Author – We don’t know the author. There are many ideas discussed, but there is nothing conclusive. I don’t believe this discussion is worth pursuing here.
Date – As the letter discusses the tabernacle, it seems that this sacramental/ sacrificial worship of Israel, in their tabernacle/ temple life, was still intact and operational when the letter of Hebrews was written. This means the letter of Hebrews was written before the destruction on Jerusalem and its temple, by Rome in AD 70.
Some background – The letter seems to point to the social history of Israel as it was in the days of Jesus. Jesus spoke clearly of the segmented social life of those days, in which the people set themselves apart from those in need, calling them sinners, or cursed, and built their own bigger barns for their personal riches. Christ was essentially killed for breaking down the righteous – enemy distinctions and calling them to love and serve each other.
The life style of the early church would have challenged the social status-quo very strongly. The book of Acts shows people coming together as brothers and sisters in Christ and joining hands of care across all borders that previously separated them. This new culture of care would have greatly challenged the economic structures of Israel that made some of the people very rich. The way the early church shared their lives in solidarity with all, from all backgrounds, would have attracted strong persecution, the kind of persecution we see spoken of in the letter of Hebrews.
It is unlikely that such persecution from the Jewish elite would have continued to such an extent after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The persecutors would not have been as organised, nor would they have any longer being in league with Rome to the extent that enabled significant levels of persecution against the church.
Seeing the letter of Hebrews in this time period aligns it well with the letter of James, written to essentially the same people, the Jewish populations before Jerusalem fell in AD 70. This enables us to understand the background in which Hebrews was written. James spoke of the different classes of people, using their advantage over the weaker groups. He spoke of the royal law, to love our neighbour as ourselves. He was calling Jerusalem to break down their divisions of selfishness and care for their neighbour.
To follow Jesus meant to cast aside our exclusive love for our group, for our selfish advantage, and to receive and care for others in need. This clearly portrays the difference between the early church community and those in Jerusalem who we trying to cling onto their worldly powers. It brings the message of Hebrews into focus: to continue a life of aggression against our neighbour, using the law as our pretext for holiness, or obey the real call of the law, and of the gospel, to love our neighbour as Christ has loved us.
There are also many references in Hebrews to the coming wrath, which most naturally would mean the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Understanding the “wrath of God” in this way, as the former Prophets spoke of it, when Babylon was sacking and burning Jerusalem, would seem to make the most sense of these passages in Hebrews, especially since the letter was written to the people of Israel. This also aligns Hebrews with statements in other New Testament sources, of the coming judgement of God against Jerusalem in that generation.
This also brings the “wrath of God” mentioned in Hebrews (sometimes termed his vengeance or retribution) into focus, in the sense of how that happened in the first century. It was clearly through the breakdown of the relationships and their mutual destruction. That is, it was something the people brought upon themselves because they hardened their hearts to the message of neighbour love brought to them by Christ and the church.
This is how Jesus described the coming judgment in that generation, and therefore this helps us to understand these kinds of passages in the letter of Hebrews. Therefore, terms related to issues about the wrath of God in Hebrews shouldn’t be divorced form the social dynamic Jesus spoke of. If they were, we would be reading Hebrews ahistorically, which wouldn’t make sense, unless we are committed to Gnosticism, which means writings of a purely spiritual quality, not rooted in real time.
Theme – We find that a major theme of the letter of Hebrews is God establishing a covenant of peace in Christ, which replaces the covenant of retribution that filled the hearts of humanity before Christ came.
This new covenant is primarily about the relationships that can now be established, leading our communities and world into the peace that the Prophets, like Isaiah, envisioned. In unveiling these themes from the text of Hebrews, some of us may find that our positions on doctrines such as atonement, judgment, salvation and the future, being challenged by biblical discussion which presents different views than we are used.
In the early church, people held different views on some of the central themes of our faith, views that were still accepted within the realms of orthodoxy. The views were biblical but included understandings of the biblical positions that others may not have emphasised. Final decisions had not been made about some of these differences and fellowship between believers welcomed the variations. Our Christlike love and care for others is much more vital to our orthodoxy than our doctrines, or as Paul said, “Knowledge puffs up, love edifies.” The Samaritan in the parable of the Good Samaritan shows this to us unmistakably. Though doctrine is important, its purpose is to foster the kind of life the Samaritan showed to his neighbour: godliness.
An example of early orthodoxy was the poem in Philippians 2:5-11. This section was likely well known in the earthy church and used as a summary poem for the central aspects of the “apostles’ doctrine.” Here, God humbled himself in Christ to serve humanity. He died for our sins and rose again and received lordship on man’s behalf to restore the creation. We see these main points in other parts of Paul’s letters also.
This passage in Philippians summarises the main parts of early orthodoxy. The transcendence of God and his incarnation in Christ, showing the divinity and humanity of Christ. His death and resurrection. We see these in the main church creeds, that came later. But the central key to this orthodoxy in Philippians 2 is the humility of God. This is the main punch of the text, but we don’t see this in the creeds, and this is very unfortunate.
The punch of Paul’s text was that if God could travel such a huge distance, from his transcendence, to suffering humanity, then it’s a much shorter distance for us to travel to condescend to our neighbour in suffering and service. We should “let this mind be in us, that was in Christ Jesus.” The main thrust of the passage is that we are to mimic God’s condescension, or the doctrine of “his humiliation in Christ,” in our discipleship and relationships with our enemies. This is early discipleship at its core. Instead, the church has often turned this “revealing of God in Christ” into something to fight about.
Therefore, I urge caution when reading this book on the letter of Hebrews, if any of its teachings aren’t what you are used to. Everything taught in this book was acceptable teaching by the fathers in the first 250 years of the church. If we fight about these things, and exclude others from our fellowship, or call others heretics, based on our particular theology of the scripture, and not based upon the scripture itself, then we are becoming the kind of person the letter of Hebrews was warning us not to become.
Acknowledgements – Rene Girard has been a huge help to my understanding of Old Testament sacrifice. He started out his career in literature, but he later found Christ.
N T Wright has been a huge help to my understanding of the history of the early church in the days of Christ and the first apostles. This has helped immensely in understanding the theology and expectations of the kingdom of God in the first century Jewish community and early church teachings. This helps massively in understanding the background to New Testament writings.
I haven’t read Girard’s or Wright’s comments on the letter of Hebrews. I am not saying they would agree with every point I make in this book, nor that I would agree with all the points they make in their writings. But the many aspects of their teaching have helped me a lot.
Many others have helped me in many ways, and these have also influenced my reading of the letter of Hebrews. These would include some modern pastors with Anabaptist leanings.
The letter of Hebrews is not used very often in the modern church. I can’t remember the last time I heard a message preached from this letter. I haven’t read any commentaries on the letter of Hebrews in recent years. Earlier, I read many commentaries on Hebrews, but none that I remember that had leanings from the first century background as presented in this book.