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The Audience of Hebrews

The Audience of Hebrews

Provenance

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”).

Rome:

  • 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).

Recipients

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”).

 

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