Stop me before I hurt myself.
Alright, so this week, it’s been super difficult for me to find something that interested me to write about. I guess that happens to writers sometimes- writer’s block, is it? I read and re-read, and nothing really stood out to me; that is, until I got to Hebrews for about the third time. Being part of the church and the Bible being our “textbook,” so to speak, I’ve read the New Testament several times. Hebrews has always been a particular favorite of mine, but I never really broke it down and looked at it outside the walls of the youth room… But man, Hebrews is no joke!
There are several topics I want to explore here, so let’s dive in.
Oh, I’m sorry. Did I say “the greeting” or “the lack of a greeting”?
Immediately, Hebrews separates itself from literally every other book in the NT after the Gospel accounts and Acts. That’s 21 other books that greet their readers, or at least introduce their author. Why not this one? Why didn’t the author wish to be known? Did they not wish to be known, or was it just so important to say this that they forgot to say “Hello”?
This very question has caused much controversy over the years. Who the heck wrote this book, and why didn’t they tell us who they were?
The Problem of the Author
This is such a hot topic that it has its own Wikipedia page. Look out!
In all seriousness, there is still no real agreement on who the author is. We faced a similar problem with the book of Colossians, whose authorship is also debated.
Why does this matter?
A name carries much weight today, but even more so in the first century. As we have seen in past discussions, your name was basically your lifeline. Those who heard it could immediately ascribe: your family/heritage, your reputation, your financial status, and your importance in society. Immediately upon hearing Saul’s name, Christians were filled with terror; however, upon hearing his changed name of Paul, they were encouraged and rallied in their cause. In matters of knowledge (as we see in Hebrews), your name served as a reference to your credibility. How are we supposed to believe any of this book if the village idiot is the one who wrote it, and not someone educated or honest?
Who was it?
The late-third or early-second century codex of Paul’s letters includes Hebrews.
Well, that’s a wrap. See ya later!
Why is it never this easy? Ugh.
The same problem we face with Colossians comes up again: this book does not sound anything like Paul’s previous writings. Does that mean he didn’t write it? Not necessarily. I sound like a sarcastic teenager in these blogs, but you better believe when I turn in that 20-page research paper at the end of this semester, its going to sound like my professor wrote it. People change the way they speak all the time. That’s kind of the problem here: did he, or didn’t he?
As the wiki page points out, Paul (if he wrote this) does not greet the readers of this letter. Why? Well, if it was Paul, he would have been smart enough to know that the Hebrews weren’t particularly fond of him, and that writing “HAY, GURL, IT’S PAUL!” at the beginning would have made them block his number immediately. He had to dance around this one (again, under the assumption it is him) to get his point across without bias or prejudice from the Jews.
Scholars point out many similarities to Paul’s earlier writings, however, and that makes it even more of a mystery. The closing greeting, “Grace be with all of you” (13:25) appears at the end of every one of his letters.
Scholars also reference the fact that right before this greeting, Timothy is mentioned as “our brother..” It was a well-known fact that Paul and Timothy were BFFs. Still, though, couldn’t anyone have called Timothy a brother, since that was the lingo?
More evidence for Paul being the writer includes the fact that in chapter 13, verse 24 he (she?) states that they are writing from Italy. This is where Paul was at the time.
This guy seems to be holding a lot of the cards, here, doesn’t he? Still, there is no definite answer. To this day, scholars have argued about the Pauline nature of this particular book.
But if it wasn’t Paul, then who was it?
There are several other theories on who wrote this, but only two main ones to discuss.
This is the next theory that has the most credibility to it, but there still isn’t much evidence to validate it, either.
In 1900, a prominent scholar (whose name I cannot pronounce) made a case for the fact that the letter was “written to Rome… not to the church- but to the inner circle,” and that Priscilla had all the qualifications for this type of writing. He suggests that the author was intimately acquainted with Paul and Timothy, making it possible for her to imitate Paul’s style, as well as call Timothy her “brother.”
The only real argument against this idea is that the author uses the masculine form of “I” in the writings. This, however, is dismissed by most as Priscilla having the brains to disguise herself as a man to be respected and listened to. (Mulan, anyone?)
Barnaby here was close to Timothy and Paul, and was also living in Italy at this time. He is also credited for some non-canonical books, mainly the Epistle of Barnabas. This website has some English translations of his epistle, and I encourage you to look into it for yourself to see the similarities and differences with Hebrews.(Fair warning: it’s 21 chapters long!) I suggest the Kirsopp Lake translation. It seemed the easiest to read.
Personally, I’m torn. Barnabas sounds awfully similar to Paul. While a little more grand in gesture and wording, he is obviously as educated and as skilled at putting together a sentence. He knew him very well, and it probably would’ve been easy for him to imitate his friend in writing something if he wished to sound more credible or be respected.
The Subject Matter
While the authorship controversy is intriguing, what really caught my eye were the topics discussed and the nature in which they are addressed.
The author wastes no time getting to the point. I mean, no time. The first sentence immediately establishes the point of the whole message: the supremacy of Jesus. (If you didn’t get the joke with the title, I pray you get it now…)
We really hit the ground running here. Within the first 4 verses, we get 7 different descriptions and justifications of who Jesus is. He is described as:
- The heir of all things – establishing his royalty and dominion over everything.
