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Bible Commentaries

Peake's Commentary on the BiblePeake's Commentary

- Hebrews

by Arthur Peake



THIS epistle is provided with no formal opening, from which we might learn the name of the writer and of the church addressed. Towards the end of the second century an opinion grew up, and at last became prevalent, that it was an anonymous epistle of Paul; but this opinion had probably its origin in the natural desire to ensure an undisputed place in the NT canon for a writing intrinsically so valuable. The more critical minds of antiquity already recognised that the style was altogether different from that of Paul; and the difference in theological teaching is even more decisive against the Pauline authorship. A tradition at least as early as Tertullian ( c. 200 ) ascribes the epistle to Barnabas; Luther suggested that it may have been written by Apollos; modern scholars have tried to connect it with Luke, or Silvanus, or Priscilla and Aquila. But it has to be admitted that all attempts to fix the authorship are based on conjecture. From the epistle itself we can gather that its writer was an accomplished teacher, holding some place of authority in the Church which he addresses, and a friend of Paul’ s companion, Timothy. His name has been irrecoverably lost.

The destination of the epistle is almost as doubtful as its authorship. Some have assumed that it was written to Jerusalem, in view of the many allusions to Jewish worship and ritual; others suppose that the philosophical cast of the argument points rather to Alexandria. From several indications it is much more likely that it was written to Rome; and this conclusion is partly borne out by the fact that it was known at Rome before the end of the first century. But the readers whom it contemplates appear to have formed a homogeneous group, which can hardly have included the whole Roman Church. Perhaps they constituted one of the many congregations into which that great Church was divided.

The date of the epistle can be determined within certain broad limits. The writer speaks of his readers as belonging, like himself, to the second generation of Christians ( Hebrews 2:3), and refers more than once to a considerable time that has elapsed since their conversion ( Hebrews 5:12, Hebrews 10:32, Hebrews 13:7). Thus it seems impossible to assume a date earlier than the second half of the first century. On the other hand, the epistle is quoted by Clement of Rome in A.D. 95 , and must have been in existence for at least some years before that date. It may have been written at any time between A.D. 65 and 85 .

The literary character of the work forms a peculiar difficulty. That it was sent as a letter is evident from the concluding verses; but in its whole style and structure it suggests a spoken discourse rather than an epistle. Indeed, in several places the author appears to indicate, in so many words, that he is speaking ( Hebrews 2:5, Hebrews 9:5, Hebrews 11:32). Some modern scholars are of opinion that the last chapter, or at any rate the last four verses, were added by a later editor to give an epistolary colour to the original discourse. More probably the author himself revised a spoken address and sent it as a letter, or purposely wrote his letter in the manner he would have employed in public speech ( cf. Exp., Dec. 1916 ). As a literary composition it is the most elaborate work in the NT. It is written according to an ordered plan, in balanced and resonant sentences of remarkable precision, and rises at times to wonderful heights of eloquence.

The general purpose of the epistle is manifest on every page. Its readers are in danger of falling away from their early faith, partly under stress of persecution, partly through an indifference due to mere lapse of time. The writer wishes to inspire them with new courage and perseverance, and to this end he sets Christianity before them as the final religion, of which all else has been mere symbol and anticipation. But it has been commonly maintained that this larger purpose is combined with a more definite one. The finality of the gospel is established by means of a detailed contrast with the Jewish ordinances; and from this it has been inferred that the readers were Jews, who in the reaction from Christianity were drifting back into Judaism. This view of the underlying motive of the epistle seems to be implied in the title attached to it from a very early time: “ to the Hebrews.” Among modern scholars, however, the opinion is gaining ground that this explanation of the Jewish colouring of the epistle is unnecessary. To Christians of the first century the OT was the one acknowledged Bible, no less than to the Jews, and formed the natural basis of any attempt to present Christianity as the religion of the New Covenant.

[It should be remembered, however, that the acceptance of the OT by Jewish and Gentile Christians rested on quite different grounds. The former accepted it because they were Jews, the latter because they had become Christians. The whole method of proof implies that the authority of the OT is unquestioned by the readers. Since they were tempted to abandon Christianity, this proof would not have carried weight, unless the authority to which appeal was made was admitted independently of their Christianity. It is accordingly very difficult to suppose that the readers had been converted from Paganism to Christianity, for then the Divine origin of the OT would have stood on just the same ground as other Christian doctrines, it could have given them no independent support, and would have been abandoned with them. It is possible that the readers had been proselytes before their conversion, but it is much more natural to regard them as Jews.— A. S. P.]

The line of argument which the writer follows is probably to be explained from his own training and habits of thought, much more than from the nationality of his readers. He is strongly influenced by the Alexandrian philosophy, from which he takes over not only his allegorical method of expounding Scripture but his cardinal conception of an ideal heavenly world, of which the visible world is only the copy or reflection. Christianity is the absolute religion because it is concerned with that higher world of ultimate realities. It brings us to our true rest by affording us access to God’ s immediate presence. The teaching of the epistle thus centres on the conception of Christ as the High Priest, who has accomplished in very deed what the ancient ordinances could only suggest in symbol. By offering the perfect sacrifice He has won entrance into the heavenly sanctuary, and has secured for us a real and enduring fellowship with God. The argument is worked out by means of ideas and imagery borrowed from ancient ritual; but it is not difficult to apprehend the essential thought which gives permanent religious value to this epistle.

Literature. Commentaries: ( a) A. B. Davidson, Farrar (CB), Peake (Cent.B.), Goodspeed, Wickham (West.C.); ( b) Westcott, Vaughan, Nairne (CGT), Rendall, Dods (EGT); ( c) Bleek, * Delitzsch, B. Weiss (Mey.), Von Soden (HC), Riggenbach (ZK), Hollmann (SNT), Windisch (HNT); ( d) Edwards (Ex.B), Dale, The Jewish Temple and the Christian Church, Peake, Heroes and Martyrs of Faith. Other literature: Articles in Dictionaries, works on NTI, and NTT; Riehm, Der Lehrbegriff des Hebrä erbriefes; Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews; G. Milligan, The Theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews; Nairne, The Epistle of Priesthood; Mé né goz, La Thé ologie de l’ Epî tre aux Hé breux; H. L. MacNeill, The Christology of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Harnack in ZNTW, 1900 , pp. 15– 41 .

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