Section 1. Preliminary Remarks
It need not be said that this Epistle has given rise to much discussion among writers on the New Testament. Indeed there is probably no part of the Bible in regard to which so many conflicting views have been entertained. The name of the author; the time and place where the Epistle was written; the character of the book; its canonical authority; the language in which it was composed; and the persons to whom it was addressed - all have given rise to great difference of opinion. Among the causes of this are the following: - The name of the author is not mentioned. The church to which it was sent, if sent to any particular church, is not designated. There are no certain marks of time in the Epistle, as there often are in the writings of Paul, by which we can determine the time when it was written.
It is not the design of these notes to go into an extended examination of these questions. Those who are disposed to pursue these inquiries, and to examine the questions which have been started in regard to the Epistle, can find ample means in the larger works that have treated of it; and especially in Lardner; in Michaelis’ Introduction; in the Prolegomena of Kuinoel; in Hug’s Introduction; and particularly in Professor Stuart’s invaluable Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. No other work on this portion of the New Testament is so complete as his, and in the Introduction he has left nothing to be desired in regard to the literature of the Epistle.
Early on controversies arose in the church in regard to a great variety of questions pertaining to this Epistle, which are not yet fully settled. Most of those questions, however, pertain to the literature of the Epistle, and however they may be decided, are not such as to affect the respect which a Christian ought to have for it as a part of the word of God. They pertain to the inquiries, to whom it was written; in what language, and at what time it was composed; questions which in whatever way they may be settled, do not affect its canonical authority, and should not shake the confidence of Christians in it as a part of divine revelation. The only inquiry on these points which it is proper to institute in these notes is, whether the claims of the Epistle to a place in the canon of Scripture are of such a kind as to allow Christians to read it as a part of the oracles of God? May we sit down to it feeling that we are perusing that which has been given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit as a part of revealed truth? Other questions are interesting in their places, and the solution of them is worth all which it has cost; but they need not embarrass us here, nor claim our attention as preliminary to the exposition of the Epistle. All that will be attempted, therefore, in this Introduction, will be such a “condensation” of the evidence collected by others, as shall show that this Epistle has of right a place in the volume of revealed truth, and is of authority to regulate the faith and practice of mankind.
Section 2. To Whom Was the Epistle Written?
It purports to have been written to the “Hebrews.” This is not found, indeed, in the body of the Epistle, though it occurs in the subscription at the end. It differs from all the other epistles of Paul in this respect, and from most of the others in the New Testament. In all of the other epistles of Paul, the church or person to whom the letter was sent is specified in the commencement. This, however, commences in the form of an essay or homily; nor is there anywhere in the Epistle any direct intimation as to what church it was sent. The subscription at the end is of no authority, since it cannot be supposed that the author himself would affix it to the Epistle, and since it is known that many of those subscriptions are false. See the remarks at the close of the notes on Romans, and the notes 1 Corinthians. Several questions present themselves here which we may briefly investigate:
(I) “What is the evidence that it was written to the Hebrews?” In reply to this we may observe:
(1) That the inscription at the commencement, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews,” though not affixed by the author, may be allowed to express the current sense of the church in ancient times in reference to a question on which they had the best means of judging. These inscriptions at the commencement of the epistles have hitherto in general escaped the suspicion of spuriousness, to which the subscriptions at the close are justly exposed. “Michaelis.” They should not in any case be called in question, unless there is good reason from the Epistle itself, or from some other source. This inscription is found in all our present Greek manuscripts, and in nearly all the ancient versions. It is found in the Peshito, the Old Syriac version, which was made in the first or in the early part of the second century. It is the title given to the Epistle by the fathers of the second century, and onward - Stuart.
(2) the testimony of the fathers. Their testimony is unbroken and uniform. With one accord they declare this, and this should be regarded as testimony of great value. Unless there is some good reason to depart from such evidence, it should be regarded as decisive. In this case, there is no good reason for calling it in question, but every reason to suppose it to be correct; nor so far as I have found is there any one who has doubted it.
(3) the internal evidence is of the highest character that it was written to Hebrew converts. It treats subjects of Hebrew institutions. It explains their nature. It makes no allusion to Gentile customs or laws. It all along supposes that those to whom it was sent were familiar with the Jewish history; with the nature of the temple service; with the functions of the priestly office; and with the whole structure of their religion. No other person than those who had been Jews are addressed throughout the Epistle. There is no attempt to explain the nature or design of any customs except those with which they were familiar. At the same time, it is equally clear that they were Jewish converts - converts from Judaism to Christianity - who are addressed. The writer addresses them as Christians, not as those who were to be converted to Christianity; he explains to them the Jewish customs as one would do to those who had been converted from Judaism; he endeavors to guard them from apostasy, as if there were danger that they would relapse again into the system from which they were converted. These considerations seem to be decisive; and in the view of all who have written on the Epistle, as well as of the Christian world at large, they settle the question. It has never been held that the Epistle was directed to Gentiles; and in all the opinions and questions which have been started on the subject, it has been admitted that, wherever they resided, the persons to whom the Epistle was addressed were originally Hebrews who had never been converted to the Christian religion.
(II) “To what particular church of the Hebrews was it written?” Very different opinions have been held on this question. The celebrated Storr held that it was written to the Hebrew part of the churches in Galatia; and that the Epistle to the Galatians was addressed to the Gentile part of those churches. Semler and Noessett maintained that it was written to the churches in Macedonia, and particularly to the church of Thessalonica. Bolten maintains that it was addressed to the Jewish Christians who fled from Palestine in a time of persecution about the year 60 a.d., and who were scattered through Asia Minor. Michael Weber supposed that it was addressed to the church at Corinth. Ludwig conjectured that it was addressed to a church in Spain. Wetstein supposes that it was written to the church at Rome. Most of these opinions are mere conjectures, and all of them depend upon circumstances which furnish only slight evidence of probability. Those who are disposed to examine these, and to see them confuted, may consult Stuart’s Commentary on the Hebrews, Introduction Sections 5-9.
The common, and the almost universally received opinion is that the Epistle was addressed to the Hebrew Christians in Palestine. The reasons for this opinion, briefly, are the following:
(1) The testimony of the ancient church was uniform on this point - that the Epistle was not only written to the Hebrew Christians, but to those who were in Palestine. Lardner affirms this to be the testimony of Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, Euthalius, Chrysostom, Theodoret, and Theophylact; and adds that this was the general opinion of the ancients. Works, vol. iv. pp 80, 81. ed. London, 1829.
