Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin
The Tradition of Paul
[p.342]Three major religious traditions grounded in three different conceptions of the way to salvation can be distinguished in the early years of the Christian movement. These can be identified as (1) the Jewish Christian tradition, (2) the tradition of Paul, and (3) the tradition of John. These early Christian traditions are the subjects of this and the following two chapters. Because Paul’s letters are the earliest extant documents of the New Testament, the Pauline tradition is treated first, followed by the Johannine, and finally by the Jewish Christian.
In all three traditions the Christians were committed fully to the ethical monotheism that defined the Jewish religion and set it apart from the mainstream of religions in the Hellenistic-Roman world in which Christianity originated. Christians accepted the Hebrew scriptures, Torah, and Prophets, as their sacred literature, and were united in their faith in the resurrected Christ as their savior. Each of the three traditions claimed apostolic support for its authority and expressed its title to authenticity by the literature it produced under the names of the appropriate apostles. Notwithstanding their common elements, this literature, which was eventually included in the New Testament canon, quite clearly exhibits the differences that characterized these early Christian movements.
The Jewish Christian tradition was rooted in the beliefs and practices of the earliest followers of Jesus in Jerusalem after the gathering at Pentecost. Under the leadership of Peter and James, they were devoted to the accepted Jewish beliefs and practices. They were Jews by birth or conversion who apparently had no inclination to separate from mainstream Judaism. They lived by the Jewish Law, insisted on circumcision and the dietary [p.343] regulations, observed the sabbath and the other holy days of the Jewish calendar, accepted the Temple and its ritual, and participated in the synagogue. Their eschatological expectations differed from those of other Jewish sects of their time because of their belief that the Messiah had come, that he was not a national leader but a savior of souls, that he had died and risen and would come again in triumph to usher in the Kingdom of God.
This original form of Jewish Christianity, centered in Jerusalem under the leadership of Peter, the apostle of Jesus, and James, a brother of Jesus, can be traced at least to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, although both Peter and James had been executed before that time.1 Thereafter the history is clouded, and though there are evidences of the continuation of the sect into at least the second century, Jewish Christianity lost its central importance in Christian history as the Hellenistic, gentile forms of religion became Christianity’s mainstream.2
The canonical literature bearing the names of Peter and James, the First and Second Letters of Peter, and the Letter of James, expresses the emergence of the church as an institution and belongs to a somewhat later period. However, at least some facets of the religious tradition of the early Jewish Christians are identifiable in that literature. The claim of these writings to apostolic authority was tied, of course, to the leadership of Peter and James, Peter by virtue of his status as one of the original apostles and James because of his close family relationship to Jesus. To the documents bearing these names, which in all probability are pseudonymous, can be added the Letter of Jude. The literature of this tradition exhibits in some degree the early beginnings of the Catholic ecclesiastical movement in the second century as well as perhaps some reaction against the strong Pauline bias favoring salvation by faith and grace only. But before the letters attributed [p.344] to Peter and James appeared, the authentic letters of Paul had been composed and the movement of Hellenistic Christianity was well under way.
The mainstream of early Hellenistic Christianity, the second tradition, was the tradition of Paul, the Christianity of grace through faith alone rather than salvation by obedience to the Law. This religion at first did not cut its ties to Judaism, but it moved away from Judaism nevertheless, abandoning Jewish orthodoxy and eventually becoming a separate religion while still preserving and nourishing its Jewish roots. What can be called the tradition of Paul is given literary expression not only in the New Testament letters written by Paul, but as well by those written in the name of Paul.
The third tradition identifiable in New Testament literature is associated with the name of John. The Johannine literature includes not only the Fourth Gospel but also the three letters of John and the Apocalypse, the Revelation to John. The question of the authorship of these books is discussed elsewhere. It is sufficient here to point out that the early Christian religious tradition which claimed authority from the John alleged to be an apostle of Jesus exhibited a strong emphasis on mystic experience. It was the “way of Spirit.” It was committed as well to intense eschatological expectation and faith.
Authorship of the Pauline Literature
Many scholars assume that 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians were not written by Paul but rather by disciples of Paul.3 Written in Paul’s name, these documents, sometimes referred to as Deutero-Pauline, involve subtle differences in emphasis and concern that reflect a time after Paul, presumably the period of reconstruction following the Jewish-Roman war, perhaps 80-95 CE.
