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The Letter to the Hebrews

The letter to the Hebrews appears in the New Testament after the thirteen Pauline letters and before the seven catholic letters. Early tradition, in the main, attributed this text to Paul, but the western Church did not accept its Pauline authorship until the fourth century; and even in the east some (including Clement of Alexandria and Origen) had reservations about whether its literary style coincided with Paul’s.

Internal examination of the text does show that it is in many ways different from the rest of Paul’s writings. For example, it is more elegant, more eloquent, it does not carry the usual greeting and introduction, and it does not quote Scripture in the way Paul does. Its doctrine is Pauline but the way it is expounded makes it difficult to attribute its direct authorship to Paul. The letter’s canonicity is not in doubt; it was included in the canon by the Council of Trent (8 April 1546) among the other writings of Paul, although the Council chose not to state categorically that it was written by Paul.

The Pontifical Biblical Communion, in a decree issued on April 24, 1914, reaffirmed its canonicity. It answered the question, “Has the apostle Paul to be regarded as the author of this letter in the sense that not only must one hold that he conceived it and expressed it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but that he gave it the form in which it has come down to us?” Its reply was, “No, not unless the Church decides so in the future.” This is probably why there is no direct reference to Paul as author of this letter in recent liturgical books. However, Paul can be regarded as the indirect author of Hebrews. Researchers are free to explore this matter.

Some scholars think it may have been written by Barnabas or Silas, disciples of Paul; others suggest Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew noted for his eloquence (ct. Acts 18 24:28), in view of the way it quotes the Old Testament and its beautiful style and language. In any event, this is a secondary question which has nothing to do with matters of faith.

We have no definite information about where and when Hebrews was written, or to whom it was addressed. Probably the author wrote it in Italy (cf. “Those who come from Italy send you greetings” – 13:24), although this could mean it was written in a place where Christians from Italy were living.

The date of composition can be deduced with a certain degree of probability from the reference it contains to the temple of Jerusalem and the worship offered there – implying that the temple is operational. Since it warns Christians against the temptation of returning to the ancient Levitical form of worship, it would seem to have been written before 70, the year the Temple was razed.

On the other hand, the letter is aware of Paul’s captivity letters, which it uses. Therefore, Hebrews must be later than the year 63, and very probably was written towards 67 in view of its urgent call for perfect faith, “all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (10:25).

It was obviously written to people whom the author knew to be steeped in the Old Testament, people who were in all probability converts from Judaism, and who may previously have even been priests or Levites. After becoming Christians, because of the difficult circumstances of the time, they had to abandon Jerusalem, the holy city, to seek refuge in some coastal city, possibly Caesarea or Antioch.

In their exile they look back with nostalgia on the splendor of the cult they played a part in prior to their conversion. They feel deceived and are tempted to give up their new faith, in which they are not yet well grounded. In addition to this they are discontented by the persecution they suffer because of their faith. Obviously, they are in need of help and in particular of clear doctrine to bolster their faith and enable them to cope with temptation to infidelity.

The basic teaching of Hebrews centers on showing the superiority of the Christian religion over Judaism. The argument develops in three stages:

1. Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, the King of the universe, “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature” (1:3) and is superior to the angels (1:4-2).

2. Christ is also superior to Moses, “as the builder of a house has more honor than the house” (3:3).

3. Moreover, Jesus, the Son of God, is the great high priest who has passed through the heavens (4:14); his priesthood is of the order of Melchizedek, superior to the priesthood of Aaron, from which the Levitical priesthood derived.

These Christological principles lead on to conclusions to do with the redemption, which stem from the Word’s taking on our human nature in order to save it. These conclusions are, in summary:

1. With Christ, and through the redemption he has brought, we are released from the slavery to the devil which sin and death imply.

2. What makes Christ’s death meritorious is his obedience (5:8; 10:9); through it those who were under the yoke of sin are redeemed (9:12, 15).

3. In other letters the emphasis was laid mainly on the power of Christ’s resurrection as the source of his glorification; here the stress is put on his entry into the heavenly sanctuary (9:11- 12), where he is seated at the right hand of God the Father. Christ’s sacrifice—which is a once-for-all sacrifice—is distinguished from the sacrifices offered by the priests of the Old Law, for which they entered the earthly sanctuary once every year.

4. Hence, when man approaches Christ in a spirit of faith, he is in fact approaching the mediator of the new Covenant. Through union with Christ the individual attains salvation or sanctification. He acquires grace which he should preserve, for it is the principle of life, the cause of the soul’s salvation and the ultimate goal of human existence.

Toward the end of the letter, the sacred author asks: How does man attain this principle of life? A person can become a friend of God, with the help of grace, only by the act of faith, for “without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (11:6). The Council of Trent in fact quotes this verse when it defines that “faith is the beginning of man’s salvation, it is the foundation and the root of all justification.” But theological faith is closely linked to hope. The letter says that ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ (11:1).

This text does not so much give a theological or essential definition of faith as a descriptive definition, which stresses one of the main effects of faith in the soul of the believer—the assurance, the guarantee, that one will attain what one hopes for. It does not explicitly say what the material object of faith is (the truths revealed by God) or the formal motive of the act of faith (the authority of God revealing).

The First Vatican Council defined the act of faith as “a supernatural virtue by which, with the inspiration and help of God’s grace, we believe that what he has revealed is true not because its intrinsic truth is seen by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God who reveals it, of God who can neither deceive nor be deceived” (De Fide Catholica [Denz. 1789]).

Final salvation, to which faith leads us, can only happen after death, when man sees God face to face, to the degree his charity allows—in other words, to the extent that he has put his faith into practice. This is indicated in chapter 11, which gives an impressive account of the saints of the Old Testament, who were men of heroic faith, confident of the day when the divine promises would be fulfilled.

Through the suffering, difficulties and obstacles they experienced in this life—and which they accepted with unshakeable faith—they eventually attained the reward which God had promised them.

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