Vincent's Word Studies, by Marvin R. Vincent, , at sacred-texts.com
The Epistle to the Hebrews
"Who wrote the Epistle God only knows." Such was the verdict of Origen, and modern criticism has gotten no farther. That it is not the work of Paul is the almost unanimous judgment of modern scholars. Its authenticity as a Pauline writing has been challenged from the earliest times. In the Eastern church, both Clement and Origen regarded the Greek Epistle as Paul's only in a secondary sense; Clement holding that it was written by Paul in Hebrew and translated by Luke. Origen knew only that some held Clement of Rome and some Luke to be the author. Its position and designation in the Peshitto Version shows that it was regarded as not strictly one of Paul's epistles, but as an appendix to the collection. Eusebius's testimony is inconsistent. He holds a Hebrew original, and a translation by Clement, and cites the letter as Pauline (H.E. 38). Again, he expressly classifies it with antilegomena (vi. 13); but in iii. 25 he evades the question, naming the Pauline Epistles as homologumena, but without stating their number.
In the West the epistle was known to Clement of Rome, who frequently quotes it, but without naming the author. The Pauline authorship was expressly denied by Hippolytus: the Muratorian Canon does not mention it, and reckons only seven churches to which Paul wrote: Tertullian in Africa apparently knew nothing of a Pauline Epistle to the Hebrews, but spoke of an Epistle of Barnabas to the Hebrews. It was not recognized by Cyprian. From the fourth century its canonical authority was admitted in the West, partly on the assumption of its Pauline authorship; but the influence of the earlier suspicion remained, and Jerome declared that the custom of the Latins did not receive it as St. Paul's. Augustine agreed substantially with Jerome. It was authorized as canonical by two councils of Carthage (397, 419 a.d.); but the language of the former council was peculiar: "Thirteen Epistles of Paul, and one of the same to the Hebrews." The decree of the latter council was "fourteen Epistles of Paul."
From this time the canonical authority and authorship of the epistle were generally accepted until the age of the Reformation, when the old doubts were revived by Cajetan and Erasmus. The council of Trent (1545-1563) decreed fourteen Pauline Epistles; yet different views have been current among Roman Catholic theologians, as Bellarmine, Estius, and others. Luther denied the Pauline authorship, and placed the epistle along with James, Jude, and Revelation, after "the right-certain, main books of the New Testament." Melanchthon treated it as anonymous. The Magdeburg Centuriators (1559-1574) denied that it was Paul's, as did Calvin. Under Beza's influence it was separated from the Pauline letters in the Gallican Confession (1571). The Belgic and Helvetic Confessions declared it Pauline. The hypothesis of the Pauline authorship was conclusively overthrown by Bleek in 1868.
The conclusion of modern scholarship rests upon:
(1) The Style and Diction. - While Paul's style is marked by frequent irregularities, anacolutha, unclosed parentheses, and mixed metaphors, this epistle is written in a flowing, symmetrical, and artistically elaborated style. The difference is as marked as that between a chapter of Gibbon and one of Sartor Resartus. The rhetorical art of Hebrews appears in the careful arrangement of the words, the rhythmical structure of sentences, and the sonorous compounds. The paragraphs are sometimes arranged in a regular series of premises and conclusions, with parentheses which do not lose their connection with the main topic, while the whole is developed in regular sequence, without anacolutha.
(2) The Methods of Thought and the Points of View. - These differ from those of the Pauline Epistles. The two do not materially disagree. They reach, substantially, the same conclusions, but by different processes and from different positions. The points of emphasis differ. Topics which, in the Pauline letters, are in the foreground, in Hebrews fall into the shade or are wholly passed over.
(a) The conception of faith. In Paul, faith is belief in Jesus Christ as a means of justification, involving a sharp opposition to the works of the law as meriting salvation. In Hebrews, faith is trust in the divine promises as distinguished from seeing their realization, a phase of faith which appears rarely in Paul. Both agree that faith is the only true medium of righteousness; but Hebrews sets forth two great factors of faith, namely, that God is, and that he is a rewarder of them which diligently seek him.
