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Epistle to the Hebrews

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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One of the books of the New Testament. In the oldest MSS. it bears no other title than "To Hebrews." This brief heading embraces all that on which Christian tradition from the end of the 2nd century was unanimous; and it says no more than that the readers addressed were Christians of Jewish extraction. This would be no sufficient address for an epistolary writing (xiii. 22) directed to a definite circle of readers, to whose history repeated reference is made, and with whom the author had personal relations (xiii. 19, 23). Probably, then, the original and limited address, or rather salutation, was never copied when this treatise in letter form, like the epistle to the Romans, passed into the wider circulation which its contents merited. In any case the Roman Church, where the first traces of the epistle occur, about A.D. 96 (I Clement), had nothing to contribute to the question of authorship except the negative opinion that it was not by Paul (Euseb. Eccl. Hist. iii. 3): yet this central church was in constant connexion with provincial churches.

The earliest positive traditions belong to Alexandria and N. Africa. The Alexandrine tradition can be traced back as far as a teacher of Clement, presumably Pantaenus (Euseb. Eccl. Hist. vi. 14), who sought to explain why Paul did not name himself as usual at the head of the epistle. Clement himself, taking it for granted that an epistle to Hebrews must have beeen written in Hebrew, supposes that Luke translated it for the Greeks. Origen implies that "the men of old" regarded it as Paul's, and that some churches at least in his own day shared this opinion. But he feels that the language is un-Pauline, though the "admirable" thoughts are not second to those of Paul's unquestioned writings. Thus he is led to the view that the ideas were orally set forth by Paul, but that the language and composition were due to some one giving from memory a sort of free interpretation of his teacher's mind. According to some this disciple was Clement of Rome; others name Luke; but the truth, says Origen, is known to God alone (Euseb. vi. 25, cf. iii. 38). Still from the time of Origen the opinion that Paul wrote the epistle became prevalent in the East. The earliest African tradition, on the other hand, preserved by Tertullian l ( De pudicitia, c. 20), but certainly not invented by him, ascribed the epistle to Barnabas. Yet it was perhaps, like those named by Origen, only an inference from the epistle itself, as if a "word of exhortation" (xiii. 22) by the Son of Exhortation (Acts iv. 36; see Barnabas). On the whole, then, the earliest traditions in East and West alike agree in effect, viz. that our epistle was not by Paul, but by one of his associates.

This is also the twofold result reached by modern scholarship with growing clearness. The vacillation of tradition and the dissimilarity of the epistle from those of Paul were brought out with great force by Erasmus. Luther (who suggests Apollos) and Calvin (who thinks of Luke or Clement) followed with the decisive argument that Paul, who lays such stress on the fact that his gospel was not taught him by man (Gal. i.), could not have written Heb. ii. 3. Yet the wave of reaction which soon overwhelmed the freer tendencies of the first reformers, brought back the old view until the revival of biblical criticism more than a century ago. Since then the current of opinion has set irrevocably against any form of Pauline authorship. Its type of thought is quite unique. The Jewish Law is viewed not as a code of ethics or "works of righteousness," as by Paul, but as a system of religious rites (vii. i I) shadowing forth the way of access to God in worship, of which the Gospel reveals the archetypal realities (ix. I, 11, 15, 23 f., x. i ff., 19 ff.). The Old and the New Covenants are related to one another as imperfect (earthly) and perfect (heavenly) forms of the same method of salvation, each with its own type of sacrifice and priesthood. Thus the conception of Christ as High Priest emerges, for the first time, as a central point in the author's conception of Christianity. The Old Testament is cited after the Alexandrian version more exclusively than by Paul, even where the Hebrew is divergent. Nor is this accidental. There is every appearance that the author was a Hellenist who lacked knowledge of the Hebrew text, and derived his metaphysic and his allegorical method from the Alexandrian rather than the Palestinian schools. Yet the epistle has manifest Pauline affinities, and can hardly have originated beyond the Pauline circle, to which it is referred not only by the author's friendship with Timothy (xiii. 23), but by many echoes of the Pauline theology and even, it seems, of passages in Paul's epistles (see Holtzmann, Einleitung in des N.T., 1892, p. 298). These features early suggested Paul as the author of a book which stood in MSS. immediately after the epistles of that apostle, and contained nothing in its title to 1 Also in Codex Claromontanus, the Tractatus de libris (x.), Philastrius of Brescia ( c. A.D. 380), and a prologue to the Catholic Epistles ( Revue benedictine, xxiii. 82 ff.). It is defended in a monograph by H. H. B. Ayles (Cambridge, 1899).

distinguish it from the preceding books with like headings, "To the Romans," "To the Corinthians," and the like. A similar history attaches to the so-called Second Epistle of Clement (see Clementine Literature).

