the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments Sutcliffe's Commentary
by Joseph Sutcliffe
ST. PAUL’S EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS.
OUR learned critics indulge here in length of argument. Among the ancients, Origen, Augustine, and Chrysostom are the principal; among the moderns, Valla, Erasmus, Du Pin, Coccejus, Owen, and Poole are luminous. Poole asks whether this be a divinely inspired and canonical epistle? This some deny, partly through malice, as all the Unitarians, from Marcion to Arius, and down to the present time. Others doubted of it rashly, as in the schism at Rome, when the Novatians made a strong use of the sixth chapter, where the restoration of the fallen who had denied the Lord that bought them, was in some sort regarded as impossible, though not absolutely so.
“This epistle,” says the learned professor and ecclesiastical historian, whose words I translate, “not having the name of Paul at the head, affords no proof that he is not the author; for his name was obnoxious to the jews. Yet this omission has given cause to some of the ancients to doubt whether it really was a production of Paul, and canonical. Notwithstanding it was always received by the oriental churches, and is cited by the Greek fathers as canonical. Origen, in one of his homilies cited by Eusebius, Hist. Ecclesiastes lib. 3. cap. 25, says that the style of this letter is more polished than that of Paul, which is generally simple and often rude. But this letter seems to be among the most elegant productions of the Greek, as those acquainted with that language will generally allow. But the style contains, nevertheless, admirable thoughts, not unworthy of Paul. Yet my opinion is, that the diction and composition are the production of another, who has collected the dictates of Paul, and given them a drapery worthy of his master. For which reason, if some churches have received it as the epistle of Paul, we have reason to applaud their sentiments, because our fathers have apprised us by tradition, that it really was the production of Paul, though God alone for certainty knows who was the author.”
Some have ascribed it to St. Clement, bishop of Rome, others to St. Luke. But Clement of Alexandria affirms, that it was really written by St. Paul, and in the Hebrew language, and that St. Luke translated it into Greek; and that the style resembles that of Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. He adds, that St. Paul had reasons for not putting his name at the head of the epistle, because the jews for so long a time had been violently prejudiced against him; and judging he would still be suspected, he prudently omitted his name at the head of the letter.
“St. Jerome assures us,” continues Eusebius, in a letter to Evagrius, “that all the Greeks received the epistle to the Hebrews: and, in his letter to Dardanus, that not only all the churches of the east, but also all the ancient Greek writers received it as the genuine production of St. Paul; though there were a few who ascribed it to Barnabas, or to Clement.
“All the Greek fathers, who have written since the time of Origen, have cited the epistle as canonical, and under the name of Paul. The council of Laodicea have put it in the sacred canon; and so it stands in all other catalogues of the Greek scriptures.”
“In the course of time, the Arians,” observes Du Pin, “finding that this epistle was strongly urged against them on the Deity of Christ, rejected it altogether; but the Catholics defended its authenticity, as may be seen in Epiphanius, and in Theodoret, who prove that the first Arians had cited it against the Catholics, as is apparent in St. Hilary, and St. Athanasius.
“With regard to the Latin church, Jerome remarks in his letter to Dardanus, and in his comment on the sixth of Isaiah, that it was not commonly received by many. Quam Latina consuetudo non recipit inter scripturas canonicas. To Evagrius, he says, that all the Greeks received it, and some of the Latins. Quam omnes Græci recipiunt, et nonnulli Latinorum. It is certain that St. Clement, of Rome, the most ancient of authors in the west, received and acknowledged it, because he cites passages from it. Gobarus, cited by Photinus, acknowledged it. St. Irenæus, who wrote among the Latins, names it, and cites many passages from it in his book, which contains disputations, as is noted by Eusebius: lib. 5. c. 26. The early writers seem to think with Origen, that the sentiments are St. Paul’s, but that the Greek is by another.”
Doubts however are justly entertained of Origen’s opinion. He wrote too much to be the calmest of authors. The epistle of Barnabas, and that of Clement to the Corinthians are works of merit, but by no means to be compared with the epistle to the Hebrews. Tertullian, and Minutius Felix, in their apologies for the christian religion, by study and frequent transcription, gave their works a finish of inimitable beauty. Paul, in like manner, knowing that his epistle would be read and examined by the learned in Jerusalem, took more pains in the arguments, and in the polish and perfection of his letter: he has left the literary talents of all contemporaries far in the shade. He has justified the remark of Augustine, “that no man can attain to the wisdom by which St. Paul wrote his epistles, without divine inspiration.”
St. Augustine remarks farther, as well as Jerome, that the churches of the east have received it, and that the greatest number of ecclesiastical writers have believed it to be the production of St. Paul; on which account it has been put in the number of canonical books, as the genuine epistle of that sacred writer. This judgment was confirmed by the council of Carthage (following the council of Laodicea) and finally by the council of Rome, held under the learned Pope Gelasius, and became established as the epistle of Paul.
Those three councils had reasons, and just reasons on which they founded their decisions; and reasons arising from the internal characters of the letter.
(1) It is no way likely that St. Paul, ever burning with charity for his countrymen, should see the Hebrew christians suffer, without a letter of support and comfort.
