Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 10 May 2015; Revised 8 May 2020
Sources: Bibliographic data for works cited may be found at the end of this article. Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from Messianic Jewish Family Bible: Tree of Life Version, © 2014 by Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic writings and message I use the terms Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah (Christ), Tanakh (Old Testament), and Besekh (New Testament) The abbreviation LXX stands for the Septuagint, the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, which was in use by Jews by the mid-2nd century B.C.
Grammar: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Greek words is from F.W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (2009), and the meaning of Hebrew words is from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1981), abbreviated as "BDB." Parsing data for Greek words is taken from Anthony J. Fisher, Greek New Testament. See the Greek Guide for the meaning of grammar abbreviations and pronunciation of Greek words. The numbering system of the Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible is identified with "SH" (Strong's Hebrew number) and "SG" (Strong's Greek number). Strong's Online.
The title Pros Hebraios, "To the Hebrews" is found on the oldest MSS. Christian versions generally give the title simply as "HEBREWS." Messianic Jewish versions offer a different perspective. The Complete Jewish Bible has "To a Group of Messianic Jews: Hebrews." The Messianic Writings by Dan Gruber has "The Letter to the Hebrews." The Orthodox Jewish Bible has "Yehudim in Moshiach." The Tree of Life Version has simply "Hebrews."
The term Hebraios (SG-1445) means "Hebrew" or a "Hebrew-speaking Israelite." In the LXX Hebraios renders Heb. Ibri (SH-5680), Hebrew, which occurs as both an adjective and name of the people descended from Abraham through Jacob (Gen 14:13) and members of the covenant people (Ex 1:15-16, 19). While Ibri may have originally been used by non-Israelites to refer to "one from beyond" or "from beyond the Euphrates," Ibri became the name by which the covenant people descended from Abraham through Isaac and Jacob would be known. Moreover, the Creator God personally identified Himself with the covenant people by calling Himself "YHVH, God of the Hebrews" (Ex 3:18; 5:3; 7:6; 9:1, 13; 10:3).
Hebraios is the national name for Jews in contrast to ethnos for nations or Gentiles, and occurs as such in the Maccabean writings (2Macc 7:31; 11:13; 15:37; 4Macc 1:11; 5:2; 8:2; 9:6, 18), and frequently in the works of Philo, the Jewish philosopher, and Josephus, the Jewish historian (BAG). Hebraios occurs four times in the Besekh, first in Acts 6:1 to identify Hebrew-speaking Jewish believers in contrast to Greek-speaking Jewish believers, and then three times by the apostle Paul as a self-description (2Cor 11:22; Php 3:5). Paul's usage of the term illustrates its cultural significance among Jews in the first century. The use of Hebraios is appropriate to the universal appeal of the letter, as it avoids the rivalry of sectarian groups within first century Judaism.
The intended readers are descendants of the patriarchs (3:9), and Messianic Jews, since the recipients are addressed as "brothers" a few times (3:1, 12; 10:19; 13:22). The word "brothers," plural of Grk. adelphos, lit. "of the same womb," in secular Greek meant a male sibling, brother. In the apostolic writings adelphos generally refers to blood siblings or fellow Israelites who are of the same blood by virtue of descent from Jacob (e.g., Matt 4:18; 5:22-24; Mark 3:22; Acts 1:14; 3:22; 7:13). In the LXX adelphos is used for the Heb. ach, meaning (1) brother, a male sibling born of the same mother and father (Gen 4:2); also half-siblings (Gen 20:5).
The shared bond between the author and the readers is also evident in the address of "beloved" (6:9), the frequency of the first person plural pronoun hēmeis (1:2; 2:1, 3; 3:1, 6; 4:13, 15; 5:11; 6:20; 7:14, 26; 9:14, 24; 10:15, 20, 26, 39; 11:40; 12:1, 9, 25, 29; 13:6, 18, 20, 21, 23) and first person plural verbs in hortatory passages (2:1; 3:12; 4:1, 11, 14, 16; 5:11-12; 6:1; 10:22, 23, 24, 35; 12:1, 28; 13:13, 15).
Some commentators suggest the readers were second-generation believers based on 2:3, "how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him" (NIV). The plural pronoun "us" supposedly distinguishes the readers from eyewitnesses of Yeshua, which contradicts the assertion of 1:2, that God had spoken "to us" in the Son. Indeed, the readers had learned from the apostles (13:7), been followers of Yeshua for a considerable time (5:12; 6:10) and had suffered persecution in the past (10:34).
A more literal translation of 2:3 is: "how will we escape, having neglected such a great salvation? which, having received at the beginning, declared by the Lord, and confirmed to us by those having heard" (BR). This last clause of the verse alludes to the testimony of the apostles who proclaimed the good news of the Messiah on Pentecost to the Jewish residents in the land of Israel and the Jewish pilgrims from all over the Diaspora. Those who heard the apostles could be assured that their message accurately represented the person, ministry and teaching of Yeshua.
The location of the readers is left unstated, but the letter would naturally be distributed widely in the Diaspora and even into the land of Israel.
The letter does not give an author nor an amanuensis. The author is clearly a Jew considering the letter's detailed description of Judaism, references to the history of Israel, numerous quotations from the Tanakh and because the revelation of God was committed to the Jews (Rom 3:2). The use of the first person plural pronoun hēmeis by the writer provides hints about the man behind the letter:
● The Son has spoken to him (1:2).
● The writer drifted away from what he heard from the Son (2:1).
● The writer received confirmation from the chief apostles of Yeshua (2:3).
● The writer is aware of his accountability to the Lord (4:13).
● The writer has much to say about the high priesthood of Yeshua, but it is hard to explain due to the spiritual condition of the readers (5:11; cf. 1Pet 3:15-16).
● The writer received revelation from the Holy Spirit (10:15).
● The writer is not of those who shrink back to destruction; his loyalty to Yeshua is rock solid (10:39).
● The writer had an earthly father who disciplined him (12:9).
● The writer is confident that the Lord is his helper and there is nothing man can do to separate him from his Savior (13:6).
● The writer has a good conscience and desires to conduct himself honorably in all things (13:18).
● The writer identifies Timothy as a "brother," which in its root meaning denotes being of the same ethnic people (13:23).
The earliest statement on authorship of the letter came from Clement of Alexandria (200 A.D.) who said that Paul wrote in Hebrew and Luke translated into Greek. Eusebius provides the historical note.
"He says that the Epistle to the Hebrews is the work of Paul, and that it was written to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language; but that Luke translated it carefully and published it for the Greeks ["Hellenists" = "Hellenistic Jews"], and hence the same style of expression is found in this epistle and in the Acts." Eusebius, Church History, VI, 14:2.
Another early witness of the same time as Clement, the papyrus text called p46, dated about AD 200 (GNT xii), also credited the book to Paul (Kaiser 357). Tertullian (AD 220) suggested Barnabas as the author (On Modesty, Chapter 20). Origen (AD 280) admitted that the ancients affirmed Paul's authorship, yet he disagreed saying that the thought was of Paul, but written by another and named Luke as the likely author (Eusebius, Church History, Book VI, 25:14). Augustine (4th c.) named Paul as the author, but this was primarily for establishing canonicity for the New Testament (On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants, Book I, Chapter 50). No books could be considered canonical that were not written by apostles and if the "thought" of Hebrews could be said to be "of Paul" then it should be included among Paul's letters.
Nevertheless, authorship of Hebrews has been debated for centuries. Tertullian (220 A.D.) suggested Barnabas as the author. Origen (280 A.D.) said the thought was of Paul, but written by another. Other Fathers named Luke as the author. Augustine and Jerome (4th Cent.) named Paul as the author, but this was primarily for establishing canonicity for the New Testament. No books could be considered canonical that were not written by apostles and if the "thought" of Hebrews could be said to be "of Paul" then it should be included among Paul's letters.
