Good Jews belong in church. That’s the letter of Hebrews in a sentence.
Scholars can only guess
- who wrote this elegant letter,
- when they wrote it,
- and to whom they wrote it.
But why was it written? That’s easy enough, most scholars seem to agree.
Jewish Christians somewhere in the Mediterranean world were apparently leaving the church and returning to the synagogue. They were trading in Christianity for the Jewish faith.
Christianity wasn’t safe. Judaism was, since it was protected under Roman law.
Jewish Christians were under attack. They were persecuted as blasphemers and heretics by their fellow Jews. They were arrested by Romans as troublemakers whose oddball religion sparked riots. Romans started executing Christians after Emperor Nero blamed them for burning most of Rome in AD 64.
Jewish Christians were feeling the heat. They “weathered a terrible storm of hardship and suffering” (10:32). Apparently, some had already left the church and others were considering it.
It’s too late, the Hebrews writer says. The Jewish religion as it existed before Jesus is gone—replaced, as God said it would be.
Half a millennium earlier, God had promised to replace the contract agreement he made with the Jewish people—an ancient contract was based on laws they were to obey.
“This is the agreement I’ll make with the people when the time comes.
I’m going to write my laws onto their hearts.
I’m going to embed them into their minds” (Hebrews 10:16).
There was nothing for Jewish Christians to go back to but the ruins of an obsolete faith.
The writer makes that point every which way to Sunday. Some of his arguments relentlessly beat that nail like a hammer. He does that when he works his way through the human history to show that what God really wants from people is faith, not the animal sacrifices that Jews offer.
Some of his arguments would make no sense to many folks today. The weirdest shows up when he says Levi (father of the tribe that produced Israel’s priests) gave a tithe to the mysterious king and priest known as Melchizedek. It was Abraham who gave the tithe, but the writer says Levi was there, too: “After all, Levi was in his father’s body at the time, though unborn” (Hebrews 7:10).
Well, that’s a stretch. Abraham was Levi’s great-grandfather. Levi wouldn’t become a swimmer in his father’s pool for quite some time. Decades at least.
Creative interpretations of the Bible were welcome in early centuries of Christianity and in Judaism at the time. Often, symbolic approaches like this were valued above the more obvious and literal understanding.
Sometimes, the writer of Hebrews plays the good cop. “Let’s think about how we can encourage each other to be loving and to do kind things for others” (Hebrews 10:24).
Sometimes, the bad cop. “You don’t seem to pay attention. You’re catching on at the pace of a slug… Doggone if you aren’t spiritual babies who still need to suck milk” (Hebrews 5:11-12).
The Hebrews writer attacked the problem from a dizzying array of angles, apparently hoping that if one argument didn’t strike the heart of a backsliding believer, another angle would.
Paul gets most votes as writer. But there’s a good argument against that theory. Paul’s ministry began with a vision of Jesus, which he considered direct contact with Christ. He identified himself an apostle, one of the people with first-hand knowledge of Jesus. He would not likely have written the following, some scholars say: “Our Lord himself taught us about salvation. We got first-hand confirmation from people who heard what he said” (2:3).
Apollos gets some votes because some scholars say the writing reflects a style used in his part of the world, Alexandria, Egypt. Also, he was a great speaker: “He knew his stuff when it came to the Jewish Scripture. When he talked, people listened because he had a wonderful way with words” (Acts 18:24).
Other contenders: Luke, Barnabas, Priscilla, Silas, Epaphras, Jude, and more.
Uncertain. Timothy was still alive and newly released from prison (13:23). So, that probably keeps us in the first century.
It’s likely written before AD 70, when Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. The writer probably would have used the Temple’s destruction to defend his argument that the time for animal sacrifices was over. Jews could sacrifice animals only at the Temple. So, the sacrificial system ended when the Temple fell because the Temple has never been rebuilt.
The writer may have written before Emperor Nero blamed Christians for the AD 64 fire that burned most of Rome. That’s when he targeted Christians for execution in the arena, as entertainment. The Hebrews writer says the readers had suffered, “but it didn’t kill you” (12:4).
Uncertain. The writer may have written from Rome, since he says, “our friend Timothy has been released” (13:23) and “Believers here in Italy send their greetings to you” (13:24). But the reference to Italy is waffling. It’s literally, “those from Italy send greetings.” The writer could be sending greetings abroad, from Italy. Or the writer could be sending greetings from Italy natives abroad to the folks back home in Italy. From people in Italy or to people in Italy, that’s the question. Flip a denarius.
Destination of letter
The writer addresses Jews who were followers of Jesus as Messiah. The name of the letter is a giveaway. “Hebrews” is the ancient name for the people whose descendants became known as Jews. Historians say that name became part of the letter by the end of the AD 100s, if not earlier.
It’s unknown were the Jewish readers lived. If they didn’t live in Italy, it’s anyone’s guess where the readers were. By the AD 60s, churches were popping up throughout the Mediterranean world, from North Africa to Turkey, Greece, and Italy.