Introduction to Hebrews

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (8:43)

The Letter to the Hebrews points us believers to the author and finisher of our faith -- Jesus Christ our Lord. In Hebrews he is depicted as Son of God as well as the one who humbled himself to be human, "made like his brothers in every way." He is both our Sacrifice for sin as well as our merciful High Priest who brings us to God and strengthens us when we are weak. The book explains the costliness and the completeness of our salvation. Hebrews is one of the most powerful books in the New Testament. But we know little about its origins, authorship, recipients, and date, though some of these can be surmised.

Authorship

It's pretty clear that Paul wasn't the author, even though the book's title in the King James Version of the Bible and many previous Bibles attributed it to Paul. Paul would have underscored how Christ had revealed the gospel to him directly (Galatians 1:12, 16; 2:2). The author of Hebrews, however, says:

"This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will." (2:3-4)

The author sounds like one who was old enough to learn from the eyewitnesses to Christ's life, the apostles, but was not one himself. While his doctrine is Pauline, he writes in a much different style, in a more elegant Greek than Paul. He was a second-generation Christian, very familiar with the Old Testament in its Greek Septuagint form, probably a Hellenistic rather than a Palestinian Jew.1

Many people have been put forward as possible authors of Hebrews, including:

  • Luke
  • Clement of Rome
  • Pricilla and Aquila
  • Barnabas
  • Apollos

A good case can be made for Apollos being the author -- Alexandrian roots, a Hellenist, "a learned man, mighty in the scriptures" (Acts 18:24). But since we have no attested writings from the pen of Apollos, it's difficult to prove or disprove any theory. Who the author is can be nothing more than speculation, guesses.

Origin believed that Hebrews contained Paul's teaching, perhaps set down by a student who had made notes and studied under Paul, thus the book has apostolic origins. But Origin had it right when he concludes: "But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows."2

Recipients

Who the recipients are is equally unclear, since the phrase "to the Hebrews" is not part of the Greek text. Unlike most epistles, there are few personal references, except these:

"I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he arrives soon, I will come with him to see you. Greet all your leaders and all God's people. Those from Italy send you their greetings." (13:22-23)

Does "those from Italy send you their greetings" give us a clue? Perhaps. It is possible that the author is writing to Christians in Rome -- but they could be Roman citizens in any major city.

We can make some deductions about the readers from the author's exhortation. They seem to be primarily Jewish Christians who are familiar with the Greek Old Testament. They have been through persecutions, though none of their number has been killed as yet. The author works hard to convince them not to return to their former Judaism, that Jesus is truly the Messiah, and there is no turning back.

I think it's probable then that the recipients are Greek-speaking (Hellenistic) Jewish Christians who have become disillusioned with Christianity and are considering going back to Judaism. They reside in some city in the Mediterranean -- perhaps Rome.

Date

The date is unclear also. However, since the writer speaks of temple sacrifices, he probably writes prior to the fall of Jerusalem, the cessation of sacrifices, and the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. If the recipients were in Rome, the persecution they had faced could be under Nero about 65 AD brought on by the fire that engulfed much of Rome. Probably, then, Hebrews was written about 65 AD.

Canonicity

Since Hebrews doesn't purport to be written by an apostle, its status as an accepted part of the New Testament canon was unclear for some time, though the book was considered quite valuable. It is quoted or referred to by a number of early Christian writers, beginning with Clement of Rome about 96 AD.3 There was disagreement and speculation among early Fathers about who the author was. But the eastern church, Clement of Alexandria and Origin, for example, placed it early among the writings of Paul. Some Western Fathers did not accept Hebrews as apostolic, but eventually it was accepted as canonical by both Jerome and Augustine4 and was recognized at the Synods of Hippo (393 AD) and Carthage (397, 419 AD) as among the standard New Testament writings among the writings of Paul.

Purpose

I see the purpose as to convince wavering Jewish Christians not to desert Christ and return to their former Judaism. A secondary purpose may also be to help both Jewish and Gentile Christians to make sense out of the Old Testament and show its relevance in a world influenced by Greek ideas.5

Themes

While Hebrews ends like a letter, with a few personal references, it doesn't begin like one. Instead, it seems to be structured almost like a sermon or homily. In it the author develops a number of strong themes, including:

  • Jesus' fulfillment of the Old Testament as both High Priest and sacrifice.
  • The preexistence, humanity, and exaltation of Jesus as God's Son.
  • The ability of believers to call upon their great High Priest for help in daily pressures and trials.
  • The greatness of Christ in contrast with other human leaders and angels.
  • An expectation of the City of God.
  • A recitation of the faith of heroes and heroines of the faith.
  • The most thorough Christian view of the Old Testament found in the Bible.
  • An exhortation to be faithful in spite of suffering and a glimpse into the role of suffering to help one mature as a Christian.
Hebrews: Discipleship Lessons, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson (paperback and e-book formats)
Lessons are also available in e-book and paperback formats.

Hebrews is a rich expression of our Christian inheritance and hope, without which the people of God would be greatly impoverished. The writer seeks to accomplish in the Letter to the Hebrews what he prays for in his concluding benediction:

"May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen." (13:20-21)

References

  1. Bruce, Hebrews, p. 20.
  2. Cited in Eusebius, Church History 6, 25, 14.
  3. 1 Clement 36:1-5.
  4. In his earlier works, Augustine accepted Hebrews as Pauline, but in his later works he viewed it as anonymous. Clearly he valued the book as authoritative. Guthrie, Hebrews, p. 18.
  5. Guthrie, Hebrews, p. 38.

Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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