The Epistle to the Hebrews is an anonymous homily written to encourage followers of Jesus to renewed fidelity.
The book's name appears to be a scribal identification, added perhaps when the text was included among the epistles of Paul sometime before the beginning of the third century. The precise connotations of the designation are not totally transparent, but it suggests that the addressees were assumed to be members of the people of Israel, perhaps in need of conversion to Christ or of renewed commitment to him.
Since the fourth century the status of Hebrews as part of the Canon of the New Testament has been secure and it appears in the major biblical codices of late antiquity. The status of the text, was, however, contested in the first Christian centuries. Its recognition in the Greek East is exemplified by its position in the codex of Pauline epistles preserved as part of the Chester Beatty papyri, dating to the early part of the third century, where Hebrews follows Romans. Greek patristic sources also evidence that judgment, despite controversy about authorship.
In the Latin West, however, doubts about the text's canonical status accompanied the variety of opinions about its authorship. The Muratorian Canon fragment, variously dated to the second to the fourth centuries, does not mention Hebrews. The late second-century Roman presbyter Gaius, fragments of whose work are preserved by the fourth-century historian, Eusebius, in Ecclesiastical History 6.20.3, did not include Hebrews among the Pauline epistles. The second-century heresiologist, who describes and refutes what he takes to be “heresies,” Irenaeus of Lyons, does not use Hebrews in his surviving work, although Eusebius (Hist. 5.26) reports that he did cite the text. By the fourth century, Hebrews became accepted as Pauline and authoritative and found its place in the Old Latin Bible (witnessed in Codex Claromontanus [D]) and in the Vulgate. It is also attested in the Coptic, both Sahidic and Bohairic, and Syriac, both Peshitta and Harclean, versions.
While the Greek tradition tended to acknowledge Pauline authorship, individual readers recognized difficulties with the attribution. The work's distinctive style and vocabulary presented a major obstacle to Pauline authorship, but the fact that Paul regularly used scribes and coauthors provided room for an explanation. The second-century Alexandrian theologian, Clement of Alexandria, whose Hypotyposes is preserved in Eusebius (Hist. 6.14.2), argued that Paul originally composed the work in Hebrew, which Luke then translated into Greek. Origen, the third-century theologian and disciple of Clement, in a fragment of his Homilies on Hebrews also preserved in Eusebius (Hist. 6.25.2), thought that the ideas in the work were worthy of Paul, but that the style and composition betrayed the hand of a disciple (Eusebius, Hist. 6.14.13). Origen noted Clement's opinion, as well as the suggestion that Clement of Rome was responsible for the work, but finally was agnostic on authorship, famously saying “God only knows” who wrote the work (Eusebius, Hist. 6.25.14). By the fourth century doubts had vanished. Eusebius himself (Hist. 3.3.4–5), as well as most later Greek fathers, assumed Pauline authorship.
The early church provided at least one other suggestion about the authorship of Hebrews. The North African apologist, Tertullian, toward the end of the second century, argued (De pudicitia 20) that Barnabas was the author. Barnabas, according to Acts 4:36, a Levite whose name means “the son of consolation (paraklēseōs),” might make an appropriate author of a work with interest in priesthood and self-described (Heb 13:22) as a “word of encouragement (paraklēseōs).” Yet the break between Paul and Barnabas after the dispute at Antioch (Gal 2:12) suggests that the latter was more observant of traditional law (halakah) than the author of Hebrews 7:11–19; 9:9–10; 13:9.
Later commentators have proposed other possible authors. Luther (WA 10.1a.143), followed by many modern commentators, nominated Apollos, mentioned in Acts 18:24 and 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:4–6, 22; 4:6; 16:12. A learned Alexandrian (Acts 18:24; 19:1) loosely connected to the Pauline mission, Apollos would also have been a reasonable possibility, but other evidence to support the conjecture is lacking.
Prominent among the other possibilities canvassed in modern scholarship is Priscilla, the wife and coworker of Aquila (Acts 18:2; 1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:3–5), proposed in 1900 by Adolf von Harnack and defended by more recent feminist exegetes. The masculine gender of the participle modifying the author's self-reference at 11:32 seems to preclude that possibility.