(b) The mode of presenting the contrast between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace through faith. Both Paul and the author of Hebrews recognize a relation and connection between the two covenants. The one prefigures and prepares the way for the other. The Christian church is "the Israel of God," "the people of God," "the seed of Abraham." Both teach that forgiveness of sin and true fellowship with God cannot be attained through the law, and that Christianity represents the life-giving Spirit, and Judaism the letter which killeth. Both assert the abrogation of the old covenant by Christ. Paul, however, views Judaism almost entirely as a law to be fulfilled by men; while our writer regards it as a system of institutions designed to represent a fellowship between God and his worshippers. Paul, accordingly, shows that the law cannot put man into right relation with God, because man cannot fulfill it; while Hebrews shows that the institutions of the old covenant cannot, by reason of their imperfection, establish a real fellowship with God. To Paul, the reason why the old covenant did not satisfy lay, not in the law, which "is, holy and just and good," but in the relation of man to the law, as unable to fulfill its demands. It cannot effect justification, and it works to make man conscious of his sin, and to drive him to the true source of righteousness. To our writer the reason is to be sought in the fact that the atoning and purifying institutions of the law cannot remove the sins which prevent fellowship with God.
From Paul's point of view he might have been expected to show that, in the Old Testament economy, it devolved on the sacrificial institution, centered in the high-priesthood, to meet the want which was not met by legal obedience. To his assertion that men could not fulfill the demands of the law, it might have been answered that the sacrifices, not in being works of the law, but in being ordained by God himself as atonements for sin, changed men's defective righteousness into a righteousness which justified them before God. But Paul does not meet this. He nowhere shows the insufficiency of the Old Testament sacrifices. He does not treat the doctrine of the high-priesthood of Christ. He regards the system of sacrifices less as a divinely-ordained means of atonement than as a work performed by men, and therefore in the line of other works of the law.
This gap is filled by the writer to the Hebrews, in showing that the ceremonial economy did not and could not effect true fellowship with God. He, no doubt, perceived as clearly as Paul that the observance of the ritual was of the nature of legal works; but he speaks of the ritual system as only a presumed means of grace intended to define and enforce the idea of fellowship with God, and to give temporary comfort to the worshipper, but practically impotent to institute and maintain such fellowship in any true and deep sense. Therefore he emphasizes the topic of the priesthood. He dwells on the imperfect and transient nature of the priestly office: he shows that the Levitical priesthood was only a foreshadowing of a better and permanent priesthood. Christ as the great high priest, who appears nowhere in the Pauline Epistles, is the central figure in the Epistle to the Hebrews. He treats of the ritual system and its appliances as mere types of an enduring reality: he characterizes the whole body of Levitical ordinances and ceremonies as fleshly; and through all runs the one, sad note, accentuated again and again, "they can never take away sins:" "they can never make the comers thereunto perfect:" "they are mere ordinances of the flesh, imposed until the time of reformation."
(c) The view of the condition in which the subject of the law's dominion is placed. To Paul it is a condition of bondage, because the law is a body of demands which man must fulfill (Romans 7). To our writer it is a condition of unsatisfied longing for forgiveness and fellowship, because of the insufficiency of the ritual atonement. Accordingly, Hebrews points to the satisfaction of this longing in Christ, the great high priest, perfecting by one offering those who are being sanctified, purging the conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Paul points to the fact that Christ has put an end to the tyranny of the law, and has substituted freedom for bondage. The conception of freedom does not appear in Hebrews. Neither ἐλεύθερος, ἐλευθερία, nor ἐλευθεροῦν occur in the epistle.
(d) The doctrine of the resurrection of Christ. This emerges everywhere in Paul's epistles. There is but one allusion to it in Hebrews (Heb 13:20), although it is implied in the doctrine of Christ's high-priesthood, he being a priest "according to the power of an indissoluble life" (Heb 7:16).
(e) The Gentiles. There is no mention of the Gentiles in relation to the new covenant, a topic which constantly recurs in Paul.
(f) Sin. Sin is not treated with reference to its origin as by Paul. The vocabulary of terms for sin is smaller than in the Pauline writings.
(g) Repentance. The denial of the possibility of repentance after a lapse (Heb 6:4-6, comp. Heb 10:26-29) is not Pauline.
