One cannot rightly discern or fully appreciate the message of Hebrews without due consideration to background information and contextual matters. For whom was the document intended, where does it fit in the historical narrative, and why was it written?
Destination and Readership
There is no consensus among biblical scholars regarding the intended audience of Hebrews.1 It is apparent that a particular community is in view, since they have a definite history (2:3; 6:10; 10:32-34; 12:4; 13:17; cf. 5:11 ff.; 6:9-10), have obvious links with the writer(s) (13:18, 19, 23), and comprise a section of a larger brotherhood (5:12; 10:25; 13:24). The most prevalent view, which is not without justification, is that Hebrews is addressed to a community of Jewish Christians who are linguistically and culturally Hellenistic.
While various destinations have been proposed,2 the most prevalent views focus on either Jerusalem or Rome. The Jerusalem proposal has in its favor the ancient title of the document (“To Hebrews”), although the ascription is probably secondary. It is unlikely that the document’s style of Greek, along with copious quotations from the LXX (Greek OT), would have been addressed to Aramaic-speaking Jews in Judea. Seeing that Christian martyrdom began at Jerusalem (Acts 7:54–8:3; 9:1; 12:1-4), it would have been incorrect to say to the disciples there, “you have not yet resisted to bloodshed” (Heb. 12:4 NKJV). At least some of the Jerusalem Christians would have personally seen and heard the Lord (Heb. 2:3), and the apparent generosity of the addressees (Heb. 6:10; 10:34; 13:16) is inconsistent with the poverty of the Jerusalem saints (cf. Acts 11:29; Rom. 15:26). The charge of spiritual immaturity (Heb. 5:12-14) would seem out of place if directed to the well-established Jerusalem church.
Rome as the destination of Hebrews is favored by the majority of modern scholars.3 Hebrews was first attested at Rome, quoted by Clement of Rome in his letter to the Corinthians (ca. AD 95-96).4 The statement in Heb. 13:24 (“those from Italy greet you”) may be a reference to Italians away from Italy who are sending greetings home (N.B. apo [‘from’] rather than en [‘in’] Italy). Timothy (Heb. 13:24) was known to the Roman Christians (Rom. 16:21; Phil. 1:1; 2:19; Col. 1:1; Philm. 1; cf. 2 Tim. 4:9, 13). The “great struggle with sufferings” (Heb. 10:32) could be a reference to Claudius’ edict of 49 (cf. Acts 18:2), though less likely to Nero’s persecution that began in 64. The Christian message was confirmed to the readers by eyewitnesses of Christ (Heb. 2:3), and among the first hearers of the gospel on Pentecost were “visitors from Rome” (Acts 2:10), not to mention Peter’s probable work in Rome (cf. 1 Pet. 5:13). The issue of food laws (Heb. 13:9) is comparable to that addressed in Romans 15. If Hebrews was addressed to a smaller group within a larger community (as noted above), this accords well with what appears to have been the situation in Rome (Rom. 16:3-16).
Date of Writing
Hebrews would have to be dated prior to the mid-90s, since it was quoted by Clement of Rome and had already achieved a status of authority by that time. Factors which point to a date prior to late summer 70 (when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed) include the following. The Levitical ritual system is discussed in the present tense (Heb. 7:8; 8:4; 9:6-7, 9, 13; 13:10), suggesting that it had not yet ceased to function.5 If the old Jewish structure had already passed away, it is inexplicable that no mention of this is made when such would have given conclusive proof to the main argument of Hebrews. Seeing that the old system was “ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13), a date relatively near mid-70, but certainly not after, is preferable. The Jewish revolt broke out in 66 (although the attitudes that sparked it were present much earlier), which prompted a wave of patriotic nationalism that tempted many Jewish Christians to revert to Judaism. It seems reasonable to assign a date to the writing of Hebrews to sometime prior to the temple’s destruction in 70, but precisely how much earlier is indeterminable. The year 65 is commonly suggested by conservative commentators.6
Occasion and Purpose
The main theme of Hebrews is the absoluteness of the Christian religion and its superiority over the old system of Judaism.7 The recipients had been Christians long enough that they should have been teachers themselves but were still relatively immature in their faith (Heb. 5:11-12). “In the first flush of Christian enthusiasm they had joyfully accepted the loss of all things. But the years had taken their toll. That first enthusiasm had died out. Hope itself was fading from view. Some of them were neglecting the public assembly (Heb. 10:25). There were signs not only of slipping but of complete and irrevocable apostasy (Heb. 6:1-6; 10:26-31)” (N. R. Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today 36).
The epistle describes itself as a “word of exhortation” (Heb. 13:22). D. Guthrie observes that the message is “not to be regarded as a theological treatise or an intellectual exercise, but as a burning issue of vital practical importance…. the readers needed to be warned against turning away from Christianity” (NT Introduction 704, 710).
Hebrews makes a lot more sense when read through the lens of its original audience and historical-cultural setting. By thus discerning what was intended, modern-day Christians are much better equipped to understand and apply the timeless message of Hebrews.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Proposed recipients include Jewish Christians, former Jewish proselytes, Essene priests or former members of the Qumran community, semi-Essene-proto-Ebionites, or Gentile Christians. The title Pros Hebraious (“To Hebrews”), probably appended later for convenient reference, is not a conclusive indicator. W. G. Kümmel comments: “Heb[rews] knows nothing of any hostility between Jews and Gentiles, has not once the words ‘Jew’ and ‘Gentile,’ and the author writes to Christians as Christians” (Introduction 400).
2 These include Palestine (esp. Jerusalem), Syria (esp. Antioch), Asia Minor (esp. Colosse or Ephesus), Greece (esp. Corinth), North Africa (esp. Alexandria), Italy (esp. Rome), and Caesarea.
3 N. R. Lightfoot candidly observes: “the apparent strength of such arguments is due simply to the fact that no better solution to the problem has been offered” (Jesus Christ Today 35). For objections to a Roman destination, see D. Guthrie, NT Introduction 714.
4 It is possible to date Clement’s letter as early as 68-70 (cf. J. A. T. Robinson, Redating the NT 327-35).
5 While this argument may not in itself be decisive (cf. D. A. Carson and D. J. Moo, An Introduction to the NT 606-07; B. Lindars, Theology of Hebrews 4-19), it is hard to read passages like Heb. 10:1-2 and not draw this conclusion, where it is said of the law that “it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered…?” How could this statement have been made if the sacrificial system was no longer operable? If the Jewish sacrifices had in fact ceased (at the temple’s destruction), failure to mention this extraordinarily significant detail in the argument of Hebrews is inconceivable.
6 If Paul is considered to have had a part in the composition of Hebrews (see Authorship of Hebrews Part 1 & Part 2), a date no earlier than 64 or 65 (and not considerably later) would seem reasonable. Paul was anticipating death when 2 Timothy was written, during which time Timothy was free (4:6-9), and no indication is given in any of the Pauline writings that Timothy had ever been imprisoned (in contrast to Heb. 13:23).
7 Note the frequent use of kreittōn (“better”): Heb. 1:4; 6:9; 7:7, 19, 22; 8:6 [x2]; 9:23; 10:34; 11:16, 35, 40; 12:24 = 13x (in the rest of the NT only 6x). Note also the emphasis on aiōnios (“eternal”): Heb. 5:9; 6:2; 9:12, 14, 15; 13:20 = 6x.