Yet, on the other hand, we cannot consider it merely as a treatise or discourse; because we find certain indications of an epistolary nature, which show that it was originally addressed not to the world in general, nor to all Christians, nor even to all Jewish Christians, but to certain individual readers closely and personally connected with the writer.
Let us first examine these indications, and consider how far they tend to ascertain the readers for whom this Epistle was originally designed.
In the first place, it may be held as certain that the Epistle was addressed to Hebrew Christians. Throughout its pages there is not a single reference to any other class of converts. Its readers are assumed to be familiar with the Levitical worship, the Temple services, and all the institutions of the Mosaic ritual. They are in danger of apostasy to Judaism, yet are not warned (like the Galatians and others) against circumcision; plainly because they were already circumcised. They are called to view in Christianity the completion and perfect consummation of Judaism. They are called to behold in Christ the fullfillment of the Law, in His person the antitype of the priesthood, in His offices the eternal realization of the sacrificial and mediatorial functions of the Jewish hierarchy.
Yet, as we have said above, this work is not a treatise addressed to all Jewish Christians throughout the world, but to one particular Church, concerning which we learn the following facts:-
First, its members had steadfastly endured persecution and the loss of property;
Secondly, they had shown sympathy to their imprisoned brethren and to Christians generally ( Hebrews 10:32-34, and Hebrews 6:10);
Thirdly, they were now in danger of apostasy, and had not yet resisted unto blood (Hebrews 12:3- 4; see also v. 11, &c, Hebrews 6: 9, &c.);
Fourthly, their Church had existed for a considerable length of time (v. 12), and some of its chief pastors were dead (Hebrews 13:7);
Fifthly, their prayers are demanded for the restoration to them of the writer of the Epistle, who was therefore personally connected with them (Hebrews 13:19);
Sixthly, they were acquainted with Timothy, who was about to visit them (Hebrews 13:23); seventhly, the arguments addressed to them presuppose a power on their part of appreciating that spiritualizing and allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament which distinguished the Alexandrian (f2727) School of Jewish Theology; eighthly, they must have been familiar with the Scriptures in the Septuagint version, because every one of the numerous quotations is taken from that version, even where it differs materially from the Hebrew; ninthly, the language in which they are addressed is Hellenistic Greek, and not Aramaic. (f2728) It has been concluded by the majority, both of ancient and modern critics, that the church addressed was that of Jerusalem, or at least was situate in Palestine. In favor of this view it is urged,
First, that no church out of Palestine could have consisted so exclusively of Jewish converts. To this it may be replied, that the Epistle, though addressed only to Jewish converts, and contemplating their position and their dangers exclusively, might still have been sent to a church which contained Gentile converts also. In fact, even in the church of Jerusalem itself, there must have been some converts from among the Gentile sojourners who lived in that city; so that the argument proves too much. Moreover, it is not necessary that every discourse addressed to a mixed congregation should discuss the position of every individual member. If an overwhelming majority belong to a particular class, the minority is often passed over in addresses directed to the whole body. Again, the Epistle may have been intended for the Hebrew members only of some particular church, which contained also Gentile members; and this would perhaps explain the absence of the usual address and salutation at the commencement.
Secondly, it is urged that none but Palestinian Jews would have felt the attachment to the Levitical ritual implied in the readers of this Epistle. But we do not see why the same attachment may not have been felt in every great community of Hebrews; nay, we know historically that no Jews were more devotedly attached to the Temple worship than those of the dispersion, who were only able to visit the Temple itself at distant intervals, but who still looked to it as the central point of their religious unity and of their national existence. (f2729)
Thirdly, it is alleged that many passages seem to imply readers who had the Temple services going on continually under their eyes. The whole of the ninth and tenth chapters speak of the Levitical ritual in a manner which naturally suggests this idea. On the other hand it may be argued, that such passages imply no more than that amount of familiarity which might be presupposed in those who were often in the habit of going up to the great feasts at Jerusalem. (f2730)
Thus, then, we cannot see that the Epistle must necessarily have been addressed to Jews of Palestine, because addressed to Hebrews. (f2731) And, moreover, if we examine the preceding nine conditions which must be satisfied by its readers, we shall find some of them which could scarcely apply to the church of Jerusalem, or any other church in Palestine. Thus the Palestinian Church was remarkable for its poverty, and was the recipient of the bounty of other churches; whereas those addressed here are themselves the liberal benefactors of others. Again, those here addressed have not yet resisted unto blood; whereas the Palestinian Church had produced many martyrs in several persecutions. Moreover, the Palestinian (f2732) Jews would hardly be addressed in a style of reasoning adapted to minds imbued with Alexandrian culture. Finally, a letter to the church of Palestine would surely have been written in the language of Palestine; or, at least, when the Scriptures of Hebraism were appealed to, they would not have been quoted from the Septuagint version, where it differs from the Hebrew.
These considerations (above all, the last) seem to negative the hypothesis, that this Epistle was addressed to a church situate in the Holy Land; and the latter portion of them point to another church, for which we may more plausibly conceive it to have been intended, namely, that of Alexandria. (f2733) Such a supposition would at once account for the Alexandrian tone of thought and reasoning, and for the quotations from the Septuagint; (f2734) while the wealth of the Alexandrian Jew would explain the liberality here commended; and the immense Hebrew population of Alexandria would render it natural that the Epistle should contemplate the Hebrew Christians alone in that church, wherein there may perhaps at first have been as few Gentile converts as in Jerusalem itself. It must be remembered, however, that this is only an hypothesis, (f2735) offered as being embarrassed with fewer difficulties than any other which has been proposed.
