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An Introduction to the New Testament

XVI

THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS


Occasion. Of all the early churches none surpasses in interest or significance the one at Rome. Our first glimpse of it is when Paul writes the Letter to the Romans, about A. D. 56. The Acts gives us an account of Paul's arrival there and his stay there as a prisoner for two years, somewhere about A.D. 60. Then comes Nero's attack upon the church, in August of 64, so tellingly described in Tacitus. There follows the writing of the Gospel of Mark, about 70. And then the writing of what, ever since the time of Tertullian at least, has been known as the Letter to the Hebrews. [1]

Forty years had now passed since Paul had written Romans. The Roman church was in its second generation. Roman Christians had grown up in the faith. It had been familiar to them from childhood. Most of them had never known any other. They came of Christian parents and had never thought of being anything but Christians. But the primitive apocalyptic expectations had waned. The great distinctive values of Christianity had grown dim. The early enthusiasm had evaporated. Christianity was coming to be an old story. Apathy was pervading the church.

Upon a church thus spiritually decayed the blow of

[1] "Barnabae titulus ad Hebraeos," De Pudicitia 20.

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Domitian's attack fell, as it had fallen on Ephesus and the neighboring churches of Asia. The demand of emperor worship as a test of loyalty to the empire found a church cooled in its zeal, like Ephesus to which John had written in the name of Christ, "You do not love me as you did at first." [1]

The Roman church had a great tradition. It had had its baptism of fire in that terrible August of 64 when Nero tried to lay upon it the blame for burning the city. Tacitus in his Annals (xv. 44) describes what happened:

First those were seized who confessed that they were Christians. Next, on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of hating the human race. And in their deaths they were also made the subject of sport, for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses or set ore to and when day declined burned to serve for nocturnal lights. Nero offered his own gardens for the spectacle. [2]

Those terrible days are reflected in Hebrews in very similar words:

You must remember those early days when after you had received the light, you had to go through a great struggle with persecution, sometimes being actually exposed as a public spectacle to insults and violence, and sometimes showing yourselves ready to share the lot of those in that condition. For you showed sympathy for those who were in prison, and you put up with it cheerfully when your property was taken from you, for you knew that you had in

[1] Rev. 2:4b [2] Translation in "Harper's Classical Library."

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yourselves a greater possession that was lasting. You must not lose your courage, for it will be richly rewarded, but you will need endurance if you are to carry out God's will and receive the blessing he has promised [10:32-36].

The Roman Christians had done a great work and shown their love for the cause by giving help to their persecuted fellow-Christians, 6:10. But now, with their zeal declining, they were confronted by this fresh attack under Domitian, and to the danger of apathy was added that of apostasy.

Two things were pressingly demanded. They must be shown the immense value of the religion they had come to take as a matter of course, and they must be told how awful the consequences of renouncing it would be. Apathy must be cured and apostasy prevented. But since, sometimes, people unequal to their present tasks can be stirred to meet them only by being called upon to do something still more exacting, so now the Roman church is stingingly reminded that, old as it is among the churches, it is not leading and instructing the others as it should do. From the length of their Christian experience they ought to be teaching the others, but as it is, they actually need someone to teach them over again the very elements of Christian truth, 5:12.

It was to accomplish these ends that Hebrews was written. To counteract the prevalent apathy of the Roman Christians, it compared Christianity point by point with the next greatest religion, Judaism, showing how at every point the new faith far surpassed it. To prevent apostasy, it showed the dreadful, even

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irreparable, consequences of such a course, for which there could be no repentance or forgiveness. (This terrible doctrine was to have important consequences in Christian history.) And to rouse the Roman church from its lethargy, it was called upon to accept the great role that belonged to it and become the teacher of the churches, 5:12.

The writer of Hebrews had for his model the Pauline letter-type, which had just clearly emerged before the churches in the published collection of Paul's letters. His letter is about two-thirds the length of Paul's letter to Rome, written almost forty years before. Like Paul, the new writer varies instruction with entreaty, only much more frequently than Paul had done. Barnett finds it reasonably likely that Hebrews used eight of the ten letters of the primary Pauline canon—all except II Thessalonians and Philemon. [1] Its clearest use of them is in the great catalogue of the heroes of faith, where Paul's characteristic doctrine of faith is glorified somewhat in the manner Paul himself used in dealing with love in I Corinthians, chapter 13, only much more elaborately and rhetorically. Hebrews is, in fact, the most elegant rhetoric in the New Testament. Indeed, its atmosphere is for the most part really that of a sermon: "My time would fail me if I told of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets," 11:32. "Listen patiently to this appeal"—the same expression as that

[1] A. E. Barnett, "The Use of the Letters of Paul in Pre-Catholic Christian Literature" (unpublished dissertation; Chicago, 1932), p. 612; Abstracts of Theses ("Humanistic Series"), IX (1934), 509.

