Canonicity and authorship. -- Clement of Rome, at the end of the first century (A.D), copiously uses it, adopting its words just as he does those of the other books of the New Testament; not indeed giving to either the term |Scripture,| which he reserves for the Old Testament (the canon of the New Testament not yet having been formally established), but certainly not ranking it below the other New Testament acknowledged Epistles. As our Epistle claims authority on the part of the writer, Clement's adoption of extracts from it is virtually sanctioning its authority, and this in the apostolic age. Justin Martyr quotes it as divinely authoritative, to establish the titles |apostle,| as well as |angel,| as applied to the Son of God. Clement of Alexandria refers it expressly to Paul, on the authority of Pantænus, chief of the Catechetical school in Alexandria, in the middle of the second century, saying, that as Jesus is termed in it the |apostle| sent to the Hebrews, Paul, through humility, does not in it call himself apostle of the Hebrews, being apostle to the Gentiles. Clement also says that Paul, as the Hebrews were prejudiced against him, prudently omitted to put forward his name in the beginning; also, that it was originally written in Hebrew for the Hebrews, and that Luke translated it into Greek for the Greeks, whence the style is similar to that of Acts. He, however, quotes frequently the words of the existing Greek Epistle as Paul's words. Origen similarly quotes it as Paul's Epistle. However, in his Homilies, he regards the style as distinct from that of Paul, and as |more Grecian,| but the thoughts as the apostle's; adding that the |ancients who have handed down the tradition of its Pauline authorship, must have had good reason for doing so, though God alone knows the certainty who was the actual writer| (that is, probably |transcriber| of the apostle's thoughts). In the African Church, in the beginning of the third century, Tertullian ascribes it to Barnabas. Irenæus, bishop of Lyons, is mentioned in Eusebius, as quoting from this Epistle, though without expressly referring it to Paul. About the same period, Caius, the presbyter, in the Church of Rome, mentions only thirteen Epistles of Paul, whereas, if the Epistle to the Hebrews were included, there would be fourteen. So the canon fragment of the end of the second century, or beginning of the third, published by Muratori, apparently omits mentioning it. And so the Latin Church did not recognize it as Paul's till a considerable time after the beginning of the third century. Thus, also, Novatian of Rome, Cyprian of Carthage, and Victorinus, also of the Latin Church. But in the fourth century, Hilary of Poitiers (A.D.368), Lucifer of Cagliari (A.D.371), Ambrose of Milan (A.D.397) and other Latins, quote it as Paul's; and the fifth Council of Carthage (A.D.419) formally reckons it among his fourteen Epistles.
As to the similarity of its style to that of Luke's writings, this is due to his having been so long the companion of Paul. Chrysostom, comparing Luke and Mark, says, |Each imitated his teacher: Luke imitated Paul flowing along with more than river fulness; but Mark imitated Peter, who studied brevity of style.| Besides, there is a greater predominance of Jewish feeling and familiarity with the peculiarities of the Jewish schools apparent in this Epistle than in Luke's writings. There is no clear evidence for attributing the authorship to him, or to Apollos, whom Alford upholds as the author. The grounds alleged for the latter view are its supposed Alexandrian phraseology and modes of thought. But these are such as any Palestinian Jew might have used; and Paul, from his Hebræo-Hellenistic education at Jerusalem and Tarsus, would be familiar with Philo's modes of thought, which are not, as some think, necessarily all derived from his Alexandrian, but also from his Jewish, education. It would be unlikely that the Alexandrian Church should have so undoubtingly asserted the Pauline authorship, if Apollos, their own countryman, had really been the author. The eloquence of its style and rhetoric, a characteristic of Apollos' at Corinth, whereas Paul there spoke in words unadorned by man's wisdom, are doubtless designedly adapted to the minds of those whom Paul in this Epistle addresses. To the Greek Corinthians, who were in danger of idolizing human eloquence and wisdom, he writes in an unadorned style, in order to fix their attention more wholly on the Gospel itself. But the Hebrews were in no such danger. And his Hebræo-Grecian education would enable him to write in a style attractive to the Hebrews at Alexandria, where Greek philosophy had been blended with Judaism. The Septuagint translation framed at Alexandria had formed a connecting