A verse-by-verse exegetical commentary on the New Testament Greek textIntroduction
Hebrews is somewhat of a mystery. We know little of the writer, origin, destination and date. Even the title "To the Hebrews" is a later addition. Tradition doesn't help us very much and so we are stuck with the text itself. What we have is a rhetorical homily which addresses laxity in the Christian life and encourages faithful endurance. The theology of the book is grounded on a high Christology. Christ is the high priestly Son of God who makes access to the living God possible through his sacrificial death.
The structure of Hebrews
The structure of Hebrews has been a matter of conjecture for some time and so numerous literary units have been suggested. The two most popular structural schemes are as follows:
i] The letter falls into three parts with two transitional paragraphs at 4:14-16 and 10:19-30;
ii] There are four parts to the letter: a) 1:1-2:18, Christ the leader of our Salvation. b) 3:1-4:16, The wondering people of God. c) 5:1-10:18, Christ our High Priest. d) 10:19-12:29, The Way of faith. Chapter 13 serves as a conclusion.
Thematic structures are very popular giving up to 7 divisions with an introduction and conclusion. See, Ellingworth, Kistemaker, Bruce ...
Albert Vanhoye in La structure proposed a structure which has gained some critical acclaim. He suggests an elaborate five-part concentric composition around the theme of Christ's priesthood: the name superior to angels, 1:5-2:18; Christ's faithfulness and compassion; 3:1-5:10; the central exposition on sacrifice; 5:11-10:39; faith and endurance; 11:1-12:13; the peaceful fruit of justice:12:14-13:19. Attridge uses this approach and develops it further, noting that "any structural scheme captures only a portion of [the] web of interrelationships [of themes] and does only partial justice to the complexity of the work."
Koester, in his commentary, follows the classical rhetorical approach adopted by Watson (Rhetorical) and others. He argues that Hebrews functions as a rhetorical "word of exhortation", 13:22. He proposes the following structure using a classical rhetorical schema: An exordium / introduction which sets the tone of the subject-matter, 1:1-2:4; (A narration of facts pertaining to the subject. There seems little agreement as to whether this element is present in Hebrews); A proposition which defines the issue, 2:5-9; Arguments in support of the proposition (Here functioning as a three point sermon with numerous sub points), 2:10-12:27; Peroration / Conclusion, 12:28-13:21. The proposition that Christ, our Great High Priest, was glorified through suffering and in him we are glorified, is presented in the form of an exposition of Psalm 8:4-6, and points to themes "that will be developed in the remainder of the speech: Christ's movement from suffering to glory, his suffering on behalf of others, and the idea that one can see the fulfilment of God's promises in Christ, despite their apparent nonrealization in human experience", Koester. Transitional elements exist between the literary units in the speech and also between the major elements within the argument. These transitional elements are often hortatory, appeals and warnings against neglecting God's word, calls to faithfulness, encouraging perseverance, .... This sermon approach to Hebrews is adopted in the following structure.
God speaks to us through his Son 1:1-4
A Narration of Fact, 1:5-14
Christ is a suitable high priest,1:5-14
Admonition 1, 2:1-4
The danger of falling away, 2:1-4
Christ was made perfect through suffering, 2:5-9
The Arguments, 2:10-12:29
1. Christ is a faithful and merciful high priest, 2:10-5:10
i] The Son of Man, saviour and high priest, 2:10-18
ii] The faithful Christ and Moses, 3:1-6
iii] A summons to fidelity, 3:7-19
iv] Forfeiting our true rest, 4:1-11
v] The Word of God, 4:12-13
vi] Jesus the great high priest, 4:14-16
vii] The qualifications of a high priest, 5:1-6
viii] The source of eternal salvation, 5:7-10
Admonition 2, 5:11-6:20
i] Spiritual immaturity, 5:11-14
ii] No second beginning is possible, 6:1-8
iii] Encouragement to persevere, 6:9-12
iv] God's steadfast promise, 6:13-20
2. Christ's high priestly sacrifice enables us to approach God, 7:1-10:25
i] Melchizedek, Christ, and the Levitical Priests, 7:1-10
ii] A priest of the new order, 7:11-19
iii] Christ's superior priesthood, 7:20-28
iv] The priesthood and promise, 8:1-6
v] The promise of a new covenant, 8:7-13
vi] The cult and the old covenant, 9:1-10
vii] Christ's eternal redemption, 9:11-14
