Hebrews – An Introduction
Today we will briefly examine the text of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament and what we think is going on this text. We will look at who we think wrote Hebrews, when it was written, etc. First of all we know that it’s an anonymous text or treatise or argument and it contains what some scholars would say is the longest argument of any book in the Bible. This document contains a closely knit argument or discussion where it is essentially trying to exhort the audience not to give up on their faith in Christ and to illustrate why Christianity is so vital to not only their salvation, but to understanding their Hebrew background.
These are (in most part) the show notes from our podcast “Talking Scripture” that Bryce Dunford and I covered when we discussed the book of Hebrews. I hope that you find these notes useful in your study of this text.
Recipients of Hebrews
The recipients of this text seem to be, as they are called in the title of the document, the Hebrews. These hearers of Hebrews are the descendants of Eber, what were called Jews at this time or the Hebrews. For a modern reader, it would be important to know that the Jews of the first century and Christianity were related groups and that Christianity came out of Judaism. By this we mean that Christianity came out of the synagogue and its traditions. Jesus was Jewish, his followers were Jewish, and so essentially what we have here is a group of Christians that are wavering in their faith, wondering if it is the right thing to follow Jesus. Was following Jesus really the right call after all? For the author of Hebrews, what do you do, and how do you convince these people that they’re doing the right thing in their trust in Jesus Christ? These people are in a difficult circumstance – they are in the minority, from the text it seems as if they are getting all kinds of opposition to their faith from within the Jewish community, and are considering abandoning their faith in Jesus.
These believers are swimming upstream in the world, in the watery chaos as it were, and need some kind of boost to their faith. What do you tell them? How do you convince these thinking, feeling, struggling Jewish believers in Jesus that they should keep the faith?
First and Second Temple Israelite Religion
Now there’s also a sub text here too in the book, to these Christians, their world is one of two ideologies struggling for supremacy – First and Second temple Judaism. The author of Hebrews is going to use the First Temple texts and their visions and their ideas that mankind may enter into the presence of God as an important framework for his discussion. From this frame and from these ideas, I am of the belief that these Christian Jews were aware of both First and Second temple doctrines, beliefs, and symbols.
It is from First temple texts that we read of things like the idea that man may ascend into the presence of God, that he may “become a son of God,” (Psalm 2, Psalm 110). In ascension texts we see things typified such as the sacrifice of Yahweh or Jehovah (however he’s termed and whatever your preference of pronunciation) then after which Yahweh is brought into the presence of the Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father- most of the time we see this stuff going on in the Old Testament via types- for example Joseph’s story in Genesis 37-50 or Sarah’s experience in Genesis 12 and in the Genesis Apocryphon, what I call “the other half of the Sacrifice of Sarah”. We are going to see more of this in John’s book of Revelation – this is First Temple Judaism at its finest. First Temple Judaism or First Temple Israelite religion emphasized things that I have written about in other posts, things like visions, ascension into God’s presence, the ark of the covenant as the throne of kings and God, heavens, the idea that God was a person and that he had a family, that God was anthropomorphic, that God had feasts with mankind when he was brought into his presence (see D&C 27, Exodus 24, Revelation 19.7-9). The First Temple religion of Israel was centered around the belief that the King and Queen represented God, and that the king was not only God’s representative, but that he ruled in the stead of God, that he was “the son of God”… we see some of these ideas represented in Hebrews through the anointing and the references to Melchizedek, king of Salem. All of these ideas were swirling around in First Temple Israelite religion.
The author of Hebrews is also aware of Second Temple Judaism, and is at home with using language that Jews of the Second Temple would understand. All of the details of the Mosaic system are laid out in such a way in the author’s argument to accentuate the fact that he understood the temple of Jesus’ day (see Hebrews 9).
Time period of the writing of Hebrews
We can make some good guesses as to when this was written based upon who we think it was written to. Who was Hebrews written to? We think it was written to those Christians that were Jews who converted to Christianity in the first century. These Jewish Christians were tempted to return to their Jewish beliefs or to the beliefs of their ancestors. And so the argument of scholarship (and there is quite a bit of ink spilled on this) is “when was Hebrews written?” What’s going on? When did this happen? To me, this text was written before the temple was destroyed.
I find it safe to say this text was written and disseminated prior to 90 AD. “To the Hebrews” was known to Clement (35-99 AD), who was bishop of Rome in the 90’s AD, so this book represents the situation in the earliest years of the Christian movement. 1
I think this was written before the temple was destroyed. It makes sense that this was written before the Roman general Titus comes in with his armies and 70 A.D. and rips up the temple in Jerusalem. Here’s why: the author of Hebrews doesn’t talk as if it’s happened, he never comes out and says that Christianity is superior to Judaism because the Jews got killed, had their holy temple desecrated and were slaughtered and scattered. Logic tells us that if the author was writing post 70 A.D. that he would simply cite this as the reason that Judaism had failed. Yet author never says this.
