At first glance, Hebrews appears to be one of the most difficult NT books to understand and relate to our modern world. Numerous OT quotations and allusions fill its pages and much detail about Israel’s priesthood and sacrificial system dominates the argument. By the time some readers get to the comparison between Christ and Melchizedek in Heb. 7, they feel totally lost and wonder about the relevance of it all! Added to this, many feel unsettled by the warning passages (e.g. 2:1–4; 3:7–4:11; 6:4–8; 10:26–31; 12:14–17), which seem to undermine the certainties established by other passages and suggest that believers can ‘fall away’ from Christ.
The argument is complex, but Hebrews is a gold mine for those who want to dig deeply. There is much treasure here to enrich our understanding of God and his purposes. Every carefully structured section contributes to the development of a central theme, providing distinctive insights into the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ and the nature of our salvation. Although many OT texts are employed, some sections of Hebrews are based on the exposition of a single text, with others being used in a supportive role. In this way we are shown how to interpret the OT in the light of its fulfilment and can understand how the two divisions of the Christian Bible link together. Since the writer regularly relates his insights to the needs of those first addressed, we can learn how to apply his argument to our contemporary lives. Hebrews demonstrates that effective warning and encouragement are grounded in good theology.
What kind of literature is this?
Is Hebrews really a ‘letter’ in style and format? It certainly ends like many NT letters (13:18–25), with specific encouragements and instructions for those addressed. Moreover, several of the passages of warning or appeal throughout the book show a personal knowledge of the situation of the original readers and an overwhelming concern for their welfare (e.g. 5:11–6:3; 6:9–12; 10:32–39; 12:4–13). Yet the book begins in a formal way (1:1–4), with no word as to who the author is or to whom he is writing, and with no hint of the relationship between them. The writer offers no prayers for his readers at this point and no expression of thanksgiving (cf. the introductions to most of Paul’s letters).
Hebrews is an orderly and systematic treatment of the person and work of Christ, based on the exposition of certain key passages from the OT. For example, Ps. 8:4–6 is central to the argument of 2:5–18, Ps. 95:7–11 is expounded at some length in 3:1–4:13, Ps. 110:4 is the key text in 4:14–7:28, and Je. 31:31–34 is foundational to the argument in 8:1–10:39. Each text is used to show how OT ideals and institutions find their fulfilment in Christ. So, is Hebrews more like a theological essay or treatise?
Considering its rhetorical style (particularly references to the writer as one ‘speaking’ to his audience, e.g. 2:5; 5:11; 6:9; 8:1; 9:5; 11:32) and the use of OT passages as a basis of the argument in most major divisions of the work, it appears to be more of a sermon or homily in written form, with some personal remarks at the end. This is consistent with the writer’s own description of his work as ‘a word of exhortation’ or ‘word of encouragement’ (13:22). The same expression is found in Acts 13:15 to denote a sermon following the Scripture readings in the Jewish synagogue at Pisidian Antioch. Hebrews was written by a preacher with great pastoral sensitivity, desiring to apply his scriptural insights to the needs of a particular group of Christians for whom he was concerned.
See also the article Reading the letters.
Who wrote it?
The earliest copies of the NT place this document amongst the letters of Paul, but Hebrews itself makes no claim to Pauline authorship. The second-century writers Clement of Alexandria and Origen confirm that Paul was widely regarded as the author in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Yet they note how much Hebrews differs from Paul’s writings in content and style. They propose that Paul was somehow responsible for the work but that someone else actually composed it. Acceptance of Hebrews as Pauline was not widespread in the western church until the fifth century. After this, the tradition remained virtually unchallenged until the Reformation of the sixteenth century, when it was widely questioned again.
