At the end of the second century, opinion was divided regarding the authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Clement of Alexandria believed that Paul wrote the epistle in Hebrew and that Luke translated it into Greek. Origen thought that someone familiar with Paul’s teachings wrote Hebrews, but he added his now-famous remark that “who really wrote the letter is known to God alone.” At Carthage, Tertullian suggested the name of Barnabas. Christians in Rome and in the West generally confessed that they did not know who wrote Hebrews. Archer points out that “none of the ancient authorities… entertained any doubt as to the canonicity (i.e. the divine inspiration) of the Epistle,” however, and that “in any event the primary author… is God Himself, no matter which human instrument He used.” In the days of the Reformation, Luther favored Apollos as the author and Calvin looked to Clement of Rome or possibly Luke.
Date of writing
The date of this epistle is also uncertain. References to the Jewish order and the priestly functions seem clearly to involve the Levitical service of the Old Testament, not the distorted institutions of the first century after Christ. Nor can it be ascertained whether the calamity of A.D. 70 had befallen Jerusalem and Herod’s Temple when our author wrote. Internal evidence is claimed for both positions. We must set a latest possible date before A.D. 96, for Clement of Rome wrote then and he quotes from the epistle quite freely. We cannot have too early a date, for a few remarks in the epistle indicate that its first recipients were second-generation Christians (2:3-4; 13:7) and apparently not new converts themselves (5:12; 10:32-35).
Beyond what has been stated we can know little of the recipients or their precise historical situation. So far as a general statement of affairs, most scholars would probably agree with Bernard that the epistle
… evidently belongs to the last hour of translation and decision, when a large number of men, who were at once Jews and Christians, stood perplexed, agitated, and almost distracted, as they seemed to feel the ground parting beneath their feet, and hardly knew whether to throw themselves back on that which was receding, or forward on that to which they were called to cling. In an intense sympathy with this perplexity, and even anguish, prevailing in the Hebrew-Christian mind, and in an intense anxiety as to its issue, the Epistle was written; a living voice of power in a time of change and fear, yet a comprehensive exposition of the advancing course of revelation, and of the relation between its two great stages (pages 161-162).
Just what was involved in this crisis-time is not so clear, and regarding that there is a wide divergence of views. In an article in The Expository Times, Bruce sums up recent views regarding the epistle’s recipients. Candidates include the Christians of the Lycus Valley (Colossae, Laodicea), Jewish Christians in Ephesus, Hebrew converts in Rome who hesitated to declare themselves a part of the “illicit religion” of Christ rather than the “licit religion” (in the eyes of official Rome) of the Jews, Jewish Christians of Corinth, Jewish convert hotheads who had fled to Alexandria after the fall of Jerusalem, Hebrew Christians on Cyprus, and Palestinian Jewish Christians either before or after the destruction of A.D. 70. The Dead Sea Scrolls evidence certain parallel interests between their authors and the recipients of Hebrews. Both are concerned with the position and role of angels, with Old Testament passages, with the priesthood and even with Melchizedek. This has led some scholars to posit a connection between the readers of our epistle and the Qumran community of the Scrolls, or, at least, between this epistle and converted Jewish priests.
In the midst of all this uncertainty, and with no real prospects of additional light on the subject, Filson believes “it is unfortunate that so much attention has been paid to questions of authorship, destination, place of writing and date, ” and that “the frustratingly inconclusive study of Hebrews should make it clear that we cannot find certain answers to the questions: Who? To whom? From where? When?” (page 12). But we are not left with nothing. For, as Filson also points out, the author of Hebrews is to us what he has written. And that is a great deal to know and to have. It can spur modern Christians to renewed and increased awareness of what their faith can mean to them and what their faithfulness can mean to others (page 84). Structure numerous outlines of the epistle have been set forward. One fascinating suggestion is made by Kistemaker who regards the epistle as a kind of sermon. He sees a four-point outline in the text itself at 2:17, and he suggests that the author develops each point on the basis of a quotation from the Psalms. His four points and their “texts” are:
- Christ’s humanity and unity with His brethren (Psalm 8:4-6; quoted in 2:6-8).
- Christ’s faith and faithfulness (Psalm 95:7-11; quoted in 3:7-11).
- Christ’s priesthood (Psalm 110:4; quoted first for discussion at 5:6).
- Christ’s offering of Himself (Psalm 40:6-8; quoted in 10:5-7).
Whether or not one should follow Kistemaker all the way, it is apparent that the Epistle to the Hebrews is thoroughly grounded in the Old Testament Scriptures in general and in the Psalms in particular.
A special acknowledgement of debt is due Dr. F. F. Bruce, the late Dr. Franz Delitzsch and the late Professor Robert Milligan, from whose commentaries I have drawn heavily and on which I have leaned with great profit. (All quotations from Bruce in the comments which follow are from his commentary unless otherwise stated.) Other commentaries and books have been used to advantage, but these have been my favorites. Delitzsch represents conservative scholarship of the past century; Bruce is unsurpassed in that role today. Milligan was of my own Restoration Movement background and, in my opinion, is not given the esteem as a scholar today which he certainly is due.
A note of thanks is also due Professor Homer Hailey, whose college lectures on the Scriptures led me in due course through the Epistle to the Hebrews, and whose biblical insight I will always remember with appreciation and respect. I should also like to thank Drs. Paul Southern, J. W. Roberts and Thomas H. Olbricht, who gave me valuable experience in the exegetical method of study.
To these all, and many others, my sincere appreciation for insights into this marvelous epistle. Any mistakes and misunderstandings in this commentary are my own. They only are original
Next: Chapter One