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used of the synagogue address or sermon in Acts 13:15. And yet the writer goes on, "For I have written you but briefly," 13:22. He evidently means in comparison with Paul's great letters to the Romans and Corinthians, each of which is considerably longer. He brews is both letter and sermon and naturally enough, since it was intended to be read in Christian meetings as a sermon. Read in that way, it would take forty-five or fifty minutes—a rather long sermon, yet not so long as Romans or I or II Corinthians.

To modern ears Hebrews does not sound at all like Paul, but the ancients viewed it very differently. The great Alexandrian fathers from Pantaenus to Origen considered it Paul's, and the recently published papyrus manuscript of Paul's letters, dating from about A.D. 200 (Gerstinger, Wilcken) to 250 (Kenyon, Sanders), already has Hebrews standing second among the Pauline letters, following Romans and preceding I Corinthians. [1]

Whether Hebrews was originally pseudepigraphical and actually claimed the name of Paul is an interesting question. Its early acceptance as among the Pauline letters would strongly suggest that it did, and the reference to Timothy quite in the Pauline manner, 13:23, makes this rather probable.

If we are right in thinking it is strongly influenced by the published Pauline corpus, we may date it with some definiteness in the eventful period just before or

[1] H. A. Sanders, A Third Century Papyrus Codex of the Epistles of Paul (Ann Arbor, 1935), Pl. I; F. G. Kenyon, The Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri, Fasc. III, Suppl. (London, 1936), p. viii.

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about A.D. 95, for Hebrews was copiously used, as even Eusebius observed (Church History iii. 38. 1), in the Letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, written probably before the death of Domitian in A.D. 96.

Of its name we can say only that it reflects an ancient mistaken editorial inference from the very large part Judaism plays in its argument, from which as early as the end of the second century it was imagined that it must have been addressed to a Jewish public, seeking to win it to the Christian faith, or to Christian Jews, seeking to confirm them in it. But the writer's Judaism is not actual and objective, but literary and academic, manifestly gained from the reading of the Septuagint Greek version of the Jewish scriptures, and his polished Greek style would be a strange vehicle for a message to Aramaic-speaking Jews or Christians of Jewish blood. Before his mind is always the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, never the Temple in Jerusalem. The picture he gives of the church he is addressing does not at all fit Jerusalem; though as we have seen it is strikingly appropriate to Rome. To say that the church at Jerusalem had not taught the churches would be at variance with all the familiar facts, 5:12. The Jerusalem church ceased to exist in the Jewish War of A.D. 66-70, and to seek to push Hebrews back into the period before that war would be fantastic.

Moreover, it is at Rome that the letter is first reflected—in I Clement, a letter written to Corinth in the name of the Roman church. It reflects Hebrews a score of times, especially in chapter 36, and indeed

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much of its plan is copied from that of Hebrews. This is altogether natural if, as seems probable, I Clement was written in response to the demand of Hebrews that the Roman church begin to instruct the other churches.

The letter as we have it is anonymous, and of its author little can be said. We cannot even be sure he was of Jewish blood. If he knew Hebrew at all, he preferred to use the Septuagint Greek version of the Jewish scriptures, as in Ps. 40:6—"You have provided a body for me" instead of "You have opened my ears." He is very familiar with the Greek Bible, but so was Clement of Rome, his contemporary. While the Alexandrians identified him with Paul (perhaps in part because of his mention of Timothy, 13:23), Tertullian called him Barnabas (De pudicitia 20), and the western church did not accept his letter as Paul's or as Scripture until the middle of the fourth century (Hilary of Poitiers, ćA.D. 367). The words, "The brothers from Italy wish to be remembered to you," 13:24, suggest that the letter was written to an Italian—that is, Roman—congregation from outside of Italy, but of course this latter is not certain.

Contents. Hebrews opens with a bold contrast between the new revelation and the old. The revealer of the new religion is no mere prophet or angel like those of the old but the Son of God, in whom the writer sees the divine wisdom personified. As such he becomes the agent of creation, the reflection of the glory of God, and the sustainer of the universe, chapter 1. The Book of Wisdom (first century B. C.)

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has strongly influenced him here. A warning follows against being indifferent to such a salvation, 2:1-4 Resuming his first subject, the writer proceeds to interpret the sufferings of Christ as a preparation for his high priestly task, 2:5-18.

The argument showing the superiority of Christ the Son, to Moses, the servant, of God, 3:1-6, is followed by another warning against repeating the error of the Israelites, who, though they followed Moses out of Egypt, were refused permission to enter the promised rest, 3:7-4:13.

Returning to the priesthood of Christ, the writer urges his readers to hold fast to their religion, 4:14-16. Christ is a true high priest by virtue both of his divine appointment and of his human experience, 5:1-10. An extended exhortation, 5:11-6:20, laments the readers' backwardness, warns against apostasy, and proclaims the Melchizedek priesthood of Jesus. This, he explains, 7:1-28, is an older order, far superior to that of Aaron in its permanence, efficacy, and dignity.