(2) The inscription at the commencement of the Epistle leads to this supposition. That inscription, though not appended by the hand of the author, was early affixed to it. It is found not only in the Greek manuscripts, but in all the early versions, as the Syriac and the Itala; and was doubtless affixed at a very early period, and by whomsoever affixed, expressed the current sense at the time. It is hardly possible that a mistake would be made on this point; and unless there is good evidence to the contrary, this ought to be allowed to determine the question. That inscription is, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.” But who are the Hebrews - theἙβρᾶιοι Hebraioi? Professor Stuart has endeavored to show that this was a term that was employed exclusively to denote the “Jews in Palestine,” in contradistinction from foreign Jews, who were called “Hellenists.” Compare my notes on Act 6:1. Bertholdt declares that there is not a single example which can be found in early times of Jewish Christians out of Palestine being called “Hebrews.” See a Dissertation on the Greek Language in Palestine. and of the meaning of the word “Hellenists,” by Hug, in the Bib. Repository, Vol. I, 547, 548. Compare also Robinson’s Lexicon on the word Ἑβρᾶιος Hebraios. If this is so, and if the inscription is of any authority, then it goes far to settle the question. The word “Hebrews” occurs only three times in the New Testament Act 6:1; 2Co 11:22; Phi 3:5 in the first of which it is certain that it is used in this sense, and in both the others of which it is probable. There can be no doubt, it seems to me, that an ancient writer acquainted with the usual sense of the word “Hebrew,” would understand an inscription of this kind - “written to the Hebrews” - as designed for the inhabitants of Palestine, and not for the Jews of other countries.
(3) there are some passages in the Epistle itself which Lardner supposes indicate that this Epistle was written to the Hebrews in Palestine, or to those there who had been converted from Judaism to Christianity. As those passages are not conclusive, and as their force has been called in question, and with much propriety, by Professor Stuart (pp. 32-34). I shall merely refer to them. They can be examined at leisure by those who are disposed, and though they do not prove that the Epistle was addressed to the Hebrew Christians in Palestine, yet they can be best interpreted on that supposition, and a special significancy would be attached to them on this supposition. They are the following: Heb 1:2; Heb 4:2; Heb 2:1-4; Heb 5:12; Heb 4:4-6; Heb 10:26-29, Heb 10:32-34; Heb 13:13-14. The argument of Lardner is that these would be more applicable to their condition than to others; a position which I think cannot be doubted. Some of them are of so general character, indeed, as to be applicable to Christians elsewhere; and in regard to some of them it cannot be certainly demonstrated that the state of things referred to existed in Judea, but taken together they would be more applicable by far to them than to the circumstances of any others of which we have knowledge; and this may be allowed to have some weight at least in determining to whom the Epistle was sent.
(4) the internal evidence of the Epistle corresponds with the supposition that it was written to the Hebrew Christians in Palestine. The passages referred to in the previous remarks (3) might be adduced here as proof. But there is other proof. It might have been otherwise. There might be such strong internal proof that an epistle was not addressed to a supposed people, as completely to neutralize all the evidence derived from an inscription like that prefixed to this Epistle, and all the evidence derived from tradition. But it is not so here. All the circumstances referred to in the Epistle; the general strain of remark; the argument: the allusions, are just such as would be likely to be found in an epistle addressed to the Hebrew Christians in Palestine, and such as would not be likely to occur in an epistle addressed to any other place or people. They are such as the following:
(a) The familiar acquaintance with the Jewish institutions supposed by the writer to exist among those to whom it was sent - a familiarity hardly to be expected even of Jews who lived in other countries.
(b) The danger so frequently adverted to of their relapsing into their former state; of apostatizing from Christianity, and of embracing again the Jewish rites and ceremonies - a danger that would exist nowhere else in so great a degree as in Judea. Compare Heb 2:1-3; Heb 3:7-11, Heb 3:15; Heb 4:1; Heb 6:1-8; Heb 10:26-35.
(c) The nature of the discussion in the Epistle - not turning upon the obligation of circumcision, and the distinction of meats and drinks, which occupied so much of the attention of the apostles and early Christians in other places - but a discussion relating to the whole structure of the Mosaic economy, the pre-eminence of Moses or Christ, the meaning of the rites of the temple, etc. These great questions would be more likely to arise in Judea than elsewhere, and it was important to discuss them fully, as it is done in this Epistle. In other places they would be of less interest, and would excite less difficulty.
(d) The allusion to local places and events; to facts in their history; and to the circumstances of public worship, which would be better understood there than elsewhere. There are no allusions - or if there are they are very brief and infrequent - to pagan customs games, races, and philosophical opinions, as there are often in the other epistles of the New Testament. Those to whom the Epistle was sent, are presumed to have an intimate and minute knowledge of the Hebrew history, and such a knowledge as could be hardly supposed elsewhere. Compare Heb. 11, particularly Heb 11:32-39. Thus, it is implied that they so well understood the subjects referred to relating to the Jewish rites, that it was not necessary that the writer should specify them particularly. See Heb 9:5. Of what other persons could this be so appropriately said as of the dwellers in Palestine?
(e) The circumstances of trial and persecution so often referred to in the Epistle, agree well with the known condition of the church in Palestine. That it was subjected to great trials we know; and though this was extensively true of other churches, yet it is probable that there were more vexatious and grievous exactions; that there was more spite and malice; that there were more of the trials arising from the separation of families and the losses of property attending a profession of Christianity in Palestine than elsewhere in the early Christian church. These considerations - though not so conclusive as to furnish absolute demonstration - go far to settle the question. They seem to me so strong as to preclude any reasonable doubt, and are such as the mind can repose on with a great degree of confidence in regard to the original destination of the Epistle.
