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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

- Hebrews

by Editor - Joseph Exell




In spite of the antiquity and authority of the Epistle, no writer of the Western Church in the first, second, or third century quotes it as St. Paul’s; the first Latin writer who attributes it to St. Paul is Hilary, late in the fourth century; and in the fifth century both Jerome and Augustin, though loosely quoting it as St. Paul’s, had serious misgivings about its direct genuineness. In the Eastern Church, Pantaenus and Clement of Alexandria seem to have set the fashion of accepting the Pauline authorship; but on this subject even Origen felt grave doubts. Eusebius wavered about it, and admitted that the Epistle was counted spurious by many, but thought “it might perhaps be a translation from an Aramaic original. Even in the Eastern Church it did not meet with unhesitating acceptance as a work of St. Paul. A Jewish rule, which has found unconscious acceptance in all ages, says that “Custom is Law.” But if the Epistle to the Hebrews owes its recognition among the Epistles of St. Paul far more to an unthinking custom than to careful argument, how is it that such a custom arose? The answer is simple. It arose mainly in the Eastern Church from the initiative of Pantaenus, and it was only accepted in the Western Church, after considerable hesitation, by the force of example. In both Churches it originated, not from trustworthy tradition, but from the superficial acceptance of prima facie phenomena. The general theology of the Epistle was Pauline, and the finer differences escaped notice. Many characteristic phrases coincided with those in St. Paul’s Epistles, and were current in his school of thought. The allusions at the close of the Epistle led to the careless assumption that they were penned by St. Paul. The observation of similarities is easy to any one; the detection of differences, which, however deep, are yet to some extent latent, is only perceptible to students who do not rely upon authority and tradition except so far as they are elements in the sacred search for truth. Nothing can more decisively prove the incompetence of a mechanical consensus than the fact that millions of readers have failed to perceive, even in the original, the dissimilarity of style, of method, and of theologic thought, which proves that the same pen could not have written, nor the same mind have originated, the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistles of St. Paul. Luther showed his usual insight and robust sense when he saw that Hebrews 2:3 could not have been written by the author of Galatians 1:1; Galatians 1:12. Again, though the author does not fall into any demonstrable error in his allusion to the details of Temple worship in Hebrews 7:27; Hebrews 9:3-4; Hebrews 10:11, yet he goes to the verge of apparent inaccuracies, against which St. Paul, who was familiar with the Temple service, would surely have guarded himself. In reading the Epistle to the Hebrews we are in contact with the mind of a great and original writer of the Apostolic age, whose name escaped discovery till modern times. It is hardly worth while to quote later authorities. They can have no effect but to impose upon the ignorant. They simply float with the stream. They are uncritical, and therefore valueless. When such writers am Clement of Alexandria and Origen in the Eastern Church, and Jerome and Augustin in the Western, had made timid, concessions to the custom of popularly quoting the Epistle as St. Paul’s, it was natural that later writers should follow their example. Gradually, by the aid of conciliar decrees, prevalent assumption hardened into ecclesiastical conviction. The result of the evidence may be summed up by saying that, as far as the evidence of antiquity is concerned, loose conjecture tended in one direction and genuine criticism in the other … But among thoughtful writers who really turned their attention to the matter, the old doubts on the subject were by no means extinguished. In the Western Church the Epistle was not publicly read to the same extent or on the same footing as the others, even at the close of the fourth century. The assertion that it was written by St. Paul was sometimes accompanied with modifications, in the fifth century. It had never been commented on by any Latin writer as late as the sixth. In the seventh, Isidore of Seville records that many still attributed it, at least in part, to Barnabas or Clement “because of the discrepancy of style.” Even in the ninth it is entirely omitted by the Codex Boernerianus, and only appears in a Latin translation in the celebrated F, the Codex Augiensis. But long before the ninth century, and for centuries afterwards, the science of criticism was forgotten. St. Thomas of Aquinum, in the thirteenth century, repeats the old objections in order to refute them by the old arguments; but all doubt on the subject was lulled to sleep by the spell of ecclesiastical infallibility. Then came the reviving dawn of the sixteenth century, when “Greece rose from the dead with the New Testament in her hand.” Erasmus, while confessing his willingness to accept any definition of the Church on the subject, yet quotes some of the Fathers to show the absurdity of the pseudo-orthodoxy which condemned a man as “plusquam heretical” if he doubted about the authorship of this Epistle. His own opinion was that St. Paul did not write it. Luther calls attention to its style, and quotes various passages to show that it could not have been written by St. Paul or by any apostle. While speaking of it with admiration as “strong, mighty, and lofty Epistle,” he considers that its Scriptural method indicates the authorship of Apollos, and says that at any rate it is the work of “an excellent apostolic man.” Calvin, again--while, like some of the Fathers, he popularly quotes it as “the Apostle’s”--says that he cannot be induced to recognise it as St. Paul’s because it differs from him in its style and method of teaching, and because the writer speaks of himself as a pupil of the apostles, a thing very alien from St. Paul’s custom. Melancthon never quotes it as St. Paul’s. The Magdeburg Centuriators denied that it was his. Grotius and Limborch and Le Clerc supposed it to have been written by St. Luke, Apollos, or some companion of St. Paul. Then for a time the tyranny of indolent custom began once more to reassert itself. During the seventeenth century, and long afterwards, especially in England, no one, without incurring dislike or suspicion, could hint, even apologetically, at any doubt as to whether the translators of the English Bible were in the right when they headed the Epistle, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.” But since the time of Semler (1763) many eminent writers have practically set the question at rest by furnishing the results of that close examination which prove, not only that St. Paul was not the actual writer--a fact which had been patent even in the days Of Origen--but that it is not even indirectly due to his authorship. The phraseology has been passed through a fresh mint, and the thoughts have been subjected to the crucible of another individuality. It will, therefore, serve no purpose to heap up words and phrases which are common to the author and to St. Paul. Many, indeed, of those which have been adduced belong to the current coin of Christian theology. Those that are distinctively Pauline only prove a point which every one is ready to concede, that the writer had adopted much of the apostle’s teaching, and had been deeply influenced by his companionship. It is this very fact which throws into relief the positive dissimilarities. Again, it is vain to talk about difference of subject or difference of aim as furnishing any explanation of these dissimilarities. We have writings of St. Paul on all kinds of topics, and at all ages of his mature life; and though the style of a writer may vary in different moods, as the style of St. Paul in the Epistle to the Ephesians differs from that in the Pastoral Epistles, yet every style retains a certain stamp of individuality.

