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Epistle to the Hebrews

HEBREWS, EPISTLE TO THE. The longest of the non-Pauline letters in the NT. Traditionally it follows the thirteen Pauline letters; in the great uncials it comes between Paul’s nine letters to churches and his four to individuals; in P46, the oldest MS of the corpus Paulinum (end of 2nd cent.), it comes second among the letters to churches, next after Romans. (This was its original position in the Syrian textual tradition; in Sahidic it follows 2 Corinthians; in the archetype of B it followed Galatians.)


1. Authorship. In spite of traditional ascriptions and brilliant guesses, its authorship is unknown. At Alexandria it was ascribed to Paul from the second half of the 2nd cent. onward, although difficulties in this ascription were acknowledged by Clement and Origen: “God knows the truth of the matter,” said the latter (Euseb. Hist. vi. 25.14). Tertullian ascribed it to Barnabas (De pudicitia 20). Luther’s ascription to Apollos has commended itself to many; Harnack’s ascription to Priscilla seems to be ruled out by the masculine participle in Hebrews 11:32. The author was a second generation Christian, master of a fine literary style, quite unlike Paul’s; like Apollos, he may have had an Alexandrian Jewish background and he was certainly “well versed in the scriptures,” which he knew in the LXX VS and interpreted according to a creative exegetical principle.

2. Destination. The document does not name those for whom it is intended any more than the man who composed it. The title “To (the) Hebrews” goes back to the last quarter of the 2nd cent. a.d., but it cannot be determined if it corresponds to the original truth of the matter or, if so, what “Hebrews” precisely means. From internal evidence it may be inferred that they were Hel. Jews who had embraced the Gospel. Gentile believers who were disposed to backslide would not be greatly moved by an argument that began “Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood...” (Heb 7:11); their reaction would have been “Well, we never imagined it was!” The insistence on the obsolete character of the old covenant (8:13) and encouragement to the readers to go forth to Christ “outside the camp” (13:13) would have more point if their background was Jewish, as would also the author’s confidence that they would accept the authority of the OT (Gentiles who were inclined to give up the Christian faith would give up the OT with it). Where they lived cannot be conclusively decided. Jerusalem, Caesarea, Antioch, Alexandria, the Lycus valley, Ephesus, Corinth have all been suggested; but perhaps they may best be regarded as members of a house-church in Rome, the city in which knowledge of the epistle is first attested (in Clement of Rome, c. a.d. 96).

3. Occasion, purpose and date. The people to whom the letter was sent were in danger of losing their initial enthusiasm. When first they became Christians, their exhilaration was such that they rejoiced amid persecution, endured plunder and outrage without complaint, and were unstinting in their service of fellow believers, esp. those who were imprisoned. With the passing of the years their earlier zest waned. The parousia, which they had ardently expected, seemed as distant as ever; the Jewish establishment and the fellowship of the synagogue, which they had given up for Christianity, continued to flourish and to offer the protection of a religion whose practice was licensed by the Rom. state. Their original impetus slackened off; they were tempted to look backward instead of forward. Hence the urgency with which the author exhorts them, using a variety of metaphors, not to drift downstream but to row hard against the current, not to flag in the race but to persevere in faith. It may well be, as William Manson has argued, that he wanted to see them play their part in the advance of the Christian world-mission with other fellow believers instead of remaining in a backwater. To do this they must be prepared to burn their boats and sever their links with the old order. To ignore the forward call would be worse than negligence; it would be outright apostasy, “falling away from the living God” (3:12). Against this he warns them solemnly, while at the same time he expresses his confidence that they will show themselves worthy of their first love and press on in patience and faith.

As for the date of the letter, a terminus ad quem is provided by the references to it in Clement of Rome (c. a.d. 96). A terminus a quo is indicated in that author and readers alike received the Gospel from men who had heard the Lord. No completely definitive answer can be given to the question whether the letter was written before or after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in a.d. 70. The sacrificial ritual is referred to in the present tense and the “old covenant” under which that ritual was instituted is said to be “ready to vanish away” (8:13), but it is arguable that this is a “literary present” since the description of the ritual is based not on current practice but on the Pentateuchal prescriptions. Nevertheless, if, by the time of writing, the Temple had been destroyed and the sacrifices brought to an end, this would have added such weight to the author’s argument that some allusion to it, however veiled, could hardly have been avoided. A date before a.d. 70 is more probable, though not certain.

