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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Hebrews

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sometimes called Israelites, from their progenitor, Jacob, surnamed Israel, and in modern times Jews, as the descendants of Judah, the name of this leading tribe being given to all. See JEWS .

HEBREWS, EPISTLE TO THE. Though the genuineness of this epistle has been disputed both in ancient and modern times, its antiquity has never been questioned. It is generally allowed that there are references to it, although the author is not mentioned, in the remaining works of Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr; and that it contains, as was first noticed by Chrysostom and Theodoret, internal evidence of having been written before the destruction of Jerusalem, Hebrews 8:4; Hebrews 9:25; Hebrews 10:11; Hebrews 10:37; Hebrews 13:10 . The earliest writer now extant who quotes this epistle as the work of St. Paul is Clement of Alexandria, toward the end of the second century; but, as he ascribes it to St. Paul repeatedly and without hesitation, we may conclude that in his time no doubt had been entertained upon the subject, or, at least, that the common tradition of the church attributed it to St. Paul. Clement is followed by Origen, by Dionysius and Alexander, both bishops of Alexandria, by Ambrose, Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, Jerom, Chrysostom, and Cyril, all of whom consider this epistle as written by St. Paul; and it is also ascribed to him in the ancient Syriac version, supposed to have been made at the end of the first century. Eusebius says, "Of St. Paul there are fourteen epistles manifest and well known; but yet there are some who reject that to the Hebrews, urging for their opinion that it is contradicted by the church of the Romans, as not being St. Paul's." In Dr. Lardner we find the following remark: "It is evident that this epistle was generally received in ancient times by those Christians who used the Greek language, and lived in the eastern parts of the Roman empire." And in another place he says, "It was received as an epistle of St. Paul by many Latin writers in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries." The earlier Latin writers take no notice of this epistle, except Tertullian, who ascribes it to Barnabas. It appears, indeed, from the following expression of Jerom, that this epistle was not generally received as canonical Scripture by the Latin church in his time: "Licet eam Latina consuetudo inter canonicas Scripturas non recipiat." [Although the usage of the Latin church does not receive it among the canonical Scriptures.] The same thing is mentioned in other parts of his works. But many individuals of the Latin church acknowledged it to be written by St. Paul, as Jerom himself, Ambrose, Hilary, and Philaster; and the persons who doubted its genuineness were those the least likely to have been acquainted with the epistle at an early period, from the nature of its contents not being so interesting to the Latin churches, which consisted almost entirely of Gentile Christians, ignorant, probably, of the Mosaic law, and holding but little intercourse with Jews.

2. The moderns, who, upon grounds of internal evidence, contend against the genuineness of this epistle, rest principally upon the two following arguments, the omission of the writer's name, and the superior elegance of the style in which it is written. It is indeed certain that all the acknowledged epistles of St. Paul begin with a salutation in his own name, and that, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, there is nothing of that kind; but this omission can scarcely be considered as conclusive against positive testimony. St. Paul might have reasons for departing, upon this occasion, from his usual mode of salutation, which we at this distant period cannot discover. Some have imagined that he omitted his name, because he knew that it would not have much weight with the Hebrew Christians, to whom he was in general obnoxious, on account of his zeal in converting the Gentiles, and in maintaining that the observance of the Mosaic law was not essential to salvation: it is, however, clear, that the persons to whom this epistle was addressed knew from whom it came, as the writer refers to some acts of kindness which he had received from them, and also expresses a hope of seeing them soon, Hebrews 10:34; Hebrews 13:18-19; Hebrews 13:23 . As to the other argument, it must be owned that there does not appear to be such superiority in the style of this epistle, as should lead to the conclusion that it was not written by St. Paul. Those who have thought differently have mentioned Barnabas, St. Luke, and Clement as authors or translators of this epistle. The opinion of Jerom was, that the sentiments are the Apostle's, but the language and composition that of some one else, who committed to writing the Apostle's sense, and, as it were, reduced into commentaries the things spoken by his master. Dr. Lardner says, "My conjecture is, that St. Paul dictated the epistle in Hebrew, and another, who was a great master of the Greek language, immediately wrote down the Apostle's sentiments in his own elegant Greek; but who this assistant of the Apostle was, is altogether unknown." But surely the writings of St. Paul, like those of other authors, may not all have the same precise degree of merit: and if, upon a careful perusal and comparison, it should be thought that the Epistle to the Hebrews is written with greater elegance than the acknowledged compositions of this Apostle, it should also be remembered that the apparent design and contents of this epistle suggest the idea of more studied composition, and yet, that there is nothing in it which amounts to a marked difference of style: on the other hand, there is the same concise, abrupt, and elliptical mode of expression, and it contains many phrases and sentiments which are found in no part of Scripture, except in St. Paul's Epistles. We may farther observe, that the manner in which Timothy is mentioned in this epistle makes it probable that it was written by St. Paul. Compare Hebrews 13:23 , with 2 Corinthians 1:1 , and Colossians 1:1 . It was certainly written by a person who had suffered imprisonment in the cause of Christianity; and this is known to have been the case of St. Paul, but of no other person to whom this epistle has been attributed. Upon the whole, both the external and internal evidence appear to preponderate so greatly in favour of St. Paul's being the author of this epistle, that it cannot but be considered as written by that Apostle.

