Like Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, the letter to the Hebrews (in Greek: “To the Hebrews”) is one of the more consequential and beautifully constructed pieces of the New Testament. As with other early Christian texts, Paul’s authorship has been considered dubious by church doctors like Origen, the 3rd century Christian theologian, and Eusebius, the 4th century Christian historian. Nevertheless, the epistle has come down to us as an integral piece of Pauline literature and theology and is, therefore, worthy of our consideration.
Many of the previous Pauline letters were directed to the congregations and leaders at churches located throughout the Mediterranean, preaching to “gentiles” (non-Jews). The purpose of the Pauline letter to the Hebrews is different. The goal is to contextualize Jesus as a natural progression from the ancient Hebrew texts up to the present-day. In fact, according to the epistle, the Hebrew Bible is rife with references to a coming Messiah, whom the author of the Hebrew epistle interprets to be Jesus. In the early days, God spoke to Israel through prophets, but in the “new” and “modern” days he has spoken through Jesus, his son, who is also the co-creator of the “universe.” And when Jesus died (‘purifying sins’) he became seated at the right hand of God, thus making him superior to the angels (perhaps there were internal disagreements in Judea about the status of angels – the parallel figures to the helpers of Zeus on Olympus). Jesus was made “lower” and sent beneath the angels to “taste death” only to rise back above them.
Perhaps the kingdom on earth that the “priestly” and “holy” people were designated to inherit by YHWH in the Torah (a land of milk and honey) was realized to be impossible as the Israelites were not able to maintain a lasting kingdom ‘like other kingdoms.’ Instead they were enslaved by imperial powers: Babylon, and then the much-favored Cyrus of Persia, and then the Greeks followed by Rome. Israel was clearly not destined to have a kingdom of its own. Thus there was need for an ‘otherworldly’ kingdom ruled by Jesus, the angels, and God.
Thus, the letter argues to be vigilant to the “miracles” and “signs and wonders” from the “Holy Spirit” because Jesus “conquered” death which was previously the sole ownership of “the devil” -perhaps in reference to Hades and hellenized personifications of death. The letter to the Hebrews cites Psalms, Isaiah, Numbers, Genesis, Exodus, Jeremiah, Deuteronomy, Habakkuk, and other authoritative Hebrew scriptures from the Septuagint.
In Hebrews we see an overcoming of ancient and tribal Judaism into a universalist monotheism under Christianity – Jesus is called “better than Moses” (3:3).And Christianity is portrayed as the fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophecy. The Sabbath should be kept (4:6), and Jesus is described as a “high priest” or “high-born rabbi forever” (4:14) from the order of Melchizedek (whose name means something like “king of righteousness” and also “king of Salem”), the ancient high priest of the Israelites as mentioned in Genesis. Thus the Hebrews are instructed to swear before Jesus since his oath is superior.
Chapter 8 is particularly remarkable: the “old covenant” between God and Moses and the Israelites is described as “obsolete” while the “new covenant” is to replace what is obsolete. Thus ancient Judaism is “obsolete” and “will soon disappear” (8:13). The old covenant was based on the ark and the tabernacle, which is now replaced by the “blood of Christ.” The author also delivers a re-interpretation of the Hebrew Bible as the seed of “faith” -thus faith is at the root of the stories about Cain and Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham and Sarai, Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph, Moses, and many others.
Thus the people must hold strong and be unwavering in the faith in God, as well as in a second-coming of Jesus in which he will build an “unshakable” kingdom. Hebrews closes with a plea to love one another, honor marriage, observe order in the household and the city, honor and obey authorities, and live honorably. The letter ends with greetings from Italy and announces that Timothy has been freed from prison.
As with other epistles from the Pauline corpus the title reveals the intended audience for the teaching contained within in the letter. Letters that are addressed to congregations and groups of people, are more political and therefore more guarded. They speak broadly and are meant to be read aloud as a public teaching. Letters that are addressed directly to individuals are more private in nature, and contain contents intended to be shared with a particular person, typically encouraging them to pursue onward with the faith. Personal letters tend to contain internal issues of theology within the church as it was spread wide across the ancient Hellenized world.