23-24); and this new order involves a single, perfect sacrifice, while the old order involved daily sacrifices (7:26-27).

Fifth, Christ’s ministry is superior to the old covenant ministry (8:1–10:18). The transition between the Aaronic priesthood and the discussion of the covenants is hinted at in 7:12: “When there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the Law as well.” Christ’s ministry is seen to be superior to the old covenant ministry in three ways: in its covenant, in its sanctuary, and in its sacrifice.

After a brief introduction of all three aspects (8:1-6), the author begins by contrasting the old covenant with the new (8:7-13). The inadequacy of the old covenant is demonstrated by scripture (8:7-9), and likewise the adequacy of the new covenant is so demonstrated (8:10-13). In essence the new covenant involves knowing God internally because of the indwelling Spirit rather than having a revelation of God’s will externally. The implications of these are two: (1) believers are now organically united to God in the body of Christ and (2) the eschaton has dawned and the kingdom has been inaugurated in the first coming of Christ—two implications which the author(s) will pick up on in the “practical” section (cf. 12:28; 13:3, etc.).

Then, the two sanctuaries are contrasted (9:1-12), in terms of imperfection vs. perfection and original pattern vs. replica (9:11; cf. v. 24).

This portion of the epistle concludes with contrasting the old sacrifice with the new (9:13–10:18). Though both sacrifices required blood (9:13-22), Christ’s sacrifice is better because it has purified the original, heavenly sanctuary (9:23-28), and it was done once for all (10:1-18).

Having completed the theological section of the epistle with a strong note on the sufficiency and substitutionary nature of Christ’s death, the author(s) now turns to the pragmatic effects that Christ’s superiority should have in the believer’s life. This section includes four exhortations, with a warning and the great “Hall of Faith” chapter wedged in between.

First, the readers are exhorted to completely enter the new sanctuary (10:9-31). The idiom is not necessarily meant to indicate that all the readers were unbelievers; rather their faith needed strengthening (10:19-22).

Nevertheless, not all were genuine believers: hence, a fourth warning section (10:26-31) comes on the heels of this exhortation. In essence, the point is “Don’t despise. This one sounds very much like the one in 6:4-8, though this time the point is not related to the sown seed of the gospel, but specifically to profaning the blood of Christ (10:29). In the context of the new covenant community the author speaks of such a person as already “sanctified” (10:29)36: this should be compared with the covenant community of the OT in which some were not believers, yet were set apart as a peculiar people by virtue of the sacrificial system (10:26-28). It is clear that the man in the new covenant community is not necessarily saved: note such phrases as “fearful prospect of judgment,” “a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries,” (10:27), “worse punishment” (than physical death), “outraged the Spirit of grace” (10:29), capped off by “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31).

Second, the readers are exhorted to endure persecution (10:32-39), especially in the light of the promises of God (10:36). This is followed by yet another word of comfort to the readers regarding the previous warning: “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls” (10:39).

Third, having just argued that the readers should endure as they had in the past (“recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured” [10:32]), the readers are reminded of others who have endured—and kept the faith (cf. 10:39). Chapter 11 has often been called “The Hall of Faith”—and with good reason. For in this chapter the author(s) show(s) how God’s people in the past had endured hardship, pain, and death—and yet their faith kept them going. There is a subtle polemic in this chapter against the inability of the Law to help in this task: no one of the OT saints is commended for his faithfulness to the Law. That this is part of the author’s purpose can be seen by the fact that, as he marches through chronologically, the bulk of his illustrations are about pre-Law individuals (prepatriarchs in 11:4-7; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in 11:8-22). In fact, when he discusses Moses (11:23-29), his faith is seen up until the time of the Passover (11:28) and the crossing of the Red Sea (11:29), though nothing  is said about him after the giving of the Law. In the space of two verses (11:30-31) the author(s) then addresses the faith of the Israelites when Jericho fell (11:30), and Rahab’s faith which helped the event to take place (11:31). Thus, even though the period of the Law is dealt with, the author produces no example of anyone demonstrating faith in relation to the Law.

