Introduction to Hebrews

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Monday, May 31, 2021 1 comments

by Katie Erickson

Welcome to this journey through the book of Hebrews! With today’s blog post, I’m going to be introducing the book, and starting next week and for the next months (maybe a year?), we’ll be walking through this book, one passage at a time. It’s important to know the context for any Biblical book you want to study, so that’s what we’ll start with today.

So you may be wondering, why the book of Hebrews? Honestly, that’s a great question! Earlier this year, I was pondering and praying about what to write on, and God led me to two different topics: the Lord’s Prayer (which I just finished writing about), and the book of Hebrews. While I’ve studied pieces of the book of Hebrews before, including going through Logan Ames’ blog post series and subsequent book on Hebrews 11, I’ve never done a methodical study through the whole book. What better way to do that than to write about one passage per week?

The irony of the book’s name relating to my current status in life is also not lost on me. I’m currently in the Doctor of Ministry degree program at Winebrenner Theological Seminary, and my research focus is the Biblical Hebrew language. The running joke in the program is that when I introduce myself, all I need to say is, “I’m Katie and I love Hebrew!” So I do appreciate the irony of God bringing this book to me as something I should write on as I’m studying Hebrew, while the book of Hebrews was originally written in Greek.

The book of Hebrews is a fascinating one for multiple reasons, but primarily because it’s different from the rest of the books in the New Testament. The focus of this book is on Jesus as the great High Priest, which is a theme not really discussed in other books of the Bible. Hebrews is classified as an epistle (a letter), but we don’t know who wrote it, who it was written to, or even why it was written. For the purposes of easier pronouns, I’ll refer to the author as a “he,” even though we can’t necessarily rule out that the author was a woman.

Hebrews is considered a letter, even though it doesn’t have some of the characteristics typical of letters in the New Testament. There’s no initial greeting, there’s no clear expression of who the letter is addressed to, etc. So why is it still considered a letter? We see in Hebrews 5:12 that the audience is people who ought to be teachers. In Hebrews 13:18-23, we see that the writer knows his audience, he wants them to pray for him, he wants to visit them, and they have a mutual friend in Timothy. In Hebrews 6:9-10, he calls them “dear friends” and seems to know them and their work fairly well. All of this evidence indicates that the author is addressing a specific group known to him.

So, if we don’t know who wrote this letter, why do we call it “Hebrews”? The oldest manuscripts of it that we have give it a title of “To the Hebrews.” While scholars don’t know for sure that this is an original title, we don’t have any evidence to refute this one. If we assume that title is accurate, then it seems that this letter was written to Jews. But, were they Jewish Christians or Jewish non-Christians? Most scholars agree that the recipients were already believers in Jesus Christ, though some doubt whether there’s enough evidence for that assumption.

The biggest debate regarding the book of Hebrews is who wrote it. We know the author was an early Christian, because Hebrews is known to have been used by other early Christian writers. Clement of Alexandria (who lived from 150-215 AD) stated in a writing that Paul wrote this book in the Hebrew language and Luke translated it into Greek. It is believed that Hebrews was accepted into the New Testament initially because of its authorship by Paul. However, there’s not necessarily reliable evidence for it being written by Paul. While Paul was a prolific writer, both the style and the themes of Hebrews are different than Paul’s typical writings. Could that be because Paul wrote it in Hebrew and Luke translated it into Greek for him? The style of Greek doesn’t match up well to Luke’s writings either (the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts), and there are no references to Hebrews in either of Luke’s known writings.

There is no evidence within Hebrews that helps us determine its author. Hebrews 2:3b says, “This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.” This indicates that the author was a second generation Christian; not one of the original witnesses but close to them. The style of Hebrews is not like any other ancient document that scholars know about.

However, that lack of evidence has not stopped historians from guessing at the author. As previously mentioned, there are many who attribute it to Paul. Reformation theologian Martin Luther suggested that Apollos wrote it. We see in Acts 18:24 that Apollos had a great knowledge of the Scriptures, which clearly the author of Hebrews did as well. Apollos is definitely a possible author, but there is no conclusive evidence for that.

Adolf von Harnack, a 19th-20th century German Lutheran theologian, believed that Priscilla wrote the book of Hebrews. Priscilla is most often mentioned with her husband Aquila. In Acts 18:26, it is mentioned that the two of them instructed Apollos, so it is inferred that they would have been strong in their Christian faith. While we have no hard evidence that Priscilla (or Aquila, or both) wrote Hebrews, the fact that a woman was the author would have been good reason to keep the letter anonymous. It was a patriarchal society where men were dominant, and if a woman’s name were on it, it would have likely been considered less authoritative.

So while there are many theories, we must leave the author a mystery, knowing that God knows that person’s true identity. Knowing who is the author of a book (or a letter) is important so we can know the perspective and worldview they’re writing from. But not knowing the identity of the author of Hebrews doesn’t mean it’s not valuable to the Bible; it just means there’s a bit more mystery surrounding it.

Regardless of who the author and the audience were, I look forward to exploring this book over the next months, and I hope you will join me in this journey!

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Bill said...

Nice intro! Good explanation about the potential authors as well.