Rather the text of Hebrews said that all of the systems of sacrifice that the Jews are used to doing are inferior to Jesus Christ. Even the robes of the high priest, even the notion of a high priest is considered inferior to the supremacy of Jesus Christ. Even the Aaronic priesthood, something considered authoritative to the Jews, especially in the Priestly narrative in the Tanakh (The Old Testament), is considered inferior to Jesus. And so in my opinion if I had to pick a side of when the text of Hebrews was written, based on this evidence, I would say that it was written before 70 A.D., before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
Now this changes some things for those that believe that Hebrews was not written by Paul because what we have here is an issue of history, politics, power, and timing. The issue is essentially this notion that Judaism and Christianity are all part of the same tree before the destruction of the temple. And we read a lot of this information from a scholar Raymond Brown about this idea. 2 Brown tells us that Judaism and Christianity both were in accord essentially from the time of Jesus’ resurrection until the destruction of the temple, and that Jewish Christians would go to synagogue and read Torah and worship with their fellow Jews, and that their faith was essentially the same with the exception that the Jewish Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah. This all changes, according to Brown, right about the time that the temple was destroyed. We clearly have Jewish Christians that still clung to the Mosiac laws, what Paul will continually call “the circumcision” all throughout the writings of Paul. The idea is that these Jewish Christians still believe that though Jesus was their Messiah, they still needed to live the Law of Moses. Paul works on this, taking it to task (especially in Galatians), but for now it is important to see that there were Jews in and around Jerusalem who believed in Jesus but still were “doing” Jewish religion, right down to circumcision, at least in the first century.
So we have this notion that Christianity comes out of Judaism, and that Christians really step aside from their Jewish neighbors right at 70 A.D. with the destruction of the temple. Being a Jew after 70 A.D. would be very difficult as the Jews were being persecuted by Rome due to their rebellion at the temple mount. According to Brown it is at this point that Christianity and Judaism experience is serious split, and it is at this time, according to Brown, that the text of the gospel of John has put together, textualized, and disseminated. This is difficult for modern readers but it is important to know – that this is one reason Brown thinks why we have such difficult anti-Semitic passages in the book of John. Brown makes the case that the reason we have such anti-Semitism in John’s Gospel is because the break with Judaism has occurred and it is a historical fact at the time John’s Gospel has been written, probably right around the year 90 AD.
If Hebrews was written after 70, they’re probably would not be a lot of Christians struggling in their faith, been tempted to go back to Judaism. It just wouldn’t have happened. It is difficult to imagine that these Christians would have been tempted to join sides with a group that has been completely decimated, taken out of power, had their temple destroyed, and been totally scattered. And so because of power, politics and the situation in and around Jerusalem at this time I think the case can be made that this text was written before 70. For this reason an argument can be made that Paul may be the author of this document. Now certainly I have had conversations with individuals who say that Hebrews sounds nothing like Paul. The entire text uses Jewish ideas and motifs to illustrate how they fit in with the narrative of Jesus taking us back into the presence of God. To me the arguments really could go either way. I am uncertain as to who this author is. In fact, in the early 200’s the great Christian thinker Origen essentially said the same thing when he said, “the author is known only to God.” 3
Other Possibilities of Authorship
Clearly there are others that could’ve written Hebrews, such as Barnabas for he was a friend of the apostle Paul. He may be the least potentially qualify to write this book but that does not disqualify him as a candidate. Another possible author of this text is Apollos. Martin Luther guessed that perhaps Apollos was the author. 4 Apollos is mentioned several times in the New Testament, was from Alexandria (Acts 18.24), where a connection has been made to the writings of Philo at Alexandria and there is speculation that Philo’s works may have influenced the words of Hebrews. 5 As Punt emphasized, “The rhetorically crafted nature of Hebrews suggests an Alexandrian background of thought… the attempts to describe the … relationship… between Philo and Hebrews have been various, ranging from direct influence of Philo on Hebrews, to accepting that Philo and the Hebrews author share the same (Alexandrian) thought world, to disavowing the value of even comparing Hebrews with Philo. 6
Some have argued that Luke wrote Hebrews. The reformer John Calvin thought that Luke or Clement of Rome was the author of Hebrews. Calvin said, “I indeed can deduce no reason to show that Paul was its author for they who say that he designedly suppressed his name because it was hateful to the Jews, bring nothing to the purpose. For why, then, did he mention the name of Timothy as by this he betrayed himself. But the manner of teaching, and the style, sufficiently show that Paul was not the author; and the writer himself confesses in the second chapter that he was one of the disciples of the apostles, which is wholly different from the way in which Paul spoke of himself. Besides, what is said of the practice of catechizing in the sixth chapter, does not well suit the time or age of Paul. 7
Other scholars from antiquity such as Thomas Aquinas examined Hebrews from the perspective of Luke having been the translator from Hebrew into Greek. Others have speculated that perhaps Luke was the editor. 8
Use of Pistis in Hebrews
