Today’s reading for study: Hebrews 1
Today we start the book of Hebrews, one of the most difficult books of the New Testament to understand.
We can be reasonably sure the book was written before A.D. 70 because it speaks in detail of the temple sacrifices yet does not mention the temple’s destruction in A.D. 70. Of the book, we can be sure of little else.
In particular, we do NOT know who wrote it. Many people assume it was Paul but, while certainly a logical guess, the book's patrimony is not nearly as well established as Paul’s other writings. It does not begin with a greeting as do Paul’s other letters. It does not reference a specific place it is being sent that we knew Paul traveled to. It is not “signed” by Paul. It style, use of very formal greek and the manner in which it cites the Old Testament is not consistent with Paul’s other writings. Most importantly, early Christians were nearly unanimous in their attribution of other writings to Paul. Not so with Hebrews, from the beginning, there is a dispute about who wrote it. On the other hand, reference is made to Timothy, who we know Paul worked closely with. Many theories abound about who the author is but they remain just theories.
The lack of a known author begs the question – Why is this book in the bible? I mean, how do we know it was written by a Christian, much less an eyewitness? The answer is simple – TRADITION. The book was traditionally read by converts in the first two-hundred years of Christianity. It was disseminated widely and was used in the liturgy by Christians around the known world. Since it was widely accepted by the first Christians, it was included in the Canon of Scripture that was finalized in the 300′s by the Catholic Church. Thus, when you read the book of Hebrews, you read it and rely on it because of Tradition, and the authority of the Catholic Church declared it to be Scripture. Can I get an Amen?!
Another important fact should be noted about the book of Hebrews … it is probably not a letter. Most likely, it was a sermon that was preached. It was probably preached from a prepared written text that was then given to or copied down by the listeners. It may have been delivered more than once – almost like a political “stump speech”. Most certainly it was preached to Jewish people considering conversion or to recent converts. It is also likely that it was preached to Jewish rabbi’s who were trying to make sense of the events unfolding around them. The book is in large part an explanation of how the Old Testament translates into the New Covenant. Assuming that it was a sermon probably preached to rabbi’s makes me think that the book was likely in fact written by Paul. Here’s why:
Before his conversion, Paul was a rabbi studying under the last great rabbi of the temple age. Paul is reported to have been an excellent student, so much so that, when he traveled on his missionary journeys, he was often invited to speak in the local synagogues. Paul would have been intimately familiar with the theology behind the temple sacrifices. This is what the Book of Hebrews is primarily about, the replacement of the old temple sacrifices with the new effective sacrifice of Jesus. The fact that the Greek is more formal and the references to the Old Testament are more formal suggests to me the making of a formal presentation to rabbis. People can adjust their style depending on the crowd they are addressing. So Paul may have just been giving a more formal speech. This, together with the fact that the letter was usually appended to other works by Paul, makes me think that Paul, or one of his trained close associates, was the author. That however, is just my personal opinion.
There is another interesting fact about this timeframe in Jewish history. HERE IS THE KEY: after Jesus’ death on the cross, four miracles were occurring that to a devout Jew would have seen as clear signs of impending doom. These four miracles would have been building pressure on the temple leadership to fix what is wrong.
First, the miracle of the Red Strip had ended. Every year at Passover a red cloth was tied to a goat, literally the “scapegoat”. Israel’s sins were ceremoniously placed on the goat which was sacrificed. A strip of the red cloth from the goat was then tied to the temple door. If the Passover sacrifice had been acceptable to God, the strip miraculously turned white. However, in the 40 years after the crucifixion, the strip never turned white again. This was dramatic evidence to the entire Jewish world that the Temple sacrifices were no longer being accepted by God.
Three other things were also happening. To choose the goat, the high priest would choose lots at random. Black stones and white stones were placed in a vessel and he would draw one out. For 40 years in a row, he drew a black stone. One website puts the odds of that at 5.5 Billion to 1.
Next, every night the Temple doors would swing open. No matter what the rabbis did to keep them shut, they would open. This has several metaphorical implications. It signifies that anyone can now enter the temple and that it is no longer a special place set apart for God and accessible by only the high priest. And then there is this line from scripture:
Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars! – Zechariah 11:1
Of course, we know the temple was destroyed by fire in A.D. 70.
Finally, the menorah candles that remained perpetually lit in the holy of holies with the Ark of the Covenant would go out. No matter what precautions were taken, the candles would not stay lit.
So let’s say that you are a rabbi in the A.D. 60′s and all this has been happening for some 30+ years now. You’re scared and you’re worried. God is gone and no matter what you do, he will not make himself present again. Meanwhile, everywhere you look, Jews are converting to Christianity. At some point, might you seek out and agree to listen to a famous rabbi that converted and is now one of the leaders of these Christians? And if you are Paul, would you not jump at the chance to not just preach the Gospel to your old brothers, but to preach it in a way that relates to them and their concerns? It seems to me that that is what the book of Hebrews is – a Jewish convert, most likely Paul telling the hierarchy of the Jewish nation how and why the temple sacrifices are no longer sufficient and showing them how and why the sacrifice of Jesus replaced the old temple sacrifice.
A few other quick notes from the text:
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. Hebrews 1:1-3
- The author writes, “…but in these last days…”. That means that at the time the book of Hebrews was written that “the last days” had begun and we have been in “the last days” since then.
- Jesus is referred to as the son through whom God created the world, he has the same nature as God and upholds the universe by his word of power. In other words, Jesus is not a creature, he is God.
Tomorrow: Heb 2