To The Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews

Cecil N. Wright


  1. Content. Its author refers to it as a "word of exhortation" (13:22) -- an expression used in Acts 13:15 of a sermon or homily. And its structure is said to show many parallels to a synagogue sermon: (a) thesis (1:1-4), (b) development of arguments in logical order, and (c) interspersed with hortatory [exhort, encourage - rd] sections ("let us"). Significantly, its exhortations are strongly based doctrinally. Chapters 1:1 to 10:18 are predominantly doctrinal, with exhortations interspersed; Chapters 10:19 to 13:17 are predominantly hortatory, interwoven with related instruction; and Chapter 13:18-25 ends the document with personal messages, including one brief exhortation (v.22). Moreover, no part of Holy Writ is more replete with typology -- Old Testament type and corresponding New Testament antitype.

  2.Style. The document has been described as beginning like an essay or treatise (1:1-4), proceeding as a sermon (through 13:17), and ending like an epistle or letter (13:18-25) -- in v.22 even using the verb epesteila ("I have written"), the usual expression for writing a letter, and in the AV is rendered "I have written a letter." But it ends without identifying its author or naming the locale of its addresses. They seem, however, to have been well acquainted with each other (v.19; 10:34 AV) and mutually acquainted with Timothy (v.23), a convert of and fellow worker with the apostle Paul. It could be that the epistle was designed for a wider readership than those to whom originally sent and its writer left anonymous to prevent its rejection because of prejudice against him (a view early held), though messengers bearing it would likely inform those to whom first sent. (See third paragraph of the next section.)

  3. Authorship. The ancient church in the East considered it to be of Pauline authorship. But that view was not always to be uncritically held elsewhere. Clement of Alexandria (155-215 A.D.) held that Paul wrote the epistle in Hebrew and Luke translated it into Greek (because, while compatible in sentiment with Paul's other epistles, in the main its Greek is more polished and its literary style more elevated and rhetorical than theirs) -- and later, Eusebius (263-339) A.D.) saying some believed Luke translated it, and others that Clement of Rome did, himself believed the latter more probably did, because its style was more like Clement's. (Yet no witness for a Hebrew original has ever been cited, and the opinion that there was one rests on no historical basis; besides, it seems to be the consensus of language experts that the text in Greek does not read like translation Greek.) In the West, Tertullian (160-230 A.D.) held that Barnabas was its author. Origen (about 185-254 A.D.), however, expressed himself as follows: "But I would say, that the thoughts are the apostle's, but the diction and phraseology belong to someone who has recorded what the apostle said, and as one who noted down at his leisure what his master dictated. If, then, any church considers this Epistle as coming from Paul, let it be commended for this, for neither did those ancient men deliver it as such without cause. But who it was that really wrote the Epistle, God only knows."

  Significantly, nobody questioned its inspiration. And by the middle, and especially near the end, of the 4th century (the 300s) its authorship was generally accepted as Pauline, without the qualifications of Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, and Origen as mentioned above, and without being seriously challenged again for more than eleven hundred years, in the sixteenth century, when, during the Protestant Reformation, the question of authorship was reopened.

  Other names that have been suggested as probable authors (not as translators or as amanuenses) include Apollos, Luke, Barnabas, Sylvanas, and Clement of Rome. Also, Priscilla (with the assistance of her husband, Aquila) was suggested in 1900 A.D. by Harnack, a German theologian. (Except for Clement of Rome [who died A.D. 97?], these were personal friends and fellow workers with Paul, and presumably would have reflected his theology. All are purely speculative, of course.)

  Because of uncertainty as to authorship on the part of some during the Reformation era, this document occupies a unique position in the New Testament scriptures in the order we now have them in most English versions -- the same as in the Latin manuscripts, beginning before unequivocal acceptance of Pauline authorship -- namely, between the definitely Pauline epistles and the so-called general epistles. Had it been considered of Pauline authorship for certain, it likely would have been placed, because of its length, after 2 Corinthians. However, in most of the Greek manuscripts it occurs between 2 Thessalonians and 1 Timothy.

  Some have insisted, however, that the very fact that the document is anonymous is presumptive evidence that it was written by Paul, the historical situation being what it was. It was alleged by various early church "fathers" that he did not affix his name to it least its appearance might prevent many of his Jewish brethren from reading it, and judging it on its own merits. And that there was no other against whom there was so strong and general prejudice among both the converted and unconverted Jews of that age, is an uncontroverted fact of history.

  Perhaps the strongest argument against Pauline authorship is that in 2:1-4 the writer seems to place himself among those to whom the gospel had been brought by men who had heard the Lord and through whom it had been confirmed by miracle, whereas Paul is on record as explicitly disavowing that he had received it from man or had been taught it except "through revelation of Jesus Christ" (Galatians 1:11-12).