Present-day scholars generally agree that arguments against Pauline authorship are decisive. Apart from major differences of style, Hebrews develops a portrait of Jesus as high priest and his work as the fulfilment of OT sacrificial ritual that finds very little parallel in Paul’s writings. At the same time, many typically Pauline themes and arguments are lacking in Hebrews. Even when similar themes are discussed, they are treated differently. And Paul, who makes so much of his status as an apostle and eyewitness of the risen Christ (e.g. Gal. 1:11–16; 1 Cor. 15:8), could hardly have written that he received the message of Christ in a second-hand way, ‘from those who heard him’ (2:3).
In the western church, the second-century writer Tertullian suggested Barnabas as the author of Hebrews and this solution has often appealed to scholars. As a Levite from Cyprus, this ‘Son of Encouragement’ (Acts 4:36) may well have been responsible for this ‘word of encouragement’ (13:22) which deals so exhaustively with the theme of sacrifice, priesthood and worship. As a Jew from the dispersion, he quite possibly had intimate contact with the Hellenistic and philosophical teaching of Alexandrian Judaism with which the writer of Hebrews seems to have had some acquaintance.
Martin Luther was the first to propose Apollos as the author and this theory has also attracted some support. As a highly educated Alexandrian Jew, Apollos was eloquent, had ‘a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures’, and operated in the same missionary sphere as Paul (Acts 18:24–28). He could well have written a work such as Hebrews.
However, in the end it must be said that the evidence in favour of Barnabas or Apollos or any other candidate is not decisive. Indeed, we do not need to know the identity of the author to appreciate his work and accept its authority. Hebrews itself indicates that the human authorship of Scripture is of secondary importance. So, for example, acknowledging David as the writer of Ps. 95, Hebrews insists that the Holy Spirit was the primary author (4:7; 3:7). Again, the human authorship of Ps. 8 is not mentioned (2:6) and is not relevant to the understanding of it as divinely inspired, prophetic scripture. Similarly, we should be willing to accept that it matters little whom God used to write Hebrews.
When was it written?
When Hebrews was written, the readers had been Christians for some time (5:12) and had experienced a notable period of persecution (10:32–34). Some of their original leaders appear to have passed away (13:7) but Timothy was still alive (13:23). Perhaps several decades had elapsed since the beginning of the Christian movement. The first allusion to Hebrews in early Christian literature is found in the letter by Clement of Rome, which dates from around ad 96 or a little later. But there is reason to believe that Hebrews was written well before then.
The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the cessation of the sacrificial system took place in ad 70 but there is no reference to that state of affairs in Hebrews. Although most of the ritual details which figure in Hebrews are taken from the OT account of the tabernacle, the ritual of the temple was the ritual of the tabernacle and our author writes as if that ritual were still going on (e.g. 9:6–9; 10:1–4). Some allusion to the events of ad 70 would surely have strengthened his argument that the first covenant is now ‘obsolete and ageing’ (8:13). Consequently, it seems best to conclude that Hebrews was written some time in the decade before ad 70.
What was the situation of the first recipients and why was Hebrews written?
A survey of the passages of warning and encouragement reveals something of the situation of those addressed. At least some of their number were in danger of drifting from the gospel and the salvation it offers (2:1–4). More specifically, they were in danger of hardening their hearts in unbelief, turning away from the living God, and missing out on the heavenly ‘rest’ promised by God (3:7–4:11). Symptomatic of this spiritual disease was their unwillingness to progress to a deeper understanding of the Christian message and its implications, together with an unwillingness to share that understanding with others (5:11–14). Some were withdrawing from the regular gathering of the believers for mutual encouragement (10:24–25).
The problem, however, was not simply one of retarded spiritual growth. The writer speaks in glowing terms of the faith, hope and love they had expressed in former times, when they were publicly exposed to insult and persecution (10:32–34). He calls for a renewal of that zeal in every respect (6:11–12; 13:1–19). Those who were in danger of throwing away their confidence in God and shrinking back from such commitment were growing weary and needed every encouragement to persevere in faith and endure hardship, so that they might obtain what was promised (10:35–39; 12:1–13). Perhaps they were worn down by continued hostility from unbelievers and their hope was weakened by the delay in the return of Christ (10:35–39).
