Hebrews: A NT Overview

Much like other books of the Bible, Hebrews opens with a statement connecting its narrative to the big picture of God’s work in the world.  The assertion that “God has spoken already in many and various ways…” suggests that God now, in the time of the author, has more to say about the divine intentions for the world. And God is about to tell us what that is. It is also the author’s tacit acknowledgment that this message stands in continuity with what has already been “spoken.”

In one sentence, the book of Hebrews reveals the culmination in Jesus Christ of God’s unchanging love for the world shown in the design of creation, the nature of human life and worship, the character of faithful living and obedience as the means through which God through Jesus restores the world and how all this is foretold in the Old Testament.  This is a rich history of God’s covenant that never ends.

Much is uncertain and unknown about the author of Hebrews. The options have segued from St Paul to  Luke, to Barnabas, to Priscilla .  The Epistle to the Hebrews, as it is canonically known, was circulated as a part of the Pauline Letters during the early life of the church. Tertullian (c 155 – c 240 AD), in the second century, adopted the view that Barnabas was the author.  Others have suggested Clement of Rome.  No disagreement about authorship, however, has led to the removal of the Letter from the canonical collection which became the New Testament.  The strength of its internal message and the continuity with other biblical material, allowed its “inspired” nature to remain in spite of the uncertainty of authorship.  Origen, writing at the same time as Tertullian states, “But as to who wrote the epistle, only God knows the truth.”  Martin Luther, writing in 1522 states that though he once had held to the Pauline authorship, he did so no longer, stating, “in the first place, the fact that Hebrews is not an epistle of St Paul or any other apostle…who wrote it is not known, and will probably not be known for a while; it makes no difference.”  At a later point, while lecturing on Genesis, according to notes taken by students, Luther suggested that the early Christian evangelist Apollos may have authored Hebrews.

The association between the text of Hebrews and St Paul might be found in Tertullian’s view that Barnabas is the author. “For there is extant withal an Epistle to the Hebrews under the name of Barnabas—a man sufficiently accredited by God, as being one whom Paul has stationed next to himself…”  Tertullian knew of such a document.  The textual connection with St Paul could be based on the extensive and intimate friendship and on-going shared ministry between the two men.  It was the early Christian community in Jerusalem that sent Barnabas to look into the expanding church in Antioch and led to his enjoining Paul to be involved.

Like much modern study of the scriptures where many and various theories are presented as to the authorship of this or that book of the Bible, the ultimate authority of the texts lays elsewhere. While it may not be a satisfying answer to some, the language of “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” as suggested by John Calvin may be useful. In the same way that the unknown author of Hebrews can site “many and various” events in past time where God has addressed Israel, without identifying them specifically, so an epistle, in this case, ultimately must rely on God’s stamp of authenticity as one reads it to be assured of its authority. God’s witness to God’s Word is the ultimate determination of its place as canon.  The anonymous Letters to the Hebrews is such a piece of literature.

Theology

Barnabas Lindars, writing in “The Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews” (1991) states, “The author of Hebrews ranks with Paul and the Fourth Evangelist as one of the three great theologians of the New Testament.” The challenge presented in this statement is the “popularity” of Hebrews.  It’s message and intricate argument for the ultimate superiority of Jesus as the promised and now fulfilled Savior of the World is a biblical book not regularly read.  It’s reading requires some background and understanding of the OT and the character profiles of significant biblical personalities.  The OT “cloud of witnesses” amount to a history lesson in God, God’s decisions, and God’s plans for the world through Israel.  That is a big theology.  The Book of Hebrews presents that theology from beginning to end from the “many and various” ways God has worked as the penultimate presentation of His ways to the ultimate means of the divine accomplishment in the person of Jesus. Unlike Paul’s focus on Justification by Faith and the work of Sanctification through the Spirit, or John’s cosmic and spiritual Jesus, Hebrews is about the Priestly legacy of Jesus, connecting him to the Priestly figure of Melchizedek and the history of the Atonement as the foundation for the writer’s Christology.  As Lindars points out, these are added dimensions to Paul’s and John’s Christology and development of the atoning work of Jesus. “In Hebrews, we have a glimpse into a segment of earliest Christianity unknown from other sources.” Reading Hebrews is an importation yet challenging addition to the Churches understanding of how faithfulness and worship before God are built into the very fabric of life.