If the people addressed were Rom. Christians, a date not later than a.d. 64 is indicated by Hebrews 12:4, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” This could not have been written after the Neronian persecution. (The persecution of Heb 10:32ff., which did not involve martyrdom, may have been connected with the expulsion of Jews from Rome in a.d. 49, mentioned in Acts 18:2.) Another chronological pointer may be the “forty years” quoted from Psalm 95:10 in Hebrews 3:9, 17. The current belief in a forty years probation at the end time to match that at the beginning of Israel’s history is attested e.g., in the Qumran texts; and if a period of forty years from the death of Christ was nearing its end when the author was writing, there would be the greater relevance in his quotation of the psalm.

4. Outline. The letter is described by the writer as a “word of exhortation” (13:22), an expression used in Acts 13:15 of a synagogue sermon. It is, indeed, a carefully constructed homily, delivered by force of circumstances in writing instead of orally.

5. Relation to the apostolic preaching. Because Hebrews represents a distinct school of thought within the NT, it is the more interesting to compare the Gospel that is presupposed as common ground between author and readers with the Gospel as presented in other NT documents, and to discover that in basic essentials it is the same Gospel.

The new age has been inaugurated; the OT prophecies have been fulfilled. “Jesus, the Son of God” (4:14), “has appeared once for all at the consummation of the ages” (9:26 ASVmg). In His eternal being He is identified with wisdom, God’s agent in the creation of the world (1:1-3; cf. John 1:1-3; Col 1:15-17; Rev 3:14); His human descent from David is implied in what is stated to be a matter of common knowledge, that He belonged to the tribe of Judah (Heb 7:14). The material circumstances of His death are known (13:12); He endured it “to put away sin” (9:26; cf. Rom 4:25; 1 Cor 15:3). His resurrection is assumed rather than affirmed (cf. Heb 13:20); it is part of the general movement of His exaltation to the right hand of God, where He intercedes for His people (cf. Rom 8:34; Phil 2:9-11). His parousia, which is confidently expected (Heb 10:37), will consummate His people’s salvation (9:28). Meanwhile, they have received the Holy Spirit, whose presence with them is attested by His gifts “distributed according to his own will” (2:4; cf. 1 Cor 12:4ff.; Gal 3:2-5).

It has often been said that in Hebrews the older eschatology of the two ages has been combined (if not overlaid) with the Platonic scheme of the two worlds—the upper world of eternal reality and the lower world characterized by material and temporary copies of that reality. Something of this sort is indeed recognizable in chs. 8 and 9, where the true abode of God is contrasted with the earthly sanctuary with its priesthood and ritual. Even for this, the author finds his text in the OT (Exod 25:40, quoted in Heb 8:5). He certainly shows himself familiar with the Platonic scheme, prob. as mediated through Philo, but his principal category of thought in this respect is the Hebraic scheme of the two ages, modified (as by the other NT writers) in the light of the coming of Christ and God’s definitive word spoken in Him “in these last days” (Heb 1:2; cf. 1 Cor 10:11; 1 Pet 1:20).

6. Argument. On this basis the writer establishes the finality of the Gospel as God’s perfect revelation to man. The Gospel is contrasted in this regard with everything that preceded it, esp. with the levitical ritual. By emphasizing the completeness of the work of Christ and the perfection of His person, he presents the Gospel as the one way that secures unimpeded access to God.

Christ, he shows, is superior to all the servants and spokesmen of God that went before Him, whether human beings like Moses (Heb 3:3) or angelic intermediaries (1:4) like those through whom the law was communicated (2:2). Christ is the Son of God, His agent in creating and maintaining the universe (1:1-3), yet the One who, as Son of man, submitted to humiliation and death (2:5-18). Now He is exalted above the heavens, enthroned at God’s right hand as His people’s representative (1:3; 4:14). This ministry is presented in terms of high priesthood, Hebrews being the only NT document that explicitly uses this language in reference to Jesus. His high priesthood is expounded partly on the basis of Psalm 110:4, where the Davidic Messiah is acclaimed by God as “a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek,” partly on the historical facts about Jesus. Whereas the oracle of Psalm 110:1, frequently quoted or echoed in Hebrews, is one of the commonest testimonia in the NT, the use of Psalm 110:4 is peculiar to this epistle. The Messiah who is acclaimed as king in Psalm 110:1 (“Sit at my right hand...”), says the author, is acclaimed as priest in Psalm 110:4 (Heb 5:6). The reference to the priesthood of Melchizedek’s order is explained (7:1ff.) with the help of the narrative about Melchizedek (Gen 14:18-20), significance being found not only in what is said of him there but also in what is not said of him. This scriptural argument for Messiah’s highpriestly office is reinforced by Jesus’ personal qualifications to discharge that office: not only was He “holy, blameless, unstained” in character (Heb 7:26) but, having been tempted in every respect as His people are, He can sympathize with them and supply the help they need in the hour of trial (4:15f.; 5:7-10).

