The Epistle to the Hebrews

By Professor J. H. Webster, D.D., St. Lewis, MO.


The study of the history of the Epistle to the Hebrews has always exercised a fascination over New Testament students, and has given rise to a vast amount of literature on the subject. Indeed, had an equal amount of effort been expended on exhibiting its teachings, the church would have been poorer in speculation, but richer in spirituality.

There are three notable lines of tradition regarding it. (1) The Alexandrian, shared by the Eastern Church, that Paul wrote it. (2) The Roman, or Western, that Paul did not write it; and (3) The North African, based on the unequivocal and unbiased testimony of Tertullian, that Barnabas wrote it. Time will permit only a glance at the comparative value of these traditions. The Alexandrian tradition rests on the three great Alexandrian fathers, Pantaenus, Clement and Origen. The value of their testimony is limited, however, by their evident conviction that there were striking differences, especially a difference in style, between the Hebrews and the acknowledged epistles of Paul. Origen’s mature judgment expressed about nine years before his death, was that none but God knew certainly who wrote the letter.

The Roman tradition goes back to Clement of Rome. (95 A. D.) In his first letter to the Corinthians, he quotes or alludes to it about twenty-five times, but does not name the author. Marcion omits the Hebrews from his list of New Testament writings. So does the Muratorian Canon, stating that Paul wrote to seven churches only and naming them, thus excluding the Hebrews. Caius, the Roman presbyter (180–225) ascribes only thirteen epistles to Paul, not reckoning the Hebrews. Photius, the historian, 800 A. D. quotes a sixth century writing as stating that Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews is not his, and that Hippolytus (200 A. D.), the pupil of Irenaeus, also denied the Pauline authorship.

The opposition of the Roman Church was finally overcome by the influence of Jerome and Augustine. Those scholars yielded to the influence of Alexandria, and, while popularly allowing that the letter might be Paul’s, expressed their personal doubts on the matter quite plainly. The long opposition of the Western Church was probably due to the fact that it laid special stress on actual apostolic authorship as a test of admission to the canon, while the Eastern Church was satisfied to admit a book if it came from the apostolic circle and agreed with the apostolic teaching.

The North African tradition rests on the testimony of Tertullian, in native ability, one of the greatest of the Church fathers. In his essay on Modesty, he distinctly ascribes the Hebrews to Barnabas, and after quoting the well known passage in Hebrews 6:4–6, says that Barnabas learned this “from, the apostles and taught it with the apostles, for excellently was he wont to interpret the law, and keep its figure even in the dispensation of truth itself.” (Mod. Chapter 20.)

No names were mentioned by the early fathers as possible authors of the letter but Paul, Luke, Clement and Barnabas. After the church had finally accepted the theory of the Pauline authorship the question slumbered till the time of the Reformation. Then a renewed study of the N. T. Canon aroused fresh controversy. Erasmus, Luther and Calvin refused to accept the Pauline authorship. Luther suggested the name of Apollos, a happy guess, but destitute of a shred of historical evidence, and impossible to accept in view of the great probability that if Apollos had written it, the Alexandrian fathers would have been quick to acknowledge the claims of their eloquent fellow-citizen. Since Luther’s time it has been ascribed to Luke, Clement, Barnabas, Philip the Deacon, Peter, Silas, Aquila, Priscilla and Aquila jointly, and Aristion. Of all the names mentioned, Barnabas, perhaps, has the greatest claim to preference.

Before stating these claims it may be well to state as briefly as possible the reasons for excluding Paul. Those reasons are:

(1) That there is no historical evidence ascribing it to Paul until more than a century after his death, and then only in the Eastern Church. This testimony is so qualified by doubt as to arouse a reluctance to accept it as final. This expression of doubt and uncertainty prevails from Pantaenus to Eusebius.

(2) The Western Church for three centuries refused to admit its Pauline authorship. A refusal all the more significant, because the letter was prized as Scripture and quoted by Clement of Rome (95 A. D.). In fact, this is its earliest recorded appearance.

(3) Even the advocates of the Pauline authorship admitted the obvious difference from Paul’s style of writing.

(4) The O. T. quotations, twenty-nine in number, are all, with one exception, (10:30) taken from the Septuagint, and agree mainly with the Alexandrian version while Paul’s O. T. quotations agree with the Vatican Manuscript. Moreover, while Paul shows an acquaintance with the Hebrew O. T., this writer gives no evidence that he knew any but the Septuagint. These quotations, too, are introduced with a formula differing from Paul’s.