3. "They of Italy salute you," is the only expression in the epistle which can assist us in determining from whence it was written. The Greek words are, οι απο της ‘Ιταλιας , which should have been translated, "Those from Italy salute you;" and the only inference to be drawn from them seems to be, that St. Paul, when he wrote this epistle, was at a place where some Italian converts were. This inference is not incompatible with the common opinion, that this epistle was written from Rome, and therefore we consider it as written from that city. It is supposed to have been written toward the end of St. Paul's first imprisonment at Rome, or immediately after it, because the Apostle expresses an intention of visiting the Hebrews shortly; we therefore place the date of this epistle in the year 63.

4. Clement, of Alexandria, Eusebius, and Jerom, thought that this epistle was originally written in the Hebrew language; but all the other ancient fathers who have mentioned this subject speak of the Greek as the original work; and as no one pretends to have seen this epistle in Hebrew, as there are no internal marks of the Greek being a translation, and as we know that the Greek language was at this time very generally understood at Jerusalem, we may accede to the more common opinion, both among the ancients and moderns, and consider the present Greek as the original text. It is no small satisfaction to reflect, that those who have denied either the genuineness or the originality of this epistle have always supposed it to have been written or translated by some fellow labourer or assistant of St. Paul, and that almost every one admits that it carries with it the sanction and authority of the inspired Apostle.

5. There has been some little doubt concerning the persons to whom this epistle was addressed; but by far the most general and most probable opinion is, that it was written to those Christians of Judea who had been converted to the Gospel from Judaism. That it was written, notwithstanding its general title, to the Christians of one certain place or country, is evident from the following passages: "I beseech you the rather to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner," Hebrews 13:19 .

"Know ye that our brother Timothy is set at liberty, with whom, if he come shortly, I will see you," Hebrews 13:23 . And it appears from the following passage in the Acts, "When the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews," Acts 6:1 , that certain persons were at this time known at Jerusalem by the name of Hebrews. They seem to have been native Jews, inhabitants of Judea, the language of which country was Hebrew, and therefore they were called Hebrews, in contradistinction to those Jews who, residing commonly in other countries, although they occasionally came to Jerusalem, used the Greek language, and were therefore called Grecians.

