What is the Book of Hebrews? – Date, Author, Audience, and Christology

The Book of Hebrews is somewhat less read by ordinary Christians than, say, the Gospel of John or some of the Apostle Paul’s letters like Romans, but it is no less fascinating given its diverse philosophical and religious symbols and witness to early Christian experience.

Date

The letter of First Clement quoted extensively from Hebrews, thus suggesting Hebrews must have been completed earlier than the mid-90s CE. It was likely completed in the latter half of the first century but no earlier than 70 CE based on Hebrews’ omission of mentioning the destruction of the temple and the end of the Jewish sacrificial system. A date at some point in the 60s CE is feasible.

Authorship

Hebrews circulated independently before gaining admission to the canon, which came about only through its reputation as a Pauline letter (1). We do not know who wrote Hebrews although its author was “at home in the general cultural milieu of the Graeco-Roman” (2). 

Hebrews has been attributed to Paul as reflected in canonical lists and manuscripts, such as second- or third-century papyrus manuscript designated as P46 where it is among Paul’s letters, but its Pauline authorship was strongly questioned by early writers such as Tertullian. Evidently, Tertullian thought Barnabas could have been its author while Origen was content to concede that “only God knows” (Ecclesiastical History III.38.2). 

Hebrews possesses a mixture of elements which might be relevant to its authorship. There are some Pauline similarities, such as “access” to God given by Christ (4:16; 10:19-22; cf. Romans 5:1; Ephesians 2:18), Abraham’s response of faith (11:8-12; cf. Romans 4:1-25), God’s promise to Abraham (6:13-18; cf. Galatians 3:16-18), and the faith of Jesus understood as obedience (5:1-10; cf. Romans 5:12–21). Yet in several other parts, Hebrews resembles the Gospel of John. For instance, it begins with a pre-existent Word (1:2-5; cf. John 1:1–18) and its author does not regard “flesh” as hostile to God but rather a symbol of human mortality and frailty (2:14; 5:7; 10:20; cf. John 1:13-14; 3:6; 8:15). Hebrews’ author seems to construct his text by putting elements together in a distinctive fashion, which means it is misleading to characterize it as “Pauline” or “Johannine.” Equally, other candidates who have been proposed as this text’s author, such as Luke, Barnabas, or Apollos, must remain speculative and conjectural in the face of a lack of evidence (3).

Introductory Remarks and Audience

The prologue of Hebrews concludes with the focus of the text that “In these last days, God has spoken to us by a Son” (1:2). The author clarifies that his message will develop the Christological basis for God’s new word to the faithful. We read that God has spoken in the past and that he continued to speak in the present (1:1–2; also see 2:1-4; 3:5-7; 4:12-13; 7:28). We find that the author apologizes for “writing briefly” (13:22), but this is probably a literary convention (also see 1 Peter 5:12). The circumstances of Hebrews’ author are largely unknown and are only briefly noted (13:23-25). The author does inform us that he (or she) has a pure conscience and hopes for a rapid return to the readers (13:18-19). The author also speaks of news concerning Timothy, called “our brother”, who has recently been released from prison (13:23). The author sends greetings from “those who come from Italy” (13:24), which seems to establish a connection to the Pauline mission, although there is no reference to Paul himself.

Theologically, Hebrews is a reflection on the mystery of God’s work in Jesus Christ and functions like a homily rather than a theological treatise (4). The letter has an immediate and consistent pastoral orientation and uses the first-person plural (“we”) in numerous instances: “of which we are speaking” (2:5), “about this we have much to say, which is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing” (5:11), “And God permitting, we will do so” (6:3), and “though we speak thus” (6:9). As a homily, it retains a sense of speech rather than of writing and it was intended to be read aloud to an audience. However, we do not know for certain who this audience was and there have been numerous possibilities proposed: the Corinthians, the Colossians, converts from Qumran, converts from Alexandrian Judaism, etc. Whoever this audience was, they were certainly Christians or it consisted of Christians (6:1-3).

A Struggling Community 

There are clues to the social context of the audience, which suggest that they had experienced some sort of suffering for their commitment to the Messiah. In chapter 10 (v. 32-35) the author harks back to some time past,

“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full 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 suffered along 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” (10:32-36).

The author also urges his readers to endure their hardship as their discipline comes from God,

“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all… God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness” (12:7-10).

However, this community can expect more (13:13-14) and they have not yet suffered unto death (12:4). They also knew and had visited some who had been imprisoned (10:34) and they had either themselves experienced or knew of those who had faced “public abuse and affliction” (10:33). Yet even in the face of this, the author instructs his readers to show hospitality (13:2), care for prisoners (13:3), respect marriage fidelity (13:4), avoid the love of money (13:5), share with others what possessions they have (13:16), and submit to their leaders (3:17).

