The Epistle to the Hebrews (abbreviated Heb. for citations) is one of the two most consciously "literary" books in the New Testament. The purity of its Greek was noted by Clement of Alexandria, according to Eusebius, (Historia Eccl., VI, xiv), and Origen asserted that that every competent judge must recognize a great difference between this epistle and Paul's (Eusebius, VI, xxv). Although the author is unknown, Hebrews has been dated to shortly after the Pauline epistles were collected and began to circulate, ca 95 A.D.
The letter has carried its traditional title since Tertullian described it as Barnabae titulus ad Hebraeos in De Pudicitia ch.20.
This letter consists of two parts:
- Doctrinal (1 - 10:18)
- Practical (10:19 - 13).
There are found in it many references to the Old Testament— specifically to its Septuagint text— and references to all but two of the canonical letters of Paul. It has been regarded as a treatise supplementary to the Romans and Galatians, and as a kind of commentary on the book of Leviticus and Temple worship in general. Its numerous references to Temple worship in the present tense have been used to date the epistle before the destruction of the Temple (AD 70), but the evidence is not conclusive.
A considerable variety of opinions on this subject have been advanced from the earliest times. The epistle makes no internal claim of authorship, which is inconsistent with the rest of Paul's epistles. Also, while many of the letter's ideas are Pauline, the writing style is substantially different than that of Paul's epistles. For example, the Epistle does not open with the preamble typical of Paul. Hebrews has nothing to indicate that an attribution to Paul was ever intended.
In addition to Paul, whose epistles this one directly followed in many codices of the New Testament, some have suggested Paul's companion Silas, Pope Clement I, taken to be the author of the First Epistle of Clement , Luke, or some unknown Alexandrian Christian. Two leading candidates are Barnabas, first suggested by Tertullian (see above) and Apollos, first suggested by Martin Luther. Modern scholarship has reached no strong consensus. The letter has, however, always been accepted as part of the New Testament canon.
Audience and intent
Throughout the Roman Empire there were Jews who had been evangelized, but the Christian "Hebrews" being specifically addressed here, identifiable through the doctrine emphasized in the Epistle, are the Jewish Christians centered in Jerusalem and Syria, followers of one of the three "pillars of the church," James the Just. The Epistle addresses its warnings to them: not to relapse into the practices of Mosaic law. (A fuller description of such an Ebionite position can be found at Ebionites.)
The author's intent was to demonstrate a new interpretation of the true end and meaning of Mosaic law and assert its symbolical and transient character. He declares that the Levitical priesthood was a foreshadowing of the mission of Jesus, and that the legal sacrifices prefigured the Crucifixion. Therefore the gospel was designed not to modify the law of Moses, but to supersede and abolish it. This was written partly to counter the Ebionites, Jewish Christians who continued Jewish practices while accepting Christ. The emphatic text of the epistle reiterates the view of Pauline Christianity that the new covenant has superseded the old.
The title the epistle has been given reflects an ancient editorial inference from the very large part that Judaism plays in its argument. From as early as the end of the second century into the early 20th it was often supposed to be addressed to the Christian Jews themselves. Edgar Goodspeed was not of this view; he wrote, "But the writer's Judaism is not actual and objective, but literary and academic, manifestly gained from the reading of the Septuagint Greek version of the Jewish scriptures, and his polished Greek style would be a strange vehicle for a message to Aramaic-speaking Jews or Christians of Jewish blood.... The words, 'The brothers from Italy wish to be remembered to you,' 13:24, suggest that the letter was written to an Italian— that is, Roman— congregation from outside of Italy, but of course this latter is not certain."
Online translations of the Epistle to the Hebrews:
Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46