Bart Ehrman has stated that the author of Hebrews uses the word faith (pistis in the Greek) differently than in the texts that are generally considered Pauline by most scholars. Greek scholar Brent Schmidt had this to say about this idea:
I often agree with Ehrman on many points but on this subject he is following the crowd. Although almost everyone conventionally accepts that pistis is used differently in Hebrews than in epistles considered genuinely Pauline because of Martin Luther, pistis had the same meaning to all first-century readers. In Paul’s time pistis refers to knowledge, persuasion and understanding that lead to actions of trust with things or individuals. This understanding, trust and faithfulness of pistis leads to repentance and baptism and more covenants. Pistis is symbolically represented by right handclasps in the first-century (one needs to know someone and act accordingly in order to shake hands, thereby making it possible to enter a covenant). Joseph Smith restores this ancient meaning of pistis that was replaced by The Rule of Faith in the third century (merely agreeing with the church and thereby having faith) and much later sola fide (faith is a mystical, inner emotional gift that God only gives to the chosen that automatically saves them–a born again experience beginning with Augustine!). In modern English we usually refer to this trust as faithfulness or fidelity which is how pistis should be rendered in both Romans and Hebrews. Hebrews 11 stresses the pistis or faithfulness of important Old Testament figures. Joseph Smith often and correctly taught about faith in the active sense of acquiring knowledge and becoming faithful. My forthcoming work Relational Faith provides a ton of evidence on all these points. 9
I appreciate Brent Schmidt’s teaching that pistis or faith is something that leads to action – toward trust, baptism, and making and keeping covenants with God. Surely Hebrews 11 is using pistis in this manner, illustrating that faith led many people in the Old Testament to trust the Lord and come unto him.
Outline of the Argument
The argument of Hebrews is as follows: Jesus Christ is superior to the prophets (Hebrews 1.1-3), to the angels (Hebrews 1.4-2.18) and even superior to the great prophet Moses (Hebrews 3.1-6). Christ’s priesthood is above the Aaronic or Levitical Priesthood (Hebrews 4.14-7.28), and the sanctuary of the Old Testament as well as the offerings of the ancient priests (Hebrews 8.1-10.39). I especially find the arguments of Hebrews profound as I have come to understand the importance of First and Second Temple religion, and how these ideas are compared and contrasted in Hebrews 7. I look forward to doing a podcast on this in the next few days with my colleague Bryce Dunford, which I will link to this post shortly.
As the author works through his argument, he continually urges the Christian readers of this document to focus on Christ, their relationship to him and to have trust that Jesus has the power to take us into the holy presence of Heavenly Father.
- Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 344. See also Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul, Deseret Book, p. 197-201 where Anderson quotes from Clements use of Hebrews and his (Clement’s) assumptions of Pauling authorship.
- Raymond Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times, Paulist Press, 1979. For more on the communities that produced, used, or edited the Gospel texts, I would recommend M.D. Goulder’s works Midrash and Lection in Matthew and The Evangelists’ Calendar. I must say that Calendar is a bit pricey, but good! Both books get into how these communities used these texts and how they understood both the idea of being Jewish while regarding Jesus as Messiah. Goulder expounds on how the construction of the Gospel of Matthew was carefully orchestrated to coincide with the Jewish liturgical calendar. He said in The Evangelists’ Calendar, “In this way it is possible to account for the structure of Matthew’s Gospel on the basis of an annual cycle of Gospels, in which the discourses have been developed as the Christian fulfillment of the themes of the Jewish festal year (see p. 214).
- Eusebius, Church History, 6.25.11-14. Origen maked the following statements in regard to the Epistle to the Hebrews in his Homilies upon it: That the verbal style of the epistle entitled ‘To the Hebrews,’ is not rude like the language of the apostle, who acknowledged himself ‘rude in speech’ (2 Corinthians 11:6) that is, in expression; but that its diction is purer Greek, any one who has the power to discern differences of phraseology will acknowledge. 12. Moreover, that the thoughts of the epistle are admirable, and not inferior to the acknowledged apostolic writings, any one who carefully examines the apostolic text will admit.’ 13. Farther on he adds: If I gave my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle, but the diction and phraseology are those of some one who remembered the apostolic teachings, and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher. Therefore if any church holds that this epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this. For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul’s. 14. But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows. The statement of some who have gone before us is that Clement, bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, and of others that Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts, wrote it. But let this suffice on these matters. (Eusebius, Church History, 6.25.11-14).
- Tenney, Merrill C., New Testament Survey, Edited by Walter M. Dunnett. rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985, p. 359.
- Jeremy Punt, Hebrews, thought pattern and context: Aspects of the background of Hebrews, Neotestamentica, 1 January 1997, Vol.31(1), pp.119-158.
- Punt, p. 125.
- John Calvin’s Commentaries On St. Paul’s Epistle To The Hebrews, Devoted Publishing, Woodstock, Ontario, Canada, 2018, p. 16.
- F. Bruce, The Epistle To The Hebrews: The New International Commentary on the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 17.
- Personal email communication with Brent Schmidt in my possession, 9.17.19.