(2) This letter was written from Italy, as appears from Hebrews 13:24, where the Roman brethren salute the Hebrew christians.
(3) It was written by a person in prison, who expected liberation: Hebrews 10:34; Hebrews 13:19.
(4) It was written by one who had Timothy for a colleague: Hebrews 13:23. Timothy is also named as the colleague of Paul in four places of his epistles. These are circumstances which coincide with no ambassador of the churches but St. Paul.
(5) The author solicits their prayers, hoping shortly to see them: chap. Hebrews 13:23.
In the synopsis by Poole, we have farther confirmations that this epistle is the genuine letter of Paul, from the ideas, and from the words themselves. St. Peter says, 2 Peter 3:15-16, “And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation, even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given unto him, hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood.” Τινα δυσνοητα , difficult to be understood. Peter cites here the same Greek word which is used by Paul in Hebrews 5:11. Melchizedec of whom we have many things to say, και δυσερμηνευτος λεγειν , et non facile explicabilis dictu; and which are not easily explained.
Peter illustrates the character of Christ, as the Son of God, in whom the Father is well pleased. Paul does the same in the first chapter, and throughout the epistle. Peter warns the saints against falling away: 2 Peter 3:17. Paul does the same in Hebrews 6:4-5; Hebrews 10:26-38. Peter exhorts the saints to look for the day of the Lord: Hebrews 3:9-14. Paul does the same in Hebrews 6:12; Hebrews 10:25-29. These coincidences show that Peter had read the epistle to the Hebrews as St. Paul’s, and avowed his belief in the divine inspiration of his beloved brother.
To these we may add, that Paul makes a grateful memorial to the Hebrews of their charity, in having had compassion on him in his bonds while in Jerusalem, and for a long time a prisoner in Cæsarea; and of course he writes to comfort them in their long-continued persecutions. But we nowhere read that either Barnabas, or Clement, or Luke, or Apollos were ever in prison at Jerusalem.
Nor should it escape remark, that he mentions ingenuously a fact which they well knew, that he had not seen Christ, till the Lord appeared to him in the way to Damascus, but that he had received the gospel by revelation, which was confirmed to him by those that heard him, and by the divine endowments of the Holy Ghost: Hebrews 2:3-4. All this agrees with Paul, and not with Barnabas.
Origen then had reason to add, as cited by Eusebius, Hist. Ecclesiastes 6 : 25, “that the ancients did not rashly hand it down to us as a production of Paul.” And after three councils have decided that Paul wrote the epistle to the Hebrews, nothing but heresy can be the base of doubt and agitation.
But against all this weight of evidence, greatly impaired by abbreviations, let us hear what the old Arians, and the modern Unitarians have to say. Let them come forward, and be heard in open court.
They say, first, that Paul does not begin the epistle with benedictions. Answer: neither do Clement and Barnabas begin their epistles in that way. Clement of Alexandria has assigned reasons for the omission of Paul’s name, being a character hated by his nation, and his name proscribed. These reasons have satisfied most learned men.
They object, that the style is superior in point of elegance to the usual style of Paul. Dr. Lardner, a semi-arian, gave up that point: why therefore repeat it now? He allows the sentiments to be those of Paul. Read the sublime passages of this apostle in 2 Corinthians 6:0., 1 Timothy 6:11, and talk no more of Paul’s inability.
They farther object to the uncertainty of the time when it was written. But what difference can three years make, as it was unquestionably written after the year fifty eight, and some years before Jerusalem was destroyed; for the sacred writer says, “ye see the day approaching:” Hebrews 10:25.
But say ingenuously, Do not your tender scruples arise, because St. Paul made the great mystery of godliness eminently to consist in God being manifest in the flesh, and that he considered this to be the very pillar and ground of the truth? Because he here lays, as the prophet did, the incarnation and mediatorial work of JEHOVAH ELOHIM, as the foundation of the church? Isaiah 28:16. And because he instructs the Hebrew christians, that building on this rock of ages, they would be secure amidst the raging tempests, and the overwhelming floods of divine wrath? But does not the holy apostle establish his doctrine by invincible arguments drawn from the Hebrew scriptures?
Oh base apostates from the faith of the whole primitive world, who all expected a Messiah, and that Messiah from heaven. Oh that I could rebuke their philosophy by revelation, and make them blush, as men that dishonour the sanctuary. Oh that I could rouse certain dignitaries by the example of Jewel, of Pearson, of Jeremy Taylor, of Bull, and of Horsley. Oh that I could also touch their pride of nonconformity, by voices from the tombs of their martyred predecessors, and by the luminous works of Baxter, Bates, Flavel, Howe, and a thousand more. How will their Wakefield stand before the throne of God, with his heretical testament in his hand, indecently saying of his expiring Saviour, “He breathed his last?” See his note on Matthew 27:50.
What better hope can the Socinian indulge, after betraying the Lord of glory with a kiss, than to perish in the tomb. Not so St. Paul. He supported the suffering Hebrews, by showing them the Saviour, despising the cross, and now set down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, till all his enemies shall be made his footstool. See more in that invaluable work, “An Introduction to the critical study and knowledge of the holy scriptures.” By T. H. Horne, B. D. This author, with incessant labour, has applained the student’s way to the sanctuary.