Church Write-Up: Hebrews’ Audience, Intermediaries, Retroactive Atonement

The LCMS Wednesday Bible Study was on the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Here are some items.  Occasionally, I’ll quote from the pastor’s handout.

A.  In terms of the audience of Hebrews, the pastor mentioned two possibilities.  First, it could have been a house church in Jerusalem, Judea, or Galilee.  Second, it could have been a house church of Jewish Christians, maybe priests, in Rome during Emperor Claudius or Nero.

I asked why the Epistle is written in Greek rather than Aramaic, if its audience was located in Palestine.  The pastor, of course, narrated how Alexander the Great’s conquests made Greek the lingua franca of the time.  Greek was the language of commerce, and people communicated with each other in it.  The pastor also drew parallels with the time when French was the language of diplomacy and German was the language of science; his point may have been that the Jews of Palestine spoke both Aramaic and Greek.  The pastor cautioned, however, that, if Hebrews were written to Palestine, it would probably be written in koine Greek, the common language of the people, rather than the sophisticated Greek that Hebrews actually manifests.

I would like to quote something that I wrote in a draft of one of my dissertation chapters.  I am discussing burial inscriptions in Palestine, some of which are in Hebrew, and some of which are in Greek: “On the question of why these inscriptions in the land of Israel are in Greek, Louis Feldman speculates that ‘perhaps it was intended to deter non-Jewish passers-by from molesting the graves.’  Louis H. Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 14.  Feldman does not believe that many Jews in first century C.E. Palestine were fluent in Greek.  There is scholarly debate, however, about the extent to which Jews in Late Antiquity knew Greek.  See John C. Poirier, ‘The Linguistic Situation in Jewish Palestine in Late Antiquity,’ Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 4 (2007): 110-125.  Poirier states that a desire for social status may have been a factor driving the growing influence of Greek, and also that Greek may have been prevalent in certain pockets of Palestine.”

This could explain why Hebrews could be written in Greek, while having a Palestinian audience: some Jews embraced Greek due to a desire for social status, or there were pockets of Palestine where Greek was prevalent, and Hebrews was written to a house church in such a pocket.  Other possibilities that I would like to toss out there: perhaps they are Hellenistic Jews, or there are Gentiles associating with the Jewish Christians, and the author of Hebrews writes in Greek, the common language of Jews and Gentiles, so that both can understand it.

On the possibility that Hebrews was written to Jewish priests who had become Christians, I have issues with this proposal.  The argument seems to be based on the idea that Hebrews manifests a knowledge of the Temple, which priests would have.  However, Hebrews focuses on the Tabernacle, not the Temple.  One does not need intimate knowledge of the Temple to understand Hebrews, just the Books of Exodus and Leviticus.  In addition, some have argued that Hebrews gets the Tabernacle wrong, placing the golden altar of incense inside the Holy of Holies with the Ark rather than outside of the Holy of Holies (cp. Hebrews 9:3-4; Exodus 30:1-6; 40:26); see here, though, for a conservative Christian attempt to harmonize that apparent difficulty.  At the same time, Hebrews does focus on the cult, and priests especially would appreciate that.

The pastor speculated that Hebrews was written “before Nero’s persecutions in AD 68 but after earlier persecutions in Rome—-AD 54.”  Christians were beaten and their property was confiscated, but they were not yet brutally martyred.  The pastor said that the Jewish Christians may have noticed that, overall, the Roman authorities left the Jews alone, so they contemplated going back to Judaism.  The Epistle was written to discourage that.

B.  The pastor argued that Hebrews was challenging Greek philosophical notions about God, particularly those of Aristotle.  Greek philosophical notions held that God was perfect and pure, and thus removed from humanity.  God interacted with people through angelic intermediaries, for God was too pure to interact with them himself.  Moreover, God could not change, as human beings did.  Hebrews, by contrast, depicts Christ, the Son of God, becoming a human being and thereby a brother of human beings.  Moreover, Hebrews depicts Christ, not angels, as the mediator between God and humanity.

The pastor talked some about this last Sunday, in his class on I John.  He said that the Docetists claimed that Jesus only appeared to be human because they opposed any notion that God could become a human being.  The pastor was differentiating between what Greek philosophy said about the divine and how Greek mythology depicted gods.  Greek mythology, of course, depicted gods directly interacting with human beings and possessing attributes of humans, which differs from Greek philosophy.  I asked the pastor to unpack that.  He replied that the stories of Greek mythology were believed to be ways to communicate with the common people: to tell them about the divine in a way that they could understand.  The stories also helped common people explain things: they are having a bad day, so it must be because Zeus was punishing them.

I took a class years ago on pagan allegory.  Certain Greeks took issue with Greek mythological depictions of gods.  They did not care for gods with flawed human attributes, so they allegorized them rather than taking them literally.  Did only the intellegentsia do this, or did the non-intelligentsia do so as well?  Well, Docetism was a challenge that John’s church at Ephesus faced, so Greek philosophical beliefs about the divine apparently impacted the popular level, not just the intellegentsia.

C.  The pastor said that Hebrews believes that the Old Testament saints were forgiven through the death and resurrection of Christ; Paul, by contrast, thought that forgiveness was held in abeyance until Christ’s death and resurrection.  Not much detail was provided, but I have wondered about this in the past.  Does the New Testament present a retroactive application of the blood of Christ to the Old Testament saints?  Both Paul and Hebrews maintain that there were “righteous” people in the Old Testament: Abraham was justified by faith, and Hebrews lists heroes of the faith.  Could they be that, without possessing divine forgiveness?

More can be said, but I will stop here.  I will leave the comments open, in case anyone wants to provide additional information.  Just don’t put me down for not knowing things that I probably should know!


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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