6. The general design of this epistle was to confirm the Jewish Christians in the faith and practice of the Gospel, which they might be in danger of deserting, either through the persuasion or persecution of the unbelieving Jews, who were very numerous and powerful in Judea. We may naturally suppose, that the zealous adherents to the law would insist upon the majesty and glory which attended its first promulgation, upon the distinguished character of their legislator, Moses, and upon the divine authority of the ancient Scriptures; and they might likewise urge the humiliation and death of Christ as an argument against the truth of his religion. To obviate the impression which any reasoning of this sort might make upon the converts to Christianity, the writer of this epistle begins with declaring to the Hebrews, that the same God who had formerly, upon a variety of occasions, spoken to their fathers by means of his prophets, had now sent his only Son for the purpose of revealing his will; he then describes, in most sublime language, the dignity of the person of Christ, Hebrews 1; and thence refers the duty of obeying his commands, the divine authority of which was established by the performance of miracles, and by the gifts of the Holy Ghost; he points out the necessity of Christ's incarnation and passion, Hebrews 2; he shows the superiority of Christ to Moses, and warns the Hebrews against the sin of unbelief, Hebrews 3; he exhorts to steadfastness in the profession of the Gospel, and gives an animated description of Christ as our high priest, Hebrews 4-7; he shows that the Levitical priesthood and the old covenant were abolished by the priesthood of Christ, and by the new covenant, Hebrews 8; he points out the efficacy of the ceremonies and sacrifices of the law, and the sufficiency of the atonement made by the sacrifice of Christ, Hebrews 9, 10; he fully explains the nature, merit, and effects of faith, Hebrews 11; and in the last two chapters he gives a variety of exhortations and admonitions, all calculated to encourage the Hebrews to bear with patience and constancy any trials to which they might be exposed. He concludes with the valedictory benediction usual in St. Paul's Epistles: "Grace be with you all. Amen." The most important articles of our faith are explained, and the most material objections to the Gospel are answered with great force, in this celebrated epistle. The arguments used in it, as being addressed to persons who had been educated in the Jewish religion, are principally taken from the ancient Scriptures; and the connection between former revelations and the Gospel of Christ, is pointed out in the most perspicuous and satisfactory manner.

7. In addition, it may be observed, that Mr. Stuart, an American critic, has published an ample investigation of several of the points referred to in the above remarks, and the following are the results:—

(1.) As to the place in which the persons lived to whom the epistle is addressed, I have now examined all the objections against the opinion, that the Epistle to the Hebrews was directed to Palestine, which I have met with, and which seem to be of sufficient magnitude to deserve attention. I am unable to perceive that they are very weighty; and surely they come quite short of being conclusive. On the other hand, the positive proof, I acknowledge, is only of a circumstantial nature, and falls short of the weight which direct and unequivocal testimony in the epistle itself would possess. But uniting the whole of it together; considering the intimate knowledge of Jewish rites, the wrong attachment to their ritual, and the special danger of defection from Christianity in consequence of it, which the whole texture of the epistle necessarily supposes, and combining these things with the other circumstances above discussed, I cannot resist the impression, that the universal opinion of the ancient church respecting the persons to whom this epistle was addressed, was well founded, being built upon early tradition and the contents of the epistle; and that the doubts and difficulties thrown in the way by modern and recent critics, are not of sufficient importance to justify us in relinquishing the belief that Palestine Christians were addressed by the epistle to the Hebrews. Thousands of facts, pertaining to criticism and to history, are believed and treated as realities, which have less support than the opinion that has now been examined.

