A few interesting conferences are coming up at The King’s University and Taylor Seminary where I have or am currently teaching:
- Fall Interdisciplinary Studies 2017 Conference (Sept 20-21): “Does the Church Matter: Navigating Distinctions 1517 – 2017” with keynote speakers Rt. Rev. Jane Alexander, Dr. Richard Mouw, and Dr. Brad Gregory
- Taylor Onword Conference 2017 (Sept. 29-30): “Prodigal” with keynote speakers Dr. David Gowler as well as Dr. Preston Pouteaux, Pastor Marv Ziprick, Meg Ziprick-Rieder, Dr. Tony Maan, Tim Willson and Dr. Randy Ritz
The Audience of Hebrews
Jerusalem or Judaea in General:
- This is supported by some Patristic authorities and by Miniscule 81 (11th century) which has the title “To the Hebrews, written from Rome by Paul to those in Jerusalem.” This is a conjecture based on the presumed audience in the standard superscription attached by scribes (“to the Hebrews”).
- The line “those from Italy greet you” (ἀσπάζονται ὑμᾶς οἱ ἀπὸ τῆς Ἰταλίας) (13:24) can be read in one of two ways. Either the author was in Rome and passing along greetings from the Christ believers there to an audience located somewhere else or the author was accompanied by Roman Christ believers in another location and they were sending their personal greetings back to the church in their homeland. If the latter is the case, the epistle was addressed to an audience in Rome.
- The earliest external attestation for the epistle is in 1 Clement which was sent from Rome.
Other suggested locations:
- The degree of plausibility assigned to other locations such as Antioch, Alexandria, Corinth, Ephesus, or Colossae depend on the question of authorship (e.g. where did various NT figures like Paul, Barnabas, Apollos, Luke, Priscilla, or Silas visit), the affinities that Hebrews may have with other Jewish or Christian writers (e.g. Philo of Alexandria, Luke-Acts, the Pastorals, 1 Peter, 1 Clement), and the reconstruction of the situation of the audience (e.g. allusions to persecutions and imprisonment).
A General or Specific Audience?
- Given that the superscription was attached later and the text lacks an epistolary address, it is possible that this text was a homily or a general “word of exhortation” (13:22) about how Jesus was the supreme revelation of God, the high priestly mediator of a new covenant offering purification of sins and direct access to God, and how Christ followers ought to endure in their faith(fullness) to receive their everlasting reward or rest.
- References to the audience as not among the original eyewitnesses of the Lord (2:3), as failing to advance beyond preliminary instruction or catechesis (5:11-14), as having an initial zeal that is waning with some members no longer attending communal meetings (6:10-12; 10:23-25), and as victims of persecution during their initial enthusiasm for the Christ movement (10:32-35) seem to be most naturally read as referring to a specific situation faced by a particular congregation(s).
- The epistle was composed in high literary Greek and relies exclusively on the Greek Septuagint, so it likely addressed a Greek-speaking audience. The audience is acquainted with Paul’s co-missionary Timothy (13:23) and seems to be part of the Pauline sphere of influence.
The Ethnic Identity of the Audience
- A predominantly Jewish audience is supported by the superscription “to the Hebrews” and the long history of Christian interpretation of the letter. The audience has to have had a high regard for the Greek translation of the Scriptures and for other scriptural figures (e.g. angels, Moses, Joshua, the Levitical priests, the other heroes listed in Hebrews 11) in order to facilitate the comparison with Jesus. Traditional approaches to the epistle have proposed that the audience was tempted to renounce their beliefs about Jesus, perhaps in response to ostracism or persecution, and resume observing the Torah and the sacrificial cult in the Jerusalem temple. Alternatively, a recent proposal is that Jewish Christ followers were struggling with how to compensate for the loss of the temple and are comforted with how Christ has provided the ultimate priestly sacrifice.
- A mixed or even pre-dominantly non-Jewish audience who could have been won over to the Christ movement by the Pauline mission and may also have a high regard for the Jewish Scriptures in their Greek translation. The abandonment of “dead works” and the necessity of being instructed in Jewish beliefs such as repentance, faith(fullness), resurrection, and eternal judgment may suggest non-Jewish recipients (6:1-2; 9:14). Moreover, since the Roman authorities tolerated the ancestral traditions of their subject peoples and were suspicious of new voluntary associations or cults, grounding Jesus in the antiquity of the Jewish Scriptures and an ancient priestly order may have been attractive. The emphasis that the exalted Jesus is the supreme mediator who has provided the final sacrifice may also challenge the prevalence of sacrifices in Graeco-Roman religious piety or the imperial cult and the Roman emperor as Pontifex Maximus (“greatest pontiff”).