(5) The titles applied to the incarnate Son differ from those used by Paul. In Hebrews, He is called Jesus, or Christ, or the Lord. Paul employs the fuller titles, our Lord Jesus Christ, etc.

(6) While there is .a general resemblance in teaching, we feel a pronounced difference of personality, viewpoint, and expression. The author of Hebrews manifestly had a different personal history, also ha views the law from the fact of the perfection of Christ’s priesthood and sacrifice, not from the view-point of Justification by Faith. Paul, too, in his treatment of faith dwells more on its nature; this writer on its working and influence as an implicit trust in the transcendent importance and the assured reality of “things as yet unseen.”

(7) Chapter 2:3, notwithstanding sophistic efforts to prove otherwise, obviously means that the Gospel had been confirmed to both the writer and readers of the letter, by them that had heard the Lord; but Paul, as he emphatically states in Gal. 1:11, 12 had received it directly by “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” For Paul to have expressed himself in this manner, says Bernhard Moll, would have been not only to conceal but to deny his apostolical claims.

(8) There is no salutation such as is usual in Paul’s epistles. The attempt of the advocates of the Pauline authorship to explain this is two-fold. First, Paul concealed his name, because the Jews were prejudiced against him. The fact is the author did not conceal his name. He was well known to the readers and expects to be restored to his former relation to them (for this is the proper meaning of the word restored). He will shortly visit them with Timothy. Heb. 13:19, 23.

The second explanation of Paul’s failure is ascribed to modesty. It dates back to the second century. Pantaenus says that as Christ Himself was the apostle to the Jews, Paul wrote to them merely out of his abundance, and out of modesty he concealed his name. If this is true, Paul would have been equally, if not more lacking in modesty, to write to them at all. Most probably the writer did not sign his name because he was so well known to them as to render it unnecessary.

The assertion, often made, that 2 Peter 3:15, 16 proves the Pauline authorship of this epistle will not bear close scrutiny.

The testimony against the Pauline authorship seems not only cumulative, but consistent and convincing. In favor of the view that Barnabas was the author, we cannot afford to ignore or undervalue the explicit testimony of Tertullian. It is quality not quantity of evidence that counts. He evidently voices the belief of a large constituency when he says: “there is extant withal an epistle to the Hebrews under the name of Barnabas, as being one whom Paul placed next himself in the uninterrupted observance of abstinence.” Westcott presents strong evidence for believing that in the Claramontane Codex the epistle to the Hebrews was called the Epistle of Barnabas. Jerome mentions that even in his day some held it to be of Barnabas.

The internal evidence is favorable to this view. It is pre-eminently hortatory, and exhortation was Barnabas’ special gift. It is irenic rather than controversial in spirit. Barnabas, too, was a Levite and hence would be intimately acquainted with the Levitical ritual. The alleged mistakes in reference to the ritual in Chapters 8 and 9 are capable of a rational explanation. As a native of Cyprus he would come in contact with Alexandrian thought. He had great influence with the Christians at Jerusalem and Antioch. He was a broad, catholic-spirited harmonizer. As far as evidence, external and internal, goes there is nothing to forbid our belief that Tertullian was telling the truth when he ascribed it to the Son of Exhortation, nor must we forget that the influence exerted over him by Paul would account for the general harmony manifest between Paul’s writing and this epistle.

The time and place of writing, and the persons to whom addressed have been discussed almost as widely as the authorship. Dates from 58–118 have been assigned to it, but the conclusions of sober scholarship with great probability assign a date preceding by a year or two the fall of Jerusalem, and possibly after the death of Paul. The temple was still standing.

There is nothing definite to guide us as to the place of writing. The sentence, “They of Italy salute you,” favors a place of writing outside of Italy rather than one either in Rome, or in Italy outside of Rome.

The view advanced by Von Soden and a few other writers that it was addressed to Gentiles, like the view that Priscilla wrote it, may be referred to as a striking example of the vagaries in which the critics sometimes indulge. The whole tenor of the book shows it was addressed to Hebrew Christians; there are no allusions to any Gentile readers. Where these Christians lived is uncertain, they evidently formed a congregation to whom the writer had formerly ministered. They may have lived in Jerusalem or in some other city in Palestine.

