There are a lot of hats that a priest is suppose to wear--pastor, preacher, liturgist. One of the most important hats that I think a priest should wear is that of a teacher or theologian. Perhaps it's because I am the son of an educator, but I figure that we spend all this time and money to get a big fancy degree, so we ought be able to teach people something, right? For that reason I'd like to talk to today about the Letter to the Hebrews. Our Sunday lectionary is nearing the end of Hebrews, and I wanted to take a few minutes to examine this unique piece of our Scriptures. Who knows, perhaps you'll learn something new, and when it comes back around the lectionary cycle next time you'll be ready for it!
Portrait of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews.
The first thing that is always striking about Hebrews is that we don't actually know who wrote it. Unlike the letters of Paul, Jude, Peter, James, and John, there is no name attached to Hebrews, the originally Greek title is simply "to the Hebrews." If you own a King James Version of the Bible you probably notice that Paul's name is attached to it, but even in the earliest days of the church nobody actually knew who wrote it. Augustine of Canterbury said that Paul couldn't have written the letter because the christology of Hebrews was so different from the rest of Paul's letters. Clement of Alexandria did believe that Paul wrote it in Hebrew and that Luke translated it into the Greek; which would mean that Luke's translation is the one that ended up in the Bible. Tertulian thought Barnabas, Paul's companion and the one who welcomed him into the fold of the apostles in Jerusalem, wrote it. During the Reformation Martin Luther believed that Apollos wrote it because he was a Jew and would've known the Law so very well and could've made the connections between the Law and Jesus that we see throughout Hebrews. Perhaps the most romantic argument came from the German scholar Adolf Von Harnack, who suggested that Aquila and Pricilla, two of the early female leaders of the church, wrote it between them. This might explain why no name is attached to the letter; after all, no woman would have been able to put her name on such an important document in those days. Ultimately we must agree with the historian Origin, who said almost 1800 years ago, "With regards to who wrote the epistle (to the Hebrews), God only knows." Literally.
So if we don't know who wrote it, why does my KJV Bible call it one of Paul's letters? In the mid-late second century, as the canon of the Scriptures was beginning to take shape, there were many letters and books that were considered. The aforementioned Clement even had a few letters that were strongly considered, as were the so-called gnostic gosels of Thomas, Peter, and Mary. The Letter to the Hebrews, which was dated around the time of the Temple's destruction in AD 70, was already extremely popular and was being read in Christian congregations all over Asia Minor. The men putting the Scriptures together, who were trying to figure out what should go in and what should not, ultimately made this stipulation: every piece of the New Testament should either be attributed to a known disciple or to a community that knew said disciple. Given its popularity, it was widely understood that the Letter to the Hebrews HAD to go in. But where could it go if no one knew who wrote it? Thus, people began to attribute it to Paul as a means by which the letter could get in. But where should it go in the order of New Testament Scriptures? If you pay close enough attention to Paul's letters, you'll notice that they are placed in order of longest-shortest, starting with Romans and ending with Philemon. So where do they stick Hebrews? After Philemon. Had the letter been one of Paul's its place would've likely gone between II Corinthians and Galatians, based on its length. As a compromise it was put here, after Paul's known letters, still attributed to him by some. Furthermore, if we look at the composition of the letter, the style of Greek that is used, the way the letter opens and ends with very little fanfare, we can see some big differences between Hebrews and the letters of Paul. So, in short, Paul may not have written it, but it still managed to get into the canon of the Scripture on the grounds of its own reputation among the early Christians, and that's pretty remarkable.
What's also interesting about Hebrews is that it isn't really a letter, per say. It's true that nearly every Bible lists it as an epistle or letter, but really it's more like a sermon. There is no salutation like all of the other New Testament letters. It is actually best for us to understand Hebrews as an anonymous sermon written to encourage an early Christian community to continued faith and hope in the face of hardship. This community was made up overwhelmingly of Jewish followers of Jesus--hence the reason it's titled "to the Hebrews," and for that reason we find comparison after comparison in the letter's 13 chapters between the Law of the Old Covenant and the Jesus of the New Covenant. Throughout the letter (or sermon) we see the author interpret the Law and everything that Moses, David, and the Prophets said in light of the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah. So the main point of Hebrews, and the reason why it got put into the canon in the first place, is that it, more than any other piece of New Testament writing, interprets the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus within a Jewish context. Considering that so many members of the early Church identified themselves as Jews--Paul included--we cannot separate the two narratives of Judaism and Jesus. And that's why we have Hebrews.
So we know why it's there. We know a little more about the controversy surrounding it's author, as well as the fact that it's more of a sermon than a letter. But what does Hebrews give us today; after all, we are not a community made up of Jewish followers of Jesus. For starters, it teaches us, as it taught that community long ago, what faith looks like. Remember my entry from a couple weeks ago? "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." That's chapter 11, verse 1. Like the early Church communities, who struggled so mightily with different interpretations of who Jesus was and persecutions on every side, we too are in need of the reminder that faith is the thing that we hold on to in our most difficult hours. It is not something that can be quantified, instead it is something that burns deep inside us, something that hopes in that which is ultimately beyond our understanding--namely the nature of God. The author also reminds the community that they are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (chapter 12, verse 1). This is not only a reference to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also the early saints and martyrs who showed the church what faith looked like. The author offers this line to the community to remind them that they are not alone, they have the examples of the saints to guide them, and they need not be afraid because the faith of those saints is the faith that the Holy Spirit stirs in them. The same is true for us. All those that we love but see no longer, they are part of that great cloud of witnesses, continuing to pray for us, continuing to love us and support us. This is, of course, why we pray with the saints, knowing that they are watching over and praying for us. It's no wonder that these two lines from Hebrews are quoted so often. They are as relevant now as they were then.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of Hebrews, though, is how it interprets Jesus. The author draws many comparisons between Jesus and the Old Covenant. One such example is when the author brings to mind the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. In that moment on the mountain we saw God as a God of sheer majesty, a God who was absolutely unapproachable and unknowable, and a God who struck terror in the heart of the people. But Jesus changes this, says the author. By coming into the world as one of us, by taking on our sins, and by dying and rising again, Jesus has made us worthy to approach the altar of God. The unknowable God is made known in Jesus Christ. The majesty of God is seen in the lowliness of Jesus. Because of this, humanity and God are brought together like never before. Whereas the blood of Abel had cried out for vengeance when it hit the ground, the blood of Jesus cried out for reconciliation. Once, humans were under the terror of the Law, and there was an unbridgeable distance between us and God because of our sin. But Jesus came and lived and died, thus God, who had been distant and unapproachable, was brought near. The community of Hebrews knew, as we know, that God can sometimes feel so very far away. Yet when we know and see Jesus, says the author, we know and see God. We need only reach out our hands and meet him at the holy table. We need only see the Christ light that shines in our neighbor and we meet him. We need only see the person on the street and give aid to our brother or sister and we meet him. We need only listen to his still small voice, and we will hear the very voice of God.