Hebrews is pervaded by the a fortiori argument:

Good as the old covenant was, the new everywhere excels it. The new high priest performs a service immeasurably better than that of the old Aaronic priests, 8:1-10:39. That was but a shadow; his is the reality. His priesthood carries with it the new and better covenant foretold in Jer. 31:31-34, Heb. 8:1-13. His is a better sanctuary, a better sacrifice, and a better ministry, 9:1-28. In place of the old, futile, daily butcherings, which never had any real spiritual value, he has once for all offered himself in a sacrifice of

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eternal efficacy, 10:1-18. A fresh warning against apostasy follows, 10:19-31: "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!" Stirring reminders of their former heroism recall the steadfastness of the Roman church in the Neronian persecution of A.D. 64. They must not lose that courage now, 10:32-39. In a brilliant passage, reminiscent of the glowing account of Israel's heroes in Ecclessiasticus, chapters 44-50, the writer shows that the Jewish saints had not lived to see the fulfillment of their hopes, but all died "in faith, without having received what has been promised them.'' Faith was the power through which they had done their heroic work and gained God's approval, 11:1-40. This great survey of the heroes of faith is followed by an exhortation to follow their great example and particularly that of Christ, their leader and example in faith, and to accept the trials of life as a spiritual discipline, 12:1-13. They should be warned by the fate of Esau against moral failure with its terrible penalty, 12:14-17.

In a final, sweeping comparison the old revelation, with all its repellent, material aspects, is contrasted with the new—heavenly, ideal, and eternal, 12:18-29. Theirs is a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Varied exhortations—to hospitality, charity, morality—with personal matters and farewells complete the letter, 13:1-25. The Christians must be hospitable and charitable. They must keep the marriage relation sacred and be free from avarice. The memory of their martyred leaders (Paul and Peter, as Clement of Rome

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clearly saw, obeying this command to remember them in his chap. 5) should nerve them to imitate their faith. They are warned against the sects, 13:9; Jesus is their great sin-offering. They must be loyal to their Christian leaders. (This point really became the text of I Clement.)

Problems. Much of the difficulty felt by scholars in explaining Hebrews is due to failure to perceive its indebtedness to the published Pauline letters. Though written in imitation of the Pauline letter-type established by that collection, it was not simply a private letter to a church but probably from the beginning was given a wide circulation; in fact, it was published. The fact that it was addressed to the Roman Christians would not interfere with this circulation at a time when Paul's letters to individual churches were being accepted as having a message for all Christians everywhere. Its address to Rome was hardly more than a dedication; it was meant for the churches. Its great warnings against apathy and apostasy would have immense value for them all, as Revelation and I Peter show, and its demand that the Roman church begin to instruct the other churches would tend to make them look to Rome for what it had to teach.

There is a deep Platonic strain in the thought of Hebrews, derived no doubt by way of Alexandria, where Philo had so thoroughly allegorized Old Testament figures like Melchizedek, making him a symbol of the Logos. The writer of Hebrews is no mere follower of Philo, however, though he owes much to this type of thought, building on slight suggestions of language

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like King of Peace (Salem), and King of Righteousness (Melchizedek) and piecing together texts from Genesis and Psalms 110 to build up his doctrine of a permanent pre-Levitical priesthood.

Of course allegory was not unknown to Paul (cf. Gal. 4:21-31), but it makes its most impressive showing in New Testament literature in Hebrews. Allegory was in wide use in antiquity, having been long and successfully applied to Homer by his Stoic interpreters. There is a splendid passage in Epictetus which shows its power:

Who would Hercules have been, if he had sat at home? He would have been Eurysthcus and not Hercules! Well, and in his travels through the world, how many intimates and how many friends had he? But none more his friend than God, for which reason he came to be considered the . son of God, and so he was! It was in obedience to him that he went about purging away injustice and violence. [1]

In such terms Stoic preachers were allegorizing the heroes of Greek mythology in the very days in which Hebrews was written. The personal touches in 13:18-25 certainly create a very Pauline atmosphere and owe much to Paul's collected letters. Wrede thought they were part of a Pauline disguise and were meant to make the letter sound like Paul. The mention of Timothy, wiiom Paul mentions so often, even oftener than Titus, suggests that the writer is trying to write like Paul. And if the letter at first claimed to be the work of Paul, striking facts about it would be explained : (1) its use of these Pauline touches in 13: 18-25; (2) its manifest

[1] Discourses ii. 16.

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acquaintance with the collected letters of Paul; (3) its need of a name, for, as long as it claimed to be by Paul, it could not be called Romans as there was already in the corpus a well-known letter of Paul to Rome; (4) its ascription to Paul by the Alexandrians, from Pantaenus down, which would have been natural if it originally bore Paul's name.

Pseudonymity was already coming into use at this very time, as Ephesians just before and I Peter just after clearly show. But the Ann Arbor papyrus, our most ancient witness to the text of Paul, while it includes Hebrews among his letters and even places it second, immediately after Romans, has no mention of Paul at the beginning of the epistle.

LITERATURE

Goodspeed, Edgar. The Epistle to the Hebrews (New York, 1908).

Moffatt, James. The Epistle to the Hebrews (New York, 1924).

Scott, Ernest F. The Epistle to the Hebrews: Its Doctrine and Significance (New York, 1922).


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