(3) The Use of Divine Titles. - Κύριος Lord, very common in Paul, is comparatively rare in Hebrews. Similarly, Ἰησοῦς Χριστός Jesus Christ, which occurs thirty times in Romans alone. Χριστός Ἰησοῦς, which is characteristically Pauline, does not appear at all, neither does σωτὴρ savior, which is found in Ephesians and Philippians.
(4) The General Scheme of Treatment. - This is broader than that of Paul, viewing man not only in his relation to the law, but to God's original ideal, and to the harmony with God's entire economy in nature and revelation. Man, nature, history, alike illustrate the incarnation. The Son of God, through whom the worlds were made, is the heir of all things, and, as creator and heir, interprets all life. He not only creates, but bears on all things by the word of his power toward the consummation - complete harmony with the divine archetype. As high priest he makes God and man at one in every sphere of being. He stands for the solidarity of humanity. He is not perfected without the community of sons (Heb 11:40). He is himself a son, a partaker of human nature.
With Paul, the law is chiefly a law of ordinances to be replaced by the gospel. It is abolished in Christ. It cannot be perfectly observed. It generates the knowledge of sin. It cannot generate righteousness. Christianity is a manifestation of the righteousness of God apart from the law. Faith is counted for righteousness to him that worketh not but believeth. The law works wrath, and is unto death. It is subsidiary, with a special view to the concrete development of sin. Equally our epistle shows the insufficiency of the law to reconcile men to God, but in a different way. Paul emphasizes the substitution of the gospel for the law: Hebrews the germ of a saving economy contained in the law, and the necessity of its development by the gospel. Paul does not overlook the fact that the law was our pedagogue to bring us to Christ, but he does not show how, as our writer does. The latter emphasizes the unity of the divine plan, shows how the Levitical institutions pointed forward to Christ, and how the heavenly archetype was foreshadowed in the ritual system. With all Paul's strong assertion of the holiness of the law, he never dwells on it with the sad tenderness for the vanishing system which marks the Epistle to the Hebrews. With Paul the break with the law was sharp and complete. The law, as a champion of which he had been a persecutor of Christ, is thrown into sharp relief against Christ and the gospel. With James and Peter the case was different. It would not be strange if some writing should issue from their circle as "the last voice of the apostles of the circumcision," contemplating with affectionate sympathy that through which they had been led to see the meaning of the gospel, and finding in it "a welcome, though imperfect source of consolation, instead of a crushing burden, as in Paul's case" (Westcott).
(5) The Personal Authority of the Writer Is Wholly in the Background. - This is in marked contrast with the epistles of Paul. He appears to place himself in the second generation of believers to whom the salvation preached by Christ had been certified by ear-witnesses; while Paul refuses to be regarded as a pupil of the apostles, and claims to have received the gospel directly from the Lord, and to have been certified of it by the Spirit.
If Paul was not the author, who was? One claim is about as good as another, and no claim has any substantial support. That of Apollos is founded solely upon Act 18:24 f.; Co1 1:12; Co1 2:4 ff. The most that can be deduced from these is that Apollos might have written it. There is no evidence that he wrote anything, and that he was learned and mighty in the Scriptures might easily have been true of others. Some modern critics incline to Barnabas, on the strength of the words of Tertullian alluded to above, but this is as unsatisfactory as the rest.
As regards the destination of the epistle, we are equally in the dark. By ecclesiastical writers from the earliest time it is cited under the title to the Hebrews, a fact which is entitled to some weight. It is evidently addressed to a definite circle of readers, and that circle could hardly have been a mixed church of Jews and Gentiles, since it would have been impossible in that case for the letter to avoid allusions to the relations between the two, whereas it contains no allusion to Gentile Christians.
An hypothesis which has obtained considerable currency in modern criticism is, that the epistle was not addressed to Jewish Christians at all, but to Gentile Christians, as a warning against relapsing into heathenism, by showing them from the Old Testament the superiority of Christianity to Judaism.