Since the Protestant Reformation a variety of suggestions have been made as to authorship. Martin Luther nominated Apollos on the assumption that the Greek of the letter had Hellenistic overtones. Apollos, whom Paul commended (1Cor 3:5-6, 22; 4:6; 16:12), was born in Alexandria (Acts 18:24), so commentators automatically assume he was a Hellenistic Jew. However, Luke refers to him as a Ioudaios or Judean Jew. Modern Christian commentators have generally rejected Paul as the author and suggested other names, such as Luke, Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Silas, Philip, John Mark, and Priscilla (Fruchtenbaum 3). The suggestion of Priscilla is negated by the fact that in 11:32 the author uses a masculine participle to describe himself.
A number of reasons are offered for rejecting the testimony of the earliest witnesses affirming Paul's authorship. The Greek composition is much more polished than anything else Paul wrote. Of course, since Paul typically used a secretary to pen his letters, there is no way to actually determine his writing style. Second, there is no mention of the Temple and Jerusalem. And, for Christian scholarship there is no abandonment of the Law or Torah in Hebrews. Yet, these reasons are really subjective.
The passage 2:3 is thought to provide a clue, "It was first spoken through the Lord and confirmed to us by those who heard" (TLV). Most scholars believe "those who heard" to be an allusion to the Twelve and others who benefited from the personal ministry of Yeshua. This description is thought to exclude Paul, as if he was suddenly teleported from some far off land into Judea after the resurrection. Paul would later state that he had personal knowledge of Yeshua prior to the Damascus Road experience (2Cor 5:16). In reality the comment in 2:3 can serve as a neat summary of Paul's retrospective narrative in Galatians 1:152:9.
We might also consider that verse divisions were an arbitrary decision. In the Greek text "it was confirmed" immediately precedes the text of verse 4, so the verb could just as easily have begun verse 4 rather than being part of the thought of verse 3. In addition, verse 4 clarifies the intent of the verb "confirmed." In other words, the revelation was confirmed to the author "by signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Ruach ha-Kodesh" (TLV), as it had been to the Twelve.
Another self-reference that supposedly implies a second-generation disciple is in 4:2 as commonly translated "For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did" (NIV). However, the Greek text begins, "For indeed we are" with the present tense verb eimi, to be. The verb "proclaimed" is a perfect participle and most versions translate it as passive voice, but since there is no "to us" in the Greek text the verb could be middle voice "have been proclaiming." Thus, the point of the author is "We are now and have been proclaiming the Good News, even as they." The "they" is undefined but may be an allusion to other messengers, such as the Twelve.
Still another matter that makes interpreters doubt Paul's authorship is in quoting a Tanakh passage in 2:6 and 4:4, the Greek adverb pou is used, translated "somewhere." This translation gives the impression that the author did not know where in the Bible the quoted verse, Psalm 8:4 in the former and Genesis 2:2 in the latter, came from. Of course, this doubt should extend to any of the proposed authors. Any Torah-observant Jew should know the location of these passages. The adverb pou simply means "in a certain place." It is not as ambiguous as the English translation of "somewhere." In 2:6 the quoted text occurs in Job 7:17, Psalm 8:4 and Psalm 144:3. In 4:4 the quoted text occurs in both Genesis 2:2 and 2:3, as well as Exodus 20:11 and 31:17. So, in a sense the two quotations conflate the multiple locations, and the use of pou is simply for the purpose of economizing words.
It's possible that a leaf identifying the author was lost, since 1:1 seems to be an abrupt beginning for a letter. The phrase "God after he spoke long ago to the fathers" in 1:1 would be a natural conclusion to a long historical narrative such as occurs in Stephen's speech (Acts 7:2-50) and Paul's sermon in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:17-25). Jewish argumentation relied on historical context. Since Paul was writing to Messianic Jews there would be no reason not to identify himself as in his other letters, thus the suggestion of a missing leaf has merit.
If someone else wrote the letter that person would have surely identified himself. The explanation of Clement of Alexandria is perfectly reasonable. In fact, there is nothing in the letter that could not have come from Paul the Pharisee with Luke as his amanuensis and translator. There are many words unique to Hebrews, but these do not preclude Paul's authorship, but rather reflect Luke's deft hand at translation. The avoidance of mentioning the Temple and Jerusalem directly would appeal to many Jews outside of Judea who regarded the Temple institution under control of the Sadducees as corrupt (which it was).
Stern points out that some Messianic Jewish scholars have accepted Paul as the author of Hebrews (661). The German Messianic Jew Dr. Joiachim Heinrich Biesenthal (18041886) wrote commentaries on the Gospels, Acts and Romans. In 1878 he published a commentary on this letter called Das Trostschreiben des Apostels Paulus an die Hebrδer, in which he expressed the view that Paul wrote it "in the dialect of the Mishnah, the language of the schools," i.e., Hebrew. The Messianic Jewish commentator Yechiel Lichtenstein agreed in his Commentary to the New Testament (Institutum Delitzschianum, Leipzig, Germany, 1904), saying that Paul's approach and subject matter in this letter differ from those in his other letters because they had a mixed audience and in this he was following his own advice in "becoming a Jew to the Jews" (1Cor 9:1922).
While commentators offer reasons why other notable persons wrote Hebrews, I believe the real reason for rejection of the earliest witnesses is simple. Pamela Eisenbaum, an unbelieving Jew who contributed the commentary on Hebrews in the Jewish Annotated New Testament, is unwilling to admit that an orthodox Jew wrote Hebrews because of its supposed "supersessionist" character (407). Eisenbaum's view is that the letter argues for the superiority of Yeshua over all else, the New Covenant has made the Old Covenant obsolete (8:13) and rendered the Mosaic Law as a shadow (10:1). Such language helped foster the view that Judaism is an inferior religion, only a temporary guide to the Messiah. Eisenbaum views the letter to the Hebrews as anti-Judaism, but this total misreading of Paul's work results from her prism of unbelief.
Christian scholars don't want Paul to be the author because it does not support the mythological paradigm of replacement theology. According to NIBD the purpose of the letter was to show that "Christianity is superior to Judaism" (469). The "anti-Judaism, anti-Law, St. Paul" would never write such a thoroughly Jewish letter to Messianic Jews to encourage them to maintain their Jewish faith. Stern has no aversion to Pauline authorship but other Messianic Jewish scholars, as Fruchtenbaum, Sacks and the editors of the Tree of Life Version (TLV), are more definite in leaving the matter unsettled. While the existing MSS of Hebrews may lack the name of the author I believe the preponderance of evidence supports Paul as author. For a biography of Paul see my article The Apostle from Tarsus.
Some specific correlations may be made in Hebrews with Paul's other writings. We may begin with the title, "To the Hebrews." After the introduction of the Greek word Hebraios (Hebraic Jew) in Acts 6:1 it is only used thereafter in connection with Paul (2Cor 11:22; Php 3:5). The related term Hebrais (Hebrew language) also appears only in connection with Paul (Acts 21:40; 22:2; 26:14).
Quotations by Paul
In general the prolific quotations and allusions to the Tanakh are typical of Paul's manner of argument. In addition, quotations from the Tanakh in Hebrews that appear elsewhere in the Besekh, with one exception, are made only by Paul:
· 1:5 and 5:5 the quote from Psalm 2:7 also appears in Paul's sermon in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:33).
· 1:6 the quote from Deuteronomy 32:43 occurs elsewhere only in Romans 15:10.
· 2:6-8 the quote from Psalm 8:4-6 appears elsewhere only in 1 Corinthians 15:27.
· 10:30 the quote from Deuteronomy 32:35 occurs also in Romans 12:19.
· 10:37-38 the quote from Habakkuk 2:3-4 is quoted elsewhere only in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11.
· 11:18 the quote from Genesis 21:12 appears elsewhere only in Romans 9:7.
Words and Phrases by Paul
A number of words and phrases point to Paul's authorship and Luke's translation, some of which occur elsewhere only in the writings of Paul.
· The Son being the "heir of all things" in 1:2 conveys the same thought at Romans 8:17.
