The Epistle to the Hebrews Lecture one Introduction The Writer

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The Epistle to the Hebrews

Lecture one


The Writer
1) The letter to the Hebrews is an anonymous work. If you open your Bibles at the section occupied by the epistles and read the opening words of each letter you will find that they all begin with a name, except for Hebrews and 1John. Now there are very good reasons for accepting 1 John as the work of the great apostle of the gospels which cause all conservative scholars and most others to accept the letter as his work, but the situation regarding Hebrews is less certain. The Authorised Version has as the heading of the book ‘The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews’, but this is an assertion which is not made by the Bible itself, so it is possible to question this without questioning God’s Word.
2)I would like to state that I, myself, consider Paul to be the most likely originator of the epistle. I will explain this later. The London Bible College course gives four reasons for rejecting Paul’s authorship which are summarised below:

  • ‘Paul’s name does not appear in the epistle; and this is entirely contrary to his recognised practice’

  • ‘The literary style of the Greek is quite different from Paul’s’

  • ‘The writer differs from Paul in his treatment of the subject. While admittedly he belongs to the same school of thought as Paul, his theological standpoint and specific terminology were quite distinctive. For example, Paul thought of Judaism in terms of circumcision and the moral law; this write conceived of it in terms of priesthood and the Levitical ordinances. He never once refers to circumcision and has little to say about Moses (as representing the law), but dwells at length on the thought of Christ as High Priest…’

  • It need only be mentioned that the external evidence does little to support the Pauline authorship of Hebrews..’

These arguments are generally weak.

As far as the author’s name is concerned, the same problem applies to any other author. It is clear from the book that the writer expects his readers to know who he is (see 13:18-19, 22-24), yet he leaves his name off. If Paul is the author it might be that in all his other epistles, written to gentiles, he is writing from his apostolic authority as the ‘apostle to the gentiles’ (and, indeed, he is often at pains to insist on this authority), but in writing to the Hebrews his argument stands entirely on its scriptural base. Thus he begins with ‘God…’ rather than ‘Paul…’ The aspect of literary style is notoriously suspect as a method of judging authorship. (The same argument has been used to deny that Peter wrote 2 Peter and that John wrote Revelation). In any case it is possible that what we have here is a work written by a scribe, or even a ‘ghost writer’ containing Paul’s thoughts for the Hebrews. (Luke has been suggested by some). The argument from subject matter is the weakest of all. In some of his other letters Paul deals with circumcision and attitudes to the law as problems which the particular churches he was addressing were facing. Here the writer is faced with Jews going back to the old ways - what was he to write about? Exactly what is dealt with in Hebrews! In any case Paul himself writes, ‘To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; ..To them that are without law, as without law. .that I might gain them that are without law..’ If this epistle is not Pauline then we have no example of Paul’s approach ‘to the JEWS’. If this is Paul’s work then we would expect it to be different to his approach to the gentiles. The external evidence is very complex. Some early writers, particularly in the East supported Pauline authorship from early on. However, in the West, especially in Rome, a suspicion against the book was present from fairly early, possibly because of certain doctrinal problems which they had, particularly in regards to backsliders being received back into the fold. They felt (mistakenly) that certain passages in Hebrews went against this. Later, even Western writers such as Augustine and Jerome accepted that the author was probably Paul.

In this regard please note 2 peter 3: 15-16. What was the particular epistle which Peter refers to here which Paul wrote ‘unto you’ and which was similar to ‘all his epistles’? The only logical explanation is that Peter is addressing his second epistle to Israelites (see this thought in the instruction to 1 Peter) and Paul had written a particular letter to them. If this is not ‘Hebrews’ then which letter is it? I would like to re-iterate that this is not a vitally important question to us today, now that we accept Hebrews into the canon of scripture without reservation. However, in the early church it was of great importance, because in establishing whether or not a work should be accepted into the New Testament apostolic backing was a fundamental factor. What a treasure we would have lost if we had lost Hebrews from our Bibles!
a) The Readers: The title of the book is ‘The Epistle to the Hebrews’ and there is every reason in the book itself for this reason. The only question which occupies scholars is the particular Israelite group which the writer is addressing. We do know that it was addressed to a particular group because of the personal references which occur throughout the letter (esp. ch 13). Suggestions which have been made are Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch, Alexandria and Ephesus. Jerusalem is mentioned because of the emphasis in the book of the scrapping of the rituals of Judaism and it is argued that the tendency to revert to these would have been strongest there, where they were all actually practiced. Rome is mentioned because of the reference in ch. 13: 24; ‘They of Italy salute you’. This could mean that the writer is writing to a church in Italy (Rome being the most likely) and is passing on the greeting of the Italians who are in the city which he is writing from, or, of course, he could be in Italy and passing the greetings of the church there to his readers. The church of Alexandria has a claim because there is a reference in an early writing to an epistle to the Alexandrians which some say might be Hebrews. In any case there is no certainty in any of these suggestions and it does not seem to be a matter of great importance. What we should note are the internal evidences of the kind of Christian addressed:

b) Jewish Christians. It is clear that this book was written to people with a background in O.T. religion. Most of the book focuses on the relationship between the personalities and ritual of the Old Covenant showing how it finds fulfilment in the New.

c) Christians suffering persecution Heb 10:32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.
Heb 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
d) Christians grown weary - it seems that they were tempted to relapse back into Judaism. Again much of the book is taken up with warning against this and encouraging the saints not only to endure but to advance.
3) Occasion and Purpose. The one main purpose of this letter was to deter the readers from apostatising to Judaism. This the writer seeks to accomplish by contrasting the fading glory of the Old Covenant with the enduring glory of the New. A key word of the book is the word ‘better’. Christ ‘s covenant is shown to be superior in every aspect. This will emerge clearly as we study the themes of the epistle.

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