Biblical Studies (NT)/The Epistle to the Hebrews: The Old Versus the New
THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS
The Old Versus the New
- 1 BACKGROUND
- 2 MAJOR THEMES
- 3 Test Your Knowledge
Who Wrote Hebrews?
Although the translators of the King James Version of the Bible used the title: “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews,” the epistle itself does not identify its author, and this opinion of Pauline authorship has by no means been universally held throughout church history. Even in the early church, there was not a universal agreement on the subject, and various theories have been argued back and forth throughout the years.
Second century Christians on the eastern end of the Mediterranean gave credit to Paul for writing Hebrews. In about 200 A.D., Clement of Alexandria supported the view that Paul had written it and suggested that the difference in the style of the Greek when compared with epistles known to be written by Paul was because he had written it first in Hebrew, and Luke had translated it into Greek. Christians in Rome and the other western churches were unanimous in the opinion that Paul did not write this epistle, but there was no strong consensus as to who did. They were finally persuaded to accept Paul as the author in the fourth century. There is no record of this opinion being challenged again until the Reformation, when Erasmus, Luther and Calvin disputed it.
Some of the reasons for arguing that Paul did not write Hebrews are: 1) Paul invariably identified himself in the opening words of his epistles, but this epistle has no such identification. 2) There are no allusions to Paul’s life or companions which are so characteristic of him. 3) The style of the Greek is unlike that of Paul’s accepted writings. The quality and style of the language are excellent, like that of someone who has had the best training in the Greek language. 4) There is a conspicuous absence of phrases that Paul frequently used.
Many modern scholars feel that Apollos was the author, an opinion which was first put forth by Luther. Apollos certainly had the right background. Luke writes of him, “A certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the scriptures, came to Ephesus. He vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing by the scriptures that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 18:24,28). Various other possible authors have been suggested over the years. However, all that we can say for sure is that the author was a Christian who had received excellent training in the Greek language and had a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures. From this, we can deduce that the author was probably a Jewish Christian with a Hellenistic (i.e. Greek) background. But beyond that, all is speculation.
With regard to the date of writing, Hebrews contains references to the Levitical priesthood and the temple sacrifices as though they are currently in existence. Since Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 70 A.D., the letter was probably written before that date. Also, the subject matter of the epistle gives the impression that the author may have had the Judaizers (see below) in mind, for much attention is given to the significance of the coming of the Messiah in relation to the old priesthood and sacrifices. Therefore, the letter was probably written between 50 and 70 A.D.
To Whom Was It Written?
Although the epistle does not tell us to whom it is addressed, it has been referred to as the epistle to the Hebrews since at least as far back as the second century. Its contents confirm the appropriateness of the title, for they indicate that the intended audience was in fact comprised of Jewish Christians.
We cannot say for sure where these Jewish Christians lived, as the letter does not give us this information. The only clue we have appears in the closing verses: “Greet all those who rule over you, and all the saints. Those from Italy greet you” (13:24). This has led some to believe that the recipients of the letter lived in Italy, and that some of their fellow citizens who were out of the country were sending them a greeting through the writer of this letter. But it could also mean that the writer was in Italy when he wrote, and was greeting the addressees on behalf of his Italian hosts. Once again, we can only speculate.
Because he is writing to Jewish Christians, the constant referral to the Hebrew scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament of the Christian Bible) gives weight to the arguments of the writer. Jewish Christians were leaving behind all that they had known and trusted in exchange for a new promise based on grace, rather than law. It is difficult to imagine what kind of struggles they must have gone through. Not only were there physical persecutions from their own people, but they had to come to terms with a whole new philosophy of life. Therefore, the writer uses a reference point which they know they can trust - the Hebrew scriptures - to support his argument.
The Jewish Community
Jews living in the Roman Empire were subject to its laws and were unquestionably influenced by its customs. Nevertheless, despite being spread over the length and breadth of the empire, they retained a strong subculture, whose center was at Jerusalem rather than Rome. Jerusalem was central to Jewish history and tradition. The temple was located there. It was home to the high priest and the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling body), and pilgrimages were made to the holy city by all faithful Jews in order to observe religious festivals. Within Jerusalem itself and in the rest of Judea, law and order were administered by the Jews themselves for the most part. They were allowed by the Romans to continue in their own laws and customs, so long as there was no conflict with Roman interests.
The Jews had been the first to hear the Gospel, because Jesus' ministry took place entirely within the Jewish communities of Palestine. After Jesus was no longer with them, the disciples also restricted their preaching to Jewish audiences at first. When the Holy Spirit came to the believers at Pentecost in 30 A.D., the Gospel was also preached to Jews from outside of Palestine who were gathered in Jerusalem for the feast. Some of these may have taken the Gospel back to their home towns and started Christian communities there. It is thought that the church in Rome may have begun in this way.
As the numbers of adherents grew, several apostles, most notably Paul, undertook great evangelistic journeys throughout the lands north and east of the Mediterranean, traveling widely in Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, some of the Mediterranean islands, and possibly as far west as Spain. It was the custom of these evangelists to go first to the Jews, preaching in the synagogues as long as they were welcome. Therefore, it is accurate to say that, in the early years, Christianity was a not a separate religion, but was a sect within Judaism. (See Lesson 6: The Birth of the Church.)
Orthodox Jews and Christian Jews
As the church grew, problems arose between orthodox Jews and those Jews who had embraced the Gospel. The former believed that salvation came through obedience to the Mosaic law (i.e. the laws of Moses, found in the first five books of the Bible). The latter believed that it was impossible to measure up to that high standard, and that salvation comes by grace alone.
We have seen in Acts how, as a result of these differences, orthodox Jews persecuted Paul and other early Christians. It is not surprising that persecutions arose, however. It is easy to see how even Paul, before his own conversion, saw Christianity as an extremely dangerous heresy, one which threatened the very fabric of Jewish society. Bitter divisions must have arisen, even within families, over this new faith which, in the eyes of the orthodox Jews, seemed to negate the most fundamental principles upon which Jewish society was built. The early converts must have seen first-hand the fulfillment of Jesus’ words, “Do you suppose that I have come to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. The father will be divided against the son and the son against the father, the mother against the daughter and the daughter against the mother, the mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Lk 12:51-53).
Not all of the troubles in the early church came from outside. There were also problems within. Some of the Jewish converts taught that it was still necessary to observe Jewish laws and customs after accepting Christ, an idea which Paul, notwithstanding the fact that he was a practicing Jew himself, took exception to. This issue surfaces in his epistle to the Galatians. The people in question are known as Judaizers, and were also a particular concern to the writer of Hebrews. Jews who converted to Christianity were often rejected by their fellow Jews, which must have been a painful experience. Some of these converts may have embraced the doctrine of the Judaizers as a compromise, in the hope that if they continued in the Jewish observances, they would not be ostracized for their faith in Christ.
The Jewish Rebellion
As it turned out, the greatest threat to Jewish religion and culture was not Christianity, but the Roman Empire. In 66 A.D., the Jews in Palestine rebelled against their Roman occupiers, a rebellion which continued for several years. As a result, the Romans completely destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. This must have come as something of a surprise to the early Jewish Christians, because we have reason to believe that they expected Christ to return very quickly to set up his kingdom on earth with Jerusalem as its capital. But for the Jewish community as a whole, it must have been heartbreaking.
The Superiority of Christ and the New Covenant
There are two major themes in Hebrews. They are: 1) the superiority of Christ and the New Covenant over what existed before, and 2) the importance of faith. The first of these themes dominates the epistle until the middle of Chapter 10, and the second, from Chapter 10 forward.
The epistle opens by telling us that God has appointed Jesus “heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds” (1:2). Then, liberally quoting the Hebrew scriptures (Christian Old Testament), the writer argues for Christ’s superiority over angels and priests; his victory over death and suffering; the superiority of the new covenant over the old; and the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice of himself over the animal sacrifices commanded under the old covenant.
Reverence for angels was very prevalent in first-century Judaism, yet the author argues that the Messiah was greatly superior to the angels. Using a selection from Psalm 110, he challenges his readers with the question, “To which of the angels has he ever said, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool’? Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation?” (1:13-14). The passage in question, while written a thousand years before Christ, was understood to be referring to the Messiah who was to come.
Despite this superiority, it was necessary for Christ to take a flesh-and-blood body in order that he might be able to partake of the suffering and death of mortal beings, “that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (2:14). In subjecting himself to death, Christ was able to conquer death, thereby destroying Satan’s ultimate weapon. Thus he shows his superiority over both death and Satan.
The author continues by showing Christ’s superiority over the priesthood. He again refers to Psalm 110, where Christ is referred to as “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4). This sets him apart from the traditional priesthood, who were of the order of Levi. The Levites were one of the twelve tribes of Israel. They took their name from Levi, from whom they were descended. According to the laws of Moses, only Levites could serve in the temple, hence the “Levitical priesthood.” As priests, Levites were also the only ones who could accept tithes.
Yet the author says that in a symbolic way, even the Levites paid a tithe to Melchizedek, because Abraham paid a tithe to him, and they were all descendants of Abraham. If the Levites tithed to Melchizedek through Abraham, and Christ is a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek, it follows that his priesthood is superior to theirs. He writes, “Such a high priest [i.e. Christ] was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for his own sins and then for the people’s, for this he did once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who have weakness. But the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever” (7:26-28).
Just as the author argues for Christ’s superiority over the old priesthood, he says that the new covenant which God gave to his people through Christ is superior to the old covenant, which was given through Moses. Quoting Jeremiah, he says, “The days come, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (8:8,12). Implied in this willingness of God to forget our sins is that there will no longer be a need to offer sacrifices as an expiation for them. This is because of Christ’s sacrifice, which eliminated the need for all further sacrifices. The author says, “If the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies to the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (9:13-14).
The Mysterious Melchizedek
Melchizedek has captured the imaginations of Bible readers and scholars over the centuries for two reasons: firstly, the patriarch Abraham paid a tithe to him (Gen 14:20), and secondly, Jesus is referred to as an eternal priest in the order of Melchizedek (Ps 110:4; Heb 5:6, 7:17, 7:21). The first mention of Melchizedek in the Bible is a brief one, and it occurs in the fourteenth chapter of Genesis. Abraham’s brother Lot, who lived in the city of Sodom, had been taken captive when the king of Sodom was defeated in battle. When Abraham (then called Abram) heard of this, he gathered his fighting men and went in pursuit of Lot’s captors. He defeated them and brought back Lot and the other captives safely and recovered the property that had been taken. The Bible says, “Then Melchizedek, king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God most high, and he blessed Abram, saying, ‘Blessed be Abram by God most high, creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God most high, who delivered your enemies into your hand.’ Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything” (Gen 14:18-20).
This is the whole extent of the information which Genesis gives us of the life of Melchizedek. In this short passage, we see that he was both king of Salem, i.e. Jerusalem, and a priest. It is interesting to note that at this time, Jerusalem was still a Canaanite city, and therefore must have been a center for the worship of many gods. Yet Melchizedek was “priest of God most high.” Also, of particular interest is that the patriarch Abraham, generally considered one of the Bible’s greatest saints and listed among the “heroes of faith” in Chapter 11 of Hebrews, paid tithes to Melchizedek.
This does not escape the attention of the author of Hebrews, who writes, “This Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, to whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all, first being translated king of righteousness, and then also king of Salem, that is, king of peace, without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually. Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils” (7:1-4). Clearly, the author of Hebrews is adding some information concerning Melchizedek which was not included in the Genesis account, and which elevates him to an even greater stature than the already eminent position which Genesis had given him. We have no way of knowing whether the author of Hebrews had access to documents or oral traditions that we no longer have. We do know however, that he was not the first author to draw a comparison between Melchizedek and the Messiah, for in Psalm 110, one of the Messianic psalms, David wrote, “The Lord has sworn, and will not change his mind: you are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4). In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that this Psalm concerns the Messiah (Mt 22:41-45).
All of these facts have led some to conclude that Melchizedek was in fact an earlier appearance of Jesus, while others say that he was a great man of God who was a prophetic symbol of the Messiah to come, just as the lives of certain other Old Testament characters can be seen to parallel Christ’s in different ways. Unfortunately, we are given so little information about Melchizedek, that his true identity remains a mystery. Nevertheless, no one else in the Bible is likened to Christ in quite the same way, so we can conclude that whoever this Melchizedek was, he must have been truly extraordinary among those given as prophetic symbols of the Messiah to come.
[If you are interested in Melchizedek, you may wish to add Chapter 7 to the assigned reading.]
The Importance of Acting in Faith
Chapter 10, verse 19, is the point of division between the first and second parts of Hebrews. This is not a physical division, but is simply one which has been made by Bible scholars for convenience, because from this point, the subject matter takes on a different theme. Having explained the basis for Christian faith, the writer now begins to explain the importance of faith, and the role it plays in the life of the individual. He urges those who have accepted Christ not to fall back into their old ways, as now that they know the truth, they have a greater obligation not to sin. Quoting the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, he says, “The just shall live by faith; but if he draws back, my soul has no pleasure in him,” adding in his own words, “But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (10:38-39).
Heroes of Faith
Chapter 11 is the known as the “heroes of faith” chapter, because it lists a number of Old Testament people whose lives were changed, and who impacted the lives of others, because of their profound faith in God. It opens with the famous definition of faith: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Amram, Jochebed, Moses, and Rahab are some of the examples the writer gives to illustrate the power of faith. The author urges us emulate these individuals, saying, “Seeing we also are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (12:1-2).
Chapter 13 forms the conclusion of the letter. The writer asks us not to take his words lightly, saying, “I appeal to you brethren, bear with the word of exhortation, for I have written to you in few words” (13:22). Actually, it is a long letter, especially when one considers that it was painstakingly handwritten on a roll of papyrus. But in terms of its weighty subject matter, it is indeed a brief document, for it speaks of things which were ultimately to change the course of western civilization.
Test Your Knowledge
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