BONUS: An Introduction to Hebrews

As we start Hebrews today it might be good to take just a moment to survey the basic background of this great letter.  As we start a new genre of biblical literature — letters — it is wise to remember they were always written to address a particular situation in the life of first century Christians.

Who wrote Hebrews?  We simply do not know.  Unlike the standard practice in first century AD letters, the author does not identify himself or herself.  Those who study these letters in the original Greek are confident that Paul did not write Hebrews.  Compared side by side, Hebrews is not Paul’s kind of writing.  Barnabas, Luke, Clement of Rome, Apollos, Silas, Timothy, Epaphras, and Philip have all been offered as possibilities, none conclusively.  You know what they say: “anonymous was a woman.”  Thus, both Priscilla and Mary the mother of Jesus have also been put forward.  The church father Origen probably said it best: “But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows.”

To whom was Hebrews written?  Hebrews is specific enough to suggest a particular group was being addressed.  Given the intensely Jewish flavor of the book, the recipients were certainly Jewish Christians, maybe even living in Palestine or even Jerusalem, but as Judaism had spread throughout the Roman Empire by the first century AD they could be anywhere, even Rome itself.

What caused Hebrews to be written?  This question is the easiest to answer and the one for which there is the greatest consensus.  It is clear that these Christians have come from a rich Jewish religious background with its emphasis on law, priests, sacrifices, and the like.  First century AD Judaism was very black and white; do certain rituals and get predictable, desired results.  The Jewish Christians addressed in Hebrews have come from this background but now they are struggling with the freedom that grace brings.  Without the regular routines and actions of their past Judaism they are left to trust in an invisible God to save them by the one-time sacrifice of Jesus in an invisible spiritual realm.  The metaphysical nature of this new religion seems not to have been giving them the same surety and confidence they felt when their duty was law-observance.  They were tempted to give up on Jesus and his Way of faith and grace.  They were contemplating a return to the tangible Judaism of their youth.  The Hebrews author will make case after case that Jesus is superior to anything they might return to.

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2 thoughts on “BONUS: An Introduction to Hebrews

  1. How to read this chapter, do we need to address on particular situation.

    There are some particular question regarding your introduction of this chapter. Many question come out in my head when you write “Who wrote Hebrews? We simply do not know.”

    How to believe that the chapter is a part of bible if the evidence are not sufficient?
    How basis that make the Hebrews are part of bible? or
    Why churches take the chapter to be a part of NT.

    I am sorry if the question is consider taboo to Christianity. It just my curiosity.

    • These are great questions, and not taboo at all to Christians. If the Bible is true, there are no taboo questions. In fact, there is an entire field of Christian scholarship that deals with exactly this topic.

      This is a bit of a simplified answer, but basically as early Christians were putting the Bible together in the years after the start of the Church they seem to have used three “tests” for whether a book should be in the Bible: 1) What is the history of this book? Where did it come from? How long has it been around? 2) Does this book contradict other accepted books in the Bible? Or does it say things no other book says? 3) Did early leaders accept this book as authentic? Do we have early Christians quoting/using this book?

      If I am remembering correctly, even though Hebrews author doesn’t identify himself or herself, the authenticity of the book was not really questioned very much by early Church leaders. I know this is the first letter we have come to, but the teachings of Hebrews are not very different than those in other letters.

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