· The unique word hupostasis ("nature," 1:3; 3:14; 11:1) occurs elsewhere only in 2Corinthians 9:4 and 11:17.
· The word diaphoros ("excellent," 1:4; 8:6; 9:10) occurs elsewhere only in Romans 12:6.
· The statement in 1:3 that the Son holds all things together echoes the same thought in Colossians 1:17.
· The noun peribolaion ("cloak") in 1:12 occurs elsewhere only in 1Corinthians 11:15.
· The word parakoē, "disobedience," in 2:2 occurs elsewhere only in Romans 5:19 and 2Corinthians 10:6.
· The adjective endikos, "righteous, just," in 2:2 occurs elsewhere only in Romans 3:8.
· The mention in 2:4 of the "distributions of the Holy Spirit according to His will" repeats the statement of 1Corinthians 11:11 that the Spirit distributes the gifts as He desires.
· The verb stephanoō ("crowned") in 2:7 and 2:9 occurs elsewhere only in 2Timothy 2:5.
· The idiomatic expression "under his feet" in 2:8 occurs elsewhere only in Paul's letters (1Cor 15:25, 27; Eph 1:22).
· The adjective anupotaktos ("not subject to rule") in 2:8 occurs elsewhere only in 1Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:6 and Titus 1:10.
· The phrase di hon ta panta ("because of whom all things") in 2:10 occurs elsewhere only in Philippians 3:8.
· The phrase di hou ta panta (through whom all things) in 2:10 occurs elsewhere only in 1Corinthians 8:6.
· The verb metechō ("to partake of, share in") in 2:14 (also 7:13) occurs elsewhere only in 1Corinthians 9:10, 12; 10:17, 21, 30.
· The Greek word order of "blood and flesh" in 2:14 occurs elsewhere only in Ephesians 6:12.
· The noun douleia ("bondage") in 2:15 occurs elsewhere only in Romans 8:15, 21; Galatians 4:24; and 5:1.
· The noun homologia ("agreement, confession") in 3:1 (also 4:14; 10:23) occurs outside of Hebrews only in 2Corinthians 9:13 and 1Timothy 6:12-13.
· The unique adjective dusermēneutos ("difficult to interpret, hard to be understood") is used in 5:11 to explain the writer's difficulty in describing the high priesthood of Yeshua. Peter uses a parallel unique adjective dusnoētos ("hard to understand") to say that Paul writes some things hard to understand (2Pet 3:16).
· The mention of "dead works" (6:1; 9:14) resonates with Paul's rejection of "legalistic works" as of any value in salvation or righteousness (Rom 3:20, 27-28; 4:2; 9:32; 11:6; 1Cor 9:20; Gal 2:16, 18; see these verses in Stern's Complete Jewish Bible).
· The Greek noun teleiōtēs (perfection, maturity) in 6:1 occurs elsewhere only in Colossians 3:14.
· The noun mesitēs ("mediator) in 8:6; 9:15 and 12:24, occurs elsewhere only in Galatians 3:19-10.
· The mention of the "New Covenant" (8:8; 9:15; 12:24) occurs elsewhere only in Luke's account of the last supper (Luke 22:20) and Paul's letters to Corinth (1Cor 11:25; 2Cor 3:6).
· The "first covenant" (8:13; 9:1, 15, 18) corresponds to the "old covenant," which is only mentioned in 2Corinthians 3:14.
· The statement in 11:12 that Abraham at age 100 was "as good as dead" is phrased exactly as it is in Romans 4:19.
· The "heavenly Jerusalem" in 12:22 corresponds to the "Jerusalem above" in Galatians 4:26. (The only other mention of a heavenly Jerusalem is in Revelation.)
· The instruction in 13:17 to obey congregational leaders is comparable to the instruction in 1Corinthians 16:16; 1Thessalonians 5:12-13 and 1Timothy 5:17.
· The exact phrase "our Lord Yeshua" (ton kurion hēmōn Iēsoun, 13:20) occurs elsewhere only in Paul's speech in Acts 20:21 and in Ephesians 6:24.
· The expression "word of exhortation" (logos paraklēsis, 13:22) is the same exact phrase used in Acts 13:15 when the synagogue leader in Pisidian Antioch asked Paul if he had a "word of exhortation" and Paul got up to proclaim his message of the Messiah. I can imagine the statement of 13:22 being spoken with a slight smile at the remembrance of that occasion.
· The expression "the God of peace" in 13:20 occurs elsewhere only in Paul's writings (Rom 15:33; 16:20; Php 4:9; 1Th 5:23).
· The mention of Timothy in 13:23 occurs elsewhere in the Besekh only in Luke's narrative of Paul's ministry (Acts 16:1; 17:14-15; 18:5; 19:22; 20:4) and Paul's letters (Rom 16:21; 1Cor 4:17; 16:10; 2Cor 1:1, 19; Php 1:1; 2:19; Col 1:1; 1Th 1:1; 3:2, 6; 2Th 1:1; 1Tim 1:2, 18; 6:20; 2Tim 1:2; and Phm 1:1).
· The exact closing phrase "grace be with you all" (ē charis meta pantōn humōn, 13:25) occurs elsewhere only in Titus 3:15.
Some specific correlations may be made between the text of Hebrews and Luke's writings, the narrative of the life of Yeshua ("Luke") and the narrative of the acts and ministry of the apostles from the time of Pentecost ("Acts"). These correlations have convinced some interpreters that Luke authored "Hebrews." However, these connections also serve to support Luke's role as Paul's translator.
· In 1:9 (also 3:1, 14; 6:4 and 12:8) the adjective metochos ("sharing in") occurs elsewhere only in Luke 5:7.
· In 1:11 (also twice in 8:13) the verb palaioō ("make old") occurs elsewhere only in Luke 12:33.
· In 1:12 the verb ekleipō ("fail") occurs elsewhere only in Luke 16:9; 22:32 and 23:45.
· In 2:9 the statement that Yeshua was "crowned with glory" corresponds with uses of "glory" that occur only in Luke's writings. Luke is the only one to report that the angels sang "Glory to God in the highest" in their announcement of the birth of the Messianic King (Luke 2:14). Luke is the only narrator to report that Moses and Elijah appeared "in glory" with Yeshua when he was transfigured (Luke 9:31). Luke is the only narrator to report that the crowd shouted "glory in the highest" during Yeshua's triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:38).
· In 2:15 the verb apallassō, ("release") occurs elsewhere only in Luke 12:58 and Acts 19:12.
· In 2:17 the verb hilaskomai ("to make propitiation") occurs elsewhere only in Luke 18:13.
· In 13:22 the expression logos paraklēsis ("word of exhortation") occurs elsewhere only in Acts 13:15 when the synagogue leader in Pisidian Antioch asked Paul if he had a "word of exhortation" and Paul got up to proclaim his message of the Messiah.
The purpose of the letter may be determined from its dominant theme, that of answering the Jewish question: "Who is Yeshua?" Paul had spent thirty years proclaiming the good news of Yeshua as the Messiah and Savior of Israel from Damascus to Jerusalem to Syrian Antioch to the provinces of Galatia, Asia, Macedonia, and Achaia, and finally to Rome. In every city he began in the Jewish synagogue and his heart was always to convince his own people, the chosen people of their true Messiah (Rom 9:2-5). Whereas previously he always communicated the message orally he now determined to set down in writing the fullness of the revelation he had received about Yeshua (cf. Rom 16:25; Gal 1:2; 2:2; Eph 3:3).
The letter does identify a serious problem that provided an additional reason for writing. Paul addresses his concern over spiritual decline in some areas. Even though Messianic Jews in the Diaspora had been disciples for quite some time (2:3), some had become spiritually weak when they should become teachers (5:12). Some of the recipients had even been forsaking assembly with the disciples on Shabbat and neglecting charitable works (10:24-25). Some were on the verge of backsliding into unbelief (3:7-12) and were rebelling against congregation leaders (13:17). The letter warns of the certainty of divine judgment for persistent sinning (10:26, 35).
