The Epistle to the Hebrews
In this Epistle we may distinguish five parts.
I. The Superiority of Christ as Mediator, 1: 1—4:16. The writer begins by saying that the New Testament revelation was mediated by the very Son of God, who is far superior to the angels, 1: 1-14; whose revelation one can only neglect to the peril of one’s soul, 2: 1-4, and in whom and through whom the ideal of man is realized through suffering, 5-18. Then he points out that Christ is greater than Moses, as the builder is greater than the house and the son is superior to the servant, 3:1-6, wherefore it is necessary that we should listen to his voice, since unbelief deprives us of the blessings of salvation, as is clearly seen in the history of Israel, 7-19. They were not brought into the rest by Joshua, so that the promise remains to be fulfilled, and we should labor to enter into that rest, seeking strength in our great High Priest, 4:1-16.
II. Christ the true High Priest, 5:1—7: 28. Like every high priest Christ was taken from among men to represent them in worship, and was called by God, 5:1-5; but in distinction from these He was made a Priest after the order of Melchizedek, and thus became the author of eternal salvation for those that obey him, 6-10. Since the readers were not yet able to understand all that might be said regarding the Priesthood of Christ after the order of Melchizedek, the author exhorts them to press on to more perfect knowledge, to beware of apostasy, and to be diligent to inherit, through faith and patience, the promises of the ever faithful God, 5: 1 1—6: 20. Returning now to the subject in hand, the writer describes the unique character of Melchizedek, 7:1-10, and contrasts the priesthood of Christ with that of the order of Aaron with respect to fleshly descent (Levi—Judah), 11-14; endurance (temporal—eternal) 15-19; solemnity and weight (without oath—with oath) 20-22; number (many—one) 23-24; and then argues the necessity of such a High Priest for us, 25-28.
III. Pre-eminence of the New Covenant mediated by Jesus Christ, 8:1—10:18. As High Priest Christ is now ministering in heaven, of which the tabernacle on earth was but a shadow, since He is the Mediator, not of the Old, but of the New Covenant, 8:1-13. The ordained services and the sanctuary of the old dispensation were merely figures for the time then present, and pointed to the better services which Christ, the Mediator of the New Covenant would render at the heavenly sanctuary, since He would not enter with the blood of bulls and goats, but with his own blood, thus bringing eternal redemption, 9:1-28. The sacrifices of the old dispensation could not take away sin, and therefore Christ offered himself for our purification and to give us access to the throne of God, 10:1-18.
IV. Application of the Truths presented and Personal Epilogue, 10:19—13: 25. The writer exhorts the readers to draw near to God with confidence, and warns them against apostasy, reminding them of its dire consequences and of their former endurance, and assuring them that the just shall live by faith, 10:19-39. He illustrates this point by presenting to their view a long line of heroes that triumphed in faith, 11:1-40. In view of these examples he urges them to endure chastening which is a sign of their sonship and ministers to their sanctification, and warns them against despising the grace of God, 12:1-17. Since they have received far greater privileges than Old Testament saints, they should strive to serve God acceptably with reverence and godly feat, 18-29. Then follow some general exhortations respecting hospitality, marriage, contentment, the following in the footsteps of their teachers, and the necessity of guarding against strange doctrines, 13:1-17; after which the writer closes the letter with a few personal notices and salutations, 18-25.
1. The Epistle to the Hebrews has not the letter-like appearance of the confessedly Pauline writings. It does not contain the name of the author, nor that of the addressees. And if it were not for a few stray personal notes, 10: 34; 13:18, 25, and for the greetings and salutations found at the end, we might regard this writing as a treatise rather than an Epistle. Deissmann, who emphasizes the nonliterary character of the admittedly Pauline compositions, and insists that they be looked upon as real letters, considers this writing to be an Epistle as distinguished from a letter, and thinks it is very important to recognize its literary character. According to him “it is historically the earliest example of Christian artistic literature.” Light from the Ancient East p.64 f.;236 f.; 243.