link between the latter and the former; and it is remarkable that all the quotations from the Old Testament, excepting two (Heb 10:30; 13:5), are taken from the Septuagint. The fact that the peculiarities of the Septuagint are interwoven into the argument proves that the Greek Epistle is an original, not a translation; had the original been Hebrew, the quotations would have been from the Hebrew Old Testament. The same conclusion follows from the plays on similarly sounding words in the Greek, and alliterations, and rhythmically constructed periods. Calvin observes, If the Epistle had been written in Hebrew, Heb 9:15-17 would lose all its point, which consists in the play upon the double meaning of the Greek |diathece,| a |covenant,| or a |testament,| whereas the Hebrew |berith| means only |covenant.|
Internal evidence favors the Pauline authorship. Thus the topic so fully handled in this Epistle, that Christianity is superior to Judaism, inasmuch as the reality exceeds the type which gives place to it, is a favorite one with Paul (compare 2Co 3:6-18; Ga 3:23-25; 4:1-9, 21-31, wherein the allegorical mode of interpretation appears in its divinely sanctioned application -- a mode pushed to an unwarrantable excess in the Alexandrian school). So the Divine Son appears in Heb 1:3, &c., as in other Epistles of Paul (Php 2:6; Col 1:15-20), as the Image, or manifestation of the Deity. His lowering of Himself for man's sake similarly, compare Heb 2:9, with 2Co 8:9; Php 2:7, 8. Also His final exaltation, compare Heb 2:8; 10:13; 12:2, with 1Co 15:25, 27. The word |Mediator| is peculiar to Paul alone, compare Heb 8:6, with Ga 3:19, 20. Christ's death is represented as the sacrifice for sin prefigured by the Jewish sacrifices, compare Ro 3:22-26; 1Co 5:7, with Heb 7:1-10:39. The phrase, |God of Peace,| is peculiar to Paul, compare Heb 13:20; Ro 15:33; 1Th 5:23. Also, compare Heb 2:4, Margin, 1Co 12:4. Justification, or |righteousness by faith.| appears in Heb 11:7; 10:38, as in Ro 1:17; 4:22; 5:1; Ga 3:11; Php 3:9. The word of God is the |sword of the Spirit,| compare Heb 4:12, with Eph 6:17. Inexperienced Christians are children needing milk, that is, instruction in the elements, whereas riper Christians, as full-grown men, require strong meat, compare Heb 5:12, 13; 6:1, with 1Co 3:1, 2; 14:20 Ga 4:9; Col 3:14. Salvation is represented as a boldness of access to God by Christ, compare Heb 10:19, with Ro 5:2; Eph 2:18; 3:12. Afflictions are a fight, Heb 10:32; compare Php 1:30; Col 2:1. The Christian life is a race, Heb 12:1; compare 1Co 9:24; Php 3:12-14. The Jewish ritual is a service, Ro 9:4; compare Heb 9:1, 6. Compare |subject to bondage,| Heb 2:15, with Ga 5:1. Other characteristics of Paul's style appear in this Epistle; namely, a propensity |to go off at a word| and enter on a long parenthesis suggested by that word, a fondness for play upon words of similar sound, and a disposition to repeat some favorite word. Frequent appeals to the Old Testament, and quotations linked by |and again,| compare Heb 1:5; 2:12, 13, with Ro 15:9-12. Also quotations in a peculiar application, compare Heb 2:8, with 1Co 15:27; Eph 1:22. Also the same passage quoted in a form not agreeing with the Septuagint, and with the addition |saith the Lord,| not found in the Hebrew, in Heb 10:30; Ro 12:19.
The supposed Alexandrian (which are rather Philon-like) characteristics of the Epistle are probably due to the fact that the Hebrews were generally then imbued with the Alexandrian modes of thought of Philo, &c., and Paul, without coloring or altering Gospel truth |to the Jews, became (in style) as a Jew, that he might win the Jews| (1Co 9:20). This will account for its being recognized as Paul's Epistle in the Alexandrian and Jerusalem churches unanimously, to the Hebrews of whom probably it was addressed. Not one Greek father ascribes the Epistle to any but Paul, whereas in the Western and Latin churches, which it did not reach for some time, it was for long doubted, owing to its anonymous form, and generally less distinctively Pauline style. Their reason for not accepting it as Paul's, or indeed as canonical, for the first three centuries, was negative, insufficient evidence for it, not positive evidence against it. The positive evidence is generally for its Pauline origin. In the Latin churches, owing to their distance from the churches to whom belonged the Hebrews addressed, there was no generally received tradition on the subject. The Epistle was in fact but little known at all, whence we find it is not mentioned at all in the Canon of Muratori. When at last, in the fourth century, the Latins found that it was received as Pauline and canonical on good grounds in the Greek churches, they universally acknowledged it as such.
