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November 3, 2007Today we come to the book of Hebrews. This is certainly one of the richest epistles in all the New Testament. This book was probably written somewhat early in the period when most of the New Testament was written. I will explain below why we know it was written early. Most of the New Testament was written between the years 50 and 70 A.D. John's books are an exception, and Jude comes to mind as a late author as well.
Of course the first question when we come to Hebrews is, "Who wrote it?" The simple answer is that we don't know. The "traditional" view is that Paul wrote it. In fact, a lot of KJV Bibles have as a title, "The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews." There are a couple of clues in the book that clearly indicate that Paul did not write this epistle, although I am sure he would be flattered to be credited with it. We will get to those in good time. If not Paul, who? My New Testament Survey teacher in college was adamant that it was Luke. Luke is a good possibility, certainly better than Apollos, whom some name as a possible author.
My personal theory, and I am not alone in this, is that Barnabas wrote Hebrews. First of all, Barnabas was a Jew and specifically a Levite. Luke was likely a Greek, although he may have been a proselyte to Judaism before he became a Christian. We know that Luke had to work hard to interview eyewitnesses to write his two books. He was a gatherer and compiler of most of what we know he wrote. Hebrews had to have been written by someone who was intensely familiar with the Jewish Law and Jewish tradition. Secondly, this epistle was likely written not to Jews living in Israel but elsewhere in the Roman Empire. Even though Barnabas was a Levite, he was a native of Cyprus. So he would have been familiar with what it was like to be a Jew living in a mostly Gentile environment. Thirdly, we know how Luke and Paul started and ended their books, and this epistle starts and ends much differently from either of those.
As much as that question has intrigued Christians for millennia, it is way more important that we understand the audience the author is writing to. Similar to the epistle of James, Hebrews is written to synagogues that have been influenced by Christianity. Why is that important? It is critical to understanding some of the difficult passages in Hebrews.
In the earliest days of the Church, Christianity spread among Jews only. Even after Peter's visit to Cornelius the church for a few years was still predominantly Jewish. These Jews who began following Jesus did not stop being Jews. They continued going to the synagogue, observing feast days, and so on. So there were a number of synagogues around the Roman Empire that were made up of both Christian and non-Christian Jews. In time most of these synagogues broke up, with the non-Christians maintaining their Jewish traditions either in new synagogues or in their old ones after kicking the Christians out. This all happened very early in Church history.
The author is writing to these mixed synagogues to encourage all the members to put their trust in Jesus. There are passages that are written specifically to the Christian members, and there are some that are written to all the members, Christian and non. The author knows he is writing directly to non-Christians, and he addresses several passages directly to them. This is very different from Paul's writing style. Paul writes directly to Gentile churches, all of whose members claim to be Christians. Since many of us read all of the epistles with a Pauline mindset, we think everything in Hebrews (and James) is addressing believers. This makes for some very troubling reading in a few places.
So understanding the audience is crucial to understanding the book of Hebrews. We will get into that next week. Don't forget to set your clock back tonight. It would be a shame for you to be early for church.