The chapter is then hurriedly concluded with the mere mention of names, mostly of prophets and warriors (11:32-33), followed by the sufferings they anonymously faced (11:34-39). What is conspicuous by its absence is any mention of an OT priest, Ezra, or other person known for his law-keeping abilities.37 The author has done a masterfully subtle job of getting his audience to focus on examples of faith entirely apart from obedience to the Law, obviously antithetical to the heretical teaching which they were considering.

Fourth, the readers are exhorted to endure the chastening hand of God (12:1-29). This exhortation is similar to the one in 10:32-39, but now it is more specifically in light of the fatherhood of God (12:7-11). A transition is made from the “great cloud of witnesses” of chapter 11 to the supreme example of the Son’s faithfulness in his suffering, that our faith might be perfected (12:1-4). Just as Christ is God’s Son, so are believers (12:5)—that is to say, because he is a Son, so are they; hence, God will deal with them as a Father does his own children (12:5-11). In the midst of the severe warnings comes this note of encouragement: even though the readers are suffering, since they are sons they are saved. This discipline from God is a proof that they are indeed sons (12:8)—in fact, unless they are disciplined they will not grow in grace (12:12-17). Such growth is essential evidence that they will obtain heaven as their eternal home (12:14).

The fifth warning of the book comes on the heels of this note on chastening. In essence, it is “Don’t deny.” The author implores the readers not to deny God by refusing to heed his voice (12:18-29). Once again, as with previous warnings (2:1-4; 10:26-29), the author argues a minor ad maior: from the minimal punishment (physical death) for disobedience in the OT to the maximal punishment for disobedience now (eternal hell). He contrasts Mount Sinai with Mount Zion (12:18-24), showing that the awesome power of God shakes mountains, but it cannot shake the kingdom in which true believers dwell (12:28). The warning is concluded with the somber note that “our God is a consuming fire” (12:29).

Fifth, the readers are exhorted in very pragmatic areas with respect to the community of believers (13:1-17). They are instructed not only to show love for one another (13:1-6),38 but also respect for the leadership of the church (13:7-17). No doubt such respect was overdue since these Jewish Christians had gone off on their own and were being led away by the heresy of the Judaizers (13:9-15). They are consequently encouraged to get back into the fold (rather than separate in their own house church) and provide for the leaders’ needs, as a Christian sacrifice which is pleasing to God (13:15-16). Finally, the author gets blunt: “obey the church leaders” (13:17), and with this he ends the body of his epistle.

Concluding instructions which formally turn this exquisite homily into an epistle, are given to the readers (13:18-25).

III. Outline

I. The Theological Basis for Christ’s Superiority (1:1–10:18)

A. Christ is Superior to the Prophets (1:1-4)

1. God’s Revelation to the Prophets (1:1)

2. God’s Revelation in “Son” (1:2-4)

B. Christ is Superior to the Angels (1:5–2:18)

1. Demonstrated from the Old Testament (1:5-14)

First Warning: Don’t Drift (2:1-4)

2. Demonstrated by His Humanity (2:5-18)

a. Positive: Exaltation above the Angels (2:5-9)

b. Negative: Suffering Necessary for Superiority (2:10-18)

1) To Identify with Humanity (2:10-13)

2) To Destroy the Devil and Deliver Saints (2:14-16)

3) To Become a Merciful and Faithful High Priest (2:17-18)

C. Christ is Superior to Moses (3:1–4:13)

1. Both were Faithful (3:1-2)

2. Builder Vs. Building (3:3-4)

3. Servant Vs. Son (3:5-6a)

Second Warning: Don’t Defect (3:6b–4:13)

a. Israel in the Wilderness (3:6b-11)

b. Warning against Unbelief (3:12–4:2)

c. Warning against not Entering God’s Rest (4:3-13)

