Epistle to the Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews is one of the books in the New Testament. Its author is not known.

The primary purpose of the Letter to the Hebrews is to exhort Christians to persevere in the face of persecution. The central thought of the entire Epistle is the doctrine of the Person of Christ and his role as mediator between God and humanity.

No author is internally named. Since the earliest days of the Church, the authorship has been debated. In the 4th century, Jerome and Augustine of Hippo supported Paul's authorship: the Church largely agreed to include Hebrews as the fourteenth letter of Paul, and affirmed this authorship until the Reformation. However, many scholars now believe that the author was one of Paul's pupils or associates, citing stylistic differences between Hebrews and the other Pauline epistles.[1] A fuller discussion is in the article Authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and this summary is not elaborated below.

The epistle opens with an exaltation of Jesus as "the radiance of God's glory, the express image of his being, and upholding all things by his powerful word."[1:3] The epistle presents Jesus with the titles "pioneer" or "forerunner," "Son" and "Son of God," "priest" and "high priest."[2] It has been described as an "intricate" New Testament book.[3]

The epistle casts Jesus as both exalted Son and high priest, a unique dual Christology.[4] Scholars argue over where Hebrews fits in the 1st century world. Despite numerous publications on this epistle, scholarly discussion has failed to yield a definitive consensus on most issues. One author says conclusions on most questions, including the one concerning authorship, should be avoided.[5]

Contents

Composition

The text is internally anonymous. New Testament and Second Temple Judaism scholar Eric Mason argues that the conceptual background of the priestly Christology of the Epistle to the Hebrews closely parallels presentations of the messianic priest and Melchizedek in the Qumran.[2] While not enough is known about Hebrews or its background, its dependence on any early Jewish tradition cannot be proved. In both Hebrews and Qumran a priestly figure is discussed in the context of a Davidic figure; in both cases a divine decree appoints the priests to their eschatological duty; both priestly figures offer an eschatological sacrifice of atonement. Although the author of Hebrews was not directly influenced by Qumran's "Messiah of Aaron,"[6] these and other conceptions did provide "a precedent... to conceive Jesus similarly as a priest making atonement and eternal intercession in the heavenly sanctuary."[2]:p.199

Audience

Hebrews was written to a specific audience facing very specific circumstances. We can discern various facts about the recipients of Hebrews through a careful mirror reading of the letter:

  • The original readers of the letter were conversant in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, as the author's usage shows.
  • The contrast in 13:14 and the types of sins listed in Chapter 13 suggest they lived in a city.
  • They had once faced persecution,[10:32–34] but not to the point of bloodshed.[12:4] It is possible that 12:1-3 and 13:12-13 imply that they would soon face renewed opposition.
  • Some had stopped assembling together, and this was possibly due to persecution.[10:25][7]
  • As the author saw it, at least some among them were being tempted to avoid severe persecution by "shrinking back"[10:32–39] from the eschatalogical fulfillment of the true hope and faith of the Old Testament proclaimed by the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ. It is debated whether the anticipated persecution was from secular (i.e., Roman) authorities or Jewish authorities. Perhaps there were elements of both, or as we see elsewhere in the New Testament, the Jewish authorities may have stirred up the secular authorities to suppress the Christians. The author exhorted them to encourage "love and good works"[10:32–34] and warned them that if they "sin willfully" by denying Jesus' sacrifice it will become ineffective for them.[10:26] But for non-Jews, these loving actions are sufficient for "great recompense of reward"[10:35] as long as they "hold fast the profession of our faith [in Jesus] without wavering,"[Heb. 10:23] and thus do not need to convert to Judaism.
  • In 13:24 the author says that those from Italy greet the readers. This could mean that the author is writing from Italy or that the author is writing to recipients in Italy, and that Italians present with the author are greeting those back home.

Traditional scholars have argued the letter's audience was Jewish Christians, as early as the end of the 2nd century (hence its title, "The Epistle to the Hebrews"). Other scholars have suggested that Hebrews is part of an internal New Testament debate between the extreme Judaizers (who argued that non-Jews must convert to Judaism before they can receive the Holy Spirit of Jesus' Jewish covenant) versus the extreme Antinomians (who argued that Jews must reject God's commandments and that Jewish law was no longer in effect). James and Paul represent the moderates of each faction, respectively, and Peter served as moderator.[8] The Epistle emphasizes that non-Jewish followers of Jesus do not need to convert to Judaism to share in all of God's promises to Jews. Liberal American theologian Edgar Goodspeed notes, "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 debate continues to the present day.