Now, the differences between the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistles of St. Paul are differences which go down to the root of the being. That the same pen should have been engaged on both is a psychological impossibility. The Greek is far better than the Greek of St. Paul. St. Paul is often stately and often rhetorical, and sometimes writes more in the style of a treatise than of a letter; but the stateliness and rhetoric and systematic treatment of the Epistle to the Hebrews in no way resemble his. The form and rhythm of its sentences are wholly different. Paul is often impassioned and often argumentative, and so is the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews; but the passion and the dialectics of the latter furnish the most striking contrast to those of the former. The writer cites differently from St. Paul; he writes differently; he argues differently; he thinks differently; he declaims differently; he constructs and connects his sentences differently; he builds up his paragraphs on a wholly different model. His style is the style of a man of genius who thinks as well as writes in Greek: whereas St. Paul wrote in Greek, and thought in Syriac. The notion that the Epistle is a translation may be set aside. A translation may be very able, but it can never bear upon its surface such marks of originality as we find in this Epistle. Its eloquence belongs to the language in which it is composed. The movement of this author is that of an Oriental sheikh with his robes of honour wrapped around him; the movement of St. Paul is that of an athlete girded for the race. The rhetoric of this writer, even when it is at its most majestic volume, is like the smooth flow of a river amid green fields; the rhetoric of St. Paul is like the rush of a mountain torrent amid opposing rocks. (Archdeacon Farrar.)

Tertullian’s hypothesis that Barnabas was the author had no basis in tradition. His anxiety to bring the Epistle into esteem led him to confound it with the Epistle of St. Barnabas, which perhaps he had heard of, but not seen. The Western Church, had they really believed the Epistle to be even the composition of Barnabas, would not so easily have set it aside. The Oriental tradition, on the other hand, persistently declared it to be Pauline, and the private opinions which made a Luke or a Clement to have had a hand in its production rested, at any rate, on grounds of reason and criticism. St. Clement’s connection with it was made to rest on the grandis similitudo between it and the style of his Epistles to the Corinthians. But this grandis similitudo is after all illusory--the result of direct plagiarisms from our Epistle. The difference is immeasurable between the originality, profundity, and nervous strength of the Epistle to the Hebrews and the simply reproductive, diffuse, and sermonising character of the Epistles to the Corinthians. The other conjecture therefore remains, that the Epistle to the Hebrews is a work of St. Paul which owes its present form to the intervention of St. Luke. And this happens to be the first view of its origin which is presented to us in Christian antiquity. We cannot indeed assert positively that Clemens Alexandrinus, who gives this view in his Hypotyposes, himself derived it from those before him. But one thing is noteworthy--he first states as a fact that St. Luke translated and published the Epistle for the Greeks, and then by this fact explains the similarity between its diction and that of the Acts of the Apostles. He does not, as would be natural in the case of a mere conjecture, derive the fact from the observed similarity, but accounts for the similarity after stating the fact. His testimony therefore remains the only one well-founded statement which Christian antiquity has handed down to us concerning the origin of the Epistle. (F. Delitzsch, D. D.)

The happy suggestion of Luther, that Apollos might be the author of the epistle has commended itself to many since his time. The author was certainly such a man as Apollos--a certain Jew … an Alexandrian by race, a learned man … mighty in the Scriptures … instructed in the way of the Lord … fervent in spirit … and one that powerfully confuted the Jews, showing by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 18:24-28). More felicitous words could not be found to describe a writer whose thinking moves on the lines of the primitive Jewish Christianity, who is possessed of Alexandrian culture, and who wields with such skill and fervour the weapon of the Alexandrian exegesis. (A. B. Davidson, LL. D.)