Such, then, being the utmost which we can ascertain concerning the readers of the Epistle, what can we learn of its writer? Let us first examine the testimony of the Primitive Church on this question. It is well summed up by St. Jerome in the following passage: (f2736) -
"That which is called the Epistle to the Hebrews is thought not to be Paul’s, because of the difference of style and language, but is ascribed either to Barnabas (according to Tertullian); or to Luke the Evangelist (according to some authorities); or to Clement (afterwards Bishop of Rome), who is said to have arranged and adorned Paul’s sentiments in his own language; or at least it is thought that Paul abstained from the inscription of his name at its commencement because it was addressed to the Hebrews, among whom he was unpopular."
Here, then, we find that the Epistle was ascribed to four different writers, - St. Barnabas, St. Luke, St. Clement, or St. Paul. With regard to the first, Tertullian expressly says that copies of the Epistle in his day bore the inscription, "The Epistle of Barnabas to the Hebrews." The same tradition is mentioned by Philastrius. The opinion that either Luke or Clement was the writer is mentioned by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, (f2737) and others; but they seem not to have considered Luke or Clement as the independent authors of the Epistle, but only as editors of the sentiments of Paul. Some held that Luke had only translated the Pauline original; others that he or Clement had systematized the teaching of their master with a commentary (f2738) of their own. Fourthly, St. Paul was held to be in some sense the author of the Epistle by the Greek ecclesiastical writers generally; though no one, so far as we know, maintained that he had written it in its present form. On the other hand, the Latin Church, till the fourth century, refused to acknowledge the Epistle (f2739) as Paul’s in any sense.
Thus there were, in fact, only two persons whose claim to the independent authorship of the Epistle was maintained in the Primitive Church, viz., St. Barnabas and St. Paul. Those who contend that Barnabas was the author confirm the testimony of Tertullian by the following arguments from internal evidence. First, Barnabas was a Levite, and therefore would naturally dwell on the Levitical worship which forms so prominent a topic of this Epistle. Secondly, Barnabas was a native of Cyprus, and Cyprus was peculiarly connected with Alexandria; so that a Cyprian Levite would most probably receive his theological education at Alexandria. This would agree with the Alexandrian character of the argumentation of this Epistle. Thirdly, this is further confirmed by the ancient tradition which connects Barnabas and his kinsman Mark with the church of Alexandria. (f2740) Fourthly, the writer of the Epistle was a friend of Timothy (see above, pp. 845, 850); so was Barnabas (cf. Acts 13 and 14 with 2Timothy 3:11). Fifthly, the Hebraic appellation which Barnabas received from the Apostles - "Son of Exhortation" (f2741) — shows that he possessed the gift necessary for writing a composition distinguished for the power of its hortatory admonitions.
The advocates of the Pauline authorship urge, in addition to the external testimony which we have before mentioned, the following arguments from internal evidence. First, that the general plan of the Epistle is similar to that of Paul’s other writings; secondly, that its doctrinal sentiments are identical with Paul’s; thirdly, that there are many points of similarity between its phraseology and diction and those of Paul. (f2742) On the other hand, the opponents of the Pauline origin argue, first, that the rhetorical character of the composition is altogether unlike Paul’s other writings; secondly, that there are many points of difference in the phraseology and diction; thirdly that the quotations of the Old Testament are not made in the same form as Paul’s; (f2743) fourthly, that the writer includes himself among those who had received the Gospel from the original disciples of the Lord Jesus (Hebrews 2:3), (f2744) whereas St. Paul declares that the Gospel was not taught him by man, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11, 12); fifthly, that St. Paul’s Epistles always begin with his name, and always specify in the salutation the persons to whom they are addressed. (f2745) Several very able modern critics have agreed with Luther in assigning the authorship of this Epistle to Apollos, chiefly because we know him to have been a learned Alexandrian Jew, (Acts 18:24.) and because he fulfils the other conditions mentioned above, as required by the internal evidence. But we need not dwell on this opinion, since it is not based on external testimony, and since Barnabas fulfils the requisite conditions almost equally well.
Finally, we may observe, that, notwithstanding the doubts which we have recorded, we need not scruple to speak of this portion of Scripture by its canonical designation, as "the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews." We have seen that Jerome expresses the greatest doubts concerning its authorship: Origen also says, "The writer is known to God alone:" the same doubts are expressed by Eusebius and by Augustine: yet all these great writers refer to the words of the Epistle as the words of Paul. In fact, whether written by Barnabas, by Luke, by Clement, or by Apollos, it represented the views, and was impregnated by the influence, of the great Apostle, whose disciples even the chief of these Apostolic men might well be called. By their writings, no less than by his own, he, being dead, yet spake.
We have seen that the Epistle to the Hebrews was addressed to Jewish converts who were tempted to apostatize from Christianity, and return to Judaism. Its primary object was to check this apostasy, by showing them the true end and meaning of the Mosaic system, and its symbolical and transitory character. They are taught to look through the shadow to the substance, through the type to the antitype. But the treatise, though first called forth to meet the needs of Hebrew converts, was not designed for their instruction only. The Spirit of God has chosen this occasion to enlighten the Universal Church concerning the design of the ancient covenant, and the interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures. Nor could the memory of St. Paul be enshrined in a nobler monument, nor his mission on earth be more fitly closed, than by this inspired record of the true subordination of Judaism to Christianity.
Here lies Faustina. In peace.