Hebrews: Reappraising the Framework
So far, we have observed that traditional interpretations of Hebrews end up being anti-Torah and anti-Semitic. This is largely a result, not of exegetical observation of the text, but of assumptions placed upon the text with little to no justification. Like the old saying goes, “You end up seeing what you’re looking for”. That’s what happens when we read Hebrews. Because there is so little direct background information available, we are put in a position of having to superimpose an interpretive framework upon the letter.
Who Wrote It?
With the Pauline epistles, there is invariably a fair bit of context given to us in the letter. The introductions all name the recipients, and we often know something about the relationship between Sha’ul and his audience based on details provided, either in the letter itself, or in Acts. By combining this information with other details from secular history, we can often put together a reasonable understanding of the purpose for the letter.
Practically No Internal Testimony
However, in Hebrews, we have none of that information available to us. There is very little internal evidence in the letter regarding either the author or the recipients, and what we do have is inconclusive. Even, “Those from Rome salute you”, is vague, because it could be used to support either of two possibilities:
- the author is writing from Rome, or
- the author has Roman associates with him, wherever he may be.
What external evidence do we have? A little more, but still very little, and very inconclusive:
The External Testimony
- Clement, Bishop of Rome (95/96CE)Seems to cite Hebrews in his letter to the Corinthians. Unfortunately, the alleged citations are not explicitly indicated by Clement, and there is no named author provided. So, maybe Clement viewed Hebrews as canonical, and maybe not. Either way, he surely is no help in determining who authored the letter.
- Hyppolytus (~165-240CE)Expressly denied the Pauline authorship
- Clement of Alexandria (150-215)Almost 100 years after Clement of Rome, in the last decades of the 100’s, another Clement who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, indicated in his own writings that he believed Hebrews to be both canonical and authored by Rav Sha’ul.
- Origin (185-254CE)Wrote, “Who wrote the Epistle, only God knows.”
- Cyprian (200-258CE), Bishop of CarthageDid not recognize the book as canonical at all.
- Eusebius (260-340CE)Testified to the views of both Clement of Alexandria and a contemporary of Clement named Pantaenus. Both apparently shared the same view—that Sha’ul authored the letter, and that it belonged in the canon.
Basically, once Eusebius documented the view of the earlier Christian leaders, acceptance of the letter as part of the Christian canon was set on a fast track, especially among the Western churches. Events of the late 4th and early 5th centuries contain evidence to this effect. Pauline authorship began to gather increased popularity, and the canonicity of the letter became unquestionable. This is attested to in an unusual decision by the Council of Hippo, in A.D. 393. In their conclusions regarding the books to be included in the canon, they declared they would include, “thirteen epistles to the Apostle Paul, and one by same to the Hebrews.” A few years later, two Councils of Carthage (397 and 419CE) affirmed “fourteen epistles to the Apostle Paul.”
This position held sway in the West until approximately the 16th century, at which time the topic was revisited by the Protestant reformers. Their conclusion was to accept Hebrews on its own merit, recognizing that the author remains anonymous. That is the consensus view until this day (though there remains a fair number who still hold to Pauline authorship, as well).
My own view is that Hebrews is beloved in Christian circles precisely because it is the perfect vehicle for perpetuating gnostic philosophy and theology in the Church. As an illustration, consider this quotation from John Calvin:
I, indeed, without hesitation, class it among apostolical writings; nor do I doubt but that it has been through the craft of Satan that any have been led to dispute its authority. There is, indeed, no book in the Holy Scriptures which speaks so clearly of the priesthood of Christ, so highly exalts the virtue and dignity of that only true sacrifice which he offered by his death, so abundantly treats of the use of ceremonies as well as of their abrogation, and, in a word, so fully explains that Christ is the end of the Law. Let us not therefore suffer the Church of God nor ourselves to be deprived of so great a benefit, but firmly defend the possession of it.
(Commentary on Hebrews, “The Argument”, by John Calvin, 1509-1564)
Let us pay close attention to the thrust of Calvin’s defense for the canonicity of Hebrews. His position is that we must preserve the letter on the basis of its elevation of Yeshua over against all things Jewish or Torah-based! It is my own observation that most non-Messianic followers of “Jesus Christ” tend to agree with Calvin in this summation of his position. This fact is a large part of my own motivation for treating the letter in this series. I intend, over the course of the next few months, to demonstrate that the Letter to the Hebrews, Sefer Ivrim, is nothing more, nor less, than a midrashic approach to resolving the major theological dilemma facing the Jewish community at the close of the first century.