The Date of the Epistle to the Hebrews
- The explicit external attestation of the Epistle to the Hebrews was covered here.
- While it does not contain any explicit citations, there may be strong evidence of literary dependence in the allusions to Hebrews in 1 Clement (e.g. 1 Clem 36:2-5/Heb 1:3-13 and the discussion in Andrew F. Gregory, “1 Clement and the Writings that later formed the New Testament” in The Reception of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, pp. 152-53). 1 Clement has traditionally been attributed to the bishop Clement of Rome around 96 CE, but various scholars have proposed conflicting dates ranging from the mid-60s to 140 CE.
- The author and recipients seem to be second-generation Christ followers: they were dependent on the first hearers (apostles?) of Jesus (2:3), instructed to admire their leaders (13:7), suffered persecution and imprisonment for their early enthusiasm for the Christ movement (10:32-34), and were familiar with Paul’s (former) assistant Timothy (13:23). Indeed, the author is frustrated that his audience has not yet moved beyond preliminary instructions in the faith (5:12-14).
- The sacrificial cult is described in the present tense (5:1-4; 7:20, 23, 27-28; 8:3-5, 13; 9:6-8, 13, 25; 10:1-3, 8, 11; 13:10-11) and does not capitalize on the destruction of the temple in 70 CE as proving the point that the sacrificial system has been rendered obsolete. On the other hand, the author’s knowledge of the sacrifices carried out by the Levitical priests at the tabernacle may be entirely based on Scripture, other Jewish and Christian writers refer to the temple cult in the present tense after 70 CE, and the author may presuppose the absence of the temple in the reflections on how Jesus is the high priest now mediating access to God.
- The readers had undergone some local forms of ostracism, persecution, and imprisonment (10:32-34), but they apparently had not suffered to the point of martyrdom (12:4). It may be difficult to correlate their suffering with the persecution of the Hebrews and the Hellenists in Jerusalem (Acts 7:1-8:1; 9:1-2; 12:1-2), the expulsion of some Jews (and Jewish Christians) from Rome under the emperor Claudius (Acts 18:2; Seutonius, Claudius 25), Nero’s scapegoating and execution of Christians for the fire in Rome (1 Clement 5:4-6:2; Tacitus, Annals 15.44.4), or other isolated acts of political suppression (cf. the correspondence of Pliny the Younger and Trajan around 112 CE).
- There are stylistic or theological parallels with 1 Peter (ca. 70 – 110 CE), Luke-Acts (ca. 65 – 130 CE), and the Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 64 – 135 CE). There may be knowledge of oral or written Jesus traditions including his emotional prayers or petitions to God (5:7), his death outside the city gate (13:12), and the way provided through the temple curtain (6:19-20; 10:19-20).
- There is a developed Christology in Hebrews 1:2-3 (but see 1 Corinthians 8:6; Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-18).
The Internal Evidence within Hebrews
- There is no opening salutation and the author remains formally anonymous.
- Hebrews 11:32 uses the accusative, masculine, singular participle (διηγούμενον) to modify the accusative singular pronoun.
- The author is united with the recipients in having received the message of salvation secondhand from those who first heard the Lord and had it confirmed by the evidence of signs and wonders (2:3).
- The author was most likely a Greek-speaking Jew who was highly educated in literacy and rhetoric, worked exclusively with the Septuagint, employed Jewish methods of biblical interpretation, and was conversant with Middle Platonic thought.
- The postscript in Hebrews 13:20-25 seems to reflect Paul’s epistles and the author seems to have been acquainted with Paul’s (former?) assistant Timothy who was recently released from imprisonment.
- The author passes along the greetings from those “from Italy” (13:24).
The Apostle Paul: this option corresponds with early church tradition, was familiar with members of Paul’s circle (13:23-24), and arguably develops certain language and themes from Paul’s epistles in drastically different ways (e.g. Wisdom Christology, “new covenant” terminology, the importance of pistis or faith[fullness]). However, the anonymity contrasts with Paul’s usual practice and the author does not emphasize his own apostolic calling, the Greek style is more advanced, and the thematic differences are significant (e.g. Jesus’s high priestly ministry).
- David Alan Black, The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul (Energion Publications, 2017)
A Pseudonymous Author: this option explains the parallels adduced above as the author’s attempt to pass off the epistle as one of Paul’s prison epistles or a later scribe’s attempt to include the epistle in a catholic collection of Paul’s epistles. The major obstacle to this thesis is that the author never explicitly identifies himself as “Paul” in the letter.
- Rothschild, Clare K. Hebrews as Pseudepigraphon. WUNT 2.235; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009.
