The Epistle to the Hebrews
Author and timing of the Epistle to the Hebrews:
Naturally, the subject and substance of any epistle would be more important than any of its other elements. However, the author’s identity of this particular epistle is of exceptional importance, since his name is not mentioned at the beginning! This is contrary to most of the Old and New Testament books.
+ Who, then, is the author of the “Epistle to the Hebrews?” Why has he not mentioned his name in the epistle’s heading? Compilation of the New Testament books was completed by the middle of the third century; since then, prevailing thought in our Oriental Churches has been that this epistle was authored by St. Paul. This view is supported by the argument that the epistle’s style is St. Paul’s. By virtue of its uniqueness, though, the epistle’s structure differs from his other lengthy epistles (the epistles to the Romans and the Corinthians). On the other hand, there are many common ideas and expressions.
The issue, however, is not that simple. It took the first three centuries after Christ’s birth for the churches to agree on the author’s identity. The dawn of the fourth century saw semi-agreement, that the epistle was authored by St. Paul; that semi-agreement was among the Oriental Churches and, specifically, the School of Alexandria, as well as the Church’s Caesarian historian Eusebius, St. Pantenus (according to the testimony of St. Clement of Alexandria, his disciple), and St. Athanasius.
The great scholar Origen quoted from, and admitted the legality of, the epistle, while not conceding that St. Paul authored it. He did say that St. Paul’s views were reflected therein, but that someone else recorded them for him in that epistle.
The Occidental Church generally accepted the legality of the epistle and the fact that it was part of the New Testament books. This belief was initially rejected by Cyprian, Tertullian, Irenaeus and Hippolytus. Eventually, that belief was accepted by Church forefathers Hilary, Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine. The latter, though, retracted his acceptance of this belief, while not rejecting the epistle’s legality; this is now the prevailing viewpoint of most contemporary scholars. Some people have attributed this epistle either to St. Luke 1 or to one of St. Paul’s companions: Barnabas, Silas or Apollos2.
+ There remains one more question: If the epistle’s author were indeed St. Paul, why did he not start by mentioning his name, similarly to all his other epistles?
In this context, it is worth noting that St. Paul was known to the early Church as an apostle to the Gentiles. Consequently, he felt less con-strained by Jewish rites than the disciples who evangelized the Jews. As a result, many Christians who were of Jewish origin had an aversion to him. Hence, we read the following, in the Acts, about St. Paul: “… but they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses …” (Acts 21:21) Since the epistle was directed at the Hebrew Christians, St. Paul felt it befitting not to mention his name, lest that should constitute an impediment to their reading it in a positive light, and a hindrance to their evangelizing their other Jewish brethren.
Positioning the “Epistle to the Hebrews” at the end of St. Paul’s other letters, including the short ones, implies acceptance, but not unequivocally, that he was indeed the author thereof – otherwise that epistle would have occupied a position among, or immediately after, the longer ones (Romans and Corinthians).
This epistle is important and well-balanced, and bears St. Paul’s style and viewpoints; the Church’s forefathers thus agreed to position it after all his other letters, while faithfully retaining its title, as handed down to them, and refraining from adding St. Paul’s name.
+ We now come to the issue of location: “Where was the apostle when he wrote this epistle?” And, “Where were the recipients of the epistle to whom he wrote in Greek 3?”
Concerning the first question: it is said that St. Paul wrote it in Asia Minor, or in one of the Greek cities, during the period between his first and second imprisonments (given that “Timothy” is mentioned at the end of the epistle – a well-known name in the Church, then). Naturally, he could not have written it in Rome, since it would have made no sense to say “Those from Italy greet you” (!) This would seem to prove that he was writing from outside Italy, to the Hebrews in Italy4. We can also deduce that he wrote it before the years 66/67 A.D. (when he was martyred). Furthermore the epistle’s body indicates that the temple was still standing (before 70 A.D.)
Concerning the second question: since the epistle, written in Greek, was directed at Greek-speaking Jewish believers who had read their books in Greek, then they must have been residing outside of Judaea (where the Jews spoke Aramaic and understood Hebrew). The possibilities are as follows:
1. They were Jews of the diaspora, who had been scattered in small groups throughout the Roman Empire, and who had originated in one of the Italian cities (given the clause “Those from Italy greet you”) and who had emigrated – and St. Paul was outside Italy.
2. They lived in Alexandria, where the Torah had been translated to Greek (the Septuagint, in the third century B.C.) and where the Jews spoke Greek.
3. Those to whom the epistle was addressed were experiencing severe persecution, living amidst a militant Jewish majority. Such circumstances could have prevailed anywhere: Judaea, Asia, Europe.
There are indications that the author not only knew the epistle’s addressees quite well, but he was also familiar with their spiritual background. Here are supporting excerpts:
“… since you have become dull of hearing … and you have come to need milk and not solid food.” (Heb. 5:11 & 12)
“You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.” (Heb. 12:4)
(To be contd.)
+ + +
Oration on Easter by St. Gregory Nazianzen
Let Us Become Like Christ,
Since Christ Became Like Us
Yesterday I was crucified with Him;
today I am glorified with Him;
yesterday I died with Him; today I am quickened with Him;
yesterday I was buried with Him; today I rise with Him. But let us offer to Him Who died and rose again for us—you will think perhaps that I am going to say gold, or silver, or woven work or transparent and costly stones, the mere passing material of earth…. Let us offer ourselves, the possession most precious to God, and most akin…. Let us become like Christ, since Christ became like us. Let us become gods for His sake, since He for ours became Man.
He assumed the worse that He might give us the better;
He became poor that we through His poverty might be rich (2Cor 8:9);
He took upon Him the form of a servant that we might receive back our liberty;
He came down that we might be exalted;
He was tempted that we might conquer;
He was dishonored that He might glorify us;
He died that He might save us;
He ascended that He might draw to Himself us, who were lying low in the Fall of sin. Let us give all, offer all, to Him Who gave Himself a Ransom and a Reconciliation for us. But one can give nothing like oneself, understanding the Mystery, and becoming for His sake all that He became for ours.
Oration I, on Easter; NPNF, 2nd Ser.; Vol. VII, p. 203.
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- This viewpoint is based on Origen’s opinion, namely, St. Luke was one of St. Paul’s companions, he authored the Book of Acts, and he was familiar with St. Paul’s line of thinking. ↩
- This last view deserves more detailed study which is presented here for further consideration. Apollos of Alexandria was described by Luke in Acts 18:24-26. This description conforms with what is expected of the author of Hebrews regarding his style, eloquence and knowledge of the scriptures. From the time of his first meeting with Paul (1 Cor. 16:12) Apollos became one of St. Paul’s companions (Titus 3:13). The incident of Corinth (1 Cor. 1:12-17, Acts 18:27-28) points to Apollos’ efficiency in preaching, and this may have been the reason why he didn’t want to return to Corinth (1 Cor. 12:16). Most likely he felt that this may increase the division in Corinth, revealing at the same time his wisdom and humility, as well as his desire to stay in the shadow of St. Paul. Although certain verses in the Epistle point more to St. Paul as the author such as “for you had compassion on me” (Heb. 10:34 and Acts 21-23), this may mean that both had participated in writing the Epistle. ↩
- In order to circumvent this problem, it was said that this epistle was initially written in Hebrew, and then translated to Greek by St. Luke. ↩
- In the Arabic language version of the Holy Bible, the phrase “written from Italy at the hands of Timothy” appears at the end of the epistle. This phrase is not part of the epistle; rather, it was taken from an old Christian saying associated with the epistle. ↩