An anonymous epistle of the NT. The oldest Greek manuscripts have the simple title Pros Hebraious, "To the Hebrews." The epistle assumes that its intended readers are well informed concerning Jewish history and the Jewish religion, and that they hold Abraham, Moses, Aaron, the covenants, the priesthood, and the Temple service in highest esteem--in other words, that they are Jews. They also believe in Christ as Messiah, though not to the point of forsaking Jewish ritual practices. It is thus evident that the epistle is addressed to Jewish Christians (see Heb 2:1; 3:12; 4:1, 11; 5:12; 6:6, 10; 7:14; 10:23 25, 29, 34 39), and the epistle constitutes an appeal to them to turn from reliance on the rites and ceremonies of Judaism to faith in Jesus Christ as an all-sufficient Saviour. Internal evidence attests that the epistle was originally written in Greek. This, together with the fact that the majority of quotations from the OT are verbatim from the LXX, the Greek translation in common use among non-Palestinian Jews, suggests that the writer had Jewish Christians of the Dispersion particularly in mind as he wrote.
The epistle itself affords no direct clue by which to identify its author. His familiarity with Hebrew history and insight into its significance (Heb 3; 4; 7:1 4; 11), his own profound respect for heroes of the faith such as Abraham (ch 11:8 19), Moses (chs 3:1 5; 11:23 29), and Aaron (chs 5:4; 7:11; 9:4), and his intimate knowledge concerning the covenants, the priesthood, and the ritual system (chs 7 to 10), point to him as a devout, educated Jew. On the other hand, as the literary features of the epistle reveal, he was also a man of culture and had a masterly command of the Greek language. Repeated reference to the Temple service as currently in operation (chs 8:4, 5; 9:22; 10:3, 11) implies that the epistle was written prior to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in a.d. 70. The author fully appreciates the divine origin of the Jewish religious system (chs 5:4; 8:3, 5; 9:9; 10:1), but insists that it is now obsolete and inefficacious for salvation (chs 4:9 11; 7:11, 18, 19; 8:6; 9:8 15; 10:1 10). Throughout the epistle he exalts Christ and assumes that his readers likewise honour Him as Lord and Master (chs 1:1 9; 3:1, 6; 6:18 20; 7:25 28; 8:1, 2; 9:11, 12, 15; 10:12, 19 22; 12:2, 4). Accordingly, it would seem that the author was a devout, Jerusalem-educated Jew of the Diaspora with a Greek cultural background, who had been converted to Christianity and had subsequently renounced Judaism as an effective means to salvation. Till about the close of the 4th cent. great difference of opinion existed as to the identity of this remarkable person. Some held that it was Paul, but many favoured Barnabas, Apollos, Luke, or Clement of Rome. Origen, one of the early Church Fathers (c. a.d. 184 c. 254), declared that God alone knew the identity of the author (quoted by Eusebius Ecclesiastical History vi. 25. 14; Loeb ed., vol. 2, p. 79). Since proved apostolic authorship was considered by early Christians an essential prerequisite for the admission of a document into the NT canon, and since uncertainty as to who was the author of Hebrews prevailed, centuries passed before the epistle was universally accepted into the canon. The church in the West in particular long remained dubious. By the time that Hebrews had been deemed worthy of a place in the canon Paul had come to be rather generally accepted as its author, not so much on the basis of objective evidence as apparently upon a general impression that he alone could have written it. With the reasonably full identification of the leaders of the apostolic church provided by the various NT writers, a cultured and scholarly Jewish Christian with the profound spiritual insight that evidently characterised the writer of Hebrews could hardly have remained in obscurity at a time when Christian leaders--especially those with Paul's enlightened point of view--were few. Paul alone seemed to qualify as author of the epistle.
Modern critics reject Pauline authorship chiefly on the basis of certain literary differences between Hebrews and the epistles that are known certainly to have come from his pen. Though a writer's vocabulary and style may vary as he turns from one subject to another, such variations are usually to be found in words and expressions relating to those particular subjects. But in Hebrews the words and expressions common to all discourse--prepositions, conjunctions, and adverbs--differ consistently from the language of the known Pauline epistles. Furthermore, the numerous and often extended OT quotations in Hebrews are virtually always verbatim from the Greek LXX, whereas in his certified epistles Paul often quotes directly from the Hebrew as well as from the LXX, and at times apparently gives his own free translation. The characteristic phraseology with which the writer of Hebrews introduces these quotations also differs from that commonly employed by Paul. Finally, the polished rhetoric of Hebrews and the clear, systematic organisation of the argument presented differ markedly from Paul's usual style, with its lengthy digressions of thought and its involved reasoning. To sum up the matter of authorship, the point of view expressed in the epistle is characteristically and uniquely that of the apostle Paul as expressed in Romans, Galatians, and elsewhere, but the style of writing is not his. This suggests the possibility that the content of the epistle may have come from the great apostle himself, guided by the Holy Spirit, but that the actual writing or editing was done by a trusted assistant under his direct supervision, such as Timothy or Luke. To a conservative Bible scholar the mechanical differences in style are far less impressive than the identity of the theme with Paul's point of view. Conclusive evidence of Pauline authorship may thus be lacking, but the presumptive evidence is strongly in his favour.