Jesus’ intercessory ministry finds mention in the gospels (e.g. Luke 12:8; 22:32; John 17:6ff.), and epistles (Rom 8:34; 1 John 2:1f.); but it is elaborated in a distinctive manner in Hebrews. Various arguments are adduced to show that His priesthood is not only superior to that of Aaron’s line but belongs to a totally different order. It belongs to the new covenant foretold in Jeremiah 31:31-34, a covenant marked by better promises and a better hope than the old covenant of Sinai under which the Aaronic priests ministered (Heb 7:11-19; 8:6-13). It is associated with a better sacrifice than any that went before (9:23) and is discharged in a better sanctuary than any of this creation (9:11). Priesthood and sacrifice are inseparable. The priests of Aaron’s line repeatedly offered up animal sacrifices (7:27), notably the annual sin offering on the day of atonement (9:7), but these could not meet the real need of men and women (10:4). They could not cleanse the conscience from the defilement of sin, which is the great barrier to fellowship with God (9:9). Christ’s high-priestly ministry, however, is exercised on the basis of a real, voluntary, and effective sacrifice—“the sacrifice of himself” (9:26)—which, unlike all other sacrifices, cleanses man’s conscience so that he can henceforth “serve the living God” (9:14).

The writer finds this perfect sacrifice predicted in Psalm 40:6-8, where a speaker, dismissing all animal sacrifice as unacceptable, dedicates his life to God for the obedient accomplishment of His will (Heb 10:5-7). The words of the psalm are understood as the words of Christ when He comes into the world. In the “body...prepared” for Him (Ps 40:6 LXX) He fulfilled the will of God, in life and death alike. By this sacrifice of perfect obedience to God’s will His people are once for all sanctified and given the right of access to God (Heb 10:10, 22); by it, moreover, the new covenant is established in which God implants His law in their hearts and remembers their sins no more (10:15-18). These arguments, based on the interpretation of Scripture, were corroborated by the practical experience of a generation of believers who, since the passion and triumph of Christ, had proved in their lives the efficacy of His sacrifice and intercession. Such a sacrifice (unlike those of the levitical order) required no repetition; for those who repudiated this sacrifice no further sin-offering could be available; hence the solemn warning not to spurn the Son of God and profane His covenant-blood (10:26-31).

What the readers needed in their present situation was to cultivate patient endurance and hold fast their confession to the end. They should not be discouraged by hope deferred; the coming One would come (10:36-39). The example of faith shown by men and women who lived and died in the hope of the promise which was fulfilled in Christ, although they themselves did not witness that fulfilment, should help them (11:1-40); still more should the example of Christ’s endurance nerve them to press on in the path of obedience to God and not give up the struggle (12:1-17). The familiar and congenial environment of their earlier days was vanishing, never to return; as heirs of the one unshakable kingdom they should sever the bonds that tied them to their past and go forth to Christ, embracing the stigma attached to His name, following Him on the way of faith to “the city which is to come” (12:28-13:14).

7. Canonicity and authority. Hebrews may be said to have received canonical recognition first of all when a 2nd cent. editor (prob. in Alexandria) incorporated it into the corpus Paulinum. Certainly from the time of Pantaenus (c. a.d. 180) its canonicity was unanimously acknowledged by Alexandria; whatever Origen’s doubts on its authoriship might be, he had none on its canonical quality. The example of Alexandria was followed by the eastern churches generally. Eusebius of Caesarea included Hebrews (reckoned by him as a Pauline letter) among the books whose canonicity was “obvious and plain,” although he did not overlook the fact that “some have set it aside on the ground that it was rejected by the Rom. church as non-Pauline” (Euseb. Hist. iii. 3. 5). Ephrem (c. a.d. 350) and the other Syr. fathers accepted it without question as canonical (and as Pauline); unlike some of the catholic epistles, it was included in the Peshitta (early 5th cent.) from the beginning.

In the W the situation was quite different. Although the epistle was known at Rome before the end of the 1st cent., it was not regarded as canonical there until the 4th cent. presumably because it was known not to be the work of an apostle. At last the Rom. church, with no great enthusiasm, decided not to remain out of step with the eastern churches in this regard, being moved particularly by the persuasiveness of Athanasius, who spent his second exile (a.d. 340-346) in Rome. Even Irenaeus of Lyons (c. a.d. 180), despite his belonging to proconsular Asia, had reservations about Hebrews; he may have given it a deutero-canonical status comparable to that of Wisdom (Euseb. Hist. v. 26).