(3) “was it addressed to a particular church in Palestine, or to the Hebrew Christians there in general?” Whether it was addressed to the churches in general in Palestine, or to some particular church there, it is now impossible to determine. Prof. Stuart inclines to the opinion that it was addressed to the church in Caesarea. The ancients in general supposed it was addressed to the church in Jerusalem. There are some local references in the Epistle which look as though it was directed to some particular church. But the means of determining this question are put beyond our reach, and it is of little importance to settle the question. From the allusions to the temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, and the whole train of special institutions there, it would seem probable that it was directed to the church in Jerusalem. As that was the capital of the nation, and the center of religious influence; and as there was a large and flourishing church there, this opinion would seem to have great probability; but it is impossible now to determine it. If we suppose that the author sent the Epistle, in the first instance, to some local church, near the central seat of the great influence which he intended to reach by it - addressing to that church the particular communications in the last verses - we shall make a supposition which, so far as can now be ascertained, will accord with the truth in the case.
Section 3. The Author of the Epistle
To those who are familiar with the investigations which have taken place in regard to this Epistle, it need not be said that the question of its authorship has given rise to much discussion. The design of these notes does not permit me to go at length into this inquiry. Those who are disposed to see the investigation pursued at length, and to see the objections to the Pauline origin examined in a most satisfactory manner, can find it done in the Introduction to the Epistle to the Hebrews, by Prof. Stuart, pp. 77-260. All that my purpose requires is to state, in a very brief manner, the evidence on which it is ascribed to the apostle Paul. That evidence is, briefly, the following:
(1) That derived from the church at Alexandria. Clement of Alexandria says, that Paul wrote to the Hebrews, and that this was the opinion of Pantaenus, who was at the head of the celebrated Christian school at Alexandria, and who flourished about 180 a.d. Pantaenus lived near Palestine. He must have been acquainted with the prevailing opinions on the subject, and his testimony must be regarded as proof that the Epistle was regarded as Paul’s by the churches in that region. Origen, also of Alexandria, ascribes the Epistle to Paul; though he says that the “sentiments” are those of Paul, but that the words and phrases belong to some one relating the apostle’s sentiments, and as it were commenting on the words of his master. The testimony of the church at Alexandria was uniform after the time of Origen, that it was the production of Paul. Indeed there seems never to have been any doubt in regard to it there, and from the commencement it was admitted as his production. The testimony of that church and school is particularly valuable, because:
(a) it was near to Palestine, where the Epistle was probably sent;
(b) Clement particularly had traveled much, and would be likely to understand the prevailing sentiments of the East;
(c) Alexandria was the seat of the most celebrated theological school of the early Christian ages, and those who were at the head of this school would be likely to have correct information on a point like this; and,
(d) Origen is admitted to have been the most learned of the Greek fathers, and his testimony that the “sentiments” were those of Paul may be regarded as of unique value.
(2) it was inserted in the translation into the Syriac, made very early in the second century, and in the Old Italic version, and was hence believed to be of apostolic origin, and is by the inscription ascribed to Paul. This may be allowed to express the general sense of the churches at that time, as this would not have been done unless there had been a general impression that the Epistle was written by him. The fact that it was regarded early as an inspired book is also conclusively shown by the fact that the Second Epistle of Peter, and the Second Epistle and Third Epistle of John, are not found in that version. They came later into circulation than the other epistles, and were not possessed, or regarded as genuine, by the author of that version. The Epistle to the Hebrews is found in these versions, and was, therefore, regarded as one of the inspired books. In those versions it bears the inscription, “To the Hebrews.”
(3) this Epistle was received as the production of Paul by the Eastern churches. Justin Martyr, who was born at Samaria, quotes it, about the year 140 a.d. It was found, as has been already remarked, in the Peshito - the Old Syriac Version, made in the early part of the second century Jacob, bishop of Nisibis, also (about 325 a.d.) repeatedly quotes it as the production of an apostle. Ephrem Syrus, or the Syrian, abundantly ascribes this Epistle to Paul. He was the disciple of Jacob of Nisibis, and no man was better qualified to inform himself on this point than Ephrem. No man stands deservedly higher in the memory of the Eastern churches. After him, all the Syrian churches acknowledged the canonical authority of the Epistle to the Hebrews. But the most important testimony of the Eastern church is that of Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, in Palestine. He is the well-known historian of the church, and he took pains from all quarters to collect testimony in regard to the Books of Scripture. He says, “There are fourteen epistles of Paul, manifest and well known: but yet there are some who reject that to the Hebrews, alleging in behalf of their opinion, that it was not received by the church of Rome as a writing of Paul.” The testimony of Eusebius is particularly important.
He had heard of the objection to its canonical authority. He had weighed that objection. Yet in view of the testimony in the case, he regarded it as the undoubted production of Paul. As such it was received in the churches in the East; and the fact which he mentions, that its genuineness had been disputed by the church of Rome, and that he specifies no other church, proves that it had not been called in question in the East. This seems to me to be sufficient testimony to settle this inquiry. The writers here referred to lived in the very country to which the Epistle was evidently written, and their testimony is uniform. Justin Martyr was born in Samaria; Ephrem passed his life in Syria; Eusebius lived in Cesarea, and Origen passed the last twenty years of his life in Palestine. The churches there were unanimous in the opinion that this Epistle was written by Paul, and their united testimony should settle the question.
Indeed when their testimony is considered, it seems remarkable that the subject should have been regarded as doubtful by critics, or that it should have given rise to so much protracted investigation. I might add to the testimonies above referred to, the fact that the Epistle was declared to be Paul’s by the following persons: Archelaus, Bishop of Mesopotamia, about 300 a.d.; Adamantius, about 330 a.d.; Cyril, of Jerusalem, about 348 a.d.; the Council of Laodicea, about 363 a.d.; Epiphanius, about 368 a.d.; Basil, 370 a.d.; Gregory Nazianzen, 370 a.d.; Chrysostom, 398 a.d., etc. etc. Why should not the testimony of such men and churches be admitted? What more clear or decided evidence could we wish in regard to any fact of ancient history? Would not such testimony be ample in regard to an anonymous oration of Cicero, or poem of Virgil or Horace? Are we not constantly acting on far feebler evidence in regard to the authorship of many productions of celebrated English writers?