Among the issues that arose in the apostolic church none brought more perplexity than the problem of the place of Jewish ritual requirements in the life of the Christian. To Jewish Christians it seemed incredible that the Jewish religious system, ordained by God Himself, could have become obsolete and that its ritual requirements were no longer binding. With the veil of Jewish nationalism before their eyes they failed to see that the ceremonial system, in whole and in part, simply foreshadowed the coming Messiah and His ministry for sinners, and that in Him the system reached its climax and end (see Rom 10:4; 1 Cor 5:7; Col 2:14 17; Heb 7:19 25; 8; 9:11 15). The Jerusalem Council had already released Gentile converts to the Christian faith from the ritual requirements of Judaism, but its silence with respect to the duty of Jewish Christians in this matter implied that the latter were still obliged to comply with them. Nevertheless, a large and influential body of Jewish Christians never assented to the release of Gentile believers from the requirements of the Jewish legal system, and actively sought to impose their point of view on Paul's converts (Gal 1:7 9; 2:4 5, 11 14; 3:1 3; 5:7 9; 2 Ti 1:15; etc.). But to Paul and those who shared his point of view, reliance on Jewish ritual requirements as a means to favour with God incapacitated even Jewish Christians from entering fully into the blessings of salvation by faith in Christ, and for Gentile Christians it involved falling from grace altogether (Gal 5:1 4). Though the intended readers of Hebrews knew it not, the Temple services were soon to cease forever, with the result that continued faith in these outward forms as essential to salvation would bewilder and perplex those who relied on them. In view of momentous events soon to take place, these Jewish Christians needed to turn their eyes, and transfer their loyalty, to Christ as their high priest in heaven above, and to rely completely on His ministry as efficacious for salvation instead of on an earthly priesthood. The inspired writer of Hebrews therefore sets forth the true relation of the ancient sacrificial system to the plan of salvation and explains how and why it terminated with the great sacrifice of Christ on the cross and His inauguration as high priest. "He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them" (Heb 7:25). The epistle constitutes an enlightened and enlightening appeal not only to Christian Jews of the 1st cent. but to all men of all time to turn their eyes heavenward and to enter fully into the gracious provisions made for them in the perfect and perpetual ministry of their Lord (chs 1:1 4; 2:14 17; 3:1; 4:14, 15; 6:20; 7:26, 27; 8:1, 2; 9:11 14, 24 28; 10:19 22).
Christ's ministry since His ascension is the central theme of the epistle to the Hebrews (chs 2:17, 18; 3:1; 4:14 16; 6:18 20; 7:25 28; 8:1, 2; 9:11, 12, 15; 10:12, 19 22; 12:2, 4). Believers are to follow Him by faith into the courts of heaven above, where, in His presence, they find rest of soul (Heb 4:16; 6:19, 20). Christ is set forth as God's spokesman to the church (ch 1:1, 2). He is superior to the angels (v 4), to Abraham (ch 7:2, 4, 17), and to Moses (ch 3:3). As a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek He is superior to the Aaronic priests (ch 7:11) and to Levi (vs. 9, 10). The new covenant is superior to the old covenant (ch 8:6), the heavenly sanctuary to that on earth (chs 8:1, 6; 9:8, 9), and Christ's ministry in heaven above to that of Aaron and his sons on earth (chs 7:11; 9:11). The Saviour's blood is infinitely superior to that of bulls and goats (Heb 9:12 15). In fact, in and of itself the ritual system availed nothing at all (chs 7:19; 9:9; 10:1), and even in past ages Jews who found salvation had done so by faith in the promised Messiah yet to come and in His ministry (ch 11).
Developing his theme, the writer shows Christ to be equal with the Father (Heb 1) and sets forth the purpose of His mission to earth (ch 2). In chs 3 and 4 he surveys Hebrew history to show that, despite God's gracious promises and guidance, the Jewish people did not enter into the rest of soul God intended them to have, and that since the Jews as a nation had never entered truly into that rest, the true-hearted may now do so by coming boldly to the throne of grace. Chapters 5 through 8 develop the theme of the transcendence of Christ's ministry over that of Aaron, so much so, in fact, as to render the ancient ministry obsolete and superfluous. In chs 9:1 to 10:22 the writer turns to the nature of Christ's ministry, explaining it in terms of the services of earthly sanctuary, which foreshadowed it. He closes this section by stressing the efficacy and permanence of Christ's sacrifice, and appeals to his readers to accept Christ's priestly ministry on their behalf. This is followed by a practical application of the principles already set forth, to the Christian faith and practice. Christians are to be faithful even as the great spiritual heroes of preceding ages had been faithful in their day (chs 11:1 to 12:2). Despite trial, persecution, temptation, and the vicissitudes of daily life, believers are to live worthy of their high calling in Christ Jesus (chs 12:3 to 13:17). The epistle closes with a benediction and personal salutation (ch 13:18 25).
Horn, Siegfried H., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association) 1979.