The Letter to the Hebrews
The title “the letter to the Hebrews” was attached to Hebrews in 2nd-century CE manuscripts, by which time it was also attributed to Paul in the Eastern church. What we know as Hebrews, however, is not really a letter, certainly not written by Paul, and some have questioned whether it was written to Hebrew Christians…. Hebrews is a sermon/treatise that was sent as a letter…. The evidence against Pauline authorship is overwhelming. Too much of what is in Hebrews is unlike what is in Paul’s letter; too much of what is typical in Paul’s letters is lacking in Hebrews…. The vocabulary and literary style are not Paul’s…. At the same time a number of similarities with Paul’s letters suggest that the author may have been a member of the larger Pauline circle.
Very probably the author was a Jewish Christian. (New Interpreters Study Bible)
One can already see that the document we are approaching has a complicated history, and as we read it we may find it a rather complicated work. In introducing this work, we will look at questions of authorship, context, and overall content in hopes of helping us gain greater insight into the text itself. We look at these in order to let God’s Spirit speak to us through the text in new ways.
Hebrews is a sermon. In the sermon, expositions of Scripture are followed by exhortations based on the texts cited, altogether serving as fuel to keep alive a fire that seems to be flickering out. A host of literary devices and communication strategies are used in this letter-sermon. Metaphors abound, drawn from athletics, agriculture, education, architecture, seafaring, courts of law and more…. Hebrews is not simply a sermon, but a sermon containing sermons. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
What do we know of the author and context for the composition of this sermonic work? Few scholars, as already noted argue that Paul wrote this letter. The writer was probably a Jewish Christian. Both the instructions and exhortations of the letter reveal a person well educated in Greek rhetoric as well as in Judaism, especially in Hellenistic Judaism (People’s New Testament Commentary) Other than general statements, we probably need to agree with the third century theologian, Origen: “As to who wrote the epistle, only God knows.”
As for the context, it seems that the writing's recipients “had faced and continued to face severe persecution for their faith, with the result that they were tempted to abandon Christianity” (New Interpreters Study Bible). The readers have been under extreme external pressure. Some have been imprisoned, and others have suffered the confiscation of their property. They have not yet shed blood for their faith, but the writer does speak of persecution, hostility, and torture. By no means the least painful form of pressure was public abuse and ridicule. (People’s New Testament Commentary) One result of these difficult circumstances is that some have backed away from Christian faith. Some are in danger of abandoning it all together. The readers are a faith community in crisis. Some members have grown lax in their attendance at their assemblies and commitment is waning. (People’s New Testament Commentary) Such a response to external pressure should not be surprising. The author wants to encourage this Jesus community and part of the way he will do that is by arguing for the importance of the Christian faith, and for its legitimacy as an outgrowth of Judaism. “The first readers were Jews who had come to Christian faith and who were now tempted to return to their Judaism” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Many scholars argue that these Jewish Christians were in Rome. Given references to temple Judaism, and none to the destruction of the Temple, it is likely that the work was written prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, probably sometime in the mid-60s.
Within the text, there is alteration between discursive writing and exhortation based on the discourse. The overall interest of the writer is practical, to encourage a hurting community of faith. The author makes extensive use of the Hebrew Scriptures, and interprets them in a very particular way – “that Christ is the ultimate meaning and goal of the OT and thus… the OT constantly points to him” (New Interpreters Study Bible). In other words, “the author’s understanding of OT texts depends on his finding deeper meanings in them that go beyond the specific intentions of the original authors” (New Interpreters Study Bible). In searching out new meanings for these texts, the author finds himself in the company of other first-century Jews who were trying to makes sense of their faith for a new day and time.
Karen Armstrong, in her essay on Hebrews in Revelations does an exceptional job of noting this feature of the work. The author of “The Epistle to the Hebrews” was writing at a pivotal moment in religious history, when the traditional symbols of the divine in Judaism – the Law of Moses, the Jerusalem Temple, and the old covenant between God and the people of Israel – seemed increasingly unsatisfactory to a significant number of Jews who were also struggling to find new ways of being religious (345-346). Among these groups we recognize some from our New Testament – the Pharisees and the Saducees. The Pharisees sought a deeper engagement with the Law and sought to modernize it with oral interpretation. The Saducees were a more conservative group,a nd were comprised primarily of the aristocratic and priestly classes. We have also discovered more about another group seeking to reform Judaism in the first century from the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls – the Essenes. “Christianity began as yet another of these Jewish sects. Until St. Paul took the new faith to the Gentile world, the original disciples of Jesus had no intention of founding a new religion” (346). The author of Hebrews was, as noted, writing to Jewish Christians. “He and the Jewish Christians to whom he was writing were in a stage of transition; they were trying to decide what Jesus had meant to them and what his function was in his religious life” (347). I share all this to have us note that what the author of Hebrews was doing was not entirely unique, reinterpreting the Hebrew Scriptures and first-century Judaism in new ways. What was unique and creative was his way of bringing the traditions about Jesus into his interpretation of the Temple, the Law and the Hebrew Scriptures. “The author of Hebrews, like other Jewish Christians, shared many of the concerns of the Pharisees and the Essenes; like them, he was trying to find a new way to be Jewish, which put Jesus, the Messiah, at the center of the picture instead of the Law and the Temple…. Where the Pharisees and the Essenes found God in the Law and the sacred community respectively, these Jewish Christians were making Jesus a symbol which brought them into the divine presence.” (348)
These struggles are not our struggles. As we read this work, and watch the writer creatively appropriate and re-imagine religious symbols to understand the meaning of Jesus, what lessons can we draw for our own lives? Again, Karen Armstrong gives us some direction in her essay. Theology should be regarded as poetry…. But, as we all know, some of our poetic symbols lose their power and immediacy, as our circumstances change…. When a particular image of the sacred loses its valency, it does not mean that religion itself must die. The old symbol is often taken up and given fresh life in a new and different system. That is what is happening in “The Epistle to the Hebrews.” (351) Such re-appropriation of symbols has continued throughout Christian history. People who call themselves Christians have had very different ideas about God and Jesus over the years. Our theology has changed dramatically in the past, and can do so again. Today the old counciliar definitions abut God or Jesus do not always speak to Christians or would-be Christians. They seem to belong to another age, and can appear to be as fabricated and arbitrary to many people as the old Temple and its liturgy had become for our author. “The Epistle to the Hebrews” reminds us that there is no need to repine if a rite, an image, or a doctrine dies on us. We can, like our author, use our imaginations to build on the past and create a symbol that will speak to us more eloquently and directly of the sacred. (344-345)
Pulling all of this together, the Letter to the Hebrews is written for a beleaguered community – beleaguered from without by those who are persecuting it, beleaguered from within by those who are losing heart and wondering if it would not be better to return to more conventional forms of Judaic religious life. Some outside the community were no doubt touting the benefits of the older forms of relating to God. The writer with creativity and daring seeks to reinterpret the tradition with Jesus at the center. It is the Prego response – you have this or that, well look at our Jesus faith – it’s in there. And sometimes, as happens frequently in such situations, the writer will not only argue for the merits of his own tradition, but will also seek to delegitimate his opponents. Within the elasticity of our own Christian symbols, how can we creatively appropriate them so they speak to our day and time, and speak more deeply to our own lives? How can we do this without feeling the need to put down others? Let’s read on.