Recently, I was given the task of introducing the book of Hebrews at Randolph Street Baptist Church in Charleston, West Virginia. Over the next few posts, I’d like to explore introductory matters related to this important book. I believe knowing the background, that is, the historical setting, the literary design, and the major theological themes, of a given book of Scripture can greatly help us interpret it correctly.
Lately, my family and I have developed a fascination with the famous sleuths of history. Often, after a hard days’ work, our reward is to gather in front of a screen and to watch an episode of Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, or some other well-known detective. One aspect of watching famous sleuths in action that we enjoy is that we believe, or at least hope, that doing so will sharpen our own powers of observation. As we watch, we try to pick up subtle clues to the identity of the villain. Now I submit to you that being a serious student of the Bible and being a master detective have more in common than you might realize. Both the seasoned interpreter and the expert sleuth look for clues and draw inferences from the evidence they discover. Interpreting the book of Hebrews is certainly no exception, as we will see.
Exploring introductory matters can greatly help us in our interpretation just as a composite sketch of a suspect can help the police catch the perpetrator of a crime. In sketching the background of Hebrews, I’ll draw our attention to several important clues left in the book regarding the identity of the author, the central message of the book, and the identity of the readers. So, then, let’s first turn to the author.
Who Is the Author?
(1) Well, as most of you already know, when it comes to the identity of the author, the fact is that we don’t really know who wrote the letter to the Hebrews. At a closer look, though, we find one minor clue to the identity of the author in 11:32 where the author writes, “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets ….” In that statement, “I,” of course, refers to the author, and the word “me” in the phrase “time would fail me to tell” is joined with the masculine form of “to tell.” This provides a subtle and indirect, yet unmistakable, clue to the fact that the author was a man, not a woman. I realize this doesn’t narrow the options very much, but it does rule out candidates such as Priscilla, as suggested by the famous German church historian Adolf von Harnack and more recently by the late egalitarian Catherine Kroeger. It also rules out Mary, the mother of Jesus, another unlikely candidate some have proposed.
(2) So, we know the author was a man. Can we say more? There is a second clue to his identity: the statement in 2:3 where the author speaks of the “great salvation” which “was declared at first by the Lord” and subsequently “attested to us by those who heard.” This sounds as if the author didn’t place himself among the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry or the members of the apostolic circle. Rather, he seems to have been a second-generation believer who had heard the gospel message from others. It also means that Paul was probably not the author, because even though he was not a follower of Jesus during his earthly ministry, he did encounter the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and therefore was the recipient of direct special revelation. The reference to the author at 2:3 sounds more like Luke, or Apollos (Martin Luther’s suggestion), or another one of Paul’s close followers, who were not eyewitnesses but had heard the gospel preached to them by one or several of the apostles.
(3) In addition, there may be one other interesting clue in the book which may indicate that the author intentionally chose to remain anonymous. I’m talking about the intriguing reference to the OT figure of Melchizedek in chapter 7. As the author points out, the name “Melchizedek” means “king of righteousness,” and this Melchizedek was king of Salem, which means “king of peace,” as well as a (different kind of) priest (7:1–2). What’s more, as the author observes in 7:3, in the OT text (Gen 14:18–20) Melchizedek “is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life.” Not that he literally had no father or mother, or was eternal, but as far as the biblical narrative is concerned, his full identity is not revealed in the 3 short verses in Genesis 14, nor is it revealed in Psalm 110, the only other OT passage where he is mentioned. Possibly, then, the author of this letter, too, chose to remain anonymous on purpose, in keeping with the mysterious nature of the OT figure of Melchizedek.
So, regarding the author of Hebrews, we’ve seen that he was (1) a man, (2) a second-generation believer (probably not Paul), (3) who may have chosen to remain anonymous to echo the mysterious nature of one of the main characters in his book, Melchizedek. In the first few centuries, the book was grouped together with Paul’s 13 NT letters. This reflected the belief that Paul was either the author or that the author was a close associate of Paul. In any case, the church believed that the contents of the book spoke for themselves and bore the mark of divine inspiration and so included Hebrews in the canon of sacred books. Fortunately, our ability to apply the powerful message of Hebrews doesn’t depend on our knowledge of the identity of the author. What’s more, while we don’t know who the author was, the original recipients of the letter almost certainly did! That said, in the next post, we’ll move on to find out what we can infer about the text and central message of the book.