About 200 CE Clement of Alexandria referred to this letter as written by Paul. The attribution was perhaps inspired by the reference (13: 23) to ‘our brother Timothy’; but there is nothing in the text precisely identifying its author. There are in fact good reasons for rejecting Pauline authorship into which some of the recipients were in danger of returning. Apollos had consolidated his reputation at Corinth by this powerful appeal, and Paul was obliged to defend his own standing at Corinth (1 Cor. 1–4) and in his (first) letter Paul deals with some of the points raised in the letter to the Hebrews, as when he seems to defend his lack of eloquence (1 Cor. 2: 1), which compared unfavourably with the skill of Apollos in speech and writing. As confirmation of this Corinthian destination of the epistle to the Hebrews there are thirteen references to it in the first epistle to the Corinthians written by Clement of Rome in c. 96 CE. At any rate, whatever the merits of this theory about authorship, the recipients were surely former Jews, perhaps from the Essene group, who were inclined to honour Jesus as more than human but less than divine. They compromised by regarding him as an angel. (Philo wrote of the Logos as an angel.) Hence veneration of angels is particularly denounced in Heb. 1: 4–2: 18.

The structure of this brilliant sample of 1st-cent. Christian homiletics is that each statement of doctrine is followed by practical exhortation. The author urges the readers to ‘hold fast’ (Heb. 3: 6); it is by faith they must live and die (10: 32–9), but he is worried whether they will in fact endure to the end (Heb. 12: 12), especially as some of them have ceased to attend the assemblies (Heb. 10: 25). They are reminded that Christ is God’s final revelation. The old sacrificial system of the Day of Atonement failed to achieve the redemption it foreshadowed (10: 1–4). Everything Jesus did and the hope he inspires (Heb. 10: 19–25) are proof of the greater ‘salvation’ (Heb. 2: 3) he offers by his sacrifice which never needs to be repeated.

The letter’s rhetorical exegesis of OT sacrifices, together with its insistence on the human experience of Jesus, has furnished a biblical foundation for a Christian doctrine of atonement untainted by a notion of penal substitution. For it is not that God’s anger is appeased by Jesus’ vicarious punishment, but sin, like a corrosive stain, is expiated.

The human Jesus, tempted in all points as we are yet without sin, was completely obedient to the Father, so that his death was an objective act of atonement, the all-sufficient sacrifice of a perfect human life. His blood, sprinkled on believers, avails for us, not to propitiate God but to change our attitude to God, the subjective result, filling our hearts with faith, hope, and charity (10: 22–5).