Even in minor matters we have the same congruence between Apollos and the writer of this Epistle. We are told that he was originally acquainted only with the baptism of John, and this writer places the “doctrine of baptisms” among the rudiments of Christian teaching. We are told that “he began to speak with confident boldness in the synagogue,” and this writer has a high estimate of confident boldness as a virtue which the Christian should always retain. Lastly, we see in Apollos the rare combination of a dislike of prominence with a remarkable power of oratory. This is exemplified in his refusal of the invitation of the Corinthians, some of whom so greatly admired his culture and oratory that they preferred his teaching even to that of St. Paul. In that generous refusal he displayed the very feeling which would have induced him to suppress all personal references, even when his readers were perfectly well acquainted with the name and antecedents of him who was addressing them. It is stated as an insuperable objection to this theory that the Church of Alexandria retained no tradition that this Epistle was written by their brilliant fellow-countryman. But although Apollos was an Alexandrian by birth and training, it does not follow that he had lived in his native city, and as he had left the city before he became a Christian, he might have been a stranger to the Alexandrian Christians. We do not hear a word about the Epistle in that Church until a century after it was written. At any rate, this difficulty is not so great as that which arises from the supposition that the Epistle was the work of St. Paul, and yet was not recognised as such for some centuries by the Western Church, and only partially and hesitatingly by the Eastern. For there would be every temptation to attribute the work to the apostle, and none to associate it with the name of Apollos, which, except in one or two Churches, seems to have been but little known. It is not a decisive objection to the Apollonian authorship that no one is known to have suggested it before Luther. In the early centuries the Epistle was only assigned to this or that author by a process of tentative guesswork. Those who saw that St. Paul could not have been the actual author often adopted One of the arbitrary hypotheses, that it is a translation, or that the sentiments and the language were supplied by different persons. The self-suppression of Apollos resulted in the comparative obscurity of his work, and the Fathers, having nothing but conjecture to deal with, fixed upon names every one of which was more generally familiar than that of the eloquent Alexandrian. And if it be strange that the name of Apollos should not have been preserved by the Church to which the letter was despatched, we may account for this by the absence of superscription, and by the fact that it was only addressed to the Jewish section of that Church. This much may be said with certainty, that if it were not written by Apollos, at any rate the evidence which points to him as its author is more various and more conclusive than that which can be adduced to support the claims of any one else. (Archdeacon Farrar.)

May we not say that this Epistle resembles, in these respects, the great Melchisedec of sacred story, of whom its central portion treats? Like him, it marches forth in lonely, royal, and sacerdotal dignity, and like him is without genealogy. We know not whence it cometh nor whither it goeth. (F. Delitzsch, D. D.)

Whoever is the author of this Epistle, its value and authority remain the same. “We may compare it,” says Thiersch, “to a painting of perfect beauty, which had been regarded as a work of Raphael. H it should be proved that it was not painted by Raphael, we have thereby not lost a classical piece of art, but gained another master of first rank.”

1. The heading” To the Hebrews” is the proper heading of the Epistle, and is found from the time that the Epistle is historically mentioned in connection with other New Testament books. This inscription does not come from the hand of the original writer of the Epistle. It originated, no doubt, in the course of transcription, and whether it rests on tradition, or was suggested by the contents of the Epistle, cannot be ascertained. Any one reading the Epistle now would stamp it with the same title, apart from all tradition respecting its origin or destination. The term “Hebrews” is used in a wider and in a narrower sense. In a wider sense, it describes all who were descendants of Abraham, wherever they resided, and whatever language they spoke (2 Corinthians 11:22; Philippians 3:5). In its narrower sense, it describes Jews living in Palestine and using the native language of that country (Acts 6:1; Acts 9:27). There is nothing to determine in which of these senses the term is used in the superscription to the Epistle. The phrase “To the Hebrews” might mean of itself that the Epistle was addressed to all Christians of Jewish extraction; but the local colour of the Epistle is very distinct, and the allusions are of such a kind as to make it certain that the Epistle was addressed to “Hebrews” in a particular locality. No allusion is made in the Epistle to Gentile believers, and this seems to imply that it was written to a community consisting exclusively of Jewish Christians, or one at least in which the Hebrew element very greatly predominated.