The persecution experienced in former days, primarily at the instigation of unbelieving synagogue leaders, had apparently abated (10:32-34). Luke had recorded numerous incidents of open hostility by unbelieving Jews against the messengers and followers of the Messiah: in Damascus (Acts 9:23), in Jerusalem (Acts 4:1-3; 5:17-18, 40; 6:9-12 7:54-59; 8:1-3; 9:29; 12:2-3; 21:27; 22:22; 23:1-22), in Paphos (Acts 13:6-8), in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:45), in Iconium (Acts 14:2,5), in Lystra (Acts 14:19), in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5), in Berea (Acts 17:13), in Corinth (Acts 18:5-6), in Macedonia (Acts 20:3, 19), and in Caesarea (Acts 24:9; 25:2, 7). Paul appeals to disciples that after enduring the former trials to remain faithful to Yeshua (Heb 10:35-36).
Dating the letter may be made with some reasonable degree of accuracy. The destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 is never mentioned as a past fact. The service and ministry of the priests in Jerusalem are referenced as a current activity (5:1-4; 7:5; 8:3; 9:6-7; 10:11; 13:11). Paul's request for prayer that he may be "restored" implies incarceration in Rome (13:19, 24), which offers two possible dates. Some commentators typically date the letter in the late 60's when Paul was martyred (Leon Morris, Robinson, Tenney). Other commentators date the letter in the mid-60's when Caesar Nero began persecuting believers (Fruchtenbaum; Bruce). In my view the composition could have just as easily taken place in the early 60's while Paul was under house arrest in Rome for two years (A.D. 60-62; Acts 28:30). Henry Morris favors this last option (DSB)
Paul's letters are genuine Jewish correspondence to Jewish people. As David Bivin says, "The New Testament was written by Jews for Jewish readers" (44), and Paul's letters are no exception. Hebrews is not a private letter, but more like a theological dissertation with practical application. The letter argues in a rhetorical fashion, and is overall positive in tone. The purpose of the letter seems to be to clarify his teaching that some thought difficult to understand (cf. 2Cor 11:6; Heb 5:11; 2Pet 3:16), to address the opposition of unbelieving Jews and to urge faithfulness to God in Yeshua.
The letter to the Messianic Jews illustrates the Jewish nature of apostolic writings. Interpretation of the letter in its Jewish setting, can help in understanding the huge historical mistake committed by early Christianity of cutting itself off from its own roots. Hebrews is not a Christian work representing a different faith but a Jewish text embodying an authentic Jewish interpretation of the Tanakh and God's covenant with his people Israel.
This letter is really an apologia, a well-reasoned defense that offers a Messianic theology grounded in Scripture. Paul does not employ the kind of logic argumentation (systematic theology) developed by theologians of later Christianity, but endeavors to explain the biblical evidence that Yeshua is the Son of God (1:2), the Son of Man (2:6), the Great High Priest (3:1), the Messiah of Israel (3:6), the Source of Eternal Salvation (5:9), the Perfect Sin Offering (7:27; 10:10), and the Mediator of the New Covenant (8:6; 12:24). All of these titles mattered to his audience and each had a distinctive meaning in Jewish culture.
For much of the letter Paul engages in a thoroughly rabbinic midrash. He sifts biblical evidence, asks rhetorical questions to stimulate serious reflection, offers strong refutations and declares the truth. He writes to people who know the Scriptures, and believed in the verbal inspiration of those Scriptures. Thus, his reasoning appeals to the biblical knowledge base of his audience without relying on the cleverness of Hellenistic philosophy. Paul's rhetorical literary style sometimes resorts to inference, "for if" (ei gar, 2:2; 4:8; 8:7; 9:13; 12:25), and includes kal vchomer (a fortiori) arguments, "how much more," (9:13-14; 10:29), "how much les" (12:25).
Hebrews contains thirteen chapters, 303 verses and 4,953 words, making it the third longest of Paul's letters and the ninth longest book in the Besekh. Unlike Paul's other letters Hebrews lacks the common components of letters, that of an introduction, body and conclusion. The letter begins abruptly without greetings and salutations, but the letter does conclude with greetings and personal information.
Bruce attempts to rebut the authorship claimed by Clement of Alexandria by asserting that the Greek of Hebrews is not "translation Greek" (xxxvi). However, in first century synagogues a meturgan, one skilled in languages, provided translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into the vernacular of the audience (Moseley 11). Such an interpretive task does not rely strictly on dictionary vocabulary. Nuance of meaning is also involved. Strictly speaking, Luke did not "translate" so much as "interpret" Paul's Hebrew text for the Greek-speaking Jews in the Diaspora. The letter Hebrews is written in idiomatic Greek, or more accurately "Jewish Greek." The sentence structure is often lengthy and complex, so modern Bible versions attempt to break up the wordy sentences into small portions for easier reading.
As in other books of the apostolic writings all the quotations from the Tanakh tend to be from the Septuagint (LXX), although in some cases Paul may have quoted from a variant Greek text or provided his own translation. The LXX was used because at the time of Yeshua, most Jews were living in the Greek world, and therefore the LXX was the text used by many Jews, if not by most. At that time there was no standardized Hebrew text. The Masoretic Text, as the Hebrew Bible came to be known, was developed over the following centuries (Gruber 322). The syntax of the LXX is not the classical style of Athens, but an adapted Greek designed to convey the meaning of the Hebrew language within Hebraic grammatical style, i.e., Jewish Greek. Two features of Hebraic grammar may be noted in the Greek text of Hebrews.
Joining individual words in a list within a sentence or one clause to another with the conjunction "and" is a frequent characteristic feature of the Hebrew Scriptures, whereas in Greek literature an independent clause will be subordinated to the main clause of the sentence and the use of conjunctions minimized. Hebrew adds the letter vav (ו) to words for conjunctive effect without using a separate word. The book of Hebrews, as the rest of the Greek New Testament, is simply littered with conjunctions, a total of 603.
The word order of the Greek text of books in the Besekh is often imitates Hebrew word order. In Greek it is not nearly so important where you put the verb or the subject or the object in a sentence. The endings of the nouns in Greek are really case endings and they tell you whether the noun is an object, a subject or in a prepositional relationship. But, as in English, Hebrew has a generally fixed word order. In narrative, Hebrew often gives the conjunction first place in the verse followed by a verb. In the Tanakh verses generally have a verb in the first or second position and Hebrews follows this grammatical structure in almost 100 verses.
The letter contains 126 hapax legomena, a Latin expression meaning words that occur only once in a given literary work, i.e., words not found elsewhere in the Besekh (Barnes). Many of the unique words are found in other Jewish literature, such as the LXX, Josephus, Philo and the Apocrypha, but the vocabulary and syntax also indicates competence with contemporary Greek. The fact that many of the words are found elsewhere only in classical Greek writers is not significant. This does not mean that Paul or Luke were students of Greek philosophers. Rather, there was a finite Greek vocabulary and if there had been a Greek dictionary at the time these words would have been found in it. The presence of the unique words is evidence of Luke's skill with the Greek language in translating Paul's Hebrew.
Part I: The Superiority of the Son (1:14:13).
· The Superiority of the Son over the Prophets (1:1-3).
· The Superiority of the Son over the Angels (1:42:18).
· The Superiority of the Son over Moses (3:14:13).
Part II: The Superiority of the Son's Ministry (4:1410:18)
· The Superiority of the Son over the Aaronic Priesthood (4:147:28).
· The Superiority of the New Covenant (8:1-13).
· The Superiority of the Son's Sanctuary and Sacrifice (9:110:18).
Part III: The Superiority of the Walk of Faithfulness (10:1913:25).
· Call to Perseverance (10:19-39).
· Heroes of Faithfulness (11:1-40).
· Call to Endurance and Acceptance of Discipline (12:1-29).
· Call to Love and Service (13:117).