(2.) As to the author, we now come to the result of this investigation. In the Egyptian and eastern churches, there were, it is probable, at a pretty early period, some who had doubts whether St. Paul wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews; but no considerable person or party is definitely known to us, who entertained these doubts; and it is manifest, from Origen and Eusebius, that there was not, in that quarter, any important opposition to the general and constant tradition of the church, that Paul did write it. Not a single witness of any considerable respectability is named, who has given his voice, in this part of the church, for the negative of the question which we are considering. What Jerom avers, appears to be strictly true, namely, Ab ecclesiis orientis et ab omnibus retro ecclesiasticis Graeci sermonis scriptoribus, quasi Apostoli Pauli suscipi. In the western churches a diversity of opinion prevailed; although the actual quantity of negative testimony, that can be adduced, is not great. Yet the concessions of Jerom and Augustine leave no room to doubt the fact, that the predominant opinion of the western churches, in their times, was in the negative. In early times, we have seen that the case was different, when Clement of Rome wrote his epistle, and when the old Latin version was brought into circulation. What produced a change of opinion in the west we are left to conjecture. The scanty critical and literary records of those times afford us no means for tracing the history of it. But this is far from being a singular case. Many other changes in the opinions of the churches have taken place, which we are, for a similar reason, as little able to trace with any certainty or satisfaction. Storr has endeavoured to show, that Marcion occasioned this revolution, when he came from the east to Rome, and brought with him a collection of the sacred books, in which the Epistle to the Hebrews was omitted. But it is very improbable, that an extravagant man, excommunicated by the Roman church itself, should have produced such a revolution there in sentiment. Others have with more probability, attributed it to the zealous disputes at Rome against the Montanist party, whom the Epistle to the Hebrews was supposed particularly to favour. The Montanists strenuously opposed the reception again into the bosom of the church of those persons who had so lapsed as to make defection from the Christian faith. The passages in Hebrews 6:4-8; Hebrews 10:26-31 , at least seem strongly to favour the views which they maintained. The church at Rome carried the dispute against the Montanists very high; and Ernesti and many other critics have been led to believe, that the Epistle to the Hebrews was ultimately rejected by them, because the Montanists relied on it as their main support. As a matter of fact, this cannot be established by direct historical evidence. But, in the absence of all testimony in respect to this subject, it must be allowed as not improbable, that the Epistle to the Hebrews may have, in this way, become obnoxious to the Roman church. Many such instances might be produced from the history of the church. The Ebionites, the Manicheans, the Alogi, and many ancient and modern sects, have rejected some part of the canon of Scripture, because it stood opposed to their party views. The Apocalypse was rejected by many of the oriental churches, on account of their opposition to the Chiliasts, who made so much use of it. And who does not know, that Luther himself rejected the Epistle of James, because he viewed it as thwarting his favourite notions of justification; yea, that he went so far as to give it the appellation of epistola straminea! [an epistle of straw.] It cannot be at all strange, then, that the Romish church, exceedingly imbittered by the dispute with the Montanists, should have gradually come to call in question the apostolic origin of the epistle; because it was to their adversaries a favourite source of appeal, and because, unlike St. Paul's other epistles, it was anonymous. That all, even of the Montanists, however, admitted the apostolic origin of our epistle, does not seem to be true. Tertullian, who took a very active part in favour of this sect, had, as we have already seen, doubts of such an origin, or rather, he ascribed it to Barnabas. But whatever might have been the cause that the epistle in question was pretty generally rejected by the churches of the west, the fact that it was so cannot be reasonably disputed. A majority of these churches, from the latter half of the second century to the latter half of the fourth, seem to have been generally opposed to receiving this epistle as St. Paul's; although there were some among them who did receive it. It remains, then, to balance the testimony thus collected together and compared. The early testimony is, of course, immeasurably the most important. And there seems to me sufficient evidence, that this was as general and as uniform for the first century after the apostolic age as in respect to many other books of the New Testament; and more so, than in respect to several. I cannot hesitate to believe, that the weight of evidence from tradition is altogether preponderant in favour of the opinion, that St. Paul was the author of our epistle.