- Eisenbaum, Pamela M. “Locating Hebrews within the Literary Landscape of Christian Origins.” Pages 213–37 in Hebrews: Contemporary Methods – New Insights. Edited by Gabriella Gelardini. Biblical Interpretation Series 75. Leiden: Brill, 2005.
Luke: Paul describes Luke as a beloved physician and non-Jewish co-worker (Philemon 1:24; Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11) and church tradition identifies him as the author of the third canonical Gospel and book of Acts based on the use of the first-person plural in the latter book (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.14.1). There are some early church traditions in support of this position. This option could explain the Pauline features and the stylistic and thematic parallels between Hebrews and Luke-Acts, but it may overlook the major differences between these writings as well as the uncertainty of whether church tradition correctly inferred the authorship of “Luke-Acts” and it also posits a non-Jewish author (a former God-fearer?) for Hebrews.
- Allen, David L. Lukan Authorship of Hebrews. NACSBT 8; Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010.
Joseph “Barnabas”: a Levite from Cyprus who had the nickname “son of consolation” (Acts 4:36; cf. Hebrews 13:22) and was active on Paul’s missionary travels. He also seems to have taken a more conservative line in the dispute over mixed table fellowship, perhaps part of the underlying split between Paul and Barnabas/John Mark as well, but they may have subsequently reconciled (Acts 4:36-37; 9:27; 11:22, 25-26, 29-30; 12:25-13:5, 43, 46, 50-51; 14:12-20; 15:2, 12, 22-26, 35-39; 1 Corinthians 9:6; Galatians 2:1-14; Colossians 4:10-11). There are some early church traditions in support of this position. This might explain the Pauline features and the focus on the temple cult, but the text is anonymous and we do not have any other writings from Barnabas with which to compare.
- De Boer, E. A. “Tertullian on ‘Barnabas’ Letter to the Hebrews’ in De pudicitia 20.1-5.” Vigiliae Christianae 68.3 (2014): 243-63.
Apollos: Apollos was a Jewish intellectual from Alexandria who was described as eloquent of speech and who ministered in Ephesus and Corinth; Paul addressed the disunity that formed among the Corinthian congregations after one of the factions claimed to be loyal to Apollos (Acts 18:24-19:1; 1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:4-6, 21-22; 4:6; 16:12). This suggestion about the authorship of Hebrews goes back to the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, but there are no early church traditions to support it. It could explain the Pauline features, the letter’s facility in Greek and rhetoric, the use of the Septuagint, and the parallels with other Alexandrian thinkers (e.g. Philo of Alexandria). However, the text is anonymous and we do not have any other writings from Apollos with which to compare.
- Guthrie, George W. “The Case for Apollos as the Author of Hebrews.” Faith and Mission 18.2 (2001): 41-56.
Priscilla: Priscilla and Aquila were among the Jewish Christ-followers who were expelled by the emperor Claudius from Rome in 49 CE (cf. Seutonius, Claudius 25) and bonded with Paul since they worked in the same trade and were fellow missionary teachers; the order of the names of the couple may suggest that Priscilla was the more prominent individual (Acts 18:1-2, 18, 26; Romans 16:3; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19). This suggestion for the authorship of Hebrews goes back to one of the pre-eminent late 19th and early 20th century German historian and theologian Adolf von Harnack and could explain the possible scribal omission of the author’s name, the switch between the first person singular and plural in the letter, the author’s educated status and Roman acquaintances, and the Pauline features. However, there are no early church traditions to support it, it is difficult to reconcile this option with Hebrews 11:32, and we do not have Priscilla’s other writings with which to compare.
- Harnack, Adolf (Translated by Luther D. Lazarus). “The Authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews.” Lutheran Church Review 19 (1900): 448-471.
- Hoppin, Ruth. Priscilla’s Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Fort Bragg, CA: Lost Coast Press), 1997.
Silas/Silvanus: Silas is most frequently mentioned as a missionary companion of Paul, though he was chosen to deliver an apostolic letter after the Jerusalem Council and was associated with Peter in the epistle bearing Peter’s name (Acts 15:22, 27, 32; 15:40; 16:19-40; 17:4, 10, 14-15; 18:5; 2 Corinthians 1:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; 1 Peter 5:12). This option could explain the Pauline features and the stylistic and theological parallels between Hebrews and 1 Peter (other possibilities include similar traditions or a shared milieu in Rome), but 1 Peter 5:12 suggests that Silvanus was the letter carrier rather than the scribal hand that composed 1 Peter and there is no other strong internal or external evidence to identify Silas as the author of Hebrews.