1) The Necessity of Faith (4:3-11)

2) The Penetration of God’s Word (4:12-13)

D. Christ is Superior to Aaron (4:14–7:28)

1. Our Compassionate High Priest (4:14-16)

2. The Priesthood of Aaron (5:1-5)

3. The Priesthood of Christ (5:6-10)

Third Warning: Don’t Degenerate (5:11–6:8)

a. The Rebuke for Immaturity (5:11-14)

b. The Encouragement toward Maturity (6:1-3)

c. The Warning against Apostasy (6:4-8)

4. Reminder of the Promises of God (6:9-20)

5. The Priesthood of Melchizedek (7:1-28)

a. The Greatness of Melchizedek in Relation to Abraham (7:1-10)

b. The Greatness of Melchizedek’s Order in Relation to the Levitical Priesthood (7:11-28)

E. Christ’s Ministry is Superior to the Old Covenant Ministry (8:1–10:18)

1. Introduction (8:1-6)

2. A Better Covenant (8:7-13)

a. The Inadequacy of the Old Covenant (8:7-9)

b. The Adequacy of the New Covenant (8:10-13)

3. A Better Sanctuary (9:1-12)

a. The Imperfection of the Earthly Sanctuary (9:1-10)

b. The Perfection of the Heavenly Sanctuary (9:11-12)

4. A Better Sacrifice (9:13–10:18)

a. The Necessity of Shed Blood (9:13-22)

b. The Purification of the Heavenly Sanctuary (9:23-28)

c. The Permanence of the Sacrifice (10:1-18)

1) The Inadequacy of the Levitical Sacrifices (10:1-9)

2) The Adequacy of Christ’s Sacrifice (10:10-18)

II. The Practical Outworking of Christ’s Superiority (10:19–13:17)

A. Exhortation to Enter the New Sanctuary (10:19-31)

1. Draw Near in Faith (10:19-22)

2. Hold Fast in Hope (10:23)

3. Stir Up One Another in Love (10:24-25)

Fourth Warning: Don’t Despise (10:26-31)

B. Exhortation to Endure Persecution (10:32-39)

C. Examples of Faith (11:1-40)

1. Introduction (11:1-3)

2. Faith from Abel to Noah (11:4-7)

3. The Faith of the Patriarchs (11:8-22)

4. The Faith of Moses (11:23-29)

5. Faith in Israel after Moses (11:30-40)

D. Exhortation to Endure Chastening (12:1-29)

1. The Supreme Example of Christ (12:1-4)

2. Chastening as Evidence of Sonship (12:5-11)

3. Chastening Necessary for Sanctification (12:12-17)

Fifth Warning: Don’t Deny (12:18-29)

a. Mount Sinai Vs. Mount Zion (12:18-24)

b. The Awesome Holiness of the God of Heaven (12:25-29)

E. Exhortation for Christian Living (13:1-17)

1. Love for Believers (13:1-6)

2. Respect for Leaders (13:7-17)

a. Imitate their Faith (13:7-8)

b. Resist the Heretics’ Doctrine (13:9-15)

c. Provide for Leaders (13:16)

d. Submit to Leaders (13:17)

III. Concluding Instructions (13:18-25)

A. Request for Prayer (13:18-19)

B. Prayer for Readers (13:20-21)

C. Final Exhortation (13:22)

D. Timothy’s Release (13:23)

E. Final Greetings and Benediction (13:24-25)


1P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 1.

2Ibid.

3Almost always, when papyrus rolls have an address on the verso side, that material is less legible than the contents on the recto side. In my own library, I have photographs of all the papyri housed at SMU; they universally attest to this thesis.

4It is possible that the date for First Clement toward the end of the first century is much too late. Robinson, for example, presents evidence that it was written early in about 70 CE. If so, then Hebrews must be dated even earlier.

