Chapter 19: The Epistle To The Hebrews

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 19: The Epistle To The Hebrews


The attribution of this treatise -- for such it is rather than a letter -- to Paul in our Bible is based on a Church tradition which can be traced back to the end of the second century, although it did not finally triumph in the west until the fourth century. Even in antiquity the differences in language and style between this work and the Pauline epistles led Christian scholars to make such suggestions as that an Aramaic epistle of Paul had been translated and edited by Luke, that reminiscences of Paul’s teaching had been embodied in an epistle by a different hand, or that the true author was Barnabas or Clement of Rome. None of these suggestions have met with much support in modern times, although modern critics have confirmed that the epistle cannot be attributed to Paul and have for the most part agreed with Origen’s judgement, ‘But as to who wrote the epistle, God knows the truth’.

The Greek of the epistle is very different from that of Paul, the author writing in a careful and elaborate style and employing a quite distinctive vocabulary. His treatment, too, of the Jewish Law, of the Holy Spirit, and of Faith, is on such different lines from Paul’s as to make it unlikely that he was a disciple of Paul, although in a wider sense he shows his sympathy with the Pauline conceptions of the universalism of the gospel and the free working of God’s grace.

Circumstances of Writing

Many guesses have been made as to the authorship of the epistle in modern times, but they are either unverifiable, e.g. Apollos (first suggested by Luther) or Prisca, or ruled out on grounds of style, etc., e.g. Peter. It can, however, be dated confidently within the first century, and the last few verses of the epistle itself tell of the release of Timothy (13:23) and convey greetings from those ‘of Italy’ (24). This last phrase may also be translated ‘those who come from Italy salute you’, and it may well be that the epistle was originally sent to Christians at Rome, perhaps from Asia Minor, in preparation for a visit of the author with Timothy (13:23); it is certainly quoted by Clement of Rome (c. A.D. 95).

The reference to Timothy’s imprisonment suggests a date subsequent to the last of Paul’s epistle, and, if the epistle is meant for Roman Christians, the persecution of Nero in A.D. 64 appears to be referred to as past (10: 32-34); some leading Christians of the community are already dead (13:7). On the other hand a strict interpretation of 8:4 may imply that the temple at Jerusalem has not yet been destroyed, if the reference is to the temple and not, as has been suggested by some critics, to ‘the tabernacle of the written law’. A date about A.D. 66 is perhaps most probable, but the epistle may be as late as A.D. 80.

The title ‘to the Hebrews’ could hardly have been the original title of an epistle sent to a specific community, and probably arose from a later misunderstanding of its pre-occupation with the Old Testament. The interest displayed by the author in interpreting the Old Testament, while suggesting that he was himself born a Hellenistic Jew, is no proof of this; the epistles of ‘Barnabas’ and of Clement show that such an interest was widespread in the post-apostolic age among Christians as a whole. This fact also tells against the theories that the epistle was written to a group, possibly of Hebrew Christians, within a larger community.

The curious form of the epistle, beginning as a tract or sermon, and ending as a letter, is best explained, not by supposing that the final verses were added by a later editor to pass it off as Paul’s, but by assuming that it was written primarily for reading to a church, and that the lack of an opening formula of address and salutation were to be made good by the person who carried the letter.

The Teaching of The Epistle Compared with that of Paul

The epistle is one of consolidation, written to stave off apathy and apostasy (2:1, 4:1, 5:11 ff., 10:39) by giving a better understanding of the supreme excellence of the new covenant mediated through Christ (8:6). The author starts, like Paul, from the assurance that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures’ (I Cor. 15:3), and that the old covenant has been superseded, but he develops his interpretation of these facts in his own way. Paul worked out his theology under the dominating influence of his own spiritual consciousness of Christ’s immediate presence in his own life (Rom. 8:9, Gal. 2:20): in the light of his experience and of the revelation that the gospel was for the Gentiles also (Col.1:25-27) he went on to interpret the incarnation in the terms of universal history, and especially of Jewish history. His judgement on the Jewish Law as impossible to keep (Rom. 3:20), but as having been our tutor to bring us unto Christ (Gal. 3:24), illustrates the way in which personal experience and its rationalisation play their part in Paul’s thought. His interpretation of the Old Testament is often special pleading by the ingenious use of selected texts to support beliefs really founded upon experience.

The author of Hebrews does not reveal the same intensity of experience or emotion as Paul, but writes more as a mystic and philosopher. The contrast between the two men can be seen in their use of ‘faith’; for Paul faith is essentially the confident acceptance of Christ which alone gives new life and righteousness (e.g. Rom.4:5), while for the author of Hebrews it is more a subjective attitude of assurance and expectation (cf. Hebr. 9:1 in the American Revised Standard Version ‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’).

The central theme of the epistle is the supremacy of Christ as Son of God, over the universe (1:2), the angels (1:4-2:10), and Moses (3:1-19), and his heavenly and eternal High-Priesthood (4:14-10: 18). In unfolding it the author has made use of conceptions found in first century Alexandrian Judaism, notably in Philo, but whose influence seems to have been much wider. Thus he describes the creation of the worlds through the Son (1:2-3) in terms reminiscent of the Alexandrian doctrine of creation through the Logos (Word), and draws the same distinction between the ideal heavenly universe and its transitory shadow here below which Alexandrian Judaism had borrowed ultimately from Plato. His elaborate allegorical exegesis of the Old Testament (whose authority he accepts without question) to draw even from its silence, e.g. on Melchizedek’s father (7:3), a spiritual interpretation is in line with that of Philo. It is in the light of this background to his thought that his doctrinal exposition must be read.

The supremacy of Christ is shown to be in his Sonship, and his incarnation and death to be not stumbling blocks to faith, but a necessary act of will to enable him, having undergone human temptations (2:18) and sufferings (7: 2), to act eternally in the glory of heaven (2: 9-10) as a high priest on our behalf, ‘one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, but without sin’ (2: 17, 4:15). The offering of Christ’s body (10:10) was and continues to be the perfect sacrifice, because he ‘through his own blood entered in once for all the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption’ (9:12). And this holy place is not one ‘made with hands, like in pattern to the true; but . . . heaven itself’ (9: 24).

This antithesis between the perfect and abiding sacrifice of Christ (10:10-14), and of the old system of Jewish sacrifices which ‘can never make perfect them that draw nigh’ (10:1) fills a great part of the epistle and has a double purpose. First, it offers an explanation of the paradox that the Christians accepted the divine authority of the Old Testament, but not its sacrificial requirements; here the author of the Hebrews reminds us of Paul in his rejection of the present validity of the Law. More important even than this is the fitting of the historical facts and the religious value of Jesus’ life and death by the use of metaphor and analogy into a philosophy that what is true is eternal; here the author of Hebrews shares the perception of the fourth evangelist.