A recent treatment of the issue of authorship (Clare Rothschild, Hebrews as Pseudepigraphon, 2009) suggests that the connections with the Pauline literary tradition, particularly evident in the epistolary conclusion, are not accidental, but constitute an attempt to suggest Pauline authorship by some member of his “school.” While affinities with the Pauline tradition are important, the identity of the author remains, as Origen suggested, a mystery.
Date and Historical Context.
Determining the date of Hebrews depends in part on the date of its first attestation and in part on its possible relationship to significant first-century events. The First Epistle of Clement provides a terminus ante quem (a date before which a text had to have been written). That letter is a product of the leadership of the church at Rome who attempted to quell a disturbance in the church at Corinth. First Clement 36.2–6 alludes to both the wording of the proem (introductory paragraph) of Hebrews as well as the catena (a “chain” or collection) of scriptural quotations that forms the bulk of chapter 1. The fact that both portions are cited makes it virtually impossible that 1 Clement is citing a source for the homily. Therefore, 1 Clement knows Hebrews.
A reference in 1 Clement 1.1 to the “sudden and repeated misfortunes and calamities” at Rome is often taken to be an indication of a date in or just after the reign of Domitian, but the connection depends on the assumption of a Domitianic persecution of Christians, for which serious evidence is lacking. The events alluded to remain uncertain. A date for 1 Clement late in the first century or early in the second remains likely, although it could be as late as 120 C.E. This suggests that the latest possible date for Hebrews would be around 115.
An event that might provide a terminus ante quem for Hebrews is the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem during the Jewish revolt against Rome in 70 C.E. Reference to a Temple in ruins could provide strong support for the argument in Hebrews that the old covenant was “obsolete” and “will soon disappear” (Heb 8:13). It appears odd to some if the author knew about but did not refer to the event. Against that argument is the fact that Hebrews does not pay attention to the Temple at all, but to the tabernacle of scripture. Furthermore, many authors writing after the Temple's destruction, including Josephus and the rabbis of the Mishnah, in discussing scripture, treated the Temple as a living reality, hoping perhaps for its restoration. Hebrews' critique of the tabernacle could be construed as an attempt to undermine such hopes. The destruction of the Temple therefore does not provide a firm terminus ante.
A date for Hebrews much earlier than 60 C.E. is unlikely, given the developed character of its theology and the impression that it is written in a “post-apostolic” generation (2:3), to believers who have been in the community for some time (5:12). Therefore the most that may be said with confidence is that Hebrews was written in the late first century, within a range extending from approximately 60 to approximately 115 C.E.
Hebrews is a highly integrated and carefully structured work. Some scholars have detected sources, including confessional formulae (13:8); hymnic fragments (1:3), and a catena of proof texts (1:5–12). It may also be possible that portions of the text were inspired by independent homilies, including the reflection on Psalm 95 in chapters 3 and 4, or the exposition on Melchizedek in chapter 7, but there is no independent attestation for such compositions.
The status of chapter 13 also presents problems for the text's integrity. The epistolary conclusion (13:18–25), with echoes of Pauline letters, seems to be an appendix. Yet there are strong links between the whole chapter and the major themes of the rest of the work. It would appear therefore that the chapter, or at least the explicitly epistolary conclusion, was added in order to facilitate the distribution of a homily to an audience different from its first auditors, but the addition was probably made by the author of the homily itself.
The component parts of Hebrews tend to be well-defined paragraphs, with thematic unity, consistent vocabulary, and devices such as inclusions, marking their beginning and end. Scholars differ on the structuring principles that unite all the paragraphs into a larger composition.
Two prominent and similarly worded hortatory passages (4:14–16 and 10:19–25) suggest a tripartite division, with an initial presentation of major themes (1:1—4:13); a development of the themes focused on the priesthood of Christ and the character of his sacrifice (5:1—10:18), and final exhortations (10:26—13:25). That overall structure captures some of the dynamics of the work, but does not adequately indicate how its various parts cohere.