2. The Hebrews to whom the Epistle was addressed had not been themselves hearers of the Lord, but had received the gospel from those who heard Him (Hebrews 2:3), and who worked many wonders in attestation of their preaching (Hebrews 2:4). The Church had not apparently been founded by mere believers from Palestine congregating in numbers in the locality, but by some apostolic missionaries, themselves direct hearers of the Lord (Hebrews 2:3; Hebrews 13:7; comp. Hebrews 10:32, where their enlightenment is referred to as a distinct historical event). Their conversion to the faith of Christ was a thing that, when the Epistle was written, had long taken place; for, on account of the time, they ought themselves to have been teachers (Hebrews 5:12); those who brought the gospel to them were already dead (Hebrews 13:7); and their history had been one of varied vicissitudes, for on the back of their first faith they had been subjected to sharp persecutions (Hebrews 10:32), though presumably their later history, until recently (Hebrews 12:4; Hebrews 12:11-13), had been more peaceful. In the early days of their faith they had shown much enthusiasm and public spirit, taking joyfully the spoiling of their goods, and voluntarily sharing the reproaches and sympathising with the bonds of those who suffered in the Christian cause (Hebrews 10:33-34); and this spirit of sympathy and love to their suffering brethren, which had been their characteristic always, continued to distinguish them when this apostle addressed them. Nevertheless, in these later days, a change for the worse had come over them, External circumstances were perhaps beginning again to press heavily upon them, and their condition of mind was not, as it had been informer times, such as to enable them to bear up successfully against them. The reproach which they suffered was one no doubt common to the people of God in all ages (Hebrews 11:25-26), but it was something more specific, it was the reproach of Christ, and borne at the hands of their own countrymen (Hebrews 13:13). The apostle tells them they have need of patience (Hebrews 10:36); he admits that their Christian course is a hard race Hebrews 12:1); their afflictions are severe, and he endeavours to set them in such a light as will more than reconcile them to them--they are not accidents, they are the chastisements of a Father, and proof of their true sonship, common to them with all sons, and indeed with the Son Himself (Hebrews 12:7-10; Hebrews 12:2); he sets before them the example of the great worthies of former days, Abraham (Hebrews 6:15) and the cloud of witnesses, who patiently endured and are now made perfect (chap. 11.); and, above all, he reminds them that they have a great High Priest, Jesus the Son of God, who can be touched with the feeling of their infirmities, and exhorts them to come with confidence to the throne of grace, to obtain help in time of Hebrews 4:14-16; Hebrews 5:1-5; Hebrews 12:2-4). These severe trials their condition of mind unhappily made them ill fitted to meet. Though they had been so long enlightened that they ought to have been themselves teachers, they had again need that some one should teach them the first elements of Christian truth (Hebrews 5:12); they had become children in intelligence, having need of milk, and were incapable of receiving such solid food as this apostle desired to offer them when he wished to bring the Melchisedec priesthood of the Son before them; they were growing sluggish, and no more imitators of the faith and patience of those who inherit the promises (Hebrews 6:12). This want of interest was leading them to cease to frequent the Christian meetings for mutual confirmation and edifying (Hebrews 10:25). They were casting away their joyful confidence (Hebrews 10:35). And besides this general coldness that was creeping over them, there were perhaps some symptoms showing themselves of a mistrust of their teachers, and suspicion of their teaching, possibly owing to influences from without (Hebrews 13:17-18)--to which influences may also have been due a tendency to busy themselves with meats, and to be carried aside by strange teachings, forgetful of the teaching of those who first spoke to them the Word of God (Hebrews 13:7-9).

3. Beyond the reference in the words, “they of Italy salute you” Hebrews 13:24), no allusion is made to any locality by name. “They of Italy” means those belonging to Italy, and the words might be said of such persons whether they were, when spoken of, in Italy or out of it. The mention of them of Italy, however, seems to imply one of two things: either the author of the Epistle wrote from Italy, and added to his own the salutations of the Christians there, or he wrote to some locality in Italy, and sent the salutations of some Italian brethren, who were beside him, to the Church of their native country. No other reason for such a special reference to them of Italy suggests itself naturally. The Epistle seems to have been written from or to Italy.

(1) An opinion widely received has been, that the Epistle was written from Italy to the Church of Jerusalem. It is difficult to reconcile this opinion, in regard to the destination of the Epistle, with many things said in it. In Hebrews 2:3, it is said that the Hebrews owed their knowledge of the great salvation not to the Lord Himself, but to them who heard Him. At whatever date the Epistle was written, there must have been many persons living in the Church at Jerusalem who had heard Christ Himself; and, besides, the Church seems everywhere treated as having throughout its history a personal identity. Elsewhere (Hebrews 10:32), the “enlightenment” of the Hebrews is spoken of as a distinct historical event, and in a manner scarcely applicable to the ministry of our Lord. Again, the low condition of Christian knowledge in the community (Hebrews 5:11)can scarcely be supposed that of the original Church at Jerusalem, and the reproach, that for the time they ought to have been teachers, sounds very strangely if said of a community from which teachers had gone out to all the world. It is difficult to suggest any period in the history of the Jerusalem Church during which a liberal-minded Hellenist like the author, who was probably ignorant of Hebrew, and who could in an off-hand way dispose of the whole Old Testament ritual as “standing on meats and drinks and divers washings” (Hebrews 9:10), and “useless” (Hebrews 7:18), could have stood in such relations to this Church, or at which his restoration to it along with Timothy, the devoted attendant of St. Paul, could be looked forward to as an event (Hebrews 13:19; Hebrews 13:23).

(2) Failing Jerusalem, it has been thought that Rome answered the conditions of the problem better than any other locality, and the Epistle is considered by many to have been addressed to the Jewish portion of the Roman Church, or to the Roman Church in general, which was probably largely composed of Hebrews.

(a) In this way the salutation of “them of Italy” is satisfactorily explained--they were Italians present with the writer in some place out of Italy.

(b) The Epistle was very early known at Rome, being largely made use of by Clement of Rome before the end of the first century.

(c) The interest of the Church in Timothy is readily understood.

(d) The author’s presumed familiarity with the Epistle to the Romans is easily explained.