But this hypothesis presents formidable difficulties. This would seem to be a roundabout way of impressing Gentiles with the superior claims of Christianity. It would appear to have been the more natural course to institute a direct comparison between Christianity and paganism. See on Heb 13:7-15.
It is true that Gentile Christians were familiar with the Old Testament, and that Paul's epistles to Gentile readers contain frequent allusions to it; and, further, that Clement of Rome, in his epistle to the Gentile church at Corinth, makes much use of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and cites freely from the Old Testament. But to illustrate one's thoughts and arguments by occasional references to the Old Testament is a very different thing from drawing out an elaborate argument on the basis of a contrast between a new and an older order, designed to show, not only that the new is superior to the old, but that the new is enfolded in the old and developed from it. To this there is no parallel in the New Testament in writings addressed to Gentiles. It would have been superfluous to prove, as this epistle does, that the old order did not satisfy. The Gentiles never supposed that it did.
Moreover, in almost every case of Paul's allusion to the Jewish institutions, the reference is called out by some feature of the Mosaic economy which lay directly in his track and compelled him to deal with it. Thus, in Romans, he is forced to discuss the doctrine of salvation by faith with reference to the Jewish doctrine of salvation by the works of the law. The Galatians had been tempted by Judaising emissaries to return to the law of circumcision. In Corinth, Paul's authority and teaching had been assailed by Jewish aggressors. In Philippians we have no allusion to the law until the writer comes to deal with "the dogs," "the evil workers," "the concision." In Colossians, Jewish ceremonialism is a distinct factor of the heresy which is attacked; but nowhere in Paul's epistles is there a didactic development of a thesis from the point of view of the Old Testament economy collectively.
The same remarks will apply to the case of Clement of Rome. In his Epistle to the Corinthians there are about twenty allusions to the Epistle to the Hebrews or quotations from it. Two of these relate to the majesty of God; one to Christ as high priest; in two or three there is a mere imitation of the phraseology of Hebrews, and the most of the passages are practical exhortations to the cultivation of moral virtues, enforced by allusions to the Old Testament worthies. Any of these passages might have occurred in an address to either Jews or Gentiles. They prove nothing as to the point in question. If we did not know from other sources that Clement's epistle was addressed to a Gentile church, we could not infer that fact from these quotations and allusions. Moreover, Clement's fondness for the Old Testament and the Epistle to the Hebrews is easily explained, if, as there is very good reason for believing, Clement himself was of Jewish origin, a Hellenist.
The whole argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews is technically Jewish, and not of a character to appeal to Gentile readers. The argument, for example, for the superiority of Christ to the angels, would have much force addressed to Jews, since the doctrine of the communication of the Mosaic revelation through the ministration of angels was a familiar tradition. Between the writer and Jewish readers there would be no question as to the angelic mediation of the Sinaitic legislation; but the point would have no interest and no pertinency for the average Gentile. The Jew would readily apprehend that no theophany is a direct manifestation of God to the physical sense. The Gentile mode of thought would be the other way. The Jew would understand that angels were the administrators of the old covenant, and would instinctively catch the turn of the whole argument to the effect that with the exaltation of Christ the angelic sway of the old dispensation ceased.
The same thing might be said of the doctrine of the high-priesthood of Christ. If this was a point to make with Gentiles, it is strange that Paul nowhere alludes to it; and what did the Gentile care about Melchisedec or the relation of Christ's priesthood to his?
It is indeed true that, in the practical warnings of the epistle, nothing is directly said about apostasy to Judaism; but the admonitions are enforced by distinctively Jewish references, as, for example, the warning against failure to enter into God's rest, which is pointed by the example of the Israelites in failing to enter Canaan. Would a writer have said to a Gentile convert that, in case of his committing willful sin, there was no expiation for him? But he might properly say to a Jewish Christian who was tempted to return to Judaism: "If you abandon Christ, and return to Judaism, you have no more sacrifice for sins. Your whole system of Levitical sacrifices is abolished. It is Christ or nothing."
