Tradition tells us that Paul sent this epistle before 70 AD to the Christian Jews of Jerusalem known as Hebrews. This tradition was repeated in: ‘A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture’ of 1953, but ignored sixteen years later. The revised edition adopted the Markan theory that it was written, about 80-90 AD, by an anonymous person, from an unknown place, to a mainly Gentile community, probably in Rome. ((NCCHS 929a, b and 932b)).
The Council of Trent in 1546 issued a decree placing the Epistle in the list of the 14 by Paul. But, although Trent favoured Paul’s authorship, it did not directly define it ((CCHS 928a)).
In the early church some had doubted Paul’s authorship and these doubts were revived by the Markans in the 19th century. But in June 1914 the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) stated that; ‘No such force is to be attributed to those early doubts’ ((CCHS 928a)).
Trent defined the Epistle as sacred, canonical and inspired by the Holy Spirit, but, Paul’s authorship is not so clear as the authorship of the Gospels of Matthew and John. So according to the PBC, a scholar is at liberty to doubt Paul’s authorship if he should decide.
As critics have failed to find a valid reason to deny the historical evidence for Paul’s authorship, there is no reason why it should not be taught in schools.
Reasons for rejecting the critics of the traditional opinion are as follows:
They claim the Epistle is not written in Paul’s normal style. But we do not know how to recognise the normal style of Paul when he wrote in Hebrew.
Critics point out that after Origen had studied the authorship, he remarked ‘only God knows’. (It is worth noting how critics who deny the reliability of the early historians, quote them when thought to be useful in undermining Christianity).
These critics are creating a false impression. Origen stated that everyone agreed that the quality of Greek was better than that in the Epistles known to be by Paul. But everyone also agreed that the quality of thought was as found in Paul’s writings.
So Origen concluded that Paul composed the Epistle but another wrote it down. He praised those churches that accepted it as being by Paul, and went on to write: ‘But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows. … some saying that Clement [a bishop at Rome]… wrote the epistle, others that it was Luke, he who had written the Gospel and the Acts…’. ((EH 6: 25)). So Origen’s only doubt was regarding which secretary was working with Paul at the time.
Today, some say it has an Alexandrian flavour. They suggest the secretary for the original was Apollos, who came from Alexandria. Luke did praised Apollos for his writing ability (Acts 18: 24-28).
Clement of Alexandria had earlier recorded that the Epistle to the Hebrews was by Paul and had first been written for the Hebrews in the Hebrew tongue. He also said that Luke had carefully translated it for the Greeks; hence the style is the same as his Gospel and Acts. Clement goes on to explain that the words ‘Paul the Apostle’ were not prefixed because the Hebrews were prejudiced against him and he wisely did not repel them at the beginning by putting his name. ((EH 6: 14, 2-3)). So Clement of Alexandria and Origen both believed Paul had composed the Epistle, but were not sure who had held the pen. It is worth noting that no one suggested it was the creation of a theologian of an unknown ‘community’.
The discovery of James the Apostle preaching in the Temple was a great shock to the Jewish authorities. In response Christians were barred from the Temple. For years the Christians had been insisting on their loyalty to the laws and rituals of Judaism, so it was a painful psychological blow to be excluded from the sacred place. Their spiritual life and mental framework were bound up with the national form of worship. The Eucharist was held in simple rooms without the grandeur, formality and history associated with the Temple.
They had now to choose between worshipping exclusively outside the familiar cultural setting, or to deny Christ. At this critical moment Symeon, successor of James as bishop of Jerusalem, would not have possessed the same personal authority as James had done. With the other Apostles having left the Holy Land, the Christians would have felt themselves leaderless.
News of the crisis would have soon reached the whole Christian world and, if we accept the letter to the Hebrews as a response to this crisis, much falls into place. A careful reading shows it was addressed to a community soaked in knowledge of Jewish history with multiple references to Moses, Melchizedek, the Psalms and the ritual of the Temple. It is addressed to a community as if it was completely Jewish, with no mention of Gentiles or their needs. As far as we know, only in Jerusalem did such a community exist.
Critics claim that Rome also had a large Jewish population. This is true, but it is significant that the Jewish Christians addressed in the Epistle were under a great temptation to deny Christ, yet Gentile Christians were not, apparently, faced with the same temptation. The arguments employed in the fifth chapter of Hebrews, would have had no meaning for former pagans. It is also worth remembering that Paul, having been educated in the Temple, was aptly suited to compose this letter.