Everything turns, then, on internal criticism of the epistle, working on the distinctive features already noticed, together with such personal allusions as it affords. As to its first readers, with whom the author stood in close relations (xiii. 19, 23, cf. vi. io, x. 32-34), it used generally to be agreed that they were "Hebrews" or Christians of Jewish birth. But, for a generation or so, it has been denied that this can be inferred simply from the fact that the epistle approaches all Christian truth through Old Testament forms. This, it is said, was the common method of proof, since the Jewish scriptures were the Word of God to all Christians alike. Still it remains true that the exclusive use of the argument from Mosaism, as itself implying the Gospel of Jesus the Christ as final cause (Taos), does favour the view that the readers were of Jewish origin. Further there is no allusion to the incorporation of "strangers and foreigners" (Eph. ii. 19) with the people of God. Yet the readers are not to be sought in Jerusalem (see e.g. ii. 3), nor anywhere in Judaea proper. The whole Hellenistic culture of the epistle (let alone its language), and the personal references in it, notably that to Timothy in xiii. 23, are against any such view: while the doubly emphatic "all" in xiii. 24 suggests that those addressed were but part of a community composed of both Jews and Gentiles. Caesarea, indeed, as a city of mixed population and lying just outside Judaea proper - a place, moreover, where Timothy might have become known during Paul's two years' detention there - would satisfy many conditions of the problem. Yet these very conditions are no more than might exist among intensely Jewish members of the Dispersion, like "the Jews of Asia" (cf. Sir W.M. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches, 1 55 f.), whose zeal for the Temple and the Mosaic ritual customs led to Paul's arrest in Jerusalem (Acts xix. 27 f., cf. 20 f.), in keeping both with his former experiences at their hands and with his forebodings resulting therefrom (xx. 19, 22-24). Our "Hebrews" had obviously high regard for the ordinances of Temple worship. But this was the case with the dispersed Jews generally, who kept in touch with the Temple, and its intercessory worship for all Israel, in every possible way; in token of this they sent with great care their annual contribution to its services, the Temple tribute. This bond was doubtless preserved by Christian Hellenists, and must have tended to continue their reliance on the Temple services for the forgiveness of their recurring "sins of ignorance" - subsequent to the great initial Messianic forgiveness coming with faith in Jesus. Accordingly many of them, while placing their hope for the future upon Messiah and His eagerly expected return in power, might seek assurance of present forgiveness of daily offences and cleansing of conscience in the old mediatorial system. In particular the annual Day of Atonement would be relied on, and that in proportion as the expected Parousia. tarried, and the first enthusiasm of a faith that was largely eschatological died away, while ever-present temptation pressed the harder as disappointment and perplexity increased.

Such was the general situation of the readers of this epistle, men who rested partly on the Gospel and partly on Judaism. For lack of a true theory as to the relation between the two, they were now drifting away (ii. 1) from effective faith in the Gospel, as being mainly future in its application, while Judaism was a very present, concrete, and impressive system of religious aids - to which also their sacred scriptures gave constant witness. The points at which it chiefly touched them may be inferred from the author's counter-argument, with its emphasis in the spiritual ineffectiveness of the whole Temple-system, its highpriesthood and its supreme sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. With passionate earnestness he sets over against these his constructive theory as to the efficacy, the heavenly yet unseen reality, of the definitive "purification of sins" (i. 3) and perfected access to God's inmost presence, secured for Christians as such by Jesus the Son of God (x. 9-22), and traces their moral. feebleness and slackened zeal to want of progressive insight into the essential nature of the Gospel as a "new covenant," moving on a totally different plane of religious reality from the now antiquated covenant given by Moses (viii. 13).

The following plan of the epistle may help to make apparent the writer's theory of Christianity as distinct from Judaism, which is related to it as "shadow" to reality: Thesis: The finality of the form of religion mediated in God's Son, i. 1-4.

i. The supreme excellence of the Son's Person (i. 5-iii. 6), as compared with (a) angels, (b ) Moses.

