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.