To conduct oneself in this manner within such circumstances is difficult and Hebrews’ author shows signs of concern with the community’s spiritual discouragement and despair. He is concerned that the community’s members are developing “drooping hands and weak knees” (12:12) and that this discouragement threatens to have them turn away from their commitment (12:16-17) as a way of, perhaps, relieving some of the oppressive measures brought upon them. The underlying message is one of faithfulness and support in the face of opposition.

The Middle Platonic Influence in Hebrews

There have been numerous candidates proposed for the background of Hebrews although popular is that of a Platonic influence, or, more accurately, a Middle Platonism (5). 

This Platonism existed from roughly 50 BCE until the second century CE and apparently originated in Alexandria. Hebrews is influenced by a Platonic worldview proposing a pervasive dualism by distinguishing between the phenomenal and the noumenal world. The phenomenal is the realm of materiality typified by movement, change, and corruption, while the noumenal world is spiritual and therefore changeless and incorruptible.

The perceived phenomenal world is derivative and often viewed as only being a “shadow” or a “reflection” of the noumenal world and therefore inferior to the latter’s ideal essence and purity. In Hebrews, the Son, for example, is said to “reflect the glory of God and bear the very stamp of his nature” (1:3), worship of priests in the tent is a shadow and copy of true worship (8:5), the Torah provides “examples” that anticipate “the real” (4:11; 9:23), and Christ entered the real tent in his resurrection (8:2). 

Platonism is, however, reworked by Hebrews. The past serves as an example for the present, which is greater and “more real” (4:11). Hebrews also exalts rather than denigrates the physical and material. Only because Christ himself has and had a body could he be a priest. His body is not cast off at death but exalted. Material, physical, and corporeal existence are not denigrated but incorporated into God’s plan. Essentially Christ has sacralized the inferior material world so that life is worth living in the present because of him.

The Christology of Hebrews 

One can confidently say that Hebrews has a high Christology. It is full of titles for Christ, many of them traditional and found in other New Testament literature. Christ is referred to as “Jesus Christ” (10:10; 13:8, 21), the “Son of God” (4:14; 6:6; 7:3; 10:29), “Lord” (1:10; 2:3; 7:14; 13:20), and “Son of man” (2:6). Unique or rare titles include Christ being called an “heir” (1:2), “firstborn” (1:6), “pioneer” (2:10; 12:2), sanctifier (2:11), “apostle” (3:1), “builder of the house” (3:3), “forerunner” (6:20), “minister” (8:2), “mediator” (8:6; 9:15), “perfecter” (12:2), “great shepherd of the sheep” (13:20), and “perfecter” (12:2).

These titles, seen side-by-side, illustrate two aspects of Christology in Hebrews: [1] Christ brings salvation from God to humanity (e.g. he is an “apostle”, “sanctifier,” “shepherd” etc.) but also [2] the human being who first reaches what is the plan of God for all humans (e.g. “firstborn”, “pioneer”, “forerunner”, etc.). Hebrews’ Christology is further evident in Christ’s pre-existence (1:2; 10:5), incarnation (2:14-18; 10:5-7), and sacrificial, atoning death (1:3; 2:9; 6:6; 7:27). Christ’s resurrection is noted explicitly in 1:3, which means that Christ is God’s eternal Son and will endure forever (ch. 5-10) for “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever” (13:8). The author emphasizes that the day is approaching (10:25) when Christ will return for judgment,

“So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (9:28)

Hebrews emphasizes the “enduring” quality of faith, which is to be rooted in the reliability of God’s promises (ch. 11-12). This quality of faith provides Christians with hope in the resurrection and exaltation of Christ (see 6:18–20). Christ is God’s Son (1:1-14) and although Moses was a servant within God’s house, Christ is the Son and builder of the house (3:5-6). As such, Christ is superior to Moses (3:1-4:13) and the Aaronic Priests (4:14-7:28). Christ is called the High Priest who sits “at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being” (8:1-5).

References

Johnson, Luke Timothy. 1999. The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 

1. Anderson, Charles. 1966. “The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Pauline Letter Collection.” The Harvard Theological Review 59(4):429-438.

2. Isaacs, Marie. 1992. Sacred space: An approach to the theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews. London: A&C Black. p. 46-48.

3. Punt, Jeremy. 1997. “Hebrews, thought-patterns and context: Aspects of the background of Hebrews.” Neotestamentica 31(1):119-158.

4. Punt, Jeremy. 1997. Ibid. p. 121.

5. Isaacs, Marie. 1992. Ibid. p. 51-55; Johnson, Luke Timothy. 1999. Ibid. p. 149; Lindars, Barnabas. 1991. The Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 23; Punt, Jeremy. 1997. Ibid. p. 126.

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