(e) The allusion to meats (Hebrews 13:7) indicates an ascetic tendency such as is exposed in Romans 14:1-23., and the divers and strange teachings Hebrews 13:9) are such as were to be expected in a city which was the intellectual centre of the world, and, naturally, a hotbed of speculations and heresies, and from which in fact proceeded many strange opinions which distracted the early Church, and fill some of the most interesting pages of her history. If it is known that at an early period, about the year 50, the Jews, that is, probably the Christian Jews, were expelled from Rome by the Emperor Claudius, a fact which might explain the allusion to loss of goods and the like (Hebrews 10:32). Some of these considerations are not without weight; others have very little force. Even if the reference in Hebrews 13:7, &c., were to ascetic tendencies, which is far from certain, the Epistle to the Colossians, and the whole history of the age, show that such moral developments were to be found in many places. The most that can be said is, that they were found in Rome also. On the other hand, there are difficulties not easy to surmount in the way of the Roman theory. The Church at Rome was probably founded, not by the preaching of any apostolic man, but by the congregating there of believers from Palestine and other parts of the world (Acts 2:10). The Hebrews, on the contrary, were evangelised by hearers of the Lord, amidst many signs and wonders and gifts of the Holy Ghost (Hebrews 2:3-4; comp. Acts 8:6; Acts 14:3). Elsewhere (Hebrews 10:32) their enlightenment is referred to as a distinct historical event; and these two things together naturally suggest that the Hebrews received the gospel from some apostolic men in the course of a special missionary tour. Further, the Epistle must have been written some time, and it is usually thought only a very few years, after the Neronie persecution (A.D. 64 and after). Close upon their enlightenment the Hebrews sustained a great conflict of sufferings (Hebrews 10:32). These are referred to in the Epistle distantly as the “former days.” The reference can scarcely be to the persecutions of Nero. On the other hand, if Roman Christians are addressed, it is impossible that all reference to these persecutions should be a wanting. We can find a way out of this difficulty only by desperate shifts. We must suppose that the afflictions alluded to in Hebrews 10:32 are the Neronic persecutions; then, that the author assumed that these followed close upon the conversion of the Roman Church, which he must have regarded as a definite historical occurrence, and due to the preaching of the Apostle Paul and perhaps Peter; and finally, that the Epistle was not written for a very considerable number of years after this period. The date of the Epistle is no doubt uncertain. But if the author made the above assumptions, he must have read history in a strange way; and if, as is supposed, he was familiar with St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he must have perused the work of his master with very little attention, especially that part of it where he mentions members of the Roman Church who were of note among the apostles, and in Christ before him (Romans 16:7). Neither are the terms of chap. 10:32 adequate to describe the ferocious cruelties of the Neronic persecution; and, as has been said, the passage Hebrews 13:7 does not imply death by violent means. Again, it is difficult to find in history a time at which the Roman Church, the most lively and vigorous of the Churches, could be described in the terms employed in Hebrews 5:11. Once more, the Roman Judaism, as we know it from the Epistle to the Romans, was of the usual Pharisaic type, It is possible indeed that St. Paul the Pharisee found Pharisaic Judaism everywhere, as he conceived it under that aspect, and that this author, the Hellenist, contemplated Judaism under another aspect, a Judaism with an allegorical tendency, which resolved the “customs” into ideas and principles, and was not bound fast to external practice. But while there may be truth in this, it is plain that the author assumes that his readers will go along with him in most of his opinions, and that the type of Judaism exhibited in the Epistle is real.

(3) Others have thought of Alexandria. Naturally, Alexandria, as the centre of Hellenistic Judaism, offers what answers to the conditions of the problem in general. But no particular trait in the Epistle seems to point to Alexandria. Though the Epistle was early known and highly valued among the Alexandrians, no trace of the opinion appears that they were the recipients of it. On the contrary, the prevailing tradition in Alexandria, connected with the belief of its Pauline authorship, was that the Epistle was addressed to the Hebrews of Palestine. Upon the whole, while nothing approaching to certainty can be reached, some community of the Dispersion in the East--not, however, Jerusalem, nor any Church in its immediate neighbourhood--with a Hellenistic type of Judaism, best suits the circumstances of the case. The imprisonment of Timothy (Hebrews 13:23) would probably be in Rome, or somewhere in Italy, and the letter was probably addressed from that country, whither the author had gone, either on a missionary enterprise or on some other call, and where he was waiting to be joined by Timothy when he wrote it. This might account for the letter being so early known in Rome, and for the consistent denial there of its Pauline authorship. (A. B. Davidson, LL. D.)


The entire current of the Epistle throughout Hebrews 5:1-6, and chaps, 7.-10, inclusive, assumes that the temple was then standing, and that the priesthood and the whole sacrificial system were then in their normal operation. But the passage Hebrews 8:13 shows that they were then “waxing old and ready to vanish away”--i.e., the destruction of the temple, and the consequent cessation of the Mosaic sacrifices was very near at hand. Moreover, the love of those long-cherished institutions was still in its strength in the souls of Jewish converts, and hence was a grave temptation to relapse back from Christ into Judaism. The Epistle labours to withstand this special temptation. Yet, again; the Epistle was certainly written from Italy--probably written and sent, not from Rome itself, but from some point not far distant. If from Rome, some definite salutation would probably have indicated it. The Epistle alludes to Timothy’s recent release from imprisonment. Have we any other intimation of this fact, and of the date of his release? Some critics have assumed such indications in Philippians 2:19; Philippians 2:23-24 --an assumption strengthened by Paul’s using the same language of Timothy as of himself: “I trust in the Lord to send Timothy shortly unto you”; “I trust in the Lord that I also myself shall come shortly”; but weakened by the doubt whether Timothy was detained by his own imprisonment or by Paul’s, inasmuch as Paul says--“I hope to send him so soon as I shall see how it will go with me.” It is not safe, therefore, on this authority, to date Timothy’s imprisonment and release from the writing of this Epistle to Philippi (A.D. 62), though it may have occurred then. It is generally conceded that it occurred either in A.D. 62 or 64. If Timothy was imprisoned and released but once, it would carry with it the precise date of our Epistle to the Hebrews. With high probability we may fix its date not later than A.D. 64. Judaism and its temple were then nearing their final fall, as this Epistle assumes. (H. Cowles, D. D.)