Practical exhortation, iii. 7-iv. 13, leading up to: ii. The corresponding efficacy of the Son's High-priesthood (iv. 14-ix.).

(1) The Son has the qualifications of all priesthood, especially sympathy.

Exhortation, raising the reader's thought to the height of the topic reached (v. 11-vi. 20).

(2) The Son as absolute high priest, in an order transcending the Aaronic (vii.) and relative to a Tabernacle of ministry and a Covenant higher than the Mosaic in point of reality and finality (viii., ix.).

(3) His Sacrifice, then, is definitive in its effects (r67-EXE ,KE), and supersedes all others (x. 1-18).

iii. Appropriation of the benefits of the Son's high-priesthood, by steadfast faith, the paramount duty (x. 19-xii.). More personal epilogue (xiii.).

As lack of insight lay at the root of their troubles, it was not enough simply to enjoin the moral fidelity to conviction which is three parts of faith to the writer, who has but little sense of the mystical side of faith, so marked in Paul. There was need of a positive theory based on real insight, in order to inspire faith for more strenuous conflict with the influences tending to produce the apostasy from Christ, and so from "the living God," which already threatened some of them (iii. 12). Such "apostasy" was not a formal abjuring of Jesus as Messiah, but the subtler lapse involved in ceasing to rely on relation to Him for daily moral and religious needs, summed up in purity of conscience and peace before God (x. 19-23, xiii. 20 f.). This "falling aside" (vi. 5, cf. xii. 12 f.), rather than conscious "turning back," is what is implied in the repeated exhortations which show the intensely practical spirit of the whole argument. These exhortations are directed chiefly against the dullness of spirit which hinders progressive moral insight into the genius of the New Covenant (v. 11-v1.8), and which, in its blindness to the full work of Jesus, amounts to counting His blood as devoid of divine efficacy to consecrate the life (x. 26, 29), and so to a personal "crucifying anew" of the Son of God (vi. 6). The antidote to such "profane" negligence (ii. I, 3, xii. 12 f., 15-17) is an earnestness animated by a fully-assured hope, and sustained by a "faith" marked by patient waiting ( µaucpoeuµia ) for the inheritance guaranteed by divine promise (x. 11 f.). The outward expression of such a spirit is "bold confession," a glorying in that Hope, and mutual encouragement therein (iii. 6, 12 f.); while the sign of its decay is neglect to assemble together for mutual stimulus, as if it were not worth the odium and opposition from fellow Jews called forth by a marked Christian confession (x. 23-25, xii. 3) - a very different estimate of the new bond from that shown by readiness in days gone by to suffer for it (x. 32 ff.). Their special danger, then, the sin which deceived(iii. 13) the more easily that it represented the line of least resistance (perhaps the best paraphrase of Ev1rEpLrraTos apapria in xii. 1), was the exact opposite of "faith" as the author uses it, especially in the chapter devoted to its illustration by Old Testament examples. His readers needed most the moral heroism of fidelity to the Unseen, which made men "despise shame" due to aught that sinners in their unbelief might do to them (xii. 2-11, xiii. 5 f.) - and of which Jesus Himself was at once the example and the inspiration. To quicken this by awakening deeper insight into the real objects of "faith," as these bore on their actual life, he develops his high argument on the lines already indicated.

