A Little Essay on Reading the Letter to the Hebrews
The Revised Common Lectionary has seven readings in 2015 and four readings in 2016 from the New Testament work called, “To the Hebrews.” For modern readers this is a strange work, ensconcing us in esoteric features of Israelite scriptures and the events of a divine liturgy taking place in heaven! (Over the years that I have commented on these readings I have repeatedly felt the need to give a simpler, and hopefully clearer, explanation of this strange but remarkable early Christian writing. This is finally it.)
We listen to this work because it is given to us by our tradition, and the Lectionary will take us to some powerful and awesome passages about the heavenly Son of God who became the very human servant of God – and about the pilgrimage on which Jesus followers are embarked. However, to follow – much less appreciate – these words some orientation is needed, and this short essay offers the following: (1) a broad historical background, (2) what we know (and do not know) about this writing, and (3) the two points of its message, namely, the Revelation and the Pilgrimage.
1) Historical Background.
The Early Jesus Movement. The early Christians had a whopping experience. Paul lists the early witnesses to the Risen Jesus: Cephas (Peter), James (the brother of Jesus), Paul himself, and some group experiences associated with those early leaders (“the twelve,” “more than 500 brothers,” and “all the apostles”; I Corinthians 15:3-8, written around 55 CE, 25 years after Jesus’ death). Whatever the nature of those experiences, the charismatic movement leaped ahead like a brush fire, and group after group – both Jewish and non-Jewish – were caught up in it. What was common to the various outbursts, across the eastern Roman empire, was the certainty that the man Jesus had been taken by God from the dead and endowed with heavenly rule and power. That heavenly charisma was now seizing people, transforming their lives, and gradually shaping them into new sectarian groups of believers.
At first it was a Jewish movement, the fulfillment of large but vague expectations that God was going to reverse the domination of evil in the world by inaugurating a new age and a new movement of God’s elect folks. The basic orientation was provided by, for example, the Hebrew-Aramaic scroll of Daniel, put in various Greek translations by the time of Jesus. This scroll featured at its center the divine elevation and empowerment of “the one like a son of man” (Daniel 2-7, but especially Daniel 7:9-10 and 13-14). This heavenly figure of the new age came to earth covertly in the man Jesus of Nazareth.
The people of the early Jesus movement were certain this divine drama had begun to unfold, and that the resurrection of Jesus (not just reviving a dead body, but a heavenly bolt into the death-dominated world of human experience) was the cosmic breakthrough of a new heavenly age. Inclusion in the blessed salvation of that new age was available to those who joined themselves totally to Jesus’ new community of the saved!
The Second (the Writing) Generation. The leaders of this movement in its various regions were executed in the early 60’s of the Christian era: James the brother of Jesus in Jerusalem, Cephas (Peter) the main voice in Antioch (though he was executed in Rome), and Paul, founder of the non-Jewish or mixed congregations in Asia Minor and Greece (also executed in Rome). People had believed that the heavenly reign of Jesus would come to earth in the life-time of those apostles, and their common life reflected that expectation (see Paul’s earliest surviving writing, First Thessalonians, written around 50 CE). However, when that world-ending event still did not happen, the Spirit kept moving onward anyway. The new life in these congregations was itself enough of a new movement of God to keep the Spirit-movement expanding and drawing in lost people of the Roman world. (This viewpoint was presented in Luke’s second scroll, called “Acts of the Apostles.”)
For the first time, people were growing up from childhood as Jesus people, shaped by their lives in these new communities. Regular practices of initiation, instruction, celebration, and approved behavior became institutionalized in the various regional assemblies (churches) – and are recorded in the various New Testament writings. This is the context in which “To the Hebrews” was written, sometime between 60 and 90 CE.
2) What is Known and Unknown about Hebrews.
This writing calls Jesus a priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (5:6), and someone long ago quipped that as Melchizedek had no parents or offspring, so the letter to the Hebrews is a heavenly orphan, its author and first hearers unknown to history. The “unknowns” concerning the writing “To the Hebrews” are these: who wrote it, who it was addressed to, precisely when it was written, and the occasion of the writing.
What we DO know about “To the Hebrews,” are these things:
- It is written in the most polished and educated Greek in the New Testament.
- It was quoted by a Christian leader (Clement) writing from Rome around 100 CE.
- The writer was a master at the teaching and interpretation of the Jewish scriptures in Greek, and expected his or her hearers to be familiar with a main body of readings from those scriptures (Torah, prophets, and psalms).
- The people addressed had been Christians for some time, were under pressure (very vague), and were in danger of losing faith and drifting away from the Jesus people.
- And, finally, the writer was an authoritative leader and pastor to the congregation(s) addressed, describing and warning them as one who knew them well (see especially Hebrews 5:11-6:1).
Possible Authors. While the author is not explicitly identified, there are some good guesses as to who wrote the work. The excellent Greek, the mastery of the scriptures in Greek, and the authoritative pastor/teacher status are suggestive identifiers. It needs to be said strongly that there must have been many people we do not know about who could have met these qualifications. However, if we confine ourselves to people we do know something about, there are two strong candidates for author of this work.
