HEBREWS

Introduction

Style. Along with Luke-Acts, this document displays the best Greek style in the New 1 Testament; its author must have had sophisticated rhetorical 2 training and literary skills.

Date. Because Timothy was recently freed (Heb 13:23) and the work was apparently written from Italy (13:24), we may assume that Timothy was arrested in Rome during the Neronian persecution (probably shortly after he came to see Paul— 2 Tim 4:21) and freed when Nero (and his policy) died in a.d. 68. The mention of Timothy but not Paul, who died about a.d. 64, also would make sense about a.d. 68. At this time, when the outcome of the Roman war in Judea would have been assured from Rome’s vantage point, it would be quite appropriate to speak of the old temple system as “passing away” (8:13)—a process completed in a.d. 70 with the destruction of the temple. That the writer cannot declare that temple sacrifices are no longer offered (which he surely would have declared if he could have) suggests a date before a.d. 70.

Authorship. From a stylistic perspective, it is impossible to attribute the letter to Paul; of other New Testament writers, it is closest to Luke’s literary abilities, but the style is not particularly Lukan. The writer seems to be an influential person traveling in the same circles as Timothy (13:23) and well heeded by this audience, who are probably in the eastern Mediterranean. Silas would thus be a natural candidate (in Rome about 64— Acts 16:37) and probably a scribe (1 Pet 5:12) would suggest the educational level necessary for such a letter. It is more commonly suggested that the writer is Apollos, whose Alexandrian rhetorical and possibly philosophical training would have suited him especially well to write such a letter; he was certainly respected as Paul’s peer in the Pauline churches 3. (He seems to have been moving from Rome toward the east or south a few years before Hebrews was written— Tit 3:13 —but he could have returned.) Other suggestions, like Barnabas or Priscilla, are possible but have nothing specifically to commend them.

Audience. The readers are obviously predominantly Jewish and are under pressure to give up their Christian distinctives (either from the synagogue 4 or from Gentile 5 persecution of Christians). The actual seizure of their property in earlier days (10:34) does not fit Corinth or Ephesus (against one commentator, who perhaps fancifully but nevertheless quite skillfully constructs a case for this letter being written to Corinth and 1 Corinthians responding to some features in it). But 13:23 suggests an audience in the Pauline circle (i.e., not in Alexandria, though Apollos was known there too). The early persecution fits Thessalonica and possibly Philippi in Macedonia, although a community in Asia Minor or Syria with more ethnic Jewish representation might fit better. (Some have suggested a Roman audience on the basis of 10:32–34 and 13:24; the quality of Greek may fit an audience more to the east, but this argument would hardly be decisive. If we read 13:24 as suggesting a Roman place of origin, however, a Roman audience is unlikely.) Wherever the readers are located, they resonate with the intensely Greek rhetoric and interpretation of Judaism that come naturally to this author; the closest parallels are with Philo 6 of Alexandria. (That the letter also has parallels with the Dead 7 Sea Scrolls in Palestine and apocalyptic 8 motifs should not be surprising; we must construct a composite picture of ancient Judaism based on as many diverse sources as possible. But the clear Philonic parallels point to Hellenistic 9 rhetorical training.)

Genre 10. Some scholars have suggested that this document is a homiletic midrash 11 on Psalm 110 (see Heb 13:22); one cannot deny that the interpretation of this psalm dominates the work. (The suggestion that it was specifically a midrash on the readings for the Feast of Pentecost is not impossible, but evidence for the triennial readings later adopted in Mediterranean synagogues is lacking in this period.) It is more like a treatise than a normal letter, apart from concluding greetings. But one ancient letter-writing form was the “letter-essay,” which in early Judaism and Christianity would naturally have resembled a written homily or sermon; Hebrews is very likely such a “letter-essay.”

Structure. Christ 12 is greater than the angels (1:1–14) who delivered the law 13 (2:1–18); this contrast contributes to the writer’s argument that Christ is greater than the law itself. He is greater than Moses and the Promised Land (3:1–4:13). As a priest after the order of Melchizedek, he is greater than the Old 14 Testament priesthood (4:14–7:28) because he is attached to a new covenant (chap. 8) and a heavenly temple service (9:1–10:18). Therefore, his followers ought to persevere in faith and not go back, regardless of the cost (10:19–12:13). The writer follows his theoretical discussion, as many letters did, with specific moral exhortations tied into the same theme (13:1–17). Interspersed throughout the letter is the repeated warning against apostasy, noting that the penalty for rejecting the new covenant is greater than that for rejecting the old had been.

Argumentation. The writer argues from Scripture the way a good Jewish interpreter of his day would; his methods have parallels in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the rabbis 15 and especially Philo. His arguments sometimes confuse or fail to persuade modern readers, but he is making a case first of all for his original readers, who would be accustomed to the kinds of arguments he makes. Given the forms of argumentation he must use to persuade readers in his own cultural context, he argues his case brilliantly, although some of the arguments would have to be restructured to carry the same conviction in our culture. Because the writer’s arguments are often complex, this volume’s comments on Hebrews are necessarily more detailed than the comments on many other New Testament books.

