In this letter, the author to the Hebrews (Jewish Christians) sets forth Jesus as the true fulfillment of the law and the old covenant. Though there was a temptation to abandon faith in Him, this letter was written to encourage all, especially Jews, to consider the true ministry of Jesus and what it means to their faith and future.
It is interesting to observe that the Pauline authorship of the Hebrews is carefully disputed, and for lack of any convincing alternative is either accepted as tradition or left as an open question. Our Netherlands Confession, Article IV boldly asserts, “We believe the Holy Scriptures are contained in two books, namely the Old and New Testament, which are canonical, against which nothing can be alleged. These are thus named in the Church of God. The books of the Old Testament are the five books of Moses . . . . Those of the New Testament are the four evangelists, . . . and the fourteen epistles of the apostle Paul, viz. the one to the Romans . . . and one to the Hebrews.”
Looking back to the early years, subsequent to the close of the apostolic age, the church fathers are divided as to their estimation of the authorship of the Hebrews, see International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Generally, the eastern churches, especially in Alexandria, considered Paul to be the author. Among them was Clement, the most outspoken. Origin agreed, though he qualified it by suggesting, “God alone knows.” In the western churches, the epistle remained anonymous until the fifth century when the Pauline authorship was gradually accepted. Another tradition arose in Africa, suggesting that Barnabas was the author. The Council of Hippo, A.D. 393, included in the books of the Bible, “thirteen epistles of the apostle Paul and one by the same to the Hebrews.” The Council of Carthage, A.D. 419, mentioned, “The fourteen epistles of the apostle Paul.” The historian Eusebius suggested that it was written by Paul in Hebrew and translated by Clement into Greek. The Reformers rejected Pauline authorship; Luther suggested Apollos and Calvin thought it might be Luke. Actually, theologians and scholars have made many suggestions, even until the present time.
From the evidence of the epistle itself, we con: elude the following about the author. He was a Greek-speaking Jew. He was thoroughly familiar with the Old Testament Scripture, though he quoted from the Septuagint Bible (a Greek translation from Hebrew) and not from the Hebrew Bible itself. He knew the doctrinal teaching and worship of the Jews so thoroughly, it would seem he was not a heathen convert to Christianity but brought up as a Jew and followed Christ. His style of writing Greek gives evidence of an excellent command of the* language both in vocabulary and diction. His doctrinal emphasis reflects the centrality of the ministry of Christ and its significance for salvation and life, much as Paul would do.
Hendriksen in his New Testament Survey and Harrison in his Introduction to the New Testament list the reasons why we cannot accept the apostle Paul as the author to the Hebrews. Here follows a summary.
1. The epistle does not contain an address with designation of authorship which Paul does in all his writings. A twofold reason is suggested: either Paul chose to be anonymous because he was the apostle to the Gentiles and thought it wise to remain in the background when he wrote to the Jews, or that he was a persona non grata with the Jews and he thought his message would be better received if his identity were not known. Both of these suggestions are contradicted by Paul’s method in his other writings.
2. How could Hebrews 2:3 be applied to Paul, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord and was confirmed unto us by them that heard Him?” In all his other writings he insists that he received his gospel directly from Christ (c.f. Gal. 1:11ff, I Cor. 9:1ff, I Cor. 15:8ff).
3. The calm, balanced style of Greek is different from Paul’s writings. Godet writes, “It is strange indeed that he should have written in polished Greek to the Hebrews (who spoke Hebrew) while all his life he had written to the Hellens (who spoke Greek) in a style abounding with rugged and barbarous Hebraisms.” The difference is between the literary KOINE Greek and the vernacular KOINE Greek. One is not better than the other, only a different kind.
4. Paul uses the title, “the Lord Jesus Christ” with great frequency. The author to the Hebrews, on the contrary, prefers the simple, Jesus, or at times, Jesus Christ.
5. There is a different usage of antitype and type, contrast Hebrews 9:24 and I Peter 3:21, earthly vs. heavenly, shadow vs. reality. In Paul’s writing the antithesis is between faith and works, spirit and flesh, sin and grace.
6. The author of the Hebrews quotes all the Old Testament writings from the Septuagint version. Paul shows no such preference in his writings.