2. The relation in which the teaching of this book stands to that of the Old Testament is unique. It does not view the Law as a body of commandments imposed on the obedience of man, but as a system of ritual provided by the mercy of God; and clearly reveals its insufficiency as an institution for the removal of sin, since it could only remove ceremonial defilement and could not purify the heart. In harmony with this divergence from the prevailing Pauline conception of the Law, it does not, like the undoubted letters of Paul, regard the Law as an episode temporarily intervening, on account of sin, between the promise and its fulfilment; but as a typical representation, as a primitive revelation of the blessings to which the promise pointed. In it the image of the New Testament realities is dimly seen; it is the bud that gradually develops into a beautiful flower. The realities that answer to the shadows of the Old Testament are pointed out in detail, and thereby this Epistle is for all ages the inspired commentary on the ritual of the Old Covenant, making the pages of Leviticus luminous with heavenly light. We should bear in mind that the terms type and antitype are employed in a rather unusual sense in this letter; their meaning is in a way reversed. The holy places of the earthly tabernacle are called the ἀντίτυπαof the true and heavenly, 9: 24, according to which usage the latter are, of course, the types of the former, cf. 8: 5.
3. This letter is peculiar also in the way in which it quotes the Old Testament. While in the writings that bear Paul’s name the quotations are partly from the Hebrew and partly from the Septuagint, in this Epistle they are uniformly derived from the Greek. Moreover the formulae of quotation are different from those in the other letters. While these generally refer the passages quoted to their human authors, except in cases where God speaks in the first person in the Old Testament, our Epistle with but few exceptions refers them to the primary author, i. e. to God or to the Holy Spirit, thus offering indubitable proof of the authors belief in the inspiration of the Scriptures.
4. The language of this Epistle is the best literary Greek of the New Testament. We do not find the author struggling, as it were, with a scanty language to express the abundance of the thoughts that are crowding in upon him. There are no broken constructions, no halting sentences, and, although a few parentheses are introduced, they do not disturb the thought, cf. 11: 38; 12: 20, 21. The sentences are all evenly balanced and the style flows on with great regularity. The writer seems to have given special attention to the rhetorical rhythm and equilibrium of words and sentences. Westcott says: “The style of the book is characteristically Hellenistic, perhaps we may say, as far as our scanty knowledge goes, Alexandrian.” Comm. p. LXI.
The authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews constitutes a very difficult question. The external testimony is of a conflicting character. The oldest and most explicit tradition is that of Alexandria, where Clement testified that the Epistle was written by Paul in the Hebrew language and was translated by Luke into Greek. Origen regards the thoughts of the Epistle as Paul’s, but the language as that of a disciple of the great apostle, and finally comes to the conclusion that God only knows who wrote this letter. He does not make mention of a Hebrew original. Both Clement and Origen agree, however, in regarding the Greek Epistle as Pauline only in a secondary sense. In Italy and Western Europe generally the letter was not held to be Paul’s. This is the more remarkable, since we find the first trace of its existence in the West, in the writings of Clement of Rome. Hippolytus and Irenaeus were acquainted with it, but did not accept it as Paul’s; Cajus reckoned only thirteen Pauline Epistles and Eusebius says that even in his time the negative opinion was still held by some Romans. In North Africa, where the Roman tradition is usually followed, the letter was not regarded as the work of Paul. Tertullian ascribes it to Barnabas. In the fourth century the Eastern tradition gradually prevailed over the Western, especially through the influence of Augustine and Jerome, though they felt by no means certain that Paul was the author. During the Middle Ages this mooted question hardly ever came up for discussion, but when the light of the Reformation dawned, doubts were again expressed as to the authorship of Paul. Erasmus questioned whether Paul had written the letter; Luther conjectured that Apollos was the writer; Calvin thought that it might be the work of Luke or of Clement; and Beza held that it was written by a disciple of Paul. At present there are comparatively few that maintain the authorship of Paul.