· Conclusion (13:18-25)
There are over thirty direct quotations from the Tanakh, second only to Romans 1:5; 5:5 (Ps 2:7); 1:6 (Deut 32:43); 1:7 (Ps 104:4); 1:8-9 (Ps 45:6-7); 1:10-12 (Ps 102:25-27); 1:13 (Ps 110:1); 2:6-8 (Ps 8:4-6); 2:12 (Ps 22:22); 2:13 (Isa 8:17-18); 3:7-11, 15; 4:3, 5, 7 (Ps 95:7-11); 4:4 (Gen 2:2); 5:6, 10; 7:17, 21 (Ps 110:4); 6:14 (Gen 22:17); 8:5 (Ex 25:40); 8:8-12; 10:16-17 (Jer 31:31-34); 9:19-20 (Ex 24:8); 10:5-9 (Ps 40:6-8); 10:30 (Deut 32:35-36); 10:37 (Hab 2:3-4); 11:5 (Gen 5:24); 11:18 (Gen 21:12); 12:5-6 (Prov 3:11-12); 12:12 (Isa 35:3); 12:20 (Ex 19:13); 12:21 (Deut 9:19); 12:26 (Hag 2:6); 12:29 (Deut 4:24); 13:5 (Deut 31:6, 8); and 13:6 (Ps 27:1; 118:6).
As in other books of the apostolic writings all the quotations from the Tanakh tend to be from the Septuagint (LXX), although in some cases the author may have quoted from a variant Greek text or provided his own translation. The LXX was used because: (1) Almost all the apostolic writings were written in Jewish Greek, so a Jewish-Greek text of the Tanakh was helpful for quotations. (2) At the time of Yeshua, most Jews were living in the Greek world, and therefore the LXX was the text used by many Jews, if not by most. At that time there was no standardized Hebrew text. The Masoretic Text, as the Hebrew Bible came to be known, was developed over the following centuries.
In his letter to Messianic Jews Paul makes many historical references. The names of prominent personalities in the Tanakh are mentioned, including Moses (11 times), Abraham (10 times), and Melchizedek, (8 times). Each of these famous persons has a spiritual lesson associated with his or her name. He also mentions the name of Yeshua 14 times.
In 1:1 the letter begins with the mention of the Hebrew prophets.
In 2:2 the phrase "word spoken through the angels" alludes to the belief that the angels were instrumental in giving the Torah (Acts 7:53; Gal 3:19).
In 2:16 Paul identifies Yeshua as the "Seed of Abraham" just as he does in Galatians 3:16 and goes on to say that Yeshua had to be made like his brethren so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest and make a permanent atonement for the sins of the people.
In 3:3 Paul compares Yeshua to Moses as faithful in their calling.
In 3:7-11 the quotation from Psalm 95 alludes to the rebelliousness of the wilderness generation.
In 3:16-17 Paul alludes to the exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, saying that God was angry with that generation for 40 years.
In 3:18-19 he notes that Israel did not enter the Land because of their unbelief.
In 4:4 Paul mentions the fact of God resting on the seventh day after creation.
In 6:13 Abraham is mentioned in connection with God swearing to bless and multiply Abraham. As a result Abraham waited patiently and received the promise, which represents the unchangeable purpose of God to bring the high priest Messiah.
In 7:1-10 Paul mentions the meeting of Abraham with Melchizedek who is a type of the Son of God.
In 7:14 Paul mentions Yeshua's descent from the tribe of Judah.
In 8:5 Paul mentions the fact that Moses was shown a pattern for constructing the tabernacle and all its furnishings.
In 8:6 he alludes to the New Covenant by the term "better covenant" that had been promised by Jeremiah.
In 8:7 he refers to the Old Covenant as the "First."
In 8:8-12 he quotes the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34.
In 8:13 Paul declares that the "New" covenant made the first covenant obsolete regarding the ministry of priesthood, and will eventually disappear. See the comment below on the covenants.
In 10:32 Paul refers to the former days when disciples were persecuted, probably an allusion to the incidents recorded in Acts.
In 11:4 Abel's actions are contrasted with Cain.
In 11:5 Enoch's faithfulness resulted in his translation to heaven without death.
In 11:7 Noah prepared an ark for the salvation of his household.
In 11:8-10, 17-18 Abraham obeyed God by leaving his homeland for Canaan.
In 11:11 Sarah received the ability to conceive.
In 11:20 Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau.
In 11:21 Jacob as he lay dying blessed the sons of Joseph.
In 11:22 Joseph as he lay dying spoke of the exodus of Israel from Egypt.
In 11:23-29 Moses was hidden by hidden by his godly mother and then when grown chose to identify with his people.
In 11:30 the walls of Jericho fell because of the faithfulness of Joshua.
In 11:31 Rahab was spared to join the covenant people because she hid the Israelites spies.
In 11:32 Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David; Samuel and all the prophets are listed as examples of faithfulness in spite of hardships and persecution.
In 12:18-21 Paul refers to the experience of fire, darkness and wind at Mount Sinai when God gave the Torah to Israel.
In 12:26 Paul mentions God shaking the earth when He spoke from Mt. Sinai.
Paul often challenges his readers to excellence in discipleship and faithfulness while warning against actions that would bring spiritual defeat (2:1; 3:1, 7, 12-13; 4:14, 16; 6:1, 12; 7:4; 10:22-24, 35-36; 12:1-2, 12-15, 25, 28; 13:1-5, 7-9, 15-18). They Greek syntax often relies on the subjunctive mood instead of the imperative mood to exhort disciples in what they "should do." The intent of this softened approach is to appeal to their spiritually enlightened reason rather than insist on submission to his apostolic authority.
The subject of angels features prominently in the first two chapters. Paul introduces the subject to assert the superiority of the Son of God (1:42:18). Paul uses a distinctive term (Grk. kreittōn) to assert the greater excellence of the Son of God. Yeshua's superiority over Moses and Aaron are obvious, but Paul does not explain his rationale for discussing angels. It's very likely that his message was intended to rebut unbiblical beliefs and practices in contemporary Jewish culture.
First, the Essenes had set forth a kingdom theology with two messianic personages, the one priestly (Aaronic) who would be superior to the other royal (Davidic), but both subordinate to the archangel Michael as the supreme head (Hughes 276). The War Scroll even speaks of the "kingdom of Michael" (1QM, XVII). In 11Q13 the heavenly deliverer in the last days is Melchizedek, but he is identified with the archangel Michael as the head of the sons of heaven (Vermes).
Second, many Jews worshipped angels and viewed them as mediators and intercessors as indicated by Paul's treatment of the subject in Colossians 2:18. There are references to the practice in late Talmudic and Medieval Jewish literature (Seder Tephillot, fol. 222.2; 335.1; Zohar in Gen. fol. 97.2. and in Exod. fol. 24.3). The Jewish veneration of angels also received attention from the church fathers, first Clement of Alexandria (AD 150215) in his Stromata (Book VI, Chapter 5) and then the Synod of Laodicea (343-381 A.D.) issued Canon XXXV, which condemned the invocation of angels.
A modern Israeli scholar Meir Berlin (18801949), argued at length in a private paper that there is substance to the polemical claims of early Christians that Jews in the first century did pray to angels. According to Berlin several examples of post-Talmudic prayers to angels can be found in the Jewish service even today. See his article: Prayers of Jews to Angels and Other Intermediaries During the First Centuries of the Common Era. Private Paper, Bar-Ilan University. Online.
The name of an important person from the patriarchal era appears in the Besekh only in Hebrews, a total of 8 times (5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:1, 10-11, 15, 17). Melchizedek first appears in Genesis 14:18 as the priest of the Most High God and King of Salem, the forerunner of Jerusalem. In the Tanakh story Melchizedek brings bread and wine to Abraham after his defeat of five wicked kings and Abraham then paid him a tithe of the spoils of war. Melchizedek then blessed Abraham, saying,
"Blessed be Abram by El Elyon, Creator of heaven and earth, 20 and blessed be El Elyon, Who gave over your enemies into your hand." (Gen 14:19-20 TLV).
