The Book of Hebrews
By Roger Hahn (Part 2 Continued)


ot only does Hebrews not mention the author, it does not contain the traditional mention of the addressees. The traditional title and superscript to the book To the Hebrews was not part of the original text of the book and it appears to represent an early (and insightful) guess as to the audience. It is almost universally accepted that the original audience was a group of Jewish Christians. There have been scholars in the twentieth century who advanced arguments in favor of a Gentile audience, but these scholars are appropriately in the small minority. It is not likely at all that the book of Hebrews would have been written as it was if the original audience had been Gentiles. Modern gentile Christians who have a long heritage of Christianity have a difficult time understanding Hebrews.

The original readers were Jewish in their background. It is equally clear that they were part of what is called Hellenistic Judaism. That means they were Jews who were born and bred with Greek as their native language and the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint) as their version of the Bible. These Hellenistic Jews did not live in Palestine, but in one of the great metropolitan cities of the Mediterranean world. After the Babylonian captivity described at the end of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, not all the exiles returned to Jerusalem and Palestine. In the five hundred years from the end of the Babylonian Exile until the time of The Messiah, the descendants of those Jewish captives spread across the ancient world. They became businessmen and mercenary soldiers and congregated in the great cities. The largest Egyptian city, Alexandria, was thought to have about a quarter of its population to be Jews.

It is not possible to be sure in which large city of the ancient Mediterranean world the original audience of Hebrews lived. Hebrews 13:24 sends greetings to the readers of the book from "those of Italy." The phrase could be understood in two different ways. It could mean that the author was in Italy, writing to people in a city outside Italy, sending greetings from all the Italian people around him. Or it could be that the audience was in Italy (Rome would be the great metropolitan city), the author was outside Italy, but all his Italian (Roman) friends wanted to send greetings to their friends back home in Rome.

For several reasons this second view is more likely. The first writer of the early Christian fathers to quote Hebrews was Clement of Rome. The circumstances reflected in Hebrews can best be found in Rome in the middle of the decade of the A.D. 60's. Hebrews implies that the first readers of the book were Jewish Christianity, but not the only Christianity in their city. Other New Testament writings (especially Romans) suggest that the church at Rome was composed of several congregations or "house-churches," one of which was a congregation of Jewish believers. The question of the identity of the original audience is closely connected to the question of the date and the purpose of Hebrews.

Since Clement of Rome quoted the book of Hebrews in a letter which he wrote in approximately A.D. 95, Hebrews must be earlier than that. Since Hebrews 13:23 mentions Timothy's release from prison, the book would have been written after A.D. 50 when Paul summoned the then-young Timothy into traveling Christian service.

Hebrews 12:4 states that the readers had not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. This suggests that the community was facing some kind of persecution. Other passages in Hebrews are consistent with the view that the readers were either being persecuted or being threatened by the possibility of persecution soon. Hebrews 10:32-34 indicates that the community had suffered persecution in an earlier period. It is possible that either or both of the times of persecution mentioned in Hebrews were minor events that are not known in the larger flow of history.

However, most scholars attempt to date Hebrews by connecting these two persecutions to times in which the church at Rome was known to have been persecuted. The first persecution was in A.D. 49 when the emperor Claudius evicted all the Jews (believers and those who did not accept The Messiah as the Messiah) out of Rome apparently because of disruptive arguments over the Messiah. It was because of this persecution that Aquila and Priscilla came to Corinth, according to Acts 18: 1-2. Several years later Claudius relaxed the eviction edict and Jews (both Christianity and those who rejected The Messiah) began to return to Rome. (Many Bible scholars now believe that Romans was written to counter problems in the church that arose when the evicted Jewish Christianity returned to Rome to discover that leadership in the church had been taken over by Gentile believers.)

The best known period of persecution of the church by the Romans was around A.D. 65 near the end of the reign of Nero. The great fire had destroyed much of Rome in A.D. 64. Nero was a prime suspect and apparently to deflect suspicion and hatred from himself, he publicly blamed the Christianity for the fire. From then until his death in A.D. 68 Nero was involved in periodic persecution and/or harassment of the church.

The next major outbreak of persecution in Rome occurred in the reign of the emperor Domitian between A.D. 81 and 96. Though some scholars argue that the earlier persecutions of Hebrews 10:32-34 took place under Nero and the book was written during the persecution of Domitian, that view has not won general acceptance. The majority of scholars believe that Hebrews 10:32-34 refers either to a period just a few years earlier but still in the Neronian period or to the persecution connected with the eviction edict of Claudius. In either case, the book of Hebrews is thought to have been written during the Neronian persecutions sometime between A.D. 64 and A.D. 68.

The other issue that enters into the question of the date has to do with whether or not the temple of Jerusalem was still standing when Hebrews was written. The temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman armies in A.D. 70. It was such a traumatic event in Jewish history that it is hard to imagine a Jewish author writing after the event and making no reference to it. The book of Hebrews does not refer to the temple at all. The most typical conclusion drawn from that fact is that the book was written before A.D. 70. This point of view is underscored by the argument of Hebrews. Repeatedly the author shows how the Messiah has superseded the persons and institutions of Judaism. Surely he would have argued that the Messiah was a better temple if he had known that the Jewish temple lay in ruins. The suggestion that Hebrews was prior to A.D. 70 fits in well with a situation during the persecution of Nero in A.D. 65.

The book of Hebrews was probably written to Jewish Christians in Rome who were facing persecution under Nero. Judaism was a legal and recognized religion at that time. Jews who did not believe in the Messiah were not in danger of persecution from Nero at that time. Christians were in that danger. It would have been a very tempting thought to Jewish Christians who were being persecuted to down play their commitment to the Messiah. If they would deny their faith in the Messiah and present themselves only as Jews (and not as Jewish Christians) they would be safe from the persecution. Then, perhaps at a later and safer date, they could pick up their commitment to the Messiah again. Hebrews makes best sense as an argument to prevent the first readers from being enticed into following such a tempting course of action. (Part 3 in next issue)