It is very strongly urged that the warning against departing from the living God (Heb 3:12) might very properly be given to Gentiles as against a relapse into heathenism, while it would be utterly inappropriate to a Jewish Christian, because the living God is common to both Jews and Christians; and a relapse into Judaism could not, therefore, be a departure from the living God. But the objection overlooks the intent of the whole epistle, which is to show that the living God of the Jewish economy has revealed himself in the Christian economy, thereby superseding the former. It is the God of the Christian dispensation who is commended to the readers; the living God under a new and grander manifestation of life. God who spake by the prophets, now speaks by his Son the effulgence of his glory and the very image of his substance To go back to the old economy of types and shadows, the economy of partial access to God, would be literally to depart from the living God. It would be, practically, to deny him as a living God by denying all development and expansion in his revelation of his own life, and confining that revelation to the narrow limits of the Mosaic system, in other words to identify the living God with the dead system. To depart from Christ, the Life, and to seek the God of the Old Testament revelation, would be to fall back from a living to a dead God.
Again, it is claimed that the words at the beginning of Chapter 6 could not be properly addressed to Jewish Christians: that only a heathen would need to lay such a foundation on his first acceptance of Christ. On the contrary, all the points here enumerated would have had to be expounded to a Jew on becoming a Christian. See notes on that passage.
A still more difficult question is the local destination of the epistle. By those who supposed it to be the work of Paul, attempts were made to place this destination within the circle of Paul's recorded missionary labors; and it was accordingly assigned to almost every place visited or supposed to have been visited by him, - Macedonia, Corinth, Antioch, Spain, etc.
A plausible hypothesis assigned its destination to Jewish Christians in Alexandria. This was based on the fact that the Muratorian Canon (170-210), while omitting Hebrews, notes an Epistle to the Alexandrians (Ad Alexandrinos). It was argued that, since the Canon contains a list both of Paul's genuine epistles and of those falsely ascribed to him, and since Hebrews is not mentioned, the Alexandrian epistle can mean only the Epistle to the Hebrews. It was further urged that Alexandria had, next to Jerusalem, the largest resident Jewish population in the world, and that at Leontopolis in Egypt was another temple, with the arrangements of which the notices in Hebrews corresponded more nearly than with those of the Jerusalem temple. Moreover, the Alexandrian character of the phraseology of the epistle was supposed to point to Alexandrian readers.
But, (a) We have no positive history of the church in Egypt in apostolic times. (b) Although there are numerous notices of the epistle by early Alexandrian writers, there is no hint of its having been addressed to their own church. (c) In the Muratorian Canon the Epistle to the Alexandrians is distinctly stated to be a forgery in the name of Paul. (d) It cannot be shown that the temple at Leontopolis exercised the same power over the Alexandrian Jews as the temple at Jerusalem did over the Palestinian Jews. Even in Egypt the Jerusalem temple was recognized as the true center of worship. Moreover, the Christian church at Alexandria was a mixed church. (e) The furniture of the temple at Jerusalem was more like that of the tabernacle described in Hebrews than that of the Egyptian temple.
A widely-accepted view is that the epistle was addressed to Jewish Christians in Palestine and Jerusalem. Unmixed Jewish-Christian churches were to be found nowhere else; and only there would there be likely to exist that attachment to the old worship which is assumed in the epistle, while it treats only incidentally of those rites to which, in the Dispersion, the greatest importance was naturally assigned - ablutions, etc. The claim that the epistle was addressed to Rome involves a mixed church. The Roman church became more Gentile after Paul's residence in Rome. On the assumption that Jewish Christians were addressed, it is difficult to account for the Roman destination, unless the letter was intended for a distinct circle of Jewish Christians in Rome, which is not impossible. That the epistle was used by Clement proves nothing. The phrase ἀσπάζονται ὑμᾶς οἱ ἀπὸ τῆς Ἰταλίας they from Italy salute you might seem to point to Rome as the residence of the parties saluted; but that is by no means certain. The meaning of the expression must first be settled. It may mean "those in Italy send greeting from Italy," or, "those who are from Italy (whose home is there, but who are now with me) send greeting to you (whoever may be addressed)." The latter meaning is the more probable; but on that supposition the words afford no reliable indication of the residence of those addressed. They mean merely that certain Italians in the writer's company greet the writer's correspondents, who may have been in Palestine, Asia, or Egypt.