Literature from yet a later period, called Pseudo-Pauline, includes the so-called Pastoral Letters, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, and the Letter to the Hebrews. Although these documents all [p.345] purport to be Pauline, the claim for their authenticity based on internal and external evidences is substantially weaker than that of the Deutero-Pauline literature. The Pseudo-Pauline writers employed the name of Paul primarily as a strategy for confronting gnostic-like schismatics who threatened anarchy within the church. Here the open-ended and somewhat ambiguous character of Paul’s original emphasis upon grace and faith, his insistence on freedom from the Law, and his imminent eschatology are compromised. This is done by attributing to Paul the development of a sophisticated Christology which unifies Christianity and makes all competitors, Jewish and Gnostic, irrelevant and describes Paul as a churchman whose primary concern was the unity and centralization of institutional Christianity. This interpretation of the Pseudo-Pauline writings assumes that the authors were responding to historical circumstances relating to the survival of Christianity and that their faith determined what Paul meant, how he was to be understood, and how and where his teachings applied.4
The Deutero-Pauline Literature
Second Thessalonians is very much like 1 Thessalonians; it is throughout Paul-like in style and structure. Yet there are significant doctrinal differences between the two documents. The cardinal emphasis in 1 Thessalonians is Paul’s imminent eschatology. In this letter he speaks of the Parousia, the coming of Jesus as the risen Christ, the apocalyptic redeemer and judge, an event which Paul expects to take place in his own lifetime.
The imminent aspect of Paul’s expectation about the coming of the heavenly Christ is effectively neutralized in 2 Thessalonians. N. Perrin maintains that 2 Thessalonians is “so like 1 Thessaionians and yet so different that it must be an imitation of 1 Thessalonians written to meet a later situation.”5 This later situation was the delay of the Parousia; Christ had not returned and some [p.346] explanation to the Christians of a new generation was needed. The time table for the coming is changed in 2 Thessalonians; certain events involving the “son of perdition” must first take place before the End. The Day of the Lord’s coming cannot take place before the final rebellion against God, when the man of lawlessness “takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thes 2:3f). Then that man, Satan, will be revealed and destroyed by the Lord Jesus at his coming. And all who refuse the truth will perish. According to the writer, God will send upon these “a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thes 2:11f).
Those scholars are probably correct who detect in this new interpretation of the Parousia a threat of persecution. Before the end Christians must expect a time of persecution. Those who persevere in the truth will be rewarded at the Coming and the Judgment and their persecutors will themselves be judged and persecuted. As Perrin pointed out, this expectation of things to come is similar in tone to that expressed in the Revelation to John, which was composed at the end of the first Christian century (Rv 16:5-7; 19:2).6 Another more subtle suggestion of a developing Christology is the enrichment in 2 Thessalonians of the attributes and status of Christ (1 Thes 3:11, 13; 2 Thes 2:16).
The question of the authorship of Colossians is more complicated. Arguments for authenticity or for pseudonymity based upon style and vocabulary are not persuasive. As Perrin and others have pointed out, twenty-five words in Colossians are not found in any of the Pauline classics and thirty-four are not found anywhere else in the New Testament canon.7 But such a word count is not conclusive, for Paul may have used these specific terms precisely because they were required for his discussion of the dilemma confronting him in the church at Colossae.
[p.347] The real case against the authenticity of this document is based on the number of concepts not found in the earlier Pauline letters. For example, the Christology contained in the following hymn to Christ is similar to the Logos doctrine in the prologue of the Gospel of John, which was written considerably later than Paul.
He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, … all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1:15-20)
Obviously, this is a more sophisticated, speculative Christology than appears in the clearly authentic writings of Paul. Here Christ is the image of the invisible God. His primacy is asserted over all created things. He is not merely the first-born but the first born of all creation. He is before and superior to all created things, including the angels and the elemental spirits of the universe.