Other scholars have suggested a division according to rhetorical principles. Craig Koester suggests the following as the rhetorical order: exordium (1:1—2:4); proposition (2:5–9); arguments (2:10—12:27); peroration (12:28—13:21) and epistolary postscript (13:22–25). Alternatively, James Thompson suggests: exordium (1:1–4); narratio (1:5—4:13); probatio (4:14—10:31); peroratio (10:32—13:25). Hebrews is clearly a sophisticated piece of rhetoric, replete with various figures of speech and thought, including alliteration, assonance, anaphora, asyndeton, litotes, and the like. But the variety of “rhetorical” analyses of the structure suggests that ancient handbooks do not capture the ways in which ancient authors actually composed their works.
Two formally similar sections within Hebrews indicate the building blocks on which the work is constructed, each reflecting conventions of teaching and preaching in Hellenistic synagogues and their Christian counterparts. The first section offers an initial reflection on fidelity (3:1—4:13), which begins with a thematic introduction (3:1–6), citation of a passage of scripture (Ps 95; Heb 3:7–11). Scripture is then explored and applied in three balanced segments, each citing a verse of the Psalm (3:12—4:11). A concluding flourish (4:12–13) caps the discourse. A similar structure is visible in the central expository section, which begins with an introductory paragraph (8:1–7) followed by a scriptural citation (Jer 31:31–34; Heb 8:7–13); which is then explored in a five-part exposition, each part of which treats one of the themes articulated in the introduction and cited text (9:1—10:10). The exposition is capped with a summation that again cites portions of the passage from Jeremiah and ties together several of the major themes of the exposition (10:11–17).
Before each of these carefully crafted homilies on scriptural texts, the author of Hebrews offers a reflection on Christ. The first balances Christ's exalted status (1:5–14) with his solidarity with suffering humankind (2:5–18). The second, anticipated by a brief description of Christ as priest (5:1–10), offers a fanciful midrash explaining how Christ can be a high priest, “according to the order of Melchizedek” (7:1–28). Interspersed among these sections of argument and exposition are hortatory passages warning of the consequences of faithlessness (2:1–4; 5:11—6:20; 10:26–39).
The final set of exhortations also exhibits a carefully balanced structure. A catena of examples of fidelity from the pages of Israel's scripture (11:1–40) culminates in a portrait of Christ, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:1–4). Two exhortations develop a balanced set of images, the child disciplined by his loving parent (12:5–12) and the people of God who approach not the frightening scene of Mt. Sinai, but a joyous festival in a new Jerusalem (12:18–39). Between those images comes another stern warning passage (12:14–16). The final hortatory section offers discrete advice as well as a general summons to follow in the footsteps of Jesus (13:1–17). Greetings and an epistolary farewell conclude the text (13:18–25).
Structuring elements thus overlap and intersect in an intricate fashion, but the work may be outlined as follows:
- 1:1–4 Exordium
- Initial Exposition and Exhortation
- 1:5—2:18 Christ exalted and humiliated
- 3:1—4:13 A call to fidelity
- 4:14—5:10 Christ a faithful high priest
- 5:11—6:20 Warning against falling away
- Central Exposition
- 7:1–28 Christ a high priest like Melchizedek
- 8:1—10:18 The atoning work of the high priest
- 10:26–39 Warning against falling away
- Final Exhortations
- 11:1—12:4 An encomium on fidelity
- 12:5–39 Exhortations to endurance
- 13:1–17 Particular exhortations
- 13:18–25 Epistolary remarks
A fundamental issue in the interpretation of the text is the relationship between the work's elaborate Christology and its parenetic (hortatory) elements. The self-description of the text as a “word of exhortation” (Heb 13:22) and the prominence of the hortatory elements toward the final chapters of the text suggest that they are indeed the focal point of the work. A key question for interpreters then is what the exhortation is trying to accomplish.
A series of references to a shared “confession,” which the addressees are called upon to maintain (3:1; 4:14), eliminates the possibility that the work is an evangelistic attempt to bring “Hebrews” to Christ. The work is addressed to questions affecting a community of believers in Christ.