Their situation was so dangerous just because it combined inward debility and outward pressure, both tending to the same result, viz. practical disuse of the distinctively Christian means of grace, as compared with those recognized by Judaism, and such conformity to the latter as would make the reproach of the Cross to cease (xiii. 13, cf. xi. 26). This might, indeed, relieve the external strain of the contest (eycvv xii. I), which had become well-nigh intolerable to them. But the practical surrender of what was distinctive in their new faith meant a theoretic surrender of the value once placed on that element,when it was matter of a living religious experience far in advance of what Judaism had given them (vi. 4 ff., x. 26-29). This twofold infidelity, in thought and deed, God, the "living" God of progress from the "shadow" to the substance, would require at their hands (x. 30 f., xii. 22-29). For it meant turning away from an appeal that had been known as "heavenly," for something inferior and earthly (xii. 25); from a call sanctioned by the incomparable authority of Him in whom it had reached men, a greater than Moses and all media of the Old Covenant, even the Son of God. Thus the key of the whole exhortation is struck in the opening words, which contrast the piecemeal revelation "to the fathers" in the past, with the complete and final revelation to themselves in the last stage of the existing order of the world's history, in a Son of transcendent dignity (i. 1 ff., cf. ii. 1 ff., x. 28 f., xii. 18 ff.). This goes to the root of their difficulty, ambiguity as to the relation of the old and the new elements in Judaeo-Christian piety, so that there was constant danger of the old overshadowing the new, since national Judaism remained hostile. At a stroke the author separates the new from the old, as belonging to a new "covenant" or order of God's revealed will. It is a confusion, resulting in loss, not in gain, as regards spiritual power, to try to combine the two types of piety, as his readers were more and more apt to do. There is no use, religiously, in falling back upon the old forms, in order to avoid the social penalties of a sectarian position within Judaism, when the secret of religious "perfection" or maturity (vi. 1, cf. the frequent use of the kindred verb) lies elsewhere. Hence the moral of his whole argument as to the two covenants, though it is formulated only incidentally amid final detailed counsels (xiii. 13 f.) is to leave Judaism, and adopt a frankly Christian standing, on the same footing with their non-Jewish brethren in the local church. For this the time was now ripe; and in it lay the true path of safety - eternal safety as before God, whatever man might say or do (xiii. 5 f.).

The obscure section, xiii. 9 f., is to be taken as "only a symptom of the general retrogression of religious energy" (Jiilicher), and not as bearing directly on the main danger of these "Hebrews." The "foods" in question probably refer neither to temple sacrifices nor to the Levitical laws of clean and unclean foods, nor yet to ascetic scruples (as in Rom. xiv., Col. ii. 20 ff.), but rather to some form of the idea, found also among the Essenes, that food might so be partaken of as to have the value of a sacrifice (see verse 15 foil.) and thus ensure divine favour. Over against this view, which might well grow up among the Jews of the Dispersion as a sort of substitute for the possibility of offering sacrifices in the Temple - but which would be a lame addition to the Christianity of their own former leaders (xiii. 7 f.) - the author first points his readers to its refutation from experience, and then to the fact that the Christian's "altar" or sacrifice (i.e. the supreme sin-offering) is of the kind which the Law itself forbids to be associated with "eating." If Christians wish to offer any special sacrifice to God, let it be that of grateful praise or deeds of beneficence (r5 f.).

In trying further to define the readers addressed in the epistle, one must note the stress laid on suffering as part of the divinely appointed discipline of sonship (ii. 10, v. 8, xii. 7 f.), and the way in which the analogy in this respect between Jesus, as Messianic Son, and those united to Him by faith, is set in relief. He is not only the inspiring example for heroic faith in the face of opposition due to unbelievers (xii. 3 ff. ), but also the mediator qualified by his very experience of suffering to sympathize with His tried followers, and so to afford them moral aid (ii. 17 f., v. 8 f., cf. iv. 15). This means that suffering for Christianity, at least in respect of possessions (xiii. 5 f. cf., x. 34) and social standing, was imminent for those addressed: and it seems as if they were mostly men of wealth and position (xiii. 1-6, vi. 10 f., x. 34 ), who would feel this sort of trial acutely (cf. Jas. i. 10). Such men would also possess a superior mental culture (cf. v. i i f.), capable of appreciating the form of an epistle "far too learned for the average Christian" (Pincher), yet for which its author apologizes to them as inadequate (xiii. 22). It was now long since they themselves had suffered seriously for their faith (x. 32 f.); but others had recently been harassed even to the point of imprisonment (xiii. 3); and the writer's very impatience to hurry to their side implies that the crisis was both sudden and urgent. The finished form of the epistle's argument is sometimes urged to prove that it was not originally an epistle at all, written more or less on the spur of the moment, but a literary composition, half treatise and half homily, to which its author - as an afterthought - gave the suggestion of being a Pauline epistle by adding the personal matter in ch. xiii. (so W. Wrede, Das literarische Rdtsel des Hebreierbriefs, 1906, pp. 70-73). The latter part of this theory fails to explain why the Pauline origin was not made more obvious, e.g. in an opening address. But even the first part of it overlooks the probability that our author was here only fusing into a fresh form materials often used before in his oral ministry of Christian instruction.