In Colossians 1:24-29 the Christian faith appears more like a mystery religion than in the earlier literature. The theme about “God’s secret” is similar in some respects to the secrecy motif of the Gospel of Mark and to the notion of the “power of darkness” in Luke’s account of the cosmic struggle between Christ and Satan (Mk 4:10ff). However, Colossians emphasizes that the secret is Christ himself; in him lie hidden all “wisdom” and “knowledge,” and because of him all gnostic or gnostic-like speculations are made irrelevant and useless. Apparently the author employed gnostic terminology to convince the Colossians that the best gnostic insights are to be found already in Christian claims about Christ (Col 2:2f).
The special problem in Colossae seems to have been the introduction into the congregation of an early form of Gnosticism. Reference in Colossians 2:16 to questions about food and drink or “to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath” suggests that a Jewish form of Gnosticism may have been involved. The Colossians were [p.348] blending Jewish-Gnostic and Hellenistic-Christian ideas, some of which undoubtedly were from Paul. This form of Gnosticism included beliefs about “the elemental spirits of the universe,” possibly as intermediaries between heaven and earth, the practices of self-abasement, and the worship of angels (Col 2:8, 18). The statement about taking one’s stand on visions in Colossians 2:18 probably refers to the special experience claimed by the Gnostics as essential for salvation. The author warns the Colossians that for Christians “these are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance [the solid reality] belongs to Christ” (Col 2:17). Christ has authority over all of the principalities and powers of the universe; on “that cross” he discarded them like an unneeded garment. The author reminds the Colossians that they have died to the elemental spirits; therefore they should set their minds on and “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1).
Also Colossians shows some trends toward the making of the institutional church. Perrin characterized these as steps from the earlier letters of Paul to the Pastorals, to 1 Peter and the literature of the emerging Catholic institutions.8 One of the evidences for this development involves the use of the term “minister” in Colossians. Paul uses the same Greek term in his letter to the Romans and in the Corinthian correspondence, where (except for 2 Corinthians 3:6) the Revised Standard Version translates it as “servant.”9 “Minister” in Colossians suggests a more formal usage, the designation of an office (as in 1 Timothy), “you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus” (1 Tm 4:6).
Another evidence of the non-Pauline character of Colossians is the distinction between the body, the church, and Christ as “the head of the body.” Such elaboration of Christ’s nature, even more pronounced in Ephesians, is not found in the authentic letters of Paul (Col 1:18; Eph 5:23). In 1 Corinthians, for example, Christians are “the body of Christ” and just as the “members of the body … are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor 12:12, 27). Also the term “church” in Colossians seems [p.349] to mean the entire Christian community in the sense of the Universal Church rather than a local congregation as in the earlier letters of Paul.
In addition, the meaning of baptism and circumcision and their interrelationship have been modified in Colossians 2:11f. The author tells the Colossians that Christians are circumcised not in the literal, physical sense but by being divested of their lower natures in baptism. This is Christ’s way of circumcision. They were “buried with him in baptism” and “raised with him through faith in the working of God” (Col 2:11f). It would seem that when Colossians was written the Jewish ritual of circumcision as a sign of the covenant had been replaced by the Christian ritual of baptism. This point is not entirely clear, but the close proximity of the two terms “circumcision” and “baptism” in this passage supports this thesis. This interpretation correlates well with Jesus’s justification for his own baptism in the Gospel of Matthew: “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). This account of Jesus’s baptism and Jesus’s words provides the model and the justification of baptism for all Christians. The earlier tendency to explicitly reject Jewish legal requirements seems to have been replaced in Colossians by a strategy of correction and appropriation, as in this substitution of baptism for circumcision.
Ephesians and Colossians both purport to have been written by Paul from prison, as were the authentic letters of imprisonment, Philippians, and Philemon. Of the three documents classified as Deutero-Pauline—2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians—Ephesians is the least likely to be the work of Paul.
Actually Ephesians is not a letter at all, despite its epistolary opening and blessing at the end. The contents of the document do not address a particular situation as do Paul’s authentic letters. The letter format of this treatise probably was invented by Paul’s disciples to lend his authority to the document. The phrase “at Ephesus,” which is intended to specify the audience, does not [p.350] appear in the oldest manuscripts.10 Also, the reference in Ephesians 3:5 to “holy apostles and prophets” having revelations “by the Spirit” and to the church being “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (2:20) seems out of character with Paul’s assessments of the status and function of apostles as stated in Galatians and elsewhere.
