Thursday, July 28, 2022

Introduction to Hebrews -- Explanatory Notes

I realized that I have not written an introduction to Hebrews for my Explanatory Notes. Thought I would knock that out in a bout of insomnia. I might also add that I went through the entirety of Hebrews in both a podcast and video form as part of my Through the Bible in Ten Years series. 

And now, an Introduction to Hebrews


A Book of Riddles
From an inductive standpoint, the book of Hebrews is full of puzzles. It does not name its author. It does not name its recipients. It does not say where it is being written from or where it is being written to. It does not explicitly say why it is being written or when. What exactly is its genre? The only contemporary person mentioned in the whole of the book is a Timothy (13:23). We assume it is the Timothy we know from Paul and Acts, but we do not have enough information to be sure.

Tradition, of course, had Paul as its author. Almost no expert on Hebrews today thinks that is likely. This is a strong consensus that has persisted for well over a hundred years. Not only is the style of Hebrews different than any of Paul's letters but the way Hebrews approaches questions like the Jewish Law is different from how Paul does. Perhaps most strikingly, in Hebrews 2:3 the author does not consider himself an eyewitness of Christ, something Paul vigorously affirms in his writings (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:1).

The author is almost certainly male, for he identifies himself as such grammatically in 11:32. As just mentioned, he is a "second generation believer" in the sense that he is not an original apostle but someone who came to believe in Jesus from the message of the apostles (2:3). He would seem to be highly educated and rhetorically trained. [1] The mention of Timothy in 13:23 may suggest he was part of the Pauline mission in some way.

The early church was divided on who the author was. Voices from the eastern part of the church eventually settled on Paul as the author or at least the source of Hebrews' theology. Origen, writing about AD200, famously suggested that the thoughts were Paul's, but who the actual writer was "God knows." It is still the best answer. Other names were suggested. Tertullian writing from the west around AD200 suggested Barnabas.

Apollos has received significant support in the last century, although his name was not really suggested until Martin Luther. Even if somewhat superficial, the numerous parallels between Hebrews and the Alexandrian Jew Philo make a certain cumulative case for someone who had swum in Alexandrian waters at some time. If I have to choose, Apollos would be my speculative vote. Priscilla is an admirable suggestion but completely unlikely given the masculine participle in 11:32.

A Sermon to Rome
Although somewhat speculative, most votes would also go to Hebrews being a sermon sent to Roman Christians. Hebrews 13:22 styles the book a "word of exhortation," a phrase that Acts 13:15 uses in relation to a synagogue homily. Rome fits 13:24, where the author sends greetings to the church from some who presumably originated from Italy. It is easy to wonder if this is a referent to Priscilla and Aquila at Ephesus, although this idea is again speculative.

Hebrews suggests that the audience had previously experienced persecution (e.g., 10:32-35), which would fit Rome (and no doubt many other locations too). Some of the evangelists who had preached to them the good news had probably been martyred (13:7). We remember that Peter and Paul were both likely martyred at Rome. The first engagement we have with Hebrews in the early church is by Clement of Rome in the late 90s.

Primarily Gentiles
It will no doubt be surprising to some to learn that I lean toward a primarily Gentile audience. I once was with popular sentiment--"Surely it must be written to Jews given how thoroughly Jewish the book is." This sentiment crumbles with a puff of smoke. After all, I am a Gentile, and I love Hebrews. I am a Gentile, and I know quite a bit about the Old Testament. 

In the end, the assumption that "Hebrews must be for Jews because of its concern for the temple" is rife with anachronistic thinking. We know from Acts and beyond that many non-Jews were attracted to Judaism even before Christianity made its way around the empire. We call such individuals "God-fearers." [2] They were attracted to Judaism and the God of Israel but did not undergo circumcision to convert fully. We can assume that they were thoroughly acquainted with the Jewish Scriptures even before some of them came to believe Jesus was the Messiah. We should know from sociology that converts to a religion are often more zealous for it than those born into it.

Similarly, Christianity was not a separate religion from Judaism in the first century. Gentiles who became Jesus-followers no doubt saw themselves as converting to a form of Judaism. They were becoming "Gentile Jews," in a manner of speaking. We also anachronistically assume that the earliest followers of Jesus would have had no place for the temple in their theology, whereas the book of Acts gives us a different picture. Paul seems to offer a sacrifice in the temple rather late into his mission, around the year AD58 (Acts 21:24). While the earliest Christians very quickly saw Jesus' death as a sacrifice, the book of Hebrews itself suggests it may have taken decades for them to realize its universal scope.

