THE NEW TESTAMENT
HEBREWS - Introduction #1
The book of Hebrews has caused much debate as to the author,
where and when written, and to specifically whom was it written
to. I believe Albert Barnes in his "Notes on the New Testament"
has perhaps given the probable truth of the matter. I shall
therefore quote extensively from his notes. This INTRODUCTION is
lengthy and somewhat in-depth, hence I will break it up into
three or four parts (Keith Hunt).
It need not be said, that this epistle bas given rise to
much discussion among writers on the New Testament. Indeed there
is probably no part of the Bible in regard to which so many
conflicting views have been entertained. The name of the author;
the time and place where the epistle was written; the character
of the book; its canonical authority; the language in which it
was composed; and the persons to whom it was addressed, all have
given rise to great difference of opinion.
Among the causes of this are the following; The name of the
author is not mentioned. The church to which it was sent, if sent
to any particular church, is not designated. There are no certain
marks of time in the epistle, as there often are in the writings
of Paul, by which we can determine the time when it was written.
It is not the design of the Notes to go into an extended
examination of these questions. Those who are disposed to pursue
these inquiries, and to examine the questions which have been
started in regard to the epistle, can find ample means in the
larger work, that have treated of it; and especially in Lardner;
in Michaelis' Introduction; in the Prolegomena of Kuinoel; in
Hug's Introduction; and PARTICULARLY in Professor Stuart',
invaluable Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. No other
work, on this portion of the New Testament, is so complete as
his; and, in the Introduction, he has left nothing to be desired
in regard to the literature of the epistle.
Controversies early arose in the church, in regard to a
great variety of questions pertaining to this epistle, which are
not yet fully settled. Most of those questions, however, pertain
to the literature of the epistle; and, however they may be
decided, are not such as to affect the respect which a Christian
ought to have for it as a part of the word of God. They pertain
to the inquiries, to whom it was written; in what language, and
at what time it was composed: questions which, in whatever way
they may be settled, do not affect its canonical authority, and
should not shake the confidence of Christians in it as a part of
Divine revelation. The only inquiry on these points which it is
proper to institute in these Notes is, whether the claims of the
epistle to a place in the canon of Scripture are of such a kind,
an to allow Christians to read it as a part of the oracles of
God? May we sit down to it, feeling that we me perusing that
which has been given by inspiration of the Holy Ghost, a part of
revealed truth? .....
2. TO WHOM IS THE EPISTLE WRITTEN?
It purports to have been written to "the Hebrews." This is
not found, indeed, in the body of the epistle, though it
occurs to the subscription at the end. It differs from all the
other epistles of Paul in this respect, and from most of
the others in the New Testament. In all of the other epistles of
Paul, the church or person to whom the letter was sent is
specified in the commencement. This, however, commences in the
form of an essay or homily; or is there anywhere, in the epistle,
any direct intimation to what church it was sent. The
subscription at the end is of no authority, as it cannot be
supposed that the author himself would affix it to the epistle,
and as it is know, that many of those subscriptions are false.
See the remarks at the close of the Notes on Romans, and
1 Corinthians. Several questions present themselves here, which
we may briefly investigate.
What is the evidence that it was written to the Hebrews? In
reply to this we may observe, (1) That the inscription at the
commencement, "The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews"
though not affixed by the author, may be allowed to express the
current sense of the church in ancient times, in reference to a
question on which they had the best means of judging..... This
inscription is found in all our present Greek manuscripts, and in
nearly all the ancient versions. It is found in the Peshito, the
old Syria, version, which was made in the first, or in the early
part of the second century. It is the title give to the epistle
by the Fathers of the second century, and onward. Stuart.
(2) The testimony of the Fathers. Their testimony is unbroken
and uniform. With one accord they declare this, and this should
be regarded as testimony of great value. Unless there is some
good reason to depart from each evidence, it should be
regarded as decisive. In this case there is no good reason, for
calling it in question, but every reason to suppose it to be
correct; nor, so far as I have found, is there any who has
doubted it. (3) The internal evidence is of the highest
character, that it was written to Hebrew converts.
It treats of Hebrew institutions. It explains their nature.