Clement of Rome: Clement is listed as second or third bishop of Rome in the episcopal succession inaugurated by the Apostle Peter. There is some support for this in early Christian traditions and there is the early attestation of Hebrews in 1 Clement (see the post on the date of Hebrews), though 1 Clement lacks explicit citation formula to preface these allusions and uses the material in Hebrews towards different ends. This option might also explain the elite status of the author, the Roman connections, and the Pauline influences that are also evident in 1 Clement, but it is difficult to reconcile with the anonymity of the letter.
The Authorship of Hebrews: Ancient External Evidence
Irenaeus of Lyon and Hippolytus of Rome:
- See D. Jeffrey Bingham’s study “Irenaeus and Hebrews” on the allusions to Hebrews in Irenaeus’s treatise On the Detection and Overthrow of Knowledge False So-Called
- “… and a volume containing various Dissertations, in which he [Irenaeus] mentions the Epistle to the Hebrews and the so-called Wisdom of Solomon, making quotations from them” (in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.26)
- “Hippolytus and Irenaeus claim that the Letter to the Hebrews is not by Paul, but Clement and Eusebius and a numerous company of the other fathers count this letter among the others and say that Clement named above translated it from Hebrew” (according to the 6th century Stephanus Gobarus in Photios I, the 9th century Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bibliotheca 232)
- “Hippolytus says that in writing to seven Churches, he writes just as Paul wrote thirteen letters, but wrote them to seven Churches. That to the Hebrews he does not judge to be Paul’s, but perhaps Clement’s.” (Dionysius bar Salibi, 12th century bishop of Amid, preface to his Commentary on the Apocalypse)
Clement of Alexandria:
- “He says that the Epistle to the Hebrews is the work of Paul, and that it was written to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language; but that Luke translated it carefully and published it for the Greeks, and hence the same style of expression is found in this epistle and in the Acts. But he says that the words, Paul the Apostle, were probably not prefixed, because, in sending it to the Hebrews, who were prejudiced and suspicious of him, he wisely did not wish to repel them at the very beginning by giving his name… But now, as the blessed presbyter [Pantaenus] said, ‘since the Lord being the apostle of the Almighty, was sent to the Hebrews, Paul, as sent to the Gentiles, on account of his modesty did not subscribe himself an apostle of the Hebrews, through respect for the Lord, and because being a herald and apostle of the Gentiles he wrote to the Hebrews out of his superabundance'” (from the Hypotyposes, in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.2-4)
Origen of Alexandria:
- “That the verbal style of the epistle entitled ‘To the Hebrews,’ is not rude like the language of the apostle, who acknowledged himself ‘rude in speech’ that is, in expression; but that its diction is purer Greek, any one who has the power to discern differences of phraseology will acknowledge. Moreover, that the thoughts of the epistle are admirable, and not inferior to the acknowledged apostolic writings, any one who carefully examines the apostolic text will admit… If I gave my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle, but the diction and phraseology are those of some one who remembered the apostolic teachings, and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher. Therefore if any church holds that this epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this. For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul’s. But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows. The statement of some who have gone before us is that Clement, bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, and of others that Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts, wrote it. But let this suffice on these matters.” (from the Homilies on Hebrews, in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.25.12)
- See Benno Zuiddam’s translations of all of Origen’s relevant comments in his post “What Origen really taught about the authorship of Hebrews.”
Tertullian of Carthage:
- “For there is extant withal an Epistle to the Hebrews under the name of Barnabas— a man sufficiently accredited by God, as being one whom Paul has stationed next to himself in the uninterrupted observance of abstinence… he says ‘For impossible it is that they who have once been illuminated, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have participated in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the word of God and found it sweet, when they shall— their age already setting— have fallen away, should be again recalled unto repentance, crucifying again for themselves the Son of God, and dishonouring Him’ [Hebrews 6:4]” (Tertullian, On Modesty 20)
Gaius of Rome:
- “There has reached us also a dialogue of Caius, a very learned man, which was held at Rome under Zephyrinus, with Proclus, who contended for the Phrygian heresy. In this he curbs the rashness and boldness of his opponents in setting forth new Scriptures. He mentions only thirteen epistles of the holy apostle, not counting that to the Hebrews with the others. And unto our day there are some among the Romans who do not consider this a work of the apostle.” (from the Dialogue with Proclus, in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 6.20.3)
Papyrus 46 (46) is part of the Chester Beatty Papyri and included the text of Hebrews after Romans in its collection of Pauline Epistles.
The Muratorian Canon, most likely dating to Rome in the late second century, is silent on Hebrews.