About five years after the date of this Epistle the Temple was burnt, and the Levitical service “vanished away.” How inestimably precious a treasure would this Epistle then become to the scattered Hebrew Christians I (W. Kay, D. D.)


If, as is usually supposed, the danger which the apostle sought to avert was a relapse of the Hebrews into Judaism, whether this was a Judaism that still held fast to the hope of Israel, though not according to knowledge, a thing with which St. Paul was able to sympathise (Romans 10:2; Acts 23:6-9), or rather a Judaism like that of the Sadducean high priest who crucified the Son of God (John 19:15; Hebrews 6:6; Hebrews 10:29), perhaps no special occurrence or circumstance calling forth the Epistle need be sought. The depressed condition of the Hebrew Christians in general, the overbearing attitude of their countrymen, the imposing memories of the national religion, the long delay of Christ’s coming, and the imperfect understanding on the part of the Hebrews of the meaning of the Christian atonement--these were all constant forces which circumstances of no great importance in themselves might at any moment aggravate so as to render the situation perilous. On the other hand, the free views of this apostle are not views which he has been led now only to form, or which he expresses now for the first time. And yet in some sense he belonged to the community of the Hebrews, and they sympathised in general with his teaching. It is, therefore, not impossible that in the passage Hebrews 13:7-10, so important and yet so difficult to estimate, we have a hint of the occasion that called forth the

Epistle, though everywhere else the immediate motive of it is kept in the background. Chap. 13. indicates throughout a certain strain in the relations of the Hebrews to their teachers and to the writer. And this may have been due to external influences (Hebrews 13:9). These influences, however, were but a single force among many, all bearing in the same direction; and this may account for the somewhat oblique manner in which they are referred to. Others have sought a more definite occasion in the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple. Though not actually engaged in the practice of the Temple worship, the Hebrews may still have regarded this as the bond of their national unity, and the symbol of their continued covenant relation to the God of their fathers, a relation within which their Christian faith itself was professed. The overthrow of the Temple services shattered this bond, and threatened to shake the foundations of their faith in general. And the object of the Epistle is supposed to be to meet this despair, by showing that this dissolution of the national service had been predicted and prepared for in the Old Testament, as history had now accomplished it, and that their Christian faith, instead of being involved in its fall, rose to its true place above its ruins. This view suits much that is said in the Epistle equally well with the other view, though it sets the whole in a different light, Any positive grounds for such a theory, however, are difficult to find. Such a despair ought to have seized all Hebrews alike, whether Christians or not; but there is no historical evidence of such a thing. The danger threatened in such a case would be utter irreligion, akin to heathenism. But the author, instead of warning his Hebrews against this, exhorts them to sever their connection wholly with their countrymen still adhering to the ancient faith Hebrews 13:13). And such expressions as, “Fall away from the living Hebrews 3:12), “We have need again that some one teach you the rudiments of the oracles of God” (Hebrews 5:12), which have been appealed to as proof that the Hebrews were in danger of falling away from more than what was distinctively Christian, do not support such a conclusion. (A. B. Davidson, LL. D.)


Wherever the nature of the book is defined by early writers it is called an “Epistle.” The description is substantially correct, though the construction of the writing is irregular. It opens without any address or salutation (comp. 1 John 1:1), but it closes with salutations (Hebrews 13:24 f). There are indeed personal references throughout, and in the course of the book there is a gradual transition from the form of an “essay” to that of a “letter”: Hebrews 2:1; Hebrews 3:1; Hebrews 3:12; Hebrews 4:1; Hebrews 4:14; Hebrews 5:11; Hebrews 6:9; Hebrews 10:19; Hebrews 13:7; Hebrews 13:22 ff. The writer himself characterises, his composition, as λὸγος παρακλήσεως (Hebrews 13:22); and the verb which he used of his communication (ἐπέσειλα), while it does not necessarily describe a letter, yet presupposes a direct personal address. (Bp. Westcott.)