And if we examine the internal evidence of the
Epistle, we find that it points away from Paul. It must be
admitted that its teaching is in a general sense Pauline, but
this does not prove that Paul was the author. There are also
some expressions in the letter to which parallels are found in
the Epistles of Paul. Compare f. i. 2:14 with
In view of all the foregoing it is all but certain that Paul did not write the Epistle to the Hebrews. But now the question naturally arises: Who did? Several answers have given, as Barnabas (Tertullian), Luke or Clement (Calvin), Apollos (Luther), Silas (Bohme, Godet), (Aquila and) Priscilla (Harnack), of which only two are at present seriously considered, viz. Barnabas and Apollos, though the suggestion of Harnack has found favor with some. Renan, Hausrath, Weiss, Salmon and Barth accept the authorship of Barnabas, relying especially on the facts: (1) that Tertullian points to him as the author, thereby transmitting not only his own private opinion, but the North African tradition; (2) that Barnabas was an apostolic man and as a Levite would be well acquainted with the Jewish ritual; and (3) that, as an inhabitant of the island Cyprus, he would in all probability have been subject to the influence of Alexandrian culture. On the other hand, Lunemann, Farrar, Alford and Zahn hold that Apollos best answers the requirements, since (1) he was a man of fine Greek culture; (2) was well acquainted with the writings of Paul; and (3) as a native of Alexandria was deeply embued with the thoughts of the Alexandrian school. But it has been objected to Barnabas that he could not reckon himself to the second generation of Christians, 2: 3; and that he certainly knew Hebrew, with which, so it seems, the author of this Epistle was not acquainted ;—and to Apollos, that there is no tradition whatever connecting his name with the Epistle; and that the historical allusions in 13:18-24 have no point of contact in the life of Apollos as we know it from the Acts of the Apostles. If we had to choose between the two, Barnabas would be our choice, but we prefer with Moll, Westcott, Dods, Baljon and Bruce (Hastings D. B.) to confess our ignorance on this point and to abide by the dictum of Origen. The general thought of the Epistle is Pauline, but God only knows who wrote it.
Under this head we must consider two questions: 1. Was the letter written for Jewish or for Gentile Christians? 2. Where were the first readers located?
1. Until a comparatively recent date the general opinion was that this Epistle was composed for Jewish Christians. Of late, however, some scholars, as Schuirer, Weizsacker, Von Soden, Julicher and McGiffert reached the opposite conclusion. They argue that the fundamentals enumerated in 6: 1, 2 are such as were suitable only to Gentile catechumens; that the expression “the living God” in 9:14 implies a contrast between the true God and pagan idols; and that the exhortations at the end of the Epistle were more appropriate to Gentile than to Jewish Christians. From these passages it has been argued with great ingenuity that the original readers were Christians of the Gentiles; but they are also susceptible of a plausible interpretation on the opposite view. Cf. the Commentaries and also Dods, Exp. Gk. Test. IV p. 231. It seems preferable to hold that the first readers were of Jewish extraction. In support of this theory we cannot rely on the title πρός ̔Εβραίος, because the presumption is that this, though it can be traced to the second century, is not original. Yet it does express the early conviction of the Church that the letter was destined first of all for Jewish Christians. The general features of the letter point in the same direction. The Epistle presupposes that its readers are in danger of a relapse into Judaeism; and its symbolism, based entirely on the tabernacle and its services, is peculiarly adapted to converted Jews. The whole Epistle has a Jewish physiognomy. With Bruce we say: “If the readers were indeed Gentiles, they were Gentiles so completely disguised in Jewish dress and wearing a mask with so pronounced Jewish features, that the true nationality has been hidden for nineteen centuries. Hastings D. B.
