Some Thoughts on The Letter to the Hebrews (I of II) – Authorship and Date

The Letter to the Hebrews sometimes seems likely the lonely child of the New Testament. It's at the end of the Pauline letters, but stands apart because it was not written by Paul. Unlike the Petrine and Johannine letters it has no siblings. Yet in many ways it is the clearest statement by a member of the early movement articulationg how Christianity was different than -- and in the opinion of the author -- superior to, the Judaism of his time. I find it fascinating. So, I'm going to offer some of my thoughts on the authorship, date, audience, and purpose of the Letter to the Hebrews. This is the first of two.

Who wrote it?

The Eastern Church had long maintained the tradition that it was written by Paul, but the Western Church resisted attributing the letter to Paul until the Fourth Century. Because of linguistic and stylistic differences between Hebrews and the verified Pauline Epistles (not to mention the lack of a claim to Pauline authorship in the letter itself), various theories of alternative authorship have been advanced: Luke, Apollos (Martin Luther's suggestion), Barnabas, and Priscilla (Christian feminists’ suggestion). However, in the end, I agree with Origen (and most contemporary scholars) on the authorship of Hebrews. "[W]ho it was who really wrote the epistle, God only knows."

But we should not confuse our ability to know the specific identify of an author with our ability to know something important about him. The following seems clear: He was a Jew. He was a man of high literary ability. His Greek is considered the finest of any New Testament. He was very knowledgeable of the Old Testament and relied on the Septuagint version of the O.T. He was a friend of Paul's disciple, Timothy. (13:23). It is also clear that the author of Hebrews was not an Apostle. Nor was he an actual hearer of Jesus. He makes it clear, however, that he has been taught by those who were actual hearers of Jesus. (2:3).

When was it written?

Dating of N.T. books is notoriously controversial, but Hebrews must have been written prior to 96 AD because it is quoted in 1 Clement (1 Clem. 36:1- 6), which was written by that time. So we have a latest possible date. Our job now is to glean additional information from the internal evidence.

First, Timothy – very likely Paul's disciple – is mentioned as recently being released from prison. (12:23). So Hebrews was written before his death. Given the life expectancies of the time and allowing for the fact that Timothy joined with Paul as a young man in about 48-50 CE, this adds some indication that it was written prior to the end of the first century.

Second, the reference to persecution, but not “to the point of blood,” (12:2), seems to indicate a period before the Neronian persecution in Rome. However, Hebrews also seems to discuss a rising level of persecution, so a time frame just before the Neronian persecution in 64 CE may be appropriate. While this point is only valid if the letter was directed to a Roman audience, I discuss below why I believe it was sent to Rome.

Third, and most important, the writer of Hebrews assumes the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem and the ongoing religious activities associated with it. This is the strongest point indicating a date before 70 CE, when the temple was destroyed.

Sacrifices were offered at the Temple in Jerusalem. Once it was destroyed the sacrifices ceased and Judaism focused on the study of Torah and the Synagogue. However, despite the fact that the destruction of the temple would have provided overwhelming support for his argument that Judaism's system of sacrifices to atone for sins was destined to pass away, the author of Hebrews nowhere mentions it.

Moreover, his writings show in many places that he is discussing the ongoing practices of sacrifice which only could have taken place in the Temple in Jerusalem. Hebrews 10:1-2 states, "For the law, having a shadow of a good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered?" (See also 9:6-7, 13:11). So, the best conclusion is that Hebrews was written between 64-69 CE.


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