The interesting suggestion has been advanced that the letter was sent to the Christians who had fled to Pella. The evidently near approach of the destruction of the ceremonial worship, and of the city itself makes the suggestion plausible. If ever a message like the Hebrews was needed, it was just before the destruction of Jerusalem. A sense of impending catastrophe was in the air. They saw “with their eyes” the day approaching. The distracting condition of affairs in the state, the reproach and obloquy to which they were exposed, (doubtless spoken of and treated as traitors by those of their nation who clung to Judaism, and had resolved to make a last stand against Rome), had no doubt aroused their fears, and had certainly obscured their spiritual perception. We must remember that to Jewish Christians, the Temple and its worship continued to be an object of veneration, a veneration so strong that it became necessary, in the providence of God, utterly to destroy ceremonialism in order to loosen its clutch on the heart of Christianity. The fears and forebodings of these Jewish Christians led them to question the superiority of Christianity, and they began to look with latent desire to the religion and rites of the Old Dispensation. Its impressive pageantry, its historical associations, its high prestige, its undoubtedly Divine origin made a strong appeal to them. The temptation to apostatize was near, and real, and strong. It was to combat this and draw them closer to Christ; to render their courage more resolute, their faith more firm; to banish their chilling doubts, and .revive their meetings for mutual exhortation,—in short to check the unbelief that had found lodgment in their hearts and was beginning to manifest its first and inevitable symptom, that of departing from the living God, that this letter was written. The urgency of the situation perhaps accounts for its form. Someone has aptly said that “it begins as an essay, continues like a sermon, and ends like a letter.” The tone is not so much polemical as persuasive. Great statements of doctrine are followed by appeals to put these doctrines into practice, in which appeals, the art of exhortation reaches its perfection.

To achieve his great purpose, the author unfolds the superiority and supremacy of God’s own Son. The opening verses remind us of the theology of the fourth gospel, and on this assertion of superiority and supremacy rests the whole superstructure of this sublime epistle. Without giving a detailed outline of the book let us note some of its “high lights.”

In these opening verses both the absolute and relative superiority of Jesus is asserted: absolutely, by His name —Son of God; by His office, He has been appointed heir of all things in God’s purpose and covenant; in the promises made to him typically and personally, and in the Divine proclamation of Him as heir and Lord. Him hath God exalted with His right hand to be both Prince and Savior. Superiority of Nature is His, He is the out-gleaming of God’s glory, hence co-eternal with God; and the exact impress of God’s nature; hence, He is co-essential with God. Superiority of deeds is His; in His work of providence ceaselessly upholding all things by the mandate of His power; and in His work of redemption, cleansing from sin.

Superiority is shown also by the reward bestowed upon Him—He has been seated on the right hand of the majesty on high—There God hath seated Him.

Relatively, He is superior to the angels, the mediators of the Law. This is shown by the fact that God calls Him Son. But never does He call a single angel Son. Moreover, the angels are commanded to do Him homage. They are, like wind and flame, the humble servants of His providence. But Christ is a King, whose throne is eternal, whose administration is righteous, whose character is perfect, and His coronation glorious, “O God, Thy God hath anointed Thee with the oil of gladness above Thy fellows.” He is omnipotent, eternal, immutable. Thy years shall not fail. The close of Chapter I finds Him seated at God’s right hand, the place of highest honor and highest influence, assured of ultimate victory over every foe, and employing His angels as servants in promoting the welfare of the heirs of that great salvation, to achieve which He died and to consummate which He ever lives.

What a God-honoring, soul uplifting Christology is this! When we turn from the heavenly atmosphere that pervades this sublime description of the person and work of Christ Jesus to con the pages, dreary and frigid, of Modernist Christology, we feel like exclaiming with the poet of old—Procul, Procul este profani—your presence taints the Shrine of God.

The application of the foregoing doctrines is pointed and practical. We ought to give the more earnest heed to the Gospel message. The supremacy of Christ, through whom God speaks to us, claims our submission. If sins against the word spoken by angels were punished, much more shall sins against the word spoken by God’s own Son be punished—that word that is the full and final revelation of His will to men, that He Himself proclaimed in person, that was confirmed to men by those who listened to it from His own lips, and to whose testimony God Himself bore witness, “both by signs and wonders, and divers miracles and gifts of the Holy Ghost.” Resuming the argument for the superiority of Christ, he shows that the humiliation and suffering of Christ ought not to prove a stumbling block. That this suffering was contemplated in God’s purpose and plan, and necessary in order that the character of Christ as a priest might be fully perfected. In the human nature He assumed, He was to learn by experience what it meant fully to obey God, thus He learned obedience by the things that He suffered, even though God’s Son. He learned the two essential qualifications of priesthood, compassion with men and fidelity to God. “It became Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”

Next, the writer argues, Christ is superior to Moses. Moses was but a servant in God’s house, Christ is The Son, the maker of the house, and set over it as its ruler, and we—we Christians are the house.