The place of Ephesians in the Pauline collection poses an intriguing set of questions. As scholars have correctly observed, Ephesians contains a summary of Pauline ideas and doctrines drawn from almost every one of the Pauline letters, yet nothing essential to Paul’s thought would be lost if Ephesians had not been written. This raises the question of the special function and significance of this document. Presumably, from the canonizers’ point of view it makes some distinctive contribution. What was it? A thesis restated by E. J. Goodspeed in 1937 but modified here by the significance of the impact of the Jewish-Roman war (66-70 CE) suggests one plausible resolution.11
In Goodspeed’s opinion, following the period of the Pauline letters, after the fifties and early sixties, interest in Paul waned. The circumstances of Christian life had changed dramatically and Paul’s letters, because they really were letters in every sense of the word, had become dated. According to Goodspeed, “Second-generation Christianity needed to be reminded of the great religious values it had inherited.”12 The Jewish-Roman war probably resulted in the near collapse of Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem and Judea. In the period of reconstruction after the war, problems of Christian identity needed to be resolved. These included the problem of Christianity’s relation to Judaism and to the Law and its relation to new religious movements in the gentile world, to Greek philosophic thought, and to the threat of persecution in the Roman world. A special problem was the rise of gnostic-like sects within the church which threatened its unity.
Paul’s letters and teachings are revived in Ephesians by followers of the Pauline tradition. Followers were no doubt [p.351] responsible as well for collecting and publishing the entire Pauline corpus. Onesimus, the slave in Paul’s letter to Philemon, may have become the bishop of Ephesus, the person most responsible. Some scholars have argued that Ephesians appeared first as an introduction for the Pauline collection, that it was written and placed first among the documents to be circulated among second-generation Christians to remind them of the values of their religious tradition. Goodspeed says, “Ephesians is a great rhapsody on the worth of the Christian salvation. Like Hebrews it belongs to an age when men needed to reflect on the worth of their faith.”13
Ephesians was evidently designed to show that the Christian tradition was a unity, that it had been an established tradition since the earliest times of the church and that Paul’s letters, though initially directed toward the solution of specific local problems, set forth the essentials of that unity. Ephesians should be regarded as a summary of Paul’s insights presented to the entire church as a foundation of faith and a guide in matters of belief and practice.14
Of central importance in Ephesians was the commitment to preserve the unity and integrity of the institutional church. The church was considered to be a crucial feature of God’s plan, but its unity was threatened by the rise of cult-like groups within the main body. It is not by accident that Ephesians, concerned with the church as an institution, echoes approximately three-fifths of Colossians and that much of the material found in Ephesians relates to the gnostic problem. To counter the appeal of such groups, the author of Ephesians attempted to show that the Christian gospel, including the idea of the church, is eternal, “true,” and unchanged since the beginning. “Before the foundation of the world” the Christians were destined to be “sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:4f). God elevated Christ to “sit at his right hand … far above all rule and authority” in all ages. God made him “head over all things for the church” (Eph 1:20-22). The author informed the Christians in Ephesus that they were fellow citizens with the saints and [p.352] members of God’s household. This household was “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” with Christ as the “cornerstone” (Eph 2:19f).
According to Ephesians, Christ is the head of the church, but the church itself has come to have a special status as the body through which Christ and the Holy Spirit function. Here the expression “Christ and the church” is significant (Eph 5:32). In the author’s counsel about marriage, showing how Christian partners in marriage should regard one another, the church and Christ provide the model. “As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church.… For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church” (Eph 5:24f, 29). This, the author says, is a profound mystery which for him contains a truth about Christ and the church but it also applies to love between husbands and wives (Eph 5:32f).
In Ephesians 4:11 the author uses Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 in order to establish the need for unity in the church. According to Ephesians the gifts that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, etc., were precisely “for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12). These are no longer the gifts of the spirit to individual Christians as in 1 Corinthians, but gifts understood as official positions within the structure of the institution of the church. The rationale behind this notion of gifts for the sake of creating a unity in the church is clear, that “we all attain to the unity of the faith … that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men” (Eph 4:13f). “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” (Eph 4:4-6).