Then in Psalm 110 is found the important divine declaration:
"1 ADONAI said to my Lord, 'Sit at My right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for Your feet.'"... 4 'ADONAI has sworn, and will not His mind: "You are a Kohen forever according to the order of Melchizedek.'" (TLV)
Among Jews Melchizedek was considered a type of the Messiah. In the Dead Sea Scrolls the one sitting at the right hand is Melchizedek (verse 4) whom the Qumran community regarded as an exalted divine being (11Q13, DSSE). Melchizedek is said to atone for the sins of the righteous and to execute judgment upon the wicked, actions usually associated with God Himself (TDSS 591). Paul persuasively argues that Yeshua has a priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek (5:10; 6:20), a much higher order than that of Aaron.
Superiority of the Son
As shown in the content outline a major theme running through the letter is the superiority of the Son of God over prophets (1:1-2), angels (1:4), Moses (3:2, 5), Joshua (4:8), Aaron (5:5-6; 7:11) and Abel (12:24). Superiority of the Son is not a matter of nature, but of what the Son accomplished. He did what the others could not do. Superiority over prophets is manifested by Yeshua's personal fulfillment of Messianic prophecy and revelation of the Father. Superiority over the angels is shown by the fact that angels were created by the Son and worship the Son.
Superiority over Moses is apparent from the fact that Moses was denied entry into the Land of Canaan for disobedience (Num 20:11-12; cf. Heb 3:7-11). Superiority over Joshua is manifested in providing a Sabbath rest that Joshua could not provide. Superiority over Aaron's descendants is manifested in Yeshua's permanent priesthood. Superiority over Abel has to do with providing a better sacrifice. The superiority of the Son has also made possible a better hope (7:19), a better covenant (7:22; 8:6), a better sacrifice (9:23), a better possession (10:24), a better country (11:16), a better resurrection (11:35), better things from God (11:40), and better blood (12:24).
The term archiereus, a chief or high priest, occurs 18 times in the book of Hebrews, the only book outside the apostolic narratives in which it occurs. Of those references the term is used to designated Yeshua as the high priest nine times (2:17; 3:1; 4:14-15; 5:10; 6:20; 7:26; 8:1; 9:11). Paul refers to the mediatorial role of Yeshua in other letters (Gal 3:19-20; 1Tim 2:5), but only the book of Hebrews presents a full discussion of how Yeshua serves as the believer's High Priest.
According to the Paul and the Torah there are five qualities one must have to serve as high priest: (1) he is appointed and called by God (3:4); (2) he is descended from Aaron of the tribe of Levi (5:4; 7:11); (3) he must be without physical defect (4:15; cf. Lev 21:16-21); (4) he is compassionate and considerate toward the ignorant and misguided (5:2); and (5) he is one with the people, for he represents the people before God (5:1, 7) (Kaiser 363). Yeshua exhibited all of these qualities, except for tribal heredity.
Yeshua did not descend from Levi but the tribe of Judah. So Paul has to explain how Yeshua can be high priest. Paul persuasively argues that Yeshua has a priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek (5:10; 6:20), a much higher order than that of Aaron. Paul's approach might seem to violate Torah requirements, but Scripture demonstrates that God will choose individuals to perform services that otherwise belonged to the tribe of Levi. Samuel, the last judge, belonged to the tribe of Ephraim, but yet performed priestly services (1Sam 7:9-10, 17). Only men from the tribe of Levi could serve as judges (Deut 17:9), but Deborah judged Israel, even though she was a woman and from the tribe of Ephraim (Jdg 4:4).
Paul presents arguments to demonstrate how Yeshua is qualified to replace Aaron's descendants as the high priest.
(1) Aaron had to offer a sin offering for himself, but Yeshua was sinless, thereby eliminating that requirement (4:15; 9:7, 28).
(2) A change was necessitated in the Aaronic high priesthood because of the inherent weakness and uselessness of the entire system (7:11-18; 9:9). If perfection could have had been attained under the Aaronic priesthood there would have been no need for a replacement.
(3) Yeshua's investiture as high priest guarantees the enactment of the New Covenant, a better covenant (8:6-13; 10:16-17).
(4) The sacrifice of animals cannot cleanse the conscience or take away sins, whereas the blood of Yeshua is fully efficacious for cleansing (cf. 9:14; 10:4, 11).
(5) An uninterrupted priesthood is far superior because it will never be upset by death, for Yeshua lives forever (5:10; 6:20; 7:17, 23-28)
Not only is Yeshua presented as the perfect high priest, but his death on the cross made him a sin offering (7:27; 10:12), a concept Paul also mentions in 1Corinthians 5:7 and 2Corinthians 5:21. Some Christians have erroneously concluded on the basis of 2Corinthians 5:21 that Yeshua became sinful on the cross. The source of this mistaken belief is the failure of standard Christian Bibles to accurately interpret the Hebrew theology of the verse in harmony with the rest of Scripture. The TLV renders the verse, "He made One who knew no sin to become a sin offering on our behalf, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God."
In the Tanakh the Hebrew word chattath (rendered by Grk. hamartia in the LXX) may mean either "sin" or "sin offering" (BDB 308). The Complete Jewish Bible, Mounce Reverse-Interlinear New Testament, New Living Translation, The Message and the Orthodox Jewish Bible concur with the use of "sin offering" in the TLV. Yeshua as the unblemished Lamb of God, the perfect Passover lamb, bore our sins as a sin offering. He did not become sinful (cf. John 1:29; 9:16; Rom 8:3; 1Cor 5:7; 2Cor 5:21; Heb 7:26; 9:26; 1Pet 1:19; 2:24; 1Jn 3:5; Rev 5:12).
In presenting Yeshua as a sin offering Paul contrasts Yeshua's sacrifice that occurred on Pesach (Passover) with the annual sacrifice on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). The Yom Kippur offering only atoned for unintentional sins of Israelites, those committed accidentally or from simple negligence (Lev 4:2-3; 16:30; 1Tim 1:13; Heb 9:7). On Yom Kippur Aaron was to offer one goat to purify the holy place (Lev 16:9, 20) and a second goat was sent into the wilderness to carry the iniquities of the nation away from the presence of God (Lev 16:10, 21-22). The atonement on Yom Kippur was temporary in that it only cleansed the sins of the past. The atonement of Yom Kippur had to be repeated year after year. The Yom Kippur sacrifice could not cleanse the human conscience nor give spiritual life to the people (Heb 9:9; 10:2-4).
Yeshua's sacrificial death provided seven superior benefits:
Yeshua's death atoned for all sins, including capital crimes (Acts 13:38-39);
Yeshua's death accomplished a sufficient atonement that does not need to be repeated (Heb 7:27; 9:28);
Yeshua's atonement is for all people in the world, Jews and Gentiles (Heb 7:27; 8:28; cf. Rom 6:10; 2Cor 5:14-15; 1Tim 2:6);
Yeshua's atonement provides deliverance from the power of death (Heb 2:4-15);
Yeshua's atonement provides eternal redemption (Heb 9:12);
Yeshua's atonement provides spiritual power to sanctify the believer and fulfill the promise of the New Covenant to write God's laws on the hearts of people (Heb 10:10, 14-16);
Yeshua's complete and successful atonement provides assurance of Yeshua fulfilling his promise to return and bring final salvation to the earth (Heb 9:28).
The good news is that Yeshua accomplished on Passover what could not be accomplished on Yom Kippur.
The letter contains a considerable number of references to the Aaronic priesthood (7:5, 11, 14, 23; 8:4; 9:6) and the sacrificial system (5:1, 3; 7:27; 8:3-4; 9:6-7, 9, 18-21, 25; 10:1, 3, 5-6, 11; 13:11). Yet, the Jerusalem Temple (Grk. hieron, "temple;" naios, "sanctuary") is not mentioned even once. The Temple, built at the direction of King Herod the Great (Josephus, Ant. XV, 11:1), was one of the architectural wonders of the time and never ceased to impress visitors (cf. Mark 13:1). See an illustration here. The Talmud expresses Jewish pride in the temple with these words, "He who has not seen Jerusalem in her splendor, has never seen a desirable city in his life. He who has not seen the Temple in its full construction has never seen a glorious building in his life" (Sukkah. 51b; Baba Bathra 4a). Tacitus, the Roman historian, described the building as a "temple of immense wealth" (History, V, 8).