Accordingly, we can easily imagine that there were Gentile Christians who were just as invested in the Jerusalem temple and its atonement as there were some Jewish Christians. If this suggestion seems strange, it is only because we are thinking with our modern hats on, where Christianity is a quite distinct religion from Judaism and we know the temple was never rebuilt. We know that Christ's death was universal and timeless in scope, not least because we have the book of Hebrews in Scripture. At the time, we would argue that the book of Hebrews was a somewhat fresh voice connecting dots that many had not yet connected.

The strongest argument for a primarily Gentile audience comes from the list of first beliefs in Hebrews 5:11-6:2. The author harkens them back to things they came to believe when they believed in Christ. But 6:1-2 is not a list that Jews would have first believed when they turned to Christ. Here again, our anachronistic assumptions can betray us. Jews would have already believed this list before they came to Christ. The list thus fits best a community of Gentiles coming to Christianity. From what we can infer from Romans and Acts, it also fits the likely ethnography of the Roman church as a primarily Gentile church.

Central Message
Regardless of the specifics of Hebrews' situation, its central message seems abundantly clear. The sermon alternates between "teaching" and "preaching," between exhortation to the audience and the exposition of Scripture supporting that exhortation. [3] Hebrews thus has a central point for its audience and it supports that point with a central argument.

The central point of Hebrews is that the audience needs to keep going. They need to endure in faith. This is what the faith chapter of Hebrews 11 is all about--keep going, like these other heroes of faith who persisted whether they received the promises in their lifetimes or not. God keeps his promises. Keep going. Do not be like the wilderness generation whose corpses fell in the desert. Do not lose your birthright like Esau. Endure the Lord's training. Keep going! Those who fall away cannot return.

The author supports this central admonition with a central argument about the superior atonement provided by Christ. Christ offered a sacrifice superior to any Levitical sacrifice in a sanctuary superior to the earthly wilderness tabernacle (and by inference its successors), and he did so as a superior priest to the Levitical priests on earth. Christ is mediator of a better covenant than the old covenant with its Law. Christ is greater than the angels who delivered the first Law to Moses. Christ is greater than Moses himself. Moses was a servant in the house of God while Jesus is the Son of God.

These dynamics are clear even though we do not know for certain all the particulars of the audience. The message of Hebrews is that the audience and should endure in faith because Christ's sacrifice is definitive for all time. The sacrifices of the Jerusalem temple were only illustrative. They were ineffective except as pointers to Christ. The audience can have faith that God will keep his promises and that Christ will return to set the world straight and commence with an unshakeable kingdom.

Inducing the Situation
What situation might have led to such rhetoric? Since the author uses the all-sufficiency of Christ's atonement as the fundamental reason for them to continue in faith, surely some question relating to atonement stands at the heart of their wavering. In addition, although Hebrews stays theoretical in relation to the wilderness tabernacle, it is unthinkable that the temple not stand somewhere in the backdrop of the situation. [4]

Here the date becomes a significant factor. If Hebrews were written prior to the temple's destruction in AD70, its argument would unavoidably come across as anti-temple, a polemic against reliance on the standing temple in Jerusalem. Hebrews then becomes deeply controversial. Their reliance on the Jerusalem temple is somehow interfering with their faith to Christ. 

In that case, perhaps they have come to believe that they are cut off from atonement if they are disassociated with mainstream Judaism. The cryptic comments in 13:9-10 could refer to some synagogue meals thought to mediate temple participation in some way. They think that if they are expelled from the synagogue, they will not get atonement. Alternatively, we think of the older view that the audience were a group of Jerusalem priests.

I have long thought that a post-destruction of the temple date fits Hebrews better, especially not long after its destruction. Hebrews never makes the negative argument against utilizing the tabernacle. Even the cryptic instruction in 13:9-10 is against "strange teaching," not mainstream sacrificial practice. Instead, Hebrews makes a positive argument to rely on Christ. It is thus less a polemic against the temple as an argument for Christ.

What if Hebrews is meant to reassure an audience troubled by the destruction of the temple? They are worried about atonement because the temple has been destroyed. They are worried about persecution because the whole Jewish world has become the enemy of Rome, and Christians are still part of that world no matter how distinct the two factions within Judaism may think they are. If they are Gentiles, it is not a return to mainstream Judaism that they are so much thinking about but a turning away from the "living God" of Israel period. Meanwhile, some strange teaching has arisen in the synagogue saying that atonement is now only available through its channels, since the temple is not standing.

Now a host of allusive comments come to life. "We have here no city that remains" (13:14). Abraham was looking for a heavenly city, not the land he was in (11:10). The audience has arrived at a heavenly Jerusalem, not an earthly one (12:22). 