The difficulty felt by the Rom. church was largely due to the tradition by which canonical authority and apostolic authorship went hand in hand. Jerome and Augustine were content to accept Hebrews as a Pauline letter on this ground rather than from considerations of literary criticism. It was included in the canon promulgated by the Synods of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) in this form: “Of Paul the apostle, thirteen epistles; of the same to the Hebrews, one.”

When the question was reopened by the Reformers, the canonicity and apostolic authorship of Hebrews were clearly distinguished. Luther rejected its Pauline authorship and relegated it to a deutero-canonical position because it contained as he thought, some “wood, hay and stubble”; Calvin equally denied its Pauline authorship but affirmed: “I class it without hesitation among the apostolic writings”—“apostolic” in doctrine and authority, not in authorship. Of its inherent worth he said: “There is no book of Holy Scripture which speaks so clearly of the priesthood of Christ, which so highly exalts the virtue and dignity of that only true sacrifice which he offered by his death, which so abundantly deals with the use of ceremonies as well as their abrogation, and, in a word, so fully explains that Christ is the end of the law. Let us therefore not allow the church of God or ourselves to be deprived of so great a benefit, but firmly defend the possession of it” (Commentary on Hebrews, introduction).

It is all to the good that canonicity and authorship should be thus distinguished by the recognition of the right of an anonymous work to a place within the NT because of its essential quality. The abiding authority of the epistle can be found in its insistence on the inwardness of true religion and its relegation of externalities to a place of relative unimportance. (Even sacraments may have been included by the author among such externalities; it is not without significance that the one statement about Melchizedek in Gen 14:18-20 to which no reference is made in Heb 7:1-10 is his bringing forth bread and wine.) The purification that matters in the sight of God is the purification of the conscience from sin, not the removal of ritual pollution; the one sacrifice that avails in the sight of God to effect this purification is the sacrifice of an unreservedly willing and dedicated life, like that of the Isaianic Servant who spontaneously and deliberately offered himself “to bear the sins of many” (Heb 9:28). No material shrine is necessary for the worship of God; the house of God, where His presence is manifested and the high-priestly ministry of the exalted Christ is discharged, is higher than the heavens in a spiritual, not in a spatial, sense, for it is identified with the fellowship of His people, if they hold fast their confidence and glorying of their hope (3:6). No geographical city or country claims their allegiance because of some special sanctity; the once holy city was no longer such because Jesus, expelled beyond its precincts, “suffered outside the gate” (13:12). The people of Christ must follow Him as a pilgrim community, never halting in His service short of the rest that remains for them in “the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (4:9; 11:10). In a changing world, where the old landmarks disappear and old standards are no longer recognized, the only constant point of reference is the unchanging, onward-moving Christ, “the same yesterday and today and for ever” (13:8); the path of wisdom is to face the unknown with Him. Our author anticipates Herbert Butterfield in finding here “a principle which both gives us a firm Rock and leaves us the maximum elasticity for our minds; the principle: Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted” (Christianity and History [1950], 146).

Bibliography A. B. Davidson, The Epistle to the Hebrews (1882); B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (1892); A. B. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The First Apology for Christianity (1889); W. Milligan, The Theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews (1899); M. Dods, The Epistle to the Hebrews, EGT (1910); A. Nairne, The Epistle of Priesthood (1913); E. Riggenbach, Der Brief an die Hebräer (1913); A. S. Peake, The Epistle to the Hebrews (1914); J. Moffatt, The Epistle to the Hebrews, ICC (1924); O. Michel, Der Brief an die Hebräer, Meyer (1949); G. H. Lang, The Epistle to the Hebrews (1951); W. Manson, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Historical and Theological Reconsideration (1951); C. Spicq, L’Épître aux Hébreux, EB (1952); J. Héring, L’Épître aux Hébreux (1955); A. C. Purdy, The Epistle to the Hebrews, IB (1955); C. K. Barrett, “The Eschatology of the Epistle to the Hebrews,” in The Background of the NT and its Eschatology, ed. W. D. Davies and D. Daube (1956), 383ff.; G. Vos, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews (1956); A. Snell, New and Living Way (1959); S. Kistemaker, The Psalm Citations in the Epistle to the Hebrews (1961); M. Luther, Lectures on the Epistle to the Hebrews, trans. J. Atkinson in Luther: Early Theological Works, Library of Christian Classics XVI (1962), 19ff.; T. W. Manson, Studies in the Gospels and Epistles (1962), 242ff.; J. Calvin, The Epistle...to the Hebrews and the...Epistles of St. Peter, trans. W. B. Johnston (1963); F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, NIC (1964); H. W. Montefiore, The Epistle to the Hebrews (1964).