Hebrews, EPISTLE to the.—This will be considered under eight headings: (I) Argument; (II) Doctrinal Contents; (III) Language and Style; (IV) Distinctive Characteristics; (V) Readers to Whom it was Addressed; (VI) Author; (VII) Circumstances of the Composition; (VIII) Importance.
ARGUMENT.—In the oldest Greek MSS. the Epistle to the Hebrews (pros Ebraious, ?ê, A, B) follows the other letters to the Churches and precedes the pastoral letters. In the later Greek codices, and in the Syriac and Latin codices as well, it holds the last place among the Epistles of St. Paul; this usage is also followed by the textus receptus, the modern Greek and Latin editions of the text, the Douay and Revised Versions, and the other modern translations.
Omitting the introduction with which the letters of St. Paul usually begin, the Epistle opens with the, solemn announcement of the superiority of the New Testament Revelation by the Son over Old Testament Revelation by the prophets (Heb., i, 1-4). It then proves and explains from the Scriptures the superiority of this New Covenant over the Old by the comparison of the Son with the angels as mediators of the Old Covenant (i, 5-ii, 18), with Moses and Josue as the founders of the Old Covenant (iii, 1-iv, 16), and, finally, by opposing the high-priesthood of Christ after the order of Melchisedech to the Levitical priesthood after the order of Aaron (v, 1-x, 18). Even in this mainly doctrinal part the dogmatic statements are repeatedly interrupted by practical exhortations. These are mostly admonitions to hold fast to the Christian Faith, and warnings against relapse into the Mosaic worship. In the second, chiefly hortatory, part of the Epistle, the exhortations to steadfastness in the Faith (x, 19-xii, 13), and to a Christian life according to the Faith (xii, 14-xiii, 17), are repeated in an elaborated form, and the Epistle closes with some personal remarks and the Apostolic salutation (xiii, 18-25).
DOCTRINAL CONTENTS.—The central thought of the entire Epistle is the doctrine of the Person of Christ and His Divine mediatorial office. In regard to the Person of the Savior the author expresses himself as clearly concerning the true Divine nature of Christ as concerning Christ’s human nature, and his Christology has been justly called Johannine. Christ, raised above Moses, above the angels, and above all created beings, is the brightness of the glory of the Father, the express image of His Divine nature, the eternal and unchangeable, true Son of God, Who upholdeth all things by the word of His power (i, 1-4). He desired, however, to take on a human nature and to become in all things like unto us human beings, sin alone excepted, in order to pay man’s debt of sin by His passion and death (ii, 9-18; iv, 15, etc.). By suffering death He gained for Himself the eternal glory which He now also enjoys in His most holy humanity on His throne at the right hand of the Father (i, 3; ii, 9; viii, 1; xii, 2, etc.). There He now exercises forever His priestly office of mediator as our Advocate with the Father (vii, 24 sq.).
This doctrine of the priestly office of Christ forms the chief subject-matter of the Christological argument and the highest proof of the pre-eminence of the New Covenant over the Old. The person of the High-priest after the order of Melchisedech, His sacrifice, and its effects are opposed, in an exhaustive comparison, to the Old Testament institutions. The Epistle lays special emphasis on the spiritual power and effectiveness of Christ’s sacrifice, which have brought to Israel, as to all mankind, atonement and salvation that are complete and sufficient for all time, and which have given to us a share in the eternal inheritance of the Messianic promises (i, 3; ix, 9-15, etc.). In the admonitory conclusions from these doctrines at the end we find a clear reference to the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Christian altar, of which those are not permitted to partake who still wish to serve the Tabernacle and to follow the Mosaic Law (xiii, 9 sq.).
In the Christological expositions of the letter other doctrines are treated more or less fully. Special emphasis is laid on the setting aside of the Old Covenant, its incompleteness and weakness, its typical and preparatory relation to the time of the Messianic salvation that is realized in the New Covenant (vii, 18 sq.; viii, 15; x, 1, etc.). In the same manner the letter refers at times to the four last things, the resurrection, the judgment, eternal punishment, and heavenly bliss (vi, 2, 7 sq.; ix, 27, etc.). If we compare the doctrinal content of this letter with that of the other epistles of St. Paul, a difference in the manner of treatment, it is true, is noticeable in some respects. At the same time, there appears a marked agreement in the views, even in regard to characteristic points of Pauline doctrine (cf. J. Belser, “Einleitung”, 2nd ed., 571-73). The explanation of the differences lies in the special character of the letter and in the circumstances of its composition.