Originally, doubtless, it was not written as an actual Epistle, although in its present form such designation cannot be denied it. It divides itself, that is to say, into two easily distinguishable parts: a rhetorical essay on the theme of superiority of Christianity to Judaism, and an epistolary postscript, which has no further connection with the preceding, and perhaps was not in the original plan of the author. At every step a twofold parallel is drawn between the Old Covenant and the New: first with regard to their respective mediators, the angels and Moses on the one side, and the Son on the other; then with regard to their contents, promises, and results, wherein the unsatisfying, material, external, ever-repeated and ever ineffective character of the old temple, priest, and offering, is set in vivid contrast with the eternally enduring, valid, and efficacious one which the new revelation has brought to light. Impressive warnings are interspersed through the whole Epistle, and close it, showing that in this ease also the building up of the Church was the aim of the work, not the desire to make an exhibition of acuteness. The method of the book, when compared with that of the other apostolic books, is one peculiar to the author, although by no means invented by him. It is based essentially upon the allegorical-typical interpretation of the Old Testament. This had long been used in the philosophy of the Alexandrian Jewish schools. But since Christianity stood in much closer connection with the sacred writings of Israel than did the Greek philosophy, Christian writers may and must have early applied them with great felicity to the purposes of the gospel preaching. Only what had before been done rather occasionally and in single points appears here as the perfect model of the class, and at the same time as a successful attempt, by means of this particular way of looking at theological truth, to free the Jewish Christians from their confining attachment to their ancestral forms. There is, moreover, something very interesting in the peculiar form in which the fundamental ideas of this theology are expressed; hence it has in all ages called out a great number of imitators, most of them worthless. With great spiritual mastery the author raises his readers, bound down within the narrow limits of inherited Judaism, up to the free heights of the Pauline position, without causing them to recoil by too loud a shout of victory. Without giving countenance to any error, the well-known figures and familiar hopes are still found, and honour is still given to Moses in his house. The ancient period, with its memories and customs, is transformed into the living picture of a new age, revealed to faith; the Sabbath rest on this side the Jordan, never fully won, symbolises to the people of God the heights of a new mount of covenant, the Zion of the heavenly Jerusalem, where the High Priest is even now bringing an everlasting offering into the sanctuary. Perhaps at the very time when the master hand of the unknown author was delineating and adorning this new and imperishable sanctuary the thunder cloud was already gathering which was to lay the old earthly one upon Moriah in ashes. (Prof. Reuss.)


We are attracted and riveted by the majestic and sabbatic style of this Epistle. Nowhere in the New Testament writings do we meet language of such euphony and rhythm. A peculiar solemnity and anticipation of eternity breathe in these pages. The glow and flow of language, the stateliness and fulness of diction, are but an external manifestation of the marvellous depth and glory of spiritual truth, into which the apostolic author is eager to lead his brethren. The Epistle reminds us in this respect of the latter portion of the prophet Isaiah, in which, out of the abundance of an enraptured heart, flows such a mighty and beautiful stream of consoling revelations. In both Scriptures we behold the glory which dwelleth in Immanuel’s land; we breathe the Sabbatic air of Messiah’s perfect peace. Both possess the same massiveness; both describe things which are real and substantial, the beauty and strength of which is eternal; in both is the same intensity of love, and the same comprehensiveness of vision. In all his argument, in every doctrine, in every illustration, the central aim of the Epistle is kept prominent--the exhortation to steadfastness. Surrounded by temptations of a peculiarly sifting character, tested by persecution and reproach most fitted to shake their faith and their loyalty to the Messiah, rejected by the nation, the apostle speaks to them, in language of intense and piercing earnestness, of the fearful danger of apostasy, and points out to them that it was a mark of the true Israel, and a necessary sign of the follower of Jesus, to be despised and persecuted. It is worthy of notice and thought, that when the Hebrews were in such a dangerous condition of mind, the method which he adopts in his Epistle is to enter into the depth of Christian truth, to unfold before them all the glory of the eternal High Priest and the heavenly sanctuary, to leave behind the elementary doctrine, and to launch forth into the deep ocean of New Testament mysteries. As in the Epistle which the exalted Saviour sends unto the Church of Laodicea, there is the most glorious description of the person of Jesus, and of His overflowing and tender love, as in all His seven Epistles the self-revelation of Jesus is the basis and source of exhortation, thus in every age of the Church the renewal of strength, the rekindling of love, the deliverance from languor and inertness, bordering on death and destruction, can only proceed from a fuller and deeper knowledge of the Lord and His truth, from a renewed beholding of His countenance and of His glory. When the love of the majority shall wax cold, when iniquity shall abound, and the last struggle prepare, then let the Church go on unto perfection, and behold with open face the glory of Christ; and, gazing on His brightness, she will be strong and courageous, and remain steadfast unto the end. (A. Saphir,)

No other book of the New Testament is distinguished by such brilliant eloquence and euphonious rhythm; and this rhetorical form is not superinduced on the subject, but is its true expression, as setting forth the special glories of the new covenant and of a new and Christ-transfigured world. Old and New Testaments are set the one over against the other, the moonlight of the Old Testament paling once and again before the sunrise of the New Testament, and the heavenly prospect thus illumined. The language is more oratorical than dialectic, not so excited and lively as in the Epistle to the Galatians, not pressing forward with such quick triumphant step as in the Epistle to the Romans, not so unrestrained and superabundant as in that to the Ephesians, but characterised throughout by conscious repose, dignified solemnity, and majestic quietude. (F. Delitzsch, D. D.)


