Introduction Part 1 – The Book of Hebrews

Before starting our daily E-Med(itations) on the book of Hebrews, let’s look at the book as a whole. When theologians think of “Introduction” to the study of a book, they refer to questions of authorship, time of writing, the original intended audience and unique contribution to our understanding of God and His ways.

Today we accept the book of Hebrews as part of the New Testament, because, well, it is simply found in our Bibles. But we know little about its origin. Unlike all the other writings of the NT, there is no author’s name attached to it. Apostolic authorship was an important criterion for the early church in establishing the canon of Scripture (that is, inclusion in the collection of letters that became the NT). So how did we know that the letter to the Hebrews had apostolic authority?

First of all, the antiquity of the letter to the Hebrews is established in extensive quotations by the early Christian writer Clement (AD 90-110). The ancient church used it widely in their worship services, treating it as authoritatively as an apostolic writing. The earliest collections of the apostle Paul’s writings included this letter, and it was placed along with his letters right after the book of Romans. Thus Paul was assumed to be the author. Clement of Alexandria (late 2nd – early 3rd century) and Origen (early 3rd century) believed that Paul wrote the letter.

Others, however, like Irenaeus and the Muratorian Canon, “agree that Paul was not the author.” Irenaeus (2nd half of the first century) thought Barnabas was the author. Tertullian (AD 196-212) cites Barnabas as the author of Hebrews, “a man sufficiently accredited by God, as being one whom Paul had stationed next to himself.”

It is well recognized that many typical characteristics of Paul’s writing style are absent from the book, for example: the opening identification of himself as its author, the standard “grace and peace” salutation, and the doctrine of justification. In addition, the tone, grammatical structure and word usages vary considerably from Paul’s style in his well-recognized letters.

These observations are countered with various theories:

1. Because he was the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul wrote it anonymously and in the Hebrew language, and Luke (or someone else close to Paul) translated it into Greek. This would account for the differences with Paul’s usual style. Some scholars think Paul originally delivered this as a sermon in Hebrew, and someone, perhaps Luke, transcribed it into Greek.

2. Paul, being the apostle to the Gentiles, wanted to assume a more modest approach to a book aimed at Jewish Christians. Paneaenus (AD 180-192) wrote: “Since the Lord, being the apostle of the Almighty, was sent to the Hebrews, Paul, having been sent to the Gentiles, through modesty did not inscribe himself as an apostle of the Hebrews, both because of respect for the Lord and because he wrote to the Hebrews also out of his abundance, being a preacher and apostle for the Gentiles.”

3. The subject matter of the book (the supremacy of Christ over the Levitical sacrificial system) required a different style of writing.

The authorship has been debated to this very day with various other suggestions being  made, but none has commanded universal appeal. Today, very few defend the idea that Paul wrote Hebrews. We must conclude that we simply do not know for sure who its author was. As a result, the question of authorship has a somewhat troublesome history. However, the early church eventually came to accept Hebrews as authoritative based on its universal usage, its internal character being consonant with “the faith,” and its exalted view of Christ.

Dates for composition range from AD 60 to 100. However, a date earlier than AD 70 would explain the absence of any reference to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, which would have otherwise provided significant support to the author’s theme of Christ’s replacing the OT sacrificial system.

(Adapted from “The Formation of the New Testament,” by Chuck Gianotti, ECS Ministries, 2010).

Lord, thank You for preserving this Christ-exalting letter to the Hebrews. Though we don’t know the human author, we believe along with the early church that this is a letter inspired by Your Spirit.

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