7. In Hebrews, a larger place is given to Christ’s earthly ministry than in all Paul’s writings put together.
8. The characteristically Pauline phrase, “in Christ,” does not occur in Hebrews.
9. There is a decidedly deficient amount of ethical demands that are prominent in Paul’s writings.
10. Nowhere in Hebrews do we come into contact with the personality or experiences of Paul. The few references in the last chapter are too vague to assist in this respect. Paul generally included such references.
It cannot be established who the author really is.
The Jewish converts remained a constant concern to the early New Testament church. The Jews outside the church constantly assailed the Christian church, especially the Hebrew Christians following Christ. Some of them within the church clung to the obsession that they had to keep the law and be loyal to their fellow countrymen. They tried to harmonize faith in Christ and the observance of the law. This separated them from their fellow Gentile Christians. They were usually best educated in the Old Testament Scriptures, more so than many Gentile converts. They were needed in the church. Christ had predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. It would be a mortal blow to the Jews, it would end their national distinction and their common bond in temple worship. Persecution from Rome was increasing against all Christians, whether Jews or Gentiles. The converted Jews had to see their future life in Jesus Christ, without the law. There was a better covenant than that of Abraham or Moses; it was now written in the blood of Christ, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. For their salvation and the welfare of the church they needed instruction in these great truths. The letter was written to fill that need.
TO WHOM WAS IT WRITTEN
Having said it was written to Jewish converts, we have to be more specific. A dispute follows as to which group of Jews: were they in Jerusalem, in Rome, in Alexandria, or some other place?
In favor of the Jerusalem Hebrew Christians we find the following:
1. Jerusalem was the center of Jewish worship and influence. The Hebrew Christians there needed this message more than any others.
2. The reference to the Old Testament types and temple worship would fit the Jerusalem church better than any other.
3. There were proportionally more Jewish Christians in Jerusalem than anywhere else.
4. They were able to grasp the message and warning about temple worship more than others, since it was present in their midst.
Arguments in favor of Roman Hebrew Christians are the following (Taken from Hendriksen, New Testament Survey).
1. This would be the most natural interpretation ofHebrews 13:24: “Those who came from Italy wish to be remembered to you.” The original Greek uses “from Italy,” hence the idea is that they left Italy and were with the author and now wish to return greetings to their former members in Rome.
2. According to Hebrews 2:3 the readers seem not to have heard the Lord Himself preach. The Jerusalem church surely did, the Romans possibly not.
3. Before A.D. 70 the temple still stood. If the epistle was written for Jerusalem Jews, why not refer to the present temple and worship?
4. The use of the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) would distract the Jerusalem Hebrews who knew Hebrew better than Greek. The Septuagint would fit better the Hebrews in Rome.
6. Hebrews 10:34). The Jews in Jerusalem received alms because of poverty, they did not give them.
6. Hebrews 5:12 informs us that these Jews did not produce any teachers; the Jerusalem church had done that.
7. The first to recognize this epistle were the Roman Christians; hence we conclude they were the first to receive it.
9. The Jews in Rome were called Hebrews just as much as the Jerusalem Jews. Paul was from Tarsus, and he still called himself a Hebrew, II Corinthians 11:22.
The arguments seem to favor the Roman Hebrew Christians as the recipients of this letter.
Since no reference is made in the letter to the Hebrews to the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, an argument that would have been cogent whether it was sent to the Jews at Jerusalem or Rome, it is assumed that it was written prior to the destruction of the city in A.D. 70. How must we understand the reference in Hebrews 13:23 to Timothy’s imprisonment? “Know ye not that our brother Timothy is set at liberty; with whom if he come shortly, I will see you.” As best we know, Timothy was imprisoned after Paul’s death, during the reign of Nero. Paul died in A.D. 67, hence an educated guess would place the date of authorship around A.D. 67-70.
The author is led by the Holy Spirit to set forth Christ Jesus as the Mediator of the better covenant. When one reads this epistle, he cannot help but conclude, how great is the Lord Jesus in His suffering and death, but now much more in His resurrection and ascension into heaven. To cling to the law of the old covenant brings one to defeat, it sets forth a priesthood that has passed away. Now we believe in Christ, God’s priest-king whose covenant abideth forever.
Well may we read this letter to be strengthened in our faith in our Mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ.