The Letter To The Hebrews - Introduction
Traditionally known as “The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews,” this writing is best understood as an anonymous sermon written to encourage an early Christian community to continued faith and hope in the face of hardship. In imagery unique among New Testament books, the sermon develops a picture of Christ as the great high priest who fulfills the Jewish system of sacrifice. Using a sophisticated rhetorical style, the author alternates argument and exhortation. Although it concludes with greetings and other features of a letter ( 13.22–25 ), the work has no opening greeting and no identification of the author or of those addressed. Rather, the author refers to it as a “word of exhortation” ( 13.22 ) a phrase used in Acts 13.15 to describe a synagogue sermon of Paul.
When the New Testament was being formed, this anonymous sermon was attributed to Paul, presumably because of the growing authority of Paul's reputation as a letter writer. The early church leaders Clement, Tertullian, and Origen, however, acknowledged differences in style and theology between Hebrews and Paul's own letters. Clement argued that Luke translated Paul's Hebrew original into Greek, while Origen suggested that a disciple of Paul wrote the letter based on Paul's notes. Modern interpreters have suggested other authors, including Apollos and Priscilla (see Acts 18.24–26 ). There is not sufficient historical evidence, however, to identify any person named in the New Testament as the author.
Like the name of the author, the precise date of Hebrews cannot be determined. Because the argument depends on description of the Temple sacrifice, some scholars argue that it must originate before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Because the work deals with the exegesis of scriptural texts, however, the literal existence of Temple sacrifice is not necessary for its argument to be persuasive. The probable date of the work therefore falls somewhere in the range of 60 to 100 CE.
Despite the title “to the Hebrews,” the audience probably consists of people of both Jewish and Gentile background. Evidence within the sermon for the identity of its audience suggests that the community has suffered hardship and persecution ( 10.32 ) and that some may have renounced their faith ( 2.3; 6.4–6; 12.25 ). The central role of interpretation of the Jewish scriptures (used by the author in their ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint) in the argument of the sermon shows the continued importance of those scriptures and of Jewish tradition for those who believed in Christ. The author seeks both to ground the argument in scripture and to argue that Jesus is superior to earlier Jewish traditions. Within the audience were both Jewish Christians well versed in scripture and Gentile Christians who also would have found such arguments persuasive because they adopt the rhetorical practice of appeal to ancient authorities.
Because so many of the standard historical introductory questions about Hebrews are uncertain, Hebrews is best read by leaving those questions open and exploring the work as a distinctive Christian writing. The work interprets the significance of Jesus Christ and his death in categories familiar to both its author and its audience. Its readers could appreciate the sophisticated rhetorical style, follow the repetition and development of images and vocabulary, and understand the logic of the author's argument in the context of Platonic and allegorical interpretation and of other early Christian language.
Hebrews is a document in which themes and motifs anticipate and reinforce each other. The sermon is organized into four main sections. Heb 1.1–4.13 explores the word of God spoken through the Son. Heb 4.14–10.31 interprets Jesus as the eternal high priest against the background of the Israelite priesthood. The third part, 10.32–12.29 , describes faith as insight into a heavenly world of reality. Chapter 13 gives practical advice and greetings.