Lenten Reading Challenge: Hebrews 8-13
• When and Where
In the 200’s, an early Christian theologian named Origen said that the author of this letter “was known only to God.” There have been guesses: from Paul to Barnabas, Apollos, and even a woman: Prisca (I’ll admit to being fond of that one) but none of these suggestions are more than conjecture. Origen was right.
We also don’t know whom it was written to. It does not have typical characteristics of a letter, but does seem to have been intended for a particular community, rather than a general class of people. Its title “to the Hebrews” was added in the 2nd Century and is rather misleading. Hebrews is a common synonym for “Jews” but this document is clearly written to an already Christian audience – though one that knew and appreciated the OT, which used creatively and evocatively while being quoted 30 times and alluded to extensively. The author certainly expected the audience to understand and value this usage.
Dating is also tricky. The document emphasizes the Temple but does not mention its destruction, leading some to think it is an early. However, Borg says at least a slight majority of scholars suspect the audience was a community of 2nd generation or later Christians, people raised in the faith rather than converts, which would require a later dating. They see the lack of mention of the Temple’s destruction as due to it being taken for granted and common knowledge. Rather, the Temple is a metaphor used to proclaim Jesus as the center of true faith. Borg sees the letter’s setting as most similar to the time period of Matthew and having theology similar to Colossians and John, so puts it here in the late 80’s or very early 90’s.
• Key Insight
Note that both the metaphorical language of Jesus as both High Priest and sacrifice are radical. Whatever you think separates you from God has been taken away (or as Matthew said “the curtain torn from top to bottom”). God has removed the barriers and made a new covenant, which is “written on hearts and minds” – not a code of requirements but a relationship!
• Big Picture
Hebrews is a message of encouragement to a community under pressure, and has spoken powerfully to communities throughout the ages. The author wants the community to have faith shape it’s life, to make a difference in who they are and how they live. This is no idle intellectual pursuit, but an ethic that calls us to transformation.
Blessings on your reading!