(4) in regard to the Western churches, it is to be admitted that, like the Second Epistle of Peter, and the Second Epistle and Third Epistle of John, the canonical authority was for some time doubted, or was even called in question. But this may be accounted for. The Epistle had not the name of the author. All the other epistles of Paul had. As the Epistle was addressed to the Hebrews in Palestine, it may not have been soon known to the Western churches. As there were spurious epistles and gospels at an early age, much caution would be used in admitting any anonymous production to a place in the sacred canon. Yet it was not long before all these doubts were removed, and the Epistle to the Hebrews was allowed to take its place among the other acknowledged writings of Paul. It was received as the Epistle of Paul by Hilary, Bishop of Poictiers, about 354 a.d.; by Lucifer, Bishop of Cagliari, 354 a.d.; by Victorinus, 360 a.d.; by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, 360 a.d.; by Rufinus, 397 a.d., etc. etc.
Jerome, the well-known Latin Father, uses in regard to it the following language: “This is to be maintained, that this Epistle, which is inscribed to the Hebrews, is not only received by the churches at the East as the apostle Paul’s, but has been in past times by all ecclesiastical writers in the Greek language; although most Latins think that Barnabas or Clement was the author.” Still, it was not rejected by “all” the Latins. Some received it in the time of Jerome as the production of Paul. See Stuart, pp. 114, 115, for the full testimony of Jerome. Augustine admitted that the Epistle was written by Paul. He mentions that Paul wrote fourteen epistles, and specifies particularly the Epistle to the Hebrews. He often cites it as a part of Scripture, and quotes it as the production of an apostle - Stuart, p. 115. From the time of Augustine it was undisputed. By the Council of Hippo, 393 a.d., the Third Council of Carthage, 397 a.d., and the Fifth Council of Carthage, 419 a.d., it was declared to be the Epistle of Paul, and was commended to the churches as such.
(5) as another proof that it is the writing of Paul, we may appeal to the internal evidence:
(a) The author of the Epistle was the companion and friend of Timothy. “Know ye that our brother Timothy is set at liberty - or is sent away -ἀπολελυμένον apolelumenon - with whom if he come speedily, I will make you a visit.” Heb 13:23. Sent away, perhaps, on a journey, to visit some of the churches, and expected soon to return. In Phi 2:19, Paul speaks of sending Timothy to them “so soon as he should see how it would go with him,” at the same time expressing a hope that he should himself see them shortly. What is more natural than to suppose that he had now sent Timothy to Philippi; that during his absence he wrote this Epistle; that he was waiting for his return; and that he proposed, if Timothy should return soon, to visit Palestine with him? And who would more naturally say this than the apostle Paul - the companion and friend of Timothy; by whom he had been accompanied in his travels; and by whom he was regarded with special interest as a minister of the gospel?
(b) In Heb 13:18-19, he asks their prayers that he might be restored to them; and in Heb 13:23, he expresses a confident expectation of being able soon to come and see them. From this it is evident that he was then imprisoned, but had hope of speedy release - a state of things in exact accordance with what existed at Rome. Phi 2:17-24.
(c) He was in bonds when he wrote this Epistle. Heb 10:34, “ye had compassion of me in my bonds;” an expression that will exactly apply to the case of Paul. He was in “bonds” in Palestine; he was two whole years in Caesarea a prisoner Act 24:27; and what was more natural than that the Christians in Palestine should have had compassion on him, and ministered to his needs? To what other person would these circumstances so certainly be applicable?
(d) The salutation Heb 13:24, “they of Italy salute you,” agrees with the supposition that it was written by Paul when a prisoner at Rome. Paul writing from Rome, and acquainted with Christians from other parts of Italy, would be likely to send such a salutation. In regard to the “objections” which may be made to this use of the passage, the reader may consult Stuart’s Introduction to the Hebrews, p. 127, following.
(e) The “doctrines” of the Epistle are the same as those which are taught by Paul in his undisputed writings. It is true that this consideration is not conclusive, but the want of it would be conclusive evidence against the position that Paul wrote it. But the resemblance is not general. It is not such as any man would exhibit who held to the same general system of truth. It relates to “peculiarities” of doctrine, and is such as would be manifested by a man who bad been reared and trained as Paul had:
(1) No one can doubt that the author was formerly a Jew - and a Jew who had been familiar to an uncommon degree with the institutions of the Jewish religion. Every rite and ceremony; every form of opinion; every fact in their history, is perfectly familiar to him. And though the other apostles were Jews, yet we can hardly suppose that they had the familiarity with the minute rites and ceremonies so accurately referred to in this Epistle, and so fully illustrated. With Paul all this was perfectly natural. He had been brought up at the feet of Gamaliel, and had spent the early part of his life at Jerusalem in the careful study of the Old Testament, in the examination of the prevalent opinions, and in the attentive observance of the rites of religion. The other apostles had been born and trained, apparently, on the banks of Gennesareth, and certainly with few of the opportunities which Paul had had for becoming acquainted with the institutions of the temple service. This consideration is fatal, in my view, to the claim which has been set up for Clement as the author of the Epistle. It is wholly incredible that a foreigner should be so familiar with the Jewish opinions, laws, institutions, and history, as the author of this Epistle manifestly was.
(2) there is the same preference for Christianity over Judaism in this Epistle which is shown by Paul in his other epistles, and exhibited in the same form. Among these points are the following - “The gospel imparts superior light.” Compare Gal 4:3, Gal 4:9; 1Co 14:20; Eph 4:11-13; 2Co 3:18; with Heb 1:1-2; Heb 2:2-4; Heb 8:9-11; Heb 10:1; Heb 11:39-40. “The gospel holds out superior motives and encouragements to piety.” Compare Gal 3:23; Gal 4:2-3; Rom 8:15-17; Gal 4:1; Gal 5:13; 1Co 7:19; Gal 6:15; with Heb 9:9, Heb 9:14; Heb 12:18-24, Heb 12:28; Heb 8:6-13. “The gospel is superior in promoting the real and permanent happiness of mankind.” Compare Gal 3:13; 2Co 3:7, 2Co 3:9; Rom 3:20; Rom 4:24-25; Eph 1:7; Rom 5:1-2; Gal 2:16; and the same views in Heb 12:18-21; Heb 9:9; Heb 10:4, Heb 10:11; Heb 6:18-20; Heb 7:25; Heb 9:24. “The Jewish dispensation was a type and shadow of the Christian.” See Col 2:16-17; 1Co 10:1-6; Rom 5:14; 1Co 15:45-47; 2Co 3:13-18; Gal 4:22-31; Gal 4:1-5; and for the same or similar views, see Heb 9:9-14; Heb 10:1; Heb 8:1-9; Heb 9:22-24. “The Christian religion was designed to be perpetual, while the Jewish was intended to be abolished.”
