Saturday, April 09, 2011

Introducing Hebrews

If I had to introduce Hebrews without taking sides, what would I say?

1. It seems to be a "word of exhortation" (Heb. 13:33; cf. Acts 13:15) a sermon of sorts.  But this sermon was sent as a letter to an audience at some distance (cf. Heb. 13).  If there was originally an opening greeting to the letter, it is lost to history.

2. We do not know with certainty the author, destination, or place it was written.  It makes sense to think of the author as a Greek-speaking Jew who was connected in some way to the Pauline mission (cf. 13:23), but we simply lack sufficient information to make a conclusion.  Some of the most prominent suggestions include Apollos and Barnabas, but we simply do not know.  Experts are only agreed that it was not likely Paul because of significant stylistic and theological distinctions, not to mention the fact that the author does not consider himself a direct witness to Christ (2:3).  We know the author was male because he identifies himself as such grammatically in 11:32.

3. Italy would seem to be either the point of origin or, perhaps more likely, the destination of the sermon (13:24).  Although the evidence is inconclusive, Rome currently holds first place among suggestions for the location of the audience.  We know the audience has believed for some time (5:11-6:12).  We also know that they went through a time of persecution earlier in which some of them at least lost property (10:34).  They supported individuals in prison (10:33-34), and it is even possible that some of their leaders were put to death (13:7).

If Hebrews addressed some church or churches in Rome, two principal options emerge as the earlier time of persecution.  Those who date Hebrews to the early 60s tend to see the earlier persecution as the time when the emperor Claudius expelled Jewish Christians from Rome (cf. Acts 18:2).  Those who date Hebrews even later might see the persecution under Nero around the year 64 as the earlier time of persecution.

4. Experts on Hebrews are also divided on whether the audience was predominantly Jewish or Gentile.  Initially, one might think that the audience must be Jewish in order to understand the author's complex use of the Jewish Scriptures.  Nevertheless, Gentile believers would also have embraced them as their own Scriptures and many of the earliest converts to Christian Judaism may have been "God-fearers" already worshiping in synagogues.  Galatians also has an intricate argument of this sort and its audience is primarily Gentile. The nature of the foundations the author wants them to relearn in 6:1-3 may actually point more to a predominantly Gentile audience, since a Jew would have known these things well before confessing Jesus as the Son of God.

5. It is impossible to determine the precise situation facing the audience with certainty, although the sermon certainly gives us strong hints.  The sermon clearly means to bolster both their confidence in the atonement provided by Christ's death (e.g., 10:13) and to move them to endure in faithfulness until the end (e.g., 3:14; 10:36-39).  Many have suggested the audience was tempted to return to mainstream Judaism and its system of atonement, assuming that the temple stands in some way behind the author's argument.  The sermon gives hints throughout that their environment is beginning to weigh on them in some way as believers (e.g., Heb. 11; 12:4).

Others note that Hebrews' argument is more theoretical and concerns the wilderness tabernacle of Moses.  Aside from the enigmatic aside of 13:9-10, Hebrews does not tell its audience not to utilize Levitical means of atonement, a dissuasive argument  It rather tells them to rely on Christ's atonement, a positive argument.  This fact has led some to suggest that the audience may be more discouraged and confused by the destruction of the temple in 70 than tempted to turn to an existing temple system (e.g., 13:14).


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I think that the assumptions cannot but impact how one understands Hebrews.

Would the Gentile believer be encouraged to become a proselyte of mystical Judiasm, returning to the "true faith" in light of undermining of the political temple? (this position has supported the sectarian views of Christian faith and is a good way to affirm theism).
Would the "god fearers" be encouraged to "continue" to fear God, believing in a 'future hope" though Nero held political power over their lives? This is untenuable in free societies where political power is not absolute, and individual have certain rights of appeal or petition.

Scriptures have been useful for those under psychological or political tyranny. The question is, should this be the "only hope" that is to be offered to such as these? Isn't the answer much more about how to alleviate psychological damage and political tyranny, to truely help in the real world? And should the Church "be in the business" of furthering such psychological damage and political tyranny, itself under the guise of "the gospel"?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Should Christians believe that such a government, such as Nero's, is "sent from God", and submit without question?

Biblical Christians do, as government is the authority ordained BY GOD...Protestants believe in resistance, or protest when authority is acting inapropriately. And Protestantism is what our Founding was based upon.

There are as many variances of understanding religous conscience, and government as there are people in America. This is what makes "Biblical Christianity" hard to swallow in the modern world, where individuals are valued and there are protections of liberties under law.

drew said...

Very helpful concise post. Thank you!