The Letter to the Hebrews

Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

Hebrews, The Letter to the. N.T. book, a letter written by an unknown author probably near the end of the first century A.D. to Christians who wished to return to Jewish ways of worship. The writer used many references to O.T. books to show that Jesus Christ was the true high priest, replacing the priests of earlier times.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Hebrews, the Letter to the, an anonymous book appearing in the nt following the Letters attributed to Paul. Although the book came to be attributed to Paul and has been entitled ‘to the Hebrews’ from very early times, the identities of the author and of the readers are unknown. The actual text of the book does not identify the readers. The title, ‘to the Hebrews,’ is probably based on inferences derived from the book. The argument of the book, which is developed from extensive use of the ot, might suggest that the readers were Jewish Christians. This conclusion is plausible but not certain. Gentile audiences also acquired familiarity with ot themes.


The Letter to the Hebrews

I. Prologue (1:1-4) II. Christ the Son (1:5-4:16) A. Christ and angels (1:5-2:18) B. Christ and Moses (3:1-6) C. Christ and Joshua (3:7-4:11) D. Exhortation (4:12-16) III. Christ the high priest (5:1-10:39) A. Christ and the high priests (5:1-10) B. Exhortation (5:11-6:12) C. Christ and Melchizedek (6:13-7:28) D. Sanctuary and sacrifice (8:1-10:18) E. Exhortation (10:19-39) IV. Major exhortation (11:1-12:29) A. Faith and endurance (11:1-12:17) B. Sinai and Zion (12:18-29) V. Concluding exhortations (13:1-25)

Although Hebrews came to be attributed to Paul in the ancient church, this view is precluded by the author’s indication that he belongs to a subsequent generation (2:3-4). Furthermore, the excellent Greek style is to be distinguished from the style of Paul’s Letters. Among the nt books, only Luke and Acts equal Hebrews in style. Although many suggestions have been offered in attempts to identify the author, both the author and the readers remain unknown. In part because of this uncertainty, the inclusion of Hebrews in the nt was debated within the early church.

The literary form of Hebrews is to be distinguished from that of other nt books. Although commonly referred to as an ‘epistle,’ it has few of the epistolary characteristics. It lacks the normal epistolary introduction, opening rather with a theological discussion that serves as an ‘overture’ to the major theme of the book: the finality of the Christian revelation. In the following chapters, the author proceeds with a series of arguments derived from the ot. Each argument is followed by a practical exhortation to the readers. At the conclusion of the book, the author refers to the document as a ‘word of exhortation’ (13:22), a term that elsewhere refers to a sermon (Acts 13:15). Thus, Hebrews is a sermon to an early Christian community. A traditional epistolary conclusion is given to the sermon in 13:24-25.

The exhortations that appear between the theological arguments provide a portrait of the situation of the readers who are addressed. The readers, who probably live in the closing decades of the first century, are tempted to give up their salvation (2:3). Their capacity to ‘hold fast’ (3:6), to hold ‘firm to the end’ (3:14), and to endure (10:36-39) is now in doubt. They have ‘drooping hands’ and ‘weak knees’ (12:12), and some have the habit of neglecting to meet together (10:25). The readers appear, therefore, to be afflicted with a general weariness. It is possible that the threat of persecution is also involved (12:3-11).

Although the theological arguments appear to be unrelated treatments of various passages from the ot, an underlying unity emerges out of the separate essays. The prologue in 1:1-4 introduces the dominant motif that is to be found throughout this sermon. Christ is introduced as the one who, as a result of his sacrifice and exaltation, is now ‘superior’ to angels or any other object of comparison (1:3-4). Consequently, he is God’s ultimate word to his people. The prologue, written with extraordinary rhetorical artistry, reminds the readers of the incomparable Christian revelation. The word ‘superior’ which occurs in 1:4 is used thirteen times in Hebrews. Christ is superior to angels and earthly high priests (1:4; 7:7, 19, 22). His sacrifice, his covenant, and the hope he provides are also superior to any alternatives (8:6; 9:23; 10:34). Thus, the separate units employ various objects of comparison from the ot to show that the word addressed to ‘us’ (1:2) is without equal.

The purpose of the theological sections is to provide the basis for the author’s appeal to his audience. Because of the magnificence of the Christian revelation, readers are reminded of the greatness of their hope (10:19-25; 11:1; 6:13-20) and the terrible consequences of neglecting the ‘great salvation’ (2:3; cf. 6:4-8; 10:26-31).

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