See 2Co 3:10-11, 2Co 3:13, 2Co 3:18; 2Co 4:14-16; Rom 7:4-6; Gal 3:21-25; Gal 4:1-7; Gal 5:1; and for similar views compare Heb 8:6-8, Heb 8:13; Heb 7:17-19; Heb 10:1-14. “The person of the Mediator is presented in the same light by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews and by Paul.” See Phi 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20; 2Co 8:9; Eph 3:9; 1Co 8:6; 1Co 15:25-27; and for the same and similar views, see Heb 1:2-3; Heb 2:9, Heb 2:14; Heb 12:2; Heb 2:8; Heb 10:13. “The death of Christ is the propitiatory sacrifice for sin.” See 1Ti 1:15; 1Co 15:3; Rom 8:32; Rom 3:24; Gal 1:4; Gal 2:20; 1Co 5:7; Eph 1:7; Col 1:14; 1Ti 2:6; 1Co 6:20; 1Co 7:23; Rom 5:12-21; Rom 3:20, Rom 3:28; Rom 8:3; 1Ti 2:5-6. For similar views see Heb 1:3; Heb 2:9; Heb 5:8-9; Heb. 7; Heb 8:1-13; Heb. 9; Heb. 10: “The general method and arrangement of this Epistle and the acknowledged epistles of Paul are the same.” It particularly resembles the Epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, where we have first a doctrinal and then a practical part.
The same is true also to some extent of the Epistles to the Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians. The Epistle to the Hebrews is on the same plan. As far as Heb 10:19, it is principally doctrinal; the remainder is mainly practical. “The manner of appealing to, and applying the Jewish Scriptures, is the same in this Epistle as in those of Paul.” The general structure of the Epistle, and the slightest comparison between them, will show this with sufficient clearness. The general remark to be made in view of this comparison is, that the Epistle to the Hebrews is just such an one as Paul might be expected to write; that it agrees with what we know to have been his early training, his views, his manner of life, his opinions, and his habit in writing; that it accords better with his views than with those of any other known writer of antiquity; and that it falls in with the circumstances in which he was known to be placed, and the general object which he had in view. So satisfactory are these views to my mind, that they seem to have all the force of demonstration which can be had in regard to any anonymous publication, and it is a matter of wonder that so much doubt has been experienced in reference to the question who was the author.
It is difficult to account for the fact that the name of the author was omitted. It is found in every other Epistle of Paul, and in general it is appended to the epistles in the New Testament. It is omitted, however, in the three Epistles of John, for reasons which are now unknown. And there may have been similar reasons also unknown for omitting it in this case. The simple fact is, that it is anonymous; and whoever was the author, the same difficulty will exist in accounting for it. If this fact will prove that Paul was not the author, it would prove the same thing in regard to any other person, and would thus be ultimately conclusive evidence that it had no author. What were the reasons for omitting the name can be only matter of conjecture. The most probable opinion, as it seems to me, is this. The name of Paul was odious to the Jews. He was regarded by the nation as an apostate from their religion, and everywhere they showed special malignity against him.
See the Acts of the Apostles. The fact that he was so regarded by them might indirectly influence even those who had been converted from Judaism to Christianity. They lived in Palestine. They were near the temple, and were engaged in its ceremonies and sacrifices - for there is no evidence that they broke off from those observances on their conversion to Christianity. Paul was abroad. It might have been reported that he was preaching against the temple and its sacrifices, and even the Jewish Christians in Palestine might have supposed that he was carrying matters too far. In these circumstances it might have been imprudent for him to have announced his name at the outset, for it might have aroused prejudices which a wise man would wish to allay. But if he could present an argument, somewhat in the form of an essay, showing that he believed that the Jewish institutions were appointed by God, and that he was not an apostate and an infidel; if he could conduct a demonstration that would accord in the main with the prevailing views of the Christians in Palestine, and that was adapted to, strengthen them in the faith of the gospel, and explain to them the true nature of the Jewish rites, then the object could be gained without difficulty, and then they would be prepared to learn that Pant was the author, without prejudice or alarm. Accordingly he thus conducts the argument; and at the close gives them such intimations that they would understand who wrote it without much difficulty. If this was the motive, it was an instance of tact such as was certainly characteristic of Paul, and such as was not unworthy any man. I have no doubt that this was the true motive. It would be soon known who wrote it; and accordingly we have seen it was never disputed in the Eastern churches.
Section 4. The Time When Written
In regard to the time when this Epistle was written, and the place where, critics have been better agreed than on most of the questions which have been started in regard to it. Mill was of opinion that it was written by Paul in the year 63 a.d., in some part of Italy, soon after he bad been released from imprisonment at Rome. Wetstein was of the same opinion. Tillemont also places this Epistle in the year 63 a.d., and supposes that it was written while Paul was at Rome, or at least in Italy, and soon after he was released from imprisonment. Basnage supposes it was written about the year 61, and during the imprisonment of the apostle. Lardner supposes also that it was written in the beginning of the year 63 a.d., and soon after the apostle was released from his confinement. This also is the opinion of Calmet. The circumstances in the Epistle which will enable us to form an opinion on the question about the time and the place are the following:
(1) It was written while the temple was still standing, and before Jerusalem was destroyed. This is evident from the whole structure of the Epistle. There is no allusion to the destruction of the temple or the city, which there certainly would have been if they had been destroyed. Such an event would have contributed much to the object in view, and would have furnished an unbreakable argument that the institutions of the Jews were intended to be superseded by another and a more perfect system. Moreover, there are allusions in the Epistle which suppose that the temple service was then performed. See Heb 9:9; Heb 8:4-5. But the city and temple were destroyed in the year 70 a.d., and, of course, the Epistle was written before that year.
(2) it was evidently written before the civil wars and commotions in Judea, which terminated in the destruction of the city and nation. This is clear, because there are no allusions to any such disorders or troubles in Palestine, and there is no intimation that they were suffering the evils incident to a state of war. Compare Heb 12:4. But those wars commenced 66 a.d., and evidently the Epistle was written before that time.