5This is due to the fact that the tradition of recipient of this epistle is quite early (“to the Hebrews”) and all of Paul’s letters soon gained the titles of their addressees, while the rest of the NT epistles were named after the author. Still, if as Young Kyu Kim has recently argued in Biblica (1988), P46 should be dated in 70s CE (a view now refuted by Bruce Griffin), this might have an impact both on authorship and date. Although it almost certainly is not by Paul, it almost certainly is by an associate of Paul, thus perhaps explaining (in part) its appearance in the corpus Paulinum from the beginning of extant MS production.

6Guthrie, 671.

7See, most recently, Ben Witherington, “The Influence of Galatians on Hebrews,” NTS 37 (1991) 146-52.

8To this needs to be added the fact that in all of Paul’s letters, there is a greeting formula that is lacking in Hebrews. Thus, although it is barely possible that Paul altered his addressee style (changing it from the recto to the verso side of the epistle), would he also have omitted his formulaic greeting that would, even if the addressee were on the verso side, be found on the recto?

9 See later note that discusses this point.

10Largely taken from Homer A. Kent, Jr., The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary, 19-21.

11Guthrie, 674.

12Kent, ibid., 21.

13Guthrie, 679.

14Ibid.

15See later in the introduction for evidence about the recipients.

16Overlooked by scholars who advocate Luke are two decisive data: (1) he was a Greek (would Jewish Christians respond positively to a Greek telling them negative things about their cultus?), and (2) Hebrews is concerned with Christ’s superiority especially as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sins and it is precisely this doctrine which is almost wholly lacking in Luke-Acts—and apparently so by intention (cf. Mark 10:45 and Matt. 20:28 and the “non-parallel” in Luke). Luke’s only real qualification is that he was an associate of Paul’s and could write in good, literary Greek.

17This view is doubtful on its face. Although the author is anonymous to us, he was known to the readers (13:19, 23). Consequently, would Jewish Christians cater to a woman giving them instructions? Although she, with her husband Aquila, could take Apollos aside in private instruction, this letter is in reality a homily masked as a letter. Regardless of what one thinks of what the role of women was in the early church, a woman instructing, warning, scolding, and exhorting Jewish Christians would have no prayer of ever getting the document copied. Not only this, but in 11:32 the author uses a masculine participle to refer to himself (Καὶ τί ἔτι λέγω… ἐπιλείψει με γὰρ διηγούμενον ὁ χρόνος περὶ Γεδεών, κτλ./“And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I speak of Gideon, etc.”), thus precluding Priscilla as author. The only way that Priscilla could be considered the author, then, is if the audience did not know her identity either, for she veiled it here well. Although that has a certain plausibility, in that for twenty centuries Christians have struggled to identify the author of this epistle, the very familiarity of the author to the readers (cf. 13:19, 23) proves that although the author is unknown to us he was not unknown to the original readers.

18 For a discussion of the editorial “we” and its relevance for Hebrews, see D. B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 393-99, especially 396-97.

19Hebrews 13:23 indicates that Timothy had just been released from prison. If this letter was written from Rome (13:24 naturally reads this way), then Timothy was imprisoned there. Corroborative evidence is found in 2 Tim. 4:9-13, 21, which indicate that Paul had dispatched Timothy to come to him at Rome shortly before he died. With the instructions, “Do your best to get here before winter” (4:21), coupled with the early external evidence (especially Clement’s testimony), it is doubtful that Timothy got to Rome before Paul died (for Paul would have died within weeks of the writing of 2 Timothy, since he would not have written such a comment in the spring, and he probably died in the summer). Timothy’s release from prison a few months after arrival (spring, 65 CE) would be most likely, since no real charges could have been brought against him. Nevertheless, the incidental comments in both Hebrews and 2 Timothy are confirmatory of each other and fit nicely into our overall  historical reconstruction and dating.