It makes no allusion to Gentile customs or law,. It all along
supposes that those to whom it was sent were familiar with the
Jewish history; with the nature of the temple service; with the
functions of the priestly office; and with the whole structure of
their religion. No other person than those who had been Jews are
addressed throughout the epistle. There is no attempt to explain
the nature or design of any customs, except those with which they
were familiar. At the same time, it is equally clear that they
were Jewish converts - converts from Judaism to Christianity -
who are addressed. The writer addresses, them as Christians, not
as those who were to be converted to Christianity; he explains to
them the Jewish customs as one would do to those who had been
converted from Judaism; he endeavour, to guard them from
apostasy, as if there were danger that they would relapse again
into the system from which they were converted. These
considerations seem to be decisive; and, in the view of all who
have written on the epistle, as well an of the Christian world at
large, they settle the question. It has never been held that the
epistle was directed to Gentiles; and, in all the opinions and
questions which have been started on the subject, it has been
admitted, that, wherever they resided, the persons to whom the
epistle was addressed were originally Hebrews, who had never been
converted to the Christian religion.
To what particular church of the Hebrews was it written?
Very different opinion, have been held on this question. The
celebrated Storr held that it was written to the Hebrew part of
the churches in Galatia; and that the epistle to the Galatians
was addressed to the Gentile part of those churches. Selmer and
Noesset maintained that it was written to the churches in
Macedonia, and particularly to the church of Thessalonica. Bolten
maintain, that it was addressed to the Jewish Christian who fled
from Palestine in a time of persecution, about the year 60, and
who were scattered through Asia Minor. Michael Weber supposed
that it was addressed to the church at Corinth. Ludwig
conjectured that it was addressed to a church in Spain. Wetstein
supposes that it was written to the church of Rome. Most of these
opinions are mere conjectures; and all of them depend on
circumstance, which furnish only light evidence of probability.
Those who an disposed to examine these, and to we them confuted,
may consult Stuart's Commentary on the Hebrews, Intro. 6-9. The
common, and the almost universally received opinion is,
that the epistle was addressed to the Hebrew Christian, in
Palestine. The reasons for this opinion, briefly, are the
(1) The testimony of the ancient church was uniform on
this point - that the epistle, was not only written to the Hebrew
Christens, but to those who were Palestine. Lardner affirms this
to be the testimony of Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, Euthalius,
Chrysostom, Theodore, and Theophylact; and adds, that this was
the general opinion of the ancient. Works, vol. vi., pp.80,81,
ed. Lond. 1829.
(2) The inscription at the commencement of the
epistle leads, to this supposition; that inscription,
though not appended by the hand of the author, was early
affixed to it. It is found, not only in the Greek manuscripts,
but in all the early versions, as the Syria, and the Itala; and
was doubtless affixed at a very early period, and, by whomsoever
affixed, expressed the current sense at t he time. It is
hardly possible that a mistake would be made an this point; and
unless there is good evidence to the contrary, this ought to be
allowed to determine the question. The inscription is, "The
Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews." But who are the
Hebrews - the (Barnes gives the Greek)? Professor Stuart has
endeavoured to show, that this was a term that was employed
exclusively to denote the Jews in Palestine, in contradistinction
from foreign Jews, who were called Hellenists. Bertholdt declares
that there is not a single example, which can be found in early
times, of Jewish Christians out of Palestine being called
Hebrews. See a Dissertation on the Greek Language in Palestine,
and on the meaning of the word Hellenists, by Hug, in the Bib.
Repository, vol. i. 547,548. Comp. also Robinson's Lex. on the
word (Greek is given). If this be so, and if the inscription be
of any authority, then it goes far to settle the question.....