2. But where must we look for the first readers? Some scholars, regarding this writing as a treatise, are of the opinion that it was not intended for any definite locality, but for Christians in general, (Lipsius, Reuss); this opinion cannot pass muster, however, in view of the many passages that have no meaning unless they are addressed to a definite circle of Christians, f. i. 5:11, 12; 6:9, 10; 10:32; 12:4. At the same time it is impossible to determine with certainty the exact locality in which the readers were found. The four places that received the most prominent consideration in this connection are Alexandria, Antioch (in Syria), Rome and Jerusalem, of which, it would appear, the choice really lies between the last two. The position that the letter was sent to the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem or of entire Judaea, is defended by Moll, Lunemann, Salmon, Weiss and Westcott, and is supported by the following considerations: (1) The name ̔Εβραίος, embodying an early tradition, certainly fits them better than it does Christians of any other community. (2) They were the most likely to develop great love for the Jewish ritual and to be exposed to danger from these quarters. (3) Their church(es) was (were) well nigh purely Jewish, which best accords with the total absence of any reference to Gentile Christians in the Epistle. (4) They would certainly understand the symbolism of the letter far better than the Christians of the diaspora. (5) A passage like 13:12, 13 has a peculiar appropriateness, if it was written to them. The objections are urged against this hypothesis, however, that the passages 3:2 and 5:12 are hardly applicable to the Christians of Jerusalem or Judaea; that these, rather than exercise liberality, 6:10, were continually the objects of charity; that the letter was written in Greek and not in Hebrew; and that, as far as we know, Timothy stood in no particular relation to the Jerusalem church. Many present day scholars, such as Alford, Zahn, Baljon, Dods, Holtzmann, Julicher and Von Soden fixed on Rome as the destination of this letter. In favor of this they urge: (1) The greeting of 13: 24 is evidently one of such as had gone forth from Italy, to their old friends at home. (2) The first traces of the use of this Epistle are found in the writings of Clement and in the Shepherd of Hermas, both issuing from Rome. (3) The term ἡροηγούμενοι, 13 :7, 17, 24 was not in vogue in the Pauline churches, but was used at Rome, since Clement speaks of προηγούμενοι. (4) The persecutions mentioned in 10:32-34 probably refer to those of Nero and his predecessors. But this theory is burdened with the objections; that it was exactly at Rome that the canonicity of the letter was questioned for centuries; that the congregation at Rome was primarily Gentile-Christian (which Zahn denies, however); and that the words of 12: 4 were hardly applicable to the Christians at Rome after the Neronian persecution. To our mind the first theory deserves the preference, unless we are prepared to admit that the Epistle was written to Gentile Christians.
1. Occasion and Purpose. This letter was occasioned by the danger of apostasy that threatened the readers. For a time they had professed Christianity, 5:12, and for the sake of it had endured persecution, and had even joyfully borne the spoiling of their goods, 10: 32-34. But they were disappointed, so it seems, in two respects. In the first place in their expectation of the speedy return of Christ to trimph over his enemies and to transform the affliction of his followers into everlasting bliss. Christ remained hidden from their view and their sufferings continued, yea even increased in severity. In the encircling gloom they had no visible support for their faith. And in the second place they were disappointed in the attitude their own people took to the new religion. For a time they had combined their Christian services with the worship of their fathers, but it became ever increasingly evident that the Jews as a people would not accept Christ. Their brethren according to the flesh persisted in their opposition and waxed ever more intolerant of the followers of Jesus. The time was fast approaching, when these would have to break with the ministrations of the temple and look elsewhere for the support of their faith. Hence they had become feeble, 12:12, had ceased to make progress, 5:12, were inclined to unbelief, 3:12, and in danger of falling away, 6:4-6. Returning to Jewry, they might escape the persecution to which they were subjected, and enjoy their former privileges.