Turning to the passages which expound theological themes, we can discern something more about the needs of the readers, and the writer’s purpose in addressing them. Hebrews begins with an emphasis on the superiority and finality of the revelation that has come through the Son of God (1:1–14). The readers are urged not to drift from the message that surpasses even what was ‘spoken by angels’ (2:1–4). It is a message about eternal salvation, achieved by the Son of God in his suffering and heavenly exaltation (2:5–18). In a variety of ways, the writer is keen to point out that Christianity is the fulfilment of everything revealed by God to Israel in the Law and the Prophets.
As an encouragement to the readers to hold fast their faith, the writer then begins to develop the idea that Jesus is ‘a merciful and faithful high priest’ (2:17–18; 4:14–5:10). This portrayal of Jesus as high priest continues in ch. 7, where it is argued that ‘perfection’ could not be found in the method of approach to God associated with the traditional Jewish priesthood. Ch. 8 goes on to establish that Jesus’ superior priesthood inaugurates the new covenant promised in Je. 31:31–34. Jesus’ death and heavenly exaltation are presented as the fulfilment and replacement of all the sacrificial rituals of ‘the first covenant’, providing an eternally effective forgiveness for sins and the certainty of receiving ‘the promised eternal inheritance’ (9:1–10:18).
This central section of Hebrews is argued with such earnestness and is driven home with so many specific comparisons between the provisions of the Mosaic law and the achievement of Christ that it is likely that the readers were predominantly Jewish Christians. Although the title ‘To the Hebrews’ goes back to the second century, it was probably not part of the original text. However, most commentators argue that it points us in the right direction. At least some of the recipients of the letter were tempted to drift back into Judaism or were unwilling to sever the last ties with their ancestral religion. Perhaps there was pressure from Jewish sources to do this or perhaps it was simply the temptation to return to the comfortable security of the old ways that motivated them. From the writer’s perspective, to slip back into the religion of the OT is actually to turn away from the living God (3:12), since God’s Son has inaugurated the perfection of the new covenant (9:11–15) and achieved the realities which the OT only anticipated (10:1).
Having said this much, it is difficult to be certain about the exact location of the first readers or about the precise form of Judaism from which they turned to Christ. They seem to have been Jews of the dispersion, rather than Jews from Palestine. Their Scriptures were most probably the OT in Greek, rather than in Hebrew. The expression ‘Those from Italy send you their greetings’ (13:24) probably means that certain Italian believers were with the writer and wanted to send a message to those located somewhere in their homeland. More specifically, it is arguable that the recipients were a Jewish section of the Christian community in Rome.
As noted previously, the earliest known quotations from Hebrews occur in a letter written by Clement of Rome. Also, the reference to persecution in 10:32–34 (without bloodshed, 12:4) could be related to the trouble in Rome when Claudius became emperor. The Roman historian Suetonius records that the Jews were ‘constantly indulging in riots at the instigation of Chrestus’. It is commonly understood that these riots resulted from the introduction of the message about Christ (represented by Suetonius as ‘Chrestus’) into the Jewish colony in Rome. Acts 18:2 mentions two Jewish Christians, Priscilla and Aquila, who were amongst the Jews expelled from the capital by Claudius in ad 49. Hebrews could have been written some decades later to a group of such people in Rome, when anti-Christian persecution was on the increase again.
At one level, Hebrews continues to function as a warning about the consequences of withdrawing from Christian fellowship, disowning Jesus and abandoning hope in him. On the positive side, it functions as an encouragement to endure in faith, hope and love, whatever the struggles and difficulties we may face. The writer seeks to promote such perseverance by fixing the gaze of his readers upon Jesus (3:1; 12:2–3). As Son of God and high priest of the new covenant, he is the ultimate revelation of God and his purposes and the one who alone can bring us to share in his heavenly rule.
What is the structure of the argument?