Hebrews is often erroneously named as one of the general (or catholic) epistles. But since it was written to a specific group of Jewish-Christians, it is not technically a general epistle.

Date

The use of tabernacle terminology in Hebrews has been used to date the epistle before the destruction of the temple, the idea being that knowing about the destruction of both Jerusalem and the temple would have influenced the development of his overall argument to include such evidence. Therefore, the most probable date for its composition is the second half of the year 63 or the beginning of 64, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.[1] Another argument in favor of an early dating is that the author seems unfamiliar with the Eucharist ritual (had the author been familiar, it would have served as a great example).[9]

Purpose for writing

Most scholars today believe the document was written to prevent apostasy.[10] Some have interpreted apostasy to mean a number of different things, such as a group of Christians in one sect leaving for another more conservative sect, one of which the author disapproves. Some have seen apostasy as a move from the Christian assembly to pagan ritual. In light of a possibly Jewish-Christian audience, the apostasy in this sense may be in regard to Jewish-Christians leaving the Christian assembly to return to the synagogue. The epistle dissuades non-Jewish Christians from feeling a need to convert to Judaism. The author writes, "Let us hold fast to our confession."[4:14]

The book could be argued to affirm special creation. It affirms that God by His Son, Jesus Christ, made the worlds. "God...hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son...by whom also he made the worlds."[1:1-2] The epistle also states that the worlds themselves do not provide the evidence of how God formed them. "Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear."[11:3]

Christians believe that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant.[8:6] His famous sermon from a hill representing Mount Zion is considered by many Christian scholars to be the antitype[11] of the proclamation of the Old Covenant by Moses from Mount Sinai.

...the Epistle opens with the solemn announcement of the superiority of the New Testament Revelation by the Son over Old Testament Revelation by the prophets.[Heb. 1:1-4] It then proves and explains from the Scriptures the superiority of this New Covenant over the Old by the comparison of the Son with the angels as mediators of the Old Covenant,[1:5-2:18] with Moses and Joshua as the founders of the Old Covenant,[3:1-4:16] and finally, by opposing the high-priesthood of Christ after the order of Melchisedech to the Levitical priesthood after the order of Aaron.[5:1-10:18][1]

Style

Hebrews is a very consciously "literary" document. The purity of its Greek was noted by Clement of Alexandria, according to Eusebius (Historia Eccl., VI, xiv), and Origen of Alexandria asserted that every competent judge must recognize a great difference between this epistle and those of Paul (Eusebius, VI, xxv).

This letter consists of two strands: an expositional or doctrinal strand,[1:1–14] [2:5–18] [5:1–14] [6:13–9:28] [13:18–25] and a hortatory or strongly urging[12] strand which punctuates the exposition parenthetically at key points as warnings to the readers.[2:1–4] [3:1–4:16] [6:1–12] [10:1–13:17]

Hebrews does not fit the form of a traditional Hellenistic epistle, lacking a proper prescript. Modern scholars generally believe this book was originally a sermon or homily, although possibly modified after it was delivered to include the travel plans, greetings and closing.[13:20-25] [13]

Hebrews contains many references to the Old Testament—specifically to its Septuagint text.

Christology

From The Interpreters Bible 1955

“We may sum up our author’s Christology negatively by saying that he has nothing to do with the older Hebrew messianic hopes of a coming Son of David, who would be a divinely empowered human leader to bring in the kingdom of God on earth; and that while he still employs the figure of a militant, apocalyptic king ... who will come again..., this is not of the essence of his thought about Christ.

“Positively, our author presents Christ as divine in nature, and solves any possible objection to a divine being who participates in human experience, especially in the experience of death, by the priestly analogy. He seems quite unconscious of the logical difficulties of his position proceeding from the assumption that Christ is both divine and human, at least human in experience although hardly in nature.” TIB XI p. 588[14]

See also

  • Antilegomena
  • Justification by Faith
  • Textual variants in the Epistle to Hebrews