LANGUAGE AND STYLE.—Even in the first centuries commentators noticed the striking purity of language and elegance of Greek style that characterized the Epistle to the Hebrews (Clement of Alexandria in Eusebius, “Hist. Eccl.”, VI, xiv, n. 2-4; Origen, ibid., VI, xxv, n. 11-14). This observation is confirmed by later authorities. In fact the author of the Epistle shows great familiarity with the rules of the Greek literary language of his age. Of all the New-Testament authors he has the best style. His writing may even be included among those examples of artistic Greek prose whose rhythm recalls the parallelism of Hebrew poetry (cf. Fr. Blass, “[Barnabas] Brief an die Hebraer”. Text with indications of the rhythm, Halle, 1903). As regards language, the letter is a treasure-house of expressions characteristic of the individuality of the writer. As many as 168 terms have been counted which appear in no other part of the New Testament, among them ten words found neither in Biblical nor classical Greek, and forty words also which are not found in the Septuagint. One noticeable peculiarity is the preference of the author for compound words (cf. E. Jacquier, “Histoire des livres du N. T.”, I, Paris, 1903, 457-71; Idem in Vig., “Dict. de la Bible“, III, 530-38). A comparison of the letter as regards language and style with the other writings of St. Paul confirms in general the opinion of Origen that every competent judge must recognize a great difference between them (in Eusebius, “Hist. Eccl.”, VI, xxv, n. 11).
DISTINCTIVE CHARACTERISTICS.—Among other peculiarities we should mention: (I) The absence of the customary form of the Pauline letters. The usual opening with the Apostolic greeting and blessing is entirely lacking; nor is there any clear evidence of the epistolary character of the writing until the brief conclusion is reached (xiii, 18-25). On this account some have preferred to regard the letter rather as a homily, but this is plainly incorrect. According to the statement of the author it is an admonition and exhortation (logos tes karakleseos, xiii, 22), which, above all, presupposes a well-defined situation of an actually existing individual Church.
(2) The method of citing from the Old Testament. The author in his instruction, demonstration, and exhortation draws largely from the copious treasures of the Old Testament. All the citations follow the text of the Septuagint even where this varies from the Masoretic text, unless the citation is freely rendered according to the sense and without verbal exactness (examples, i, 6; xii, 20; xiii, 5). In the other Pauline letters, it is true, quotations from the Old Testament generally follow the Greek translation even when the text varies, but the Apostle at times corrects the Septuagint by the Hebrew, and at other times, when the two do not agree, keeps closer to the Hebrew.
In regard to the formula with which the citations are introduced, it is worthy of note that the expression “It is written”, so commonly used in the New Testament, occurs only once in the Epistle to the Hebrews (x, 7). In this Epistle the words of Scripture are generally given as the utterance of God, at times also of Christ or the Holy Spirit.
READERS TO WHOM IT WAS ADDRESSED.—According to the superscription, the letter is addressed to “Hebrews”. The contents of the letter define more exactly this general designation. Not all Israelites are meant, but only those who have accepted the faith in Christ.
Furthermore, the letter could hardly have been addressed to all Jewish Christians in general. It presupposes a particular community, with which both the writer of the letter and his companion Timothy have had close relations (xiii, 18-24), which has preserved its faith in severe persecutions, and has distinguished itself by works of charity (x, 32-35), which is situated in a definite locality, whither the author hopes soon to come (xiii, 19, 23).
The place itself may also be inferred from the content with sufficient probability. For although many modern commentators incline either to Italy (on account of xiii, 24), or to Alexandria (on account of the reference to a letter of Paul to the Alexandrians in the Muratorian Canon and for other reasons), or leave the question undecided, yet the entire letter is best suited to the members of the Jewish Christian Church of Jerusalem. What is decisive above all for this question is the fact that the author presupposes in the readers not only an exact knowledge of the Levitical worship and all its peculiar customs, but, furthermore, regards the present observance of this worship as the special danger to the Christian faith of those addressed. His words (cf. particularly x, 1 sq.) may, if necessary, perhaps permit of another interpretation, but they indicate Jerusalem with the highest probability as the Church for which the letter is intended. There alone the Levitical worship was known to all by the daily offering of sacrifices and the great celebrations of the Day of Atonement and of other feast-days. There alone this worship was continuously maintained according to the ordinances of the Law until the destruction of the city in the year 70.
AUTHOR.—Even in the earliest centuries the question as to the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews was much discussed and was variously answered. The most important points to be considered in answering the inquiry are the following:
(I) External Evidence.—(a) In the East the writing was unanimously regarded as a letter of St. Paul. Eusebius gives the earliest testimonies of the Church of Alexandria in reporting the words of a “blessed presbyter” (Pantaenus?), as well as those of Clement and Origen (Hist. Eccl., VI, xiv, n. 2-4; xxv, n. 11-14). Clement explains the contrast in language and style by saying that the Epistle was written originally in Hebrew and was then translated by Luke into Greek. Origen, on the other hand, distinguishes between the thoughts of the letter and the grammatical form; the former, according to the testimony of “the ancients” (oi archaioi andres), is from St. Paul; the latter is the work of an unknown writer, Clement of Rome according to some, Luke, or another pupil of the Apostle, according to others. In like manner the letter was regarded as Pauline by the various Churches of the East: Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Cappadocia, Mesopotamia, etc. (cf. the different testimonies in B. F. Westcott, “The Epistle to the Hebrews”, London, 1906, pp. lxii—lxxii). It was not until after the appearance of Arius that the Pauline origin of the Epistle to the Hebrews was disputed by some Orientals and Greeks.