The reason for omitting any mention of the Temple is straightforward. The Sh'khinah glory of God had departed the Holy of Holies, signaled by the tearing of the Temple veil at the death of Yeshua (Matt 27:51). God no longer abode in the Temple as He had for centuries in the tabernacle. According to the Talmud the glory of God left the Temple forty years prior to its destruction. Four signs occurred to show evidence of this: (1) the lot for selecting priests did not come up in the right hand; (2) the westernmost light of the menorah refused to burn continually; (3) the doors of the Temple would open of themselves; and (4) the red wool no longer turned white supernaturally (Yoma 39b).
Instead Paul mentions the sacred tent (Grk. skēnē) ten times, both the heavenly model (8:2; 9:11) and the tabernacle the Israelites constructed according to God's instructions (8:5; 9:2-3, 6, 8, 21; 13:10). Paul then employs typology to interpret the significance of the historic tabernacle as a spiritual lesson, just as he treats the historical figures of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4:24-26. The tabernacle with its sacrificial ceremonies served as a portent of the better sacrifice to come (9:23). In practical terms the tabernacle was a place for the community to gather and celebrate the blessings of God. The tabernacle was of simple design and constructed of materials contributed by the people. The Temple was an extravagant tourist attraction designed to give legitimacy to an unlawful king and managed by a priestly crime family known for corruption.
Saints of the Tanakh
The book of Hebrews is unique in its listing in Chapter 11 of great Bible heroes who lived as examples of trusting-faithfulness to God. Paul names 16 individuals who manifested this godly characteristic: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel. He also alludes to the notable prophets of Israel, both prophets who delivered anointed messages to kings (e.g., Nathan, Gad, Elijah and Elisha) and the literary prophets who produced the written Tanakh.
Some of the individuals in this list of names have endured criticism if not scorn from Christian commentators for various faults and wrongdoing. Abraham took a concubine wife. Jacob supposedly stole his brother's birthright. Rahab was a supposed prostitute. Samson loved ungodly women. Jephthah supposedly killed his daughter. David was a polygamist who committed adultery. Yet, Paul recognized in all these personalities true devotion to the God of Israel and a life of faithfulness. See my character studies for some of these names: The Story of Abraham; Our Father Jacob; Joseph: Savior in Egypt; Moses and Yeshua; Jephthah: Faithful Hero.
Warnings and Challenge
Paul was very concerned about the spiritual jeopardy of some of his readers. He knew that the devotion and faithfulness had been eroded in some quarters. He issued these warnings prevent his readers from suffering the judgment of God.
Warning against drifting away through neglect, 2:1-4. The solution is to give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard.
Warning against departing after becoming hardened through sin's deceitfulness, 3:12-15. The solution is to exhort one another daily and remain steadfast.
Warning against disobedience like Israel in the wilderness, 4:11-13. The solution is diligence and heeding the word of God.
Warning against dullness of hearing, 5:11- 6:6. The solution is pressing on to spiritual maturity.
Warning against despising God's grace, 10:26-39. The solution is to hold on to our confidence in Messiah and continue to trust with endurance.
Warning against defying by refusing to listen to the one who speaks from heaven, 12:25-29. The solution is to serve God in holy fear.
Parallel with the warnings Paul exhorts his readers 14 times to spiritual action by the use of first person plural subjunctive verbs. In Greek grammar the subjunctive mood is the mood of mild contingency or probability; it looks toward what is conceivable or potential. The subjunctive mood is used to exhort disciples in what they "should do." The intent of this softened approach is to appeal to their spiritually enlightened reason rather than insist on submission to his apostolic authority.
In these exhortations the verbs are typically translated with "let us:" 4:1, "fear;" 4:11, "be diligent;" 4:14, "hold firmly," 4:16, "draw near;" 6:1, "press on;" 10:22, "draw near;" 10:23, "hold fast," 10:24, "consider;" 10:35, "not throw away;" 12:1, "lay aside;" 12:1, "run;" 12:28, "show gratitude;" 13:13, "go forth;" 13:15, "offer." By this approach Paul does not exempt himself from the instruction.
An important issue in the letter is the provisions of the First Covenant (8:7; 9:1, 18) and the New Covenant (7:22; 8:6, 8, 10, 13; 9:15; 10:16, 29; 12:24). The Greek word used for "covenant" is diathēkē, a set-agreement having complete terms determined by the initiating party, which also are fully affirmed by the one entering the agreement (HELPS). Thayer explains that the term is used to mean (1) the last disposal which one makes of earthly possessions after death, as in "last will and testament" (e.g., Gal 3:15; Heb 9:16-17); or (2) a compact initiated by God with ones He chose for a close relationship and which makes certain absolute promises to the human parties (Eph 2:12; Heb 7:22 and often). Both of these meanings apply to the New Covenant.
In the LXX diathēkē translates Heb. b'rit (SH-1285), pact, compact, or covenant (first in Gen 6:18) (DNTT 1:365). God made a covenant with several different men: Adam (Hos 6:7), Noah (Gen 6:18; 9:1-17; Jer 33:25), Abraham (Gen 17:2), Isaac (Gen 26:24), Jacob (Gen 27:27-29), Aaron (Num 19:19-20), and David (2Sam 7:11-15; Jer 33:20-22), and with the nation of Israel (Ex 19:5). Each of these covenants set forth specific expectations, promises, duration and a sign or perpetual reminder of the covenant. For a detailed discussion of all these covenants see my web article The Everlasting Covenants. See also my notes on Romans 9:4.
Paul speaks of the covenant God made with Israel as the "First" (Grk. prōtos, SG-4413, first, foremost), and is the same as the original covenant called "old" (Grk. palaios, SG-3820, old or ancient; 2Cor 3:15). Paul's focus on the first covenant is its prescribed system of religion. As Stern points out,
"What is actually on the verge of vanishing is the old priesthood, not the old covenant or, perhaps we may say, not Gods unchangeable nature which stands behind the old covenant. The priesthood is the subject of the whole section (indeed, the sacrificial system is the subject of the whole letter), and it is this which is about to disappear or, at the very least, take on a very much transformed role." (691)
The exact title "New Covenant" occurs three times in Hebrews (8:8; 9:15; 12:24) and shortened to the "New" one time (8:13). Paul uses two different adjectives: kainos (8:8; 9:15) and neos (13:24). The difference between kainos and neos is one of nuance, the former meaning "of recent origin" and the latter meaning "in existence for a relatively short time" (Danker). Kainos also has the meaning of something not previously present (BAG). The words kainē diathēkē appears in the LXX of Jeremiah 31:31 to translate the Heb. B'rit Chadashah. The use of the two adjectives perhaps intends two levels of meaning. The promise of the New Covenant was originally given to Jeremiah:
"Behold, days are coming" it is a declaration of ADONAI "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah32 not like the covenant I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they broke My covenant, though I was a husband to them. it is a declaration of ADONAI. 33 But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days it is a declaration of ADONAI I will put My Torah within them. Yes, I will write it on their heart. I will be their God and they will be My people." (Jer 31:31-33 TLV)
Paul repeats the prophetic promise in 10:16. For Jeremiah the New Covenant was not "new" because it canceled the obligation to obey Torah commandments, but because it promised the power to keep those commandments (Jer 31:33; 32:40; Ezek 11:19-20; 36:26-27). For the apostles the New Covenant was "new" because while prophesied by Jeremiah it was not enacted until Yeshua's atoning sacrifice (Luke 22:20) and empowered by the Holy Spirit on Shavuot (Pentecost) (Acts 1:8; 15:9; 2Cor 3:6). The New Covenant is a better covenant (7:22; 8:6). The Greek adjective kreittōn means having a degree of advantage, used by Paul to denote status or rank; better, superior, more excellent. Lastly, Paul refers to the B'rit Chadashah as the "eternal covenant" (13:20).