The personal notices all favor its Pauline authorship, namely, his intention to visit those addressed, shortly, along with Timothy, styled |our brother,| Heb 13:23; his being then in prison, Heb 13:19; his formerly having been imprisoned in Palestine, according to English Version reading, Heb 10:34; the salutations transmitted to them from believers of Italy, Heb 13:24. A reason for not prefixing the name may be the rhetorical character of the Epistle which led the author to waive the usual form of epistolary address.
Design. -- His aim is to show the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, in that it was introduced by one far higher than the angels or Moses, through whom the Jews received the law, and in that its priesthood and sacrifices are far less perfecting as to salvation than those of Christ; that He is the substance of which the former are but the shadow, and that the type necessarily gives place to the antitype; and that now we no longer are kept at a comparative distance as under the law, but have freedom of access through the opened veil, that is, Christ's flesh; hence he warns them of the danger of apostasy, to which Jewish converts were tempted, when they saw Christians persecuted, while Judaism was tolerated by the Roman authorities. He infers the obligations to a life of faith, of which, even in the less perfect Old Testament dispensation, the Jewish history contained bright examples. He concludes in the usual Pauline mode, with practical exhortations and pious prayers for them.
His mode of address is in it hortatory rather than commanding, just as we might have expected from Paul addressing the Jews. He does not write to the rulers of the Jewish Christians, for in fact there was no exclusively Jewish Church; and his Epistle, though primarily addressed to the Palestinian Jews, was intended to include the Hebrews of all adjoining churches. He inculcates obedience and respect in relation to their rulers (Heb 13:7, 17, 24); a tacit obviating of the objection that he was by writing this Epistle interfering with the prerogative of Peter the apostle of the circumcision, and James the bishop of Jerusalem. Hence arises his gentle and delicate mode of dealing with them (Heb 13:22). So far from being surprised at discrepancy of style between an Epistle to Hebrews and Epistles to Gentile Christians, it is just what we should expect. The Holy Spirit guided him to choose means best suited to the nature of the ends aimed at. Wordsworth notices a peculiar Pauline Greek construction, Ro 12:9, literally, |Let your love be without dissimulation, ye abhorring ... evil, cleaving to ... good,| which is found nowhere else save Heb 13:5, literally, |Let your conversation be without covetousness, ye being content with,| &c. (a noun singular feminine nominative absolute, suddenly passing into a participle masculine nominative plural absolute). So in quoting Old Testament Scripture, the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews quotes it as a Jew writing to Jews would, |God spoke to our fathers,| not, |it is written.| So Heb 13:18, |We trust we have a good conscience| is an altogether Pauline sentiment (Ac 23:1; 24:16; 2Co 1:12; 4:2; 2Ti 1:3). Though he has not prefixed his name, he has given at the close his universal token to identify him, namely, his apostolic salutation, |Grace be with you all|; this |salutation with his own hand| he declared (2Th 3:17, 18) to be |his token in every Epistle|: so 1Co 16:21, 23; Col 4:18. The same prayer of greeting closes every one of his Epistles, and is not found in any one of the Epistles of the other apostles written in Paul's lifetime; but it is found in the last book of the New Testament Revelation, and subsequently in the Epistle of Clement of Rome. This proves that, by whomsoever the body of the Epistle was committed to writing (whether a mere amanuensis writing by dictation, or a companion of Paul by the Spirit's gift of interpreting tongues, 1Co 12:10, transfusing Paul's Spirit-taught sentiments into his own Spirit-guided diction), Paul at the close sets his seal to the whole as really his, and sanctioned by him as such. The churches of the East, and Jerusalem, their center, to which quarter it was first sent, received it as Paul's from the earliest times according to Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem (A.D.349). Jerome, though bringing with him from Rome the prejudices of the Latins against the Epistle to the Hebrews, aggravated, doubtless, by its seeming sanction of the Novatian heresy (Heb 6:4-6), was constrained by the force of facts to receive it as Paul's, on the almost unanimous testimony of all Greek Christians from the earliest