viii] The mediator of a new covenant, 9:15-22
ix] The perfect sacrifice, 9:23-28
x] The temple sacrificial system is but a shadow, 10:1-10
xi] Christ's single offering, 10:11-18
xii] Access to God through Christ's sacrifice (transitional), 10:19-25
Admonition 3. A call to faithful endurance, 10:26-39
i] A warning renewed, 10:26-31
ii] A call to perseverance, 10:32-39
3. God's people persevere through suffering by faith, 11:1-12:24
i] Faith, 11:1-3
ii] The great-ones of faith, 11:4-12
iii] The heavenly homeland, 11:13-16
iv] The fathers of faith, 11:17-30
v] Examples of faith, 11:31-40
vi] Looking to Jesus, 12:1-3
vii] Suffering as a disciple, 12:4-11
viii] A renewed warning, 12:12-17
ix] Mount Zion, 12:18-24
Admonition 4, 12:25-29
A final warning, 12:25-29
i] love and sanctity, 13:1-6
ii] The true Christian sacrifice, 13:7-19
Benediction and greetings, 13:20-25
Some argue that Hebrews is a letter written to Gentiles, while others argue it is written for Jews. A Jewish Christian destination is the more traditional view, possibly non Palestinian and non conformist; a Hellenist church that has undergone persecution for their Christian faith, but is now tending to slip back into the safety of legally recognized Judaism. The congregation is looking again for the safety and security of established religion.
The favoured position these days is for a Gentile church, possibly in Rome, made up of second generation Christians. They are disaffected through external pressures and are waning in commitment.
As to the author, again little is known. By the fourth century it was accepted that Paul had written the letter, but there is no evidence to support this view. Obviously, it was written by a second generation Christian who had not seen Jesus, but had certainly met his disciples. He (she?) was a learned person, a Hellenist in the mould of Stephen and Phillip. Origen (185-253), one of the leading theologians in the catechetical school in Alexandria, stated that "who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows." He related suggestions circulating at the time, namely, Luke, or Clement of Rome. Origen noted that the book was not in Paul's style, although the truth was Pauline, but not expressed in a Pauline way. Tertullian (155-220) suggested Barnabas, while Luther suggested Apollos. The book was first accepted as Pauline in the East and initially included after Romans. All that can really be said of the author is that he was a Greek thinker, knew the Greek Bible well, and was most likely not Palestinian.
With the date of writing there is again little to go on. Chapter 12, verse 4, seems to imply that the church had been roughed up by persecution, but there had been no deaths. This would suggest a date prior to AD 64, that is assuming that the church was in Rome, or the environs where persecution was implemented by the Roman authorities. In 1 Clement, written possibly in 96AD, Clement does seem to have a knowledge of Hebrews, or at least shares the writers ecclesiastical tradition. The destruction of Jerusalem is often used as a cut-off point for the letter, but it is possible to argue either a pre 70AD date, or post 70AD date. Somewhere between 60AD and 100AD is about as close as we can get.
The subject of the letter (it finishes up as a letter, but starts out as a homily) is the person of Christ who is the supreme and final revelation of God to mankind, and mediator between God and man. Henrietta Mears describes the letter in these terms: "The glories of our Saviour are exhibited in this epistle. Our eye is fixed upon Jesus, the "author and finisher of our faith", 12:12. He is set before us "crowned with glory and honour" in the heavens, 2:9. "The book is a timely warning and a word of comfort to all, especially in this day when many have so little instruction in the things of Christ and are inclined to be led astray by so many fads and cults. Hebrews shows skill in dealing with discouraged Christians. The writer tells us all that we have in Christ."
Bibliography: Commentaries - Hebrews
Attridge, Hermeneia. Bruce, NICNT. Barclay, DSB. Buchanan, Anchor. Caudill, Broadman. Davies, CBC. Ellingworth, NIGTC. Guthrie, Tyndale, 1983. Hewitt, Tyndale, 1960, replaced. Hughes, Eerdmans. Johnson, NTLC. Jones, LS. Kistemaker, Baker. Koester, Anchor, 2001. Lane, Word. Lindars, NTT. McLelland Wilson, NCB. Moffatt, ICC, 1924. Morris, Zondervan. Nairne, CGTSC, 1917. Neil, Torch. O'Brien, Pillar. Pfitzner, ChiRho & Abigdon. Stibbs, Paternoster. Westcott, Macmillan, 1903. Wilson, NCB.