Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Gleanings from Hebrews

Getting the Most out of Hebrews (1)

It is hard to appreciate, after close to two millenniums of dominance, that Gentile believers were an anomaly among the Christians for the first several decades of the first century. We fail to see the genius of Paul's exegesis of the Covenant of Abraham as the reason by which Gentiles could join the community of faith without being circumcised. A close reading of Paul's letters and life will show that first century Christianity was not so much an exodus of Jews from Israel as it was a theology that saw Gentile believers as belonging to Israel. The following passage from Acts is especially constructive here:

After these days we got ready and started up to Jerusalem. Some of the disciples from Caesarea came along with us too, and brought us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, a disciple from the earliest times, with whom we were to stay. When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us gladly. The next day Paul went in with us to see James, and all the elders were there. When Paul had greeted them, he began to explain in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all ardent observers of the law. They have been informed about you—that you teach all the Jews now living among the Gentiles to abandon Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What then should we do? They will no doubt hear that you have come. So do what we tell you: we have four men who have taken a vow; take them and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself live in conformity with the law. But regarding the Gentiles who have believed, we have written a letter, having decided that they should avoid meat that has been sacrificed to idols and blood and what has been strangled and sexual immorality.” (Acts 21:15-25, The Net Bible)

There are several things to note in this passage. First, Paul came to Jerusalem under a Nazirite Vow (cf. Numbers 6 and the reference to saving the head). By this he was declaring himself to be a practicing Jew as well as a missionary to the Gentiles. Second, there were rumors that Paul taught the Jews to "abandon Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs." The believing community in Jerusalem advised Paul to pay the expenses of others completing Nazirite vows so that "everyone will know there is nothing in what they have been told about you." Paul followed their instructions. Third, there is a distinct reference to Jews and Gentiles remaining under distinct requirements.

There is more evidence that Jewish believers continued to practice Judaism with Paul's blessing. In Acts 15, the leaders of the Christianity in Jerusalem, formally decided that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised to be Christians. Paul immediately carried that letter to the churches in Asia Minor. Along the way, he asked a young man named Timothy to join him. Because Timothy's mother was Jewish, Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:1-3).

The point of all the above is to provide evidence of a thriving Jewish community of faith in the first century. Like the Messianic Jews of today, they worshipped Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) in a Jewish way. Except for Paul's letters to the Gentile churches, the other books in the New Testament have a decidedly Jewish flavor. None has more than the Book of Hebrews. 

Date and Author

Dating and ascribing authorship to Hebrews is speculative at best. Let's take the dating issues first.

First clue: The author seems to be a second generation leader:

For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Hebrews 2:2-4)

Second clue: The temple and its sacrifices seems to be intact:

For the law possesses a shadow of the good things to come but not the reality itself, and is therefore completely unable, by the same sacrifices offered continually, year after year, to perfect those who come to worship. For otherwise would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers would have been purified once for all and so have no further consciousness of sin? But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year. (Hebrews 10:1-3)

Third clue: Clement of Rome quotes from Hebrews in a letter dated around 96AD. The first clue suggests a date after 60AD, the third clue tells us that it was before 96AD, and the middle clue suggests a date before 70AD.

As for the author, all we have is speculation. I think that we could leave it alone, were it not for the fact that we like to solve mysteries and puzzles. It is not an issue that we will ever leave be. Here are the major candidates:

  • Paul was an early front runner and continues to be so. There is much about the letter's style at the end that is very Pauline. When I reflect on the possibility, I sometimes imagine that this was the sermon Paul preached in the synagogues whenever he entered a new city. One bit of evidence against this view is a reference to Timothy, "You should know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he comes soon, he will be with me when I see you. (Hebrews 13:23)" Paul oftened referred to Timothy as a son, but here the term is "brother."
  • Barnabas was a favorite of Tertullian. The close relationship between Paul and Barnabus could explain the similarity to Paul's letters.
  • Apollos was Martin Luther's suggestion. Given that Apollos was known to be a great early teacher, the suggestion is intriguing.
  • Priscilla is the suggestion of modern gender feminists.

Audience and Purpose

The audience was first century Jewish believers. This is clear from two things:

  1. All concepts in the letter are linked to doctrines of interest to Jewish believers: Old Testament oracles, Moses and the covenants, the Aaronic priesthood, the Temple service, and Old Testament heroes.
  2. The use of rabbinic hermeneutical principles. What I mean by this is that if you read Hebrews and cross reference its quotations of the Old Testament to their context, you sometimes wonder what is going on. I will devoting some amount of time on this topic in this series. If you can't wait, I have posted a detailed paper on these hermeneutical principles.

The purpose of the letter to the Jewish believers was to encourage them to persevere in New Covenant halakah. The word "halakah" is Hebrew for "the walk." Halakah is the Jewish study of how to live life before God. In this context, the author of Hebrews:

  • Points to past failures, such as the wilderness griping.
  • Demonstrates the superiority of Jesus over the prophets, over Moses, over Aaron, and over the temple service. He then develops a halakah based on faith and Jesus' high priesthood.

This Study

This series of posts that I am beginning is not intended to be a detailed examination of Hebrews. It will not even come close. However, in many ways it is a neglected book. One of the reasons for this is that it is a hard book to understand if you are not familiar with the Old Testament.

The purpose of this study is to provide some tools for understanding the book and to recognize its value to Jews and Gentiles alike. It will cover several background concepts that will enhance the understanding of all, and it will draw out the most important lessons for us and the lives that we live before God.

Tomorrow: Hints, Allegories, and Hidden Meanings

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>


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