The stern warnings that make up a major part of the parenesis (2:1–4; 5:11–6:20; 10:26–31; 12:12–17; 12:25–29), particularly the rigorist stance on apostasy at 6:4–9, suggest that the homilist is concerned with threats to the fidelity of the congregation. Some congregants seem to be less than ardent members of their assembly (10:25). The goal of the exhortation then is to renew faith in and commitment to Christ.
The precise cause of the actual or potential disaffection is not immediately apparent and readers have suggested several scenarios. A frequently expressed view is that the addressees were Jews who had come to be followers of Jesus but were now in danger of abandoning their commitment in favor of a return to Israel's traditional worship. The homily's critique of traditional ritual and the Law built upon it (7:12) would be designed to lessen the appeal of what was denigrated as an inferior and outmoded ritual system.
Various other factors also seem to be at play. The community addressed had experienced persecution (10:32–34) and opprobrium (11:25) and are called upon to follow Christ (12:3) and accept their marginalized condition with him (13:13). Such an appeal could apply broadly to Christians of both gentile and Jewish backgrounds, whatever their relationship to Temple rituals. Similarly, Jews and gentiles could also be subject to doubts raised by the apparent delay of Christ's coming (Parousia). Although it is not obvious that such a problem affects the congregation, it is striking that the homilist emphasizes the importance of eschatological hope being realized in the experience of the addressees (4:1–3, 11; 10:25, 37–38; 12:18–24; 13:14).
Although the basic purpose of the word of exhortation is clear, to renew the commitment of a group of believers in Christ, the causes for their potential disaffection were no doubt complex and perhaps not totally clear to the author himself.
What grounds the exhortation to renewed fidelity is a belief about the significance of the person and work of Christ. Much of the text's Christology is familiar from other early Christian sources, and it holds different kinds of affirmations about Christ in creative tension. Part of the Christology is decidedly incarnational. Jesus, the Son of God, was, like divine Wisdom (Wis 7:25–26), the “refulgence of God's glory and the imprint of his very being.” As such he is the agent of God's creative and sustaining power (1:3). He came into the world (1:6; 10:5) in order to do the will of God, which involved a shameful death on the cross (12:2) to expiate human sin. God vindicated his Son, by bringing him forth from the dead (13:20) and exalting him to heavenly glory. Rather than focus on the pre-existent Son, whose relationship with the Father would trouble later generations, Hebrews concentrates on the exalted Son, enthroned at God's right hand (1:3; 13; 2:9; 4:14; 7:26; 8:1; 10:12), and the relationship between his exalted state and the cruel death that preceded it.
Psalm 110:1, an expression of ancient Israelite royal ideology, gives expression to the belief in Christ's exaltation, as it does in other early Christian sources (Acts 2:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1). Another verse of the Psalm (4), “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek,” suggests for our homilist (Heb 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:17, 21) his major christological innovation: the exalted Christ is a heavenly high priest. Working out that suggestion requires further exegetical effort in chapter 7, which connects the two biblical passages mentioning Melchizedek, Genesis 14:17–20 and Psalm 110:4. Although the understanding of Christ's office as may be inspired by Jewish Messianic expectations (such as that found 11QMelchizedek, a midrash from the Dead Sea Scrolls), and may be hinted at in some early Christian sources (John 17), its full development is unique to Hebrews. The Son in whom the addressees are called upon to trust is enthroned in heaven as their mediator (7:25), but his position there is that of a high priest who has provided truly effective atonement for sin (7:27; 9:11–12, 26–28).
While the exalted Christ, whose entry into heaven is like that of the earthly high priest on the Day of Atonement into the inner sanctuary of the earthly tabernacle (9:11–14), his relevance for his followers is grounded in his solidarity with them, in all things apart from sin (4:15). Son though he was, he was made for a while “lower than the angels” in the words of Psalm 8, so that he might taste death for all (2:7–9). Like heroes of old, he battled with the devil and by his example overcame fear of death for those with whom he shares blood and flesh (2:14–15). He became therefore the “pioneer,” leading his brothers and sisters to heavenly glory (2:10; 12:2). Like those siblings he “learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8) and only then became “perfected” as the heavenly high priest (5:9). The consummation of his priestly act was in fact accomplished when he “came into the world,” declaring, with the words of Psalm 40, that he would do God's will (10:5–10).