(3) There are some passages, in the epistle itself, which Lardner
supposes indicate that this epistle was written to the Hebrew in
Palestine, or to those who had been converted from Judaism to
Christianity. As those passages are not conclusive, and as their
force has been called in question, and with much propriety, by
Professor Stuart, (pp. 32,34,) I shall merely refer to them. They
can be examined at leisure by those who am disposed; and though
they do not prove that the epistle was addressed to the Hebrew
Christian in Palestine, yet they can be best interpreted as that
(4) The internal evidence of the epistle corresponds with the
supposition, that it was written to the Hebrew Christians of Palestine
... There might be such strong internal proof that an epistle was
not addressed to a supposed people, as completely to neutralize
all the evidence derived from an inscription like that prefixed to
this epistle, and all the evidence delved from tradition. But it is
not so here. All the circumstances referred to in the epistle -
the general strain of remark - the argument - the allusions -
are just such as would be likely to be found in an epistle addressed
to the Hebrew Christians in Palestine, and such as would not be
likely to occur in an epistle addressed to any other place or people.
They are such as the following:
a) The familiar acquaintance with the Jewish institutions
supposed, by the writer, to exist among those to whom it was sent
is familiarity hardly to be expected even of Jews who lived in
(b) The danger, so frequently adverted to, of their relapsing
into their former state, of apostatizing from Christianity, and
of embracing again the Jewish rites and ceremonies - a danger
that would exist nowhere else in so great a degree as in Judea.
Comp. ch. ii. 1-3; iii. 7-11,15; iv. l; vi. 1-8; x. 26-35.
(c) The nature of the discussion in the epistle - not turning
upon the obligation of circumcision, and the distinction of meats
and drinks, which occupied much of the attention of the apostles
and early Christians in other places - but a discussion relating
to the whole structure of the Mosaic economy, the pre-eminence of
Moses or Christ, the meaning of the rites of the temple, etc.
These great questions would be more likely to arise in Judea than
elsewhere; and it was important to discuss them fully, as it is
done in this epistle. In other places they would be of less
interest, and would excite less difficulty.
(d) The allusion to local places and events; to facts in their
history; and to the circumstances of public worship, which would
be better understood there than elsewhere. There are no allusions
- or, if there are, they are very brief and infrequent - to
heathen customs, games, races, and philosophical opinions, as
there are often in the other epistles of the New Testament. Those
to whom the epistle was sent, are presumed to have an intimate
and minute knowledge of the Hebrew history, and such a knowledge
as could be hardly supposed elsewhere. Comp. ch.xi; particulary
vers. 32-39. Thus, it is implied that they well understood the
subjects referred to, relating to the Jewish rites, that it was
not necessary that the writer should specify them particularly.
See ch.ix.5. Of what other persons could this be an appropriately
said, as of the dwellers in Palestine?
(e) The circumstances of trial and persecution so often referred
to in the epistle, agree well with the known condition of the
church m Palestine. That it was subjected to great trials, we
know; and though this was extensively true of other churches, yet
it is probable that there were more vexatious and grievous
exactions - that there was more spite and malice - that there
were more of the trial, arising from the separation of families
and the losses of property attending a profession of Christianity
in Palestine, than a elsewhere in the early Christian church.
These considerations - though not conclusive as to furnish
absolute demonstration - go far to settle the question. They seem
to me so strong, as to preclude any reasonable doubt; and are
such as the mind can repose on with a great degree of confidence,
in regard to the original destination of the epistle.
Was it addressed to a particular church in Palestine, or to the
Hebrew Christians there in general?
Whether it was addressed to the churches in general in
Palestine, or to a particular church there, it is now impossible
to determine. Professor Stuart inclines to the opinion, that it
was addressed to the church in Caesarea. The ancients in general
supposed it was addressed to the church in Jerusalem. There are
some local references in the epistle, which look as though it was
directed to some particular church. But the means of determining
this question are put beyond our reach, and it is of little
importance to settle the question. From the allusion to the
temple, the priesthood, the sacrifice, and the whole train of
peculiar institutions there, it would seem probable that
it was directed to the church in Jerusalem. As that was the
capital of the nation, and the centre of religious influence, and
as there was a large and flourishing church there, this opinion
would seem to have great probability; but it is impossible now to
determine it. If we suppose that the author sent the epistle, in
the first instance, to some local church, near the central seat
of the great influence which he intended to reach by it -
addressing to that church the particular communications in the
last verses - we shall make a supposition which, so far as can
now be ascertained, will accord with the truth in the case.
3. THE AUTHOR OF THE EPISTLE
We shall continue with Barnes' comments on the author of Hebrews
in part two of this Introduction.