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Hebrews: Background & Introduction

01.06.2011

As I mentioned in last month’s Hebrews post, the most interesting metadatum about Hebrews is that we don’t know who the author is.  From the earliest recorded mention of the book (in the early 2nd century), no one seems to know. 

Paul is the most popular candidate, which makes sense since many of the ideas are Pauline.  However, the language and structure of the letter is so different that it’s unlikely.  Internal clues indicate that it’s a close associate of Paul’s who was not a witness to the resurrection or ministry of Christ and who knew Timothy well. 

With this in mind, Luke, Apollos, and Barnabas jump out as obvious candidates.  I’m going to go with Apollos because the letter is being written to Rome (from whence he came, as recorded in Acts) and ends by saying that ‘those who come from Italy send you greetings,’ which I take to be Priscilla and Aquila, with whom Apollos left Rome.

Regardless of your preferred author, it’s interesting that the church has never really questioned the canonicity of this letter.  Much of a New Testament book’s legitimacy comes from the authority of its author, but Hebrews has none and has still been generally accepted as inspired scripture.  Augustine implied that the author did not bear on the canonicity of Hebrews since it had been ‘honored daily by being read in the churches.’  This lends credence to the Catholic doctrine of the authority of tradition as an interpretive lens for scripture and as a means of divine revelation.*

In AD 70 the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans.  Since a core argument of Hebrews is that temple sacrifices have become obsolete, most scholars cite the lack of reference to this destruction as the dog that didn’t bark, indicating that it hadn’t happened when Hebrews was written.  This puts the date of composition likely between AD 65 and 70.

I would outline the thesis of Hebrews thusly: 

Jesus Christ is greater than any angel or priest or Old Covenant institution.  The superiority of Christ makes the cultic practices of the Law obsolete, illustrating that they never had the redemptive power that had been assigned to them by men.  Instead, redemption is rooted in who Christ is, the Son of God and Most High Priest who alone has the authority and ability to uphold our end of the Covenant.

This will be unpacked further, of course, as we read through the book, but I think it’s a useful marker to keep in mind.  The central topic, then, is going to be one of Christology, the study of Christ’s person.  Remember the central question of faith: who do we say that Christ is?  Specifically, Hebrews is concerned with the roles Christ fills as God’s Son: Priest, Redeemer, King.  We’ll be keeping an eye out for the implications that these roles have for our understanding of Christ’s ministry, of the Kingdom of God, and of our salvation.

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* This is an area of considerable interest for me, and I think it’s a fascinating contrast between Protestant and Catholic philosophy.  I recommend The Meaning of Tradition by Yves Congar on this topic.

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