(3) they were not suffering the evils of violent persecution. They had indeed formerly suffered (compare Heb 10:32, Heb 10:34); James and Stephen had been put to death Acts 7; Acts 12; but there was no violent and bloody persecution then raging in which they were called to defend their religion at the expense of blood and life. Heb 10:32-33. But the persecution under Nero began in the year 64 a.d., and though it began at Rome, and was confined to a considerable degree to Italy, yet it is not improbable that it extended to other places, and it is to be presumed that if such a persecution were raging at the time when the Epistle was written there would be some allusion to this fact. It may be set down, therefore, that it was written before the year 64 ad.
(4) It is equally true that the Epistle was written during the latter part of the apostolic age. The author speaks of the former days in which after they were illuminated they had endured a great fight of afflictions, and when they were made a gazing-stock, and were plundered by their oppressors Heb 10:32-34; and he speaks of them as having been so long-converted that they ought to have been qualified to teach others Heb 5:12; and, hence, it is fairly to be inferred that they were not recent converts, but that the church there had been established for a considerable period. It may be added, that it was after the writer had been imprisoned - as I suppose in Caesarea (see Section 3) - when they had ministered to him; Heb 10:34. But this was as late as the year 60 ad.
(5) At the time when Paul wrote the Epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, he had hopes of deliverance. Timothy was evidently with him. But now he was absent; Heb 13:23. In the Epistle to the Philippians Phi 2:19-23 he says, “But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timotheus shortly unto you, that I may be also of good comfort, when I know your state.” He expected, therefore, that Timothy would come back to him at Rome. It is probable that Timothy was sent soon after this. The apostle had a fair prospect of being set at liberty, and sent him to them. “During his absence” at this time, it would seem probable, this Epistle was written. Thus, the writer says Heb 13:23, “Know ye that our brother Timothy is set at liberty” - or rather, “sent away,” or “sent abroad” (see the note in that place); “with whom if be come shortly, I will see you.” That is, if he returns soon, as I expect him, I will pay you a visit. It is probable that the Epistle was written while Timothy was thus absent at Philippi, and when he returned, Paul and he went to Palestine, and thence to Ephesus. If so it was written somewhere about the year 63 a.d. as this was the time when Paul was set at liberty.
(6) the Epistle was written evidently in Italy. Thus, in Heb 13:24, the writer says, “They of Italy salute you.” This would be the natural form of salutation on the supposition that it was written there. He mentions none by name, as he does in his other epistles, for it is probable that none of those who were at Rome would be known by name in Palestine. But there was a general salutation, showing the interest which they had in the Christians in Judea, and expressive of regard for their welfare. This expression is, to my mind, conclusive evidence that the Epistle was written in Italy; and in Italy there was no place where this would be so likely to occur as at Rome.
Section 5. The Language in which It Was Written
This is a vexed and still unsettled question, and it does not seem to be possible to determine it with any considerable degree of certainty. Critics of the ablest name have been divided on it, and what is remarkable, have appealed to the same arguments to prove exactly opposite opinions - one class arguing that the style of the Epistle is such as to prove that it was written in Hebrew, and the other appealing to the same proofs to demonstrate that it was written in Greek. Among those who have supposed that it was written in Hebrew are the following, namely: - Some of the fathers - as Clement of Alexandria, Theodoret, John Damascenus, Theophylact; and among the moderns, Michaelis has been the most strenuous defender of this opinion. This opinion was also held by the late Dr. James P. Wilson, who says, “It was probably written in the common language of the Jews;” that is, in that mixture of Hebrew, Syriac, and Chaldee, which was usually spoken in the time of the Saviour, and which was known as the Syro-Chaldaic.
On the other hand, the great body of critics have supposed it was written in the Greek language. This was the opinion of Fabricius, Lightfoot, Whitby, Beausobre, Capellus, Basnage, Mill, and others, and is also the opinion of Lardnet, Hug, Stuart, and perhaps of most modern critics. These opinions may be seen examined at length in Michaelis’ Introduction, Hag, Stuart, and Lardner.
The arguments in support of the opinion that it was written in Hebrew are, briefly, the following:
(1) The testimony of the fathers. Thus, Clement of Alexandria says, “Paul wrote to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language, and Luke carefully translated it into Greek.” Jerome says, “Paul as a Hebrew wrote to the Hebrews in Hebrew - Scripserat ut Hebraeus Hebraeis Hebraice;” and then he adds, “this Epistle was translated into Greek, so that the coloring of the style was made diverse in this way from that of Paul’s.”
(2) the fact that it was written for the use of the Hebrews, who spoke the Hebrew, or the “Talmudic” language, is alleged as a reason for supposing that it must have been written in that language.
(3) it is alleged by Michaelis, that the style of the Greek, as we now have it, is far more pure and Classical than Paul elsewhere employs, and that hence it is to be inferred that it was translated by some one who was master of the Greek language. On this, however, the most eminent critics disagree.
(4) it is alleged by Michaelis, that the quotations in the Epistle, as we have it, are made from the Septuagint, and that they are foreign to the purpose which the writer had in view as they are now quoted, whereas they are exactly in point as they stand in the Hebrew. Hence he infers that the original Hebrew was quoted by the author, and that the translator used the common version at hand instead of making an exact translation for himself. Of the fact alleged here, however, there may be good ground to raise a question; and if it were so, it would not prove that the writer might not have used the common and accredited translation, though less to his purpose than the original. Of the fact, moreover, to which Michaelis here refers, Prof. Stuart says, “He has not adduced a single instance of what he calls a “wrong translation” which wears the appearance of any considerable probability.” The only instance urged by Michaelis which seems to me to be plausible is Heb 1:7. These are the principal arguments which have been urged in favor of the opinion that this Epistle was written in the Hebrew language. They are evidently not conclusive. The only argument of any considerable weight is the testimony of some of the fathers, and it may be doubted whether they gave this as a matter of historic fact or only as a matter of opinion. See Hug’s Introduction, 144. It is morally certain that in one respect their statement cannot be true. They state that it was translated by Luke; but it is capable of the clearest proof that it was not translated by Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, since there is the most remarkable dissimilarity in the style.
