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Asbury Bible Commentary – I. Occasion
I. Occasion

I. Occasion

The title “To the Hebrews” (niv “Hebrews”) is traditional and dates from the second century. The epistle clearly was addressed to people who were well acquainted with the covenant of Moses, the Jewish Scriptures, and the worship rituals they specified. The epistle bases its argumentation, however, in the OT rather than in the Judaism of the first century. This curiosity, coupled with the author's employment of philosophical language, leads some commentators to conclude that the epistle's first readers were Gentiles rather than Jews. More likely, they were Greek-speaking Jewish Christians living outside Palestine. These Diaspora Jews had heard the Gospel and received Jesus as their awaited Messiah. Their Bible was the LXX, a Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures, and it is the LXX rather than the Hebrew Bible the author quotes. “Those from Italy send you their greetings” (13:24) may indicate an Italian destination for the document. The earliest extant citation of Hebrews is found in a letter from Clement of Rome to Corinth dated about a.d. 96, suggesting this epistle was first known in Rome and received there as authoritative.

The document itself informs us that the addressees had learned of Jesus by way of apostolic testimony (2:3). Their own religious background had instilled in them a reverence for the covenant of Moses as mediated by angels (2:2; cf. Ac 7:53), an awareness of the Day of Atonement ritual (9:7), a concern for ceremonial washing (6:2; 9:10), and a hope in the coming Day of God's visitation (10:25). These elements point to a Jewish faith not entirely unlike that of the separatists at Qumran—very conservative, with a heightened regard for purification rituals, perfection of life, and an eschatological (end-times) focus (see Bruce, “‘To the Hebrews’ or ‘To the Essenes’?”). Soon after coming to Christ the addressees had suffered persecution, public abuse, confiscation of property, and perhaps even imprisonment; they accepted these torments joyfully for the sake of Christ (10:32-34). Now, however, the threat upon them was sufficient to make them neglect church fellowship (10:25) and shrink from Christian espousals (10:35-39).

Accepting the arguments of William Manson, I suppose the readers were living in Rome and had come to Christ from a conservative wing of the Jewish community. The perceived desertion of their ancestral religious traditions had resulted in persecution from their fellow Jews at the time of their initial conversion (10:32-34). The present threat, though, appears to have been a Roman one and much more severe. These believers were about to drop their profession of Christ to escape the shedding of their blood (3:12-14; 10:29; 12:4).

Under Roman law the Jewish religion was a legal cult, but Christianity, when once the Romans learned of the distinction between the two, was not. In Rome in a.d. 49 a minor Jewish persecution of Christians occurred, causing some to flee (cf. Ac 18:2). Fifteen years later, the emperor Nero actually took the lives of many Christians by feeding them to wild animals in the Colosseum, by crucifixion, and even by covering them with pitch and setting them alight on roadside poles. Caught in such circumstances, Jewish Christians understandably though improperly were tempted to retreat again into the protective orbit of Judaism, their ancestral religion. The author of Hebrews viewed such retreat as trampling the Son of God under foot and insulting the Spirit of grace (10:29).

The document leaves some clues that suggest a date before the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. Some points are argued that would make little sense were the temple already destroyed. The author states that the priestly ministry inaugurated by Moses has been superseded by Christ's ministry, saying in 8:13, “What is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” It sounds here as though the old temple sacrificial system were yet functioning at the time of writing. In 9:6-9 the author explains the layout and furnishings of the tabernacle under the Mosaic covenant and also the ongoing activities of the Levitical priesthood, especially of the high priest on the Day of Atonement. In the Greek this passage is in the present tense. The NIV regards it as an historic present, describing past occurrences as happening presently. However, the author may intend the reader to take this description of the ancient tabernacle and its functions as an antiquated depiction of the current temple system. He actually comments, “This is an illustration for the present time” (9:9). In 10:2 the author asks why the offerings should continue year after year if indeed they were able to perfect the worshiper for the presence of God. In 13:10-11 tabernacle ministrations and atonement rituals are mentioned in the present tense. Taken together, these clues suggest a date before the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. The letter appears best to fit the traumatic days before the outbreak of Roman persecution in a.d. 64, since the author says, “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (12:4). That prospect was before them.