The Palestinian hypothesis is not free from difficulty. It appears, at first sight, unlikely that the author would have written in Greek to Palestinian Jewish Christians, whose language was Aramaic, and would have used the Septuagint exclusively in citations from the Old Testament. Nevertheless, Greek was understood and spoken in Palestine: many Greek-speaking Jews resided in Jerusalem (Act 6:9), and there were in that city synagogues of the Cyrenians and Alexandrians, in which Greek and the Septuagint would certainly be used. The Hellenists were numerous and influential enough to carry their point in the matter of ministration to their widows (Act 6:1 ff.). Finally, it is not impossible that the writer of the epistle was not sufficiently acquainted with Aramaic to write effectively in that language.
The decisive settlement of the date of the epistle is practically given up by critics. The most that can be done is to try and fix approximately the limits within which the composition was possible. Only one point is definitely fixed. It must have been written before Clement's Epistle to the Corinthians (95). If addressed to Jewish Christians, or indeed to Gentiles, it is highly probable that it was written before the destruction of Jerusalem (70), since it is most unlikely that the writer would have omitted an allusion to an event which furnished such a striking confirmation of his teaching. This probability would be strengthened if it could be proved that the Jewish sacrifices were still being offered at the time when the epistle was composed: but this cannot be conclusively shown. The use of the present tense in Heb 8:4 ff.; Heb 9:6, Heb 9:9; Heb 10:1 ff.; Heb 13:10 ff., is not decisive. Attempts to identify the persecution alluded to in Heb 10:2 are the merest guess-work. To refer it to the Neronian persecution (64) is to assume that it was addressed to Rome, and is, therefore, to beg the question. The reference of Heb 10:36 and Heb 12:3 to the persecution of Domitian (95), is utterly without foundation, to say nothing of the fact that it is not certain that those two passages refer to persecution at all. Against a date near 95 is the use of the epistle by Clement, unless the Roman address can be proved. Otherwise, some time would be required for it to obtain such currency and recognition as would account for Clement's familiarity with it. Against a very late date is also the fact that Timothy appears as an active evangelist, which could hardly have been the case if the letter was written as late as 90. Against a very early date is the admitted fact that a second generation of Christians is addressed; and that the references to persecution apparently point to a comparatively distant time. If we are to lay stress on the omission of all reference to the destruction of Jerusalem, as I think we must do, it seems to me that the epistle was written not far from 67.
There is no reason for disputing the author's acquaintance with the writings of Paul, as there is none for asserting his dependence upon them. There are lexical resemblances and resemblances in thought and phrasing, but nothing to show that the writer of Hebrews drew upon Paul to any considerable extent. The coincidences with Galatians which are pointed out are superficial, and may be fairly traced to common Jewish ideas with which both writers were familiar. As to Romans, Ephesians, and Corinthians, the resemblances are, in a number of cases, due to quotation from the same source; in other cases they occur in warnings from the example of the Israelites; in others again there is a coincidence of a current phrase, such as "if God permit," which any author might use. In some other instances cited the resemblance is too remote to be significant.
As to the influence of Philo, we may freely admit the evidences of the writer's Alexandrian training, and the possibility, probability, of his acquaintance with Philo's writings. The epistle does exhibit certain points of resemblance to Philo, such as similar forms of quotation, similar use of Old Testament passages and narratives, and statements like those of Philo, such as those respecting the sinlessness of the Logos-Priest, the heavenly home of the patriarchs, and the λόγος τομεύς the dividing word (Heb 4:12): but Philo's meaning differs radically from that of the epistle. Our writer's Christology has no affinity with that of Philo. On certain leading topics, such as the two ages of the world, the mediation of the law by angels, the Sabbath-rest, the heavenly sanctuary, and the heavenly Jerusalem, he exhibits more affinity with Palestinian than with Alexandrian thought. The most that can be claimed is that the Epistle to the Hebrews returns echoes of Philo, and exhibits formal and limited resemblances to him.
Words Which Occur Only in Hebrews
ἀπόστολος (of Christ)
Words Found in Hebrews and Elsewhere, But Not in Paul
[Words which occur in the Pastorals are marked *.]