Background Study Sheet


The Better Book of the New Testament


                           Background Study Sheet

     The Epistle to the Hebrews exalts the person and work of Christ
and makes valuable contributions toward understanding the doctrines
of His Incarnation, His substitutionary death, His priesthood, and the
relationship between the New Covenant and the Old.

     Despite its great value, little is known with certainty about its
occasion, background, or authorship.  This does not seriously affect
the understanding of the epistle's message, however.  The message
remains timeless and relevant whatever the circumstances out of
which it arose.

     DATE.   The epistle is quoted in other writings before the end
of the first century.  In addition it can scarcely be dated after A.D. 70,
since there is no reference to the destruction of the Jewish temple in
Jerusalem.  Had this event already occurred, it would have given the
author a definitive argument for the cessation of the Old Testament
sacrificial system.  Instead he seems to regard this system as still in
operation (cf. 8:4, 13; 9:6-9; 10:1-3).

     It obviously was written during the lifetime of Timothy, whom the
author knew (13:23).  If the author is not Paul, then 13:23 may
suggest he had already died.  Otherwise, Timothy might have been
expected to join Paul on his release from prison.  The date is probably
about the AD 64 - 68.

     AUTHORSHIP.    Many different men have been suggested
as authoring this epistle (which is as much a sermon as it is an letter). 
The tradition that Paul wrote it is very old (ca. AD 180) and has never
decisively been disproved.  A fourth century scholar deliberated the
question and came to the famous conclusion, "only God knows who
wrote Hebrews."

     The other name with very early support is for one of Paul's
missionary companion, Barnabas.  This tradition dates back to ca. AD

     Barnabas fits the requirements for authorship quite well. Since he
was a Levite (Acts 4:36), an interest in the Levitical system, such as
the author of Hebrews displayed, would be nature for him.  Since he
had close ties with Paul, resemblances in Hebrews to Paul's thought
would be naturally explained.  Moreover, Timothy had been converted
during the first missionary journey (Acts 16:1-3) and was therefore
known to Barnabas.

     If Paul were dead at the time of the writing of Hebrews, it would
not be surprising if Timothy were to join Paul's former companion
(Heb. 13:23).  The rift between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:37-39)
had long since healed and Paul had later spoken warmly of Barnabas'
nephew Mark (cf. Col. 4:10; 2 Tim. 4:11).

     If Hebrews were authored by Barnabas, then it can claim
inspiration on the basis that he was a man "full of the Holy Spirit"
(Acts 11:24) and a prophet (Acts 13:1).  In any case it's divine
authority is manifest.

     Other names also linked to the book over the centuries have been
Luke, Silas, Philip the Evangelist, and Apollos.  

                     BACKGROUND AND SETTING.  

     Like the author, the identity of the first readers of Hebrews is also
unknown.  Nevertheless, the recipients had a definite history and the
writer referred to their "earlier days" (10:32-34).  The author knew
about their past and present generosity to other Christians (6:10); and
he was able to be specific about their current spiritual condition
(5:11-14).  The author had definite links with them and expressed his
intention to visit them, perhaps with Timothy (13:10, 23).  He also
requested their prayers (13:18)
     The readers appear to be chiefly of a Jewish background, though
nothing is said definitely of their locale.  Many old to the thesis that
the readers were an enclave of Jewish Christians within the confines
of some great city, such as Rome, or in the Lycus Valley (where
Colosse was situated) or in Cyrene, or Alexandria.

     Apart from the reference to "those of Italy" (13:24) there is not
much to suggest a Roman destination.  On the view that Barnabas was
the author, Cyprus as been proposed as a destination, since Barnabas
was a Cypriot Jew.

     Many believe the epistle had a Palestinian destination but there are
problems with this view as well.  For one thing, the reference to the
readers receiving their knowledge of the Lord from those who
originally heard Him (2:3) sounds a bit more natural for readers on a
mission field.  In Palestine, and especially Jerusalem, many of the
readers might have heard Christ in person.  In addition the reference to
the readers' generosity to the poor (6:10) does not sound like
Jerusalem at any rate, since poverty was prevalent there at a later time
(cf. Acts 11:27-29; Gal. 2:10).  

     If the statement of Hebrews 12:4 means that no martyrdoms had
occurred as yet in the community the writer is addressing, then a
Palestinian or at least a Jerusalem locale is excluded.  (But the writer
may only have meant that the people reading the epistle had not yet
made such a sacrifice.)

     If Barnabas is the author of the epistle, one locale which might fit
all the requirement is the ancient city of Cyrene in North Africa.  The
origins of Christianity there were quite early, for the church at Antioch
in Syria was established by missionaries from Cyprus and Cyrene
(Acts 11:20).  The connection between Cyprus and Cyrene in that
account is of interest because of Barnabas' Cypriot background.  Two
of the men with whom Barnabas later ministered in the Antioch
church were "Simeon called Niger" and "Lucius of Cyrene"  (Acts
13:1).  Since Simeon's other name, Niger, means "black" he may have
been from North Africa, as was his companion Lucius.  Whether this
Simeon was also the man called Simon who bore Jesus' cross (Luke
24:26) is unknown, but he too was from Cyrene.  This latter Simon
had two sons, Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21), who were
apparently well known in the Roman church (cf. Romans 16:  ) In any
case, contacts between Christians of Cyrene and those at Rome and
in Italy is most probably.  This would explain the reference to
"Italians" in Hebrews 13:24.

     On the whole, the most plausible backdrop for the Epistle to the
Hebrews is to a church, largely Jewish in membership, in a large city. 
Under repeated pressures from their unbelieving fellow Jews they
were tempted to give up their Christian profession and return to their
ancestral Jewish faith.

     In the final analysis, however, the exact destination of the epistle
is of little importance as is the identity of its author.  Regardless of
who wrote it, or where it was first sent, the church has rightly
regarded it down through the ages as a powerfully relevant message
from God, who had definitively spoken through His Son.

            A Brief Outline of Hebrews

 Hebrews:  The "better" book of the New Testament.

  I.  A SUPERIOR PERSON -- CHRIST  (ch. 1-6)

     A.  Better than the prophets 	1:1-3
     B.  Better than the angels   	1:4 - 2:18
     C.  Better than Moses          	ch. 3 - 4
     D.  Better than Aaron                 	ch. 5 - 6


     A.  A Better order                         ch. 7
     B.  A Better covenant                   ch. 8
     C.  A Better sanctuary                  ch. 9
     D.  A Better sacrifice                    ch. 10


     A.  The better examples of Faith       ch. 11
     B.  The better endurance of faith       ch. 12
     C.  The better power of faith              ch. 13

Key Word: "Better" (occurs some 13 times)

     1.   To show Christianity is better than Judaism.
     2.   To exhort the recipients not to drift away from the message
            they have heard.  
     3.   To encourage grown (6:1)  
     4.   To encourage endurance (cf. 13:13).

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