1. The earliest direct notice of the Epistle, quoted by Eusebius from Clement of Alexandria, states that it was written (by Paul) to Hebrews in the Hebrew (Aramaic) language, and translated (into Greek) by Luke. This statement was repeated from Eusebius (and Jerome who depended on him), as it appears, and not from Clement himself, by a series of later writers, but there is not the least trace of any independent evidence in favour of the tradition, nor is it said that any one had ever seen the original Hebrew document.

2. Internal evidence appears to establish absolutely beyond question that the Greek text is original, and not a translation from any form of Aramaic.

The vocabulary, the style, the rhetorical characteristics of the work all lead to the same conclusion.

3. A still more decisive proof that the Greek text is original lies in the fact that the quotations from the Old Testament (except Hebrews 10:30; Deuteronomy 32:35), taken from the LXX., even when the LXX. differs from the Hebrew (e.g., Hebrews 2:7; Hebrews 10:38; Hebrews 12:5 f.)

. And arguments are based on peculiarities of the LXX., so that the quotations cannot have been first introduced in the translation from Aramaic to Greek Hebrews 10:5; Hebrews 12:26 f.).

4. It may also be added that the passages in which difficulties in the Greek text are supposed to be removed by the hypothesis of a false rendering of the original offer no solid support to the theory. Scholars who allege them show little agreement as to the difficulties or as to the solutions of them. (Bp. Westcott.)


It deals in a peculiar degree with the thoughts and trials of our own time. The situation of Jewish converts on the eve of the destruction of Jerusalem was necessarily marked by the sorest distress. They had looked with unhesitating confidence for the redemption of Israel and for the restoration of the kingdom to the people of God; and in proportion as their hope had been bright, their disappointment was overwhelming when these expectations, as they had fashioned them, were finally dispelled. They were deprived of the consolations of their ancestral, ritual; they were excluded from the fellowship of their countrymen; the letter of Scripture had failed them; the Christ remained outwardly unvindicated from the judgment of high priests and scribes; and a storm was gathering round the Holy City, which to calm eyes boded utter destruction without any prospect of relief. The writer of the Epistle enters with the tenderest sympathy into every cause of the grief and dejection which troubled his countrymen, and transfigures each sorrow into an occasion for a larger hope through a new revelation of the glory of Christ. So it will be still, I cannot doubt, in this day of our own visitation if we look, as he directs us, to the ascended Lord. The difficulties which come to us through physical facts and theories, through criticism, through wider views of human history, correspond with those which came to Jewish Christians at the close of the apostolic age, and they will find their solution also in fuller views of the person and work of Christ. The promise of the Lord awaits fulfilment in this present day, as it found fulfilment for them: “In your patience ye shall win your souls.” (Bp. Westcott.)


The direct references in the Epistle to the facts of the gospel history are not very numerous, but it can be seen that the record, such as it has been handed down to us in the (Synoptic) Gospels, was constantly present to the mind of the writers. The Incarnation, as described in the Synoptic Gospels, and summarily presented by St. John, is implied in 2:14 compared with 1:2, 5; and it is definitely said that the Lord sprang “ out of the tribe Judah.” Nothing is said in detail of the Lord’s life of silent preparation. On the other hand, the general account of the completeness of His experience, as corresponding to that of man “in all things, sin apart” (Hebrews 4:15), necessarily involves the recognition of His perfect growth from stage to stage, and this truth of a complete human development is made clear by the conception of His τελείωσις (Hebrews 2:10). The Epistle contains no certain reference to the Baptism; but the form in which the quotation from Psalms 2:7 is given in 5:5 suggests the thought that the writer may have had in mind the Divine voice at that time. The emphatic assertion of the fact that the Lord was tempted and suffered (Hebrews 2:18; Hebrews 4:15) probably presupposes a knowledge of the critical Temptation before His public ministry. The proclamation of the gospel “ through the Lord in whom God spake” (Hebrews 1:2) is specially noticed (Hebrews 2:3), but nothing is said of His works. There can be no doubt that the description of the “prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears” Hebrews 5:7) includes a reference to the Agony, though it may point also to other moments of peculiar trial. The reality (Hebrews 2:14) and the voluntariness (Hebrews 9:14) of the Lord’s death are marked. He endured a Cross (Hebrews 12:2; comp. 6:6). He suffered “without the Hebrews 13:12; comp. John 19:17); and perhaps from among the details of the Passion there is an allusion to the rending of the veil of the Temple in Hebrews 10:20. Afterwards God “brought Him back from the dead” (Hebrews 13:20); and He has ascended Hebrews 6:20; comp. Hebrews 9:12; Hebrews 9:24), and passed through the heavens (Hebrews 4:14; comp. 6:20), and taken His seat on the right hand of God (Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 4:14; Hebrews 8:1; Hebrews 10:12); and now believers look for His Return (Hebrews 9:28; comp. Hebrews 1:6). The mention of “the Spirit of grace” after the “Blood of the Covenant” in Hebrews 10:29 may point to the gift at Pentecost. From first to last, through every vicissitude of life, the Lord remained absolutely faithful to God in the administration of the Divine economy (Hebrews 3:2 ff.) and sinless Hebrews 7:26). (Bp. Westcott.)

The works of the late Reverend C. H. Spurgeon are used in the preparation of this volume by permission of Messrs. Passmore and Alabaster.

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