The promised rest, a rest of which their entrance into the rest in Canaan, under Joshua, was only a type, has been achieved for them by a greater leader than Joshua. It is the rest of soul which believers are entering into by faith in Christ. “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” We keep ourselves in the constant enjoyment of this rest by coming boldly unto our Great High Priest and obtaining the forgiveness of our sins and finding grace for seasonable succor in times of duty, or difficulty, or danger.

As a priest, Christ is superior to all others. While He officiates after the manner of Aaron He belongs to a higher order, the order of Melchisedec, who in the Divine record appears without pedigree and without posterity, an eternal priest, a king also as well as a priest, receiving homage from Abraham, accepting from him a tenth of the spoils and bestowing upon him the sacerdotal blessing. Hence he abides a priest greater than Aaron, who representatively in Abraham did him homage, “thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchisedec.” In order to rouse them from their growing and discouraging indifference to the great truths of revelation and to fix their attention on the excellence and efficiency of Christ’s priestly character and work, he sounds in Chapter 6, the warning of danger. He exhorts them to leave the A. B. C.’s of Christian teaching and press on to maturity. They have become mere infants in knowledge. Not to advance in the Christian life is to decline, and to decline is to die. If a real Christian should fall away his doom would be final. This passage affords little comfort either to Calvinists or Arminians. It certainly does recognize a natural tendency to fall away, but on the other hand for such a one there is no return. The tendency to fall away is found even in real Christians. It is promoted by careless living, indulgence in sin, by times of temptation and trial. Satan makes desperate efforts at such times to dislodge us from the grasp of our Father’s hand. Fortunately there is no moral possibility of falling away, for the promise and power of Christ are pledged to complete the good work begun in us. We are kept by the power of God, but one of the ways of keeping us is the use of appropriate means. Danger signals, safety first contrivances, are freely used in the Scriptures. This 6th chapter is one of them. Hebrews beware. If you go back to Judaism you step over the precipice, you are lost. To do so, is to deliberately reject Jesus Christ. Stop, look and listen,—and they did. This warning roused them. Even though he used this language, so easy for human experience to interpret, but so hard, very hard for systematic theology, he was persuaded better things of them and things having salvation, though he thus spake.

In rapid detail the writer proceeds to show that Christ ministers under the terms of a new and better covenant under which ample provision is made, not for a mere representation and reminder of sin as under the Old— but for its complete expiation. The ritual ordinances under the Old Covenant were mere types of something better to come.

Next he pictures the perfection of Christ’s priestly ministry. This he declares is the crown, the climax of his whole discussion. We have such a High Priest, superior in all respects to the Aaronic. His place of residence is the Divine throne. In Him, human nature has been exalted. He sits in the presence of God, which no earthly priest was permitted to do. This very exaltation is the proof that His sacrifice has been accepted and that He has not only the right, but the might to render us accepted. He ministers not in a worldly but a Heavenly Sanctuary, and He performs this ministry by means of a tabernacle —the true, genuine tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man, the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation. What is this tabernacle? We believe with both the Greek and Latin fathers that this means our Lord’s human nature. Wescott elaborates this view, he notes that the earthly tabernacle presented three main ideas: (1) God’s presence with men. (2) His Holiness. (3) His conversableness— accessibility.

It was that through which He made His presence and nature known under earthly conditions to the children of Israel. The anti-type of the tabernacle, whether in earth or heaven must fulfill it perfectly. Such an anti-type we find in the humanity of Christ. Christ satisfies in actual life more and more completely, according to our apprehension, that which the tabernacle suggested by figures. (Westcott Com. 242). John Owen, the greatest English commentator in comprehensiveness of view and spiritual insight into the meaning of this book, adopts the same view.

Next, the covenant under which He ministers is superior, a new and better covenant founded on better promises. A new covenant was rendered necessary because of the imperfection of the Old. Moreover, Jeremiah had foretold its inauguration, and the very mention of a new covenant, spiritual in its nature and perfect in all its provisions, invalidated and antiquated the old. Moreover, the ordinances of the Old Covenant were merely symbolic—a parable; temporary—for the time then present, and imperfect. Its sacrifices, neither bloody nor unbloody, could make sinners conscious of spiritual cleansing and peace with God. They were mere ordinances of flesh. But the coming of Christ marked the advent of a better priest, a perfect tabernacle, a perfect offering, perfect redemption and perfect purification from sin for service. It is in order to effect this purification from sin that He mediates for us, and this mediation is based on His atonement. It is a mediation that availed to remove guilt under the Old Dispensation, and hence much more will remove it under the New.

