Archibald Thomas Robertson

The Epistle to the Hebrews

Spring of A.D. 57

By Way of Introduction

Unsettled Problems

Probably no book in the New Testament presents more unsettled problems than does the Epistle to the Hebrews. On that score it ranks with the Fourth Gospel, the Apocalypse of John, and Second Peter. But, in spite of these unsolved matters, the book takes high rank for its intellectual grasp, spiritual power, and its masterful portrayal of Christ as High Priest. It is much briefer than the Fourth Gospel, but in a sense it carries on further the exalted picture of the Risen Christ as the King-Priest who reigns and pleads for us now.

The Picture of Christ

At once we are challenged by the bold stand taken by the author concerning the Person of Christ as superior to the prophets of the Old Testament because he is the Son of God through whom God has spoken in the new dispensation (Heb 1:1-3), this Son who is God’s Agent in the work of creation and of grace as we see it stated in Phi 2:5-11; Col 1:13-20; John 1:1-18. This high doctrine of Jesus as God’s Son with the glory and stamp of God’s nature is never lowered, for as God’s Son he is superior to angels (Heb 1:4-2:4), though the humanity of Jesus is recognized as one proof of the glory of Jesus (Heb 2:5-18). Jesus is shown to be superior to Moses as God’s Son over God’s house (Heb 3:1-4:13), But the chief portion of the Epistle is devoted to the superiority of Jesus Christ as priest to the work of Aaron and the whole Levitical line (Heb 4:14-12:3). Here the author with consummate skill, though with rabbinical refinements at times, shows that Jesus is like Melchizedek and so superior to Aaron (Heb 4:14-7:28), works under a better covenant of grace (Heb 8:1-13), works in a better sanctuary which is in heaven (Heb 9:1-12), offers a better sacrifice which is his own blood (Heb 9:13-10:18), and gives us better promises for the fulfilment of his task (Heb 10:19-12:3). Hence this Epistle deserves to be called the Epistle of the Priesthood of Christ. So W. P. Du Bose calls his exposition of the book, High Priesthood and Sacrifice (1908). This conception of Christ as our Priest who offered himself on the Cross and as our Advocate with the Father runs all through the New Testament (Mar 10:46; Mat 20:28; Joh 10:17; Mat 26:28; Rom 8:32; 1Pe 1:18.; 1Jo 2:1.; Rev 5:9, etc.). But it is in Hebrews that we have the full-length portrait of Jesus Christ as our Priest and Redeemer. The Glory of Jesus runs through the whole book.

The Style

It is called an epistle and so it is, but of a peculiar kind. In fact, as has been said, it begins like a treatise, proceeds like a sermon, and concludes like a letter. It is, in fact, more like a literary composition than any other New Testament book as Deissmann shows: “It points to the fact that the Epistle to the Hebrews, with its more definitely artistic, more literary language (corresponding to its more theological subject matter), constituted an epoch in the history of the new religion. Christianity is beginning to lay hands on the instruments of culture; the literary and theological period has begun” (Light from the Ancient East, pp. 70f.). But Blass (Die Rhythmen der asianischen und romischen Kunstprosa, 1905) argues that the author of Hebrews certainly and Paul probably were students of Greek oratory and rhetoric. He is clearly wrong about Paul and probably so about the author of Hebrews. There is in Hebrews more of “a studied rhetorical periodicity” (Thayer), but with many “parenthetical involutions” (Westcott) and with less of “the impetuous eloquence of Paul.” The eleventh chapter reveals a studied style and as a whole the Epistle belongs to the literary Koiné rather than to the vernacular. Moulton (Cambridge Biblical Essays, p. 483) thinks that the author did not know Hebrew but follows the Septuagint throughout in his abundant use of the Old Testament.