Christianity has historically believed the New Covenant replaced the Old Covenant (BAG 395), relying on bad exegesis of Hebrews 8:13. In that verse Paul contrasts "new" with "old," not "new" with "obsolete" as translated by many versions (e.g., AMP, CEB, CSB, ESV, NABRE, NASB, NET, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV). Other versions correctly present the contrast of "new" and "old" (ASV, CJB, DRA, GNB, HCSB, HNV, KJV, MSG, MW, NCV, NEB, NJB, OJB, TLV). Paul also uses present tense verbs ("growing old" and "aging") to describe the First Covenant as still in existence, but its disappearance is "near" (Grk. engus). This special term is used of the nearness of the Second Coming (Matt 24:33; Mark 13:29; Luke 21:31; Rom 13:11; Php 4:5; Rev 1:3; 22:5). In reality, the First Covenant cannot totally disappear until after the Messiah returns and fulfills all the promises made to Israel.
Christian interpreters generally overlook two important facts. First, all of the covenants mentioned in the Tanakh were given by God and contain irrevocable promises (Rom 11:29). Indeed God frequently refers to His covenants as "everlasting" (Heb. olam, Gen 9:16; 17:7, 13, 19; Lev 24:8; Num 18:19; 2Sam 23:5; Ps 105:10). The Hebrew word olam (SH-5769) can mean of long duration or indefinite futurity. Second, the New Covenant was made with Judah and Israel. No Gentiles and certainly no Christian Church are mentioned in the promise of the New Covenant. For Jeremiah the New Covenant was "new," not because it canceled the obligation to obey Torah commandments, but because it promised the power to keep those commandments (cf. Jer 31:33; 32:40; Ezek 11:19-20; 36:26-27).
As an observant Jew Paul would have been shocked that the church fathers would later reject the very foundation of their faith. The covenants represent God's continual faithfulness to His chosen people (Rom 9:4). Yeshua did not abrogate the promises made to the patriarchs and to Israel since he did not come to abolish the Torah (Matt 5:17). The New Covenant with all its promises was enacted by Yeshua's atoning sacrifice (Luke 22:20). Thus, all the promises God made to Israel are "YES" in Yeshua (2Cor 1:20). What is obsolete, as Paul makes clear in Chapters 9 and 10, is that the ground of atonement has changed. No longer do animal sacrifices provide atonement. Instead the burden of sin was laid on Yeshua, the perfect atoning sacrifice.
Paul makes many references to aspects of contemporary Jewish culture and religion.
In 3:6 Paul makes reference to "Christ" (Grk. Christos), which is a Jewish title for the Messiah (Heb. Mashiach). Christos has no religious meaning in Greek culture. The title occurs 12 times in this letter (also 3:14; 5:5; 6:1; 9:11, 14, 24, 28; 10:10; 11:26; 13:8, 21).
In 5:1 Paul mentions the selection criteria for the Jewish high priest and his principal duty.
In 7:8 he mentions the practice of tithing.
In 7:14 he notes that Yeshua descended from the tribe of Judah, whereas Torah specified that priests must come from the tribe of Levi.
In 7:27 he points out that the chief priests offer up sacrifices for their own sins before making a sin offering for the people.
In 7:28 he notes that the Torah appoints [present tense] priests who are weak.
In 8:3 he mentions that the high priest is appointed [present tense] to offer both gifts and sacrifices.
In 8:4-5 he says that the priests who offer gifts and sacrifices serve as a copy and shadow of heavenly things.
In 9:7 and 9:25 he mentions Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, during which the high priest enters the Holy of Holies only after presenting a sin offering for himself and a sin offering for the people for unintentional sins.
In 10:11 he notes that every priest [in Jerusalem] stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.
In 12:22 he mentions Mt. Zion, the location of the Temple in Jerusalem.
In 13:2 he exhorts his readers not to neglect hospitality, an important virtue in Jewish culture.
In 13:4 he reminds his readers of the Torah standard of fidelity in marriage and avoiding sexual sins that God will judge.
In 13:11 he mentions that the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp.
Four times (3:1, 12; 10:19; 13:22) Paul uses the direct address of "brothers" to indicate both his ethnic bond and close relationship with his readers.
In 12:9 Paul alludes to the fact that like other Jewish boys he was disciplined by his father.
In 13:22 Paul uses humor to say that he had written a brief exhortation.
In 13:23 Timothy had been imprisoned, but had been released. Paul expects to accompany Timothy when he comes.
In 13:24 Paul bears greetings from those in Italy.
Canonicity and authorship are distinct principles, but in the patristic era canonicity and apostolic authorship were viewed as interdependent. Augustine and Jerome followed Alexandrian precedent in recognizing Hebrews as one of Paul's epistles, but mainly because assigning apostolic authorship safeguarded its canonical status (Bruce xlv). Origen did not doubt its canonical merit, although he had reservations about its authorship. Eusebius of Caesarea includes Hebrews among the acknowledged books, although he knows of the doubts about it in the west. The Peshitta New Testament included it from the first.
The book of Hebrews does not appear in the list of New Testament writings compiled and acknowledged by Marcion (c. 85160 AD), nor in that of the Muratorian Canon (c. AD 190), which contains a list of most of the New Testament writings. The latter definitely assigns letters by Paul to only seven churches, and so inferentially excludes Hebrews. Ultimately the Alexandrian position on canonicity and authorship alike triumphed in the west and was included in the Canon by the Synod of Hippo (393) and by the Third (397) and Sixth (419) Synods of Carthage. When the subject of the canon was reopened during the Reformation, uncertainty and disagreement over authorship did not affect its canonical recognition.
BAG: Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. trans. W.F. Arndt & F.W. Gingrich. The University of Chicago Press, 1957.
Barnes: Mark Barnes, List of New Testament Hapax Legomena. Logos Bible Software Forum, 2013.
BDB: The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Oxford University Press, 1907. Reprinted by Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., 1981.
Bivin: David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.
Danker: F.W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, University of Chicago Press, 2009.
DSB: The Defenders Study Bible. World Publishing Co., 1995. [KJV with annotations by Dr. Henry M. Morris.]
DNTT: Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 Vols. Colin Brown, ed. Zondervan Publishing House, 1975.
Eisenbaum: Pamela Eisenbaum, Annotations on "The Letter to the Hebrews," Jewish Annotated New Testament, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Fruchtenbaum: Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, "Hebrews," Ariel's Bible Commentary: The Messianic Jewish Epistles. Ariel Ministries, 2005.
GNT: The Greek New Testament, eds. Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Bruce M. Metzger, & Allen Wiegren. American Bible Society, 1966. [NA25]
Gruber: Daniel Gruber, ed. The Messianic Writings. Elijah Publishing, 2011. [Greek New Testament translated and annotated by Daniel Gruber.]
HELPS: The Discovery Bible New Testament: HELPS Word Studies. eds. Gleason L. Archer and Gary Hill. Moody Press, 1987. (Online at BibleHub.com)
Hughes: Philip E. Hughes, "Hebrews, The Letter to the," The Oxford Companion to the Bible. ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. Oxford University Press, 1993.
Kaiser: Walter C. Kaiser, The Promise-Plan of God: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Zondervan 1978, 2008.
Morris: Leon Morris, Hebrews. Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 12. Software version 2.6. Zondervan Corp., 1989-1999.
NIBD: Nelson's Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible. Herbert Lockyer, ed. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986.
Robinson: John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament. SCM Press, 1976.
Sacks: Stuart Sacks, Hebrews Through a Hebrew's Eyes. Lederer Books, 1995.
Stern: David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996.
Tenney: Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Survey. Rev. ed. William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1985.
Vermes: Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. 7th ed. Penguin Books, 2012. Online.
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