The first candidate (originally suggested by Martin Luther) is Apollos, the eloquent Jewish preacher/teacher from Alexandria (greatest center of higher learning in the Roman empire). According to Acts (18:24-28), Apollos had become a follower of Jesus before he came to Paul’s apostolic band of followers in Ephesus, but he “knew only the baptism of John [the Baptist]” (Acts 18:25). In Ephesus, Paul’s co-workers, Priscilla and Aquila (the woman is mentioned first – see more below), set Apollos straight about “the Way of God,” and Apollos went on to become a great preacher in the Pauline church in the Greek capital of Corinth, where “he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus” (Acts 18:28).
This picture of Apollos’ work in Corinth is confirmed by Paul in his correspondence to the Corinthians. He observes that there was an Apollos “party” in Corinth, apparently in some rivalry with a “Paul” party. (I Corinthians 1:12, where a “Peter” party is also mentioned, and even a “Christ” party.) Paul puts such rivalries in perspective: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (3:5-6, NRSV). It is clear that Apollos did some substantial work as preacher and teacher in Corinth – using the Jewish scriptures in Greek with a well-educated audience.
Apollos could have written this sermonic-treatise, later titled “To the Hebrews,” to either the Corinthians or the Ephesians long after Paul had gone to Rome. In it he demonstrated his mastery as a preacher from the Greek scriptures and his passionate concern for the people to whom he had long been a pastor. This could have been any time from 60 to 90 CE. (Luke was apparently still active and a leader in these same churches as late as 90 CE.)
The second candidate for author of “To the Hebrews” (defended by Adolf von Harnack around 1900) is the best candidate for a female author of a New Testament book, Priscilla. (“Prisca” is her proper name, used in Romans 16:3; I Corinthians 16:19; and II Timothy 4:19; "Priscilla" is a diminutive of the same name, Acts 18:2, 18, 26.). Priscilla was the wife of Aquila, a native of Pontus in Asia Minor (and presumably Greek speaking). Aquila and Priscilla had resided in Rome, from which they were expelled with other Jews by the emperor Claudius, around the year 49. They then migrated to Corinth, where Paul found them, took up residence with them, and joined their leather-working business (“tent-making”). (All this is in Acts 18:1-3.)
This is the Priscilla and Aquila who heard the powerful rhetoric of Apollos as he argued publicly that Jesus was the Messiah – but who then took him aside and corrected some of his teachings, particularly about the baptism of John (Acts 18:25-26). When we hear of this couple, Pricilla is often mentioned first (Acts 18:18, 26; Romans 16:3; II Timothy 4:19), indicating that the Christian churches thought of her as a leading figure. She and Aquila held a house-church in their home in Ephesus (I Corinthians 16:19), and presumably their home in Corinth was a center of evangelism in the year and a half Paul first worked in that city. When the last paragraph of Hebrews sends greetings from “those from Italy,” Priscilla and Aquila could have been the greeters.
Priscilla was pretty clearly a cosmopolitan person, having resided and conducted business in three of the five major cities in the Roman empire. If she and Aquila could teach Apollos, who had already learned “the Way of the Lord” in Alexandria, the fine points of the Christian confession, she clearly was well versed in the Jewish scriptures and commanded respect in the Christian communities in Rome and Corinth, as well as Ephesus. We have no direct evidence of her Greek style, but of her weight and authority in Christian teaching there is no reasonable doubt. The fact that she is mentioned prominently in Acts and in II Timothy suggests that she was around for some time after Paul had passed off the scene, and thus could have authored a Christian sermonic-treatise in the 70s or 80s.
But what of her gender? Didn’t Paul discourage women from teaching in churches (I Corinthians 14:34-35). There is clearly divided testimony on that, Paul acknowledging and praising many women leaders in many places, but telling the Corinthians, “women should be silent in churches” (I Corinthians 14:34, NRSV). That passage in I Corinthians, however, concludes a discussion in which Paul has been setting rules for limiting ecstatic outbursts and speaking in tongues during congregational services. He may have been carried away by insisting that women certainly NOT add to the confusion. (In I Corinthians 11:2-16 Paul insists that women had to have their heads covered in church, but speaking and prophesying are not ruled out if their heads are covered, see especially verse 5.)
Some masculine defenders of Hebrews have regarded as conclusive that the correct grammar of 11:32 shows that the author uses a masculine verbal form in a self-reference. The argument assumes, of course, that the complex grammar rules were precisely followed and that the copyists didn’t correct the key word over two hundred and fifty years of copying. We will take that grammatical feature of 11:32 as a rather minor objection to the possibility that Pricilla may have composed at least the main body of “To the Hebrews.”