The Pseudo-Pauline Literature
The Pastorals: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus
The so-called Pastoral letters include three literary compositions supposedly written by Paul as instructions to two of his [p.353] leading disciples, Timothy and Titus.15 These are probably not genuine letters but rather three treatises which form a corpus intended for use in instructing church leaders or officials. All three may have been written by the same person. Many scholars regard the opening and closing of each document, which provide both the setting and the occasion, as literary fictions employed to claim Pauline authorship and to give the appearance of genuine letters.
The Pastorals were quoted by Irenaeus ca. 185 CE, but Marcion (ca. 140 CE), a strong and enthusiastic devotee of Paul, did not include them in his collection of Pauline writings, a collection which was to have an important influence on the formation of the Christian canon. Marcion’s omission of the Pastorals probably indicates either that they were not available to him or that he did not regard them as authentic.
One of the strongest reservations regarding Pauline authorship of the Pastorals rests on differences in vocabulary and style. There is a significant absence of Pauline terms. Also, these documents have the smooth flow and continuity of thoughtfully prepared treatises rather than the energy of thought and vividness of expression characteristic of the authentic letters of Paul. Moreover, the Pastorals seem to depart from Paul’s teaching as well as refer to developments in the ecclesiastical order which occurred after his time. Paul’s emphasis on the Parousia, for example, and the new life in the Spirit, “putting on Christ” (Rom 13:14; Gal 3:27), are absent from the Pastorals. The Spirit has now become something conferred by the laying on of hands by officials of the church (1 Tm 5:22). Moreover, the major concern of these documents is no longer the missionary work fundamental to Paul’s interests but rather the ecclesiastical system, including prescriptions for the qualifications for bishops and deacons (1 Tm 3:1-13).
The date of the Pastorals is uncertain.16 The first established reference to 1 Timothy appears in Polycarp’s letter to the [p.354] Philippians, but the dating of Polycarp’s letter is controversial. There seems to be no other reference to the Pastorals until the middle of the second century. That they were written after Paul’s time is indicated by the system of beliefs and formal organization of the church which they describe. Also, the description of the activity of false teachers corresponds to the views and practices of the Gnostics of the second century as described by Tertullian and Irenaeus (1 Tm 1:4, 4:1-3, 7f). This evidence indicates that the letters were probably written ca. 125 CE.
The principal objectives of the Pastorals were to instruct those who aspired to church offices about church affairs and the correct order of worship—”how one ought to behave in the household of God” (1 Tm 3:15)—and also to strengthen the doctrines of the church against the threat of heresy. These ends were to be accomplished through a rigid Christian discipline involving the establishment of rules of conduct and the rejection of all false teaching and speculation. The ministers were to guard their trust through a wise selection of qualified assistants and through personal example.
Goodspeed maintains that the Pastorals were directed against the Marcionite and gnostic sects. They were attributed to Paul partly in order to counter the uses of Paul’s writings by Marcion, an influential gnostic Christian leader, and his followers around 140 CE. Especially at issue was Marcion’s repudiation of the Hebrew canon as the basic scripture of the church.17 Several passages are identified by Goodspeed as possible allusions to Marcion: “There is one God,” 1 Timothy 2:5; “All scripture is inspired by God,” 2 Timothy 3:16; “Avoid the … contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge,” 1 Timothy 6:20. Goodspeed holds that “contradictions” in this passage is a reference to Marcion’s own work, entitled The Antitheses. By naming Paul as the author of these letters, Paul himself is made to disclaim Marcion’s major positions. In this way, according to Goodspeed, Paul is recovered “for standard Christianity.”18
[p.355] In the introduction to 1 Timothy, the author attacks the doctrine of false teachers; he urges Timothy to direct certain persons “not to teach any different doctrine,” to avoid wasting their time “with myths and endless genealogies” which promote vain and aimless speculations (1 Tm 1:3f). Undoubtedly, these are references to some form of Gnosticism, presumably of Jewish origin. This is suggested in 1 Timothy 1:7-9 where the question of the Law arises; also in the letter to Titus where reference is made to “deceivers, especially the circumcision party” (Ti 1:10). Here the author charges Titus to rebuke those who give “heed to Jewish myths” and urges him to insist upon the avoidance of “stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law” (Ti 1:14, 3:9). In 1 Timothy the author refers to these myths as contradictions “falsely called knowledge” (1 Tm 6:20). He cautions also against those apparently non-Jewish groups who require ascetic practices and are unduly involved with training the body. He is concerned “that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, … who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods …” (1 Tm 4:1, 3) More about false doctrine appears in 2 Timothy, where it is reported that some are teaching the resurrection has already taken place (2 Tm 2:18).