Eusebius of Caesarea:
- “Paul’s fourteen epistles are well known and undisputed. It is not indeed right to overlook the fact that some have rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews, saying that it is disputed by the church of Rome, on the ground that it was not written by Paul. But what has been said concerning this epistle by those who lived before our time I shall quote in the proper place.” (Ecclesiastical History 3.3.5)
- “For as Paul had written to the Hebrews in his native tongue, some say that the evangelist Luke, others that this Clement himself, translated the epistle. The latter seems more probable, because the epistle of Clement and that to the Hebrews have a similar character in regard to style, and still further because the thoughts contained in the two works are not very different.” (Ecclesiastical History 3.38.2-3)
Augustine of Hippo:
- “… written in the epistle which is inscribed to the Hebrews, which most say is by the Apostle Paul, though some deny this.” (City of God 16.22)
- “The epistle which is called the Epistle to the Hebrews is not considered his, on account of its difference from the others in style and language, but it is reckoned, either according to Tertullian to be the work of Barnabas, or according to others, to be by Luke the Evangelist or Clement afterwards bishop of the church at Rome, who, they say, arranged and adorned the ideas of Paul in his own language, though to be sure, since Paul was writing to Hebrews and was in disrepute among them he may have omitted his name from the salutation on this account. He being a Hebrew wrote Hebrew, that is his own tongue and most fluently while the things which were eloquently written in Hebrew were more eloquently turned into Greek and this is the reason why it seems to differ from other epistles of Paul.” (On Illustrious Men 5.59)
- “Why, then, not being a teacher of the Jews, does he [Paul] send an Epistle to them? And where were those to whom he sent it? It seems to me in Jerusalem and Palestine.” (preface of Homilies on Hebrews)
Since I am a relative newbie on the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews, readers may be interested in a blog dedicated to the letter called Polumeros kai Polutropos. The author, Dr. Brian C. Small, has written a monograph entitled The Character of Jesus in the Book of Hebrews. The blog has very helpful bibliographies of books, articles, dissertations, reviews, and devotional material for your perusal.
Also, a review has been posted of Hebrews in Context (ed. Gabriella Gelardini and Harold W. Attridge; Leiden: Brill, 2016) at the website Review of Biblical and Early Christian Studies. The content explores the various contexts of the text (Jewish, Hellenistic, Roman) and brings together many papers presented at the Society of Biblical Literature unit dedicated to Hebrews. Another forthcoming publication that caught my eye is an edited collection of key articles on Hebrews that have been compiled by Scott D. Mackie in The Letter to the Hebrews: Critical Readings (Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2018). The text that I am considering for my class, since it includes a range of scholarly perspectives and explores both historical and theological approaches to Hebrews that would be suitable for a Seminary audience, is The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (ed. R.J. Bauckham, D.R. Driver, T.A. Hart, and N. MacDonald; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).
Here is the introductory post I had written on the origins and reception of the Epistle to the Hebrews. This was part of my single semester course on the whole Bible (!), so obviously we did not spend more than a class on this single letter and the wider implications of its theology. I hope to expand my knowledge in the coming days.
I am preparing to teach a scheduled course on the Epistle to the Hebrews and it is not a text that I have dived into to a great extent before. Thus, while I do my research, I thought I would kick off a new series on the epistle to the Hebrews.
I want to elaborate more fully on the classes that I am preparing to teach. After I teach the first semester of New Testament Greek as an adjunct lecturer, I will be taking up my new full-time position after Christmas. I will be teaching two units on a yearly basis – “Jesus and the Gospels” and “The Early New Testament Church” – and upper level exegetical classes with options in both English and Greek (the latter includes translation exercises) offered on a rotating basis. The content of the first main unit includes a literary analysis of each Gospel with their distinctive features, the interrelationships between the Gospels, the kingdom message of Jesus, the ethics of Jesus, the parables of Jesus, the miracles of Jesus, the Christological titles of Jesus, and the passion and resurrection narratives. In the second main unit, the first half is devoted to the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles (the Jerusalem Church, Stephen and the Hellenists, the Pauline Mission and Churches, the Jerusalem Council, the Early Christian Preaching, and schisms/external threats) and the second half will be an exegetical survey of at least seven New Testament epistles. The major exegetical course that is coming up is on the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews. My blogging activity over the next several months will involve reshaping the tab “My Courses” to fit these guidelines and blogging through the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Jason Gardner at his blog Eis Doxan has posted the latest Biblical Studies Carnival here. It is a good roundup of posts including those on the Hebrew Bible, LXX, New Testament, academia, archaeology, or recent publications. I was away on holidays for much of August, so I was happy to see that two of my entries made it in. Enjoy.