In order to support his hortatory program, the homilist appeals as much to Christ's very human example as to his heavenly status. The faith that Christ exemplified is the faith that the addressees are called upon to make their own (12:1–3; 13:13–14). Such faith is commitment of mind and heart, highlighted in the lengthy series of examples of faith in the encomium of chapter 11, that is the foundation of their reality and the proof of their hope (11:1).
The situation that Hebrews addresses and the shape of its christological affirmations are fundamental interpretive issues. Affecting the reading of both are also considerations of the cultural environments shaping text. The work's rich rhetorical embellishment, with some of the best Greek of the New Testament, indicates a thoroughly Hellenized environment. The sometimes playful and often intricate exegesis of scripture that forms much of the text's argumentation suggests deep roots in Jewish tradition, however much the homilist may want to distance his community from Jewish ritual practices.
Scholars have attempted to find closer connections between Hebrews and various bodies of ancient religious literature. A concern with angels (ch. 1), fascination with Melchizedek, and strong eschatological hope (10:10:25; 12:18–29) are reminiscent of many of the sectarian documents in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The language of ideal heavenly realities (chs. 8–10), ultimately related to the will of God embodied in Christ (10:1–10), evokes the world of the first-century C.E. Alexandrian exegete Philo, who combined allegorical reading of the Pentateuch with Middle Platonic philosophy. The theme of the people of God being aliens and sojourners in this world hints at the kinds of cosmic dualism associated with “gnostic” circles of the second century. None of the proposed religio-historical connections, however, explains the rich texture of literary allusion evident in Hebrews. Instead, the text evidences a rhetorical culture, nurtured in a tradition of Jewish exegesis, that could exploit current conceptual for hortatory ends. Our homilist turned the resources of that culture to the pastoral task of reviving faith in Christ.
Several elements of Hebrews exercised influence in the history of Christianity. The text's polemical elements helped to shape the tense relations between Christians and Jews. Elements of that polemic include disparaging remarks about the ineffectiveness of the “blood of bulls and goats” (Heb 9:12–13; 10:4), the contention that the old covenant is “obsolete” and “soon to disappear” (Heb 8:13), the argument that the change of priesthood, from Levites to Christ, implied a change in the Law (Heb 7:12–19), the dismissal of “strange teachings” concerning “foods,” probably Jewish dietary laws (Heb 13:9), and the related contrast between believers who “have an altar” and those who serve at the tabernacle, and who have no right to take part (literally “eat”) at the altar (Heb 13:10). Such elements draw a sharp boundary between the community of the faithful and those who revere the old covenant. That contrast, however originally intended, served to reinforce Christian claims, regularly advanced until the post-Holocaust period, to have superseded Israel of old.
In the Trinitarian and christological controversies of late antiquity, which permanently shaped the development of orthodox Christian theology, Hebrews provided a rich resource. Its strong affirmation of the Son's relationship with the Father, as the “imprint of his very being” (Heb 1:3), easily lent itself to the side of the Nicene party in the fourth century debates. Its parallel affirmation of the full humanity of Jesus, one with his human brothers and sisters in “blood and flesh” (2:14) not only precluded any form of Docetism, but supported those who insisted on the reality of the full human nature of the incarnate Son during the christological controversies of the fifth century.
Hebrews played another role as the church reflected on its ritual life, to which Hebrews itself, except perhaps in its passing reference to “altar” (13:10), pays scant attention. Particularly during the Reformation and its aftermath, the theme of Jesus as heavenly high priest could support both Catholic and Protestant polemicists. Hebrews insisted on the “once for all” character of the sacrifice of Christ, as opposed to the constantly repeated, and therefore ineffectual, sacrifices of the old order (7:27; 9:26–28; 10:10). For many Protestants such texts provided grounds to resist the Catholic notion of the Mass as a sacrifice. Catholics, on the other hand, could appeal to the notion that the heavenly high priest continually intercedes for the faithful (7:25). Catholics, and other liturgical churches, would continue to ordain the men, and eventually women, who work with Christ in that intercessory process, as “priests according to the order of Melchizedek.”
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Harold W. Attridge