The opening words of the letter are: ‘In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; …’ There is no evidence the early Christians believed God had spoken through prophets to the Gentiles, so the epistle must have been addressed to a community of Jews. By writing ‘our fathers’ the author was claiming to be of the same race as the Jews he was addressing.
There are many passages which indicate it was written while the Temple was still standing. Examples are listed below with verbs in the present tense underlined.
7: 5 ‘And those descendents of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people …’.
8: 4-5 ‘…there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve as copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary’.
8: 13 ‘And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away’.
9: 6-9 ‘…go continually … performing …goes, and he but once a year … he offers
9: 13 ‘…sanctifies...’
9: 25 ‘…as the
high priest enters the
10: 1 ‘…sacrifices which are continually offered year after year …’
10: 3 ‘…there is a reminder of sin year after year’.
10: 11 ‘And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away our sins’.
13: 10 ‘We have an altar from which those who serve the tent [the sanctuary] have no right to eat’ [Is this an allusion to the Eucharist eaten from the Christian table?]’.
13: 11 ‘…blood is brought into the sanctuary …are burned’.
Note how 13: 10 is of particular interest regarding the period.
Critics have argued that Clement of Rome, when describing Temple ritual, had used the present tense, although he was writing in 96 AD. The answer to this argument is discussed in: Dating Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthians, which is included in our list of suggested further reading.
Much of Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews is devoted to showing the superiority of the Christian priesthood compared to the Levitical priesthood. This is achieved by returning to the Jewish history of sacrifice and then leading up to the statement that it “is becoming obsolete and growing old” (Heb. 8:13). If this had been written after 70 AD, why did the author not use the crowning proof of his thesis? By then the Temple, the Levitical priesthood and its sacrifices, were not merely ‘becoming obsolete and growing old’, but had gone forever.
In order to explain this use of the present tense, Markans claim the author was describing the ritual originally used in the desert not that used in the Herodian temple. So let us look a little closer. In chapter 7: 1-4, Paul recounts the institution as given in Exodus 25-26, so uses the past tense. But when in verse 5 he is describing the current practice he changes to the present tense. In verse 6 he explains the reason for the present practice.
Markan literature implies the author was ignorant of how
The recipients were reminded of the earlier abuse and torment of their community (Heb.10: 32-34, 13: 3) and urged not to stay away from the assemblies (Heb. 10: 24). As the Sanhedrin had prohibited Jewish Christians from entering the Temple ((BC 121)), to be seen attending a Christian assembly would have provided evidence for exclusion.
The recipients were also reminded how Moses rejected the things of this world and, how Christ was executed outside Jerusalem (Heb.13: 12). His followers must be willing to accept the same ignominy as those with leprosy of being driven to live apart (Lev. 13: 46) outside the camp [nation] of Israel (Heb.13: 12-14).
Their correct cause of action would be a stigma (Heb. 11:26). Many of those in Jerusalem would have personally heard Christ himself (Heb. 2:3). The example of the faith of Abraham is given (Heb. 11:8-10). He went out not knowing whither he went. In 11:27 we are reminded that by faith Moses left Egypt. And in 13:7 and 17, readers are urged to listen to their leaders.
One Markan argument, for this Epistle not having been addressed to
As James was killed in 62 and the Christians fled from Jerusalem in 68, the date of the Epistle would be between these dates. Before the arrival of Markan priority, a date of 62-64 was considered the most likely ((CCHS 929b)).
It is not surprising that copies have been found in Italy but not near Palestine. After arriving at Pella there would have been little or no incentive for the refugees to make copies. However, as the destruction of the Temple would have traumatised every Jew in the Empire, the Greek speaking Christian Jews living in Italy and Asia would have been very interested. So the Greek translation would most likely have appeared soon after 70 AD. Modern literary analysis shows its style to be closer to that of Luke than to any other New Testament writing ((PCB 880c)). This confirms the words of Clement of Alexandria.
In the last chapter of Hebrews, we read; “The brethren from Italy send their greetings”. Some claim this shows the Epistle was addressed to Rome, others that it was sent from Rome. Both views are nothing more than speculation. The words indicate that some Italians living near Paul were concerned about the difficulties of those to whom he was writing. Thousands of Italian Christians had been expelled from Rome in 49 and had settled in Asia. It is likely to have been some of these who sent their greetings.