It is also possible, of course, that as the decades passed, no woman could be acknowledged as having written such a work. By the third generation of the Christian movement, women were decidedly assigned to subordinate status, as in I Timothy 2:11-15 (written around 100-115 CE). The reason Hebrews contains no author’s name may be that the few who originally knew the truth realized the work would be better received without a name than with a woman’s name. Later generations, needing an “apostolic” authority for the work, resorted to calling it a letter of Paul, in spite of its gross differences from the other letters of Paul.
All such questions are matters of probability, not of “proof.” (“Proof” is not a useful term in humanistic studies.) The present writer would assign the following probabilities about the author of To the Hebrews: Apollos, 65% probability that he wrote it; Pricilla (and Aquila) 20% probability; others (Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Luke, Clement, etc.) no more than 5% for any one of them.
3) How to Read, “To the Hebrews.”
Don’t get bogged down in the details – and the many quotations from the old scriptures. While each has many ramifications and complications, keep your eye focused on two things: The Revelation and the Pilgrimage, the Christian Truth and the Christian Life. Both are present throughout the writing, but the Revelation predominates in chapters 1 through 10, while chapters 11-13 are mainly about the Pilgrimage.
The Revelation. The Jewish tradition had acquired some reputation among educated people in the Roman empire. Copies of the Torah in Greek had been added to the royal library of Alexandria in the third or second centuries BCE. Jewish writers of the early Roman empire, like Philo in Alexandria and Josephus in Rome, celebrated the Jewish wisdom as more ancient and truer than the oldest Greek wisdom. That wisdom showed a great God who had created the world and guided the destiny of a chosen people through times of glory, judgment, and restoration in the temple city of Jerusalem.
The Jewish scriptures were documents of revelation: they revealed the truth about the one God of the universe. All faithful Jews and a great many interested and sympathetic non-Jews accepted that revelation as their basic religious belief. The Jesus movement, from the beginning, was based on that Jewish belief, but as their experience of the Risen Jesus and the development of their new devotional life progressed they realized – and proclaimed – that a new chapter of revelation had occurred.
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son... (Hebrews 1:1-2, NRSV).
The text doesn’t pause there, but both ancient and modern readers should make a really big pause at this point. The message is that there has been a long history of revelations from the true God, but now something exceptional has happened. There has been a revelation of God’s Son! The whole of Hebrews 1-10 is about that Son. The Son is the Revelation – the latest update on the actual nature of the true God.
Our text proceeds to unfold several aspects of the Son now revealed (for example, that the world was created through him, that he is the perfect image of God’s being, 1:2-3), but the MOST IMPORTANT thing is mentioned almost in passing: “When he had made purification for sins, he sat down...” (1:3).
The revelation of the Son is important because the Son can save people from the punishment of sin. People throughout the Roman empire were beginning to seek ways to escape the burden of the alien world. Through the Son’s heavenly power, people can be saved from the doom of the encompassing sinful world.
The new revelation is the key to salvation from sin, but the new revelation can only be understood by hearing the old revelation in a new way! The revelation to Moses in the torah shows how God provided for the high priest who can atone for the sins of the people and of himself through the sacrifices in the Tabernacle (the wilderness sanctuary constructed by God’s command: Exodus 25-31, 35-40; Leviticus 1-16; Numbers 1-10).
The new revelation is that the sins that used to be atoned for year-by-year in the earthly sanctuary have now been removed once-for-all in a heavenly sanctuary. There a great high priest (Jesus, the Son) has offered his own blood as the ultimate sacrifice to atone for the sins of all his confessors.
That great heavenly event, however, could only happen when the Son had come to earth, had acted in perfect obedience as a human servant of the high God, and had suffered and died as the one unique sacrifice for sins. Thus, the real revelation was that the heavenly Son had actually come into the human world – and there suffered to overcome the power of sin on a cosmic level.
The Pilgrimage. The Revelation was a once-for-all event, valid and true forever. The Pilgrimage is in process – it is ongoing in the real world of the Jesus confessors.
Like the new revelation, the nature of the Pilgrimage is learned from the old revelations to the ancestors.
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, / do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, / as on the day of testing in the wilderness, / where your ancestors put me to the test,...” (Hebrews 3:7-9, loosely quoting Psalm 95:7-9).
Those who follow Jesus are like the ancient Israelites who journeyed through the wilderness for forty years – tempted like those Israelites to lose faith and doubt that God is really leading the journey.
While the Pilgrimage is an ongoing process, it does have a destination – the same as the destination of the ancient Israelites: a special “Rest.”
So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as [that of the ancient Israelites] (Hebrews 4:9-11).
The Pilgrimage is sustained by Faith – and Hebrews dwells at length on the heroes and heroines of faith among the ancestors (chapter 11). Such were Abel, Enoch, Noah, but especially Abraham, and the list goes on to include “so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1).
All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland (Hebrews 11:13-14).
The speaker’s final exhortation is in terms of this Pilgrimage faith:
Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (Hebrews 13:12-14.)
[Among many impressive commentaries on Hebrews, one that strongly emphasizes the pilgrimage is by my classmate in the class of 1958 at Chicago Theological Seminary, Robert Jewett, Letter to Pilgrims, The Pilgrim Press, 1981.]