This new Covenant partakes likewise of the nature of a testament, and, just as the death of the testator is necessary to the administration of any testament, so the death of Christ was necessary before we could become his actual heirs. By that death the inheritance becomes ours irrevocably. The inauguration of the first covenant prefigured this death by its rites of blood shedding and sprinkling. The patterns of the heavenly things were purified by blood of beasts, but the heavenly things themselves by the blood of Christ, the efficacy of which is so great that it renders it possible for Heaven itself to welcome sinners without contracting defilement.

Thus the sacrifice of the new covenant because of its perfection is of perpetual value and infinitely superior to the many and oft repeated sacrifices of the old. Summing up the argument in Chapter 10 he declares that the Law possessed only the shadow of good things to come. Its sacrifices were but types and symbols of the true sacrifice. From its very nature the blood of bulls and goats was inadequate to take away sin. The only valid sacrifice was that of Jesus Christ Himself, foretold by the Psalmist, and confirmed to us by the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

The practical application follows in the form of exhortations to draw near to God by the new and living way of faith in Him, who, as our forerunner, has triumphantly entered into the very presence of God. Again, they are warned of the fearful consequences of apostasy, a warning enforced by the doom of the apostate under the Mosaic Law. They must be bold, patient, unshrinking. They must cherish unshaken confidence in the final fulfillment of every promise. Their fathers did this. In Israel’s history from Abel to the Maccabees, he cites the names of Hebrew heroes who obtained a good report by simply trusting in the promises of God. Nay, Jesus Himself is the great and perfect example of such confidence. Therefore cast away sin and run the race of life with patience, looking unto Jesus as the author and finisher of our faith.

The sufferings they encounter in this race are a blessed discipline that serves to prove their sonship, and perfeet their character. Peace and holiness are to be the chief objects of their pursuit, and they are warned never to give up their hope of an eternal inheritance for mere worldly enjoyment as did Esau. They must be more diligent than their fathers to keep from falling away, because in coming from Sinai to Sion they had come to incomparably greater manifestations of God’s grace. Cherish all the mutual responsibilities of the Christian brotherhood, with the all-sufficient help of God. Be confident and constant; for Jesus Christ is eternally the same. Break the bonds that bind you to old associations and follow Him outside the camp, gladly sharing in His reproach. Obey your spiritual guides and pray for us, as we pray the God of peace that His life may be perfected in you. So ends the epistle to the Hebrews.

Among the various Christologies of the New Testament it is hardly too much to say that it holds a place unique and pre-eminent. It was a last appeal to the Hebrews. The title simply to Hebrew People is an apt description of it. It is adapted to appeal to the Hebrew of the 20th Century as much as to the Hebrew of the 1st century. Its appeal will sometime be heard, and then Israel will turn again to the Lord. When that time comes, we may expect a fuller and better interpretation of this letter. The accumulated treasures of forty centuries of Hebrew learning will find fitting employment in unfolding its full significance. May that day soon come.

Finally, this book in its peculiar function in the great system of Revelation aptly has been compared to the scene of the Transfiguration. In it, as the disciples on the Holy Mount, we gaze on a transfigured Jesus. The effulgence of the Divine glory radiates from Him. His face shines as the sun, and His garments glitter with the splendor of a Divine majesty and mercy. As the significance of Mosaic rite and symbol, the predictions of the prophets, and the lofty strains of the Psalms are made to focus on Him in its pages, we too feel as Peter felt when standing on the literal mountain—“Lord, it is good for us to be here.” And we, too, as we listen to the message this letter brings to us, hear, as truly as the disciples heard, the voice of God saying to us, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him.” In that sentence is concentrated the message of the letter to the Hebrews. For nineteen centuries it has found a response in the Christian consciousness to its effort to give Christ the pre-eminence that by nature and office are His. Under its more than magic spell, questions of authorship, or date, or place, shrivel into profound and impotent insignificance. And as we suffer this sublime word of exhortation to illumine our minds and penetrate our hearts, the veil of unbelief is torn away and looking up with un-dimmed eyes and unobstructed vision, we see no one, save Jesus only.