Detailed study of the structure of Hebrews reveals a carefully balanced and intricately woven pattern of themes. Albert Vanhoye, who has made the most significant contribution to this area of research, observes that the writer regularly announces the theme of a new section as he draws the previous section to a conclusion. These ‘announcements of theme’ are found in 1:4; 2:17; 5:9–10; 10:36–39; 12:12–13. Certain ‘hook words’ link the beginning of the new section with the preceding one. In each main section of the argument there are ‘characteristic terms’ which may be largely confined to that portion of the book. Finally, there are specific indications of the end of each segment. The book can thus be divided broadly into sections as follows.
As the brief but profound introduction to Hebrews concludes (1:4), the writer indicates that the next main section will involve a comparison between the Son and the angels. ‘Angels’ is a characteristic term of the argument from 1:5 to 2:16 and only occurs elsewhere in the book at 13:2. ‘Angels’ is also the hook word linking 1:4 with 1:5 and the word that signifies the end of the whole section (2:16). In the middle of the section there is a call (2:1–4) to respond appropriately to the message brought by the one who is greater than the angels.
In 2:17 the writer announces that the theme of the next section (3:1–5:10) will be Jesus as a merciful and faithful high priest. ‘Faithful’ is the characteristic term of the first subdivision (3:1–4:14) and is also the hook word linking 2:17 with 3:2. ‘High priest’ is also a hook word, a term that begins and ends both subdivisions (3:1; 4:14; 4:15; 5:10), and is a characteristic of the whole section. After a brief comparison between the faithfulness of Jesus and the faithfulness of Moses (3:1–6), the writer provides a lengthy exhortation to the readers to maintain their faith in Jesus (3:7–4:14). The sympathy of Christ as a heavenly high priest enables him to be merciful towards the sins of his people and to provide them with help to endure in faithfulness (4:15–5:8). His sympathy (4:15) for their situation was acquired during his earthly period of suffering (5:8) and testing.
In 5:9–10 the theme of the third main section of Hebrews is announced: Jesus the perfected high priest in the order of Melchizedek and source of eternal salvation. Before the writer engages in an exposition of these great themes, he warns the readers about becoming sluggish and unwilling to grow into maturity in Christ (5:11–6:20). Clearly the intention is to motivate them to take note of the teaching that follows and to apply it to their own situation. This leads to an explanation of what it means to call Jesus high priest ‘in the order of Melchizedek’ (7:1–28). In broad terms, chs. 8–9 show how the ‘perfecting’ of Jesus as high priest, in his suffering, death and heavenly exaltation, leads to the perfection of the new covenant for believers. Then the writer develops the notion that Jesus is ‘the source of eternal salvation’ in 10:1–18. For the sake of simplicity, it is not appropriate to go into detail here about all the key words and subdivisions in these chapters. The central section of Hebrews concludes with a call (10:19–39) which draws out the implications of the preceding teaching.
Faith and endurance is the theme of the fourth main section (11:1–12:13) and this is announced in 10:36–39. Faith is the focus in the first subdivision of this section (11:1–40), with endurance being more the emphasis in the second (12:1–13). The fifth section of Hebrews (12:14–13:17) is not so easy to tie down in terms of the criteria used previously. However, its appeals clearly have to do with removing all obstacles to faith and endurance and pursuing a godly life. The announcement of theme in 12:12–13 suggests that it is a challenge to ‘make level paths for your feet’. More generally, we may give it the heading Appeals for a God-honouring life-style. Some personal requests and greetings form the conclusion to the work as a whole (13:18–25).
R. Brown, The Message of Hebrews, BST (IVP, 1982).
D. Gooding, An Unshakeable Kingdom, The Letter of Hebrews for Today (IVP, 1989).
D. Guthrie, The Letter to the Hebrews, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1983).
F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1990).
P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Eerdmans, 1977).
W. L. Lane, Hebrews, 2 vols., WBC (Word, 1991).
BST The Bible Speaks Today
TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary
NICNT The New International Commentary on the New Testament
WBC Word Biblical Commentary
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (He 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.