Hebrews (Part 01) - Introduction
Many scholars believe Hebrews to be the most profound of the New Testament books. The study of the book may yield rich results, but an approach of less than full commitment often leads to frustration. The epistle is not ordered in what we may consider a traditional manner of presentation for topical discussion. Two reasons may account for this. The first is that the book seems to have been written according to the style of the Greek orators of its day. Rather than the normal logical progression of premise, premise, conclusion, Hebrews tosses out a conclusion, then supports it through (seemingly) haphazard references, comments, and illustrations. The second reason for its particular approach is that its intended audience is not as general as we usually assume in reading the New Testament. Our assumption is often rooted in the idea that, after all, God delivered these books/letters to all Christians of all time. Yes, he did. However, we can’t assume that every book must conform to our current general life and culture. The epistle to the Hebrews was written to Hebrews—Mediterranean Jews of the first century. Their culture was their religion. Their focus in living, therefore, had been Judaism. Their travels to areas outside Palestine often served to focus their lives’ activities even more so on their Judaism as they faced an opposing and imposing Greek culture. In other words, they had their personal, protective shields up. Christianity, therefore, was not necessarily accepted by them as a new religion/culture or even improved religion/culture, but rather merely as an addition to their already settled Jewish culture. The writer of Hebrews seems to sense this and focuses arguments for Christ’s mediatorial excellence specifically against this attitude. To gain the most from the epistle, therefore, that “author intent” must be kept in mind.
Hebrews was probably written in the mid to late AD 60s (65-68). Hebrews refers to two times of Christian persecution. The first is referenced in chapter 10. The indication of verse 32 is that there had been a former time of persecution. The second reference is in chapter 12. That persecution had not yet intensified to the point of sacrificing lives. By matching these references to the historical times of Christian persecution in the first century world, we are able to determine the general timeframe of the writing. The first time of Christian persecution after the opening of the apostolic age was in AD 49 when the emperor Claudius expelled Christians from Rome. During Nero’s reign (and after Rome burned) Christian persecution lasted from AD 65 until his death in 68. One last significant period occurred under Domitian who reigned from 81 to 96 (this was during the time of the Apostle John’s exile to Patmos). The majority of scholars believe that the book was written during the Neronian persecution with the previous persecution of chapter 10 referring to the action of Claudius. And thus the generally accepted date is AD 65-68. The later date during Domitian’s reign seems implausible since Hebrews, although making reference to persecutions, makes no reference to the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple that occurred in AD 70—besides Christ’s life and death, the most significant event of Jewish history for the past several hundred years.
The epistle was probably written from Ephesus to Rome. The end of the book provides clues that lead toward this conclusion. In Hebrews 13:24 the author speaks of greeting those in Italy. If the author is writing from Italy, this reference may be a greeting from those with him in Italy. If the author is writing to Italy (Rome), this passage may express a greeting from those that are with the author who had previously come from Italy. I believe the second understanding to be true. The writer had just provided news of Timothy’s release from prison in the previous verse. At this time (mid-60s), Timothy was in Ephesus. (We know this because of Paul’s letters to Timothy that were of this time period.) The presumption, then, is that the author, being in Ephesus, provides news of Timothy’s release along with a greeting from those with the author who had come from Italy.
Hebrews has no salutation as other epistles. Most likely the salutation was either lost or stripped off for some reason. That it had a salutation at one point seems probable since the letter writer speaks at times in the first person singular, seemingly sure that the recipients know from whom the letter came. But while they may have known who wrote it, we don’t. Several possibilities have been put forward over the centuries. Topping the list are Paul, Luke, Barnabas, Apollos, and, in more modern times, Priscilla (and/or Aquila).
Although Paul has been most often presumed to be the author, the evidence appears scanty at best. Some ideas in Hebrews seem to be Pauline, but that certainly does not prove his authorship. All those who knew or read Paul could incorporate the same ideas. The Greek of this epistle is stylistically different from Paul’s other letters. Even the vocabulary is different. The arguments are not pursued in the same manner that Paul pursued his points in other epistles. Therefore, few (very few) scholars today still insist on Paul’s authorship.
Some people argue that Paul wrote the epistle in the Hebrew language, and Luke (who wrote with more Greek proficiency) translated it. Two things argue against this reasoning. One is that the manner of the arguments is still inconsistent with other works of Paul. The other is that Old Testament quotations are from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT). It seems unlikely that Paul would write in Hebrew but quote from the Greek scriptures. Luke could have written the epistle on his own, but there is not much to commend this theory except that Luke wrote other books of the NT.
The case for Apollos is a bit stronger. Apollos was certainly skilled in Greek and in Greek oratory—the style of presentation used by the book of Hebrews. But that Apollos was a Christian orator that knew Greek is the only selling point. Barnabas and other friends of Paul are suggested as potential authors merely because they knew Paul and we know their names.
The more modern-day suggestion that Priscilla wrote the letter sounds, at first, like some stretch by biblical egalitarians simply to promote a woman. But there are actually some good points to the argument. Priscilla did know Paul, traveled with him, and was with him when he wrote at least one of his other epistles. She doubtless knew his points and analogies. The subject of Hebrews has to do with the messiahship or mediatorial work of Christ—exactly the subject on which she taught Apollos. Further, the authorship of Priscilla provides a good reason why the salutation has been stripped from the letter. The original recipients may have recognized the importance of the document, and, to ensure that others would read and heed its words, removed any reference to Priscilla in the greeting so that the male-dominated society would consider its message without dismissing the letter out of hand.
Priscilla also had opportunity. We can trace Priscilla and Aquila’s travels based on the book of Acts and letters from Paul. The chart below recounts their travels.
Notice that Priscilla is in Ephesus as Paul writes from Rome to Timothy in the AD 65-68 time period. Notice also that Priscilla has recently returned from Rome (Paul had sent greetings to P&A in his letter to the Romans in AD 57-58). Therefore, Priscilla had cause both to be familiar with and to write to the Jews of Rome. And she also was in Ephesus at the time of the writing of Hebrews.
Although much evidence supports Priscilla as the author, none of it is conclusive. The bottom line is that we do not know for certain who wrote the epistle.
Before starting into the book, a comment should be made concerning the frequent quotations in Hebrews from the Old Testament. The author quotes almost exclusively from the Septuagint and not from the Hebrew text. We know this to be true because there are differences in some of the verses quoted between the Hebrew and Septuagint.
The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that was first done in about 250 BC. The library at Alexandria prided itself on important works from around the known world. To obtain the sacred writings of the Hebrews, the library commissioned 72 Jewish scholars (the name Septuagint derives from the number of translators -- about 70) to translate the OT into Greek. By the time of Christ’s first advent, the Septuagint was the form of Scripture used mostly by the Jews. The New Testament quotes from the Old Testament about 320 times (37 times in Hebrews). The meaning or sense of the quote is consistent with the Septuagint 93% of those times. The meaning is consistent with the Hebrew (Masoretic) text about 68% of the time. For that reason you will read “a virgin shall conceive” in Luke which quotes the Septuagint while the passage quoted will read in your OT (translated to English from the Masoretic text) as “a young woman.”
The difference should not cause us alarm. No doctrinal disputation arises in the differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Masoretic texts. The differences are non-doctrinal differences such as those found between the King James New Testament (and its Byzantine family of Greek texts) and the English Standard Version (and its Alexandrian family of Greek texts). The care in manuscript copying and translation directed by the provision of God has preserved for us reliable copies of his word.