  But Robert Milligan, in the introduction to his commentary on Hebrews (pp.14-15), in this reply: "Does not the author often associate himself with his readers for the purpose of more effectually winning their hearts and softening his own admonitions? In the sixth chapter of this same Epistle, the author says, ' Wherefore leaving the first principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on to perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of the laying on of hands, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this we will do, if God permit.'"

  Continuing, he says: "Now are we to infer from this, that the writer of this Epistle was as delinquent as were those to whom he wrote? Must we infer from this that he, as well as they, needed to be urged and admonished to go on to perfection in Christian knowledge; and that he, as well as his readers, was really in danger of apostatizing in consequence of his inexcusable neglect of the word of God? Surely not. The Epistle itself is a full and perfect refutation of any and every such allegation. But by a common figure of speech, the Apostle here associates himself with his readers, for the purpose of softening his admonitions; and referring the more delicately to their common trials, interest, and prospects."

  Finally, Milligan says (pp.18-19): "That Luke may have served as Paul's amanuensis in composing it; and that, as an inspired man, he may with Paul's consent have modified in some measure the style of the Apostle, is not at all improbable. But unless we wholly ignore the testimony of the Christian Fathers, we are constrained to believe that Paul himself is the real author of this Epistle."

  4. Destination. Although there is no hint as to the geographical destination of the document (some have argued for Jerusalem, others for Rome, or for Alexandria, though it may have been neither), it appears to have been designed principally for Jewish Christians in danger not only of backsliding (2:1; 4:1) but also of outright apostasy (6:4-6; 10:26-29). There is no point of controversy with either pagans or Gentile Christians touched on, and not even a mention of Gentiles as such (cf. 2:16), but a grave danger of either becoming irreligious or reverting to Judaism -- the latter principally -- hence a heavy emphasis on the superiority of Christianity over Judaism and of Christ over all created beings in heaven or on earth.

  The general tenor of the document -- (a) use of occasional Hellenistic philosophical terms and (b) all Old Testament quotations being, not from the Hebrew text, but from Greek translation the LXX), used by Hellenistic Jews and Greek speaking Christians -- may indicate the addressees to have been in an environment of Hellenistic Judaism rather than that of Jerusalem or Palestine. But this is not conclusive. For Paul is said to have quoted from both the Hebrew text and the LXX in the epistles bearing his name and addressed to Jewish and Gentile believers alike in the Hellenistic world. And in Jerusalem itself Pilate placed a superscription over the cross of Christ not only in Hebrew, but in Latin and Greek (Hellenisti) as well ( Luke 23:38, AV; John 19:20). So the text of Hebrews actually affords no genuine clue to the precise locale of its addressees.

  In the King James Version the document's title reads, "The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews," and the term "Hebrews" at the time of the document usually, but not always, referred to Palestinian Jews. That title, however, rests on late manuscripts and is not authoritative. Yet the title in the oldest manuscripts, said to be simply "To Hebrews", is no different as to addressees. And, while not likely to have been a part of the original document either, it was added at a very early date -- and quite likely indicates a very early belief that it was written to Jews living in Palestine.

It is true that Paul spoke of himself as a "Hebrew of Hebrew" (Philippians 3:5), though a citizen of Tarsus, a city of Cilicia (Acts 21:39). But he was also "brought up in this city [Jerusalem], at the feet of Gamaliel, instructed according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers"(Acts 22:3). It was the latter seemingly that entitled him to call himself a Hebrew.

  5. Time of Writing. There is no sure proof in the text in regard to that either. The latest time possible would have been the early 90s A.D., for it is quoted by Clement of Rome about 95 or 96 A.D. But there is no evidence that militates against its having been written at least as early as some time in the decade preceding the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 -- which may well have been "the day drawing nigh" of 10:25, as has been held by a respectable number of scholars. And the texts of 8:4 and 10:11 seem to indicate that the daily sacrifices were still being offered, which was not true after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. (See also the following paragraph.)

  6. Place of Writing. Some have taken 13:24 ("They of Italy salute you") to indicate that the author was outside of Italy among Italian companions who were sending greetings back home to a community somewhere in Italy -- which would make Rome the document's most likely destination. But such does not necessarily follow. The passage could just as well mean that the author was in Italy, writing to a community somewhere else, and that the Italians referred to were local residents sending greeting to the readers. In case Paul was the author, however, most likely this was written from Rome shortly after release from his first imprisonment, about 63 A.D.

  7. Relevance. Though written to a particular local group of Christians at a particular time in history, the document is of perpetual relevance for all Christians -- for both edification and exhortation -- in that human nature does not change, and similar dangers await Christians of every generation -- our generation being by no means an exception. Providing one of the richest studies in Holy Writ, it has been said that "no book of the Bible is more completely recognized by universal consent as giving a divine view of the gospel, full of lessons for all time." And this value is apart from where written, by whom penned, or to whom originally sent, and whether we can or cannot ascertain said data to our complete satisfaction.