What Makes It Anti-Semitic?
Considering the fact that Hebrews was largely preserved and studied by Gentile members of the Catechetical School of Alexandria, it stands to reason that they enjoyed the letter for its apparent use of allegory and philosophy. As a result, we find two key ideas that generally form the interpretive grid for Hebrews:
The letter was written prior to the destruction of the Temple. This assumption pushes interpreters to conclude that members of the original audience suffered from a tendency to depart from Yeshua, and return to traditional Judaism and the Temple. With such a premise, the interpretation of the letter can only lead to a rebuttal of Judaism, and an elevation of Yeshua over everything even remotely Jewish.
The author was a Hellenistic Jew, like Philo of Alexandria. This assumption is based on the presence of word pictures that appear to reflect Grecian-style Platonic ideology. Claims that reality exists in an alternate dimension, and our material world is only a poor copy is thinking that comes right out of Plato and Aristotle. Because we know of Jewish interpreters, like Philo, who routinely allegorized the Torah in order to make it fit with Greek philosophy, it is assumed that the author of Hebrews shares that characteristic. As a result of these two ideas, we find that Hebrews serves as the basis for a great deal of modern Christian thinking, including anti-Semitic, anti-Torah, anti-Material, and pro-Dualistic tendencies. Really! This is explicitly stated in a classic quotation by a well-known Christian apologist named Walter Martin:
The Book of Hebrews was written by a Hebrew to other Hebrews telling the Hebrews to stop acting like Hebrews. In truth, many of the early Jewish believers were slipping back into the rites and rituals of Judaism in order to escape the mounting persecution. This letter, then, is an exhortation for those persecuted believers to continue in the grace of Jesus Christ.
(Source: Got Questions)
It is no wonder that any attempt to develop an approach to Hebrews that leads one in another direction leads to immediate rebuke and challenge. Nevertheless, in considering how best to frame discussion on this letter, I have decided to re-evaluate those assumptions.
An Alternate Framework
What could I propose as an alternate interpretive grid? What methodology could I suggest that might lead to a different set of conclusions? Conclusions that aren’t fundamentally contrary to the Torah and to the chosen status of Israel?
1. Late, Rather than Early
First of all, let’s take a look at the timing. What evidence is offered to prove that the letter was written prior to the destruction of the Temple? The only semi-factual constraint on the timing of Hebrews is the claim that Clement of Rome cited Hebrews in his letter to the Corinthians. Clement wrote his letter about 95/96 CE, which would put that as the upper boundary for the timing of Hebrews. However, if one carefully examines the alleged citations of Hebrews, one will see that they are based on slim evidence, indeed—no explicit attribution, and each of the three (or four—we aren’t sure!) supposed references containing numerous discrepancies. This is made clear in “The Use of the Old and New Testaments in Clement of Rome”, by Donald Alfred Hagner. Even if we accept that Clement of Rome was citing Hebrews in 96, that gives us a window of 26 years since the destruction of the Temple! There is no reason to presume a pre-destruction date for the authorship of the letter. There was plenty of time in which the letter may have been developed and distributed after the Fall of Jerusalem.
2. Hebraic Author
The fact is, with the exclusion of Luke and Acts, all the rest of the Messianic Writings were penned by Israeli Jews who were immersed in the Torah-based perspective of first century Messianic Jewish expectation. And Luke, who wrote the Gospel and Acts, was a close companion of Rav Sha’ul for many years. He was nothing, if not assimilated into the ways of his Rabbi. It makes no sense to assume the author of Hebrews would have possessed anything other than a Middle Eastern mindset, well versed in Torah and in rabbinic literary techniques. Especially when such style of thinking and writing is so obviously demonstrable in the letter. So, while we may not be able to pin down the precise individual, we will be taking the approach in this study that the author is Jewish (or a convert to Judaism) who has studied under a trained rabbi, and is familiar with the use of PRDS and aggadah as techniques for relating his message.
What Message Is That?
Almost all modern commentators work off the assumption that the letter was written in order to prevent Jewish believers in Yeshua from falling back into the Temple framework. It is generally assumed that the Temple was still standing, and the writer intended to exhort his audience not to return to “pale, dingy, outdated Judaism, with its priesthood and Temple service”. However, I propose that we investigate the letter from the perspective that the Temple had already been destroyed, and the author’s goal was to encourage and console an audience that was absolutely devastated by the sack of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the failure of all their national hopes and dreams.
Messiah was supposed to be the one who made everything right! What went wrong???