On the other hand there are alleged in favor of the opinion that it was written in Greek the following considerations, namely:
(1) The fact that we have no Hebrew original. If it was written in Hebrew, the original was early lost. None of the fathers say that they had seen it; none quote it. All the copies that we have are in Greek. If it was written in Hebrew, and the original was destroyed, it must have been at a very early period, and it is remarkable that no one should have mentioned the fact or alluded to it. Besides, it is scarcely conceivable that the original should have so soon perished, and that the translation should have altogether taken its place. If it was addressed to the Hebrews in Palestine, the same reason which made it proper that it should have been written in Hebrew would have led them to retain it in that language, and we might have supposed that Origen, or Eusebius, or Jerome, who lived there, or Ephrem the Syrian, would have adverted to the fact that there was there a Hebrew original. The Jews were remarkable for retaining their sacred books in the language in which they were written, and if this were written in Hebrew it is difficult to account for the fact that it was so soon suffered to perish.
(2) the presumption - a presumption amounting to almost a moral certainty - is, that an apostle writing to the Christians in Palestine would write in Greek. This presumption is based on the following circumstances:
(a) The fact that all the other books of the New Testament were written in Greek, unless the Gospel by Matthew is an exception.
(b) This occurred in cases where it would seem to have been as improbable as it was that one writing to the Hebrews should use that language. For instance, Paul wrote to the church in Rome in the Greek language, though the “Latin” language was what was in universal use there.
(c) The Greek was a common language in the East. It seems to have been familiarly spoken, and to have been commonly understood.
(d) Like the other books of the New Testament, this Epistle does not appear to have been intended to be confined to the Hebrews only. The writings of the apostles were regarded as the property of the church at large. Those writings would be copied and spread abroad. The Greek language was a far better language for such a purpose than the Hebrew language. It was polished and elegant; was adapted to the purpose of discoursing on moral subjects; was fitted to express delicate shades of thought, and was the language which was best understood by the world at large.
(e) It was the language which Paul would naturally use unless there was a strong reason for his employing the Hebrew. Though he was able to speak in Hebrew Act 21:40, yet he had spent his early days in Tarsus, where the Greek was the vernacular tongue, and it was probably that which he had first learned. Besides this, when this Epistle was written he had been absent from Palestine about 25 years, and in all that time he had been there but a few days. He had been where the Greek language was universally spoken. He had been among Jews who spoke that language. It was the language used in their synagogues, and Paul had addressed them in it. After thus preaching, conversing, and writing in that language for 25 years, is it any wonder that he should prefer writing in it; that he should naturally do it; and is it not to be presumed that he would do it in this case? These presumptions are so strong that they ought to be allowed to settle a question of this kind unless there is positive proof to the contrary.
(3) there is internal proof that it was written in the Greek language. The evidence of this kind consists in the fact that the writer bases an argument on the meaning and force of Greek words, which could not have occurred had he written in Hebrew. Instances of this kind are such as these:
(a) In Heb. 2: he applies a passage from Psa 8:1-9 to prove that the Son of God must have had a human nature, which was to be exalted above the angels, and placed at the head of the creation. The passage is, “Thou hast made him a little while inferior to the angels. Heb 2:7, margin. In the Hebrew, in Psa 8:5, the word rendered “angels,” isאלהים 'Elohiym - God; and the sense of “angels” attached to that word, though it may sometimes occur, is so unusual, that an argument would not have been built on the Hebrew language.
(b) In Heb 7:1, the writer has explained the name “Melchizedek,” and translated it “king of Salem” - telling what it is in “Greek” - a thing which would not have been done had he written in Hebrew, where the word was well understood. It is possible, indeed, that a translator might have done this, but the explanation seems to be interwoven with the discourse itself, and to constitute a part of the argument.
(c) In Heb 9:16-17, there is an argument on the meaning of the word “covenant” -διαθήκη diathēkē - which could not have occurred had the Epistle been in Hebrew. It is founded on the double meaning of that word - denoting both a “covenant” and a “testament,” or “will.” The Hebrew word - בּרית beriyt - has no such double signification. It means only “covenant,” and is never used in the sense of the word “will,” or testament. The proper translation of that word would be συνθήκη sunthēkē - but the translators of the Septuagint uniformly used the former - διαθήκη diathēkē and on this word the argument of the apostle is based. This could not have been done by a translator; it must have been by the original author, for it is incorporated into the argument.
(d) In Heb 10:3-9, the author shows that Christ came to make an atonement for sin, and that in order to this it was necessary that he should have a human body. This he shows was not only necessary, but was predicted. In doing this, he appeals to Psa 40:6 - “A body hast thou prepared for me.” But the Hebrew here is, “Mine ears hast thou opened.” This passage would have been much less pertinent than the other form - “a body hast thou prepared me; “ - and indeed it is not easy to see how it would bear at all on the object in view. See Heb 10:10. But in the Septuagint, the phrase stands as he quotes it - “a body hast thou prepared for me;” a fact which demonstrates, whatever difficulties there may be about the “principle” on which he makes the quotation, that the Epistle was written in Greek. It may be added, that it has nothing of the appearance of a translation. It is not stiff, forced, or constrained in style, as translations usually are. It is impassioned, free, flowing, full of animation, life, and coloring, and has all the appearance of being an original composition. So clear have these considerations appeared, that the great body of critics now concur in the opinion that the Epistle was originally written in Greek
Section 6. The Design and General Argument of the Epistle
The general purpose of this Epistle is, to preserve those to whom it was sent from the danger of apostasy. Their danger on this subject did not arise so much from persecution, as from the circumstances that were fitted to attract them again to the Jewish religion. The temple, it is supposed, and indeed it is evident, was still standing. The morning and evening sacrifice was still offered. The splendid rites of that imposing religion were still observed. The authority of the law was undisputed. Moses was a lawgiver, sent from God, and no one doubted that the Jewish form of religion had been instituted by their fathers in conformity with the direction of God. Their religion had been founded amidst remarkable manifestations of the Deity - in flames, and smoke, and thunder; it had been communicated by the ministration of angels; it had on its side and in its favor all the venerableness and sanction of a remote antiquity; and it commended itself by the pomp of its ritual, and by the splendor of its ceremonies. On the other hand, the new form of religion had little or nothing of this to commend it. It was of recent origin. It was founded by the Man of Nazareth, who had been trained up in their own land, and who had been a carpenter, and who had had no extraordinary advantages of education. Its rites were few and simple. It had no splendid temple service; none of the pomp and pageantry, the music and the magnificence of the ancient religion. It had no splendid array of priests in magnificent vestments, and it had not been imparted by the ministry of angels. Fishermen were its ministers; and by the body of the nation it was regarded as a schism, or heresy, that enlisted in its favor only the most humble and lowly of the people.