times; and was probably the main instrument in correcting the past error of Rome in rejecting it. The testimony of the Alexandrian Church is peculiarly valuable, for it was founded by Mark, who was with Paul at Rome in his first confinement, when this Epistle seems to have been written (Col 4:10), and who possibly was the bearer of this Epistle, at the same time visiting Colosse on the way to Jerusalem (where Mark's mother lived), and thence to Alexandria. Moreover, 2Pe 3:15, 16, written shortly before Peter's death, and like his first Epistle written by him, |the apostle of the circumcision,| to the |Hebrew| Christians dispersed in the East, says, |As our beloved brother Paul hath written unto you| (2Pe 3:15), that is, to the Hebrews; also the words added, |As also in all his Epistles| (2Pe 3:16), distinguish the Epistle to the Hebrews from the rest; then he further speaks of it as on a level with |other Scriptures,| thus asserting at once its Pauline authorship and divine inspiration. An interesting illustration of the power of Christian faith and love; Peter, who had been openly rebuked by Paul (Ga 2:7-14), fully adopted what Paul wrote; there was no difference in the Gospel of the apostle of the circumcision and that of the apostle of the uncircumcision. It strikingly shows God's sovereignty that He chose as the instrument to confirm the Hebrews, Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles (Ro 11:13); and on the other hand, Peter to open the Gospel door to the Gentiles (Ac 10:1, &c.), though being the apostle of the Jews; thus perfect unity reigns amidst the diversity of agencies.
Rome, in the person of Clement of Rome, originally received this Epistle. Then followed a period in which it ceased to be received by the Roman churches. Then, in the fourth century, Rome retracted her error. A plain proof she is not unchangeable or infallible. As far as Rome is concerned, the Epistle to the Hebrews was not only lost for three centuries, but never would have been recovered at all but for the Eastern churches; it is therefore a happy thing for Christendom that Rome is not the Catholic Church.
It plainly was written before the destruction of Jerusalem, which would have been mentioned in the Epistle had that event gone before, compare Heb 13:10; and probably to churches in which the Jewish members were the more numerous, as those in Judea, and perhaps Alexandria. In the latter city were the greatest number of resident Jews next to Jerusalem. In Leontopolis, in Egypt, was another temple, with the arrangements of which, Wieseler thinks the notices in this Epistle more nearly corresponded than with those in Jerusalem. It was from Alexandria that the Epistle appears first to have come to the knowledge of Christendom. Moreover, |the Epistle to the Alexandrians,| mentioned in the Canon of Muratori, may possibly be this Epistle to the Hebrews. He addresses the Jews as peculiarly |the people of God| (Heb 2:17; 4:9; 13:12), |the seed of Abraham,| that is, as the primary stock on which Gentile believers are grafted, to which Ro 11:16-24 corresponds; but he urges them to come out of the carnal earthly Jerusalem and to realize their spiritual union to |the heavenly Jerusalem| (Heb 12:18-23; 13:13).
The use of Greek rather than Hebrew is doubtless due to the Epistle being intended, not merely for the Hebrew, but for the Hellenistic Jew converts, not only in Palestine, but elsewhere; a view confirmed by the use of the Septuagint. Bengel thinks, probably (compare 2Pe 3:15, 16, explained above), the Jews primarily, though not exclusively, addressed, were those who had left Jerusalem on account of the war and were settled in Asia Minor.
The notion of its having been originally in Hebrew arose probably from its Hebrew tone, method, and topics. It is reckoned among the Epistles, not at first generally acknowledged, along with James, Second Peter, Second and Third John, Jude, and Revelation. A beautiful link exists between these Epistles and the universally acknowledged Epistles. Hebrews unites the ordinances of Leviticus with their antitypical Gospel fulfilment. James is the link between the highest doctrines of Christianity and the universal law of moral duty -- a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount -- harmonizing the decalogue law of Moses, and the revelation to Job and Elias, with the Christian law of liberty. Second Peter links the teaching of Peter with that of Paul. Jude links the earliest unwritten to the latest written Revelation. The two shorter Epistles to John, like Philemon, apply Christianity to the minute details of the Christian life, showing that Christianity can sanctify all earthly relations.