(b) In Western Europe the First Epistle of St. Clement to the Corinthians shows acquaintance with the text of the writing (chs. ix, xii, xvii, xxxvi, xlv), apparently also the “Pastor” of Hermas (Vis. II, iii, n. 2; Sim. I, i sq.). Hippolytus and Irenaeus also knew the letter but they do not seem to have regarded it as a work of the Apostle (Eusebius, “Hist. Eccl.”, xxvi; Photius, Cod. 121, 232; St. Jerome, “De viris ill.”, lix). Eusebius also mentions the Roman presbyter Caius as an advocate of the opinion that the Epistle to the Hebrews was not the writing of the Apostle, and he adds that some other Romans, up to his own day, were also of the same opinion (Hist. Eccl., VI, xx, n. 3). In fact the letter is not found in the Muratorian Canon; St. Cyprian also mentions only seven letters of St. Paul to the Churches (De exhort. mart., xi), and Tertullian calls Barnabas the author (De pudic., xx). Up to the fourth century the Pauline origin of the letter was regarded as doubtful by other Churches of Western Europe. As the reason for this Philastrius gives the misuse made of the letter by the Novatians (Haer., 89), and the doubts of the presbyter Caius seem likewise to have arisen from the attitude assumed towards the letter by the Montanists (Photius, Cod-48; F. Kaulen, “Einleitung in die Hl. Schrift Alten und Neuen Testaments”, 5th ed., Freiburg, 1905, III, 211).
After the fourth century these doubts as to the Apostolic origin of the Epistle to the Hebrews gradually became less marked in Western Europe. While the Council of Carthage of the year 397, in the wording of its decree, still made a distinction between Pauli Apostoli epistolae tredecim (thirteen epistles of Paul the Apostle) and eiusdem ad Hebraeos una (one of his to the Hebrews) (H. Denzinger, “Enchiridion”, 10th ed., Freiburg, 1908, n. 92, old n. 49), the Roman Synod of 382 under Pope Damasus enumerates without distinction epistolae Pauli numero quatuordecim (epistles of Paul fourteen in number), including in this number the Epistle to the Hebrews (Denzinger, 10th ed., n. 84). In this form also the conviction of the Church later found permanent expression. Cardinal Cajetan (1529) and Erasmus were the first to revive the old doubts, while at the same time Luther and the other Reformers denied the Pauline origin of the letter.
(2) Internal Evidences.—(a) The content of the letter bears plainly the stamp of genuine Pauline ideas. In this regard it suffices to refer to the statements above concerning the doctrinal contents of the Epistle (see II).
The language and style vary in many particulars from the grammatical form of the other letters of Paul, as is sufficiently shown above (see III).
The distinctive characteristics of the Epistle (IV) favor more the opinion that the form in which it is cast is not the work of the author of the other Apostolic letters.
(3) Most Probable Solution.—From what has been said it follows that the most probable solution of the question as to the author is that up to the present time the opinion of Origen has not been superseded by a better one. It is, consequently, necessary to accept that in the Epistle to the Hebrews the actual author is to be distinguished from the writer. No valid reason has been produced against Paul as the originator of the ideas and the entire contents of the letter; the belief of the early Church held throughout with entire correctness to this Apostolic origin of the Epistle.
The writer, the one to whom the letter owes its form, had apparently been a pupil of the Apostle. It is not possible now, however, to settle his personality on account of the lack of any definite tradition and of any decisive proof in the letter itself. Ancient and modern writers mention various pupils of the Apostle, especially Luke, Clement of Rome, Apollo, lately also Priscilla and Aquila.
VII. CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE COMPOSITION.—An examination both of the letter itself and of the earliest testimonies of tradition, in reference to the circumstances of its composition, leads to the following conclusions:
The date of its production should certainly be placed before the destruction of Jerusalem (70), and previous to the outbreak of the Jewish War (67), but after the death of James, Bishop of Jerusalem (62). According to ch. xiii, 19, 23, the Apostle was no longer a prisoner. The most probable date for its composition is, therefore, the second half of the year 63 or the beginning of 64, as Paul after his release from imprisonment probably soon undertook the missionary journey “as far as the boundaries of Western Europe” (St. Clement of Rome, “I Epistle to the Corinthians”, v, n. 7), that is to Spain.
The reason for its composition is probably to be found in the conditions existing in the Jewish Christian Church at Jerusalem. The faith of the Church might fall into great danger through continued persecution by the Jews, who had put James, the head of the community to a violent death. Precisely at this period the services in the temple were celebrated with great pomp, as under Albinus (62-64) the magnificent building was completed, while the Christian community had to struggle with extreme poverty. The national movement which began shortly before the outbreak of the last Jewish war would increase the danger. These circumstances might lead the Apostle to write the letter.
The Apostle himself declares the aim of his writing to be the consolation and encouragement of the faithful (xiii, 22). The argument and context of the letter show that Paul wished especially to exhort to steadfastness in the Christian Faith and to warn against the danger of apostasy to the Mosaic worship.
VIII. IMPORTANCE.—The chief importance of the Epistle is in its content of theological teaching. It is, in complete agreement with the other letters of St. Paul, a glorious testimony to the faith of the Apostolic time; above all it testifies to the true Divinity of Jesus Christ, to His heavenly priesthood, and the atoning power of His death.