- Maker of the world(s) – the Greek word here is aion, which is where our word eons comes from. Basically, all of history is his creation.
- The radiance of the glory of God – the Greek word here (apaugasma) had two meanings: the intelligent mind that created the universe (aka logos) and the radiance that shines from a source of light, much like rays of the sun.
- The exact imprint of his nature – Jesus is a real-boy version of God himself.
- Upholder of the universe by his power – establishing him as the maintainer of all things.
- The purifier of our sins – shows his loving nature in that he gave his life for us.
- Sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high – shows a position of honor and glory, as well as a sign of a job that is done.
Wow. All of that in three sentences.
So what’s the big deal?
Whoever the heck is writing this is not playing, you guys. They come in guns blazing.
The book of Hebrews is directed toward the Jews in general, not to a particular city or sect like the others. And they. get. blasted.
There is a consistent defining of who Jesus was, and what he came to accomplish. Whether this is addressed to “born-again” Jewish Christians, or those who did not believe the gospel accounts at all, it cuts right to the chase: Jesus is better than anyone or anything ever, and if you think differently, you are wrong.
*This website has a selection from John MacArthur’s bible studies series, specifically the one on Hebrews. It’s where most of my forthcoming information originates.
The Hebrew people had a problem in first century Rome- one that they were still waiting for a savior to swoop in and, well, save them from. This was a point of contention that we see argued right at the beginning, in chapter 2. The writer states:
16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
This is where things get real. Here’s the thing with the whole “high priest” title: he was the most special snowflake of all the snowflakes in Israel.
This takes us all the way back to the Old Testament, where we will quickly learn about what a covenant is, and why it was made, and how it worked.
Okay, so this is a general timeline of the covenants. There are several of these, which are listed in the infographic below.
A covenant is defined as an “agreement.” So basically, God promised these things to Israel and in return, they would be his chosen people, or his example to the world. The way that they did this was by following his commandments (not just the 10 famous ones), one of which required sacrifice of an innocent for the atonement of their shortcomings. This was a detailed process, and where we meet the high priest.
Who was the High Priest?
Until the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., the high priest was the supreme religious leader of the Jews. This office was obtained through lineage, passed down generation to generation. The person that was ultimately chosen from the genetic pool had to be physically immaculate, as well as behaviorally sound. He had to be the closest thing to perfect that a human could get, pretty much. Once this person was chosen, according to the law requiring a sacrifice for the sins of the whole congregation, he was allowed to enter into the most sacred part of the temple. He, and only he, could go here and offer the sacrifice to the protagonist. Here’s an example of a temple back in the day, and who was allowed where.
So, the high priest was a pretty unique job, one that not everyone- actually, almost no one- was qualified for. The Jewish people really held this guy to a high standard, and for that reason, he was put on kind of a pedestal.
And the writer of Hebrews just knocks him right off.
Jesus as the High Priest
This message is for both the groups of people we talked about earlier- Jewish Christians who had converted, and Jews who did not believe the story at all.
Again, in John MacArthur’s study excerpt, we see a list of problems that both groups of people were facing. They were:
- Looking for the perfect priest…
Christ is a better priest making a better sacrifice. That is the message of the book of Hebrews to the Jewish people. To the believer the writer says, “Have confidence in the new covenant.” To the intellectually convinced he says, “Receive it; don’t fall into perdition when you’re only a step away.” And to the unbeliever he says, “Look at how much better it is. Receive Christ.” All their lives the Jewish people had been looking for the perfect priest and the perfect final sacrifice. The writer tells them He is found in Jesus Christ. The superiority of Christ is the theme of the book of Hebrews.
- Letting go of the Old Covenant
The Jews always had a divine religion and a divinely appointed place of worship. Difficulty arose when presenting the truth to the Jew because he would say, “I already know the truth.” It was not easy for him to make the transition because he saw it as a complete forsaking of all his God- authored heritage. It was a natural desire for a Christian Jew to retain some of the forms and ceremonies that were a part of his life when he was brought up. That was part of the problem faced by the writer of Hebrews–confronting the born-again Jew about letting go of his past. That was especially hard for him since the Temple was still standing and the priests were continuing to minister. It was easier after the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70.
- Living a better life
Everything in Hebrews is presented as something better. These phrases are just a sample of those better things: a better hope, a better testament, a better promise, a better sacrifice, a better substance, a better country, and a better resurrection. Hebrews presents Jesus Christ, and we are presented as being in Him–dwelling in a new dimension: the heavenlies. In Hebrews we can read about the heavenly Christ, the heavenly calling, the heavenly gift, the heavenly country, and the heavenly Jerusalem. Everything is new and better. We don’t need the old anymore.
John MacAthur puts it much nicer than I would have.
The writer brings up several points in Jewish custom which don’t really matter anymore, under the new covenant, and is very straight-forward about why they are useless in this time. The Jews- Christian or otherwise- were obviously having a hard time with this transition, and the author of Hebrews seems to be very serious and eager about getting them to reach the end of that and move on.
That was a lot, but I feel much more informed now. I hope you do, too. May your coffee be strong, and your Monday be short. G’bye!