(3.) As to the language in which the epistle was originally written, there has been a difference of opinion among critics, both in ancient and modern times. Clement of Alexandria says that St. Paul wrote to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language, and that St. Luke carefully translated it into Greek. Eusebius in the same manner says, that Paul wrote to the Hebrews in his vernacular language, and that, according to report, either Luke or Clement translated it. So Jerom, also, scripserat ut Hebraeus Hebraeis Hebraice; [as a Hebrew he had written to the Hebrews in Hebrew;] and then he adds that this epistle was translated into Greek, so that the colouring of the style was made diverse, in this way, from that of St. Paul's. Of the same opinion, in respect to this, was Clement, of Alexandria; and Origen, as we have seen above, supposes that the thoughts contained in the epistle were St. Paul's, while the diction or costume of it must be attributed to the person who wrote down the sentiments of the Apostle. By the Hebrew language, no one can reasonably doubt, that these fathers meant the Jerusalem dialect, which was spoken in the days of the Apostles, and not the ancient Hebrew, which had long ceased to be a vernacular language. It is quite plain also, that these fathers were led to the conclusion, that the Epistle to the Hebrews was originally written in the dialect of Palestine, from their belief, so universal in ancient times, of its having been addressed to some church, or to the churches, in that country. It was very natural to draw such a conclusion; for would not an epistle addressed to Hebrews in all probability be more acceptable, if written in their own vernacular language? Moreover, St. Paul was well acquainted with that language, for he was brought up at Jerusalem, and "at the feet of Gamaliel;" and when he had visited that city, he had addressed the Jewish multitude, who were excited against him, in their native tongue, Acts 22:1-2 . Why should it not be supposed, that if, as is probable, this epistle was originally directed to Palestine, it was written in the dialect of that country? So the fathers above quoted evidently thought and reasoned; although other fathers have said nothing on this point, and do not appear to have coincided in opinion with those to whom I have just referred. Among the moderns, also, several critics have undertaken to defend the same opinion; and particularly Michaelis, who has discussed the subject quite at length, in his introduction to this epistle. I do not think it necessary minutely to examine his arguments. To my own mind they appear altogether unsatisfactory. Some of them are built on an exegesis most palpably erroneous, and which, if admitted, would deduce a very strange meaning from the words of the epistle. Yet, assuming such a meaning, he thence concludes, that the original writer must have expressed a different idea, and that the translator mistook his meaning. He then undertakes to conjecture what the original Hebrew must have been. In other cases, he deduces his arguments from considerations wholly a priori; as if these were admissible in a question of mere fact. He has not adduced a single instance of what he calls wrong translation, which wears the appearance of any considerable probability. On the other hand, Bolton, a sharp-sighted critic, and well acquainted with the Aramean language, who has gone through with the New Testament, and found almost every where marks, as he thinks, of translation from Aramean documents, confesses, that, in respect to this epistle, he finds not a single vestige of incorrect translation from an Aramean original, and no marks that there ever was such an original. This testimony is of considerable importance in respect to the question before us, as it comes from a critic who spent many years on the study of that which is most intimately connected with the very subject under consideration, namely, the detection of the Aramean originals of the various parts of the New Testament.

(4.) The principal arguments in favour of a Hebrew original are deduced from two sources: That Hebrews are addressed in our epistle, to whom the Hebrew language would have been more acceptable and intelligible, and many of whom, indeed, could not understand Greek, certainly could not read it: That the diversity of style in the Epistle to the Hebrews is so great, when compared to that of St. Paul's epistles, that, unless we suppose the Greek costume did in fact come from another hand, we must be led to the conclusion that St. Paul did not write it. Both of these topics have been already discussed. I merely add here, therefore, that in case the writer of the epistle designed it should have a wide circulation among the Jews, to write in Greek was altogether the most feasible method of accomplishing this. Beside, if St. Paul did address it to the church at Caesarea, it is altogether probable that he wrote in Greek, as Greek was the principal language of that city. Even if he did not, it was not necessary that he should write in Hebrew; for in every considerable place in Palestine, there were more or less who understood the Greek language. Whoever wishes to see this last position established beyond any reasonable doubt, may read Hug's "Introduction to the New Testament," vol. ii, pp. 32-50. When St. Paul wrote to the Romans, he did not write in Latin; yet there was no difficulty in making his epistle understood, for the knowledge of Greek was very common in Rome. If St. Paul understood the Latin language, which is no where affirmed, and he had not resided, when he wrote this epistle, in any of the countries where it was commonly used, still he understood Greek so much better that he would of course prefer writing in it. For a similar reason, if no other could he given, one may regard it as more probable, that he would write the Epistle to the Hebrews in the Greek language. At the time of writing it, he had been abroad twenty-five years at least, in Greek countries, and had been in Palestine, during all that period, only a few days. The Jews abroad, whom he every where saw, spoke Greek, not Hebrew. In Greek he preached and conversed. Is it any wonder, then, that, after twenty-five years' incessant labour or preaching, conversing, and writing, in this language, he should have preferred writing in it? Indeed, can it be probable, that, under circumstances like these, he still possessed an equal facility of writing in his native dialect of Palestine? I cannot think it strange, therefore, that although the Epistle to the Hebrews was in all probability directed to some part of Palestine, yet it was written by St. Paul in Greek, and not in Hebrew. But, whatever may be the estimation put upon arguments of this nature, there are internal marks of its having been originally composed in Greek, which cannot well be overlooked.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Hebrews'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/h/hebrews.html. 1831-2.

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