A further challenge with Hebrews is captured by Lindars in a striking set of paragraphs that are worth quoting in full:

“Unfortunately, the argument of Hebrews is not easily grasped.  Many readers are baffled by it. It is constantly interrupted by digressions and moral exhortations. These sometimes display an appalling rigorism, which has caused misery to readers of a tender conscience all through the centuries.  When the main argument is resumed, the reader hopes to follow it better, but soon gets lost once more.

A more serious difficulty is that the whole argument has an alien character from a modern point of view.  There are constant quotations from Scripture, but the method of using it is difficult for modern people to appreciate.  The preoccupation with the details of ancient laws of sacrifice is liable to make the reader feel out of sympathy with the author.  In any case, it belongs to a world view, which is very different from our own.  The connection with the death of Jesus often seems artificial.  In general, the argument seems to belong to an enclosed world of meaning, which is archaic and not immediately accessible to us today.” (ibid, 2f)

We will have to face this difficulty directly as we move through Hebrews. The focus on the OT is the two fold themes of Covenant and Law.  The Covenant between God and Israel came first and the Law came as a means of reminding Israel that the Covenant was first.  St Paul uses the books of Romans and Galatians to remind his readers of this relationship and the primacy of the graciousness of the covenant through faith.  But for many Christians the history of Israel has been maligned as a “wrong direction” and now over and to be forgotten.  Even set aside.  St Paul however broadens the meaning of the Law to show that all forms of religious behavior can be used to provide a false security in people.  “Having the form of godliness” Paul says to Timothy, can make people think they also have its power.  The fact is that the form of religion is always an escape from the presence of God through faith and obedience.  For the writer of Hebrews, and his arguments against the sacrificial logic of the OT, the efficacious work of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the atonement for all human sin is a powerful corrective to the workings of the OT sacrifices.  Lindars suggests the writer of Hebrews “thinks of the saving act of God in Christ as the decisive event which starts the new era of everlasting life, the transition from the era of the old covenant to the new.” (ibid 24)  We are not called back to religious behavior but forward in faith and trust in the work of Jesus our Lord.

The focus on the OT satisfies another critical argument shared by both St Paul and the author of Hebrews.  The OT is a sign-post to the true purpose of the Law and the intent of God’s work with the people of Israel.  This “sign-post” has to do with the role of Israel in history and the means of discerning the hand of God upon Israel as propaedeutic for the coming of the Messiah as God’s anointed (selected and elected) ruler over the people God has created.  The book of Hebrews acts then as a lexicon of OT themes and metaphors to bear this out and provides the deep grammar of the OT as opposed to the thin ritual adherence which is used to demonstrate “godliness” without understand the true “power” and wisdom of God’s ways.  From the function of angels to the role of the priesthood, from the prophetic voice to the faithfulness of “a cloud of witnesses,” Hebrews draws constant parallels to the person of Christ and His faithful execution of God’s intent of obedience and faithfulness.  In Christ there is the paradigm of the faithful witness.  Israel was proleptically the “elect of God” which is finally realized in the incarnate, priestly, and risen Christ.  The law and the saccrifices of the OT were also indicators of a more faithful and ultimate atonement for the sins of the people, in that they pointed to their limitations and to the ultimate realization of forgiveness through God’s messiah.  It is that constant reminder of the limitations of the OT yet their pointing and witness function to God’s Messiah, “now in these days,” that is the burden of the rhetorical work of Hebrews.

Author: Paul H Mannes

Paul is an IT Professional in DC area. He was theologically trained at Fuller Theological Seminary in the mid-70s and has continued to read, write, teach, and think about the relationship between the bible and life. Paul is married to a talented and professional Psychotherapist names Susan. We have 4 grown children, 1 grandchild (so far).

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