Hebrews becomes a letter of consolation in the recent loss of the temple. The earthly temple was never meant to actually take away sins. Jesus was always the sacrifice toward which all earthly sacrifices pointed. They do not need to worry that their land is destroyed. We have a heavenly homeland. 

The emperor's son Titus marched defeated Jews from Jerusalem around Rome in triumph, killing them all when the parade ended. It must have been terrifying for Jews in general, and Christians were a Jewish sect, including the Gentiles who were part of it. Hebrews reminds them of all the heroes of faith who ignored the edicts of the king because they served a God who was greater still.

The central message of Hebrews is clear, whatever the particulars of its historical situation. They need to continue on in faith to the living God. They need not worry because the promises of God are sure and the atonement provided by Christ is superior to that of any earthly sacrifice or sanctuary. Perhaps they are believers in Rome trying to figure out the significance of a God that lets his temple be destroyed. [5]

The Outline
Students of Hebrews have long debated the literary structure of Hebrews. Although there is a lot of debate around the outline of the first part, some aspects of Hebrews' train of thought seem clear enough:

  • There is a major shift from teaching to preaching around 10:19. Before that part of the sermon, Hebrews gives a lot of theory about the superiority of Jesus to various elements of the old covenant--Moses, the Levitical system. Even angels are ministers of the first covenant (2:2). After that part it is mostly exhortation to the audience to keep going and continue with faith.
  • Chapter 13 is a letter conclusion. Some have even argued that it didn't originally go with the rest of the book, but the vast majority do not find any real evidence for this conclusion.
  • The book in general alterates back and forth between teaching and preaching, between exposition of Scripture and exhortation to the audience. 1:1-14 is teaching. 2:1-4 is preaching. 2:5-3:6 is teaching. 3:7-4:13 is preaching. 4:14-5:10 is teaching. 5:11-6:20 is preaching. 7:1-10:18 is teaching. 10:19-the end of the book is preaching.
  • 7:1-10:18 is clearly the central argument/exposition of the book, its nucleus, if you would. [6]
  • There is a very similar set of verses in 4:14-16 and 10:19-25, with lots of recurring words and themes. This has led some to argue for a three part structure to Hebrews: 1:1-4:13 (Christ the Son), 4:14-10:18 (Christ the High Priest), 10:19-12:29 (Application), with a letter conclusion in 13. 
  • Albert Vanhoye argued that 2:17-18 were the key verses of Hebrews, a general statement that played out in the central argument of Hebrews. [7]
  • Walter Übelacker argued that 3:1 could be seen as beginning the argument of Hebrews proper, with the first two chapters as a kind of introduction. [8]
With these observations, let me suggest the following outline for Hebrews. [9]

I. Sermon Introduction (1:1-2:18)
     A. Exordium (1:1-4)
     B. Celebration of the Enthroned Son (1:5-14)
     C. Background of Salvation (2:1-18)

II. The Argument (3:1-10:18)
     A. Enter into God's Rest (3:1-4:13)
     B. High Priestly Argument (4:14-10:18)
          1. superior priest (4:14-7:28)
          2. superior sacrifice and sanctuary (8:1-10:18)

III. The Application (10:19-12:29)
     A. Keep Going! (10:19-39)
     B. Witnesses of Faith (11:1-40)
     C. Endure God's Discipline (12:1-29)

IV. Letter Conclusion (13:1-25)
     A. Closing Instructions (13:1-21)
     B. Closing Greetings (13:20-25)

[1] Some have suggested Luke as the author, since the Greek of Luke-Acts comes the closest in the New Testament. Such a suggestion would also fit with Timothy. See David L. Allen, Lukan Authorship of Hebrews (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2010).

[2] See, for example, the Jewish historian Josephus' account of the conversion of the house of Adiabene in Antiquities 20.17-95.

[3] More than anyone else, George Guthrie has explored this dynamic in The Structure of Hebrews: A Text-Linguistic Analysis (Leiden: Brill, 1997).

[4] Unless Hebrews was written decades after the temple was destroyed, when mention of the tabernacle might not immediately invoke thought of the temple.

[5] I work out this hypothesis for Hebrews' situation in A New Perspective on Hebrews: Rethinking the Parting of the Ways (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2019).

[6] There is some debate about whether it extends to 10:25.

[7] Albert Vanhoye, La structure littéraire de l'Epître aux Hébreux (Tournai: Desclée de Brouwer, 1963).

[8] Walter Übelacker, Der Hebräerbrief als Appell: Untersuchungen zu exordium, narratio und postscriptum (Hebr 1-2 und 13,22-25) (Lund: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1989).

[9] The final post of my Explanatory Notes on Hebrews here on the blog has links at the bottom to all these sections of Hebrews collected together in one place.

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