The Book of Hebrews
Commentary for September 1, 2004 — ASK Article for September 2004
The Book of Hebrews has some mysterious elements to it. The internal evidence appears to be scanty. The text does not say who wrote it. It does not say to whom it was written. Chronological clues appear to be lacking. Dr. Ernest L. Martin’s article on the Book of Hebrews answers some of these mysteries and puts the message of the book into its proper historical perspective relative to the New Testament documents and history.
However, I want to encourage you to read the accompanying “September 2004 Newsletter” that contains some additional background information about Hebrews. It will give additional perspective to the article by Dr. Martin.
Because of the paucity of identifying accounts in Hebrews, the internal clues of the text become increasingly important. Analyzing the text in light of the audience reception is one method of doing this. Audience reception analysis looks at the text and notes both what is said and what is not said because the audience already knows or did not need an explanation of what was presented.
For example when a term is used without explanation we can usually take for granted that the original readers or listeners did not require an explanation. Audience analysis can help you tie the text to external historical events. It is these types of clues that Dr. Martin focuses upon to solve (in my view) the historical and authorship questions of Hebrews.
Hebrews is not in the typical “epistle” format. It does not contain the common elements of a typical 1st century letter or epistle (I use the terms interchangeably). In our letters today we have traditional places on a page of a letter for various kinds of information, such as:
New Testament letters also have formats that are different than ours today, but they were just as formalized. (They are listed in most Bible dictionaries under “Epistle.”) Of the 27 books of the New Testament, 20 of them are epistles and then there are 7 epistles to churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. There is even a short letter in Acts 15:23–29. The Book of Hebrews lacks most of the signs of an epistle compared to the New Testament epistles and letters of secular history. For example, there is no opening address, no identification of the author. The author of Hebrews clearly knows what a letter (epistello) was because he says he wrote one to this same audience at a prior time (Hebrews 13:22).
- the return address or company logo,
- a place for the date,
a salutation (“Dear So-and-so)”,
- perhaps a line stating the subject,
- a place for the body of the letter,
- a place for the closing line (“Sincerely”),
- a place for the signature, personal or official.
Therefore Hebrews is something other than a letter or epistle. It is a “formal” presentation to an audience educated to understand the sophisticated Greek, the theological terms and phrases that are used, and well versed in the Greek Old Testament. In fact, the author criticizes these knowledgeable readers that might not be ready for the “meat” that he wanted to teach them (Hebrews 5:12–14).
What is Hebrews?
So what kind of a document is Hebrews? George Wesley Buchanan declares directly in the “Introduction” of his Commentary, To the Hebrews: Translation, Comment and Conclusions, The Anchor Bible #36 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1972), pp. ix, xxi:
“The document entitled ‘To the Hebrews’ is a homiletical midrash based on Psalm 110. ... Homiletic midrashim are sermons or essays which expound important subjects or texts in the Old Testament.”William Lane believes Hebrews was a sermon, hand delivered and read aloud to a house church. (See “Genre” in Hebrews 1–8, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 47a [Dallas: Word Books, 1991].) In fact, Lane writes, “The writer skillfully conveys the impression that he is present with the assembled group and is actually delivering the sermon he has prepared” (“Reflections on Genre”). Words like “speaking,” “hearing” and “listening” solidify this idea in Hebrews 2:5, 5:11, 6:9, 8:1, 9:5, and 11:32), while words like “writing” or “reading” are avoided. The author of the article “Epistle to the Hebrews” in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915) states: “Hebrews begins like an essay, proceeds like a sermon, and ends as a letter.”
This much is clear to all commentators: the Book of Hebrews is a mature statement of pure doctrine expressed to knowledgeable believers in the strongest possible terms. It is a model expression of extremely deep thought and teaching that for years will reward those who embark to study Hebrews in light of the Mystery. I earnestly encourage you to do so. The article “The Book of Hebrews” by Dr. Martin will help lead the way.
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