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Old 03-15-2001, 11:06 AM   #1
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Post The Epistles of the Hebrews (as requested)

There is strong evidence that some first century Jews made life difficult for Jewish Christians. Paul recounts how he persecuted Jewish Christians, and in turn was persecuted by himself after his conversion. Acts tells us that Paul, with the blessing of the Sanhedrin "made havoc of the church, entering every house and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison." Acts 8:3. Acts also records the early persecution against the church in Jerusalem. Acts 8:1. Likewise, Josephus records that James the Just was executed by Jewish authorities before the fall of Rome. It also appears from a reference by the Chief Secretary to Emperor Hadrian, Suetonius, that there was conflict between Jews and Christians in Rome in 49 CE.

Such rejection and disapproval by members of one's race and religion during this time period could be overwhelming. People in the first century were not individualistic, but rather identified themselves by their religious, geographical, and racial identity. Fitting in, rather than individualism, was the dominant focus of Jews and Pagans during this time. Ben Witherington III. The Paul Quest, Chapter 1. Thus, Jewish Christians were caught in conundrum. Their Christianity potentially had the affect of separating them from the groups which they had previously relied on to formulate their identities. As Christianity and Judaism grew farther and farther apart, they would come under increasing pressure and hardship. As stated by Dr. Tenney, "f they turned from the law they would be regarded as traitors by their countrymen who were loyal to the law. If they went back to legalism, they would be abandoning Christ and would lose all that he came to bring." Dr. Merril C. Tenney, New Testament Survey, at 357.

How would they respond to this predicament? Well. Some would abandon Second Temple Judaism. Some would abandon Christianity. Others would compromise by modifying Christian belief to require conversion to Judaism and circumcision (as I believe the Ebionites eventually did), so that they could fit back into their familiar groups. And still others would maintain their Jewish identity, but would accept gentile converts as genuine Christians. I believe that the Letter of Hebrews provides an important insight into what Jewish Christians believed, and how they were pressured to modify those beliefs to be more acceptable by the Jewish mainstream.

The Letter of Hebrews

The overarching message of Hebrews is as follows: The covenant which Jesus inaugurated is superior to any preceding covenant. His priesthood is better than Levi's, his sacrifice is superior to those offered under the Mosaic code, and the very purpose of the O.T. was to anticipate and identify him.

But I do not necessarily want to explore all of the theological implications of the Letter to the Hebrews. Rather, I want to look at some of what it tells us but early Jewish Christianity. An important part of that endeavor is the issues of who wrote Hebrews, when, and why.

Who wrote it?

The Eastern Church had long maintained the tradition that it was written by Paul, but the Western Church resisted attributing the letter to Paul until the Fourth Century. Because of stark linguistic and stylistic differences between Hebrews and the verified Pauline Epistles, various theories of alternative authorship have been advanced: Luke, Apollos (Martin Luther's suggestion), Barnabas, and Priscilla (Christian feminist suggestion). However, in the end, I agree with Origen (and most contemporary scholars) on the authorship of Hebrews. "But who it was who really wrote the epistle, God only knows."

However, just because we do not know the specific person who wrote the letter, does not mean we know nothing about the author. He was a Jew. He was a man of high literary ability. His Greek is considered the finest of any New Testament book. He was extremely knowledgeable of the Old Testament and relied on the Septuagint version of the O.T. He was a friend of Paul's disciple, Timothy. (13:23). It is also clear that the author of Hebrews was not an Apostle. Nor was he an actual hearer of Jesus. He makes it clear, however, that he has been taught by those who were actual hearers of Jesus. (2:3).

When was it written?

Well, dating of N.T. books is notoriously controversial. But I will offer my opinion. The Letter to the Hebrews must have been written before 96 CE because it is quoted in 1 Clement (1 Clem. 36:1- 6), which was written by that time. a more precise date, however, may be gleaned from important internal indications.

First, Timothy, Paul's disciple, is mentioned as recently being released from prison. (12:23). So Hebrews was written before his death. Given the life expectancies of the time and allowing for the fact that Timothy joined with Paul as a young man in about 48-50 CE, this reference puts a speculative date time of authorship to before 80-85 CE.

Second, the reference to persecution, but not to the point of blood, (12:2), seems to indicate a period before the Neronian persecution in Rome. However, Hebrews also seems to discuss a rising level of persecution, so a time frame just before the Neronian persecution in 64 CE may be appropriate. While this point is only valid if the letter was directed to a Roman audience, I discuss below why I believe it was sent to Rome.

Third, and most important, the writer of Hebrews assumes the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem and the ongoing religious activities associated with it. This is the strongest point indicating a date before 70 CE, when the temple was destroyed.

Sacrifices were offered at the Temple in Jerusalem. Once it was destroyed the sacrifices ceased and Judaism focused on the study of Torah and theSynagogue. However, despite the fact that the destruction of the temple would have provided overwhelming support for his argument that Judaism's system of sacrifices was destined to pass away, the author of Hebrews nowhere mentions it.

Moreover, his writings show in many places that he is discussing the ongoing practices of sacrifice which only could have taken place in the Temple in Jerusalem. Hebrews 10:1-2 states, "For the law, having a shadow of a good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered?" (See also 9:6-7, 13:11). So, I believe a strong argument can be made that Hebrews was written between 64-69 CE. However, my ultimate point does not depend on that date.

Who was the letter sent to and why?

It is not entirely clear who, specifically, Hebrews was sent to. Although not so titled by the author, our earliest sources indicate it was written "To the Hebrews." This is in the earliest manuscript evidence, p46, and the earliest overt reference to the epistle by Clement of Alexandria in 180 CE. Internal evidence also strongly suggests a Jewish Christian audience. No other N.T. book uses the O.T. so thoroughly and the majority of scholars maintain that Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians.

The question of which Jewish Christians, however, has been less clear. The traditional theory was that it was written to the Jewish Christians in Palestine. B.F. Westcott, The Epistle of the Hebrews. A more recent theory is that Hebrews was written to Hebrew Christians in Rome. Edgar J. Goodspeed, An Introduction to the New Testament.

Although this question cannot be answered with certainty, I believe that the latter theory is most probably accurate. The greeting of fellow believers who had originally been from Italy seems to indicate that the recipients are in Italy. (13:24). John Drane, Introducing the New Testament, at 430. It also appears that the author of 1 Clement, who was from the church in Rome, was the earliest Christian writer to possess and rely on Hebrews. Early access to the letter would be expected in the church to whom the letter was written.

The reason Hebrews was written has been the subject of some debate. The majority view, however, is that it was written to Jewish Christians who were wavering in their Christianity. There are several references to the author's reason for writing being to prevent his readers from "drifting away" from their faith. (2:2, 3:12, 4:6, and 10:23-24).

While earlier theories believed that they were Jewish Christians who were inclined to leave Christianity behind altogether and return to Judaism, I find a more recent theory more probable. Raymond E. Brown and John P. Meir have put forth the theory that the target audience of Hebrews was Jewish Christians who were moving towards a more conservative Jewish Christianity than previously held, rather than an outright rejection of Christianity. Brown & Meir, Antioch and Rome, at 151-58.

These Jewish Christians had apparently been made public spectacles because of their Christianity, (10:33), and were tired of being outside the mainstream of their culture, (10:35). Another reason these Jewish Christians may have been modifying their beliefs to align more with Judaism is that this would offer them protection from Roman persecution as well. John Drane, Introducing the New Testament, at 424.

Judaism was a protected religion, Christianity was not. Id. As a result, these Jewish Christians were moving away from the Gospel they had originally adhered to towards a more conservative Jewish Christianity which would be more acceptable to their Jewish society and offer more protection from Roman persecution. There is even some indication that the Jewish Christians to which the letter is written had ceased fellowshipping with other (probably gentile) Christians. (10:25). In my opinion, such a refusal to meet with other Christians would be a foreshadowing of the Ebionites refusal to consider gentile converts as genuine Christians.

So what were the principles that these Jewish Christians were moving away from? Hebrews assumes they had a certain belief system, which it refers to as the "elementary principles of Christ." (6:1). What were those elementary principles? Hebrews records the following basics about Christianity: Jesus was Jewish and a descendant of Abraham. (2:14-16). He was descended from the tribe of Judah. (7:14). We was tested and suffered. (2:18). He cried out in prayer to be saved from death "in the days of his flesh." (5:7). He died by crucifixion, (12:2), "outside the gate of the city." (13:12). He was resurrected and sits at the right hand of God. (12:2).

But what was their fundamental understanding of the meaning of these events? "By that we have all been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." (10:10. See also 7:27 and 9:15, 24.). They apparently believed that Jesus's death was an atoning death for our sins.
The Letter of Hebrews indicates, however, that they were moving from these beliefs towards a more conservative Jewish Christianity. They seemed to question the dependency on Jesus's atoning death, rather than the sacrificial system established in the O.T., as well as the association with gentile Christians.

Summary: Jewish Christians faced a particularly bleak problem. Although they drew their very identifies from inclusion in the Jewish race and religion, Judaism and Christianity were moving away from each other. They increasingly faced hostility from a group central to the formation of their identify and persecution from the Roman authorities. Some faced pressure to alter their Christian beliefs to be more reflective of Judaism in order to gain acceptance from their social groups and protection from Roman persecution. The Letter of Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish Christians, probably in Rome, who were faced with these problems. They had apparently moved away from the centrality of Jesus' atoning death and had withdrawn from fellowship with other Christians (probably gentiles). Its author encouraged them to return to their faith, maintain fellowship with other Christians, and trust to Jesus, rather than Temple Judaism, for their atonement.
Old 03-20-2001, 10:07 AM   #2
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After rereading this, I was interested what, if anything, the author of Hebrews had to say about the "human" Jesus.

He, like Paul, does not seem to question that Jesus was in fact, a human, not just a spiritu. Jesus was Jewish, descended from Abraham and the Tribe of Judah. He was tested, and cried out to be saved from death "in the days of his flesh." He was executed by crucifixion, "outside the gates of the city." He was resurrected.

Not only is Jesus' lineage discussed, but so is his night of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Something not directly referenced in Paul's letters. Moreover, the author is familiar with the manner of Jesus' execution, as was Paul.

How about the "outside the gates" reference. Anyone see any correlations in the gospels or other data?
Old 03-22-2001, 03:20 PM   #3
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Hey, Kon, as promised.


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