On the other hand, there are severe problems if we date Hebrews within the lifetime of Paul. When would he have been in prison except after the writing of 2 Timothy? He shows up on the pages of the NT as a free man, working with Paul in Corinth, bringing the letter of 2 Thessalonians in c. 49 and perhaps working with Paul in Thessalonica; Paul dispatches him to the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:17) in the mid-50s; he is with Paul in Rome, but not as a prisoner (Rom 16:21; Phil 2:19), and is left in Ephesus when Paul finds himself in prison in Rome a second time (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy). Timothy’s imprisonment, therefore, is one of the surest evidences that Hebrews was written both after 2 Timothy and after Paul’s death.

20Robinson, 202.

21Ibid.

22See Hughes, Hebrews, 18, for a development of this view.

23The admonition to obey the leaders (13:17) and to continue meeting with the main congregation (10:25) makes good sense for a Corinthian destination of a faction group.

24Guthrie, 694.

25William Manson went so far as to argue that the purpose of Hebrews was to challenge restricted Jewish Christians to embrace the Gentile mission (see discussion in Guthrie, 692).

26Recently, Francis Watson, in a Cambridge monograph (Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles), has argued this very point.

27Ben Witherington, “The Influence of Galatians on Hebrews,” NTS 37 (1991) 146-52.

28Ibid., 148.

29Ibid., 150, n. 10.

30Ibid., 151.

31Although Witherington has articulated this position more clearly (and more exhaustively) than I, one year earlier than his article came off the press, I had suggested the same position. In my “Galatians 3:19-20: A Crux Interpretum for Paul’s View of the Law” (WTJ 52 [1990] 228, n. 19) the following point was made:

Though Hebrews is almost universally considered to be not Pauline (except on a popular level in some circles), most would agree that the author was still very much of the Pauline school. And the fact that νόμος occurs as much here (14 times) as in all of the corpus Paulinum outside of Romans and Galatians may suggest something as to its raison d’être: is it not possible that the author is attempting a refinement of Paul’s statements about the law (especially with regard to the abrogation of its cultic aspect by the death of Christ)? Though it is obvious that the author’s thoughts on the law are more neatly articulated than are Paul’s, what seems to escape most is that this might be an intentional vindication of Pauline Christianity. As such, the development of thought between Romans-Galatians and Hebrews is a topic worth pursuing—especially when it is viewed as an archetype for the patristic (and even Reformation) attempts at dogmatic/systematic theology.

32See introductions to 1-2 Peter.

33Hughes, Hebrews, 2.

34The author(s) use(s) great literary skill throughout this epistle. This is seen in the exquisite level of Greek, as well as the natural transitions, logical argumentation, and foreshadowing of later themes. Here is a case in point: Christ’s high priesthood is touched on in 2:17-18, though not expanded on until 5:5-10. And later, the order of Melchizedek is discussed in detail (7:1-28) after having been foreshadowed in this very discussion of Christ’s superior priesthood to Aaron (5:10). This foreshadowing and the transitions will also be seen in the discussion of the better covenant, better sanctuary, and better sacrifice, etc.

35By crucifying Christ a second time they show that his first sacrifice was inadequate—a point which the author will later take up. It should be noted that this is comparable to Paul’s language in Galatians (cf. 3:1-5).

36In 12:14 the author(s) will use the nominal cognate to ἁγιάζω (ἁγιασμός), where he will dogmatically declare “without sanctification no one will see the Lord.” But it is evident that he is not here speaking of corporate sanctification, nor positional sanctification, nor past sanctification (the first and third meanings being found in 10:29; the second, used throughout the epistle), for he clearly indicates that this is both personal and future, since he says “strive for  . . . sanctification . . . ”

37Although David is mentioned, nothing is said of him specifically. Bracketed as he is by warriors and a prophet, the author seems to be centering on his accomplishments in conquest and executing justice (11:33).

38Though some see this pericope as dealing with social responsibilities, it seems better to treat the entire paragraph as relations within the believing community (note especially 13:3 as governing much of the interpretation: “since you are also in the body”).

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines