The Epistle to the Hebrews is a classical New Testament treatment of the precise manner in which the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New. It presents us with a consideration of the perfection of Christ’s priesthood, final and yet continuing, in a way that enriches and illumines both study and devotion.

All the existing manuscript copies of this Epistle include the title pros hebraios (to the Hebrews), which clearly belongs to a very early tradition, even if it is not original, since it is contained in some of the oldest manuscripts. The readers themselves were evidently Jewish Christians, although the less plausible suggestion that they were Christians in general, or even Gentile Christians, is not without scholarly support (from Moffatt, E. F. Scott, and others.) But there is a constant appeal to the Old Testament throughout the Epistle, and a familiarity with the Jewish cultus is everywhere presupposed.

Moreover, it is a particular group of Hebrew Christians that the writer seems to have in mind, namely, men who had been through persecution and suffered deprivation if not death (10:32 ff.; 12:4). The group was probably quite small (5:12), and had failed to learn creatively from experience (5:11; 6:1); the people were in danger of apostasy (2:1) and in need of patient endurance (4:14; 12:1 f.). At the same time the writer speaks of his readers as “brothers” (3:1, NEB), and makes it clear that he had visited their community previously (13:19) and hoped to do so again (13:23). The possibility that the group was part of a larger society, and even separated from their leaders (cf. 10:25 and 13:24), would add considerable point to the situation addressed.

The community addressed by this writer apparently included Christians of some long standing (13:7) who should have grown to a point of spiritual maturity from which to teach others also. But they were in no position to do this; indeed, it was they who needed to be taught (5:12), since their inability to understand the real nature of the Gospel was simply the result of blindness, and was leading them into apostasy. The temptation to which these readers were particularly subject was that of a reversion to Judaism. The atmosphere of general insecurity characteristic of the early Church in the first Christian century arose from the dangers of heresy within, as well as from the threat of persecution without. And for the Hebrew Christian, cut off from all the apparatus of approach to God symbolized by Temple and Law, and disappointed perhaps by a delay in the expected parousia of Christ, there was always present, on nationalist as well as theological grounds, an innate reluctance to break completely with Judaism.

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It is for precisely this reason that we are given in Hebrews a complete and ordered reply to the Jewish controversy that featured so considerably in the life of the early Church, and gave rise also to the direction of so much of the Pauline material in the New Testament. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews sees the danger of apostasy seriously threatening the community in question, and this causes him to direct his readers’ minds to the finality of the Christian revelation: the cruciality of God’s work in Christ (10:19), and the supremacy of the new priesthood and covenant (8:6), and of the new, once-for-all (ephapax) sacrifice (9:12). All the time he uses theological exposition as the basis for moral exhortation: he is concerned that the readers should “consider Him”—the Person, that is to say (3:1), and the work (12:3) of the Lord Jesus Christ; and on this basis “advance towards maturity” (6:1).


Are we able to decide then who wrote this letter? The text itself provides us with no direct evidence, either for the author’s name or identity; and while contemporary scholarship has continued to challenge the traditional ascription of Pauline authorship, it has brought us no nearer to a conclusive discovery of the actual writer. Nor is the problem a new one. One of the early fathers, Origen, is quoted by the Church historian Eusebius as saying “God alone knows who wrote” the Epistle.

Certainly there are significant departures in the letter from what we have come to regard as distinctively Pauline, namely, the differences of style, content, and even individual terms (such as “faith,” cf. 11:1). On the other hand, the evidence of the manuscripts which are associated with Eastern, and particularly Alexandrian, hands, seems to suggest that from the earliest years St. Paul was without question accepted as the author. Vaticanus and Sinaiticus for example (B and Aleph, fourth century) place the epistle before the Pastorals in the canon; and the Chester Beatty papyrus (p. 45, third century) places it after Romans as the second letter of the Corpus Paulinum. Clement of Alexandria, towards the end of the second century, suggested that the Epistle was written by Paul in Hebrew and translated for the Greeks by Luke, and he sought in this way to explain the differences in style already noted. Origen did not accept this view, and in fact concluded that the thought of Hebrews is Pauline, but that its expression is due to another hand. Eventually Origen’s view, which also allowed the possibility of Pauline authorship, prevailed, and gradually the Church in general came to accept the decision of the Eastern church, and to regard the letter as Pauline and therefore canonical.

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In the West, considerable doubt about the authorship and canonicity of the Epistle prevailed for many years, although the work was clearly known to early writers (e.g., Clement of Rome) who quote from it fairly extensively without referring to it by any name. In the second century the church of Rome formally excluded it from the New Testament canon, and only much later, in the fourth century, was the Pauline authorship and the canonical authority of Hebrews again admitted.

When all has been said, however, the author of this Epistle writes from a standpoint which bears very slight resemblance indeed to that normally recognized as “Pauline” in the New Testament. His arguments proceed against a background of contrasted world orders, which reminds us of Plato as much as Philo, and suggests that here is a Greek-thinking Jew writing to Greek-thinking (and Greek-speaking) Jewish readers. It is precisely this fact that governs our writer’s total conception of reality, and of the kind of finality he finds expressed in the death of Christ (for a fuller treatment of the Atonement in this Epistle, see my article on the subject in the Evangelical Quarterly, Jan. 1961, pp. 36–43); it also makes it easy for him to regard the old covenant as a “shadow” or “form” of the “idea” expressed in the new.


We have already noticed that this letter is described in all its existing copies as “to Hebrews”; and even Tertullian, who claimed that Barnabas was its author, suggests for it the same destination. Taking into account the particular society addressed and its climate of thought, Westcott in his commentary (The Epistle to the Hebrews, 3rd. ed. 1909, p. 41) comes to the conclusion that the title most naturally fits Jewish Christians in Palestine, and probably in Jerusalem itself. This is given even more point if the Temple in Jerusalem is seen as a perpetual reminder to young Jewish Christians of the system from which they were now excluded, and into which they would be constantly tempted to slip back.

Mr. Hewitt, on the other hand, in his new commentary in the Tyndale series (1960), considers the objections to this theory, particularly the suggestion that the readers of the Epistle had never actually heard Jesus speak (2:3), and the description of the readers themselves as those who had “not yet resisted to the point of shedding … blood” (12:4)—both of which seem to him unlikely to refer to Christians living in Palestine. He goes on accordingly to favor a Roman destination, and to support this by reference to the “impressive past history of the community addressed” (p. 36, cf. 6:10 and 10:32 ff.), to the phrase hoi apo tes Italias (13:24), and to the associations of the Epistle with early Roman literature (notably Clement). Yet all these arguments (except possibly the last, and even then Roman knowledge need not imply necessarily Roman destination) lose weight if, as seems perfectly evident, a section of the Church is being addressed, and not the Church in general. On any showing, “those from Italy” is itself an ambiguous phrase and could simply mean “those who are with me from Italy,” which still begs the question of the destination of the letter. In fact we have to leave the question open, though the arguments for a Jerusalem destination seem very persuasive indeed.

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We are now in a position to suggest a date for Hebrews. As we have seen, the Epistle was known to Clement of Rome, who probably wrote what is known as I Clement about A.D. 96. Our evidence for a terminus a quo is entirely internal.

A deciding factor here is whether the Epistle was written before or after the Jewish War and the destruction of the Jewish Temple during the sacking of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The writer’s plea for loyalty would exactly fit a situation of strain before catastrophe. On the other hand, a very early date seems improbable, since the Church addressed had been in existence for some time.

A date somewhat later than A.D. 60 may be tentatively suggested as fitting most exactly the evidence which is available to us.


The Epistle to the Hebrews falls into two main parts: first, exposition (1:1–10:18), and secondly, application (10:19–13:25)—though we have already noted the practical hortatory emphasis which marks the progress of the argument throughout (e.g. 2:1 and 3:1).

In the first section, and because of the particular nature of the apostasy he is seeking to counter, the writer makes clear the primacy of Jesus’ person in terms of God’s revelation: His superiority to angels in the sphere of creation (chaps. 1 and 2), and to Moses in the sphere of history (chap. 3). He proceeds from there to demonstrate the cruciality and finality of the work of Christ, considered redemptively, and the superiority of the Lord’s priesthood to that of the “shadowy” Aaronic priesthood (chaps. 4 and 5). In Christ, indeed, we discover a new office which he fills (chaps. 6 and 7), a new covenant he inaugurates (chap. 8), a new sacrifice he offers (chap. 9) and a new way he opens (10:1–18).

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In the second concluding section, the writer considers the next step to be taken (10, on the basis of Christ’s continuing priesthood), the meaning of faith (11), the availability of a new hope (12) and the necessity of love and good works (13). In the last three chapters, accordingly, we are presented with the trinity of Christian virtues. The following is a suggested study scheme:

Chapters 1:1–2:18 (introduction); 3:1–4:13; 4:14–5:14; 6:1–7:28; 8:1–9:28; 10:1–10:39 (dividing at 10:18); 11:1–39 (treated as a symposium); and 12:1–13:25 (conclusion).


Calvin, J., Commentary on the Hebrews, translated by John Owen (1853); Hewitt, T., The Epistle to the Hebrews, (1960); Manson, W., The Epistle to the Hebrews (1957); Moffatt, J., The Epistle to the Hebrews (1924); Murray, A., Holiest of All (1908); Nairne, A., The Epistle of Priesthood (1913); Stott, J. R. W., Men with a Message (1952, chap. 4); Westcott, B. F., The Epistle to the Hebrews (3rd ed., 1909).


Chaplain of Peterhouse

Cambridge University

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