This week, we are reading the book of Hebrews. We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews. In some ways, it seems like something Paul might have written, and it includes a reference to Paul’s associate Timothy (13:23). On the other hand, the author speaks of receiving the Gospel second-hand (Hebrews 2:3); Paul, on the other hand, insisted that no one needed to teach him the Gospel because he received it first-hand (Galatians 1:11-12).
So, from the beginning of church history, people suggested it was one of Paul’s associates who wrote the book. The author calls his letter a “word of encouragement” (Hebrews 13:22), which inspired Tertullian (c. 150 – c. 240) to suggest Barnabas, whose name means “son of encouragement.” Luther thought it might have been Apollos, whom the book of Acts says was eloquent and powerful in showing Jesus from the Old Testament (Acts 18-19).
I think one of the most likely suggestions was also one of the first suggestions made. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 210) thought the book was edited by Luke using his own Greek translations of Paul’s Hebrew writings. Since Hebrews appears to be written after the death of Paul and Peter in 67 (Hebrews 13:7) but before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 (Hebrews 10:1), if Paul was dead and Luke was making use of his material, it would make sense that no name would be affixed to the writing. It would also make sense of why so many people in the early church claimed Hebrews as Paul’s work despite the fact that the author does not insist, like Paul, that he received the Gospel first hand.
We’re also not sure to whom the epistle was written, but a plausible scenario can be pieced together from the epistle. Hebrews 13:24 says that those from Italy greet the recipients of the letter. That means that either the letter was written in Italy or going to Italy. The latter seems more likely. Acts 18:2 describes Emperor Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews from Rome around the year 50. Eventually, Jews were able to go back to Rome, but not everyone did.
The book of Hebrews appears to be written to a congregation of Jews who had at one time believed in Jesus, but now were considering leaving off their faith in Jesus and being just Jews. This congregation had some connection to other congregations of Christians in their city who were suffering harsher persecution than they were (Hebrews 12:4; 13:3). If there was a synagogue in Rome that had once converted to Jesus but remained separate from Gentile congregations of Christians, this would make sense of what we read in Hebrews. After the great fire in Rome in 64, Nero blamed the Christians and began to persecute them fiercely. It seems likely that Nero’s persecutions took the lives of both Sts. Peter and Paul. A synagogue of believers in Jesus, however, might have been able to fly under Nero’s radar, appearing to be Jews and not Jewish Christians. The growing persecution also might have been just the pressure to make the recipients of Hebrews consider giving up their Christian identity altogether.
What does this mean for us, then, as modern readers of Hebrews? With significant exceptions, most of us American readers do not face violent persecution. However, we can be tempted to neglect our faith in similar ways to the first-century Jewish Christian. The threat of societal disapproval is enough for some of us to give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25) or to downplay our discipleship. The book of Hebrews, then, is valuable in trying to get us to see how great a privilege it is to be counted among Jesus’ people (Hebrews 12:12-29).
Hebrews is also a magnificent manual in seeing how the Old Testament is fulfilled in Jesus. For many of us, the rites of Judaism remain mysterious and impenetrable. Jews for centuries had regularly participated in the sacrifices and feasts led by the sons of Levi. When Jesus offered His life as “the Lamb of God,” they had a ritual referent embedded deeply in their minds. Hebrews spells all that out for us.
So, whoever wrote it and whoever first read it, Hebrews still blesses us today by opening up our understanding of the Old Testament and encouraging us to follow Jesus boldly.