Originally published in Issue #28 on October 8, 2021
I’ve renamed the “Themes of…” series; it’s now named “Bible Study.” In my short series on Ruth and Jonah, the study picked up on a theme and traced it through the entire book. That works well for short books but a longer book like Hebrews requires a more systematic approach. So while there may still be “theme” studies interspersed, this series will approach Hebrews as a verse-by-verse study.
As in the other studies, this one will be focused on understanding a passage in light of the entire Scripture, and applying it to our lives. I would be honored if you joined me in this study of Hebrews.
What Is It?
There are many different kinds of writing in the New Testament: poetry, stories, biography, genealogy, and more. Hebrews is an “epistle,” or an “occasional letter.” That just means it’s a letter written to a specific group at a specific place.
While Hebrews is a letter, the style of writing in that letter most resembles a sermon. There are several points, each with a theological discussion and an application. We’ll break it down a bit more in the next study.
Who is the Author?
The letter to the Hebrews does not have the name of its author in the text of the letter itself. As a result, the question of the author of Hebrews has been asked for millennia. Hebrews itself wasn’t as quickly accepted by the broad church into the canon of scripture (our accepted list of scripture books) because no one was quite sure who the author was. Ultimately, it was accepted on the strength of its orthodoxy, how early it was written, and its connections with the apostolic circle such as Timothy. Although probably not written by Paul, like Luke, the author of Hebrews works in their circle.
We do have some hints. The author knows Timothy (Hebrews 13:23) and is probably currently in Italy (13:24). The author refers to the Old Testament saints as "fathers" (1:1), and his intimate familiarity with the Hebrew scriptures (though, interestingly, he quotes the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures), means that he is probably Jewish, though perhaps a Hellenistic Jew. A Hellenistic Jew is someone ethnically Jewish but who lived outside of Israel. They worshipped YHWH and would often travel to Israel for festivals, but they would be more comfortable in Greek than Hebrew.
Today, we still don’t know who the author is. Most modern scholars reject Paul, the traditional choice, on the grounds that the content and style are so radically different from his other letters and Hebrews 2:3 indicates that he was not an apostle. Paul also always signs his letters, whereas the author of Hebrews did not. Other names on the table include Barnabas, Apollos, Priscilla, and others, but the truth is that we will not know until we can ask the Lord directly.
Who Was It Written To?
There is no explicit reference telling us where the people receiving this letter are located. We can be reasonably certain that it is a house church or network of house churches in a city (Hebrews 13:17), and someone that the author knows well and has visited before (Hebrews 13:19).
It has long been a reasonable guess that the recipients are mostly or entirely ethnic Jews (as you can tell from the title “Epistle to the Hebrews”). We also know that they have been under persecution, but not to the point of death (Hebrews 12:4). They seem to be tempted to leave their Christian faith, perhaps because of that persecution (Hebrews 10:23-25 etc.).
When Was It Written?
We have many references to the Jewish temple and priestly system in the book of Hebrews, and that would lead many scholars to assign it a date before A.D. 70 — when the Jewish temple was destroyed. It seems unlikely that the author of Hebrews would spend so much time discussing Jesus’ superiority to the temple system if the temple was razed to the ground!
Other scholars assign it a later date because of Hebrew’s high view of Jesus’ divinity. Personally, I think this kind of dating based on “theological development” doesn’t work given the high view of Jesus found throughout the New Testament books.
Why Was It Written?
This is a much easier question to answer. Hebrews 13:22 tells us:
Brothers and sisters, I urge you to receive this message of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly.
— Hebrews 13:22 (CSB)
The ten-dollar word there, “exhortation,” means “to urge someone to do something.” As we read the book, we’ll learn that the author of Hebrews is encouraging his readers to hold fast to their faith in Jesus Christ because Jesus is superior to the Old Covenant heritage.
Assuming that the recipients of the letter were Jewish, they may have been tempted to return to Jewish practices and the temple sacrifice system when Jesus did not return quickly (by their definition). The author of Hebrews is reminding them and encouraging them to keep their faith in Jesus because he is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant promises, and the one that the saints of old were waiting for.
Next week we will look at the design of Hebrews as a whole. Then, Lord willing, we will begin our study verse-by-verse with Hebrews 1.