References

  1. ^ a b c Fonck, Leopold. "Epistle to the Hebrews." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Web: 30 Dec. 2009.
  2. ^ a b c Mason, Eric F. You Are a Priest Forever: Second Temple Jewish Messianism and the Priestly Christology of the Epistle to the Hebrews." (STDJ 74; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2008). ISBN 978-90-04-14987-8
  3. ^ Mackie, Scott D. Eschatology and Exhortation in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007. ISBN 978-3-16-149215-0
  4. ^ Mackie, Scott D. "Confession of the Son of God in the Exordium of Hebrews." Journal for the Study of the New Testament," 30.4 (2008)
  5. ^ Schenck, Kenneth L. Cosmology and Eschatology in Hebrews The Settings of the Sacrifice. Cambridge University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-521-88323-8
  6. ^ Oegema, Gerbern S. "You Are a Priest Forever" book review. Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Oct 2009, Vol. 71 Issue 4, p904-905.
  7. ^ "Hebrews 1-8", William Lane (Word Biblical Commentary, 1991), Introduction p. lvii
  8. ^ "The Canon Debate," McDonald & Sanders editors, 2002, chapter 32, page 577, by James D. G. Dunn: "For Peter was probably in fact and effect the bridge-man (pontifex maximus!) who did more than any other to hold together the diversity of first-century Christianity. James the brother of Jesus and Paul, the two other most prominent leading figures in first-century Christianity, were too much identified with their respective "brands" of Christianity, at least in the eyes of Christians at the opposite ends of this particular spectrum. But Peter, as shown particularly by the Antioch episode in Gal 2, had both a care to hold firm to his Jewish heritage, which Paul lacked, and an openness to the demands of developing Christianity, which James lacked. John might have served as such a figure of the center holding together the extremes, but if the writings linked with his name are at all indicative of his own stance he was too much of an individualist to provide such a rallying point. Others could link the developing new religion more firmly to its founding events and to Jesus himself. But none of them, including the rest of the twelve, seem to have played any role of continuing significance for the whole sweep of Christianity—though James the brother of John might have proved an exception had he been spared." [Italics original]
  9. ^ http://historical-jesus.info/hjes3x.html
  10. ^ See Whitlark, Jason, Enabling Fidelity to God: Perseverance in Hebrews in Light of the Reciprocity Systems of the Ancient Mediterranean World (PBMS; Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2008).
  11. ^ See also Antithesis of the Law.
  12. ^ also translated "exhorting"
  13. ^ Ehrman, Bart D. (2004). The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. New York: Oxford. p. 411. ISBN 0-19-515462-2. 
  14. ^ The Interpreters Bible The Holy Scriptures in the King James and Revised Standard versions with general articles and introduction, exegesis, [and] exposition for each book of the Bible in twelve volumes, George Arthur Buttrick, Commentary Editor, Walter Russell Bowie, Associate Editor of Exposition, Paul Scherer, Associate Editor of Exposition, John Knox Associate Editor of New Testament Introduction and Exegesis, Samuel Terrien, Associate Editor of Old Testament Introduction and Exegesis, Nolan B. Harmon Editor, Abingdon Press, copyright 1955 by Pierce and Washabaugh, set up printed, and bound by the Parthenon Press, at Nashville, Tennessee, Volume XI, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Pastoral Epistles [The First and Second Epistles to Timothy, and the Epistle to Titus] , Philemon, Hebrews [Introduction and Exegesis by John Knox]

Further reading

  • Attridge, Harold W. Hebrews. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1989.
  • Bruce, Frederick F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964. Rev Ed 1990.
  • Guthrie, Donald The Letter to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983
  • Hagen, Kenneth. Hebrews Commenting from Erasmus to Beze. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1981.
  • Heen, Erik M. and Krey, Philip D.W., eds. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Hebrews. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2005.
  • Hughes, P.E. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977.
  • Hurst, L. D. The Epistle to the Hebrews: Its Background of Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Koester, Craig R. "Hebrews". Anchor Bible 36. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
  • Lane, William L. Hebrews 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 47A. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1991.
  • Lane, William L. Hebrews 9-13. Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 47B. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1991.
  • M'Cheyne, Robert Murray 'The Glory of the Christian Dispensation' (Hebrews 8 & 9) Diggory Press, 2007, ISBN 978-1-84685-703-4
  • O'Brien, Peter T. The Letter to the Hebrews. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans / Nottingham: Apollos, 2010.
  • Phillips, John Exploring Hebrews (Revised). Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1977, 1988

External links

Online translations of the Epistle to the Hebrews:

Related articles:

Epistle to the Hebrews
Preceded by
Pauline Epistle
to
Philemon
New Testament
Books of the Bible
Succeeded by
General Epistle
of
James

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