In the Pastorals, especially in 2 Timothy, Paul is represented as prophesying times of stress before “the last days” (2 Tm 3:1). He predicts a time of persecution when “people will not endure sound teaching” but “will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths” (2 Tm 4:3f). Threats of schism, dissension, and heresy from within and threats of persecution from without permeate the Pastorals. There is a great need for unity, for order and organization in the institution of the church. Church offices are named—Bishops and Deacons—and strong emphasis is placed upon the qualities required of those who aspire to these offices. According to Titus, it is essential that they be models of integrity, of true fidelity, and of sound faith (Ti 2:1-10). In 1 Timothy a modest lifestyle is required of a candidate: that he be “the husband of one wife,” no lover of money, a good manager of his own household, [p.356] and not a recent convert. He must “be well thought of by outsiders” and “not addicted to much wine” (1 Tm 3:2-8).
On the matter of church order, candidates for the positions of deacon and bishop are instructed concerning the place of women, that they live modestly and “learn in silence with all submissiveness” (1 Tm 2:11). Special consideration is to be given to “real widows” (1 Tm 5:9). None should be enrolled who is under sixty years of age or who has been married more than once (1 Tm 5:9). This is probably the earliest reference to an ecclesiastical order of widows, an order well established by the third century.19 The church is to assume the burden of the “real” widows; others, presumably, are to be cared for by their relatives (1 Tm 5:8).
In the Pastoral polemic against false teachings, the term “faith” is used in a distinctive way. In Paul’s letters, “faith” referred to one’s personal relationship to God, to an attitude of complete trust in God with “promise” and “hope” as allied and supporting sentiments. In the Pastorals, “faith” seems to be a synonym for loyalty to the revealed doctrines of the church. The expressions “sincere faith” and “disowned the faith” in 1 Timothy (1 Tm 1:5, 5:8) and in 2 Timothy, “Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith,” and “kept the faith” (2 Tm 1:13, 4:7.) display this new meaning as do such expressions appearing in Titus as “a common faith” and being “sound in the faith” (Ti 1:4, 13, 2:2).20 The trend here is toward “faith in” the apostolic tradition, a notion central to Christian literature in the period of emerging Catholicism.
It is extremely difficult to assign with accuracy the time, place, and audience for the Letter to the Hebrews. Only the closing passage of the document, which contains references to Timothy and “those who come from Italy” (Heb 13:23f), resembles a genuine Pauline letter. [p.357] Some scholars suggest that chapter 13, the final chapter, was probably an addition made by a later writer who endeavored to make Hebrews resemble authentic Pauline letters and that the original ended at 12:29.21 The transition from the body of the letter to the personal note beginning in chapter 13 with its Pauline-like exhortations, the reference to Timothy, and the mention of an intended visit seems to have been contrived.
Hebrews was not ascribed to Paul until after the second century CE and then only by the Alexandrian school. It was not accepted as canonical by the western church until the middle of the fourth century.22 The internal evidence against Pauline authorship is even more conclusive. Few if any of the characteristics of Paul’s authentic writings are evident in this document. For example, there is no mention of the doctrine of a Second Coming, which is so prominent in Paul. The polished sentence construction in this writing is unlike that found in Paul’s letters. It is a widely held opinion that Hebrews is composed in the purest Greek of any book in the New Testament. Though it is generally referred to as an epistle, it contains no salutation, no statement of reason for writing, and does not mention the author’s name or the person or persons addressed. Tertullian and Novatian considered it to be the work of Barnabas, but Augustine in his later years declared that its author was anonymous. Other early, prominent Christian leaders have been suggested as its author, including the Alexandrian Apollos. On the basis of available evidence, it seems probable that the author, whose name remains unknown, was a Hellenistic Jewish Christian, probably influenced by the views of the Alexandrian school, a man of considerable literary training and familiar with both the Old Testament and the teachings of Paul.23
Most arguments concerning the date of Hebrews are inconclusive. First Clement makes clear use of the writing and thereby [p.358] establishes the latest date possible for its composition. Those critics who maintain that 1 Clement refers to a persecution by Domitian conclude that the date for Hebrews must be placed ca. 85-90 CE.24 That the book may have been written late in the first century is supported by the reference to “former days” (Heb 10:32), the rebuke of the readers for their complacency (Heb 5:11ff), and the absence of any mention of the Parousia.
