Additional Thoughts on the Letter to the Hebrews (II of II) -- Audience and Purpose

I began by going over the more basic issues of authorship and date. Here I continue by discussing the more disputed issues of audience and purpose. These two issues are enterwined and can be summed up in the title:

Who was the letter sent to and why?

It is not entirely clear who, specifically, Hebrews was sent to. Although not so titled by the author, our earliest sources indicate it was written "To the Hebrews." This is in the earliest manuscript evidence, p46, and the earliest overt reference to the epistle by Clement of Alexandria in 180 CE. Internal evidence also strongly suggests a Jewish Christian audience. No other N.T. book uses the O.T. so thoroughly and the majority of scholars maintain that Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians.

The question of which Jewish Christians, however, has been less clear. The traditional theory was that it was written to the Jewish Christians in Palestine. Another theory is that Hebrews was written to Hebrew Christians in Rome.

Although this question cannot be answered with certainty, I believe that the latter theory is most probably accurate. The greeting of fellow believers who had originally been from Italy seems to indicate that the recipients are in Italy. (13:24). John Drane, Introducing the New Testament, page 430. The reliance of 1 Clement on Hebrews is also indicative. It was written early (mid 90s) and from Rome. Early access to Hebrews would be expected in the church to whom the letter was written.

The reason Hebrews was written has been the subject of some debate. The majority view, however, is that it was written to Jewish Christians who were wavering in their Christianity. There are several references to the author's reason for writing being to prevent his readers from "drifting away" from their faith. (2:2, 3:12, 4:6, and 10:23 24).

While earlier theories believed that they were Jewish Christians who were inclined to leave Christianity behind altogether and return to Judaism, I find a more recent theory more probable. Raymond E. Brown and John P. Meir have put forth the theory that the target audience of Hebrews was Jewish Christians who were moving towards a more conservative Jewish Christianity than previously held, rather than an outright rejection of Christianity. Raymond Brown & John P. Meir, Antioch and Rome, pages 151-58.

These Jewish Christians had apparently been made public spectacles because of their Christianity, (10:33), and were tired of being outside the mainstream of their culture, (10:35). Another reason these Jewish Christians may have been modifying their beliefs to align more with Judaism is that this would offer them protection from Roman persecution as well. Drane, op. cit., page 424.

Judaism was a protected religion, Christianity was not. As a result, these Jewish Christians may have been moving away from the Gospel they had originally adhered towards a more conservative Jewish Christianity which would be more acceptable to their Jewish society and offer more protection from Roman persecution. There is even some indication that the Jewish Christians to which the letter is written had ceased fellowshipping with other (probably gentile) Christians. (10:25). In my opinion, such a refusal to meet with other Christians would be a foreshadowing of the Ebionites refusal to consider gentile converts as genuine Christians.

So what were the principles that these Jewish Christians were moving away from? Hebrews assumes they had a certain belief system, which it refers to as the "elementary principles of Christ." (6:1). What were those elementary principles? Hebrews records the following basics about Christianity: Jesus was Jewish and a descendant of Abraham. (2:14 16). He was descended from the tribe of Judah. (7:14). We was tested and suffered. (2:18). He cried out in prayer to be saved from death "in the days of his flesh." (5:7). He died by crucifixion, (12:2), "outside the gate of the city." (13:12). He was resurrected and sits at the right hand of God. (12:2).

But what was their original fundamental understanding of the meaning of these events? "By that we have all been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." (10:10. See also 7:27 and 9:15, 24.). They apparently believed that Jesus's death was an atoning death for our sins. The Letter to the Hebrews indicates, however, that they were moving from these beliefs towards a more conservative Jewish Christianity. They seemed to question the dependency on Jesus's atoning death, rather than the sacrificial system established in the O.T., as well as the association with gentile Christians.

Summary: Jewish Christians faced a particularly bleak problem during the first century. Although they drew their very identifies from inclusion in the Jewish race and religion, Judaism and Christianity were moving away from each other. They increasingly faced hostility from a group central to the formation of their identify and persecution from the Roman authorities. Some faced pressure to alter their Christian beliefs to be more reflective of Judaism in order to gain acceptance from their social groups and protection from Roman persecution. The Letter to the Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish Christians, probably in Rome, who were faced with these problems. They had apparently moved away from the centrality of Jesus' atoning death and had withdrawn from fellowship with other Christians (probably gentiles). Its author encouraged them to return to their faith, maintain fellowship with other Christians, and trust to Jesus, rather than Temple Judaism, for their atonement.


Peter Kirby said…
Should 1 Clement by dated to the mid 90s? Why not earlier? Or, perhaps, later?
Layman said…

Sorry, but I missed this comment. I was using the standard dating for 1 Clement. It's been a while since I looked into the dating. I'll check my notes.

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