The writer desires to warn them against the danger to which they were exposed, and to exhort them to remain loyal to their Christian standard. In order to do this he points out by way of contrast the true nature and intrinsic worth of the Christian religion. The Old Testament service of God contained but the shadows of the New Testament realities. Christ is higher than the angels, ch. 1, is greater than Moses, ch. 3, is our only true High Priest, who through suffering opened up the way to heaven and gives us free unrestricted access to God, chs. 5—10. He was perfected through sufferings, that He might sympathize with his followers in their trials and afflictions, 2:10, 17, 18; 4:15, and might lead them through suffering to glory. If He is now invisible to the eye, it is only because He has entered the sanctuary, where He continually ministers to the spiritual needs of his followers, and insures them free access to the throne of God, 4:16; 6:18-20; 9:24; 10:18-22. He may seem distant, yet He is near, and they who believe can enjoy his presence and strength through faith. That is their true support in time of need, ch. 11, 12:1, 2. And though He tarry for a while, He will surely come in due time to lead his children to glory. They should willingly go forth without the camp, bearing his reproach, since they enjoy far greater privileges than the Old Testament saints and will at last enter their eternal inheritance.
2. Time and Place. It is not easy to determine the date of this letter, since it contains no definite notes of time. The majority of scholars agree in placing it before the destruction of Jerusalem. Thus Moll, Kurtz, Hilgenfeld, Reuss, Davidson, Weiss, Godet, Westcott, Salmon, Bruce, Barth, Dods. Others, however, as Baur, Kluge, Zahn, Meijboom, Volkmar and Hausrath bring it down to a later date. To our mind the evidence favors a date before the destruction of the temple, for (1) Though it is true that the author does not speak of the temple but of the tabernacle, the danger to which the Hebrew Christians were exposed seems to imply that the temple services were still carried on. (2) If the Jewish ritual had already ceased, it is strange that the writer does not refer to this, when he describes the transitory character of the old dispensation. And (3) the present tense used by the writer in the description of the Jewish services, 8:4 f.; 9:6, 9 (cf. Gk.); 10:1 ff.; 13:10 creates the presumption that the ministry of the temple was still continued. It is true that parallels to such presents use of past events can be pointed out in Clement of Rome. But as a rule the use of the present implies the existence of the subject spoken of, at the time of the speaker; and the question of 10:2, “Else would they not have ceased to be offered ?” is certainly difficult to interpret on any other view. It is not possible to say, how long before the destruction of Jerusalem the Epistle was written, but from the solemn tone of the writer, and from the fact that, according to him, the readers saw the day of the Lord approaching, 10:25, we infer that it was but shortly before that great catastrophe. Cf. also 12:26, 27. We shall not go far wrong, if we date the Epistle about the year 69.
The letter was not regarded as canonical in the Western church until the fourth century; in the Eastern church, however, the recognition of its apostolicity and canonicity went hand in hand. Clement of Alexandria often quotes the letter as canonical, and Origen does sometimes, though he felt uncertain as to its Pauline authorship. The Epistle is found in the Peshito, but it is uncertain, whether it also had a place in the earliest Syriac translation. From the fourth century the Western church also admitted its canonical authority. The intrinsic value of the letter naturally commended it as authoritative and as a part of the Word of God. Augustine and Jerome regarded it as canonical, though they still had scruples about the authorship of Paul; and it was. included in the Lists authorized by the Councils of Hippo in 393 and of Carthage in 397 and 419. From that time the Church did not again question the canonical authority of the Epistle until the time of the Reformation, when some Lutheran theologians had serious doubts.
The permanent value of this Epistle lies especially in two facts, which may be said to imply a third. In the first place it brings out, as no other New Testament book does, the essential unity of both the Old and the New Testament religions. They are both from God; they both center in Christ; they both pertain to the same spiritual verities; and they both aim at bringing man to God. In the second place the Epistle emphasizes the difference between the two dispensations, the one containing the shadows, the other the corresponding realities; the services of the one being earthly and therefore carnal and temporal, those of the other being heavenly and therefore spiritual and abiding; the ministry of the one effecting only ceremonial purity and union with God, that of the other issuing in the purification of the soul and in spiritual communion with God in heaven. And because the letter so presents the relation of the Old Covenant to the New, it is an inspired commentary on the entire Mosaic ritual.