In these circumstances, how natural was it for the enemies of the gospel in Judea to contrast the two forms of religion, and how keenly would Christians there feel it! All that was said of the antiquity and the divine origin of the Jewish religion they knew and admitted; all that was said of its splendor and magnificence they saw; and all that was said of the humble origin of their own religion they were constrained to admit also. their danger was not that arising from persecution. It was that of being affected by considerations like these, and of relapsing again into the religion of their fathers, and of apostatizing from the gospel; and it was a danger which beset no other part of the Christian world.
To meet and counteract this danger was the design of this Epistle. Accordingly, the writer contrasts the two religions in all the great points on which the minds of Christians in Judea would be likely to be affected, and shows the superiority of the Christian religion over the Jewish in every respect, and especially in the points that had so much attracted their attention, and affected their hearts. He begins by showing that the author of the Christian religion was superior in rank to any and all who had ever delivered the word of God to man. He was superior to the prophets, and even to the angels. He was over all things, and all things were subject to him. There was, therefore, a special reason why they should listen to him, and obey his commands; Heb 1:1-14 and Heb. 2: He was superior to Moses, the great Jewish lawgiver, whom they venerated so much, and on whom they so much prided themselves; Heb. 3: Having shown that the Great Founder of the Christian religion was superior to the prophets, to Moses, and to the angels, the writer proceeds to show that the Christian religion was characterized by having a High Priest superior to that of the Jews, and of whom the Jewish high priest was but a type and emblem.
He shows that all the rites of the ancient religion, splendid as they were, were also but types, and were to vanish away - for they had had their fulfillment in the realities of the Christian faith He allows that the Christians High Priest derived his origin and his rank from a more venerable antiquity than the Jewish high priest did - because he went back to Melchizedek, who lived long before Aaron, and that he had far superior dignity from the fact that he had entered into the Holy of Holies in heaven. The Jewish high priest entered once a year into the most holy place in the temple; the Great High Priest of the Christian faith had entered into the Most Holy place - of which that was but the type and emblem - into heaven. In short, whatever there was of dignity and honor in the Jewish faith had more than its counterpart in the Christian religion; and while the Christian religion was permanent, that was fading.
The rites of the Jewish system, magnificent as they were, were designed to be temporary. They were mere types and shadows of things to come. They had their fulfillment in Christianity That had an Author more exalted in rank by far than the author of the Jewish system; it had a High Priest more elevated and enduring; it had rites which brought men nearer to God; it was the substance of what in the temple service was type and shadow. By considerations such as these the author of this Epistle endeavors to preserve them from apostasy. Why should they go back? Why should they return to a less perfect system? Why go back from the substance to the shadow? Why turn away from the true sacrifice to the type and emblem? Why linger around the earthly tabernacle, and contemplate the high priest there, while they had a more perfect and glorious High Priest, who had entered into the heavens? And why should they turn away from the only perfect sacrifice - the great offering made for transgression - and go back to the bloody rites which were to be renewed every day?
And why forsake the perfect system - the system that was to endure for ever - for that which was soon to vanish away? The author of this Epistle is very careful to assure them that if they thus apostatized, there could be no hope for them. If they now rejected the sacrifice of the Son of God, then was no other sacrifice for sin. That was the last great sacrifice for the sins of men. It was designed to close all bloody offerings. It was not to be repeated. If that was rejected, there was no other. The Jewish rites were soon to pass away; and even if they were not, they could not cleanse the conscience from sin. Persecuted then though they might be; reviled, ridiculed, opposed, yet they should not abandon their Christian hope, for it was their all; they should not neglect him who spake to them from heaven, for in dignity, rank, and authority, he far surpassed all who in former times had made known the will of God to men.
This Epistle, therefore, occupies a most important place in the book of revelation, and without it that book would be incomplete. It is the most full explanation which we have of the meaning of the Jewish institutions. In the Epistle to the Romans we have a system of religious doctrine, and particularly a defense of the great doctrine of justification by faith. Important doctrines are discussed in the other epistles; but there was something wanted that would show the meaning of the Jewish rites and ceremonies, and their connection with the Christian scheme; something which would show us how the one was preparatory to the other; and I may add, something that would restrain the imagination in endeavoring to show how the one was designed to introduce the other. The one was a system of “types” and “shadows.” But on nothing is the human mind more prone to wander than on the subject of emblems and analogies.
This has been shown abundantly in the experience of the Christian church, from the time of Origen to the present. Systems of divinity, commentaries, and sermons, have shown everywhere how prone men of ardent imaginations have been to find types in everything pertaining to the ancient economy; to discover hidden meanings in every ceremony; and to regard every pin and hook and instrument of the tabernacle as designed to inculcate some truth, and to shadow forth some fact or doctrine of the Christian revelation. It was desirable to have one book that should tell how that is; to fetter down the imagination and bind it by severe rules, and to restrain the vagaries of honest but credulous devotion. Such a book we have in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The ancient system is there explained by one who had been brought up in the midst of it, and who understood it thoroughly; by one who had a clear insight into the relation which it bore to the Christian economy; by one who was under the influence of divine inspiration, and who could not err.
The Bible would have been incomplete without this book: and when I think of the relation between the Jewish and the Christian systems; when I look on the splendid rites of the ancient economy, and ask their meaning; when I wish a full guide to heaven, and ask for that which gives completeness to the whole, I turn instinctively to the Epistle to the Hebrews. When I wish also that which shall give me the most elevated view of the Great Author of Christianity and of his work, and the most clear conceptions of the sacrifice which he made for sin: and when I look for considerations that shall be most effectual in restraining the soul from apostasy, and for considerations to enable it to bear trials with patience and with hope, my mind recurs to this book, and I feel that the book of revelation, and the hopes of man, would be incomplete without it.
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