The Author

Origen bluntly wrote: “Who wrote the Epistle God only knows certainly” as quoted by Eusebius. Origen held that the thoughts were Paul’s while Clement of Rome or Luke may have written the book. Clement of Alexandria (Eusebius says) thought that Paul wrote it in Hebrew and that Luke translated it into Greek. No early writer apparently attributed the Greek text to Paul. Eusebius thought it was originally written in Hebrew whether by Paul or not and translated by Clement of Rome. But there is no certainty anywhere in the early centuries. It was accepted first in the east and later in the west which first rejected it. But Jerome and Augustine accepted it. When the Renaissance came Erasmus had doubts, Luther attributed it to Apollos, Calvin denied the Pauline authorship. In North Africa it was attributed to Barnabas. In modern times Harnack has suggested Priscilla, but the masculine participle in Heb 11:32 (me diēgoumenon) disposes of that theory. The oldest Greek MSS. (Aleph A B) have simply Pros Hebraious as the title, but they place it before the Pastoral Epistles, while the Textus Receptus puts it after the Pastoral Epistles and Philemon. In the light of all the facts one can only make a guess without a sense of certainty. For myself I should with Luther guess Apollos as the most likely author of this book which is full of the Spirit of God.

The Recipients

If the title is allowed to be genuine or a fair interpretation of the Epistle, then it is addressed to Jewish (Hebrew) Christians in a local church somewhere. Dr. James Moffatt in his Commentary (pp. xv to xvii) challenges the title and insists that the book is written for Gentile Christians as truly as First Peter. He argues this largely from the author’s use of the lxx. For myself Dr. Moffatt’s reasons are not convincing. The traditional view that the author is addressing Jewish Christians in a definite locality, whether a large church or a small household church, is true, I believe. The author seems clearly to refer to a definite church in the experiences alluded to in Heb 10:32-34. The church in Jerusalem had undergone sufferings like these, but we really do not know where the church was. Apparently the author is in Italy when he writes (Heb 13:24), though “they of Italy” (hoi apo tēs Italias) can mean those who have come from Italy. These Jewish Christians may even have lived in Rome itself.

The Date

Here again modern scholars differ widely. Westcott places it between a.d. 64 and 67. Harnack and Holtzmann prefer a date between a.d. 81 and 96. Marcus Dods argues strongly that the Epistle was written while the temple was still standing. If it was already destroyed, it is hard to understand how the author could have written Heb 10:1.: “Else would they not have ceased to be offered?” And in Heb 8:13 “nigh to vanishing away” (eggus aphanismou) is only intelligible with the temple service still going on. The author makes use of the tabernacle instead of the temple because the temple was patterned after the tabernacle. On the other hand, the mention of Timothy in Heb 13:23 as being “set free” (apolelumenon) raises an inquiry concerning Paul’s last plea to Timothy to come to him in Rome (2Ti 4:11-13). Apparently Timothy came and was put in prison. If so, since Paul was put to death before Nero’s own death (June 8, a.d. 68), there is left only the years 67 to 69 a.d. as probable or even possible. It is thus the last of the New Testament books before the Johannine Writings all of which come towards the close of the century and after the destruction of Jerusalem.

The Purpose

The author states it repeatedly. He urges the Jewish Christians to hold fast the confession which they have made in Jesus as Messiah and Saviour. Their Jewish neighbours have urged them to give up Christ and Christianity and to come back to Judaism. The Judaizers tried to make Jews out of Gentile Christians and to fasten Judaism upon Christianity with a purely sacramental type of religion as the result. Paul won freedom for evangelical and spiritual Christianity against the Judaizers as shown in the Corinthian Epistles, Galatians, and Romans. The Gnostics in subtle fashion tried to dilute Christianity with their philosophy and esoteric mysteries and here again Paul won his fight for the supremacy of Christ over all these imaginary aeons (Colossians and Ephesians). But in Hebrews the author is battling to stop a stampede from Christ back to Judaism, a revolt (apostasy) in truth from the living God. These Jews argued that the prophets were superior to Jesus, the law came by the ministry of angels, Moses was greater than Jesus, and Aaron than Jesus. The author turns the argument on the Jews and boldly champions the Glory of Jesus as superior at every point to all that Judaism had, as God’s Son and man’s Saviour, the crown and glory of the Old Testament prophecy, the hope of mankind. It is the first great apologetic for Christianity and has never been surpassed. Moffatt terms it “a profound homily.” 

Taken from "Word Pictures in the New Testament" by Archibald Thomas Robertson