Many attempts have been made to identify the home of the Hellenistic Christians addressed in this epistle. For Alexandria little can be urged save a certain strain of "Alexandrine" idealism and allegorism, mingling with the more Palestinian realism which marks the references to Christ's sufferings, as well as the eschatology, and recalling many a passage in Philo. But Alexandrinism was a mode of thought diffused throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, and the divergences from Philo's spirit are as notable as the affinities (cf. Milligan, ut infra, 203 ff.). For Rome there is more to be said, in view of the references to Timothy and to "them of Italy" (xiii. 23 f.); and the theory has found many supporters. It usually contemplates a special Jewish-Christian house-church (so Zahn), like those which Paul salutes at the end of Romans, e.g. that meeting in the house of Prisca and Aquila (xvi. 5); and Harnack has gone so far as to suggest that they, and especially Prisca, actually wrote our epistle. There is, however, really little that points to Rome in particular, and a good deal that points away from it. The words in xii. 4, "Not yet unto blood have ye resisted," would ill suit Rome after the Neronian "bath of blood" in A.D. 64 (as is usually held), save at a date too late to suit the reference to Timothy. Nor does early currency in Rome prove that the epistle was written to Rome, any more than do the words "they of Italy salute you." This clause must in fact be read in the light of the reference to Timothy, which suggests that he had been in prison in Rome and was about to return, possibly in the writer's company, to the region which was apparently the headquarters of both. Now this in Timothy's case, as far as we can trace his steps, was Ephesus; and it is natural to ask whether it will not suit all the conditions of the problem. It suits those of the readers, 1 as analysed above; and it has the merit of suggesting to us as author the very person of all those described in the New Testament who seems most capable of the task, Apollos, the learned Alexandrian (Acts xviii. 24 ff.), connected with Ephesus and with Paul and his circle (cf. 1 Cor. xvi. 12), yet having his own distinctive manner of presenting the Gospel (1 Cor. iv. 6). That Apollos visited Italy at any rate once during Paul's imprisonment in Rome is a reasonable inference from Titus iii. 13 (see Paul); and if so, it is quite natural that he should be there again about the time of Paul's martyrdom. With that event it is again natural to connect Timothy's imprisonment, his release from which our author records in closing; while the news of Jewish success in Paul's case would enhance any tendency among Asian Jewish Christians to shirk "boldness" of confession (x. 2 3, 35, 38 f.), in fear of i.e. a house-church of upper-class Jewish Christians, not fully in touch with the attitude even of their own past and present "leaders" (xiii. 7, 17), as distinct from the local church generally (xiii. 24). The Gospel had reached them, as also the writer himself (cf. Acts xviii. 25), through certain hearers of the Lord (ii. 3), not necessarily apostles.

further aggression from their compatriots. On the chronology adopted in the article Paul, this would yield as probable date for the epistle A.D. 61-62. The place of writing would be some spot in Italy ("they of Italy salute you") outside Rome, probably a port of embarkation for Asia, such as Brundisium.

Be this as it may, the epistle is of great historical importance, as reflecting a crisis inevitable in the development of the JewishChristian consciousness,when a definite choice between the old and the new form of Israel's religion had to be made, both for internal and external reasons. It seems to follow directly on the situation implied by the appeal of James to Israel in dispersion, in view of Messiah's winnowing-fan in their midst (i. 1-4, ii. 1-7, v. 1-6, and especially v. 7-11). It may well be the immediate antecedent of that revealed in i Peter, an epistle which perhaps shows traces of its influence (e.g. in i. 2, "sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ," cf. Heb. ix. 13 f., x. 22, xii. 24). It is also of high interest theologically, as exhibiting, along with affinities to several types of New Testament teaching (see STEPHEN), a type all its own, and one which has had much influence on later Christian thought (cf. Milligan, ut infra, ch. ix.). Indeed, it shares with Romans the right to be styled "the first treatise of Christian theology." Literature. - The older literature may be seen in the great work of F. Bleek, Der Brief an die Hebrder (1828-1840), still a valuable storehouse of material, while Bleek's later views are to be found in a posthumous work (Elberfeld, 1868); also in Franz Delitzsch's Commentary (Edinburgh, 1868). The more recent literature is given in G. Milligan, The Theology of the Epistle of the Hebrews (1899), a useful summary of all bearing on the epistle, and in the large New Testament Introductions and Biblical Theologies. See also Hastings's Dict. of the Bible, the Encycl. Biblica and T. Zahn's article in Hauck's Realencyklopeidie. (J. V. B.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Epistle to the Hebrews'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​e/epistle-to-the-hebrews.html. 1910.
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