One of the most troublesome problems in Hebrews concerns audience. The title “to the Hebrews” was probably added to the original document at a later date in order to give the book the status and authority of a Pauline letter. Those critics are probably correct who contend that Hebrews was written for Hellenistic Jewish Christians, possibly those in Rome who had become complacent about their loyalty to Christian beliefs and values and were in danger of losing the faith under the threat of Roman persecution.25
The use of Old Testament literature in Hebrews is distinctive.26 Figures of the temple (the tabernacle), priest and priesthood, sacrifice, law, and covenant—all drawn from the formative Mosaic period—are represented as types or copies of the heavenly prototype. The author’s strategy was to establish the superiority of Christianity to the ancient Hebrew faith by contrasting the old and temporary covenant and priesthood with the new, eternal priesthood and covenant of Christ.
Much of Hebrews is in the form of proclamations about Christ, his supreme status, and his role as the great high priest. He is superior to Moses and the prophets; through him God sent his final word (Heb 3:3). His priesthood is of heavenly origin and is superior to the Levitical, which is temporal only, a copy and shadow of the real priesthood. The revelation of Christ is superior to all revelations given in ancient times. In days of old, God spoke “to our [p.359] fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb 1:1f). Christ is greater than the angels who pay him homage and whose role it is to serve his purpose and minister to those who are heirs of salvation. He founded the heavens and earth in the beginning and now sits upon a throne with God forever (Heb 1:5-14). Therefore, the author of Hebrews warns, the neglect of the salvation offered by Christ is a far more serious offense than failure to heed what the angels had declared earlier (Heb 2:1-3).
It is probable that for some Hellenistic Christians the humanity of Christ had become an issue; they could not understand or accept the necessity for Christ’s humanity in the person of Jesus. The author explains, therefore, that Christ was for a little while made “lower than the angels,” that he partook of the nature of man, sharing man’s struggles, sufferings and temptations, in order to destroy the power of death, and that he tasted death for everyone (Heb 2:5-9, 14-18).
In Hebrews, Christ and his priesthood supersede everything which came before in the heroic era of Genesis and Exodus. This is the dominant theme of a major section of the book. Christ is greater than Moses. Moses was faithful only as a servant in God’s house, but Christ was faithful over God’s house as a Son (Heb 3:1-6). Christ is the great high priest after the order of Melchizedek, king of Salem to whom Abraham paid a tenth. Levi, in the family of Abraham, also paid tithes to Melchizedek (Heb 5:8-10, 6:19f, 7:1-17). This account from Genesis is cited as an example of the lesser honoring the greater and proclaims the superiority of the Melchizedek priesthood over the Levitical and, therefore, Christ’s absolute supremacy. He is a high priest, “not according to a legal requirement concerning bodily descent but by the power of an indestructible life” (Heb 7:15f). His priesthood is eternal, not dependent, as in the case of earthly priests, upon credentials involving lineage or genealogy. In Hebrews Christ supersedes both prophets and priests, but clearly the developing typology emphasizes the priest and the priestly institutions of religion. According to Hebrews Christianity has a high priest who ministers in “the sanctuary and the true tent” (Heb 8:1f). The Tabernacle or tent of meeting in Moses’s day was but a shadow of [p.360] the heavenly and perfect sanctuary (Heb 8:5). Christ as High Priest entered into the Holy Place, offered his own blood to replace all sacrifices, and thereby secured “an eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12-14).
