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 200.
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
II. A SUPERIOR PRIESTHOOD -- MELCHIZEDEK (ch.7-10)
A. A Better order ch. 7
B. A Better covenant ch. 8
C. A Better sanctuary ch. 9
D. A Better sacrifice ch. 10
III. A SUPERIOR PRINCIPLE -- FAITH (ch. 11-13)
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).
Email: Windell Gann