Commentaries. The best commentary is William Lane, Hebrews, WBC 16 47 (Waco, Tex.: Word, 1991). Besides conservative commentaries by F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, rev. ed., NICNT 17 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990), and D. A. Hagner, Hebrews, GNC 18 (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), the old commentary by James Moffatt, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, ICC 19 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1924), is good; Hugh Montefiore, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, HNTC 20 (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), is helpful and culturally informed despite his eccentric construction of the situation.

 

 

Footnotes

 1New Testament *New Testament. The common modern term for the early Christian literature finally declared canonical by the church and accepted by nearly all Christians today.

 2rhetorical *Rhetoric. The art or study of proper forms and methods of public speaking, highly emphasized in antiquity. Although only the well-to-do had much training in it, the rhetorical forms and ideas they used filtered down to the rest of urban society through public speeches, in a manner similar to that in which television permeates modern Western society.

 3churches *Church. The Greek term used in the New Testament reflects the terms often used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word for the “congregation” (qahal) of Israel: “church” (assembly) and “synagogue” (gathering). Although some scholars have suggested that Jesus could not have spoken about the church during his earthly ministry, the Dead Sea Scrolls used the Hebrew term for God’s community; hence Jesus could use this word in talking about his future community (Mt 16:18; 18:17). The term was in common use in Greek culture for “assemblies,” especially citizen assemblies in cities. (The popular modern surmise that the Greek word for “church,” ekklēsia, means “called-out ones” is thus mistaken; that sense is actually more appropriate for “saints,” i.e., “those separated [for God].”)

 4synagogue *Synagogues. Assembly places used by Jewish people for public prayer, Scripture readings and community meetings.

 5Gentile *Gentile. Anyone who is not Jewish. In ancient Jewish parlance, this was often the equivalent of “pagan.”

 6Philo *Philo. A first-century Jewish philosopher committed to both Judaism and Greek thought; he lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and held a position of great influence and prestige in the Jewish community there.

 7Dead Sea Scrolls *Dead Sea Scrolls. Writings from a strict Jewish sect (usually agreed to be Essenes) that lived in the Judean desert, near modern Khirbet Qumran. The writings include the War Scroll, the Community Rule, the Damascus Document, the Thanksgiving Hymns, the Genesis Apocryphon, the Temple Scroll and commentaries on and expansions of various biblical books.

 8apocalyptic *Apocalypses, apocalyptic literature. The broadest use of the term today (usually followed in this commentary) refers to the thought world of literature dealing with the end time, often replete with symbols. The most precise sense of the term refers to a category of ancient Jewish literature growing out of Old Testament prophecy (especially Daniel and parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, etc.) in which visions or travels through the heavens reveal divine secrets, usually including many about the future. Nonfuturistic Jewish mysticism was probably a truncated apocalyptic with future expectations played down.

 9Hellenistic *Hellenistic. Although the commentary usually uses the term “Greek,” “Hellenistic” is the more accurate technical term for the cultural fusion of classical Greek culture with Near Eastern cultures carried out in the eastern Mediterranean by Alexander the Great and his successors. “Hellenistic” Judaism is thus Judaism heavily influenced by Greek culture, i.e., “Hellenized.”

 10Genre Genre. The kind of writing a work is: for example, letter, historical narrative, biography, poem or bomb threat.

 11midrash Midrash. Jewish commentary or exposition on Scripture. The forms varied considerably but often included reading a text in the light of other texts, with careful attention to all nuances of details supposedly filled with divine significance. Because such methods of reading Scripture were common, early Christians could employ them in relating their message to other ancient Jewish Bible readers.

 12Christ *Christ. The Greek equivalent of the Hebrew term for “ Messiah.” Some Gentile readers, unfamiliar with the Jewish sense of the term, may have taken it merely as Jesus’ surname, a usage that became more common over time.

 13law *Law. “Torah” (the Hebrew word behind the Greek word translated “law”) means literally “instruction” and “teaching,” not just regulations. It was also used as a title for the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch, the books of Moses) and sometimes for the whole Old Testament. This commentary uses the translation “law” because it is familiar to readers of most translations, even though the English term’s semantic range is much narrower than the Jewish concept.

 14Old Testament *Old Testament. The common modern term for the Hebrew Bible (including Aramaic portions) as defined by the Jewish and Protestant Christian canons; Jewish readers generally call this the Tenach.

 15rabbis *Rabbi. Jewish teacher. Sometime after a.d. 70 the term became a technical one for those ordained in the rabbinic movement, which probably consisted primarily of Pharisaic scribes. (To accommodate customary usage this commentary sometimes applies the term to Jewish teachers of the law in general, although such common usage may have technically been later; it also applies the term to the teachings of Jewish legal experts collected in rabbinic literature.)

 16WBC Word Biblical Commentary

 17NICNT New International Commentary on the New Testament

 18GNC Good News Commentary

 19ICC International Critical Commentary

 20HNTC Harper’s New Testament Commentaries