In the background of Hebrews the threat of persecution hangs heavily over the Christian community in Rome. The author’s immediate objective apparently is to bring the full weight of the Christian proclamation and tradition about Christ and salvation upon those Christians threatened by persecution and to strengthen their faith and preserve the integrity of the religious community. On the one hand he exhorts them to remain steadfast in the faith and warns that the consequences of apostasy are fearful. These are the “last days” (Heb 1:2, 10:25); there is no second chance. Here he insists that “it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, … if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God” (Heb 6:4, 6). Judgment and fire await those who sin deliberately after they know the truth. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:26f, 31).
On the more positive side, Hebrews speaks of hope and things to come. The final Christian goal is captured in the author’s vision of a “heavenly Jerusalem.” They seek the city which is to come, “the city of the living God” (Heb 12:22). The author encourages the Christians to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Heb 10:23). They are heirs of the promise which God made with an oath. Jesus himself has become “the surety of a better covenant” (Heb 6:17, 7:22).
In the context of his proclamation about the promise and better covenant, the author develops one of his best known themes—the need for faith and hope. For the writer faith is the acceptance of an unseen order of reality beyond this world. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). This combination of faith, hope, and the promise of a more certain covenant is the key to the author’s interpretation of biblical history. He cites many examples of heroes from the Israelite community of the past, notably Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Moses, who did mighty deeds by the power of faith (Heb 11:4-31). “We [p.361] are,” he said, addressing the Jewish Christians, “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1). Yet all of these, he explains, “though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Heb 11:39f). The ancients only saw dimly; they lived in anticipation of Christ’s day. But for the unknown author of Hebrews, Christ and Christianity represented the perfection of God’s plan.
In trying times endurance becomes a high virtue. In Hebrews Christ is proclaimed as the perfect example of courage in the face of death, of steadfastness to the very end; he is the model of the Christian martyr, “the pioneer” of salvation, made perfect through suffering (Heb 2:10). Thus, a rationale for persecution and suffering is provided. Persecution is God’s way of chastening and testing his children. “It is for discipline that you have to endure,” Hebrews explains. God is treating the followers of Christ as sons, and “what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” To be left without discipline is to be treated indifferently as an illegitimate child (Heb 12:7f). God disciplines his children for their own good. For the moment it seems painful but in the end it will yield the peaceful fruit to those well trained. They will enter into God’s rest and “share his holiness” (Heb 12:10f). This is the ultimate goal, the fulfillment of the promise.[p.362]
1. According to Josephus (Antiquities, XX, 9), James was put to death by the Jewish Sanhedrin in 61. According to tradition, Peter was executed by crucifixion in Rome during a persecution by Nero, possibly in 64.
2. The Ebionites, poor men, a sect east of the Jordan in the early centuries, have been regarded by some scholars as a continuation of the original Jerusalem Christians. An ancient Jewish Christian sect in Syria, called Nazarenes by some early Christian writers, has sometimes, as by Adolf Harnack, been identified with the Ebionites. Both Ebionites and Nazarenes kept close to the Jewish Law.
3. See Norman Perrin, The New Testament, An Introduction (New York, 1974); S. Sandmel, The Genius of Paul (New York, 1970); G. Bornkamm, Paul, trans. by D. M. G. Stalker (New York, 1971); Howard Clark Kee, Understanding the New Testament, 4th ed. (New Jersey, 1983).
16. A range of dates from ca. 90 to 150 CE has been suggested. E. J. Goodspeed held that the Pastorals came from the middle of the second century; N. Perrin settles for a date around 125 CE. See E. J. Goodspeed, Introduction, 343; N. Perrin, The New Testament, 265.
21. For a discussion of the problems of the introduction to Hebrews, its authorship, date, audience, etc., see M. S. Enslin, Christian Beginnings (New York, 1938), 308-16; E. G. Goodspeed, Introduction, 253-64; N. Perrin, The New Testament, 137-41, and W. G. Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament (Rev. Ed.), trans. by Howard Clark Kee (New York, 1973), 388-403.
26. The author frequently refers to Old Testament passages, especially from the Psalms: e.g., Heb 1:7-13 (Ps 45:6f, 104:4, 102:25-27, 110:1); Heb 2:6 8 (Ps 8:4-6); Heb 3:7-11 (Ps 95:7-11); Heb 10:5-7 (Ps 40:6-8).